Monthly Archives: December 2013

You can’t just watch scary stuff.   You’ve got to read scary stuff!  Here are the assignments:



Go to the library, or to the bookstore.  Go online.  Find yourself a couple of anthologies featuring horror stories, tales of the supernatural, etc.  (I think the following are pretty good: Classic Ghost Stories, ed. Grafton; Great Tales of Terror, ed. Joshi; Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, ed. Wagner and Wise.  There are lots of others besides.)

Having gone to the library, bookstore, internet, you are now invited/expected to choose your own set of readings from these various collections.  You might go for range and breadth, or you could alternatively key on a theme or type that is of particular interest.  Your choices should also be informed by the essays that you will be reading (qv.), and by your own researches.  The point is to read some enjoyable stories, but you should also be trying to connect and categorize a bit.

You should be reading some 25-40 pages per week from these sources.  You are to submit a bibliographically correct record (any recognized/standardized format will do) of each week’s reading by the beginning of each class period.  Include page counts, please.

Fiction is fabulous, but it’s the critical material that keeps us honest, and makes us smart.  You should also, during the courses of the semester, read the following essays.

Freud, “The Uncanny”

Lovecraft, “Supernatural Horror in Literature”

Oates, “Reflections of the Grotesque”

Schatz, “Genre Films”

Sontag, “Notes on ‘Camp”

These essays are available all over the place, or they may require some uncovering.  You should know how to use the library, or be resourceful.  Find them.

In addition to the short stories and the essays, you should also read three of the novels listed in the following great big list.  One should be short (less than two hundred pages), one should be medium (between two hundred and three hundred pages), and the last long (more than three hundred pages). 

Chinua Achebe: Things Fall Apart

Richard Adams: Watership Down

Uneda Akinara: Ugetsu Monogatari

Kingsley Amis: The Green Man

H.C. Andersen (trans. Haugaard), Selected Stories: “Little Claus and Big Claus,” “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” “The Snow Queen,” “The Red Shoes,” “The Neighbors,” “The Shadow,” “Under the Willow Tree,” “The Bog King’s Daughter,” “In the Duckyard,” “The Ice Maiden”

Hannah Arendt: Eichmann in Jerusalem

Jane Austen: Northanger Abbey

Honoré de Balzac: The Fatal Skin

James Barrie: Peter Pan

Charles Baudelaire: Les Fleurs du Mal

Samuel Beckett: Waiting for Godot, Endgame, The Unameable

Ambrose Bierce: Can Such Things Be?

Algernon Blackwood: Incredible Adventures

William Peter Blatty: The Exorcist

Robert Bloch: Psycho

Giles Blunt: Forty Words for Sorrow

Jorge Luis Borges: Labyrinths

Ray Bradbury: Something Wicked This Way Comes

Charlotte Bronte: Jane Eyre

Emily Bronte: Wuthering Heights

John Buchan: Witch Wood

Georg Büchner: Woyzeck

John Bunyan: The Pilgrim’s Progress

Anthony Burgess: A Clockwork Orange

Lord Byron: Manfred

James M. Cain: Double Indemnity

Albert Camus: The Plague

Truman Capote: In Cold Blood

Angela Carter: The Bloody Chamber

Robert Chambers: The King in Yellow

Leonard Cline: The Dark Chamber

Arthur Conan Doyle: A Study in Scarlet

Joseph Conrad: Heart of Darkness

Susan Cooper: The Dark is Rising

Robert Cormier: I Am the Cheese

Roald Dahl: The BFG/The Witches

Dante: Inferno (trans. Ciardi)

Walter de la Mare: The Return

Charles Dickens: Oliver Twist

Fyodor Dostoievsky: Notes from the Underground, Crime and Punishment

T.S. Eliot: The Wasteland and Other Poems

Guy Endore: The Werewolf of Paris

Euripides (trans. Teevan): Bacchae

Jack Finney: Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Alan Garner: The Owl Service

J.W. von Goethe: The Bride of Corinth

William Golding: Lord of the Flies

Maxim Gorky: My Childhood

Alasdair Gray: Poor Things

J.&W Grimm (trans. Zipes), Selected

Stories: “A Tale About the Boy Who Went Forth To Learn What Fear Was,” “Hansel and Gretel,” “The Fisherman and his Wife,” “Cinderella,” “The Singing Bone,” “The Devil with Three Golden Hairs,” “The Magic Table, the Donkey, and the Club in the Sack,” “The Robber Bridegroom,” “Herr Korbes,” “The Godfather,” “Mother Trudy,” “Godfather Death,” “Thumbling’s Travels,” “The Juniper Tree,” “Sweetheart Roland,” “The Two Brothers,” “The TwoTravelers”

H. Rider Haggard: She

Dashiell Hammett: Red Harvest

Thomas Harris: Red Dragon

Jaroslav Hasek: Good Soldier Schweik

Nathaniel Hawthorne: House of the Seven Gables

Seamus Heaney (trans.): Beowulf

Joseph Heller: Catch-22

Ernest Hemingway: A Farewell to Arms

Patricia Highsmith: The Talented Mr. Ripley

James Hogg: The Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner

Geoffrey Household: Rogue Male

Richard Hughes: A High Wind in Jamaica

Ted Hughes: Tales from Ovid

Eugene Ionesco: The Lesson

Henry James: The Turn of the Screw

M.R. James: Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Shirley Jackson: The Haunting of Hill House

Norton Juster: The Phantom Tollbooth

Franz Kafka: The Metamorphosis, The Trial

Georg Kaiser: From Morn to Midnight

F.H. Karl: Undine

Stephen King: The Shining

Arthur Koestler: Darkness at Noon

Alfred Kubin: The Other Side

Thomas Kyd: The Spanish Tragedy

Andrew Lang: The Arabian Nights

Sheridan Le Fanu: Carmilla

Ira Levin: Rosemary’s Baby

Matthew Lewis: The Monk

H.P. Lovecraft: At the Mountains of Madness

Lois Lowry: The Giver

Malcolm Lowry: Under the Volcano

George MacDonald: The Princess and the Goblin

Christopher Marlowe: Dr. Faustus

Richard Matheson: The Incredible Shrinking Man, I Am Legend

Charles Maturin: Melmoth the Wanderer

Cormac McCarthy: Blood Meridian, The Road

Wilhelm Meinhold: The Amber Witch

Herman Melville: Typee, Benito Cereno

Gustave Meyrink: The Golem

Allan Moore: From Hell

Frank Norris: McTeague

Flannery O’Connor: Wise Blood

George Orwell: 1984

Thomas Owen: The Cave of the Toads

T.L. Peacock: Nightmare Abbey

E.A. Poe: Tales of Mystery and Imagination

Terry Pratchett: Reaper Man

Phillip Pullman: The Golden Compass

Ann Radcliffe: The Mysteries of Udolpho

Lynne Reid-Banks: Angela and Diabola

E.M. Remarque: All Quiet on the Western Front

Jean Rhys: Wide Sargasso Sea

Ann Rice: Interview with a Vampire

J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Dorothy L. Sayers: Whose Body?

Arthur Schnitzler: Leutnant Gustl/Fräulein Else

Walter Scott: The Bride of Lamermoor

Wm. Shakespeare: Titus AndronicusMacbeth

Mary Shelley: Frankenstein

I.B. Singer: Satan in Goray, The Last Demon

Alexander Solzhenitsyn: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

E.G. Speare: The Witch of Blackbird Pond

Art Spiegelman: Maus, I & II

R.L. Stevenson: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,

Bram Stoker: Dracula

Jim Thompson: The Killer Inside Me

Leo Tolstoy: The Kreutzer Sonata

Mark Twain: The Mysterious Stranger

Kurt Vonnegut: Slaughterhouse Five

Horace Walpole: The Castle of Otranto

John Webster: The Duchess of Malfi

H.G. Wells: The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds

Nathanael West: The Day of the Locust

Donald Westlake: The Ax

Oscar Wilde: The Picture of Dorian Gray

Elie Wiesel: Night

Ursula Moray Williams: The Three Toymakers/Malkin’s Mountain/The Toymaker’s Daughter

John Wyndham: The Day of the Triffids, The Midwich Cuckoos

W.B. Yeats: Irish Fairy and Folk Tales

Emile Zola: Therese Raquin, L’Assomoir


Gazetteer: this syllabus works as follows.  First comes the week’s topic, then what we’ll be watching (clips coming first, followed by the features, bolded), and finally a list of titles that further explore, illustrate, or complicate the theme.

NB: buyer beware!  You’ll all have your own convictions about what is and isn’t appropriate in the media.  With the horror genre, the trash/treasure axis is especially mutliple and various and subjective.  Viewers will want to inform themselves about each title, before actually viewing said title.


TMA 492, Winter 2014

Class Objective: to learn a bunch of stuff, read a ton of stories, and see a load of films relating to the broad topic of horror (terror, suspense, the uncanny, the weird, etc.).  We will also learn about some of the cultural and historical factors that have informed horror narratives, as well as some of their many and evolving styles and conventions.



View: Leopard Man, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), Dream of a Rarebit Fiend; A Nightmare/The Devil and the Statue/The Witch’s Revenge/Blue Beard; One A.M.; Drag Me To Hell


View: Menilmontant; The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, Faust; The Unknown, Frankenstein

Supplemental: J’Accuse (1919), Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler (1922), Häxan (1922), The Hands of Orlac (1924), Waxworks (1924), The Cat and the Canary (1927), Vampyr (1932), The Ghost Goes West (1935), Fury (1936), I Married a Witch (1942)


View: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920), The Mummy (1932); Freaks, Mad Love

Supplemental: Dracula (1931), Dr. X. (1932), The Most Dangerous Game (1932), White Zombie (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), King Kong (1933), Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), The Black Cat (1934), The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), The Son of Frankenstein (1939)


View: Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man; Cat People, Devil

Supplemental: The Walking Dead (1936), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), The Seventh Victim (1943), Curse of the Cat People (1944), The Body Snatcher (1945), The Picture of Dorian Grey (1945), Curse of the Demon (1957), Le Boucher (1969), Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), The Orphanage (2007)


Screen: Night and Fog; Dead of Night, Queen of Spades; The Uninvited, Ugetsu Monogatari

Supplemental: Topper Returns (1940), The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), Diabolique (1955), The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966), Kuroneko (1968), Poltergeist (1982), Lady in White (1988), The Frighteners (1996), Stir of Echoes (1999), Paranormal Activity (2007)


View: Them, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Curse of the Demon; The Thing from Another World, The Host

Supplemental: The House of Wax (1953), Invaders from Mars (1953), Gojira (1954), The Quatermass Experiment (1955), Fiend Without a Face (1958), Fail-Safe (1964), Planet of the Apes (1968), Altered States (1980), Tetsuo, The Iron Man (1989)


View: Water, Water, Every Hare; Tales of Hoffmann, The Fall of the House of Usher; Night of the Hunter, Spirit of the Beehive

Supplemental: The Golem (1920), The Phantom Carriage (1921), A Page of Madness (1926), Ghost Ship (1943), The Seventh Seal (1957), Eyes Without a Face (1959), The Elephant Man (1980), The Company of Wolves (1984), The Sixth Sense (1999), A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)


View: The Indian Tomb, Psycho; Carnival of Souls, The Vanishing

Supplemental: M (1931), Bigger Than Life (1956), Dracula (1958), Village of the Damned (1960), Peeping Tom (1960), The Birds (1963), Onibaba (1964), Winter Soldier (1972), Martin (1976), Eraserhead (1977)


View: The Blob, The Nutty Professor; The House of Usher, Kill, Baby, Kill

Supplemental: The Blob (1958), The House on Haunted Hill (1959), Black Sunday (1960), The Innocents (1961), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Haunting (1963), Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965), Sisters (1973), It’s Alive (1974), Piranha (1978)


View: Black Sabbath, The Lamp; Repulsion, Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell

Supplemental: Jikoku (1960), The Last Man on Earth (1963), Kwaidan (1964), The Hour of the Wolf (1967), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Witchfinder General (1968), The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), Mr. Vampire (1985), Dead Ringers (1988), Audition (1999)


View: Easy Street, The Fearless Vampire Killers; Targets, Land of the Dead

Supplemental: Day of Wrath (1943), The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Night of the Living Dead (1968), Macbeth (1971), Deliverance (1972), The Crazies (1973), The Exorcist (1973), Dawn of the Dead (1978), Trainspotting (1996), Frailty (2001)


View: Phantom of the Paradise, Jaws, Taxi Driver, Don’t Look Now, Alien, The Evil Dead; Deep RedThreads

Supplemental: The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), The Theatre of Blood (1973), The Wicker Man (1973), House (1977), Suspiria (1977), Blow-Out (1981), The Evil Dead (1981), Poltergeist (1982), Hellraiser (1987), Braindead (1992)


View: Return to Oz, The Evil Dead II, Clint Malarchuk, Gremlins, Grave of the Fireflies, Lightning Over Water; Dark Water, Shaun of the Dead

Supplemental: The Big Mouth (1967), Play Misty for Me (1971), Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Carrie (1976), The Shining (1980), The Fly (1986), Cronos (1993), Ring (1998), Inland Empire (2006), The White Ribbon (2009)


View: Scream, 28 Days Later; Peter and the Wolf (2006), The Mist, Mama

Supplemental: The Beguiled (1971), Blacula (1972), Gremlins (1984), Day of the Dead (1985), The Blair Witch Project (1999), The Others (2001), Pulse (2001), Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2002), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), Let the Right One In (2008)


… Titicut Follies (1967), Gimme Shelter (1970), The Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), Shoah (1985), Hotel Terminus (1987), The Thin Blue Line (1988), The Exorcist III (1990), Blue Velvet (1986), Dead Ringers (1988), The Silence of the Lambs (1990), Crumb (1994), Event Horizon (1997), Mr. Death (1999), Mulholland Drive (2001), Stevie (2002), A History of Violence (2005), War of the Worlds (2005), Wolf Creek (2005), The Descent (2005), Bug (2006), Ghosts of Abu Graib (2007), [Rec] (2007), Cloverfield (2008), Martyrs (2008), The Ghost Writer (2010), Shutter Island (2010), Trollhunter (2010), The Interruptors (2011), The Act of Killing (2012), The Bay (2012), Cabin in the Woods (2012) …

Continued from pt. 5:


…Many things seem significant and deserve mention in this long closing.  From the early 1960s through to his exile from the Soviet Union and death in the early 1980s, Andrei Tarkovsky’s mystical cinema not only expressed its own elusive religious faith, but it also stood clearly as a counter to and refutation of state religion.  Less clearly, but just as certainly the humanism of the Czech New Wave in the mid-1960s constituted a similar response, as would affirmations of individual expression and worth in the Chinese cinema of the 1980s and 1990s.  From 1968 (The Night of the Living Dead), the modern horror film emerges with intermittent effectiveness as a kind of negative image of conventional religious questioning, with its deep anxieties and pessimism attending and invigorating discussions of the usual issues.

Denominational cinema, productions made by and distributed to religious adherents by their chosen institutions, marked an important departure from and alternative to the impositions of film industries.  It also identified an important point of rupture, as embattled believers found it more and more difficult to find themselves, their concerns and their consolations, in an increasingly boundary breaking-and secular cinema.  A whole range of pointed, ever more explicit investigations illuminate that gap.

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s contradictory parts—Marxist, provocateur (cf. the antic blasphemy of the “La Ricotta” episode in RoGoPaG [1963]), activist homosexual, dabbling agnostic—had combined to produce, in The Gospel According to Matthew (1964), one of cinema’s most effective and moving Jesus films.  Later, these contradictions contributed to a tragic and terminal spiritual progression, or rather declension.  Pasolini’s path from the compassionate naturalism of the Dante-esque Accatone (1961) to the unbridled carnality of his last films, and of his last days (culminating in his brutal murder), would trace a poignant pattern that would be powerfully repeated in the 1970s.

Most pointedly in the individual works and collaborations of Paul Schrader and Martin Scorcese, transcendental impulse and aspiration would collide with an increasingly intransigent, often sordid naturalism.  In films like Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1975), American Gigolo and Raging Bull (both 1980), the result would be an operatic, even ecstatic treatment of sin and suffering intermingled.  This cinema of mortification effectively rendered the aspiration and the emptiness of the age, and it was not without its powerful hints of salvation.  John 9:25, the coda to Raging Bull, provides the intended rationale, and a great measure of justification for these films and their damaged protagonists.  “Whether he be a sinner or no, I know not: one thing I know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see.”  This hard, clear vision also widened the gulf and inverted longstanding relationships between secular and sectarian constituencies.  If in the 1920s Sunday School cinema unduly caricatured the sin and the sinners that it sincerely tried to portray, then fifty and sixty years later a substantial and sin-ridden cinema could make little connection with many of the believing members of an alienated audience.

The controversy over Schrader and Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1987) exemplifies this alienation.  It is a brave film, full of deep conviction, as well as significant lapses in decorum and taste.  The hostility with which it was met may in part have reflected the high-handed philistinism of which the religious right is capable, but it also raised real and legitimate issues.  This was not just conservatism, but conservation, not just intolerance, but an awareness of the potential dangers of its opposite.  Faithful factions would have it that the over-inclination to take offense has to be factored against an opposite danger, which is the inability to be offended.  The Western believer’s call, occasionally answered by films like Tender Mercies (1983), Places in the Heart (1984) and Robert Duvall’s historic The Apostle (1997), echoes a basic idea of the documentary film movement.  Artistry and individual expression are essential, and need to be subordinated to a sense of social responsibility, and the pursuit of the public good.

Again, as always, there are international responses, resistances, and independent developments.  Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987) and Faraway, So Close (1993) reinvent Hollywood’s intervening angel fantasy, using mythological suggestiveness and metaphor, irony and a degree of humour to step back from the literalism and sometimes vulgarity of their least successful models.  Set and beautifully shot in Berlin, the films also provide a preternatural preview of the fall of communism, and of the geopolitical challenges and opportunities that would follow.  There is mythological metaphor, some irony and humour in this utilization of heavenly tropes.  Still, for all their careful distancing, these are also graceful, informed parables about sorrow and salvation, testimonies to the power of cinema’s loving look, and finally, especially in the conclusion of the second film, expressions of gratitude and belief.  Here, amidst frequent divisive rhetoric, is encouraging evidence that popular artists and high modernists can meet and be edified on the rich, still common ground of religious film.

Nearby, Gabriel Axel’s exquisite Babette’s Feast (1987), featuring strategically cast and utilized actors from the ouevre of Carl Theodor Dreyer, provides a contemplation of and a lovely reconciliation between the abundant inclinations of Hollywood religion and the severities of the art film, as well as between the satisfactions of substantial secular pursuit and the more pressing needs of the spiritual life.  Folk (minkan) Shintoism is essential to the delights and substance of recent animated films from Japan’s Studio Ghibli (Hiyao Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro [1988], Princess Mononoke [1997] and Spirited Away [2001], Isao Takahata’s The Racoon War [1994]).  Following ample precedent, these films’ value-specific manifestations— environmentalism, the refusal of good/bad polarities in its characters, a reverence for the domestic sphere—resonate outside that value system and have an inclusive, in-gathering effect, notwithstanding, or even because of their cultural and religious specificity.

Finally, and without doubt most important to contemporary film-religious discussion, the Iranian cinema of the 1990s and 2000s recapitulates many of the issues considered here, as well as providing new challenges and opportunities for productive discussion.  Nowhere is the ease and danger of intra-faith incomprehension, nowhere is the necessity of generous effort and mutual appreciation more evident than in the interactions between Islam and the Judeo-Christian world.  The tradition of Muhammad’s forbidding the artistic representation of human form has contributed to a paucity of artistic production generally, and film production particularly in the Muslim world.  Production there has been however, and in the case of Iran, it has become some of the most bracing and challenging in world cinema.

Clichés must be considered, and may have some bearing in the truth.  Conservative, repressive forces in Iran are real, are substantially religious, and have insured that free expression in the cinema has been substantially circumscribed.  (It might also be justly argued that repressive forces in the US—cf. a well-publicized refusal in 2002 to offer Abbas Kiorastami an entry visa to attend the New York Film Festival—have equally circumscribed the dissemination and celebration of this essential material.)  A resulting inclination to find coded subversivities in Iranian film is appealing, and will bear some fruit.  But it may not be the most productive approach to the material, particularly with regard to the current conversation.  As in Hollywood’s heyday, as well as in numerous other politically restricting circumstances, limitation has sometimes served as a spur to creativity, and to urgency.  There are depths beneath the seeming serene surfaces that bear investigation.

More importantly, it must also be granted that Iranian cinema is a diverse embodiment of a simple reality: perhaps uniquely in film history, this national cinema unequivocally constitutes the collective expression of a community of faith.  Its formal elements are challenging, even groundbreaking.  If there is here a great diversity—the homiletic cinema of Majid Majidi, the realist activism of Jafar Panahi, the diverse ministrations of the Makhmalbaf collective, the rigours, generosities and comparative secularism of Abbas Kiorostami’s intellectual art films—then it is partly a confirmation of the range of problem and possibility that religion, now too frequently caricatured as a uniformly constraining influence, can stimulate.

Inevitably there are gaps in this discussion.  Where is realism, with its reverence for the everyday, its respect and patience and calls to action?  Where is activist modernism, with its echoes of the medieval, its investments in issues of ultimate concern?  Why so many individual names and film titles?  Where are the women?  What of all the other unmentioned nations and traditions?  And what of the film activity falling out of the conventional systems of production and distribution?  It may be the ultimate and most powerful religious film tradition will grow out of the increasing availability of digital media, and the opportunity it gives more and more people, in their homes and with their families, to record and commune gratefully over their own value-informed, loving interactions.

Through the course of its history film has consistently demonstrated its power to hold and to hog our attention.  The lacunae in a summary like this, necessary in this setting and with this format, may actually resist its often unhealthy hypnotism.  Films, filmmakers, even traditions and the rest, even and especially when religion is at issue, should only serve as the beginning and as a part of a greater, more challenging exchange of precept and principle, one which expands one’s outward comprehension and appreciation at the same time that it intensifies that which adheres, and abides, inside.

Continued from pt. 4:


…These enrichments and diversifications coincided with a period of existential uncertainty, attended as well by economic crisis, in the Hollywood industry of the 1950s.  One of the responses was a return to monumentality, to Biblical subjects and grandeur.  Although there were felicities, these films (ie. Samson and Delilah [1949], Quo Vadis (1951), The Robe (1953), The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben Hur (1959) generally lacked the subtlety and sincerity of the best of their 1920s predecessors.  Part of this is due to their broad dramatic devices, their sometimes aggressive simplemindedness, the hat in their hand, all insufficiently balanced by the impression of actual belief.  The usual sounding brass and tinkling coffers of the commercial cinema register as well, redolent perhaps of some greater spiritual desolation.

In addition, and perhaps more importantly, the fact that these spectacles utilized the techniques of escapist entertainment in the service of the spiritual led to very fundamental difficulties and distortions.  Commercial films have always tended to simplify, to do much or most of the work for the audience.  Passivity, even an unwillingness or inability to think or act have often been the result.  Producers and consumers are mutually implicated in this process. Popular religious narratives simplify spiritual struggle, eliding difficult processes and manifesting internal advancements through external means (as in miraculous manifestations convincingly portrayed through special effects).  This correlation of subject matter and style, of religion with (super) accessibility and (exaggerated) ease, was hinted at in the 1920s, and comes to full fruition in the 1950s.  It embodied the basic contradiction of the commercial religious film: scripture from a number of traditions affirms that in the realm of spiritual manifestation and experience the Divine will not be found in the strong wind or the earthquake, nor in the fire, but in the still small voice.  It will hold, with regard to our access to or control of such manifestation, that the wind bloweth where it listeth.  Hollywood here, and the commercial film in general, chose an easier, arguably less spiritually typical road.

As before, the European art cinema of the 1950s provides a salutary, challenging alternative to the facility of Hollywood religion.  In films like Carl Dreyer’s Ordet (1955) and Robert Bresson’s The Diary of a Country Priest (1950), A Man Escaped (1956) and Pickpocket (1959), spectacle is countered by more subtle explorations of conscience and individual experience, by a more contemplative pace, and by a restrained, even ascetic style.  The sparseness of these films, often bordering on severity, inscribes not only in the narrative but in its very cinematic articulation the rigour and reality of spiritual struggle.  This is the opposite of easy cinematic salvation, and if its ways are strait and narrow, its rewards, for protagonists and sympathetic spectators alike, are proportionately great.

In addition to the magisterial effects of what Paul Schrader has called the Transcendental style (cf. his study of the films of Bresson, Dreyer, and Yasujiro Ozu), agnostic and atheistic sensibilities also invigorate spiritual inquiry in the cinema of this period.  These essential voices reflected prevailing intellectual and philosophical trends, providing a reminder that religion concerns not just the finding, but the seeking as well.  The Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s insistent, even obsessive probing of the darkness (The Seventh Seal [1957], Through a Glass Darkly [1961], Winter Light [1962], The Silence [1963]), Cries and Whispers [1973]) traces a doubting of Dostoievskian proportions, affecting precisely because of its insistence.  As often as darkness prevails in Bergman’s work, the continuation of the conversation becomes a de facto expression of faith, if not in certain answers, then in the continuing importance of the questions.

Bergman’s cinema paradoxically validates spiritual process at the same time that it despairs of its efficacy.  The spiritual substance and conviction in the films of the atheist Spanish director Luis Buñuel are even more paradoxical.  The horrors of the holocaust, among other things, had made of religious refusal a signal position of the period.  Buñuel became an emblem and articulation of that refusal, though his films contain a less unequivocal message.  He had indeed used blasphemy (L’Age D’Or [1930]) as part of a generally destabilizing, Dadaist critique of any number of institutions.  Notwithstanding, a closer look at his later work reveals that surface sacrilege—as in the “last supper” sequence from Viridiana (1961)—might also be interpreted as a moralist’s condemnation of hypocrisy, even his expression of righteous anger.  Buñuel frequently targets the church, and his attacks are rooted in documented abuses of power (cf. Las Hurdes/Land Without Bread [1932]).  But it is not simply religion he is after.  A dialectic between honourable precept, the holy fools (the eponymous protagonists of Viridiana and Nazarin [1959]) who attempt to administer or carry it out, and the viciousness and unworthiness of those to whom they minister informs the films, and gives them a bracing, healthy tension.  Buñuel’s negatory, frequently misanthropic cinema is not without regard or even reverence, as in his affecting defense of the principles believers so frequently fail to live up to.

THE 1960s

By the mid-1960s years of ferment and unrest, added to a longstanding industrial instability, had left Hollywood out of touch with the leading edges of religious inquiry and ill-equipped to voice or defend its central values.  The tepid institutional criticism of Richard Brooks’ Elmer Gantry (1960), the hysterical wholesomeness of The Sound of Music (1965) to which audiences, frightened and polarized by the burgeoning counter-culture, were drawn in droves, the seeming elephantine irrelevance of The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), seemed to confirm not only that commercial films were no longer able to address matters of religious concern, but that these matters had, in effect, ceased to matter.

In contrast to this failing old guard a New Hollywood was emerging, one which rejected religion by assuming its inevitable affiliation with reactionary conservatism or bourgeois materialism—cf. the traitorous minister’s daughter in Bonnie and Clyde (1967), the illegitimate church marriage at the end of The Graduate (1967)—in other words, by fetishizing its worst manifestations and taking those parts to be the whole.  Such criticism was far from being universal, but it did signal and inform an epochal change in direction.  Absent the illusion of homogeneity or a clear mandate from the paying public, the American commercial film would from this point essentially withdraw from the active avowal of the religious values which for so long had constituted its nominal centre.

Now institutional, partly constructed consensus would give way to an ever more fragmented dialectic of spiritual searching and finding, affirmation and negation, along with everything in between.  Other factors further obscure and enrich the discussion: the diversification of international filmmaking communities, especially in the developing world; the eventual democratization, through technology, of film production and distribution; ever increasing volumes of critical discourse.  Out of all this the religious film emerges as a very mutable, protean object.  The marking of historical pattern and theoretical possibility now becomes more difficult, obscured as it is by the advent of the present tense.  From here, until the dust of contemporary practice settles into the scholarly record of coming decades, there are only strong impressions, and speculations built on past practice.

Continued and concluded in pt. 6:

Continued from pt. 3:


…Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy (Pather Panchali [1955], Aparajito [1956], The World of Apu [1959]) suggests some of the challenges and benefits of the process.  Broadly speaking, it recounts the travails, from childhood to maturity, of the son of a Brahman priest.  A masterful exploration of character and milieu, the films’ religious elements are not pressed, but rather register as part of a very deep structure, fully constituted and lightly held.  This is to say that its Hindu and Vedic complexities come naturally, are part of a more complex network of determinants and significations, and are bound to substantially elude the outsider.

A similar situation informs and complicates the reality and reading of Asian cinema, in which there is a widespread sensibility that derives, form and content, from Buddhist thought, particularly as it evolved in and then radiated out from China.  This can justly, if very generally, be found in a meditative, presentational style, reflecting and responding to the notion that life is made up of impermanence and suffering, and that calm, kindly resignation is an appropriate response.  Traces of this, explicitly and implicitly, consciously and subconsciously applied, are still found in a number of national settings in Asia.  Each of these reflect the particular culture, as well as the perspectives of the individual or individuals expressing themselves therein.  Here, for instance, is a root of the celebrated “sympathetic sadness” (mono no amare) in the films of Yasujiro Ozu.

But is this typically Buddhist, or a typical embodiment of Japanese Buddhism?  Here are incontrovertibly and profoundly religious expressions, and realities, but they are complex, thoroughly integrated, comfortably and complicatedly coexisting with any number of other impulses and actualities.  The facility, the facileness of some early religious film expressions has given way to daunting multiplicities.  How can a distant observer, unfamiliar with spiritual specifics, communicate and understand?


In addition to the commercial and the art cinema, in addition to documentary activity and ideological investigation, another sort of spiritual expression in film offers itself here, providing a real path through inevitable cultural incomprehensions.  The cinema of charity has the power to transcend sectarian and national boundaries.  It is sometimes informed by but not necessarily dependent on doctrine or creed.  More importantly, at least and especially for ecumenical conversations, it reflects a more general, accessible religious impulse, one central to practically all of the great religious traditions.  Its narrative and stylistic characteristics are as diverse as the religions, cultures and individuals that ply it.  The cinema of charity is marked more than anything by its attitude, toward cinematic subjects and spectators alike.  This attitude is courteous, compassionate, generous and sympathetic.  These are films made with love.

The examples that come to mind tend to be individual filmmakers: Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Victor Sjostrom, Robert Flaherty, Henry King, King Vidor, Stan Laurel, Jean Renoir, Alexander Dovzhenko, Frank Borzage, Ozu, Howard Hawks, Leo McCarey, Humphrey Jennings, Kenji Mizoguchi, Max Ophuls, Roberto Rossellini, Norman McLaren, Ray, Jacques Tati, Tom Daly, Wolf Koenig, Colin Low, Jean Rouch, Alain Resnais, Ermanno Olmi, Chris Marker, John Cassavetes, Stan Brakhage, Jacques Demy, Marcel Ophuls, Wim Wenders, Bill Douglas, Barbara Kopple, Charles Burnett, Agnes Varda, Abbas Kiorastami.  In such lists—this one is nowhere near exhaustive, and only deals with directors—lies a challenge, even a reproof to some believers.  Leo McCarey’s kindliness is undoubtedly a function and manifestation of his Catholicism.  But in others artists, citizens, pilgrims, the truth one feels is rooted in traditions to which one may not be able to subscribe.  There may not even be a religious tradition.  Jean Renoir’s films, at least in terms of precept and practice, are decidedly secular, informed by nothing so much as his enormous generosity and his abiding humanist faith.  The sectarian can make no points off of him, and will doubtless disapprove of many of his central assumptions.  And yet he remains incontestably one of the most resonant, beneficent examples in world cinema of charitable filmmaking.

Here, perhaps, is the mystery of the religious film, if not of godliness.  As with much sacred experience, the effects of all this diverse film work, as well as of our own cinematic and social attention and effort, are difficult to describe, the causes of said effect difficult to lay hold of.  But the feelings, the result in generous inclination and charitable application, are nevertheless palpable.  Charitable cinema, attending the entire history of the medium, has had and continues to have the power to smooth over cultural gaps and religious misunderstanding, to begin a binding of the heterogeneous in mutual appreciation and gratitude…

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…In this regard there is a less marked but nevertheless certain manifestation of religious impulse in film history, one which begins to come to the fore in the documentary film of the1930s.  In part defined and developed by the Scots theorist and producer John Grierson—“I look at the cinema as a pulpit, and use it as a propagandist”—the documentary film established a religiously and socially active, activist alternative to Hollywood homilies.  The social aspect is self-evident, and has remained in place into the present.  As for religion, Grierson and many who followed found inspiration in the collective and communal doctrines not only of Marx, but of the New Testament.  Although much documentary activity since Grierson has reflected a skepticism, even an agnostic or atheistic antipathy toward institutions like the church, a very particular type of devotion has remained consistently in place.  “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction…” (James 1: 27)

A similar activism informed a series of socially conscious American films of the period, with their implied and occasionally explicit critiques of the apparatuses of power, including the church (cf. the sanctimonious and ineffectual minister in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang [1932]).  There were also anomalous explorations like The Green Pastures (1936), a simultaneously condescending and deeply appreciative white fantasy about African American religious experience and faith.  For the most part, however, the commercial religious film in the US continued to trace and update previously established patterns.

The Depression informed a set of Sunday School sermons in films featuring Shirley Temple.  As in the films of Mary Pickford, plucky innocence motivated adult improvement, and self-help led to a kind of divine intervention, this time in a more pointedly, if effacedly socio-economic context.  As Temple’s career began to wane the increasingly ambitious films of Walt Disney and his collaborators rose to commercial prominence, and accomplished a significant merging.  This is seen most clearly in Pinocchio (1940), describing as it does a kind of pilgrim’s progress, culminating in its protagonist’s sacrificial death and transfiguration.  Here is a portentous development: the Sunday School story and the fairy tale film, with their similar sensibilities, audiences and didactic underpinnings, come together, and become somewhat interchangeable.

With the Depression’s close and the eventual American entry into WWII this hybridization extends to adult film fare.  In both fantastic and erstwhile realistic settings, numerous films—Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), Going My Way and A Guy Named Joe (both 1944), later Angel on My Shoulder (1946) and The Bishop’s Wife (1947)—enact a standard situation and present a standard resolution.  Man is born to trouble, but God, by means of a saintly or supernatural intermediary, intervenes and solves the problem.  This is not so far from the sacred narratives basic to most religious traditions, all long established and substantially documented.  The difference, and the difficulty, is that in these films religious verities meld with fantasy and move into the realm of wish fulfillment, even an indirect denial of religious assurances, not only of salvation, but of the nature of tribulation.  There could be elegance (Heaven Can Wait [1943]), intensity (It’s a Wonderful Life [1946]) and irony (A Matter of Life and Death [1946]) in the playing out of these semi- or pseudo-religious fantasies, but in the main, while aiming to comfort and console they also enjoined passivity, even encouraging a kind of audience infantilization.

These developments reflect a quite understandable insecurity, a natural and deep-seated uncertainty.  Other perspectives also reflected religion in this period, and traced their own patterns of engagement and ambivalence.  In occupied Denmark, Carl Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (1943) linked the practices of a strict religious community with the methodologies and effects of totalitarian rule.  Allied films of the war, which began with a God-on-our-side certainty, even pugnacity (In Which We Serve [1942] and Millions Like Us [1943], Mrs. Miniver [1942], Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak’s documentary series Why We Fight [1942-45]), gave way with the approach of victory to greater humility and ambiguity (Fires Were Started [1943], This Happy Breed [1944], They Were Expendable, A Walk in the SunLet There Be Light, A Diary for Timothy [all 1945]).  In this, after this there is a move from colonial givens—the imposition of Western world views and institutions because of their clear superiority—to colonial questioning.  Will our assumptions work in every setting?  Are we really right after all?

This was an essential moment, especially in the diversification of religious expression in film.  It is a truism that the experience of war forced the West to take closer and more careful account of the rest of the world.  One result, relating to religion, was a more serious, sympathetic consideration of other traditions and other validities, as in John Ford’s The Fugitive (1947), Jean Renoir’s The River (1951).  Perhaps even more significantly, the West, in part through its cinema, begins to doubt its own cultural and ideological preeminence.  This is definitively expressed in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s stunning adaptation of Rumer Godden’s Black Narcissus (1947), where pale, proselytizing Western religion is no match for the colour, sensuality, and ultimate impenetrability of utterly legitimate Eastern cosmologies.

This is an outsider’s view, not without its stereotypes, but chastened, humbled, and of enormous merit.  An essential addition thereto, the correct replacement thereof, was the voice of the native informant, and the realization that the world doesn’t need the West to tell its stories, or legitimize its world views.  This recognition would make reassuring and reductive notions of homogeneity and consensus extremely difficult; from here, mutual cultural and religious knowing, if it was to be based on more than superficialities, would require from communicants an unprecedented interest, investment, and sympathy…

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… From a position of influence and popularity in their own period, these films have fallen into partial disfavour, and even some critical dismissal.  To be sure there are difficulties.  The Sunday School film was prone to melodrama (ie. a polarized view of good and bad, or right and wrong) and facile solutions that betrayed a lack of social sensitivity or political sophistication.  Its squeamishness about sin, or social crisis—not to mention its inclination to equate the two in an uncomfortably facile manner—was reflective of a Puritanism that could be, and often was excessively proscriptive and censorious.  (These contradictions can also be seen in the workings of Hollywood’s self-regulating Hayes Code [1927] and the impositions, also in the US, of the Catholic Legion of Decency [from 1934].)  For its part, the biblical film, especially as produced by Cecil B. de Mille, is often seen as being a hypocritical combination of conventional morality and open sensuality, where smug homilies vie uncomfortably with coy titillation.

Less obviously, Hollywood’s conceit of a common set of moral and cultural values and of a homogeneous audience effaced real cultural and religious differences that deserved recognition, even celebration.  This phenomenon extended beyond films with overtly religious subjects.  Many of the Hollywood industry’s founding figures (Adolph Zukor, Samuel Goldfish/Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, Carl Laemmle, etc.) were Jewish immigrants from central or eastern Europe, men whose simultaneous success and failure was to suppress their particular backgrounds and convictions from the works, and from the industry for which they were largely responsible.  Here is another key point, a practically inherent limitation, or more fairly, delimitation of the commercial film.  Its basic fiscal conservatism insured that in the area of religion and elsewhere, diversity was only likely to appear as a strategy of product diversification, and not as a true manifestation of searching and finding.

Clearly the seemingly untroubled surface of the Hollywood religious film of the 1920s masked potentially dark and ambiguous depths, depths that are more easily penetrated these many decades later.  At the same time there are also real merits that the passage of time has also obscured.  For all of their shortcomings, Hollywood religious films before sound reveal more substance, more delicacy and even depth of feeling, than they are now given credit for.  They set themselves a difficult task, often accomplished, of combining entertainment and instruction, commercial impulse and real sincerity.  Their failures may be less due to calculated duplicity than to the difficulty of addressing the sacred in a medium that, in this instance, devoted itself unequivocally to profit, almost exclusively through escape.  The combination of homily and sensuality, on the one hand hypocritical, is also a poignant reflection of the struggle and sometimes failing of any person, any community, and certainly any industry aspiring toward transcendence in a secular world, and in a modern and materialistic age.

This period makes clear some of religious cinema’s most basic paradoxes, challenges and contributions.  There is an assumption, based on a misreading of only part of the historical record, that religion, especially of a western variety, exerts a negatively conservative, censorious pressure on creative impulse and conscience, and on film culture generally.  This is only part of the picture.  The caricaturing of factions—licentious Hollywood and censorious Heartland—had and continues to have some basis in truth.  But the reality, broadly and fairly considered, is much more complex and much more interesting.  Artists and industries and audiences have always engaged in a complex spiritual negotiation, a balancing of binary impulses that are essential not only to art but to the search for the sacred and for social survival: the individual and the communal, exploration and conservation, centrifugal and centripetal force.

This dialectic is not restricted to a battle between the sanctimonious and the secular.  The 1920s also saw the establishment of one of these binary alternatives within religious realms, one which affirmed at the same time that it continued to inquire, and to constructively criticize.  The art film favoured spiritual exploration over the sometimes manipulations and pat declarations of the commercial cinema, and its individual, individualized search for truth did something to balance the pressures of consensus morality.  Art films, here and afterwards, tended to thrive where film industries were less stable, hierarchical or infrastructural.  (Later, systems of subsidy, which is to say the partial protection from market forces, would provide them the same service.)  This instability, or sometimes informality—where patronage, amateur values, independent production held sway—often meant a greater possibility for innovation and individuation, for particular expressions of conviction and conscience.  The art film’s artisanal methodology and personal nature implicitly countered industrialization and mass production, something it paralleled in its view of religion.  In these narratives transcendence was as often as not achieved through solitary struggles, often in opposition to institutional (congregational) imperatives.

The Danish writer/director Carl-Theodor Dreyer exemplifies the independent and aesthetic possibilities of this approach.  Most famously in his The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Dreyer sets forth the immemorial tensions between sectarian religion and individual spirituality, affirming that private conscience could, and repeatedly has run afoul of the institutional church, and of institutions generally.  Far from being a mere negation, however, Dreyer’s ringing ideological critique also attains great heights of reverence and conviction in the representation, through an artful and individual directorial style, as well as through the luminous performance of Renée Falconetti, of Joan’s faith and martyrdom.  Its condemnation of politics and priestcraft notwithstanding, the film accomplishes a remarkable and affecting transformation, a convincing portrayal of a world dominated, and not without benevolent affect, by religion.

The irony of the religious art film, evident in some discussions on Dreyer and many other masterly filmmakers, is that it leads as much to a kind of Romantic reverence for the great artist as to any greater spiritual conviction and commitment.  Here is another key to the consideration of religion generally, and its relation to film.  Religious desire is not only expressed denominationally, but in any search for transcendental signifiers, for first causes and last resorts.  Systems and sects, philosophies and lifestyles, ideologies and individuals have all been consulted in this search, all suggesting their own answers to the great questions of origin and meaning, of purpose and destination, of the varieties of divinity and the possibility of human access thereto.

Thus it is that even Hollywood’s hedonism, its materialism and its movie stars answered a yearning and inspired a kind of devotion (as well as directly giving rise to Hays Code, the Legion of Decency, and the religious films discussed above).  There is a faith expressed in the Soviet cinema of the 1920s and early 1930s, with its rejections of Christian/capitalist dogma and practice, its professions and proselytizing of Marxist-Leninist doctrine.  There is conviction, as well as the coercion that so often accompanies it, in the Nazi era’s film testimonies of Fuehrer and Fatherland.  Religion informs and infuses Japanese cinema during the closing years of the Meiji era, echoing the prevailing state (Kokka) Shintoism and its enshrinement of the Emperor and militaristic nationalism.  In these demonstrable truths there is danger of religious and cultural caricature: the reality of these things in Soviet, German and Japanese life can not get near to the complexity of these things, nor of the range of belief and application that lies outside of them.  What is clear is that an understanding of religious impulse and expression in film must be informed by ideological sensitivity, and even a concomitant skepticism…

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