Spirituality and the moving image, pt. 2

… continued from pt. 1—



… 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…

Continued in pt. 3: https://duncantalkingaboutfilm.wordpress.com/2013/12/12/spirituality-and-the-moving-image-pt-3/


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