Spirituality and the moving image, pt. 3

Continued from pt. 2:



…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…

Continued in pt. 4: https://duncantalkingaboutfilm.wordpress.com/2013/12/12/spirituality-and-the-moving-image-pt-4/


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