COMMERCE, COUNTERED; THE 1950s
…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 , 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 , Through a Glass Darkly , Winter Light , The Silence ), Cries and Whispers ) 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 ) 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 ). But it is not simply religion he is after. A dialectic between honourable precept, the holy fools (the eponymous protagonists of Viridiana and Nazarin ) 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.
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: https://duncantalkingaboutfilm.wordpress.com/2013/12/12/spirituality-and-the-moving-image-pt-6/