Cinema and The Sublime | Spirituality

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Religion in film as discussed by Peter Pence
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  Cinema of the Sublime: Theorizing the Ineffable Jeffrey Pence English and Cinema Studies, Oberlin Abstract  Cinema’spowertorepresentanimatelife,andproduceaprofoundimpres-sion of reality, warrants and supports its other fascinating capacity, namely, to fab-ricate frank yet appealing illusions. In certain instances, audiences may respond tothe fantastic creations as if to a new reality. Cinematic realism thus raises questionsabout the nature of belief and reality that are of perennial, yet acutely contempo-rary, interest in film history. A genre of the spiritual film—distinct from religiousfilms that rely on traditional sources of religious authority—explores these ques-tions of being and the limits of the knowable. Recent film criticism has inadequatelyrespondedtothisgenre.Filmstudieshasaligneditself invariouswaysbehindWalterBenjamin’s call for an iconoclasm that would sever art’s connections with cultic tra-ditions and contribute to social progress.The consequent suppression, or translationto secular terms, of films’ spiritual aspirations comes at great cost. Complex worksthat address spiritual topics in form and content, such as Lars von Trier’s  Breaking the Waves   (), are treated as evidence by a self-affirming and secularizing criticalmethod. In neglecting the central concerns of such films, critics are complicit withtheworstfeaturesofmodernity.Acriticismthatevadesanopenengagementwiththelimits of the knowable becomes instrumental; a criticism geared exclusively towarddemystificationultimatelyproducesreification.Amoreproperanalyticresponseistoattend to the ways in which such films produce experiences, and call for responses, atthe edge of the knowable. Such an approach begins with abandoning methodologi-cal certainty; the spiritual film demands an alignment of perception that cannot be  An earlier version of this essay was delivered at the Third International Crossroads in Cul-tural Studies Conference, June –, , in Birmingham,United Kingdom. I would liketo thank Ann Hardy for her generous reading of an earlier draft and James A. Knapp for hiscollaboration throughout this project. Poetics Today  : (Spring ). Copyright ©  by the Porter Institute for Poetics andSemiotics. Poetics Today  Published by Duke University Press  30 Poetics Today 25:1 contained by a predetermined goal. This aesthetic response may contribute to anopen-ended ethical self-fashioning and may protect critical discourse from itself bypreventing the standardization of cultural experience. 1. Cinema’s Shadow: Realism and Criticism This mute, grey life finally begins to disturb and depress you. Itseems as though it carries a warning, fraught with a vague but sin-ister meaning that makes your heart grow faint.You are forgetting where you are. Strange imaginings invade your mind and your con-sciousness begins to wane and grow dim.—Maxim Gorky,  [] Upon witnessing the first screening of the Lumiére brothers’ actualities—including  L’Arrivéê d’un train en gare —at the Nizhny Nogorod Fair, MaximGorky ( []: ) declared that he had just visited, or had visited uponhim, the ‘‘kingdom of shadows.’’ Considering the eventual socialist-realistleanings of its source, this densely suggestive phrase can most obviously bedecoded along predictable political lines. While cinema may never haveseemed more an instance of modern progress than at its debut, Gorky linksit to the premodern by associating film with a kingdom. Particularly in aRussian context, autocracy implies stasis, terror, and inequity.The linkageof a kingdom of shadows and film works because of the ambivalence of the term  representation . In place of representative governance, and in com-pensation for the arbitrariness of its own privilege, autocracy offers power-ful aesthetic representations of its own legitimacy. Regalia, ritual, and tra-dition coordinate to produce at least the illusion of popular consent tothe autocrat’s identification with the state. Gorky suggests that cinema’smimetic prowess similarly substitutes bewitching representational effectsfor an engagement with, for him, the most important dimension of repre-sentation—namely, progressive political change. He grudgingly acknowl-edges the films’ powers of display, the ways in which animate life visuallyrecordedandrepresentedmayproduceoverwhelmingaffectiveexperiencesin novice viewers.The choice of the second person ‘‘   you ’’ in his text seemsboth to base his analysis on personal experience and to generalize it astypical. The intimacy of his language and the deliberate precision of hispacing suggest someone struggling to wake from a nightmare so powerfulthat it must by necessity be universal. But rather than interpreting thesenew technical and textual capacities as markers of progress—of mimeticaccomplishment or aesthetic immediacy—he sees them as so much royalplumage. AccordingtoTomGunning([]:),accountsofinitialencoun- Poetics Today  Published by Duke University Press  Pence  ã Cinema of the Sublime: Theorizing the Ineffable 31 terswithcinemahavetraditionallybeenderivedformGeorgeSadoul([]), whose own research and conclusions are dubious.These accountstend to repeat a standardized myth of the primitives’ traumatic introduc-tion to modernity. As the Lumiéres’ train pulls into the station, the storygoes,theaudiencepanics,screams,andrushesfortheexits.Howevermuchthissceneofupheavalcaptures,metaphorically,theearlyviewers’surprise, what it describes never literally occurred. As Gunning ( []: )demonstrates,evenChristianMetz’s()sophisticatedtheorizingofspec-tatorship depended on this easily debunked myth. Notably, Gorky’s owncontemporary account downplays trauma or panic in favor of a rapidlyacquired skepticism, as shadows suggest something baseless, second-order,illusionistic, and ultimately political about the royal display of power just witnessed. 1 SuchaninterpretationofGorky’sremarkresonateswithadomi-nant, and currently predominant, strain in the history of cinema studies.Since Walter Benjamin’s ‘‘The Work of Art in the Age of MechanicalReproduction’’([]),cinemahasbeenlinkedtothedemiseofcultishunderstandings of art and the progress of critical reason, thanks to its ca-pacity to represent and reveal reality in heretofore impossible ways. Thetheory of cinema’s nature as essentially realist, and uniquely qualified todisclose the essentially real, was initially developed by Béla Balász, AndréBazin, and Siegfried Kracauer. 2 These critics emphasized and valued cer-tain visual, aural, and editing conventions—such as the close-up, locationsound, and long takes linked by elliptical transitions rather than continuityediting. In these techniques, they found in cinema a unique correlation toreality, the way things appear in everyday perception enhanced by sugges-tions of a meaningful depth, which habit, necessity, or even sensory limita-tion elide in actual life. Subsequent theoretical developments, not to men-tion film history itself, abandoned the insistence of these theorists that onlycertain techniques and forms are true to cinema’s essence. Nevertheless,more recent theories have explicitly retained an idea of realism that legiti- . RachelO.Moore()extendsGunning’swork,andtosomeextentundermineshisreli-ance on historicist procedures, by looking at cinema as a prime medium for negotiating therelationship between the modern and the primitive more generally, as it combines techno-logical progress with features understandable as magic.. For example, if, according to Kracauer ( []: , ), ‘‘each medium has a specificnature,’’ then it ‘‘is evident that the cinematic approach materializes in all films which followthe realist tendency.’’ Balász ( []: ) identified cinema’s power with its capacity torepresent dimensions of reality either ‘‘hitherto unknown’’ or presumed to have been known:‘‘Weskimovertheteemingsubstanceoflife.Thecamerahasuncoveredthatcell-life.’’Finally,Bazin ( []: ) famously declared the ‘‘history of the plastic arts,’’ which photogra-phy and cinema both complete and escape, ‘‘to be essentially the story of resemblance, or, if  you will, of realism.’’ Poetics Today  Published by Duke University Press  32 Poetics Today 25:1 mates their own project, as a realist endeavor now oriented toward a socialor psychological reality barely discernible beneath ideology and illusion.Kracauer is something of a hinge figure, albeit in reverse, in this change.His major works relevant to this discussion,  From Caligari to Hitler: A Psycho-logical History of the German Film  () and  Theory of Film: The Redemptionof Physical Reality  (), respectively take up cinema’s expression of socio-psychological turmoil and its fundamental capability to establish physicalexistence.That his work moves from an emphasis on historical and politi-cal interpretations to a more strictly formalist analysis, just prior to a moregeneral turn in the opposite direction in the study of film, suggests that thehistory of film theory and criticism is not a narrative of progress. Instead,this history is defined by an oscillation between interests and methods thatrestondifferentunderstandingsoftherelationshipbetweenfilmandreality.In one view, film is part of a reality of social context, experience, andconflict, whether or not a particular film evidences this fact deliberately orsymptomatically. Criticism here highlights the connections between filmand historical reality in the interest of social understanding or progress.In another view, the specificity of the film medium may produce aes-thetic experiences that impress audiences with a sense of reality, despitethe manifest difference between the film experience and normal experi-ence. Criticism here considers what positive knowledge these encountersmay deliver—whether in regard to film technique, to the pleasures anddesires of viewers impressionable in these ways, or even to the potentialsignificance of these seemingly solid aspects of reality which are otherwiseinvisible.The former approach is inherently modern, carrying on a tradi-tion of critique established in the Enlightenment. It is skeptical of illusionand the superstitious power of film to fascinate, and therefore manipulate,audiences.Whileoneoftheveritiesofpostmodernismisthattheemancipa-tory discourses subtending modern thought (Marxism and psychoanalysisprimarily)areneitherobjectivelytruenorsuperiorperspectivesonculturallife, the tradition of critique remains the most important in contemporaryfilmstudies.Assuch,italsoextendstheaffinityofcriticismwithanEnlight-enment notion of reason as a privileged, scientific process that will lead usto truth. The latter approach, that of focusing on real-seeming cinematicexperiences, can be understood as carrying on an alternative tradition of seeking and valuing dimensions of thought and perception that continueto attract us, despite being irreconcilable with a strict definition of reason.This approach extends the affinity of art and criticism with features of reli-gion that have been gradually marginalized in modernity.The oscillationbetween alternative methods and interests that has defined cinema studies,then, replays in miniature the oscillation in the modern West between sci- Poetics Today  Published by Duke University Press
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