film

Son of Man

‘Together we shall lead ourselves, whether it be to glory or destruction.’ – Jesus in Son of Man

I’ve been meaning to start posting again, so when I saw that Catholic Anarchy had a post about the upcoming US release of Son of Man (directed by Mark Dornford-May), it seemed like a good opportunity to start back up.  Father Lloyd Baugh, a Jesuit at the Gregorian, came to Durham this week to screen the film and give a paper comparing it to other Jesus films.  My brief review is going to contain spoilers, in a sense.  I mean, most people know how the story ends, but I’m going to talk about specific sequences contained in the film.

Son of Man is unique as far as Jesus films go (to my knowledge).  Jesus is black.  He is presented as an unambiguously political figure, but still performs miracles (so he’s not just a political figure).  The film chooses to merge biblical stories with African rituals.  Instead of the baptism of Christ, we see him go through an African ritual undergone by young men who are coming of age.  Basically, Son of Man is a Jesus film from the perspective of liberation theology presented in a fictionalized South African context.

The film’s merit is found in its representation of the Gospel stories.  That is, as a film, it is decent, but not spectacular.  It might have been confusing at points for those not familiar with these stories.  Occasionally the acting is a little forced.  The scene where Jesus calls the disciples contains freeze frames: we see the disciple or disciples, the frame freezes, turns sepia, and the disciple’s name appear in red.  The whole thing felt a bit Tarentino.  One redeeming element of the sequence, however, is the way it enabled the film to present female disciples: the traditional name is shown and we see the letters change to feminize the name (I think Phillip becomes Phillipa, Andrew becomes Andie, etc.).

These moments of aesthetic faltering, amazingly, don’t detract from the force of the movie.  The film opens with the temptation of Jesus in the desert, but then goes back to the Annunciation.  News casts show a war between the ruling party and an insurgency in the fictional region of South Africa, Judea.  The scene cuts to Mary hiding running from insurgent soldiers.  She hides in a classroom amongst the bodies of dead children.  It’s there that Gabriel comes to her.

Throughout the film, familiar stories are reinterpreted in the South African context:

– the Massacre of the Innocents is depicted as insurgent soldiers take the butts of their guns and bludgeon children to death (though this time Jesus refuses to flee)

– Jesus goes into the mines to call the disciples

– Judas is a former child soldier

– Jesus saves a prostitute who has been doused in gasoline.

– During the last supper, Jesus and the disciples share a communal pot, but say nothing to one another.  As the pot passes from one disciple to another, the scene is cut with still frames of murdered children.

– The Garden of Gethsemane becomes a little area off the side of the road.

The most interesting points, in my opinion, are found in three scenes:

(1) Jesus tells the disciples that they are going to bring change by organizing the people, but says they must proceed without violence.  He puts a bag on the table and the disciples place their guns in the bag.

(2) There is an amazing scene which plays off the story of Jesus healing the man who is lowered through the roof of a building.  The amazing part isn’t the miracle, though.  It is the speech that precedes the miracle.  Jesus pretty much gives a liberation theologians critique of imperialism, decrying trade zones, the deployment of aid, the corruption of government officials… I don’t remember the exact points made, but the scene is powerful.

(3) Finally, and most interesting, we have the death and resurrection (not really a scene, but rather a good chunk of the last third or so of the film).  Jesus is captured, taken to a shed and beaten to death.  They dump his body in the back of a truck, drive him into the desert, and bury him in a shallow grave.  The Centurion returns to the city and finds Mary at a political rally.  He tells her that they have killed Jesus and takes her to the grave.  She digs up the body and they take him back to the city.  There is a fantastic shot of the pieta, refigured as Mary sitting on a plastic chair in the back of a beat up truck (I tried to find a picture, but there doesn’t seem to be one available – personally, I think they should have used the image on posters for the film).  Mary ties Jesus’ dead body to the cross and people begin to gather and sing.  Soldiers order the rally to disperse and fire shots into Jesus’ body.  Some people flee, but Mary and the disciples resume their singing in defiance of the military.  We then see the empty grave of Jesus, followed by a shot of Jesus and the angels walking through the desert, presumably back to the city.

I find this presentation of Jesus’ death particularly interesting because the power of the resurrection isn’t presented as Jesus coming back to life (at least initially).  Rather it is found in the community that rises up after his death.  The tomb is empty because Mary, and then the disciples, refuse to accept Jesus’ death.  Resurrection and Pentecost are in a sense collapsed into a moment of action whereby a community is formed.  It all sounds a bit like Zizek, doesn’t it? (not to suggest that Zizek is the only one who says these kinds of things… he’s just the one I read)  Of course this is just my take on it.

There are lots of other interesting aspects of the film, most importantly the role of women, that deserve attention.  Hopefully, with the US release of the film, these other aspects will receive the attention they deserve.

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The Last Few Weeks

The last month or so has been a bit crazy so I haven’t been doing much writing.  During that time I did attend two conferences that I mentioned on this blog: ‘Christian Social Teaching and the Politics of Money’ at the University of Nottingham, and ‘Film-Philosophy’ at the University of Dundee.

I don’t think it’s really necessary to go through the papers I heard at Nottingham.  On the whole, distributivism was the most heavily lauded approach (at least by conference organisers).  Like any conference, there were a few ok papers and a few papers that left me shaking my head.

There were a few tendencies, however, that I found either worrying, perplexing or both.  First, the conference was devoted to thinking about theological responses to a crisis that emerged out of European traditions regarding economics, government, and society.  Why then were all such responses limited to these same traditions.  Granted, there were papers presenting Jewish and Islamic perspectives on the issue, but the tenor of these papers was more comparative than challenging.  There was no suggestion that these traditions offer any real alternative to the Christian interpretation of recent events.  There was no discussion of liberation theology save for a few snide remarks about how the Pope’s recent encyclical reveals how the Vatican is really far more radical than the liberationists have ever been.  I found this stance to be entirely guilty of the kind of epistemological coloniality that I discussed in my post on the Latin American politics conference.  I’m not suggesting Latin American, Asian, African, or indigenous thinkers are inherently more adequate theorisers of religion, politics, and economics.  I just think if one is attempting to challenge the current state of North Atlantic political economy, perhaps looking outside that geography might be a good place to start.  I tried to make this point at the conference, but was never afforded the opportunity.

Second, and more related to distributivism in general, I was troubled by the way property figured into the various debates.  There’s a great scene in Citizen Kane when a drunk Jebedah accosts Kane, saying:

You talk about the people as though you owned them, as though they belong to you. Goodness. As long as I can remember, you’ve talked about giving the people their rights, as if you can make them a present of Liberty, as a reward for services rendered…Remember the working man?… You used to write an awful lot about the workingman…He’s turning into something called organized labor. You’re not going to like that one little bit when you find out it means that your workingman expects something is his right, not as your gift! Charlie, when your precious underprivileged really get together, oh boy! That’s going to add up to something bigger than your privileges!

The scene sums up my problem with any theory of political economy that does not challenge on the one hand, the ruling class’ claim to ownership of the means of production, and on the other, the very theories of property that legitimise these claims.  I think that these are basic starting points for considering Christian social teaching and the politics of money.

Finally, there seemed to be a lot of papers that presented the old ‘popular theory x + Jesus.’  The unanswered question in these papers is always ‘Why do we need Jesus? What does he add?’

A week later I attended the ‘Film-Philosophy’ conference at the University of Dundee.  In general the papers were solid, though many of them addressed issues that I have no interest in.

One paper that did touch on some points relevant to my research was Caroline Bainbridge’s keynote on feminist film.  She focused on the institutional hurdles facing female directors.  In a sense, my issue with this approach parallels my criticism of the conference on Christian social teaching.  The criticism fails to escape the boundaries of the debate organised by the dominant theory: namely, auteur theory.  Why single out female directors?  Why not include female script writers who, in both film and theatre, face significant obstacles?  Why not challenge the whole idea of auteur theory, which focuses on the power of the director in a manner consistent with masculinist understandings of hierarchy, rather than discussing the collective nature of the production of film?  Feminist theory that argues ‘women deserve the same recognition, status or success as men’ is always far less compelling than that which argues ‘feminism offers an alternative reading of economic, political, and social relations.’

Anyway, it was nice to have a week almost entirely devoted to academic work rather than usual work.

Strike!

This morning I watched Eisenstein’s Strike!. I found some of the initial montage to be absolutely brilliant and I loved the shot of the factory in the puddle. Russian films from this era are great because you never have to guess who the evil capitalists are (though nothing quite tops the classic Soviet propaganda cartoons). Here are a few additional random thoughts I had while watching the film.:

– It’s interesting that after the strike begins, Eisenstein cuts to scenes of animals, as if to note that with the cessation of exploitation, the natural order has returned.
– Even more interesting is the following scene where the children recreate the actions of the strike. Like their fathers, the children load a goat into a wheelbarrow and push the animal down a hill (earlier the workers had done the same with the administrators at the factory). Already the coming generation has ritualised the action, performing the sacrifice of a ‘scapegoat.’ I don’t know that Eisenstein intended this reading, but it works as an excellent critique of the relationship between revolutionaries and the proceeding generations which, in their ritualisation, establish new exploitative hierarchies in their seeming repetition of the actions of their fathers. Ritual doesn’t have to equal ideology, but that doesn’t many rituals don’t fall victim to this tendency.
– Continuing with the use of animals (again, not necessarily reflecting the intentions of Eisenstein), I thought the parallel images of the cow being slaughtered and the proletariat being massacred worked on a number of levels: 1) to the bourgeoisie, the workers are disposable; 2) they are also regarded as mere animals (this point parallels the argument made by Lewis Gordon, interpreting Fanon, in my post about Latin American theory: namely that the struggle for the oppressed is often not to be regarded as equal, but first to be regarded as other); 3) there is a cycle of exploitation. It is third point that I find interesting, and perhaps less obvious. The people slaughtering the cow seem to be workers, just like those in the factory. The bourgeoisie ignites a chain of exploitation, beginning with the working class and infecting all social and biological (or perhaps ecological is a better term) relations. The working class then exploits ‘nature’ in its struggle to survive. This point works in two directions: the working class, in desperation, engages in unsustainable husbandry practices in order to merely survive, or in hopes of rising to the ranks of the petty bourgeoisie. From the other direction, this highlights the political significance of husbandry practices: the cultivation of sustainable practices in the political economy of food is an important aspect of empowering the working class. I guess now we just need to enlist Jamie Oliver and Michael Pollan in starting the revolution…

Article in Film-Philosophy

Todd McGowan’s article in the latest issue of Film-Philosophy is quite good, though a classic example of what Baidou would call the didactic aesthetic.  Entitled, ‘Hegel and the Impossibility of the Future in Science Fiction Cinema,’ it is quite good though curiously doesn’t mention Althusser.  This might seem like a typical critique coming from someone who likes Althusser, but in my defense the piece devotes a significant amount of space to arguing that it is not possible to think the outside of an ideology while within that ideology (and since one is always in an ideology all thought is limited by an ideology).  I would take issue with this point as well.  Having said that, for an article that says a lot that I disagree with, it is very interesting and warrants consideration.

AAR Proposal

I received word that my proposal for this year’s AAR has been accepted.  Here’s what I’ve proposed (it may sound vaguely familiar):

Cinema and Subjectivity: On the Possibility of Theological Films

The relationship between theology and film is often characterised by the use of film to illustrate theological concepts or present Biblical narratives.  In this paper I argue that only by redefining this relationship is it possible for film to function appropriately in relation to theology.  It is only in the context of the process of such a redefinition that film can be used to teach theology.  In the process of this argument, I will also review the importance of recent continental philosophy for understanding cinema as a distinct discipline.

 

This argument will proceed through fourth stages.  First, I will briefly present examples of films typically regarded as theological.  These may be separated into two categories: 1) films which are explicit in their attempt to be theological, such as The Passion of the Christ; and 2) films which explore theological themes (i.e., sacrifice, redemption), such as 300.  Having divided ‘theological’ films into these two categories, it is possible to demonstrate how nearly any film can be regarded as theological.

In the second stage, I will argue that this categorisation demonstrates an inadequate understanding of the relationship between film and theology.  Using the work of Alain Badiou, Peter Greenaway, and John Mullarkey I will begin to redefine what it means to call a film ‘theological.’  Greenaway argues that the first century of cinema has largely been confined to a process of illustrating texts.  Film, as a medium, is often constrained by enduring connections to nineteenth century literature.  In Badiou’s terminology, film remains part of a statist configuration.  Badiou also offers a way of reconceiving the role of film.  He describes art as one of four truth procedures.  Truth procedures, within his model, are modes of subjectivisation.  I will argue that the key to film operating as a truth procedure, and hence operating theologically, is the examination of film as a medium.

The theoretical impetus for this redefinition stems from an important recent work by John Mullarkey entitled Refractions of Reality.  In his book, Mullarkey argues that film must be understood as non-philosophy.  In other words film cannot be reduced to cinematic explorations of philosophical concepts; film is its own thought.  Similarly, I would posit that film cannot be understood as theology, but only as non-theology.  To use a more theologically familiar bifurcation, it might be said that theological films are idolatrous; non-theological films are iconic.

To explain this difference, it will be necessary to examine cinematic subjectivisation.  In this third stage I will argue that as film engages itself as a medium it embraces its capacity to subjectivise the viewer.  This process of subjectivisation is the site of films non-theological potential.  As Greenaway’s films explode film from within, the viewer is presented the opportunity of subjectivisation; he or she is granted agency as a viewer who has been promoted to participant.  This promotion opens the possibility of creative responses to cinematic experiences instead of being trapped within predetermined statist responses.  This stage thus provides the point of conjunction of the paper’s three major resources: Mullarkey demonstrates that film must be understood as non-philosophy, Badiou provides a schema that allows non-philosophy to be considered in relation to subjectivisation, and Greenaway reveals how this process of subjectivisation is dependent on film’s examination of itself as a medium.

In the fourth and final stage, I will consider the importance of this reconfiguraiton for thinking the role of film in teaching theology.  Books and courses on theology and film have become as numerous as those on philosophy and film.  Yet in both instances film tends to be consigned to illustrating concepts.  In order to demonstrate how film might function non-theologically in the classroom, I will briefly examine Alain Resnais’ L’Année dernière à Marienbad.  To show this non-theological operation, I will explain how the film challenges the four tyrannies that Greenaway argues threaten cinema as a medium: 1) the tyranny of the text; 2) the tyranny of the frame; 3) the tyranny of the actor; and  4) the tyranny of the camera.  I will show the dismantling of these tyrannies through a variety of cinematic techniques enable a film to function in a non-theological fashion.  This dismantling might be summarised in the film’s four refusals: 1) the refusal of plot; 2) the refusal of point of view; 3) the refusal of chronology; and 4) the refusal of naturalism.  These refusals do not correspond to specific theological doctrine, but engage in the practice of non-theology. 

This paper hopes to not only to relate recent advancements in film theory, but to indicate the continuing need for theology to have an aesthetic theory that is not subordinated to doctrine.  This argument challenges recent attempts within some North American Christian communities to develop an alternative Christian film industry.  In contrasting these developments with the efforts of directors such as Greenaway and Resnais, I will show how non-theological work has been underway and deserves the attention and respect of the theological community.

Thinking Cinema with Greenaway, Resnais, and Godard (part 2)

Godard’s Passion is another example of exploding cinema from within. Like Marienbad, the film doesn’t have a traditional plot. Loosely, the film centres on the efforts of enigmatic director, Michel, who is attempting to complete an increasingly expensive film. A secondary story is spliced into this one, featuring a young woman organising the workers of a factory.

Lets again consider Greenaway’s tyrannies, though without the convenience of a neat schema like Vincendeau’s. First, there is the tyranny of the text. In case you miss Godard’s rejection of traditional narrative, Michel frequently has conversations about plot. Potential financial backers ask for a summary of the story and he erupts; there is no need for a plot, why do they always ask for the plot, etc. The film consists of recreations of paintings, so the scenes on set often involve motionless figures caught in dramatic lighting. In the other story line, there is a scene during a meeting of the workers, where one of the women, Hannah, is reading lines from socialist literature. Whilst the text makes sense in the context of a workers’ meeting, its mechanical presentation can be taken as a rejection of texts determinative presence.

Second, and perhaps most effectively, is Godard’s rejection of the frame. A good deal of the film takes place on the set of the film being directed by Michel. Often the scene transitions from one framed world to another; that is, from the frame of the camera in the film to the frame of the camera filming the camera in the film. The characters of the scene sometimes shatter this border. The film is constantly reminding us that there is something occurring outside, before, and after the frame that presently restricts the gaze.

Third, is Godard’s rejection of character. It is an ensemble cast and the viewer’s identification is left shifting from character to character. In terms of Greenaway’s schema, this point is the weakest in the film.

Finally, Godard effectively rejects the tyranny of the camera. Even in the film, the director views the film one of his two lovers, Isabelle, who is in the film. As they watch the film on a screen surrounded by audio-visual equipment, we are exposed to the malleable nature of the celluloid medium.

All in all, I find Godard’s effort, in this instance, less effective. Granted, Godard did not start out to address Greenaway’s criteria, but he did want to transgress cinematic convention and, in my opinion, this effort is thwarted by his heavy-handed approach to the rejection of plot. In relation to the ‘thin line between brilliance and intellectual pretension’, I think Godard falls on the side of pretension. The film lacks the geometric sophistication and deft touch of Resnais in Marienbad.