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.