catapult magazine

catapult magazine


Questions on film


Feb 17 2005
11:24 pm

I’m very glad you find the discussions here helpful ameliaruth.

You asked a lot of good questions, Denis, that may be a little difficult to go into in depth in the context of a discussion post. I’ve included a few thoughts and some quotes below that I collected while I was working on an essay on film for Adrienne Dengerink-Chaplin’s “Faith in Art” class at the Institute for Christian Studies. They express something of the heart of my aesthetic, which is, I think, deeply Seerveldian, and thus Biblical in the fullest sense. I hope this addresses some of what you’re interested in. I don’t have the exact references for all the quotes at hand, but I think you’ll recognize the names. I’ll post the sources later if I can find them.

I think these quotes also address some of the reservations people have expressed lately on the board regarding films like “Million Dollar Baby” (which I haven’t seen, but I have read about the controversy surrounding this film in evangelical circles). I believe the narrative of Creation, Fall, and Redemption finds its expression in the WHOLE of culture, culture being the entire scope of human endeavour – what anthropologist Wade Davis refers to as “the ethnosphere”. Some cultural products will be more about creation, some more about the fall and our brokeness, some more about redemption. I think some Christians get into trouble over this concept. It is unreasonable and dishonest to expect EVERY narrative we encounter to encompass the ENTIRE scope of this grand narrative (or metanarrative). It can’t be done, and it shouldn’t be done. To insist that every story have a “redemptive” ending would not reflect our experience of life. Bad things do happen to good people and we don’t always know why. This is the message of Job. To insist that the role of Christian discernment is to decide which films (and implicitly which filmmakers) are ultimately “saved” and which are “doomed” is like trying to sort the weeds from the crop in the parable. It’s not time for that yet, and it’s not our job. Our job is to engage films, and respond creatively and intelligently to what we encounter. There is a role for critique and judgment, but we must be sure we are judging the film as a film – a product of our culture – and not as something it was never intended to be – a vehicle for our ideology.

My notes start here:

Broadly speaking there are two fundamental philosophical positions one can take regarding the nature of existence. The first is described as ?realist?, the second as ?non-realist?.

Philosophical ?realism? ?is the belief that there exists a reality beyond or beneath the universe we articulate through language… Traditional realism assumes this reality to exist ?beyond? language, in the form of some ultimate and absolute essence;? (Coupe: 98).

Theologian Don Cupitt ?opposes [to realism] what he calls ?non-realism? (or, more dramatically, ?anti-realism?)… the basic idea is that of ?perspectivism?: ?there are many perspectival viewpoints, but there is no absolute and perspectiveless vision of things? (Cupitt 1986: 223). For the non-realist, then, ?we are the only makers of meanings, truths and values, and our theoretical postulates, such as God, gravity and justice, have no being apart from the language in which we speak of them and the practical uses to which we put it? (Cupitt 1995; 148).

For a fascinating juxtaposition of these viewpoints, try watching Christopher Nolan’s film “Memento” (deeply anti-realist) followed by Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia” (deeply realist).

Josef von Sternberg:

The cinema is a work of art when motion conforms to a perceptible rhythm with pause and pace and where all aspects of the continuous image relate to the whole.

Robert Johnston:

Film has the power to disturb and enlighten, to make us more aware of both who we are and what our relationships with others could be…

It took European film critics in the fifties and sixties to discover the value of American Westerns or of a Hitchcock thriller…

Over the centuries, the characterizing elements of art have changed, but its center continues to be its exploration of the meaning of life. Art seeks to initiate a dialogue as it shares the vision of its creator with its audience. It is through this sharing that life takes on added meaning and wholeness. For as Kierkegaard suggests, art recreates experience and awakens it to life…

Martin Scorsese:

I don?t really see a difference between the church and the movies, the sacred and the profane. Obviously, there are major differences. But I can also see great similarities between a church and a movie-house. Both are places for people to come together and share a common experience… And I believe there?s a spirituality in films, even if it?s not one that can supplant faith… It?s as if movies answer an ancient quest for the common unconscious.

Andrew Greeley :

a sacramentality of ordinary folk, their hopes, their fears, their loves, their aspirations… hints of the Being who lurks in beings…


The melodramatic vision is problematic from a Christian perspective. First, carving the world up into black and white, good and evil, is a very simplistic view of life and the human condition that gives us stock characters, straightforward situations, and clean resolutions. Instead of the moral ambiguity and complex characterization we encounter in Scripture, melodramatic characters are either completely good or corrupt…

Instead of portraying the frailty of human experience and the need for a source of redemption outside of ourselves, the classical Hollywood mythology invests humans with everything they need to secure their own destiny and salvation… The history of redemption recorded in Scripture contains a mixed bag of saints and sinners… They were, in other words, ordinary people – unable to save themselves and desperately in need of redemption.

In an article on Alfred Hitchcock entitled [i:4be95ac29f]Hitchcock the Metaphysician[/i:4be95ac29f], Gerard Genette argues that Hitchcock?s vision transcends simplistic questions of morality. This is to me the most succinct statement of a Biblical understanding of narrative that I have ever encountered.

I find it both legitimate and necessary to speak of his theology – which is… at least that of St. Cyran and Jansen, and finally (to go straight to the heart of the matter) that of Saint Augustine himself… it may be traced to a metaphysics of sin, one that, from every perspective, refers to the dialectic of grace. Because sin presupposes grace just as much as grace presupposes sin… It is insufficient to say that Hitchcock does not despise his heroes; he does not even condemn them, because he sees them as carrying the burden of sin even before they openly acknowledge their guilt. The crime they commit (or supposedly commit) invariably bears the stain of Original Sin… It would appear that Hitchcock?s ?morality?, which has nothing to do with the common meaning of the term, is tied to the purest and most rigorous strain of Christian metaphysics (footnote: Here we see one of the reasons why Hitch denies having an underlying ?message? in his work. There is, properly speaking, only one message: the divine message. Human artistic creations do nothing more than illustrate, popularize or parody this message. Hitch might well say that he is interested only in telling ?stories?. That is because every story is a version of The Story, the divinely comic tale of human tragedy.)… This tradition teaches us not to play with Sin: the fall-grace dialectic can only be resolved at the Last Judgement, an endless horizon to which Hitchcock?s heroes advance… It is futile, in my view, to insist on the lessons a modern viewer can draw from a reflection on these subjects. For Hitchcock?s terrifying reality only reflects the even more terrifying reality of Christianity.