Contemplatives in Conversation: The Theology of Cinema, Part 1

By Arthur Aghajanian

Going to the movies may not seem like religious action, but it’s one of the most common ways we experience spiritual insight. Film impacts how we interpret life, and its mechanical apparatus is uniquely suited to provide glimpses of the divine in the signs and symbols of the everyday. Like religion, film reflects what’s most important to a society, but reaches beyond institutional boundaries to visualize the transcendent in an enchanting, temporal way. Its dominance as a medium of meaning-making in our culture, its propensity to engage with questions fundamental to human experience, and its effect on spiritual resurgence make it an important subject of theological study. On June 2nd, 2022, I met with Danny Anderson on Zoom to discuss the theology of cinema.

Danny Anderson is an Associate Professor of English at Mount Aloysius College. He frequently writes about movies, music, and books for publications like PopMatters, Film Inquiry, the Mantle, and Sound the Sirens, among others. He also interviews people for the Sectarian Review Podcast. He lives in the Laurel Highlands region of Pennsylvania with his family. You can find him @dannypanderson on Twitter.

The following is based on our conversation….

Arthur Aghajanian: Cinema has the power to expand the scope and context of any story in ways that have theological significance. When we watch a film, we’re temporarily drawn into an alternative world in which images of the commonplace can be made to speak beyond themselves. Images can signify in multiple ways, and oftentimes link us to realities beyond ordinary experience. For instance, when a filmmaker exploits the medium’s technical capacities to capture transient phenomena like passing clouds or seasonal change in ways that may by turns be lyrical or foreboding. The viewer’s imagination is called to participate in what he or she is seeing, hearing, and feeling. Film is a form of art that moves between realism and fantasy, and thus can draw us out of ourselves to a larger reality beyond the events taking place onscreen.

Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life comes to mind as a strong example of film’s unique dialect of transcendence. Like much of his work, the perspective is cosmic. Its cinematography is designed to evoke the experience of memory with devices like fluid camera movement, unanticipated points of view, and extraordinary transitions in scale. There’s an experiential quality to the film’s treatment of time and space because of its cinematic ability to enthrall our senses.

Danny Anderson: I agree with that. And it makes me think of someone like H.P. Lovecraft, who’s known for cosmic horror. You have this sense that there is this intelligence, or there is this something beyond our realm that is a threat. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be evil or malicious. It’s beyond Good and Evil. And as I’m thinking about the difference between literature and film one thing is when you’re reading something, it’s work for you. Your imagination is creating the world in tandem with the author, to much more of a degree than is true with the case of film. With a movie there are filmmakers collaborating who are creating a world of sights, sounds, and images, and the viewer is stepping into that already-created world.

AA: I’ll never forget how, in Jean Luc Godard’s 1967 film, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, a cup of coffee is filmed in extreme close-up. As we listen to a whispered voice-over musing on the nature of consciousness, the coffee is stirred, setting a world into motion. Within this mundane object we behold a spiraling galaxy. A sugar cube is dropped into the cup, with bubbles forming and dissolving. It’s a spellbinding scene of cosmic birth and death. Something absolutely ordinary, through the medium of film, transports us beyond the known.

DA: That’s a great example too. And the greatest films that everyone remembers are filled with those images, like in the Godfather with the Statue of Liberty in the background of a mob assassination. The juxtaposition of those images makes you think about American freedom differently. There are all sorts of little images that are embedded in films that really help to transport us into another world. Into another vision of the world at least.

AA: As an experiential medium, film can disrupt our habits of looking, broadening our worldview in the process. The filmic experience is a complex interplay where meaning is determined in a negotiation between the film as text, the audience, and the site of reception. And film encourages the forgetting of self through its immersive power, sensory stimulation, and the suspension of disbelief.

Film seems particularly suited to promoting a sacramental view of the world. It fixes our attention on selected slices of reality. Then any image taken from the everyday and projected at a monumental scale becomes magically transmuted. Let’s not forget that the film projector itself was once called a magic lantern. Cinema’s magical quality explains the enthusiasm around the early films, such as those by the Lumiere brothers in the 1890’s, which were simply photographic records of the commonplace.

The strong presence of the film image—its intensity and intimacy as it appears in the darkened space of the theater, lends it the concreteness and specificity of the real. The ordinary stuff of the world is made present and shimmers. And with the signs and symbols of our shared visual culture, film can enhance word-based theologies like Protestantism by communicating belief in an audio-visual language that’s both immediate and compelling.

DA: You can look at Tarkovsky’s films as worshipful meditations on God. I really do feel like there is something that makes film as an iconographical medium really suited to a sacramental approach to art. I would also add that there’s something liturgical about movies. And you see this particularly with seasonal films.

For most Americans, even if you’re not Christian, there’s probably a Christmas film that you watch every year on a calendar-driven basis. And you enjoy it for what you know is going to happen. And in this way, it has something in common with the ancient Greek theater. Oedipus was a ritualistic religious activity that people did. They went to see the Oedipus play very much like our Easter pageants. And so, film offers that possibility as a celebration of certain times of the calendar. I have a slew of Christmas films that I watch every year. I have a slew of horror films that I watch every October, and I will add to it every year.

AA: Tarkovsky was deeply spiritual, and his work embodies a sacramental vision. His films possess a unique spatiotemporal sensibility. I’ve always been struck by the fact that Stalker (1979), works as a science fiction film without relying on the set design we’re accustomed to for that genre. The journey unfolds in an abandoned, postindustrial landscape of decay. And his use of sound, punctuated by long stretches of near silence, is intrinsic to how Tarkovsky makes the familiar strange. In a gradual, understated way, his films shift our perceptions and transport us to a metaphysical dimension.

The cinema of Tarkovsky demonstrates how film can portray time in ways that relate to the sacred. The medium has the capacity to evoke a more profound time beneath linear time and makes us aware of the experiential and relative nature of time. It can be spatially organized in distinct phases, reimagined diachronically, and reversed. The multiple dimensions of time evoke transcendence and the eternal, as well as the sacred in relationships within the flow of time expressed through love, sacrifice, and redemption.

Film reaches beyond immediate experience and the reign of linear time through temporal paradox. It restructures our perception and reimagines the real. The power of cinema to employ multiple temporalities suggests meanings beyond the narrow boundaries of our individual selves.

DA: A movie that brings two approaches together for me is the science fiction film, Arrival. The aliens in that film have a different experience with time than human beings do. We experience things linearly, and this group of aliens has access to time which is not linear. And the discovery of that non-linearity by the scientists in that movie saves both races. It’s an interesting meditation on the experience of time. That’s a movie that I think thematically deals with time in a very spiritual way, but also deals with it formally through the construction of the plot.

When you watch Halloween it’s always 1978 in Haddonfield. So, there’s a way in which film mirrors the idea of a religious community as not simply existing in a time and place. It is existing in a community that transcends time and place. When we watch it in 2022, we exist in that world of 1978, and we experience the trauma of those people.

And it’s a community across time and across place in the Christian tradition. That’s how I like to approach being a Christian. It’s not an individual thing. I’m joining this great tradition of people who came before me in other places and other parts of the world. I think that the way in which a movie can take an experience from a different time in a different place and make it present, makes that connection possible.

The idea of disordering time has a power too, an almost godlike quality to it. You have somebody who’s able to transcend our linearity and the way we are limited by our linear view of time to teach us a lesson by breaking those rules. When you walk into religious spaces covered with icons and the “smells and bells,” it is a way of putting you in this rather timeless position. And when you walk into the movie theater and put your phone away, whether you like what you’re seeing or not, you watch it and you absorb it. You are actually removing yourself from the day-to-day of your life and giving yourself a chance to grow.

These are little breaks from the flow of time as we experience it. And I think movies, in their classical form, are important. Maybe I’m sounding very old school by arguing for the importance of the movie theater, but I do believe it is important to watch them in these isolated spaces, alone and with other people at the same time.

AA: I’ve always appreciated films that explore the interior time of the psyche, weaving it into daily time, or that contrast it with historic time. Cinematic language is comfortable with the infinite and invisible, and its fluid use of time continually opens to the transcendent. As a temporal art, film can reimagine and reconstruct the sacred as an experience, independent of subject matter.

In taking us beyond the here and now, film inspires new perspectives and a re-engagement with the world. And when theology is brought into a critical dialogue with visual culture, the presence of God becomes evident beyond the church. Films provide a window into issues of the day, reflecting what’s most important to a society and influence how we interpret our lives. In this way too, film has religious significance. It’s an everyday religion.

DA: One of my favorite movies is by the Coen brothers. It’s called A Serious Man. It’s a great film about Jewish ethics. The main character of this film is a physicist who believes in order and logic. The plot of the movie is him being thwarted in his search for firm, objective answers. The answer he has been given is that there’s something beautiful in the mystery. And he refuses to accept this throughout the movie. It becomes a very Job-like tale because of his embrace of a modern idea rather than the ancient idea of us being at the whim of whatever the universe has for us.

But the film is structured in such a way that we experience the strange coincidences, the nonsensical appearances of characters who don’t match this setting at all. Everything thwarts our expectations of a logically ordered world, and the film doesn’t just tell us about it. It actually makes us experience it with Larry, the protagonist. Movies that have that ambition really can make use of the medium to offer a receptive viewer a quasi-religious experience.

***To be continued in Part 2!

Arthur Aghajanian is a Christian contemplative, essayist, and educator. His work explores visual culture through a spiritual lens. His essays have appeared in a variety of publications, including Ekstasis, Tiferet Journal, Saint Austin Review, The Curator, and many others. He holds an M.F.A. from Otis College of Art and Design. Visit him at https://www.imageandfaith.com/

© 2022 Arthur Aghajanian

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