Contemplatives in Conversation: The Theology of Cinema, Part 2

By Arthur Aghajanian

***Before continuing, read Part One here

AA: In the context of theology, we might note that film has a special ability to represent things that other art forms can’t. The hypnotic affects achieved through temporal dislocation, the camera’s ability to concentrate attention while being everywhere at once, and the use of montage serve as means of interpreting the world. Sitting in darkness, we’re enchanted, and our critical resistance is lowered. Ordinary things can be made ambiguous, compelling us to search for hidden meaning, and the veracity of the film image inspires trust. We willingly surrender to fantasy, allowing ourselves to be guided to deeper questions about the human condition.

DA: It is a space that, because of its cultural dominance, shapes people’s ideas about the world. I believe that we see the world through the grand narratives that we have identified with and adopted as our lens for understanding new information. I can give someone all the correct information they want. They’re going to attach it to some other preexisting grand narrative that they’ve already created for themselves, to a great extent through the entertainment that they consume. And in our culture, it happens to be film or television. For me, that is a vital reason to take movies and books and music and the kinds of things I teach and write about very seriously. Before we even get to the point of processing knowledge, we have to talk about the way that knowledge is going to be processed and understanding film—because it’s so dominant, is a way in which we get access to that.

AA: Fantasy assists us in imagining an alternative reality. We speak of films as escapism, but it’s also true that fantasy allows us to make greater contact with reality by imagining other ways of being. Film’s a cultural barometer. Since it mirrors the dreams, fears, hopes, and values of a society, it’s a nexus for theological reflection. And in the use of archetypes, film keeps alive mythic structures that help guide us as we negotiate life situations. Star Wars has become the hero’s journey for our culture.

Some of the most remarkable films I’ve experienced use liminal space effectively to signify transformation. Liminality, from the Latin word for threshold, is an in-between state. Theologically, it’s an idea found in Scripture, in metaphors of the wilderness, the pit, and the pilgrimage. The Hebrews wandered in the desert, a physical space of transition. The pit signifies a suffering that leads to change. I think of Joseph thrown in a pit by his brothers, or Jonah in the belly of the whale. And pilgrimage is a liminal mission in which boundaries and borders are negotiated in personal transformation. Being between what was and what will be, expressed variously in cinema, is essential for Christian formation and growth.

Being drawn into sacred space frees us of our societal conditioning, and the experience of liminality, which signifies the onset of personal evolution or transformation, is explicit in the films of Stanley Kubrick. In both 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange, the protagonists transition from something ordinary to something unfamiliar and strange. Kubrick’s work is concerned with the passage across boundaries which separate the human dimension from sacred space. Liminal space is a gateway to rebirth, and the way, like in Homer’s Odyssey, is filled with peril.

In The Shining, the Overlook Hotel is the liminal space. The son, named Danny, uses play to mediate between the ordinary world and the supernatural. The protagonist, played by Jack Nicolson, experiences personal evolution as he acquires unusual abilities. Once the family arrives at the hotel, the story crosses a threshold of unsettling transformation. The hotel is a place of the uncanny. Social norms break down as the world of ghosts and spirits force a reordering of Jack’s psyche. He is forced on an interior journey.

DA: It’s almost hard to find a horror film that doesn’t depend on liminal spaces. There’s a trope in many, many horror films of somebody walking off the sidewalk that they should be on and entering out into this wilderness space. In Jordan Peele’s film, Get Out, it opens with an African American man in a suburban neighborhood where he is out of his safe place. He’s in a dangerous white space, a place that is dangerous for Black people, at least. And so that movie opens up with that and it becomes the theme of the entire film.

Once upon a time in Hollywood has a horrific ending, of course—though weirdly hopeful and fantastical. But there’s actually a really interesting horror scene in the middle of the film when Brad Pitt’s character goes to Spawn Ranch and it’s right out of a typical horror film. It’s a space between reality and fiction, and Quentin Tarantino’s version of Hollywood is utterly realistic to its time and yet it denies Manson and his clan the chance to kill Sharon Tate. It actually steps into a different time in the past, in a way to try to redeem it. It is a space between tragic history and the world of innocent, hopeful fantasy. That’s an interesting, almost redemptive form of liminality.

In Robert Eggers’s film The Witch things take place right at the border of civilization. A witch comes out of the woods and destroys this Puritan family. In that film, there is no return to normalcy. There’s a replacement of the normal world with this pagan, evil, satanic world that exists in the wilderness. The liminality makes us uncomfortable because it’s supposed to put us in a space where we sink or swim.

It’s also reminiscent of the religious experience. When one is confronted with the divine, you are then like Moses in front of the burning bush. You’re confronted with a choice that you have to make. And that is an uncomfortable choice. You either accept the divine and its life altering demands, or you reject it and go back into a different world.

AA: David Lynch’s work is another notable example of liminality in film. His stories unfold in between the real and imaginary. Good and evil dwell in a temporally destabilized world that’s familiar yet eerie and other worldly. Theologically, that’s undoing the self and its comfortable patterns. It’s part of the mythic journey as well as the deconstruction we have to go through to mature in Christ.

In horror films, fear of the unknown is taken to an extreme and personified by the monster. Psychological dread is projected as physical threat. In David Cronenberg’s films the deconstruction of the individual is externalized on the skin. In his early films like Rabid and The Brood, the body is infected. Later, in Videodrome and The Fly, technology is the catalyst for a transgression of boundaries. Horror films can be effective in undermining notions of reality. Sometimes, as with Lynch’s Eraser Head, which is rooted in anxieties about fatherhood, horror is a fitting way to point to how much our suffering is self-inflicted.

DA: Another Cronenberg movie that I really like that I don’t hear talked about enough is A History of Violence with Viggo Mortensen. It’s a terrific movie in which the transformation has already taken place off-screen before we meet the character. We meet this very kind café owner in a small town in Indiana. And through a series of unlucky events, his past self emerges through this rather heroic act of violence to save some other people.

And the people from his former life are coming to confront him, because he’s escaped this mobster life in Philadelphia. And he has to confront himself. There is a way in which the whole movie is a liminal space between these two people who are in the same body. The whole movie is about making a resolution. Finding an uneasy resolution with his family about these two forms of himself coming together and reconciling. It’s a really fascinating movie about identity, and it has a lot to do with the way Cronenberg is in tune to the power of liminal spaces.

AA: That was a great film. Cronenberg’s more recent work has moved away from depicting eruptions in the liminality of flesh and towards a naturalism that conceals transgressions. In A History of Violence, the protagonist’s dark past and aggressive inclinations are hidden beneath the skin. The boundaries of his ordered and pleasant life are haunted by a threatening past. The façade of civilized society is thin, easily pierced by the violent disorientation of transgressive acts.

And these are films that challenge us, rather than lull us with what’s comfortable. Even with the Marvel and DC franchises, comic book purists get upset about certain interpretations of their favorite superheroes. They’re invested in preserving an image that doesn’t change, so they can’t accept fluid treatments of identity or narrative. But that’s the nature of experience, and cinema is adept at freeing our perceptions and questioning our worldview.

DA: Fundamentalists are everywhere inside and outside of religion.

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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