Spaces of Anxiety – Religion and Film
(Poems by Yahia Lababidi)
By Arie Amaya-Akkermans
applicable to love and life
in haiku-like purity:
only freshly squeezed
separation is natural
shake well to enjoy!
in fructose veritas.” Yahia Lababidi, “Truth in Advertising”
Auden writes in 1968 that “Poetry is not magic. In so far as poetry, or any other of the arts, can be said to have an ulterior purpose, it is by telling the truth, to disenchant and disintoxicate”. Then he says that the theory of advertising is the reverse of the theory of poetry, not in juxtaposition, but rather in that advertising is exactly what poetry is not: magic. Yet for us, religion and films – both of which employ poetry – are commonly associated with the effect of magic; the priest and the filmmaker are both magicians, they appeal to our senses with images that yet we do not see: we see the sacraments, the frankincense, the ecstasies, also the cuts, frames and lights; but what is really crucial – the miracle, the resolution, the riddle, the source – remains hidden from us.
“certain words must be earned
just as emotions are suffered
before they can be uttered
– clean as a kept promise.”
But Auden goes on to say: “In all ages the technique of the black magician has been essentially the same. In all spells the words are deprived of their meanings and reduced to syllables or verbal noises. For millions of people today words like communism, capitalism, imperialism, peace, freedom, democracy have ceased to be words, the meaning of which can be inquired into and discussed, and have become right or wrong noises to which the response is as involuntary as a knee reflex”.
How does this differ from and/or is removed from the worlds of religion and film, if this is actually the case? And how do they even meet? The relationship of religion to art is not short of paradoxical at least on two counts: First, art is always secular in because any attempt at representation – symbolic, figurative or abstract, following the historical progression of Hegel – is an essential transgression of the divine; secondly, the technical possibilities of the modern age have radically transformed our relationship to art from mere contemplation to participation.
“In the transition from cathedral, to gallery and then to the streets of everyday life, it is not only the place but also the authority of art that has undergone radical transformation. The authority of art has moved from sacred to secular, and the production of art has blurred the boundary between the unique object and the mass commodity”, in words of Nikos Papastergiadis.
“the cinematic power in a drop of water
crashing against the stomach of a sink
smashing into iridescent pieces
scattering in resplendent shards”
On the other hand, in spite of the status of film as the seventh art, its artistic qualities remain a matter of dispute and not in vain did Badiou write: “After all, cinema is nothing but takes and editing. There’s nothing else”. Many years before him, the great Eisenstein, Soviet filmmaker and theoretician, writes that it is both weird and wonderful to write a pamphlet on something that in reality does not exist, making a reference to cinema and then adds: “Cinema is: so many corporations, such and such turnovers of capitals, so and so many stars, such and such dramas. Cinematography is, first and foremost, montage.” In the view espoused here, there’s nothing to cinema but the configuration aspect of cinematography that is not all necessarily technical, or put in other words, what Maya Deren calls the “controlled accident”.
Deren, an avant-garde filmmaker on her own right, theorizes about the indebtedness of film to so many of the other “purer” arts, in one of the least popular readings in film theory: “The motion-picture medium has an extraordinary range of expression. It has in common with the plastic arts the fact that it is a visual composition projected on a two-dimensional surface; with dance, that it can deal in the arrangement of movement; with theater, that it can create a dramatic intensity of events; with music, that it can compose in the rhythms and phrases of time and can be attended by song and instrument; with poetry, that it can juxtapose images; with literature generally, that it can encompass in its sound track the abstractions available only to language.”
“but, words must not carry
more than they can
it’s not good for their backs
or their reputations.”
Her thread is picked up by Badiou and given a sounder and fully formal argumentation: “Cinema is the seventh art in a very particular sense. It does not add itself to the other six while remaining on the same level as them. Rather, it implies them – cinema is the “plus-one” of the arts. It operates on the other arts, using them as its starting point, in a movement that subtracts them from themselves.” But what Badiou expresses with such matter-of-factness, remains a troubling matter for Deren who wants to rescue cinema from this indebtedness:
“If cinema is to take its place beside the others as a full-fledged art form, it must cease merely to record realities that owe nothing of their actual existence to the film instrument. Instead, it must create a total experience so much out of the very nature of the instrument as to be inseparable from its means. It must relinquish the narrative disciplines it has borrowed from literature and its timid imitation of the causal logic of narrative plots, a form which flowered as a celebration of the earth-bound, step by step concept of time, space and relationship which was part of the primitive materialism of the nineteenth century. Instead, it must develop the vocabulary of filmic images and evolve the syntax of filmic techniques which relate those. It must determine the disciplines inherent in the medium, discover its own structural models, explore the new realms and dimensions accessible to it and so enrich our culture artistically as science has done in its own province.”
This becomes problematic as she dwells on two particular issues that are of concern not only in the filmical sense, but also in the crucial and unexplored relationship of cinema to religion and faith, up to here, a vast unexplored field; as such, the appropriation of reality and the question of the medium. As per Deren, she brings up both themes when she opens her investigation on the nature of cinematography and reality with the use of the camera: “The motion picture camera is perhaps the most paradoxical of all machines, in that it can be at once independently active and infinitely passive. Kodak´s early slogan, “You push the button, it does the rest”, was not an exaggerated advertising claim, and, connected to any simple trigger device, a camera can even take pictures all by itself.”
“what fanciful creators we are:
bestowing shock absorbers on cars
sprinkling tenderizer on meats
and stitching wrinkle-resistant shirts
such wishful thinking, this
gifting what we desire.”
Even though the images of photography can be always be accused of being accidental, and dependent on an existing reality, the film-image is not equivalent to reality or to that reality, because it is already a reflection from another world. For S. Brent Plate, “Films create worlds. They do not passively mimic or directly display what is “out there,” but actively reshape elements of the lived world and twist them in new ways that are projected on screen and given over to an audience.” Maya Deren speaks of the specific arrangements of images in films and urges us to abandon the image as the end-product of the creative process in cinema, in order to see that “The images with which the camera provides him are like fragments of a permanent, incorruptible memory; their individual reality is in no way dependent upon their sequence in actuality, and they can be assembled to compose any of several statements.”
What is it that there is to film if it is not images? “All invention and creation consist primarily of a new relationship between known parts” is the answer of Maya Deren, hinting at a relationship that as previously alluded is not pure – either in the spatial or temporal, but one of fragmented memory. Artaud tells us what it is that happens in cinema: “You will look in vain for a film which is based on purely visual situations, whose action springs from stimuli addressed to the eye only and is founded, so to speak, on the essential qualities of eyesight, untrammeled by psychological and irrelevant complications or by a verbal story expressed in visual terms. The essence of the visual language should be so presented, and the action should be such, that any translation would be out of the question; the visual action should operate on the mind as an immediate intuition.”
If the visual aspect is rendered if not irrelevant, at least of a secondary nature and, the narrative aspect wants to be overcome – at least insofar as it is indebted to other purer forms of art – the purpose of films is ought to be redefined as a form of experience, without the brutal immediacy with which we experience life, but rather as second-hand experience such as that we acquire during a visit to the planetarium: The screen is a telescope with which we are permitted to gaze into distant worlds that might have a different range of emotional or intellectual references for us, but of which we are not allowed to keep anything at all. The crucial relationship between time and space is disfigured and we are left with the experience of films as an act of memory, interrupted as it may be. The crucial aspect is not what is happening but what exactly it feels like and what it means.
“sometimes simply hanging there
airborne abstract art
in open air
great sky whales, now, horse drawn carriages
unpinpointable thought forms,
punctuating the endless sentence of the sky.”
It is precisely here that films and religion are experienced in a similar manner. They are both beyond visual and verbal codes and create whole composite worlds in a way such that a certain desire for visualizing – rather than viewing – is always left incomplete and at the mercy of that which cannot be properly viewed. Faith and filmic language enforce ethics and codes of experience through an assemblage of symbols, but whose real message and intent stand outside of themselves:
“could it be, that from the start,
the thing he sought, this demon-angel,
was always just outside the page”
And then many have spoken since the early days of cinema about the redeeming qualities of films, and redemption comes in many different textures: end of times, end of history, birth and beginning, death and consummation or even tragedy. The implication of redemption is always one not only of religious language but also of a temporal index, and what is religion if not orientation in temporal indexes and the rearrangement of those indexes to transcend, overcome and purify the present from its natural quality to want to crush against our heads with the full weight of past memory and future expectation?
But unlike revealed religions, in which the community is the living entity par excellence of the faith, films are always a solitary epiphany; in the cinema there is no audience as there is in the theater but rather a fragmented group of individuals, such as a book club reading a novel. The revelation of the film is an individual act or calling in which the composite world of images cut over images move toward an infinitely present presence that in reaching the climax of its articulation dissolves upon itself:
“for, whether they dance alone
or with an invisible partner,
every word is a cosmos
dissolving the inarticulate”.
In “The Decay of Cinema”, written over 15 years ago, Susan Sontag tells us something that stands on the way of Deren’s spiritual project: “Each art breeds its fanatics. The love that cinema inspired, however, was special. It was born of the conviction that cinema was an art unlike any other: quintessentially modern; distinctively accessible; poetic and mysterious and erotic and moral – all at the same time. Cinema had apostles. (It was like religion.) Cinema was a crusade. For cinephiles, the movies encapsulated everything. Cinema was both the book of art and the book of life.”
In the same way that the authority of art left the domain of the sacred and jumped into the institutions of the public space, and then, into the public space itself; modern religion underwent the same transformations and crossed the boundaries of the community of faith – once this was dissolved in the traditional sense – and acquired a richer lens in which private religion is translated in a variety of alphabets, unique and personal, individual and perspectival. The book of art and the book of life have become highways and oceans in the topography of the world, and the book of religion among them, another navigation map.
“tell me, have you found a sea
deep enough to swim in
deep enough to drown in
waters to engage you
distract you, keep you
from crossing to the other shore?”
Accordingly, the appearance of newer filmic genres, beyond the experimental – and what theoreticians, not without analytical obsession call first (Hollywood), second (art) and third (political, ethnic, global) cinema, including so-called religious films and films of faith are not willy-nilly appearances on the repertoire of available and accessible realities, but rather, the confirmation that the desire and curiosity for observation and experience – somewhat nullified by the predominance of images bombarding us from everywhere – other than that offered by the world in its bare thingness, has become intensified by a century of cinema and film culture.
In 1953, during a symposium on Poetry and Film, Maya Deren introduces two models of film structure: She describes as horizontal films those associated with drama – and literature – in which one circumstance or action leads to another; in opposition to a vertical film structure, that she calls also poetic, in which images are put on top of one another, digging deep into the ramifications of the moment and exploring the quality of time rather than merely narrating it. Nowadays most films involve a mixture of the two and a variety of technical maneuvers and formats are available to the filmmaker and to the film lover, to appropriate reality and medium in whatever way the book of life, art and religion, he finds suitable.
Films distance themselves more and more from the narrative plots of literature, even in their more commercial versions and no longer aim to bewitch or to entertain only, but rather, want to offer richer edges of reality, the plurality of which is the insurance of the imagination. In that sense, no, there’s no black magic or sorcery in film in the same way after which the truths of faith want to liberate us from the immediate factness of reality, from the rawness, which is neither true nor false. Just like once, God was in the little details, now poetry and truth are in the little frames.
These frames have undeniably infiltrated religion and religion has broken the boundaries between the mere ritual and the experience of the street, both of which are found in films. The faith of film, solitary as it is, is one of the building blocks of the modern experience, and the world, so freely offered through images now has become a smaller and crowded place in which representation and self-representation, once considered the quintessence of secularity, has become one of the most intense forms of prayer:
“the artist prays through attention. I think of my dreams. I think of those times when I fly in my dreams. I think there must be some connection between how I fly in my dreams and this state I sometimes come to in writing when I feel that I am aloft, ecstatic.”