Religion and Film

Cinema and the Re-creation of the World, 2nd Ed.

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S. Brent Plate
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , September
     2017.
     224 pages.
     $30.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780231176750.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

S. Brent Plate’s updated and expanded second edition of Religion and Film arrives as a sort of theodicy to our current aesthetic paradigm: although our daily experience becomes ever more overdetermined by the oft-perceived “evil” of digital images, social media, and the like, Plate’s text vindicates the mythological, ideological and ultimately ethical import of the cinematic experience, addressing its continuing influence as a form of worldbuilding worth much more to society than mere entertainment. Plate’s work explores the affinities between film and religious ritual through extended analogy, interpreting the “cinema [as] a material media practice,” and highlighting how film and ritual both tend to alter our perception of the world through the shared propensity of selecting, framing, and elevating moments in time out of our everyday experiences of them (x, emphasis original). Plate observes how just as rituals reenact myth for the purposes of fostering tradition, identity, and belonging, so too the cinema is capable of building and maintaining worldviews through audiovisual mythologizing (7-8). 

This second edition of Religion and Film is divided into three sections, each oriented toward a different moment in the practice of watching a film: before, during, and after the show. In part 1, Plate examines the opening sequences of Tim Burton’s Big Fish (2003), George Lucas’s Star Wars Episode IV (1977), and the Wachowski Brothers’ The Matrix (1999), highlighting how these films employ mise-en-scène and other nonverbal elements to retell mythological tales about the world, re-creating time and space on the screen. Plate interprets the cinema as a medium on par with religious rituals that perpetuate cosmogonic myths, expressing a deep understanding of the way mythology and ideology are entangled, and paying strict “attention to the ways these stories might maintain oppressive systems of power” (39). 

Plate theorizes film as a three-dimensional medium capable of producing and reproducing mythos across great regional, temporal, and ideological distances. This emphasis on three-dimensionality supports Plate’s central claim that the cinematic screen functions in the same sense as a religious ritual around an altar, bracketing off a piece of reality and thereby producing an alternative reality which is perceived en masse. Plate addresses the spatial elements of film and ritual in the second and third chapters, turning to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso (1988), Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera (1929) and Ron Fricke’s Baraka (1992) as examples of “how space and time in diegetic reality have altered space and time in afilmic reality” (49). 

This relation is explored further through Plate’s explication of sacred space and pilgrimage, comprising the conclusion to part 1. Plate successfully develops how sacred space is both produced and upheld through Haruki Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), commenting on how both films make use of Mircea Eliade’s claim of the universality of the axis mundiin religious as well as secular, urban locales across the world (66). Whereas these films re-create the vertical centers of human society, Plate turns to Ismaël Ferroukhi’s Le Grand Voyage (2004) and Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992) as examples of how film re-creates the horizontal plane of ritualized space through depictions of the Islamic hajj to Mecca. Plate explains how in Ferroukhi’s film, “real scenes from Mecca were spliced with staged scenes filmed in Morocco so that afilmic and diegetic realities converge,” emphasizing how film editing manipulates time and space, folding documentary reality into filmic mythology (85). Spatially, Plate argues, film has the unique capacity to re-create the vertical and horizontal axes that are crucial for maintaining order in the chaos of the cosmos. From Mount Zion, Jerusalem to Mount Zion, Wisconsin, and from computer generated cathedrals to the World Trade Center, Plate concludes that “even in the contemporary city, where the religious space in burned, banished, and brushed out, the sacred specter remains in new forms” (92). 

In part 2, Plate explores phenomenology through what he terms “religious cinematics,” referring to the “bodily movement that is pre- or subconscious, before or beyond rational awareness, as it behaves in the cinematic environment” (99). Plate addresses the spectatorial body during the cinematic experience, making use of both Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s “aesthesiological body” and Antonio Damasio’s discovery of the co-emergence of emotion and rational thought to argue against the Cartesian gaze as a single point perspective often employed in the context of cinema studies (103-104). Plate analyzes how just as “rituals both show and create the sensation of bodily movement,” so too film—most notably horror film—generates visceral reactions in the cinemagoer’s body. Plate not only comments on the common phenomenological features of film and ritual, but also theorizes that horror film in particular functions as a “‘rite of passage’ for contemporary adolescents, analogous to the terrifying initiation rituals of various cultures around the world” (103, 108). Plate makes note of the way William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) “infiltrated afilmic reality, lingering in bodies well after audiences churned back out on the streets” (109). 

This observation leads Plate to examine how images of the grotesque affect bodily perception, focusing on depictions of the real dead body in modern life and in avant gardefilm. 

For Plate, the embalming process renders a dead body akin to a filmic one, a ritual which “buffers the shock of death” (111). Stan Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971) accomplishes just the opposite for Plate; the real dead body is cut into, dissected, and pulled apart in a Pittsburgh morgue, transgressing the social taboo associated with death, while providing a visual commentary on how film (as an Enlightenment technology) reveals mysteries that “become more mysterious, indicating the curious magic upon which [the] Enlightenment, in its elimination of magic, depends” (118). In the closing chapter of section 2, Plate continues his discussion on religious cinematics with a detailed account of the close-up and the face. This section is almost entirely new to the second edition, and is a welcomed inclusion insofar as it embraces a kind of psychoanalytic-cognitivist merger, citing authors such as Kaja Silverman, Stephen J. Gould, Antonio Damasio, and Oliver Sacks on the “biosocial matter” of the face and the ethics of the face on film. 

Plate convincingly explicates the analogous relationship between film and religion with the rigor of a cultural anthropologist and the finesse of a literary theorist, achieving a balance of breadth, depth, and accessibility in this concise volume. Religion and Film takes the reader through Western and non-Western case studies of religious rituals, artifacts, and films, rethinking how cinematic rituals such as those surrounding the 1975 cult film The Rocky Horror Picture Show (which Plate discusses at length in the final chapter, and which is featured on the cover of the book) ought to be culturally and aesthetically considered. For these reasons and others, Plate’s Religion and Film contributes crucially to film theory as much as religious studies, marking a pivotal moment in the humanities in which religiosity, mythology, media, and narratology are once again being revisited in the continued critique of the Enlightenment, Western society, and secular-humanism.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Anthony J. Ballas is a graduate student in English at the University of Colorado, Denver.

Date of Review: 
May 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

S. Brent Plate is a writer, editor, and visiting associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College. His books include Representing Religion in World Cinema: Filmmaking, Mythmaking, Culture Making (2003); Blasphemy: Art That Offends (2006); and A History of Religion in 5½ Objects: Bringing the Spiritual to Its Senses (2014). Plate is also cofounder and managing editor of the journal Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief.

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