Looking For Answers at the Oscars: A Guide to This Year’s Contenders

Religions have long trafficked in basic human questions: Where did we come from? Where are we going? And, most potently, Who am I? Where tradition turned for answers to vision quests and pilgrimages, to rituals and sacred writings, our modern mass-mediated age offers a new text for exegesis: the movies.

The films under consideration last year (the class of 2009) reflected a broad unease about the future status of Homo sapiens as a species. Humans were threatened with apocalyptic extinction (The Road, Terminator Salvation, 2012, 9), and/or with becoming something other than human: Na’vi (Avatar), “prawns” (District 9), fish (Ponyo), frogs (The Princess and the Frog), or zombies (Zombieland). The humans we praised needed to be somehow super-human (Watchmen), or fulfillers of fantasy (Inglorious Basterds). Theologically these extra-human cinematic speculations challenged the idea of what it means to be made in the “image of God.” If the species is no longer what it used to be, what happens to that special relationship with a Creator God claimed by monotheists?  

The top films for 2010—especially those up for this Sunday’s awards—leave most of the species-specific questions behind. Instead, this year’s crop reflects anxieties (as well as promises) about who we are and who we might be becoming in and as humans, in our own skins—never mind the “prawns” or “Na’vi.” 

Questions provoked by this year’s films include those concerning the nature of our selves in connection and collision with our families, our larger social institutional entanglements, and our own bodies. The other key theme, affecting each of the others, had to do with the ways new media technology is inserting itself into our intimate lives, and changing our identities, both public and private.

The Technological Self 

Because new media technology is the current greatest challenge to who we think we are, Time magazine chose Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as the 2010 Person of the Year. Managing editor Richard Stengel justifies the choice by relating the impact of the social network on our lives: “Our sense of identity is more variable, while our sense of privacy is expanding. What was once considered intimate is now shared among millions with a keystroke.” Stengel further suggests that “the way we connect with one another and with the institutions in our lives is evolving.”

Who we are, how we relate to others, and our places within larger social structures are going through a profound shift in light of the technologies of new media—but also in social institutions at all levels. Pope Benedict XVI apparently agrees, (as noted in these pages by Elizabeth Drescher last month) and has stated recently, “I would like then to invite Christians, confidently and with an informed and responsible creativity, to join the network of relationships which the digital era has made possible.”

As if Zuckerberg’s kudos from Time weren’t enough, one of the year’s top films made him a hero (of sorts). David Fincher’s The Social Network tells a creation story, a cosmogony of 500 million networked beings. And while the story is about the birth of an evolving sense of shared and sharing identities, it is also a ritualistic coming-of-age story in which young Zuckerberg becomes a man through rites of passage. These are peculiar rites to be sure, even as they mimic broad structures of separation, transition, and reincorporation found in initiation rites the world over.

From Face-to-Face to Interface

Reviewing the film in the New York Times, Manohla Dargis tells us, “instead of discovering his authentic self, Mark builds a database, turning his life—and ours—into zeroes and ones, which is what makes it also a story about the human soul.” The private world becomes public in the new technological rituals of logging in and connecting. In the good old days humans formed friendships face to face, and sometimes communication technologies facilitated that friendship (a letter, a phone call). In the new age the structure is reversed as friendships are built upon those very communication technologies. We are now databases, plugged into a network. Face-to-face friendships have become interface friendships.  

A more ethereal ethernet was evoked in Inception. Here too people are linked to each other through a social network, and here too identities are tinkered with. In light of the film, Stephen Holden suggests, “we are becoming mobile power stations increasingly controlled by the technology we attach to our bodies.” However, Inception was not fundamentally about technology, though CGI Paris-bending drew the crowd. The special effects were there to plant an idea in our own bodies, to tell us this film is about the same thing all Christopher Nolan’s films are about: memory, and the ways the past rises up to grab us in the current moment and remind us of who we are. It is memory that makes us, supplies us with identity, even (perhaps especially) when those memories are traumatic. “Bruce Wayne,” “Leonard,” “Robert Angier,” and “Cobb”—key protagonists in Nolan’s films over the past decade—are each haunted by a memory; in three of the four cases the memory is that of the death of a wife. The memory-deficient Leonard, in Nolan’s breakout hit Memento, doesn’t know who he is because he cannot remember, and takes to inscribing mementos on his body. In Inception, Cobb is obsessed by the memory of his wife and children, and he cannot move ahead until he re-members and embodies his past.

Families: Public and Private 

Not all the identity stories were high-tech. Expanded views of family relations—who we are as sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, brother and sisters—and how we struggle to get along in these roles, were highlighted in The Kids are All Right and The Fighter. The Kids… is about a lesbian couple and their children, a group of people getting on with their lives and the real challenges of living and loving as a family, no matter how that family is created. The film lets us in on the well-known secret that who we are is comprised in large part by the family we belong to, for better or worse. Writer/Director Lisa Cholodenko makes a subtle-but-strong argument for the bonds of nurture over those of nature—that who we are is a product of our most intimate relations and not that of biological or political forces. The sheer absence of Proposition 8 in a 2010 film set solidly in Los Angeles was striking: legally or not, Nic and Jules are married. David O. Russell’s The Fighter also tugged at our familial and friendly bonds by questioning the idea of loyalty. The emotional drama exists in the tension between siblings—half-brothers, sisters—yet the drama reaches a pinnacle when Micky Ward’s own identity is torn between his private/family life and his identity in front of a public.  

The tensions between private identity and public identity are perhaps most apparent in the pre-internet period drama The King’s Speech. On the internet no one knows you stammer; in front of a microphone it’s something else. Even so, identity evolves not only with internet-based social media, but also through earlier forms of media. The radio was the new medium of the day, and radio broadcasts play the role in The King’s Speech that computers do in The Social Network. As in so many of this year’s films, Prince Albert/King George VI must confront his past, relatively-hidden identity to become someone other than he is: the King and public voice of one of the world’s greatest empires.

Finally, Black Swan just messed with all of it. Natalie Portman stuns in a decentered, ego-less series of doppelganging adventures. The film portends that she who is too determined in the quest for a specific (perfected) identity will surely end up losing it (or perhaps she did find it). Between head and heart, and drawn and quartered by director, colleague, mother, and own self, ballerina Nina Sayers’ real self is scarcely distinguishable from her dream self—but no high-tech Inception-like tricks are needed. In the end, there is no self to be seen, as it is ripped apart by the tension between private and public life. Perfection is achieved when external pressures mesh with internal urges.

Puncturing a Modern Myth

Through this year’s batch of films, human identities interface with technology, are lost, confused, mixed up between surface and depth, public and private, between who we are by ourselves and who we are in relation to others. 

Against the modern myth that we are all individuals, these movies tell us that who we are is determined by social, political, familial, and technological forces, most of which are well beyond our individual control. Yet, with a variable sense of identity forming in and through our high- and low-tech social networks, a key, prime question of religion—who are we?—is put in play in new ways.

We are left wondering how religious traditions themselves will become more variable as they work, consciously or not, with new media technologies, new formations of family, and new divisions between public and private. Whatever else our variable identities might produce, it is a time of new and potentially reinvigorating “interface” relations.

S. Brent Plate is visiting associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College. His recent books include Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-Creation of the World and Blasphemy: Art that Offends. His most recent book is A History of Religion in 5 1/2 Objects, from Beacon Press. He is co-founder and managing editor of Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief.