Ten Questions for Brent Plate on Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-Creation of the World (London: Wallflower Press, 2008; distributed in the United States via Columbia UP)
What inspired you to write Religion and Film? What sparked your interest?
The key inspiration for the book has undoubtedly been my students, first at the University of Vermont, and then Texas Christian University. Students respond to films in ways they don’t respond to standard textbooks. Don’t get me wrong, I continue to be an avid reader (I’m all into short stories these days) and, of course, I wrote a book about films. I continue to have my students read words, but I’ve increasingly felt that these words must be put into dialogue with the fleshed-out realities of life. Films are arguably not “fleshed out” either, at least in their fictionalized guises, but they do register via audio-visual paths that are inaccessible to the experience of reading. I’m now at Hamilton College and finding the same kind of responses from my students.
It is one thing for me to lecture about the Hajj to Mecca as part of an “Intro to Islam” section, but quite another for me to show a breathtaking film like the French/Moroccan production, Le Grand Voyage (director: Ishmael Ferroukhi, 2004). In Ferroukhi’s fictional film we see people, quite average people, in the flesh and working through the same difficulties that all non-Muslims also go through: struggles with families, and particularly father-son relations. What is wonderful about this film is that it is about people who happen to be “Muslims,” and not about “Islam” per se. Part of their lives are oriented around prayers and the Hajj, but they have many other aspects of their lives.
What’s the most important take-home message for readers?
Films and religions are analogous, and we can learn a lot about one through the other. They are like each other because they both create worlds (not just narratives) for their viewers and adherents. They bring viewers/adherents before the screen/altar and offer them glimpses of another world: a promised world, a despised world, or a world in which life consists of myriad choices between one scenario or another.
One of film’s functions is to create alternative worlds and invite its viewers to partake in its audio-visual delights. We experience these worlds through the screen and speakers, before returning—enriched, depressed, enlivened, transformed—to mundane life. Film productions take the known world and re-create it, offering sometimes hopeful and sometimes dreadful glimpses into What If? What if the world is destroyed by global warming/an asteroid/a monster arising from the sea? What if a beautiful woman was actually attracted to an ugly, dumb man without a future? Such activities are analogous to what religions do, particularly through their myths, rituals, and texts: highlight, condemn, praise, or glorify certain ways of being in the world. The blind can be healed, rivers might be goddesses, the dead are potentially resurrected, animals are capable of prophesying to humans, and amulets have the power to ward off evil spirits. Through incantation or special effects anything is possible.
Anything you had to leave out?
Since I was writing this as part of Wallflower’s “Short Cuts” series (all books in the series are no more than 144 pages) I had to leave out a lot. What I still want to write about are specific films such as: Darren Aronofsky’s (director of the recent, The Wrestler) first film, π [pi] which is a brilliant look into the relations between mystical visions and migraine headaches, humanity and artificial intelligence; David Lynch’s The Straight Story, its relations to The Wizard of Oz, and religious understandings of pilgrimage in general; apocalypse and anime, examining the ways Western apocalyptic visions are merged with Eastern visions in Japanese animated films like Neon Genesis Evangelion, Ghost in the Shell, and Akira; and the connection between animated films and hero myths, seeing how fascinating it is that, for instance, Finding Nemo, Shrek, and Princess Mononoke all evoke a quite rigid and classical hero mythical structure.
Ultimately, though this may be a book in itself, is a deeper investigation into what some of us have been terming “visual ethics”: The means by which our ways of seeing have ethical implications. Most humans are born with sight but not the ability to see, that is a learned process. We are trained to see through the visual elements of culture that surround us—from the shape and color of our nursery to the films we watch and rituals we partake in. All of this verges into the realm of the ethical.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?
At this particular moment in history, and in the wake of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, easily the biggest misconception is that a book with an English title like Religion and Film must be about “Christianity and film,” and especially “Jesus” films. I wrote this book to get away from all that (even though I did myself edit a book on Gibson’s film), and even my publishers initially wanted to put an image from Gibson’s film on the cover (luckily they were smart enough and my protests were loud enough to get a much more subdued and relevant cover image). I can’t cease being amazed by how much Christianity and Hollywood have been welded/wedded, especially in the minds of the critics: as if everyone who dies in a film is somehow a “Christ figure.” In the immortal words of Woody Allen, “If Jesus came back today and saw what was going on in his name, he wouldn’t stop throwing up.” It is safe to say that Allen’s comments can be applied to a lot of religious film criticism.
Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?
As with the above point the main audience is, I hope, students. I tried to write this in an accessible way, introducing key themes in religious studies alongside key themes in film studies. I find my home primarily in religious studies, and I’m sure that the book leans in that direction, but I’m pleased that a great film studies press has been interested in publishing it, a press that really has no other religious studies titles in its catalog. There is a wonderful, vibrant, even if still fledging field of “religion and film” that exists, and my book is actually, and somewhat unfortunately, the third book to appear in the last four years with the same title! (Melanie Wright’s wonderful book with the same title came out a couple years ago now, though we are doing some quite different things.)
What I am hoping to see is much more of a convergence between film/cinema studies and religious studies. Most of what goes by the name “religion and film” is firmly situated in religious studies, and the religion scholars are starting to actually take account of all that’s going on in film and motion picture studies, realizing that a film isn’t just about the narrative of a film. It’s great to be in the company of people like John Lyden, Gaye Ortiz, Gordon Lynch, Rob Johnston, Melanie Wright, and others who really realize the difference between a film and a work of literature. At the same time, it is quite unfortunate how little film studies scholars pay attention to religion in any depth, even as many of the major filmmakers of the last hundred years (e.g., Bresson, Buñuel, Ozu, Kurosawa, Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese, et al.) have been quite explicit about the religious dimensions to their work.
Are you hoping to just inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them off?
I’m really hoping to challenge readers to be aware of things they possibly haven’t before: To suggest to film lovers that a great many of the narratives and audio-visual encounters experienced through film are actually deeply embedded in religious mythologies. Likewise, to suggest to scholars and adherents of religion that religion isn’t just a bunch of words and thoughts in the head, but about lived life, images, and sounds (and smells and feelings, etc.), and we might actually get this point better by watching a film then by reading a book.
I hope there is some pleasure in the experience of reading Religion and Film, some recalled evocations of film scenes that people might conjure upon reading. At the same time I hope readers will also be provoked to go and try out some new films. Many of the films I write about have been more or less successful in the box office, though I’ve laced these films with others less successful, and tried to encourage people, along with Netflix, to say, “If you liked this, how about this?”
What alternate title would you give the book?
As usual with academic publishing, the subtitle is usually the better description. But “religion and film” shows up on searches much more clearly, and today we are all bound by “The Search.”
How do you feel about the cover?
As mentioned above, the first cover image the publishers sent to me was a scene from Gibson’s The Passion, and I was in utter despair about this. “It’s everything I didn’t want this book to be!” I pleaded. And Yoram Allon, the director of Wallflower Press and a very astute interpreter of religious film himself, realized this and so the publicity people came up with a different image that I am most happy with. The image on the cover is actually from the amazing—and what I would call “religious”—film Powaqqatsi (dir. Godfrey Reggio, 1989), the second part of Reggio’s “trilogy,” the first being Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and the third, Naqoyqatsi (2002). And while I don’t deal directly with any of these three (another thing for the next book), I do deal with Baraka (1992) which was made by Koyaanisqatsi’s cinematographer Ron Fricke, and so in some ways the affect is similar.
Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?
The book I wish I’d written is part of the next answer…
What’s your next book?
“And for my next trick, see me stand upon a stack of religious history books under my right foot, balancing a fish bowl in one hand, a video camera in the other, and my left foot dangling precipitously in midair….” All Seussing aside, I do sometimes feel like that, and it can be difficult to be taken seriously in any one format, in any one discipline, in any one genre, in any one medium. Honestly, my next book aims to be A Sensual History of Religion. I’m quite fed up with the debates with the neo-atheists (Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, et al.) and the theists, and feel it necessary to interject the sensual basis of religion into the argument. The problem with the “public understanding of religion” (and I would include the important work of Stephen Prothero) is that it is all so cerebrally-based: Either our students know this fact (the names of the four gospels, or they don’t; either the general public believes God acts in this way, or doesn’t). It is all very abstract, cerebral. As I’ve studied and observed religious people in various parts of the world, it is clear that the physical activities form a much more important basis. We are trained, through the senses, to behave and believe. Thus, film, and the arts in general, form a privileged standpoint from which to examine religious traditions.