Theology + Movies

Ad hoc reflections on cinematic depth

Category: 2012 films

Zero Dark Thirty (dir. Kathryn Bigelow, 2012)

What is the goal of cinema? Should films strive to reproduce reality, or are they illusory manifestations of their auteurs‘ vision? This is, arguably, the classic debate in film theory, eliciting contributions from thinkers as diverse as Sergei Eisenstein, Sigfried Kracauer, André Bazin, and F.E. Sparshott. Of course, one reason why the discussion persists is that it defies easy answers. Recently, in my course on “Theology and Film,” I asked students to weigh in on this question, paying particular attention to a film we had studied during the semester. Many of them chose either Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998) or Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008), and, despite the differences between these two films, they found support for either side of the debate. Sure, Malick’s attention to the natural world suggests a realistic, “open” style of filmmaking, but, then, his well-known use of voiceover is only possible through editing technique (though whether or not that makes it less real is another question). Likewise, Nolan’s employment of special effects, not to mention his embrace of the superhero genre, implies a cinematic experience abstracted from reality; and yet, for all of that, does not The Dark Knight confront a number of pressing “real-world” issues, from the post-9/11 fear of terrorism to the very possibility of absolute moral obligations?

Perhaps, then, this issue was just on my mind when I finally got around to seeing Kathryn Bigelow’s acclaimed Zero Dark Thirty, but I couldn’t help but think of how this film gets to the heart of this theoretical conundrum. The story of the CIA’s attempt to find Osama bin Laden in the wake of 9/11, Zero Dark Thirty is, in a number of respects, an example of cinematic realism. For example, The New Yorker‘s David Denby praises Bigelow’s portrayal of moral ambiguity, noting that Zero Dark Thirty “pays close attention to the way life does work.” And, famously, the film’s depiction of “enhanced interrogation” (what many would simply call “torture”) has divided both critics and filmgoers. The Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Žižek, claims that Zero Dark Thirty is an attempt to “normalize” torture and, in turn, to legitimate the methods of American military power. Yet Andrew Sullivan, formerly of The Daily Beast, views it rather as an exposure of torture and of the tactics of “armchair warriors” such as former Vice President, Dick Cheney. What’s interesting, however, is that all of these perspectives agree on a decisive point — namely, that Bigelow does, in fact, make a film that hews closely to the real, that does, in fact, reproduce life as it actually is, for better or for worse.

But is this true? In other words, is is it not also (or even more) true to say that Zero Dark Thirty has pretensions of being realistic but, in truth, is closer to “movie magic,” a figment of Bigelow’s imagination, translated to the screen with admirable dexterity? Much could be said in favor of this perspective. After all, the film was not shot in Pakistan, where most of it is set, but in Manimajra, India. And, ironically, residents there were said to be excited about the film’s Oscar prospects — a reception quite different from that portrayed on film. But this is only a crude example of a deeper issue, which, I think, hits on the weakness of Zero Dark Thirty. As one critic has complained, the film’s protagonist, “Maya” (Jessica Chastain), is depicted as relentlessly single-minded in her pursuit of bin Laden. Indeed, we are given little information as to her motivation, other than an amorphous sense of anger and revenge. The same could be said of Bigelow’s development of other characters, whether Maya’s fellow CIA agents (including Jason Clarke, in a key role) or the Al-Qaeda operatives they are pursuing.

Surely, however, this is an illusion. History doesn’t just “happen” but, rather, is animated by various ideas and systems, be they economic, political, or theological. Yet, in sidelining such considerations, ostensibly in the name of “realism,” Bigelow fails to do justice to what is really real. Hence, paradoxically, Zero Dark Thirty is not quite as serious as it means to be. It might have explored the curious points of overlap, whether in the East or in the West, between fundamentalism(s) and power; it might have considered moderate political or theological voices; at the very least, it might have offered a clearer rationale for its main players, so that they become more than one-dimensional cutouts. But it doesn’t. Content to stick to the “facts,” Zero Dark Thirty lacks the philosophical substructure that might have made it truly important; it crumbles, finally, under its own weight.

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Beasts of the Southern Wild (dir. Benh Zeitlin, 2012)

Hailed by critics as daring and original, Beasts of the Southern Wild is more like a collage of influences. Director Benh Zeitlin filters an obvious love of Southern literature (a little Twain here, a little Faulkner there) through a narrative and visual style indebted to Terrence Malick. As an Alabama native, currently working on a book on Malick, I assumed that I would love this film. Yet, for the bulk of its running time, I found Beasts of the Southern Wild tough going. Zeitlin’s Louisiana is a place of woozy mythology, not of concrete people, and this tendency renders his characters puzzling at best, inscrutable at worst. Instead of admiring the noble poverty of the inhabitants of the “Bathtub” — a village literally sinking into the brackish waters of the bayou — I found myself distracted by mundane questions: do they have jobs? how are they getting gas in their ramshackle trailers? where does all that beer come from? That Zeitlin seems uninterested in such issues suggests a strong commitment to his aesthetic, albeit one that comes at the viewer’s expense.

Nevertheless, during its last half-hour, Beasts of the Southern Wild crystallizes its narrative and, in the process, casts its allegorical themes into sharper relief. At the center of the action is Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis, in a performance that garnered her an Oscar nomination), a five-year-old girl, who braves the hazards of life in the Bathtub with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry). Oscillating between booze-fueled ferocity and tenderhearted concern, Wink is burdened with a secret: he is dying of an unnamed disease. Indeed, everything around him is dying: residents are fleeing the Bathtub in the face of rising sea-levels, and an entire way of life is in peril. But this is, as the film makes clear, a Darwinian world. The living replace the dying; the strong replace the weak. Just as, in ancient days, great beasts dominated the earth, so might they do so again in an era of climate change. Zeitlin is not afraid to make this more than a metaphor: a herd of mighty aurochs (imagined as immense feral pigs) have been released from melting ice caps, and they loom in the background of the story — an ultimate menace on top of the host of others bearing down on the bayou. In such an environment, Wink is determined to toughen up Hushpuppy. He calls her “man” and “boss,” and he demands that she eat with her bare hands. She is a wild child, fit for a wild world. Only in this way can she survive.

But Zeitlin does not want to end on this note. For, amid such brutality, something strange and unique emerges: the profound bond between father and daughter.  It is here that Beasts of the Southern Wild touches on Christian theology. For Zeitlin, as for Christian thought, the world cannot be reduced to the barbarity of nature. There is something else, something more, in the relation between Hushpuppy and Wink. This is love — a love that not only distinguishes them from the wild, but elevates them above it. Zeitlin illuminates this point in the film’s climactic scene.

As the aurochs barrel toward the Bathtub, threatening her bedridden father, Hushpuppy stands before them, unwilling to let them pass. That the beasts relent is a victory, not over the limitations of nature (Wink does, eventually, die), but over its savagery, its inhumanity. As Hushpuppy’s closing narration implies, love is the legacy of human beings. It is the thing that bestows human identity, the thing that conquers the beasts around us.

The Hunger Games (dir. Gary Ross, 2012)

I am, admittedly, more than a little behind on The Hunger Games phenomenon. I haven’t read the books, and only recently have I seen The Hunger Games — the first of four movies based on the tripartite book series penned by Suzanne Collins (indeed, the second film, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, was released a couple of months ago; the final two installments are set to appear in November 2014 and November 2015 respectively). Given the fiscal success of both the books and the films, it’s hardly a surprise that they have attracted a great deal of attention. I initially supposed, however, that much of this attention had to do with the teen-lovers-in-danger storyline, enhanced for the screen by the attractive and preternaturally talented Jennifer Lawrence. What I was less familiar with was the richness of Collins’ premise, which raises a host of cultural, political, and metaphysical questions.

Set in a post-apocalyptic future, the narrative centers on Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence), who comes to represent her “district” in the annual Hunger Games. Though replete with traditions and nuances, the Games have a single purpose — survival. The contestants (or “Tributes”) are, quite literally, locked into a do-or-die cage match, albeit on a grand scale. They are released into a hostile wilderness, armed (pun intended) with minimal supplies and the knowledge that only one of them will emerge victorious. The rest must die. Meanwhile, the nation watches the events on television, not so much desiring the death of the participants as seeking entertainment. For the loss of a few lives is a small price to pay for the social order achieved by the Games, whose festive pageantry amuses and, so, unites an otherwise divided people.

Collins has acknowledged that her story is, in effect, a translation of the culture of the ancient Roman Colosseum into the modern arena of reality TV. Thus it implies that human beings, no matter their socio-historical location, no matter their technological advancement, will tolerate political subjection and moral corruption if they are granted but two things — panem et circenses. (“bread and circuses”). It is an observation that has been repeated throughout Western history, though it has gained peculiar force in modernity. Søren Kierkegaard’s A Literary Review (1846) argued that the rise of the print media has not enlightened persons, as is often held, but rendered them skeptical, bored, and vicious toward ethico-religious ideals. A few decades later, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (1880) contrasted two versions of happiness — that of Christianity, based on the free yet perilous pursuit of the good, and that of the atheistic state, which would deny human freedom but, in exchange, sate persons with panem et circenses. Neither author, I’m sure, would be surprised at today’s cultural landscape, marked as it is by an excess of information and mindless entertainment. Have we, finally, surrendered our freedom for idle curiosity and material comfort?

It is at this juncture that The Hunger Games points to the thought of another important modern thinker, namely, René Girard. As a cultural anthropologist, Girard is well-known for his study, Violence and the Sacred (1972). As he saw it, human desires are socially conditioned: you want something because you learned to want it; in turn, you come into conflict with others, who want the same thing. Thus tension simmers beneath the surface of human society, always promising to erupt into violence. How can this tension be diminished? According to Girard, it must be done through ritual — that is to say, through a kind of public ceremony, which singles out certain persons as sacrifices (or Tributes!) for the good of the whole. Once these persons have discharged their function, social order is temporalily restored, though the ritual must be repeated if it is to have long-term effect.

For Girard, then, religion is an effective anthropological response to the problem of human violence: its customs bring unity from chaos. Historically, however, it has also committed its fair share of violence, since many rites have involved the sacrifice of animals or even people. With this in mind, the Hunger Games, as portrayed by Collins, can be seen as having a religious function. But there is a catch. In the film’s climactic scene, the Games are brought to a halt, when the love of two characters exposes the contest as a means of unjust violence. In an allusive way, this insight parallels Girard’s understanding of the person of Jesus Christ, whose dedication to the love of God and neighbor stands as a “no” to the violent machinations of society and its religious leaders.

Thus Girard suggests that the sacred cannot be eliminated. In other words, the Hunger Games, despite having no reference to the divine, bear sacral meaning all the same. The question is whether or not persons will accept the violence of ceremonial sacrifice or seek the love embodied by Christ — a nonviolent alternative that opens up the way toward permanent reconciliation.