WESTERN CONFERENCE ON CHRISTIANITY AND LITERATURE
Religion, Conversion, and the Sublime in Contemporary Film
William Taylor on A Serious Man
The Coen brothers are technically excellent, but controversial and hard to interpret. Mockery? Postmodern detachment? Negative attitude towards religion? Well documented even from their undergraduate days.
[but isn't O Brother... a theodicy????]
But then... A Serious Man. Serious Judaic authorities consulted; real cantor, etc. But “no Jews were harmed in the making of this film.” ! This film reveals itself as the most focused and emphatic of the Coens' rejection of faith.
- Prologue—a 7-minute anecdote entirely in Yiddish with subtitles. It doesn't have “any direct relationship to the story that follows,” Joel claims—but they usually lie in interviews! Based on superstition, tradition, and hearsay. vs. a rational, serious interpretation.
- Parallels to Job—the protagonist experiences a series of tragedies, insists on his own righteousness, and refuses to curse God. But he fails in his righteousness, then receives bad news. Is it punishment for his failure? There is little indication of the happy ending of Job.
- Title—“serious” is equated with “righteous.” Read de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity, where it is not a favorable term. Someone who bases his life and understanding on an external, absolute system. He denies his freedom by placing his confidence in this system. So the term has the opposite meaning to what the characters give it. It is quite negative from the point of view of an existential philosopher.
Mark Safstrom on Nordic Films
Using a Kierkegaardian perspective on Conversion. Why did the Nordic societies transition from the religious awakening of the 19th cent. to the contemporary disinterest in religious participation? Well, take a look at the content of literature and film (instead of at churches). Nordic cultures are not disinterested, but differently interested.
Religious conversion is equated with nonconformity. 1843, Fear and Trembling: story of Abraham. Explores his subjective experience, but also works against Hegel's objective concept of faith. Kierkegaard thought that objectivity had resulted in a dead state religion in Denmark and, indeed, all of Christendom. He thought it was, then, nearly impossible to become a Christian within Christendom, because how could you make the subjective move of faith within a state system? Conversion is a subjective process in which an individual differentiates himself from a group. There can be a move back to the group later.
In the films under discussion, there is a move towards the self. Bergman uses religious imagery as a means of exploring aesthetics vs. ethics, for instance.
The ??? Rebellion. Positions itself as historical research based on a real event. Provides a form of catharsis, inter-racial cooperation, etc. However, the film is still fiction. Religious content is central. Sympathetic view of a pietist movement. The characters' religious conversions help minorities to find their voice and protect themselves against exploitation. However, the preaching is presented like caricature. “The kingdom of heaven is within us all.” The scene is mostly respectful, but still overdone and probably not taken seriously. Yet this subjective conversion does provide grounds for resistance to an oppressive government.
The film reinforces stereotypes. Conversion is valued less for its “ideological content” than for its subjective power. Aesthetics are superior to ethics and religion.
Doug Thorpe on Malick's Tree of Life and McCarthy's The Road
Both explicitly evoke the book of Job. The question of evil is given in poetry and is the poetry itself. The nurturing instinct is joined with suffering. The morning stars sing together in a rhythmic interplay of light and darkness. Both asking if God is there, searching towards Him. Compare to the “American sublime” in the late poetry of Wallace Stevens. These works of art are themselves ceremony. The syntax, the diction, the camera moves all suggest interwoven parts of a seamless whole. Carrying the undying spark of a life-force: human relationship. The “American sublime” was fed upon the landscape and upon the language of the Bible. Both the book and the film are generated by loss. This art is after a divine vision. Memories rise up, and each equals the glory and terror of the stars that sang together. Both end with “the spirituality of reconciliation.” They convey a new knowledge of reality.” (Vendler).