Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Apocalyptic Cinema

I've been thinking about my love of movies while writing a paper on theology and the recent film Snowpiercer (one of my favorites of 2014). While my family regularly watched many of the great blockbuster movies like Star Wars, Jurassic Park, and Indiana Jones, by the age of 15 or so, I fell in love with the "Art House" section of my local video rental store (R.I.P.). My cinematic world thus opened out beyond the action-packed movies that I was raised on and into an often grittier, challenging, more subtle, and...well, "artsy" style of film. Visiting the rental store rather often - sometimes multiple times a week - I discovered some of the great directors of the last few decades:
David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick, The Coen Brothers, Gus Van Sant, Daren Aronofsky, Lars von Trier, Sam Mendes, Quentin Tarantino, Sofia Coppola, Paul Thomas Anderson, Michel Gondry, Terrence Malick, David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, and Wes Anderson.

While a few friends and family members enjoyed these kinds of films as well, I often found myself watching them alone. Unlike your average Hollywood action movie or romantic comedy (genres I do not completely dislike!), these art films were particularly attractive to me because of my thirst for meaning, provocation, beauty, and depth of experience. But despite their ability to engage me in all of these ways, they were also sometimes disturbing, frustrating, and exhausting - even depressing. Many of the above directors flirt with nihilism and most of them raise deeply uncomfortable questions about human (and divine) existence. Nevertheless, while I located myself within evangelicalism until my early 20s, art house cinema provided me with numerous challenges and inspirations beyond the boundaries of my sometimes suffocating church experiences. These experiences have made me very sympathetic to (though not quite convinced by) Mark Lewis Taylor's claim that art will be our salvation as religion fades, as well as my own professor Robert Corrington's argument that we should leave religion behind for aesthetics.

The arts have apocalyptic potential. They can dis-close novelty, surprising us, interrupting us with flashes of light and darkness, beauty and tragedy, love and death - and so many confusing spaces between. No, this kind of art does not appeal to everyone. Our culture of reality television, Justin Bieber pop, and global capitalist consumerism thrives on overstimulating distractions and quick fixes. It shapes bodies in ways that make many of us resistant to the kind of vulnerability, patience, and attention required for truly transformative art. Art won't solve the world's problems. No, it will not. But it does have the power to shift consciousness, to deconstruct certainties, and to release new possibilities in our lives.

As I look back on certain stand-out films for me over the last 15 years, I recognize that movies have indeed played a decisive role in the development of my philosophical and theological curiosities. Rarely do I write on theology without relating my work in some way to the movies that have shaped my imagination over the years. Here's just a small list of relatively recent movies that have particularly influenced my thinking, especially in terms of their ability to raise theological questions:
  1. No Country For Old Men (The Coen Bros)
  2. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)
  3. Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin)
  4. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson)
  5. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola)
  6. The Matrix (Wachowskis)
  7. Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky)
  8. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry)
  9. Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick)
  10. American Beauty (Sam Mendes)

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