Category Archives: religion

Seven images of Joan

The following seven frames are from Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928). They occur just after Joan has been told that she will not be allowed to attend mass.

There are so many memorable moments in this incredible film that it is hard to pick out any one, but this brief moment caught me emotionally. It seems to exemplify the role that religion so often plays in claiming rights it can only pretend to own.

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>Happy All Saints Eve

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Halloween party in Blarney, Ireland, in 1832 by Daniel Maclise.

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The spiritual disciplines of a married woman

Typically one does not go to Godard seeking a spiritual film. Not that his films are devoid of spiritual concerns (his 1985 film Je vous salue, Marie deals directly with spiritual concerns) but Tarkovsky or Bresson or Kieslowski are more typical choices for spiritual cinema. On the other hand, through a different lens as it were, Godard is a very spiritual director, particularly when it comes to his critiques of modern society. On the surface he catalogs – in his own dry humor – the many phenomena of our strange and extravagant late-industrial culture with all of its gaudy materialism, its objects, and its fetishes. And yet are not his characters often living out their new modern spirituality in a sea of things, words, actions, violence, sex, love, books, images, ideas, advertising, and every other signifier of something other? That something other may, in fact, be faith. The question, then, is what is this modern faith?

Godard’s cinema has always been a cinema de jour. His emerges from the endless world of the now. In this age where “God is dead” the drive within each of us for meaning, and finding that meaning in relation to something outside of ourselves, has not gone away. If we find no God we will make one, and as is always the case, we fashion our gods according to our own needs and desires, and in our own image. We then adopt forms of spiritual disciplines that serve our image of God and the imagined requirements of our new spirituality.

What is a spiritual discipline? There are numerous definitions but, in short, a spiritual discipline is a habit or regular pattern of specific actions repeatedly observed in order to bring one into closer relation to God and to what God desires for one to know. It is something one does as an act of devotion and a means of advancement or growth.

How do we see this playing itself out in Godard’s films? In À bout de souffle (1960), a paean to the Hollywood gangster film, Michel exhibits a kind of ritualistic and constant homage to the film gangster archetype, Humphrey Bogart. He goes through the motions, adopts character traits, tropes, stylistic postures, and language to inhabit the ideal of his film hero. His focus and devotion are fundamentally religious, and his actions play out like spiritual disciplines – immature and humorous at times, but spiritual disciplines nonetheless. What Godard gives us in his unique way is a portrait of the spiritual status of French youth in 1960. In a world where traditional religious options fade they are replaced by a new religion, that of the cinema. In the end Michel dies as a martyr to his faith.

In Une femme mariée: Suite de fragments d’un film tourné en 1964 (1964) Godard presents another kind of spirituality, that of the sexual body in a consumeristic world. Although sexuality is one of the oldest “religions” in human history Godard examines it within a thoroughly modern context. Charlotte, who is married to one man and in love with another, is juggling her relationships while gauging herself against the constant inputs she receives (accepts, seeks) from advertising – in particular, advertisements about female beauty and, especially, those pertaining to the ideal bust. Her life becomes a constant calculation of actions – maybe motions is a better word – to present herself both to the world and to herself. She becomes both priestess and offering at the altar of modern woman.

One scene in the film highlights Charlotte’s commitments. Here she is finishing her bath.

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She meditates (on what we do not know) with perhaps an intelligent expression, perhaps vacuous. She exits the bath. The camera followers her legs. She dries off.

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She then used scissors to trim her leg hair.

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Then trims her already carefully coiffed locks.

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She then trims her pubic hair.

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The camera does not follow the scissors, but we hear them and assume she is not trimming her bellybutton hair.

European films of the 1960s gained a reputation in the U.S. for being risqué. Though tame by today’s standards, to have a woman trim her pubic hair, even if only suggested, would have called attention to itself, and Godard makes sure the camera holds long enough for us to notice. Within the context of the film this shot makes a great deal of sense. Her bathing and grooming, and the calling attention to the details of her actions present to us the actions of her spirituality, her disciplines. This is not a world without a god, rather it is a world of many gods (her husband worships airplanes and is a pilot) and her god is a combination of love, sex, her body, her image as woman, etc. In this quiet moment we are voyeurs to her prayer, to her communion.

More than Godard’s other films of this era Une femme mariée is a highly formalized, stylish, and unusually crafted visual fugue of body parts, actions and gestures, and environments. At times we are drawn toward comparisons with Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928) for its uncompromising formalism and spiritual quest of its protagonist, and to Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) also for its formalism, sexuality and the spiritual struggle of its characters in light of nuclear weapons. Godard takes the next step to characterize the spiritual quest of the modern woman (we should included men as well, though that is sometimes debatable with Godard) as neither traditionally religious/Christian or driven by existential terror, rather the new spirituality is a commodity based religion of self-image mediated through the world of late industrial production and consumerism. What makes this work, and elevates the film, is that Godard’s characters do not suffer the anguish of extreme religious piety or existential nihilism, rather they fully inhabit their world as accepting individuals who embrace the proscriptions of their circumstances – like peasants in medieval Europe, like good 20th century bourgeoisie.

In this way Godard stands as one of the more significant artists of the late modern/post-modern period. Later he would take these themes to greater and more political heights with such films as 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle (1967) and Weekend (1967). Godard, though thoroughly materialistic, may also be a more spiritual director than most – a consideration we do not consider enough.

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Who inherits the earth?


Protesters outside the G20 in Pittsburgh
demanding fundamental change.

Consider these quotes:

“The great and chief end…of men’s uniting into commonwealths and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property.”

~ John Locke, 1689

“But as the necessity of civil government gradually grows up with the acquisition of valuable property, so the principal causes which naturally introduce subordination gradually grow up with the growth of that valuable property.”

~ Adam Smith, 1776

“Till there be property there can be no government, the very end of which is to secure wealth, and to defend the rich from the poor.”

~ Adam Smith, 1776


Pittsburgh police, defending the rich
from the poor at the G20.

If you didn’t know who wrote these words you might think they were from the pen of Karl Marx. Interesting. More substantive than economic systems and their ideologies (and their debates) is the concentration of power and its supporting hegemonies. In other words its all about who inherits the earth and how they keep it. Little do they know…

“Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth. ”

~ Jesus, c. 30

The gentle, or meek, have a different relationship to property and wealth than those who climb over others to make the world their own. It is not that they do not want the world, it is that they recognize having the world for their own is not worth being the kind of person who has no interest in loving others as their primary motivation. To love the world is to give up loving people. It is not a good trade – no matter how free the market. Gaining the world is not worth a lousy character, and no amount of economic ideology can convince otherwise.


Mr. Obama hamming at the G20.

Questions of character are always personal, but what about our institutions of power? We live in a world that places a kind of sacred halo around the idea of private property. We know that the Declaration of Independence almost contained the phrase “life, liberty and the protection of property.” I don’t want anyone to take my home away from me, but I have to think that the ownership of property and all its attendant rights (real or perceived) only gets understood as sacred in a world that has turned its back on truth. The irony is not merely that to gain the whole world is to lose one’s soul, but also to gain one’s soul is to gain the world.

There is that old adage that all governments lie. It is just as true that governments, first and foremost, exist to protect the haves and the things they own. Only secondarily, and usually through great struggle, are benefits secured for the have-nots.

I stand, in spirit, with the protesters who call for change and accountability from our governments and the captains of industry. I stand against the obvious seeking of power and influence for selfish ends. I stand against clearcutting forests and mountain top removal mining, and against the pollution of our air and water, and against insurance companies managing our healthcare, and subsidies to weapons manufacturers and to farmers of vast genetically modified monocultures. And I stand against the use of violence to solve problems, such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (The list can go on and on.) On the other hand, I cannot demand that those in power give up the world, as it were, so that I might have it instead. Though my power and influence is small, I am not morally superior than they. Rather, they must give up the world because it does not belong to them.

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Goodnight September Eleventh

“In a Parish” by Czesław Miłosz, trans. from the Polish by Miłosz and Robert Hass. Read by Haas on Fresh Air on NPR remembering 9/11.

 

Were I not frail and half broken inside I wouldn’t be thinking of them who are like me half broken inside. I would not climb the cemetery hill by the church to get rid of my self pity. Crazy Sophies, Michaels who lost every battle, self-destructive Agathas lie under crosses with their dates of birth and death. And who is going to express them. Their mumblings, weepings, hopes, tears of humiliation in hospital muck and the smell of urine with their weak and contorted limbs and eternity close by, improper indecent like a dollhouse crushed by wheels, like an elephant trampling a beetle, an ocean drowning an island. Our stupidity and childishness do nothing to fit us for this variety of last things. They had no time to grasp anything of their individual lives. Any principiam individuaisonous(ph) nor do I grasp, yet what can I do enclosed all my life in a nutshell trying in vain to become something completely different from what I was. Thus we go down into the earth, my fellow parishioners, with the hope that the trumpet of judgment will call us by our names instead of eternity, greenness and the movement of clouds they rise then thousands of Sophies, Michaels, Matthews, Marias, Agathas, Bartholomews so at last they know why and for what reason.

 

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>Noam Chomsky: The Stony Brook Interviews Part Two

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>Noam Chomsky: The Stony Brook Interviews Part One

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