The Mystical Gaze: How movies help us encounter the transcendent.
Here is an academic theory that every moviegoer can appreciate. The theory of the “look” or “gaze” of the cinema argues that whatever attitude a viewer brings to the screen determines what kind of interaction he or she will have with the film. In recent years cinema scholars have defined all sorts of gazes related to race, color, class, gender and sexual desire.
Those who once loved the 1935 Shirley Temple hit “The Little Colonel,” for example, cannot watch that film in the same way now. Many can barely watch it at all. Since the civil rights movement of the 1960s, viewers see the assumed superiority of a 7-year-old white child over African-American adults in a radically different light.
There are also male, masochistic, abject, colonial, post-colonial and disabled gazes. There is even the “look away,” when one cannot bear to watch what happens next. These looks are not simply personal. They are embedded in us through usage and repetition.
Take, for example, your way of watching a film in which the villain is physically or mentally disabled. With a debt to Shakespeare (“Richard III”) and Victor Hugo (The Hunchback of Notre Dame), the cinema has so taken over this convention that many of us may not even notice when it is used. But think of the implications of such a portrayal and the appalling messages perpetuated by linking evil behavior to physical disability. In recent years Hollywood has come in for critical drubbing for making its baddies not just disabled (think of all the Jekyll & Hyde films, as well as “Dr. Strangelove”) but often homosexual (“The Silence of the Lambs,” “Cruising,” or films where a pedophile character is also gay). If they want to make the characters especially evil, then writers go for the Hollywood trifecta and make them British to boot. Hannibal Lecter—evil, gay and British—take a bow.
In my own research and writing, I have tried to define a new look: the mystical gaze. These days, one of the elements that can be operative in a spectator’s view, whether a film has a religious theme or not, is openness to an encounter with otherness.
Since the late 1960s, organized religions have seen a significant decline in the participation of teenagers and young adults for a variety of reasons. At the same time, these groups, perhaps because they have more disposable income than previous generations, increased their attendance at the cinema. What they saw there also changed. In every year since 1968, beginning with “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the most successful genre films for teenagers and young adults have been fantasy films, in all their wonderful variations.
It is no coincidence that as young people walked away from the liturgical temple, they walked into a celluloid temple that offered them other worlds, other forms of being, altered consciousness, metaphysics, meta-ethics and transcendence in vivid ways. This was not a one-generation phenomenon. The trend has been a constant element in cinema over the last 40 years. People who once expected an encounter with otherness in a church transferred their expectations to the cinema. And some directors exploited such latent openness to mysticism.
Of the top 30 box office films of all time, 23 belong to the fantasy genre, “Avatar,” the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, the “Star Wars” films and “The Dark Knight” among them. And in case you think this phenomenon is only about blockbusters, or that it is a passing fad, here is another figure: The top 20 box office films last year included six science fiction fantasies, one apocalyptic fantasy and one action-hero fantasy. Some of these films are explicitly mystical in style, tone and content.
Mysticism comes from the Greek word muein, meaning “close the lips and eyes.” Christianity defines four types of mysticism. First, apophatic mysticism, into the darkness, where one empties the mind to encounter God; second, kataphatic mysticism, or the mysticism of light, to illuminate a path to God; third, nature mysticism, encountering God through nature; and fourth, personal action, where the encounter with God may lead some to face martyrdom.
The mythic stories of fantasy films often act out one or more of these types—not that a film has to be a fantasy film to be mystical. Take Peter Weir’s film “Witness,” a stunning 1985 police thriller set among the Amish in Lancaster County, Pa. Among the mystical elements in this film, one stands out: the barn raising. Comprised of 34 individual scenes, this powerful sequence starts in silence with the Amish families appearing almost to rise up from the earth to raise a neighbor’s barn from the ground. It finishes with a hymn of thanksgiving as that day’s work is done.
Weir uses three cinematic devices to structure the scene in a “mystical” way. First, the spectator is positioned to see an extraordinary event not just as an eternal observer of the action, but also as a knowing participant. As the community gathers, as love blooms, as personal rivalries begin and the barn is built, the camera places the viewer in an omnipotent position at the center of the action, in an empathetic, participative place to watch an Amish community act out its faith. The idyllic action also embodies key teachings of a host of major religious collectives in regard to communitarian and agrarian beliefs with which many viewers would be sympathetic.
Second, Weir’s camera keeps the viewer focused on John Book (Harrison Ford), the outsider, who through hard work and growing affection for Rachel Lapp (Kelly McGillis) is starting to feel at home within this foreign, religious community. That mirrors the feelings of the viewer. Third, the masterful use of silence and then Maurice Jarre’s stately Quaker-style hymn underscore the ritual elements in the action. As the barn rises as if from nowhere, the music emerges out of silence and grows into a lyrical, fully orchestrated reverie.
For this film Weir uses a story laden with religious overtones, positions the viewer with the outsider coming in, and balances silence and liturgically styled music to enable viewers to feel they are witnessing more than simply a police thriller. Some viewers may have an experience of otherness, of something “more.”
Peter Weir is not the only director whose work has often been described as mystical. The films of Kurosawa, Fellini, Bergman, Hitchcock, Altman, Buñuel, Coppola, Kubrick, Russell, Truffaut and Wertmüller have attracted similar commentary. Even the way some films are marketed sets up an expectation that they will be mystical. The public is told that a film “transports” viewers to different places, times, circumstances, emotions, thoughts or states; you hear that a film “changed my life,” that “time stood still,” that “I know where I was when I saw that film because it had a dramatic impact on my life.” You hear that there are films you will “never forget” or “won’t believe”; films that will “break your heart,” “move you to laughter and tears” and “scare you out of your skin.”
We only have to reflect on the response to “Avatar” to understand that mystical transportation in the cinema is not just about esoteric directors or weighty stories. An explicitly mystical story, “Avatar” constantly positions the viewer to both preside over and be emphatic with the outsider as he is initiated into an eco-spiritual community.
The mystical potential of the cinema arises not just from the hardwiring of the brain, but from the characteristics that movie theaters and churches share, like the play between light and dark; the creation of special spaces wherein both silence and attention are focused, demanded and enforced; the suspension of time (few or no clocks in either place); the reliance on the visual and auditory as entry points into the experience; the deployment and investment of symbols; the public space wherein a private encounter is encouraged; rituals involving food and drink; the establishment of hierarchies of power, of saints, celebrities and stars who live in the world viewers behold and hope to enter.
So what are people encountering when they exercise the mystical gaze? It is clearly not a religious experience in the classical sense, not an encounter with God.
The study of cross-cultural mystical traditions may provide insights into what unchurched Westerners, especially young adults, experience when they flock to these films. Daniel Madigan, S.J., a scholar of Islam, has argued that even if mysticism is an element common to most religious collectives, it cannot be claimed that mystics the world over encounter the same single being or truth. Madigan opines that what they encounter, and what gives mystical experience its diversity and richness, is an experience of believing.
The mystical look of the cinema underlines the belief that we are not alone, that we are connected to something and some others we cannot see, hear and touch. There are things in this world and in other worlds that we struggle to explain but can still experience. These metaphysical realities offer us hope.
In a Western culture often bereft of religious experience, these films initiate the spectator into a world of transcendence, of something greater and more. That is why the cinema is now the mystical temple of our time. As members of a church that wants to talk to the young about this world and the next, we should take the cinema very seriously indeed.