We are excited to present the first in our 2016 series considering how our watching, writing, and talking about cinema might contribute to God's unfolding shalom in our communities and world. If you are considering responding to our call for submissions for this series, we encourage you to do so. Michael Leary's article below is a perfect example of the kind of intelligent, thoughtful, practical, challenging, and hopeful writing we are looking for in this series. - Editor
The Bazin Option: Cinema and Theology for Cities in Exile
There are a lot of options today for the Christian thinking about how daily life, church, and culture intersect. Rod Dreher has talked about the Benedict Option, which leans with a weighty monastic heritage toward intentional, somewhat isolated communities. In such communities, we recover and shelter a moral dignity from the collapse of Western civilization around us. The Jeremiah Option argues against this communal withdrawal with a vision of actively flourishing within exile. Think: farmer’s markets by the rivers of Babylon. The Dominican Option inspires one to live an active life of contrast with prevailing patterns of society, exemplified by the simple, evangelistic media ecology of the Dominican habit. The Patrick Option desires to contextualize the grace and peace of God for deeply broken societies. And there are additional options, like those of Hunter, Hauerwas, Kuyper, or Cone.
The more specific conversation about Christian theology and the contemporary arts falls somewhere within this constellation of paradigms, which is more a map than a spectrum. Our exchange of ideas ranges across these regions, often resulting in what amounts to esoteric border skirmishes. The proliferation of conversation about theology and the arts in social media and multiple online publications has certainly advanced the cause of aesthetic contemplation as a politically and doctrinally constructive Christian discipline. But examples of actual praxis, the movement from idea to a corresponding local presence or activity, have not advanced at the same pace.
This disconnection is also present in conversation occurring among those interested in cinema and television as a space for cultural interaction. We use a wide range of terms like engagement, reflection, dialogue, exposure, or criticism for whatever happens when we speak of theology and visual media within the same discourse. But these terms tend to hold the provocative tensions between theology and the arts at arm’s length. If we dig more deeply in the literature on cinema and theology, we run across more challenging images of this relationship in terms of “sculpting in culture,” “a phenomenology of salvation and grace,” or “a devotional form.”
A current challenge for the theology and cinema conversation is the development of similarly rich critical vocabularies, particularly when they are able to connect the theoretical with a boots-on-the-ground vision of what cinema means in local contexts. We must finally move beyond the idea that the movies are an index of sermon illustrations to comprehend the wild, liberating presence of cinema in modern history as a stage for conversations about God’s redemptive presence in the world.
That being said, this is a conversation about options. I would like to suggest that it is possible to move from these promising theoretical problems to some kind of creative praxis by means of the Bazin Option. In the list of options above, most emerge from within the history of Christianity as proven rhythms of life, which makes them worthy of consideration as more than mere proposals. A similar wisdom leads us to a crucial era of film history and the young André Bazin rediscovering the magic of cinema in occupied Paris during World War II.
The Bazin Option
We first see the Bazin Option in action during the occupation of Paris of the 1940s. The vibrant city had come to a grinding halt under curfews, censorship, and the rationing of food and gasoline.*
As a young Catholic, André Bazin was deeply aggrieved by the ease with which French cultural institutions simply accommodated German authority. He took refuge during the first years of the occupation with groups of other intellectuals and aesthetes dismayed by such dramatic ideological laziness. This was the heart of liberté, after all. For Bazin, this initial resistance took shape in contributing to Catholic journals or magazines in circulation prior to the war. But such venues were closely monitored by the military administration and most were eventually shuttered or moved south until the end of the war.
Coincidentally enough, one of his closest friends chose the Dominican Option in 1941, which struck Bazin as a betrayal of the immediate need for social action in Paris. It took him a about a year after this perceived defection for Bazin to regain his footing, but we see him resurface in 1942 to help organize the Maison des Letters, a quasi-academic space for conversation about arts and literature that also later served as a base for the French Resistance.
It was here that Bazin discovered the cinema, which at the time was not considered an art worthy of real intellectual reflection. Film had briefly been a topic of serious academic conversation. But when the technology of synchronizing sound with film became available, the medium was quickly disregarded as just a popular spectacle – like the circus or vaudeville. Bazin’s discovery of the artfulness of this cinema—like other fine arts, to be experienced, digested, and considered—is a bit of a eureka moment. He realized “the collapse of the ciné-clubs and magazines, when intellectuals deserted the cinema after the arrival of sound, is a disaster which must be reversed and, almost single-handedly, Bazin sets out to do so.” (McCabe, 61)
This interest grew into a small ciné-clubs where Bazin would screen the few 8mm prints he could find, as any non-German films had been relegated to black markets or camera shop owners who had hidden what they could from widespread Nazi confiscation. Andrews’ famous description of Bazin in his biography is a wonderfully ramshackle image of this cultural presence. “Bazin used to bicycle from shop to shop, begging and renting silent films and projectors.” (Andrews, 46) It is easy to imagine him clumsily pedaling down the Boulevard Saint-Michel, secreting a film canister beneath his arm. He would project these prints in private apartments and attics, the audience growing over time.
Eventually this club grew to fill the much larger Studio des Ursulines (which is still there right off Rue Saint-Jacques, south of the Sorbonne). One could find people like Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and a young Alain Resnais in the audience. The theater would be raided at times, its audience spilling out the back while authorities seized the evening’s print. But the audiences would return for whatever Bazin and his collaborators had managed to secure for the next screening. In these screenings, Bazin essentially re-discovered a cinema that had been lost in the cultural shuffle of the transition of film to sound in a city whose culture had been further exiled by the German occupation. He then made this cinema a matter of pop culture, a center of conversation for people otherwise disconnected from their own art.
Bazin had struggled his entire life to find a way to integrate his many different academic interests, even to the point of abandoning his studies at the Sorbonne. The cinema provided this spiritual and intellectual center – and a base from which to think deeply about the relationships between art, culture, and history. While at this point in Bazin’s story many of his friends and colleagues became members of the Resistance movement, he turned instead toward writing. His prolific, utterly innovative reflection on a wide range of films during the next decade secured his legacy as a founder of what we now consider film criticism. He went on to inspire ciné-clubs everywhere from Germany to North Africa, all while writing for popular readership in a few of the most widely circulating publications of his era.
Exercising The Option
With this brief biography in mind, here are a few practical things we can do to explore the Bazin Option:
1. Make ciné-clubs.
The centerpiece of any account of Bazin’s work is the space he created to share the films he found with other people. This was as simple as finding a film in reasonably good condition, a projector, and a place with a bunch of chairs. An instant culture appeared, just add cinema, of people collectively drawn toward the theater as a refuge from German censorship.
Even if we cannot map a Parisian cultural exile onto the types of cultural decline or disparity we experience today, this example of culture-making remains instructive. Many have access to a local art-house, university film series, or annual film festival. But these venues have their limitations. Due to industry cycles, their programming is often tied to the mainstream or limited to a small set of films popular on the festival circuit. The Public Cinema, curated by Darren Hughes and Paul Harrill is a good, alternative example of the Bazin Option in action.
This ongoing program hosts screenings selected from the cutting edge of global cinema in a variety of spaces around Knoxville. This is made possible through the relationships Hughes and Harrill have built in the industry as film critic and filmmaker, respectively. But it is an excellent example of Bazin’s impulse to make challenging, inaccessible films available for local audiences attuned to the explanatory power of cinema.
2. Establish a jury prize.
The Midrash St. Louis Filmmaker Award awards a cash prize at the St. Louis International Film Festival to a local filmmaker each year. It is a chance to take stock of the state of filmmaking in our city and appreciate attempts to think about our deepest conflicts and anxieties in cinema terms. This is a very simple and direct way to help develop film culture in your city.
A mechanism to identify and award local filmmakers can also help cultivate deeper social imaginations, which is the kind of narrative education for which cinema is uniquely suited. In 2011, we presented the award to The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, a documentary about the dramatic failure of public housing in north St. Louis from the 1950s to 70s. It artfully tracks the genesis of white flight in St. Louis and its effect on the social and economic development of our city. After the festival, we held several discussions about the film. In the following months, I attended Pruitt-Igoe Myth screenings around the area. A few of these were hosted and attended by St. Louisans present for the events of the documentary.
It was a remarkable cultural moment for our city. Archival footage in the documentary confronted us with the explicit racism of prior generations. Its simple historical argument rang true. Even though this was back in 2011, I recall audiences fearfully describing what it might take for St. Louis to accept its own historical reality and work toward a restorative civic polity. Older white audience members would shake their heads ruefully during the film’s reproduction of their parent’s racism. Something dramatic would need to happen, they would claim. It was clear we needed a catalyst for change. The Pruitt-Igoe Myth made this eminently clear.
And something terribly dramatic did happen, with the death of Michael Brown in 2014. The riots and failures of empathy that followed took many by surprise. But if we had been listening to our artists, poets, musicians, and filmmakers, we would have already been well-versed in the profound racial injustices revealed by this entire complex of events. We would have had better vocabulary to articulate terms of renewal. Fortunately, we have discovered in subsequent juries a similarly prophetic vein of work taking place in our city. Local cinema remains one of our most constructive avenues for conversation about humanity and justice in St. Louis.
3. Change the boundaries of conversation.
Bazin’s legacy is largely born out of popularizing cinema as a space for political and spiritual self-discovery, but he had much to say theoretically about cinema as well. Leaving aside the more technical aspects of his film theory, this aspect of his work can be directly felt in the kinds of films he enjoyed watching.
Before Bazin, it was not at all customary to treat popular films, especially Hollywood genre cinema, as occasions for serious reflection on the nature of the human condition. But as he championed then-unappreciated filmmakers like Welles, Hitchcock, Wyler, and Chaplin, the boundaries of critical conversation shifted. There is a seismic movement in post-war filmwriting to eradicate high/low cultural distinctions, and by the time you get to the end of one of Bazin’s film reviews, you can feel it. You sense the depth of beauty and humanity in the films which captured his theoretical and theological imagination.
Any theological justification for cinema appreciation must begin with this idea that all of our expressions and gestures, even if presented as entertainment, are a material record of our desire for self-disclosure and liberation.
The Uneasy Conscience of Christian Film Culture
More could be said here of a practical nature about writing as a cultural discipline, the film festival curator as a sort of redemptive pioneer, aesthetics as a pastoral vocation, and similar lessons to be learned from Bazin’s biography. His work and friendship inspired a generation of filmmaking that would become known as the French New Wave. But these three patterns of engagement provide vivid, practical directions for rethinking how Christian practice, public discourse, and cinema appreciation relate.
In Bazin’s case, this option as a paradigm for action becomes discernible against a historical backdrop of cultural exile. Imagine attending one of these screenings in occupied Paris. The theater is dark. A scratchy print of a Buster Keaton film sputters into life. You are tense, because the aisles could fill with German soldiers at any minute, given their special hatred of Buster Keaton films. But you enjoy Keaton and are drawn into his comic sorrow. He bears the weight of modernity well.
So, with Bazin, we can we think of the arts as both a provocation and a refuge for our cities. The Bazin Option is not intended to be a comprehensive model of Christian engagement with society. In fact, it can be fairly easily plugged into several different, more fundamentally descriptive models of church and culture. It is more an impulse for discovery, a desire to communicate and share, and a readiness to think of culture in local terms.
* For a vivid account of artists and writers in Paris during the occupation, see Alan Riding, And The Show Went On: Cultural life in Nazi-occupied Paris. New York: Knopf. 2011.
Michael Leary is a professor, author, and contributor to books on bible, cinema, and theology, including a chapter in the forthcoming Dreams, Doubt, and Dread: The Spiritual in Film. His Alternative History of Jesus: A Christology of Contemporary Cinema and Art is forthcoming from Cascade Press. He is also a Research Ethicist at Washington University in St. Louis, and host of a popular podcast on research ethics in emerging sciences.