Hospitable Vision: Some Notes on the Ethics of Seeing Film

Article excerpt

The first exhibition of Impressionist paintings (1874) provoked angry criticism, to which one of the Impressionist painters replied, "You will soon see nature as we do." The power of film might be summarized by a slight revision of that prophetic statement, "You will soon see social arrangements as movies do." Masked by an engaging plot, special effects, and/or visual beauty, film communicates values that are seldom inspected. Yet even if not inspected, cinema has transformed the modern view of reality itself. The televised images of the destruction of the World Trade towers on September 11, 2001 revealed but one way this is evident: viewers watched people fleeing imminent danger down New York streets, and numerous commentators were amazed at how this looked just like the movies, like this was all some horrible remake of Godzilla or Armageddon. For many, these events were impossible to see apart from the mediations of movies. On a more banal level, visitors to the Philadelphia Museum of Art can find foot prints from Rocky at the top of the great stairway leading to the entrance. Never mind that "Rocky" was the eponymous, fictional character from a film--a character that very truly has no footprints--people from all over the world have taken their pictures alongside these footprints. Because of this remaking of social life, some attention to these filmic reconstructions is worth our time if we are interested in ethical engagement with the world.

Responding to some of the crucial social reorientations that film has enacted in our modern lives, in this essay we hope to highlight three aspects of the religious and ethical approach to film: first, to argue that we must pay attention to the relation between the world on-screen and off-screen, that there can never be a strict delineation of the "real world" from that of film. Second, as a way to think more fully about the specificities of an ethical film criticism, we advocate the necessity of moving beyond narrative analyses of film (treating a movie as just another story) toward more explicitly visual analyses. Finally, we lay out some suggestions for the cultivation of a critical practice of what we will call a "hospitable vision," a mode of viewing film that opens up space for otherness.

From Reel to Real

In Cultural Studies as Critical Theory, Ben Agger criticizes the kind of cultural studies that depoliticizes popular culture, failing to interrogate popular culture's connections with the public sphere. Agger argues persuasively that "because culture matters so much...it deserves full critical attention."(1) Study of popular culture he wrote, should aim at "debunking the stimulations bombarding [people] from every direction," seeking instead "a more stable ground of value from which to engage in dehierarchizing cultural and political practices."(2) The task of religion and film studies could not be put more succinctly. Studies of religion and film should investigate the quintessentially religious questions: How should we live? What values actually direct our everyday choices in the public world? How are these values circulated? And, are they compatible with religious values?

In just over one hundred years, film has become a powerful force in modern life that changes the way we think about, interpret, and live in the world. Because of this alteration of the ways we literally see the world, critical attention to film becomes a vital task for those engaged with issues of religion and ethics, and concerned with more equitable social arrangements. Attention to Hollywood movies with large box office success and independent movies with wide circulation enables analysis of the values circulating through American society. Art and avant-garde films may be more interesting to film critics than popular movies, but to the extent that these films defy Hollywood conventions, they do not attract large audiences and thus cannot be thought of as circulating values to large and diverse American audiences. …