CHAPTER 8: The Religious Shines Through: Religious Remnants and Resurgences in 90s Cinema

By Moser, Walter | Postmodern Studies, January 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

CHAPTER 8: The Religious Shines Through: Religious Remnants and Resurgences in 90s Cinema


Moser, Walter, Postmodern Studies


In my research on the 'return of the baroque' and on the neo-baroque in contemporary culture, I have come across what I consider to be a cinematic subgenre that was particularly popular during the 1990s. This sub-genre revolves around one specific question: "What is real?" and it uses the whole arsenal of commercial cinema: a storyline, a plot, fictional characters, special effects, action, violence, melodramatic moments, numerous props and the most advanced technologies in film making, and usually some kind of satisfying, if not happy, ending which, however, falls short of offering a clear-cut answer to the central question. But all this is not without immersing the spectator, alongside the protagonist, in labyrinthine uncertainties about what is real. Surprisingly, in this mass media genre, we can find reproduced basic features of the historic baroque aesthetics that was already working with an unsettling number of levels of reality.

I am using the term 'ontological instabilities' to identify one of the key elements of this sub-genre and which, to a certain extent, determines its aesthetics. Movies belonging to this sub-genre engage in a neo-baroque obsession with levels of reality that, at their core, are concerned with ontological instabilities. They artfully1 produce a complex and intricate set of possible yet contradictory answers to the central question. In their plot structure they deliberately multiply layers of reality, or different and conflicting subjective perceptions of what we might believe to be real. They generate a proliferation of binary choices, such as between illusion and reality, appearance and reality, falsehood and authenticity, seeming and being (Schein und Sein), waking and dreaming, role playing and real identity, and so on. Interestingly, this cinematic sub-genre, belonging to the commercial cinema, and therefore part of the 'cultural industry' that-according to some of its critics-is supposed to have as its key mandate to entertain/manipulate while yielding profits, stages in narrative and dramatic manners one of the fundamental questions about our being in the world. Thus, I argue that there is more than just entertainment and profit making in these movies. It is the very process of reality construction-a socially essential process-that is at stake. I shall approach this question focusing on its religious dimension, important in the historic baroque and re-emerging in some neo-baroque movies dealing with constructing reality.

This sub-genre (re)emerged in the 1990s with the utmost urgency and intensity. To substantiate this affirmation, here is a list of some of the most successful films belonging to it:

Total Recall (Peter Verhoeven, 1990- USA)

Strange Days (Kathryn Bigelow, 1995-USA

Abre los Ojos (Open Your Eyes, Alejandro Amenábar, 1997-Spain/France/ Italy)2

Pleasantville (Gary Ross, 1998-USA)

Dark City (Alex Proyas, 1998-Australia/uSA)

The Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1998-USA)

eXistenZ (David Cronenberg, 1999- Canada/France/Great Britain)

The Matrix (Wachowski and Wachowski, 1999-USA)

The sub-genre lives on, for instance, as Christopher Nolan's more recent film Inception (2010) shows. In Nolan's typical style, this movie succeeds in complexifying and even exacerbating the central question.

In order to approach these cultural artefacts in the historical context of a 'return of the baroque' and within neo-baroque aesthetics, two preliminary developments are necessary: one on the contribution of mass media to the question 'what is real?', and the second on historical crises of reality construction that will be considered here as concomitant with the aesthetic response they give rise to, both in baroque and in neo-baroque cultural productions.

Mass Media and Reality Constructions

In his 1995 book The Reality of the Mass Media, the German sociologist and promoter of systems theory Niklas Luhmann links questions of reality constructions with mass media. …

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CHAPTER 8: The Religious Shines Through: Religious Remnants and Resurgences in 90s Cinema
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