Monday, June 11, 2018

LARB discuss S. Brent Plate's proposal that cinema plays a "world-building" role comparable to religion

by way of ...
and ...
Plate’s central idea for the analogy between cinema and religion is that of world, or, more specifically, worldmaking. Cinema and religion are analogous ways of composing worlds through symbolic representation and ritualized practices. They both select and frame aspects of social reality in ways that are meaningful — providing communal forms of experience, focusing our attention, and drawing us into an alternative world in light of which our ordinary universe can appear as transfigured or transformed. Plate draws here on the work of other theorists, such as sociologist of religion Peter Berger’s Sacred Canopy (1967). For Berger, human communities create symbolic worlds to provide a sense of order and stability, staving off the threat of “cosmic chaos” through religion, which he describes as a “sacred canopy” providing shelter, meaning, and purpose. This enriched sense of world, however, also needs to be replenished or “re-created,” to use Plate’s term, in order to provide communities with a dynamic, renewable sense of place and purpose in both communal and cosmic senses.

Plate also draws on the work of American philosopher Nelson Goodman, in particular his concept of art and culture as “ways of worldmaking.” Human beings gain knowledge, according to Goodman, by constructing meaningful worlds via symbolic representations and processes of selection, synthesis, and comparison. Art is best defined, he claims, as a practice of “worldmaking” that composes “versions” of symbolic worlds using different media. In this respect, cinema can be understood as a practice of worldmaking that brings about symbolic works using audiovisual images, montage, and post-production techniques. Brent applies this idea to both cinema and religion, arguing by analogy that cinema and religion are ways of worldmaking that not only share many common features, but also mutually illuminate and influence each other.

This might seem surprising to readers, who may assume that popular Hollywood movies have little in common with the rituals of the church, mosque, or synagogue. As Plate argues, however, we gain much by recognizing how both religion and cinema construct symbolic worlds that shape our self-understanding, as well as our sense of place in both natural and cultural universes. Both involve the selection, framing, and organization of a meaningful world, and both require symbols, myths, and ritualized practice for these worlds to be rendered and recreated. Indeed, myths and rituals, for Plate, operate remarkably like films: “they utilize techniques of framing, thus including some themes, objects, and events while excluding others, and they serve to focus the participants’ attention in ways that invite humans into their worlds to become participants.” Both religion and cinema draw on materials already available to us culturally, but synthesize and recreate new worlds through symbol, ritual, and myth to create a sense of communal identity, participation, and belonging.

I wonder if the next, obvious complaint can be that "you are what you eat" can get applied to film.  That's certainly a highbrow default that assumes that if you eat "junk" you will think junk.  But it seems that there's also "how" you eat whatever you eat and it's here that critical theory may not always line up with traditionalist theory.  On the other hand ... there's yet another way to mull these things over, visual thinkers ... those people whose imaginations fire up with excitement at narrative or explanation in visual ways, don't think about things in quite the same way "verbal" people do.  Well, we all think in the same range of possible ways but our preferences vary.  People who "think" in cinematic terms can be constrained by that just as those who pursue complex verbal arguments can founder in other ways.  Despite the possibilities for increased literacy in our age we are also full of


we have a temptation that is ever present to want things distilled cdown to the simplest possible bullet point.  The people who can hijack that weakness of intellectual activity n our era can get a good sized following ... but we should not exactly blame those people who get our attention for a discipline we need to cultivate.   As I have written here in the past, if film critics and moviegoers really feel that there are no new ideas in film anymore that is not necessarily a sign that that is the case, it may just be a sign that they are consuming too much.  There's a proverb in, well, Proverbs, that says that if you like honey eat only what you need and stop there because otherwise if you eat too much you'll get sick.  I think that is a proverb that can be applied to food but also at a broader level to things like the arts. 

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