Related to kinesis, Greek for movement, the word cinema resonates with the beginnings described at the start of the Bible. In the first chapter of Genesis we read, “And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” According to Hebrew scholar Brian Smith, the verb translated as “moved” occurs only three times in the Hebrew Bible: Genesis 1:2, Deuteronomy 32:11, and Jeremiah 23:9. The word denotes “hovering”: not a “big sweeping movement,” but more like a “subtle, fluttering movement of a bird pulling up just as she is about to land on her nest.”1 The idea of “fluttering” has special resonance with the “flickering” of celluloid through a projector at cinema’s beginnings. Adding to that resonance is the next verse from Genesis: “And God said, ‘Let there be light: and there was light.’” The moment of creation combines movement, light, image, and the spoken word: basic components of narrative cinema. But that is not all: “God saw the light, that it was good” (v. 4a). God’s act of seeing, repeated seven times in the first chapter of Genesis, is essential to the work of creation. Similarly, the act of seeing is essential to the creative work of cinema, to the recognition of what is good.
The Psalms, as well, present evidence of creation in terms of what we see:
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
And the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
And night to night declares knowledge. (19: 1-2)
The Psalmist, here, may have been thinking of the constellations mentioned in the book of Job (9:9; 38:31-32). Then as now, humans look to the heavens and see constellations of stars that make pictures: images that move across the screen of the night sky.
Significantly, when the Psalmist exults in the patterns of the skies, he notes they need “no speech” because beauty is its own “voice,” one that “goes out through all the earth”:
There is no speech, nor are there words;
Their voice is not heard;
Yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
And their words to the end of the world. (19:3-4)
Something similar could be said about a well-crafted film: it goes out through all the earth, and its speech is much more than the mere “words” to which actors give “voice.” Some theorists have suggested, in fact, that the beauty of cinema was undermined by the development of sound. Thirty years after the first feature-length “talkie” premiered in 1927 (The Jazz Singer), Rudolf Arnheim argued that film reached its apex as “an artistic medium” in the late silent period. And Marshall McLuhan, who coined “the medium is the message,” similarly asserted the superiority of silent movies, believing that they elicit more mental activity from viewers.2 Like the beauty of heavenly constellations, the “voice” of silent film can go out through all the earth, enjoyed by people of all nations and tongues. Just as ancient viewers of the skies named constellations after religious stories from their own culture, so viewers of silent film were able to insert intertitles in their own language.
Artistic filmmakers, then, recognize the power of voiceless beauty, the visual medium presenting its own message. As Johannes Ehrat puts it, “film does not need to assert by means of a linguistic intermediary, because as a Sign it has its own power of argumentation.”3 In the beginning was seeing. This principle will be my guide as I write about the visual power of specific movies during the following months for the CSR blog.4
- Brian Smith, Chair of the Bible and Religious Studies Department at Messiah College, via email Feb. 14, 2014.
- Rudolf Arnheim in Film as Art (1957), qtd. in James Monaco, How to Read a Film: The Art, Technology, Language, History, and Theory of Film and Media, rev. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 318; Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965), 287.
- Johannes Ehrat, Cinema and Semiotic: Peirce and Film Aesthetics, Narration, and Representation (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), 436.
- This blog was adapted from my book Salvation from Cinema: The Medium Is the Message (Routledge, 2016), 17, 38-39.