It seems fitting that this special CSR issue on intersections between “faith and film” should coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of Walker Percy’s first novel, The Moviegoer. Ever since Percy, a strange brew of Southerner, Catholic, existentialist, self-trained semiotician, and non-practicing MD, won the National Book Award for his 1961 novel about a 30-year-old stockbroker’s stealthy search for meaning in the grey fog of post-modern life, The Moviegoer has been standard reading for just about any Christian scholar interested in faith and culture. The action of Percy’s novel takes place in and around New Orleans during the Mardi Gras week leading up to Ash Wednesday; as the novel opens, the protagonist, Binx Bolling, has been “living the most ordinary life imaginable,” making money for his Uncle’s brokerage house, seducing a succession of secretaries, and mostly going to movies. Binx haunts the mid 1950s suburban movie theaters of New Orleans as part of strategy to escape what he describes as the despair of “everydayness.” Binx believes he is “on to something” about the falseness and “malaise” that permeate the deadened culture and people that surrounds him, and he uses movies as way “certify” his own existence:
Our neighborhood theater in Gentilly has permanent lettering on the front of the marquee reading: Where Happiness Costs So Little. The fact is I am quite happy in a movie, even a bad movie. Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer night one met a lonely girl in Central Park and achieved with her a sweet and natural relationship, as they say in books. I too once met a girl in Central Park, but it is not much to remember. What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man.1
While Percy’s troubled anti-hero hardly offers us a fully developed model for exploring the links between theology and film, Binx would have certainly understood what my students meant when they came to class on September 12, 2001 and told me: “It seemed so real; it was just like a movie.” So to celebrate his fiftieth year in print, let’s bring Binx out of his existential limbo and let him and his creator help us introduce our “Reel Presence” theme issue.
Although neither Percy nor Binx and probably would want to drink a mint julep with “St. Clive the Apologist,” they would likely resonate with the C.S. Lewis presented by Charlie Starr in his essay, “Faith without Film is Dull.” Binx and Percy both would appreciate Starr’s diagnostic approach to how Evangelicals have gotten film “wrong” with our focus on “worldview analysis” and his assertion that Lewis helps us to better understand the powerful indirection of artful cinematic storytelling. Starr argues that a Christian’s primary engagement with film is “not a lesson to be learned, a truth to be summarized, or a philosophy to be analyzed. It is an experience. Call it aesthetic transportation, call it imaginative transformation, it is an experience of wonder evoked in the imagination by film. . . . It is an experience which delights us, transports us, entertains us, and fills us with an understanding of something larger than ourselves, something we may not be able to speak in words, but we can taste it just the same.”
But in the essay that follows these bold assertions, Annalee Ward argues that after this initial sort of imaginative delight with a film, a thoughtful Christian is still called to reflectively engage and interrogate a film’s worldview. Ward reminds us in “Gran Torino and Moral Order” that if the cultural work of cinematic storytelling serves as “equipment for living” and moviegoers are shaped by “the company we keep,” films naturally demand ethical or moral criticism. Thus, when Professor Ward calls us back to a particular sort of worldview analysis and asks us to read Clint Eastwood’s story of retired autoworker Walt Kowalski through the lens of feminist “standpoint theory,” she complicates our ready acceptance of Eastwood’s ironic use of racist language and Kowalski’s heroic redemption via sacrificial violence. As a serial womanizer trapped forever in the 1950s of his novel, Binx Bolling’s head would probably be spinning with Ward’s feminist analysis, but he would clearly understand the nature of Eastwood’s star power that Ward’s essay explores. Eastwood’s ability to carry his persona from picture to picture reflects how American filmmaking and culture has been shaped by the star system—Eastwood began his acting career within the carefully cultivated world of the studio system and his self-selected swan song as actor in Gran Torino features a septuagenarian retiree who arranges his own heroic and sacrificial death—what a career exit! Percy’s Binx is obsessed by the special “reality” that movie stars seem to manufacturer on and beyond the screen, and Binx often makes his way through the world by donning his own versions of these personas and appropriating gestures from the likes of Gary Grant.
Binx seems to have a particular fondness for the heroic everyman, William Holden. Since The Moviegoer lacks a reference to Holden’s 1957 role in Bridge over the River Kwai, it’s a good bet that the action of Percy’s novel probably takes place in the same year that an earlier WWII film about the Japanese in Burma was released. Binx doesn’t seem to be particularly interested in foreign films, so he probably didn’t make it to Kon Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp (1956), but he clearly would have connected with this story of a Japanese soldier who comes to himself in midst a war’s death and destruction. Binx—a Korean War vet like Eastwood’s Walt Kolwalski—tells us as the novel opens that his impetus for renewing “the search” was his recent recollection of being shot down on a Korean battlefield: “I remembered the first time the search occurred to me. I came to myself under a chindolea bush. . . . Six inches from my nose a dung beetle was scratching around under the leaves. As I watched, there awoke in me an immense curiosity. I was onto something. I vowed that if I ever got out of this fix, I would pursue the search.”2 According to Stephen Parmelee’s essay, “‘Such Inexplicable Pain,’” when Ichikawa’s own wounded protagonist regains consciousness at the end of a WWII battle, he comes to himself surrounded by the dead bodies of his Japanese countrymen, and the experience literally sets him on a spiritual pilgrimage across Burma. What Parmelee finds most remarkable about the soldier’s spiritual quest is that the sound track that accompanies this awakening is the hymn “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.” In the inexplicable mystery of Ichikawa’s strange juxtaposition of Christian sacred music with the story of soldier transformed into a Buddhist monk, Parmalee finds spiritual resonances in the film that seems able to cross culture and time. For Percy, who often returned to the metaphor that the language of faith had become tired and worn—like the face on old coin—it is exactly these sorts of strange juxtapositions that make it possible for us to actually hear the power in a tired old hymn.
Another of Percy’s recurring notions is that some people are so hungry for meaning they will often leave the comforts of their American life to go looking for “the Real Right Thing” in a “strange” culture like Mexico. In 1954, Binx seems to have made just such a quest to the Mexico City and the state of Chiapas with “rucksack” on his back.3 Binx’s brief reference to this trip doesn’t include any Mexican “moviegoing,” but if he had found his way into a local theater surrounded by the “natives” it might have indirectly caught a glimpse of the sacred through the persistent religious iconography of Mexican movies. In “Murals, Icons, Movies: Christian Imagery in Mexican Cinema,” Scott DeVries argues that this pattern of sacred images established during the “Golden Age” of Mexican cinema in the 1950’s continues even with contemporary Mexican filmmakers. While many of these directors have used these images to explore and explicate essential Christian motifs like “atonement, pilgrimage, faith, forgiveness,” DeVries contends that even those filmmakers who make ironic (and often heretical) use of these visual motifs demonstrate that “the human remnant of the imago dei can leave a residual of the divine.” DeVries evokes our special issue’s theme of “Reel Presence” by provocatively asserting that the “the divine image persists, even in the work of filmmakers who reject the Original.”
Because Percy’s novel primarily explores Binx’s “moviegoing” as an example of his ultimately unsuccessful stratagems for avoiding “everydayness” and “malaise” via the aesthetics of irony, there is little evidence in The Moviegoer that Binx finds God at the movies. But Percy’s larger conviction that art can indirectly point us to sacred mystery resonates with the final essay in this issue, “The Mystery Dialectic in Cinema: Paradox, Mystery, Miracle” in which Joseph Kickasola argues that “mystery” is “a key component in any film seeking to approach the transcendent.” Borrowing from Louis Dupré (another Catholic phenomenologist and religious philosopher), Kickasola explores mystery as “a dialectical process, moving between paradox and miracle.” Percy embraced such dialectical paradox: “this life is much too much trouble, far too strange” to sum it via some form of “scientific humanism.”
That won’t do. A poor show. Life is a mystery, love a delight. Therefore, I take it as axiomatic that one should settle for nothing less than the infinite mystery and the infinite delight; i.e. God. In fact, I demand it. I refuse to settle for anything less. I don’t see why anyone should settle for less than Jacob, who actually grabbed ahold of God and wouldn’t let go until God identified himself and blessed him.4
Kickasola reminds us that wrestling with this mystery is no less difficult in film than it is fiction. There are “no talismans; neither theology nor cinema will ‘solve’ these mysteries, and no medium, including film, is guaranteed to give one a transcendent experience. However, what some films can do is point, encourage, nudge, and open up a transcendent view. They can bracket away the distractions, refocus our spiritual vision on what we have missed or suppressed, and/or formally convey something like the transcendent experience, provoking spiritual reflection.” As a diagnostician of our post-modern condition and the limitations of language and art, Percy probably would have embraced Kickasola’s image of nudging provocation toward the possibility of the transcendent. And certainly on this fiftieth anniversary of The Moviegoers’ publication, the fact that Kickasola explores this cinematic manifestation of mystery and transcendence via a reading of Paul Haggis’ Crash (2005), would make Percy smile at the persistence of a core motif that he first offered in his 1961 novel—the car crash as vehicle to transcendence (both Binx and his cousin Kate narrate automobile accidents that shake off the falseness of their “everydayness” and let them apprehend the world with greater clarity.) Percy would clearly recognize an opening line from Haggis’ film: “we crash into each other just so we can feel something.”
Along with The Moviegoer, I’ll turn fifty this year, and the relationship between the faith and film has changed significantly in the last five decades. When Craig Detweiler, my perpetually youthful co-editor turns fifty in few years, I probably won’t go to his birthday party because I’ll be celebrating the fiftieth anniversaryof my first trip to the movies: Mary Poppins. I don’t really have any recollection of seeing the film in 1964, but I recall the anniversary because the trip to the theater has become part of my family myth. Because my father was a biology professor at a small Free Methodist college, he couldn’t take his five kids to the local theater to see to the film. So he tossed us all into the Ford Fairlane station wagon, and we headed forty miles west for the sinful anonymity of a small city. A key—but perhaps apocryphal—part of our family’s Mary Poppins legend is that when we pulled back into town, my father turned off the headlights so that none of the neighbors would know that we’d been out so late on a Saturday night, lest we’d be forced to answer prying questions about our whereabouts.
If Binx Bolling could have sat among our half-filled row of guilty Wesleyan-Holiness apostates, he would have taken a certain aesthetic pleasure in watching Mary Poppins “through us.” But our family’s engagement with the film is fundamentally different from Percy’s alienated hero: Binx goes to the movies to escape authentic engagement with other people, whereas watching this film is still stuff of our family conversation—our shared experience and identity. We are so thankful for the thoughtful cumulative conversations of Christian scholars who began in the early 1960s to make “the motion picture . . . the object of serious positive study,”5 and we are delighted that CSR’s editorial board lets us continue this hearty conversation on these pages. Our theme issue aptly closes with Crystal Downing’s delightful review essay, “Strange Bedfellows: Faith and Film”—a call for us to continue to broaden and deepen our conversation.
We hope that you enjoy the essays that we’ve assembled here as much as we’ve enjoyed working with authors’ who crafted them. Craig and I pray that the singularness of a special issue will shake you out of your own “everydayness,” or that at very least one of our authors makes you want to watch a new film or circle back to an old one and see it anew.
Cite this article
- Walker Percy, The Moviegoer (New York: Random House, 1998), 7.
- Ibid., 10-11.
- Ibid., 169.
- Walker Percy, “Questions They Never Asked Me So He Asked Them Himself,” in Conver-sations with Walker Percy, eds. Lewis A. Lawson and Victor A. Kramer (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 175-176).
- Publisher’s Preface.” Movies, Morals, and Art. Getlein, Frank and Harold C. Gardiner, S.J., eds. (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1961), v.