Secret Cinema: Gnostic Visions in Film (Part I)

HomeArticlesSecret Cinema: Gnostic Visions in Film (Part I)
Secret Cinema Gnostic Wilson Movie

Gnosticism in the Post-Modern Age: A Prologue

This is about the old problem, the virus that will not go away: the relation­ship between appearance and reality. After Plato placed this difficult relation at the center of his philosophy, thinkers through the ages have struggled to understand how lubricious surfaces — quick grackles and dying crocuses — might connect to something stable and lasting: spirit still vital, soul beyond corruption. Meditations on this dilemma — ranging from the essays of Kant and Descartes to the apologias of Aquinas and Augustine to the visions of alchemists, Cabbalists, and Gnostics — have been a curse as much as a blessing. They have solaced those weary of time and hungry for eternity. They have torn the world between surface and depth, fate and freedom, conformity and conversion.

Even in our postmodern age, ostensibly focused on material environments over spiritual realms, this problem, along with its salves and lacerations, persists. Though most intellectuals are skeptical of metaphysics and tired of dualism, they have been forced to grapple with the old Platonic difficulty, for this reason: In concocting “vir­tual realities,” contemporary technologists have blurred essential distinctions. What is the difference between an empirical form and its computerized simulation? How can one distinguish between an autonomous organ and its mechanized double? Are con­scious computers capable of ethics? Does mechanical dependence dehumanize men?

Undergoing these ontological, epistemological, and ethical vexations, our age strangely resembles older periods of crisis: the days of Plato’s battles against Sophists trading truth for rhetoric; the time of Valentinus’s attacks on Christians reducing infinite God to botched Jehovah. Most contemporary theorists ignore this historical homology. They avoid Platonic transcendentalism and Gnostic speculation. However, one recent cultural phenomenon has meditated on the problem of reali­ty by merging ancient spiritual vision and awareness of recent technology. The phe­nomenon is commercial cinema.

Neo-Platonism, Cabbala, and Alchemy

In the last twenty-five years or so, numerous mainstream movies have drawn from the ideas and images of ancient thought to address the recent collapse of appearance and reality. These films have consistently featured the Gnostic currents that emerged from Plato: not only Gnosticism proper but also its primary out­growths, Cabbala and alchemy.1

Despite important differences, these three tradi­tions have provided filmmakers with ready-made ruminations on the relationship between surface and depth as well as with engaging plots and striking scenes. Films like The Matrix (1999) and The Truman Show (1998) have deployed Gnostic myths of the second and third centuries to explore the idea that the physical world is an illusion concocted by a tyrannical maker. Movies like these have also invoked Gnosticism as a system of intriguing conspiracy theories sure to titillate already paranoid audiences.

A medieval and Renaissance effort to transcend the corrupt cosmos of Gnosticism and to achieve a perfect human form, the Cabbalistic motif of golem-making has provided movies such as A.I. (2001) and Blade Runner (1982) with profound meditations on the human and the machine as well as on freedom and determinism. This same motif has also nourished this type of movie with heart-breaking parables of mechanisms yearning for life. Keen on discovering Gnostic spirit in the bowels of the fallen world, the alchemical theories of the Middle Ages and the early modern period have informed recent movies as well. Pictures like Dead Man (1996) and Altered States (1980) have drawn on alchemical themes to sound enlivening connections between delusional chaos and authentic order and to showcase riveting stories of the moribund rising to life.

These films join many other recent mainstream pictures that likewise inflect Gnosticism and its esoteric offshoots, Cabbalism and alchemy, to explore the dilem­mas of the computer age. Overtly Gnostic films include Vanilla Sky (2001), The Thirteenth Floor (1999), eXistenZ (1999), Dark City (1998), and Pleasantville (1998). Some golem films featuring Gnostic atmospheres are Bicentennial Man (1999), Robocop (1987), Making Mr. Right (1987), Creator (1985), and D.A.R.Y.L (1985). Alchemical pictures with Gnostic undercurrents include Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone (2001), The Ninth Gate (1999), Jacob’s Ladder (1990), Blue Velvet (1986), and Excalibur (1981).

Combining Ancient Myth with Current Events

Merging the seductive exoticism of an arcane past and the pressing issues of the digital present, these films have it both ways. They combine the escapism of ancient myth with a timely exploration of current events. Certainly this attractive merger partially accounts for the popularity of most of these movies. They allow audiences to escape from the real while engaging reality. To this rather skeptical analysis, one can add at least three even more cynical accounts for why Gnostic cinema is on the rise. In the wake of the popular science fiction of Philip K. Dick and the trendy cyber-punk of William Gibson, Gnostic themes have become “hip.”

In a culture increasingly paranoid over the possibility that a secret society controls the world, Gnostic inflections of cosmic conspiracy are especially appeal­ing. In a society obsessed with video games and the Internet, people love to watch on the big screen what they watch on the small screens: virtual images that seem more real than the day’s boring occurrences.

I would like to propose a less cynical and more intriguing analysis of the recent stream of commercial Gnostic movies. Because mainstream Gnostic cinema is itself composed of illusions pretending to be real, stereotypical characters that appear to be rebels, and staid conventions that ostensibly depict dramatic conver­sions, it provides an especially rich vehicle for exploring visions of reality behind appearance, freedom beyond fate, and transmutation unhindered by stasis. Let me explain this paradox.

A contrast between recent commercial Gnostic movies and other cinematic inflections of Gnostic ideas clears ground for this explanation. Older films explor­ing Gnostic, Cabbalistic, or alchemical themes tend to be cautionary tales on the dangers of heterodox speculations. Otto Rippert’s The Revenge of the Homunculus, from 1916, depicts the horrific results of a failed alchemical experiment: an artificial man who cruelly conquers and controls the world. Paul Wegener’s The Golem, released in 1920, shows the tragic results of Cabbalistic magic: an animated form of mud try­ing unsuccessfully to be a happy human. James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein features a Gnostic’s failed attempt to transcend deathly matter, a mad scientist’s creation of monstrosity instead of salvation. These older films constitute reactionary warnings against questioning what society has deemed “reality.”2

More recent noncommercial “art house” pictures deploying Gnostic forms have been prone to endorse the heterodox values that the older films condemned. Antonioni’s 1966 Blow-Up is a Gnostic exploration of how a culture consumed by appearance vanquishes the real. Meshing form with content, the highly ambiguous film overwhelms viewers with the same confusions that beset the characters. Fellini’s 1963 descends into a disconcerting welter of hallucinations to explore the Cabbalistic idea that an ideal human above the fray might be achieved through arti­fice, the creation of a purely cinematic Adam. In his 1971 Death in Venice, Visconti renders an alchemical vision: only through an embrace of death can one discover the golden child within, the essence of life. The Italian filmmaker depicts this idea in an aptly symphonic melding of fragmentation and wholeness, chaos and order. Together, these avant-garde pictures activate Gnostic currents to shatter the “given” and open new vistas. 3

More contemporary “cult” films showcasing aliens from space have embraced Gnostic tenets even more overtly. Uninterested in Cabbalistic and alchemical inflections of the Gnostic tradition, these movies have fixated on this Gnostic-like notion: only a stranger from beyond the stars might free us from the grand illusions of multinational capitalism. Nicholas Roeg’s 1976 The Man Who Fell to Earth features an alien who comes to earth in search of water for his dying plan­et. Unable to redeem this world, he becomes tragically caught in the corruptions of corporate America. The film concludes with this man from an unpolluted world imprisoned in drunken hallucinations.

Alex Cox’s 1984 Repo Man like­wise uses alien invasion to explore the illusions of American capitalism. In this pastiche of numerous genres, a repossessor of vehicles gains cosmic consciousness through exposure to aliens driving around in a used car.  The picture ends with the repo man transcending superficial earth in the used-car-turned-spaceship. Eliseo Subiela’s 1987 Man Facing Southeast focuses on an alien visitor who through his own alleged mental illness reveals the insanity of modern life. At the film’s close, audi­ences wonder if everything in our world that passes for sane is really mad, and if insanity is actually clarity. Like their more serious art house predecessors, these strange, rather campy cult pictures set out to disturb audiences, to trouble distinc­tions between literal and ironic, purity and pastiche.4

The Double Blind of Commercial Gnostic Cinema

In contrast to the older Gnostic pictures and similar to the art house and cult Gnostic films, recent movies inflecting Gnostic themes criticize the status quo, sug­gesting that postmodern culture is a wasteland of illusion, mechanism, and con­formity. However, in contradistinction to art house and cult movies and resembling older films, contemporary commercial Gnostic films are commodities first and works of art second. These films are primarily products designed to make money by offering seductive images of rebellion.

This duplicity makes the contemporary commercial Gnostic film an especially apt vehicle for exploring heterodox themes. Unlike classical, avant-garde, and cult renditions of Gnostic ideas, contemporary commercial versions suffer a double bind, an irreducible conflict between exoteric packaging and esoteric vision. Some recent Gnostic films self-consciously explore this contradiction. In reflecting on the impossibility of their very existence — they are metaphysical meditations and vul­gar commodities — these movies consume themselves and push audiences into vague spaces: abysses of interpretation, infinite regressions over insoluble problems. These negations are confusing and potentially meaningless. However, they also lib­erate viewers from the hermeneutical status quo and release them into fresh and possibly redemptive ways of seeing and being.

The auto-erasures of these Gnostic films encourage audiences to speculate on impossible realms beyond the frames. Self-aware pictures overtly purveying Gnostic themes push viewers to an ideal blank screen that is both nothing — no color — and everything — the ground of all hues: void and plenitude, one and many. Reflexive Cabbalistic works inflecting Gnostic models of redemption inspire audiences to contemplate an invisible film projector, simultaneously mindless machine and fig­ure of consciousness, fated repetition and free-play of images. Alchemical movies informed by Gnostic notions of spirit and keenly conscious of their own contra­dictions offer this possibility: the dark movie theater gestures toward a crepuscular space where antinomies dissolve into chaos only to be re-formed into new, more complex and vital orders.

Recent commercial Gnostic films proffer profound occasions for meditating on the conundrums of both the postmodern age and the timeless mind.These pictures might well constitute archetypal sites for sacred contemplation, spaces akin to the caves of Eleusis or Lascaux, lurid chambers where habits are annihilated and the ego is shattered into new arrangements. Maybe this strange attraction to the lumi­nous gloom is the secret reason behind the recent abundance of Gnostic films. If so, then the dream factory, the culture industry, the den of illusion, is betraying its purpose — is negating its fantasies, sales, and deceptions in the name of a bewilder­ing reality that cannot be named.

Gnosticism, Viewer Psychology, and Seductive Film

Secret Cinema explores these possibilities through engaging in three related activ­ities:

One, the book establishes the theoretical foundations and implications of Gnostic cinema. It develops these theoretical elements in the contexts of Gnosticism proper and the two primary esoteric traditions emerging from it, Cabbala and alche­my. It analyzes especially self-conscious films in each category.

Two, in undertaking this work, I consider several collateral issues: the aesthetics of irony, the virtues of the vague, the psychology of movie watching, the role of the cinematographic appa­ratus, the unique representational powers of the moving image, and the functions of genre.

Three, this book is a broad meditation on the seductions of cinema. It is attuned to material attractions of the movies, those gorgeous lights and lolling shadows, but also to films’ spiritual invitations, the gaps between the pictures,  the empty spaces at the heart of life.5

These sketches of possible relationships between Gnostic films and movie audi­ences raise a troubling issue that I should consider before going on: the connection between Gnosticism and culture. From its historical inception in late antiquity up to the present day, the Gnostic tradition has rejected cultural conventions as prod­ucts of the fallen, illusory world and has cultivated spiritual elitism — arcane knowl­edge and secret societies. This cultural seclusion makes perfect sense.

Believing that the physical world and its supporters are deceptive (and defective) products of the evil demiurge, Gnostics of all ages have been militant against mainstream priests and politicians, wealthy magnates and middle-class consumers. Can Gnosticism, by definition in rebellion against common culture, ever be properly purveyed through popular media? The same can be asked of Cabbala and alchemy, which have like­wise tended to value spiritual seclusion from the materialist mainstream in order to avoid the collective and its blithe acceptance of the fall.

The relationship between the sacred and the secular has always been vexed, and never more than now, when many feel that the sacred is daily being vanquished by the secular. However, while the majority of religious folks fear the intense secularization of Western culture, especially the Hollywood-driven American culture, some sen­sitive theorists have recently argued that the contemporary scene offers a unique opportunity for the secular to energize the sacred and, in turn, for the sacred to nour­ish the secular.

These analyses of the rich interchange between sacred and secular — mainly studies of Christianity and popular culture — are attractive and provocative; they suggest that mass media like film and television might prove to be especially fit­ting vehicles for exploring the tensions of religion: the vexed connections between matter and spirit, earth and heaven, participation and isolation, divine abundance and divine absence. 

From Gnostic Underground to Allen Ginsburg

I side with theorists who maintain that popular culture need not be opposed to religious impulses but can indeed serve as a fruitfully complex expression of reli­gious ideas. The exclusionary tendencies in Gnosticism and its offshoots, however, present special difficulties for someone who believes that the Gnostic vision now thrives in the multiplex.

To demonstrate fecund interchanges between Christianity and popular culture is not so very hard because Christianity has from the beginning been a somewhat worldly religion devoted to transforming the fallen universe to an earthly heaven. But to articulate rich interactions between Gnosticism and the com­mercial collective is much harder. How can one find a place for a radically unworld­ly vision in the culture industry?

The answer is not so hard to find. Because Gnosticism and its esoteric issues were never able (or allowed) to establish culturally sanctioned institutions, these tra­ditions have from the beginning moved in the margins. This exile from the status quo pushed the Gnostic movements underground. They thrived in their subter­ranean channels and eventually offered revolutionary thinkers striking critiques of oppressive systems. This melding of esoteric thinking and countercultural work wed Gnosticism to politics. Suddenly the Gnostic tradition was no longer an isolated elit­ism of rare adepts but an inclusive populism committed to the suffering many.

This collusion of Gnosticism and democracy initially came faintly on the scene during the Enlightenment, when cosmopolitan philosophers, studied in compara­tive religion, critiqued the political hegemony of Christianity.7 But the first full flowering of this connection between esoteric speculation and exoteric pragmatism emerged in the Romantic age. In the wake of the French Revolution, artists such as William Blake and Percy Shelley drew heavily from Gnostic, Cabbalistic, and alchemical themes in challenging the tyrannical ideologies of king and priest.8

This esoteric political impulse carried over to America. Emerson and Melville also invoked the Gnostic rebellion in their calls for democratic revolution against ener­vating conformity.9 This Gnosticism for the masses continued to thrive in twenti­eth-century America. It informed H. P. Lovecraft, a composer of weird tales devot­ed to questioning mainstream cosmology. It influenced Philip K. Dick, a science fiction writer committed to uncovering the suffocating conspiracies of big govern­ment and big religion.10 It inspired Alan Moore, a serious comic book writer inter­ested in the consciousness-expanding potential of fantasy. And it stoked Allen Ginsberg, a political poet fired by Blake’s Gnostic rebellions.

The Gnostic Vision is Best Served by Film

Informed by these currents, Gnostic cinema is the latest wave of esoteric pop­ulism. However, Gnostic cinema differs from its influences in three ways. It is far more popular than any of its predecessors, proving a lucrative commodity in mainstream society. It is more tightly wedded to technological power than are its fore­bears, being entirely dependent upon sophisticated computers. It is more illusory than the Gnostic media coming before, based as it is on a wispy flickering of light and dark, something and nothing.

These factors seem to render cinema utterly unsuitable for the expression of Gnostic rebellions. However, as I have already sug­gested, these elements in fact make movies perhaps the most suitable medium pos­sible for the Gnostic vision. In cinema, the great Gnostic heresy after two thousand years has likely found its ideal form. This potential culmination appropriately comes at a time when capitalistic technology is threatening to vanquish reality for illusion, quality for quantity, creature for commodity.

The cinematic form is extremely apt for the Gnostic vision precisely because film and gnosis are so diametrically opposed. The cinema is a popular commodity that reinforces cultural cliches. Gnosticism frees people from materialism and the stereo­typing that supports it. A Gnostic film aware of the contradictions in its very being is capable of uncovering the conspiracies of commodity culture from the inside, of using the seductions of materialism to expose the dangers of consumerism.

Cinema is moreover a technology designed to substitute simulation for reality. Gnosticism is a devotional path bent on freeing the world from illusion. A Gnostic movie con­scious of this conflict might be able to show the dangers of the machine from with­in the cogs, to bait audiences with technological wizardry only to demonstrate the vapidity of artifice. Movies are optical illusions, conjuring flickers of black and white into colored narratives. Gnosticism claims that the universe is fake and wars against creators of hallucination. A Gnostic picture reflecting on this tension can point to truth hidden within the most convincing of illusions, can use attractive ghosts to lure audiences into the secret corridors of the living.

Hence, unlike most popular Gnostic forms, which take overtly oppositional stances toward the mainstream, Gnostic cinema subtly undercuts the system from within. This complex revolution requires complex tools: reflexivity and irony, vague­ness and indirection.

Film and Audience: Fragmentary Analytical Methods

Now a new question arises. Are audiences looking for a genre fix — a predictable narrative in the clothing of science fiction or horror, film noir or fantasy — likely to grasp the sophisticated erasures of Gnostic films? Can the movie-going masses get the message, or is the Gnostic movie, despite its populist thrust, an elitist phenomenon?

This question on the relationship between film and audience is difficult. However, it is a question of considerable importance for this inquiry, so I must attempt to answer it before moving ahead. The answer might emerge from a primary method of cultural or historical film criticism: an empirical study of audience reactions to the films. However, materialistic criticism borders on the affective fallacy: the idea that a work’s meaning can be assessed through the effects that it has on the audience. Because these effects are difficult to ascertain and because they may not grow direct­ly from the work’s intentions, this kind of materialistic analysis is as questionable as it is reductive.

Another way to examine the relationship between film and audience is to try an older method championed by auteur theory: to discover what the director intended. If one could pin down the director’s goals, then one could make valid surmises about how the film is likely to relate to the audience. Yet, this relation­ship among intention, film, and effect is even more problematical than the con­nection between just film and audience. A director’s stated intentions rarely trans­late perfectly into his or her film, and even if they did, language and imagery are generally duplicitous enough to distort any intention, no matter how clear. This problem underlies the intentional fallacy: the mistake of. interpreting a work in light of its author’s stated or apparent intentions.

If neither the audience nor the director is a dependable guide to the relation­ship between film and audience, then what’s left? The film itself. The aesthetic object remains. Formalism and realism, the two main modes for interpreting films as aesthetic objects, have been largely put to rest in this age of materialist criticism. Materialist theorists accuse formalist critics of treating a film as if it were a self-contained artifice above historical struggle. These same social critics question real­ist critics for assuming that some pure “reality” exists beyond cultural construc­tions. Although certainly one cannot avoid analyzing cinematic form or assuming mimetic representation, one must admit that these critiques carry weight—that films are limited to some extent by material conflicts, that the realities reflected by movies arc mostly ideological constructs. One must further note that neither for­malism nor realism is much interested in audience.

None of these methods alone suffices, even though each possesses explanatory power. The best way to explore the complex relationship between film and audi­ence is to borrow parts from each of these schools while leaving behind the reduc­tions of all positions.

Respecting the Director’s Own Vision

The materialists remind us that a film can never exist outside of its cultural con­texts. Guided by this idea, I have discovered illuminating connections between Gnostic cinema and cultural ambiguities generated by free market technology — confusions over the difference between things and commodities, organisms and machines, facts and fantasies. But the film’s reflection of culture does not tell the entire story.

The film itself constitutes a creative interpretation of the contexts from which it emerges. These revisions of the given inhere in the film’s aesthetic qualities: the director’s vision, form, and content. While I don’t focus much on the stated intentions of the directors I discuss, I do assume that each director expresses a unique and potent imagination in his or her film. I treat the director as an auteur who has created an artwork that comments in complex, moving ways on the pro­found difficulties of human existence.

I make this assumption for good reason. Each film on which I focus is an intri­cate, sophisticated interaction between form and content, an eminently aesthetic event. Committed more to fantastic vision than to empirical fact, to future worlds more than to the present, to interior spaces more than to exterior environments, each film under discussion appears to value form over content, to emphasize inno­vative cinematography and fascinating settings as well as ironic disruption and par­adoxical structure.

However, though each of these films fits within a genre devoted to the fantastic—science fiction or fantasy, horror or film noir—each is also devot­ed either to the accurate depiction of future worlds likely to come soon into exis­tence, to scientific experiments just on the horizon of history, and/or to psycho­logical spaces as palpable as physical atmospheres. Even if each movie is not a sim­ple representation of the everyday, familiar world, it is a realistic portrayal of essen­tial components of the human condition, a convincing mimesis of collective fears of and desires for seemingly inevitable futures, revolutions, and reveries.

The Paradox in Gnostic Film

What distinguishes these films is their ability to place formal cleverness and persuasive realism into rich conflict — using formal ironies and paradoxes to under­cut content, deploying believable narratives and characters to defuse form. These self-consuming conflicts constitute integral parts of a film’s structure and sense. These auto-erasures function in this way: they place audiences in the same position as the film’s protagonist.

The protagonist in each film faces a conflict between appearance and reality, fate and freedom, or chaos and order. This tension confus­es the status quo but also potentially clarifies a realm beyond the given. Audiences of each movie face similar vexations between opposites — form and content, irony and authenticity, significance and vapidity — and thus encounter definite muddles but also possible meditations.

Now we are back again to the important concerns of the materialist critic — what effect does the movie have on its audience? I cannot conclusively prove that audience members are aware of their affinities with Gnostic protagonists. However, I can (and do) prove that a film’s rhetoric, its persuasive interplay of word and image, works to place the audience in precisely the condition of the main character.

What the social and cultural outcome of this cinematic functioning is, I don’t know. I can justly surmise that audience members feel unsettled after witnessing one of these films, that they suffer an intellectual vertigo for reasons they can’t quite utter, that they question their habits for days to come. But these disorientation likely fade away with time, and people probably return to their comfortable rela­tionships with the constructions that pass for reality. Still, somewhere in the back of their minds remains a splinter that could one day fester into a wound that might infect their robust common sense and sicken them into spiritual health.

The interpretive method I have just sketched draws from the techniques of mate­rialistic criticism, auteur theory, formalism, and realism. This blending of schools has empowered me to address the film’s reflection of cultural forces, the artists vision within the film, the film’s conflict between “artificial” form and “realistic” content, and the way this conflict rhetorically affects the audience. This mode of interpretation — relaxed in its ideological commitments yet rigorous in its textual analyses — is thoroughly ecumenical. It is a holistic hermeneutic, assuming that most any part, rightly seen, can yield a vision, however vague, of some looming whole. This supple method is perfectly suited to interpreting films devoted to gaps as much as surfaces, emptiness as much as form, mystery as much as meaning. It is the appro­priate gnomon for Gnostic movies.

I have meditated on my methods for illuminating Gnostic film and mass culture for two reasons, one more important than the other. The less important reason is sim­ply this: In this age when film studies are dominated by sociological criticism, I thought I should account for my divergences from this prevailing method and justi­fy my employment of critical modes not much used anymore.

The more important reason has to do with the traditionally problematic relationship between Gnosticism and culture. Historically, Gnostics have tended to view culture as a vast conspiracy against knowledge. The Gnostic films I consider share this skepticism toward the collective. However, these pictures also embrace the conventions of culture as seduc­tive rhetorical modes. I thought I needed to explain this paradox, to suggest how in the Gnostic film culture is conspiracy in two ways. It is a secret plot against the spir­itual life, and it is, potentially, a current of redemption, a rush of air that the initi­ate can breathe until he no longer needs to respire.11

To equate the Hollywood movie industry with a dream factory is to flatter films with more reality than they merit. Dream images, though hopelessly tenuous, at least exist. They possess a modicum of ghostly substance. They gesture toward the energies of the unconscious. They are essential elements of the sleeping mind. In contrast, film images hardly deserve ontology. The scenes on the revolving reel are pure illusions produced by the persistence of vision.

If a series of static images moves before our sight at a rate of sixteen to twenty-four frames a second, we enjoy the semblance of continuous motion. When this procession of pictures is borne on a filmstrip, in some cases only 50 percent of the reel is constituted of exposed images. The remaining half is made of unexposed blank spaces. A mov­ing picture is only half there. It is nothing as much as it is something. It is but a flickering of yes and no.

The haunts of the dream chamber open to the mysteries of self. The illusions of the Hollywood movie house dissolve into more illusions. The physical negations of motion pictures, issuing from the laws of optics and technology, generate psy­chological attenuations as well: desires to be duped, to dwell in deceptions. The content of the half-present exposures is composed of unreal perfections: the com­forting closures of predictable genre plots, the ravishing grace of well-lighted stars, the elegantly artificial rooms and forests.

In the same way that the continuous pic­tures repress the conflicted flickers, these ideal figures ignore life’s unseemly blem­ishes. After experiencing Hollywood scripts and actors for a while, one eventually believes that these bright phantoms make up the standard for the real. Familiar freckles and mottled stones, however vigorous and interesting, turn sordid. One exchanges substance for simulation.

Compared to these cinematic illusions of the virtual, dreams indeed seem solid and durable. So do shadows. We realize that those who have likened the movie theater to Plato’s cave have not gone far enough. At least those shades in the cavern mim­icked actual objects dancing near the fire’s glow, the temporal forms in turn copy­ing unchanging ideas, the standards of truth. Half-absent forms displaying inaccu­rate contents, film images ape nothing in particular. If they copy anything, it is the wispy oscillation of black and white or the lubricious reveries of the masses. Not dreams, which might sound the psyche, and not shadows, which ghost fully blood­ed shapes, films are truly films, very thin and slightly opaque coverings that obscure the nature of things.

But a film is also a transparent sheet, a pellucid window through which we might see from one perspective to another. This alternative suggests a paradox: a film is opaque, an obscuring cover; a film is translucent, a revealing portal. What could a film unveil? The easy answer: nothing. The moving image opens to airily ephemeral drifts of fantasy or to meaningless flickers of dark and light.

A more troubling answer can come to mind, though, and rather quickly. Film might also point to what is ulti­mately behind all moving images, cinematic or otherwise: a blank square, an empty space. Film in this sense could well serve as an extreme manifestation of cosmic nega­tion, of pervasive nihilism: all things are illusions, seeming presences hollowed by absence.

But cinema as apocalypse of the great void need not end in terror. If the moving image is a revelation of nothing, then this lack is not necessarily absence. Yes, nothing is no-thing, the annihilation of distinction; but nothing is also no-thing, the indifference one associates with soul or spirit. This startling possibility presents itself: film, seemingly a revolt against reality, is perhaps the most spiritual of mediums.

This last notion, if valid, brings us to another difficult problem. How can main­stream cinema, a lucrative material commodity, enjoy the virtues of the immateri­al? Of all the products of the culture industry, cinema has proven to be one of the most profitable. Every day millions of viewers consume movies as if they were rich foods. Swallowing these films by the bucketful, many audience members come to associate existence with movie plots and stars. They mimic set decor in their homes; they copy the gestures of the characters. What on earth could this spending—of money and of autonomy — have to do with a spiritual life, generally committed to apprehension of impalpable worlds and liberation from the flesh?

Cinema is both present and absent. It is opaque and transparent. It is material and spiritual. It serves as crass commodity as well as sacred event. These violations of logic are interesting in a general way for thinking about the phenomenology of film—the relationship between the nature of cinema (its ontology) and knowledge of cinema (its epistemology).

The Curious Abundance of Gnostic Films

Moreover, these paradoxes become quite striking, even fascinating, when we stop to brood over this occurrence: cinema during the last twenty-five years or so has been obsessed with themes emerging from the extreme­ly immaterialist Gnostic tradition and its two primary spiritual issues, Cabbala and alchemy. What does an utterly illusory form have to do with a worldview commit­ted to the idea that all matter is unreal and that truth—gnosis, intimate acquaintance—exists far beyond the turning planets? How can the most superficial of commodities carry a vision devoted to depths beneath getting and spending?

These questions abruptly spring to mind when one notices the recent (and seemingly curi­ous) abundance of films devoted to Gnosticism and its offshoots. But two other questions come to consciousness more slowly and then give further pause. Is it pos­sible that its tenuous reality makes film an especially apt vehicle for purveying Gnostic notions of a false universe — the world as the dream of an evil god? Is it conceivable that cinema, because of its self-consuming contradictions — it is some­thing and nothing, substantial matter and mere flicker — is an eminently powerful medium for transcending the conflicts of time to life beyond clocks?

Certain Gnostic films — films espousing the ideas of Gnosticism and its impor­tant offsprings, Cabbala and alchemy — appear to be aware of these contradictions and to exploit them in hopes of reaching a third term beyond division. If these films are in fact self-conscious of their auto-erasures, then they would constitute privileged pictures, intense illuminations of cinematic extremes: exoteric manipulation and eso­teric liberation, crass stereotype and sophisticated speculation.

In exploring these vexed flickers — darkness canceling light, substance consuming nothing — I want to establish the theoretical foundations and implications of an ignored genre. This genre is Gnostic cinema, composed of impossible films that exist to be annihilated. In detailing a theory of Gnostic film, I hope to shed light on several collateral issues: the aesthetics of irony, the virtues of the vague, the psychology of watching movies, the role of the cinematographic apparatus, the unique representational powers of the moving image, and the functions of genre.

These two activities — grounding the gen­eral theory of Gnostic cinema and analyzing its specific elements — will enable me to brood broadly on the enduring seductions of cinema, on how its material attrac­tions, its ravishing shapes and shades, can translate in a flash into spiritual invita­tions, openings to the empty spaces between frames, free of encumbrance.

Recurring Motifs From the Middle Ages

Though heterogeneous, the Gnostic traditions as they emerged in Alexandria and Rome in the second and third centuries feature recurring themes. The visible cos­mos is the sinister creation of a tyrannical demiurge. This universe is thus a corrupt copy of a spiritual plenitude of which the ignorant maker is not aware. This false god brainwashes the inhabitants of this world into believing that what they see before them is the only reality. Certain people awaken to the illusory nature of the material plane. They struggle to transcend this mire to the currents of spirit. These are the Gnostics, those who know.

Cabbala, a medieval and Renaissance inflection of Gnostic speculations, is likewise varied but exhibits repeated characteristics. The realms of time and space are the results of cosmic error, God’s own powers shattering his vehicles of creation or Adam’s sin in Eden. These botched, fragmented regions constitute the cosmos. Spiritual adepts attempt to find God’s principles hiding within the shards — his language of cre­ation, his model human being. One way these practitioners try to recover this unfallen state is by animating a clay form into a human being, a new Adam. This creature is the golem. Though he is designed to resemble Adam before the fall, he often per­petuates the fallen condition. He becomes violent or vulnerable to love and loss.

Issuing from certain Gnostic and Cabbalistic trends in the second- and third-century Corpus Hermeticum, the diverse alchemical tradition of the Middle Ages and Renaissance also features recurring motifs.12 Matter and spirit are interdependent manifestations of an abysmal Godhead containing all oppositions. To know this God, one must grasp the connection between the material and the spiritual: matter is the womb from which spirit arises to transcend the world; spirit is the transcen­dent end toward which matter yearns. The alchemist apprehends this relationship by enacting in his alembic the process by which spirit ascends from matter and mat­ter reflects spirit. He dissolves matter to its original chaos, watches spirit appear as ordered pattern, and melds order and chaos into union. This marriage composes the philosopher’s stone, a symbol of the hidden harmony of the cosmos and the alchemist’s perfected soul.

Though these spiritual movements differ from one another in important ways, all three share core esoteric ideas. Truth issues from a spiritual realm. Matter reflects but also distorts this truth and thus convinces most that appearances are the only realities. Deluded, these materialists trade illusion for reality. Only those who doubt the veracity of the palpable and yearn for the ungraspable can hope to transcend the conspiracies of matter to the profundities of spirit. These skeptics try to remove the film from their eyes.

Aptly, the commercial film industry — illusion posing as truth, commodity pass­ing for reality, artifice pretending to be vital — has for much of its history urged orthodox critiques of these three heterodox traditions. Older films especially focus on the dangers of challenging mainstream Christianity. For instance, as we have seen, Otto Rippert’s 1916 The Revenge of the Homunculus depicts the tragic results of a botched alchemical experiment. Likewise, as we have also noted, Paul Wegener’s The Golem, from 1920, explores the terrible results of Cabbalistic magic. Finally, as observed earlier, James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein details a Gnostics unsuccessful essay to transcend matter.

Some recent films continue this tradition. Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997) comically depicts the risk of alchemical experimentation, the possibility that the practice might unleash evil. Daren Aronofsky’s Pi (1997) por­trays the insanity that might issue from the Cabbalistic attempt to grasp God’s secret code. Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca (1997) reveals the totalitarian state that might ensue when Gnostic scientists correct the limitations of creation with genetic engineering.

However, even while exploring the harmful effects of heterodox speculations, the latter three films also entertain the idea that these esoteric modes are powerful challenges to superficial habits. Gattaca reveals the illusions of technological tyrants and exhibits the heroism of the rebel against the machine. Pi contemplates the notion that the surfaces of the world are manifestations of divine language. The Fifth Element explores the possibility that spiritual quintessence lurks within the four elements.

Against their ostensible intentions, these three films point to an unexpected and neglected undercurrent of mainstream cinema: an embrace of Gnostic critiques of the materialist ideologies of the movie industry. This recent abundance of paradox­ical Gnostic films — illusions attempting to reveal truths — probably reflects con­temporary technological conundrums over the difference between real and virtual. But there may be a deeper reason for this flowering of Gnosticism.

 

NOTES

1. In the introduction especially but also throughout the book, I provide detailed expositions of each of these three movements. Along the way, I clearly lay out my definitions of “Gnostic” and “Gnosticism,” two vague and slippery terms that run the risk of becoming almost meaningless if left undefined.

2. Of course Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) is another example of a heretical experiment gone wrong. It depicts the evils of technology gone unchecked, this overweening technological arrogance is figured by a female automaton bent on destroying the lives of the innocent masses. However, even if this film cautions against Gnostic arrogance, the film also espouses certain key Gnostic ideas: the world is con­trolled by an evil tyrant; this oppressed world might be liberated by a female figure of wisdom; libera­tion takes the form of rejecting the conventional laws of orthodox society. For an excellent study of how this and other German expressionist films influenced Nazi Germany, see Siegfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film.

3. Other films from these same directors function similarly — as critiques of the human propensi­ty to grasp, rather cravenly, illusion, and as calls for humans to risk the suffering of nonconformity. One thinks in this regard of Antonioni’s L’avventura (I960), Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (I960), and Visconti’s The Stranger (1967). For a general discussion of these three Italian directors, see Peter E. Bondanella’s Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present.

4. Slava Tsukerman’s Liquid Sky (1982) also fits into die category of the “cult” Gnostic film. In this movie, a tiny alien with a heroin addiction comes to earth and enlists a model who happens to be a drug addict to help him secure his narcotic fix. The only problem is that the alien and the model must kill humans in order to get a special heroin ingredient from their brains. Eventually, after killing matter in search of vision, the alien decides to leave earth. The model pleads for him nor to leave. She then injects herself with a large dose of heroin and turns into a beam of light. She transcends matter for spirit. For an excellent discussion of this film and the three films mentioned above, sec David Lavcry’s “Gnosticism and the Cult Film.”

5. In locating spiritual virtues in commercial Gnostic cinema, my book pushes against the main argu­ments of Theodore Roszak’s wonderful novel, Flicker. The book features a secret and violent Gnostic sect that uses occult film production techniques to breed in viewers a nihilistic, apocalyptic hatred of matter.

6. Some recent books exploring the spiritual possibilities of film from a Christian perspective are the following: Richard Walsh’s Reading the Gospels in the Dark; Conrad Ostwalt’s Secular Steeples: Popular Culture and the Religions Imagination; Craig Detweilcr and Barry Taylor’s A Matrix of Meanings: Finding God in Pop Culture; Robert Walsh’s and George Aichele’s Screening Scripture: Intertextual Connections between Religion and Film; Robert K. Johnston’s Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue, William D. Romanowski’s Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture; Bryan P. Stone’s Faith and Film: Theological Themes at the Cinema; and Albert J. Bergsen and Andrew M. Greeley’s God in the Movies.

These books devoted to Judeo-Christian perspectives have been matched by book-length studies of religion in The Matrix that are more open to eclectic religion perspectives. Among the works on the religion or religiously inflected philosophy behind the film are Stephen Pallet’s Beyond the Matrix: Revolutions and Revelations; Matt Lawrence’s Like a Splinter in Your Mind: The Philosophy behind The Matrix Trilogy; Chris Seay and Greg Garrett’s The Gospel Reloaded: Exploring Spirituality and Faith in The Matrix; Glenn Yeffeth’s Taking the Red Pill: Science, Philosophy, and Religion in The Matrix; |ake Horsley’s Matrix Warrior: Being the One; and William Irwin’s The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real.

7. For an account of how esoteric traditions informed the Age of Reason, see Joscelyn Godwin’s The Theosophical Enlightenment (1994).

8. For a study of how Gnosticism and its esoteric offshoots influenced the Romantic age, see Kathleen Raine’s Blake and Tradition and James Rieger’s The Mutiny Within: The Heresies of Percy Bysshe Shelley.

9. Sec Arthur Versluis, Esoteric Origins of the American Renaissance.

10. Victoria Nelson illuminates the esoteric tendencies of Lovecraft and Dick in The Secret Life of Puppets.

11. Aside from the introduction and the conclusion, each chapter opens with a description of a hypothetical moviegoer. This moviegoer is always male. I make this moviegoing persona male not to be sexist but to be existentially accurate. This moviegoer expresses my various moods toward movies. Indeed, when I throughout the book use the pronoun “he” to refer to hypothetical thinkers or melancholies or whatnot, I have my own condition in mind. In sum, this book — while it ‘remains a more or less objective analysis of Gnosticism and film — is a very per­sonal endeavor. It is close to my soul. It is something of a confession in disguise, a moviegoer’s autobiography hidden within an academic study.

12. Carl Jung is the primary source of the idea that alchemy issues from Gnosticism. In his Memories, Dreams, Reflections, he argues that a current runs from ancient Gnosticism through medieval and Renaissance alchemy to twentieth-century depth psychology. The persistent characteristics of this current are the following: the origin of existence is an unfathomable abyss; this abyss descends into time in the form of conflicted oppositions; redemption from conflict comes in the figure of a savior reflect­ing the original abyss: the Gnostic savior from the hidden god; the philosopher’s stone; the primal Self.

The differences among these movements lie in emphasis on matter.

Gnosticism wishes to escape mat­ter; alchemy wishes to discover spirit in matter; depth psychology wants to find a purely materialistic redemption. These differences in focus on materiality have led some thinkers to draw a sharp dichoto­my between Gnosticism and alchemy. For instance, Kathleen Raine in Blake and Tradition says, “The great difference between the Neoplatonic [and by extension, the Gnostic, even more anti-materialistic than Neoplatonism] and the alchemical philosophies lies in their opposed conceptions of die nature of mat­ter.

For Plotinus and his school, matter is mere mire, the dregs of the universe, a philosophic ‘non-enti­ty’ because incapable of form except as it reflects intelligibles. To the alchemists spirit and matter, active and passive, light and darkness, above and below are, like the Chinese yin and yang, complementary prin­ciples, both alike rooted in the divine. The deus absconditus is hidden and operating in matter, no less than He is to be found in the spiritual order” (118).

 

This chapter is from Secret Cinema: Gnostic Visions in Film. Eric Wilson.  New York: Continuum, 2006.

Eric G. Wilson

Written by

Eric Wilson is Professor of English at Wake Forest University. He is author of Secret Cinema: Gnostic Visions in Film (Continuum, 2006).