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Secret Cinema: Gnostic Visions in Film (Part II)

Secret Cinema: Gnostic Visions In Film (Part II)

Film as Sophisticated Expression of Gnosticism

Directors seem to be realizing that film, counter to expectation, might be the most sophisticated medium possible for expressing the Gnostic vision. Unreal and real, mechanistic and vital, commodity and artwork, the Gnostic film appears to be uniquely suited to explore relationships between appearance and reality and to push toward a third term beyond these relationships.

A brief list of commercial Gnostic films released over the past twenty-five years quickly reveals the recent obsession with gnosis. Overtly Gnostic films include Vanilla Sky (2001), Dannie Darko (2001), The Matrix (1999), The Thirteenth Floor (1999), EdTV (1999), eXistenZ. (1999), The Truman Show (1998), Dark City (1998), Pleasantville (1998), and Total Recall (1990). Some Cabbalistic films, Gnostic in spirit, are A.I. (2001), Bicentennial Man (1999), The Iron Giant (1999), Gods and Monsters (1998), Robocap (1987), Making Mr. Right (1987), Short Circuit (1986), Creator (1985), D.A.R.Y.L (1985), and Blade Runner (1982). Alchemical pictures, subtle in their Gnosticism, are Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001), American Beauty (1999), The Ninth Gate (1999), Dead Man (1996), Jacob’s Ladder (1990), Angel Heart (1987), Blue Velvet (1986), Agnes of God (1985), Excalibur (1981), and Altered States (1980).

The films in the first category mainly draw from this Gnostic idea: visible exis­tence is an illusion perpetuated by a creator bent on enslaving his creatures. This maker hopes that his denizens will take his fictional films for reality, reduce their lives to his staid scripts, and relinquish their desire for lasting gnosis beyond his flit­ting images. But these moving pictures focused on Gnostic liberation from the delusions of the demiurge are of course troubled.

On the one hand, as bearers of Gnostic content, these pictures push viewers to question societal conventions and strive for a lasting truth beyond the communal consensus. On the other hand, these same films as commodities of the corporate body seduce audiences simply to accept the codes of consumer culture and find their places in the unreflecting col­lective.

Are these films simply unaware of this irony, this split between spiritual skepticism toward the given and materialist conformity with clichés? Or are the pic­tures vaguely conscious of the contradiction but prone to ignore it in hopes of crassly exploiting attractive Gnostic motifs for purely commercial reasons? Or, more interestingly, are these pictures keenly self-conscious of the tension between exoteric form and esoteric content and thus specially suited to inspire meditations on the vexed relationship between appearance and reality?

The films in the second category inflect the Cabbalistic motif of golem-making, a practice emerging from the Gnostic urge to transcend corrupt matter through real­izing the perfect human. In imbuing a clay man with life, the pious Cabbalist hopes to recreate Adam unfallen and return to Eden. However, his creation frequently rebels against its master and must be destroyed. Pictures featuring golem-making often explore these dangers of creating a slave. But the movies are subtly tyrannical themselves, hoping to enslave viewers to consumer ideology.

As with the Gnostic films, these golem movies might be blind to this contradiction, or they might over­look it in their quest to seduce viewers through arcane lore. But Cabbalistic films could be deliberately exploring this possibility: the ability of movies to transmute men into machines makes them especially apt vehicles for analyzing the poles of the golem: the monstrous (the blurring of human and automaton) and the miraculous (the escape from self-consciousness).

The third group of films, the alchemical ones, depicts the metamorphoses that occur in the alembic. Inspired by Gnostic visions of spirit hiding behind matter, alchemy focuses on redemptive transmutation—on how life emerges from death, soul grows from body, chaos rises from order. But surely alchemical movies, despite their mercurial turns, are in the end committed to stasis, to encouraging viewers to play out change through fiction instead of fact, to perform conversion.

Like the Gnostic and Cabbalistic movies, these alchemical films could be ignorant of the contradiction or unconcerned with it. But the alchemical cinema might well be self ­consciously activating the idea that the theatrical space itself is an alembic: a dark pit where viewers lose their egos for a time as they rise to the flickering lights above, a workshop of illuminated transformations.

Films in these categories appear to be impossibilities. They are hopelessly con­flicted between spiritual liberation and material confinement, flight from stereotype and support of status quo. They place audiences in an irreducible double bind borne of opposing imperatives: Question all material appearances as illusions; accept these cinematic appearances as truths.

The key question is this: Is this bind confining, a paralyzing pull from two opposed extremes, or is it liberating, a rich limbo in which one remains unattached to either pole? Most theorists would answer the former question in the affirmative, believing that cinematic products of the cul­ture industry, no matter how ostensibly rebellious, always, in the end, simply rein­force the stifling status quo. However, some thinkers might say yes to the latter question, for they might maintain that awareness of the confining conflict opens into a third perspective beyond division. To consider these two positions — Gnostic cinema as stultifying oxymoron, Gnostic cinema as liberating paradox — is to won­der if cinema can ever be anything other than a static commodity, if the movies, after all, are really able to move.

The Culture Industry

Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer maintain that commercial media serves big corporations out to control public opinion so that they can reduce the masses to a homogeneous, standardized group desiring to consume homogeneous, standard­ized merchandise. These financial powers can most efficaciously brainwash the pop­ulation by convincing people that they are utterly free.

In supporting or funding media events that emphasize nonconformity, creativity, uniqueness, rebelliousness — those great values, allegedly, of the Western world, especially of America—the forces of capitalism bombard the masses with pleasing abstractions: the style of Garbo, the swagger of Gable. But these stock images of freedom actually deplete and contain unpredictable acts of particular liberty. To gaze at the rebellions of Gable or Garbo or, more recently, at the independence of Eastwood or Madonna, is to live out vicariously ones own wild impulses and to purge them from ones sys­tem.

Moreover, in identifying with the figures of cinematic rebellion, one associates revolution with a prefabricated pattern that is not threatening at all but just anoth­er manifestation of a stereotype. Under the spell of media commodities, culture is transformed into a cipher of abstract images, a flatland of ceaseless consumption of the same. To be subjective is to be a subject.

Jean-Louis Baudry argues that the cinematic space itself — the screen, the dark hall, the film projector — reinforces a dominant ideology of subjective idealism that ignores concrete particulars. In moving the filmic images so fast that their dif­ferences are elided, the camera presents a unified field of “reality” to the audience. The projector presents this reality in a frame, a window of perception in which viewers can bracket objects for interpretation. Harmonizing experience and hold­ing it at an interpretable distance, the camera embodies human dreams of the tran­scendental subject—a self that stands above events and subjects them to conscious intentionality.

Casting audience members as eternal consciousnesses, the appara­tuses of the movie house reconstruct Lacan’s “mirror-stage,” the phase when the infant discovers in its reflection an image of a unified “I.” Though audience mem­bers believe that they transcend experience, they are really infantilized, reduced to immovable units mistaking illusions for facts. This cinematic situation elevates the consuming self of capitalist ideology while repressing the unconscious energies of biology and history.1

Laura Mulvey inflects the ideas of Baudry through her feminist perspective. She believes that the camera is a patriarchal gaze shared by the films male protag­onist and the spectator. Embodying the male perspective, the camera does not reflect bare reality but projects the erotic fantasies of men. However, since socie­ty has been duped into believing that the patriarchal perspective is reality itself, most viewers simply assume that the camera is a proxy for neutered subjectivity, the objective eye. For Mulvey, this is the great brainwashing of mainstream cinema, a tool in the service of men and the money they lustily covet, a dreamy commod­ity to stoke clichéd libidos.2

Jean Baudrillard radicalizes the arguments of Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Jean-Louis Baudry, and Laura Mulvey. These earlier thinkers [discussed in Part 1] suggest that real differences exist between art and life but that the culture industry blurs these distinctions to further its capitalistic ends. Baudrillard does away with these gaps. He argues that the mass media is so perva­sive and powerful that it has irrevocably collapsed the distinction between simula­tion and reality.3

The media presents “ideal” models for behavior that bear no direct relation to material or spiritual reality. In mimicking these models — simulations (images with no originals) and simulacra (words pointing to no things) — consumers become simulations of simulations, simulacra of simulacra. Information and poli­tics, artistic creativity and violent rebellion — all are boiled down to entertainment, to commodity: newscasters purvey pseudo-facts, politicians play politicians, artists and rebels act out marginality.

In this welter of unmoored images and words, pop­ulations become cynical, apathetic, and nihilistic. They dwell in a flatland in which no one thing is better than any other thing, in which values are as lubricious as the ceaseless flow of illusions.4 These denizens unconsciously become instances of what Herbert Marcuse has called the “one-dimensional” man, a thin allegorical mask of the dominant ideology.5 These analyses — to which we could add Michel Foucault’s meditations on how a dominant “discourse” controls the being of an age6 — are Marxist in flavor, motivated by skepticism toward the patriarchal abstractions of capitalism and the hope that society might be redeemed into equality through meaningful relation­ships with concrete objects.7

However, though these critiques might be materialist in content — committed to the idea that humans are constituted by historical forces, in form they open to the mysteries of spirit. In focusing on how surfaces preclude depth, exteriors block interiors, abstraction thwarts particularity, these cultural criticisms reveal the exoteric conspiracy concocted by corporations. Unmasking these puppeteers, Adorno, Horkheimer, Baudry, Mulvey, and Baudrillard point to transcendence: movement beyond the status quo and toward particularities denud­ed of abstractions.

To experience the bare world is to explore esoteric potential — unknown depths, abysmal interiors. Though this immediate contact might begin in time and space, it might end in mysteries that cannot be clocked or graphed. The superstructure’s base can turn supernatural body. According to these critiques of the prevailing ideology, commercial cinema is a tool of the culture industry. Even pictures that appear to rebel against the “one-dimen­sional” status quo — like the Gnostic Matrix, the Cabbalistic A.I., and the alchemi­cal Dead Man — reinforce the ideologies they appear to question.

In fact, films that purvey unbridled freedom prove even more pernicious than conformist movies, because rebellious films make audiences believe that all is well — autonomy is real, democracy reigns — and that no more work needs doing. To pause on these three alleged paeans to spiritual freedom is to entertain nihilism — despair before the possibility that all actions are equally meaningless.

The Matrix

In Larry and Andy Wachowski’s The Matrix — a film that actually features Baudrillard’s Simulcra and Simulation in a prominent scene — the world of everyday experience is a virtual reality created and controlled by machines that have taken over the universe. Human beings are contained in metallic pods. There they sleep out their lifetimes, though they believe that they enjoy a meaningful life in a vibrant world.

This reality, however, is a computer program. Human consciousness is nothing more than a hard drive for images manipulated by machines. But there is hope. With the help of several rebels who have awakened to the conspiracy, Neo, played by Keanu Reeves, masters the logic of the computer program, called the Matrix, and learns to defeat the machines. The film concludes with this Gnostic savior, having overturned the evil demiurge, on his way toward awakening the world from its long sleep.8

But this liberation from illusion is illusion, a moving image with no relation to things.The liberator is a Hollywood star playing in a Hollywood hit — a commod­ity for consumption featured in a commodity for consumption. As a cog in the cul­ture industry, this hero is a cipher for stereotypes of rebellion: he is at first a loner, a resistant hero, before embracing his cause; he dons black sunglasses and a long black coat; he is cool and detached; he gains victories through sleek violence and “Zen” calm. As audiences gaze on this Gnostic savior, they are not released from the false images that oppress them but are moored more firmly to abstractions. Moviegoers once again reduce rebellion to habit. They vent their revolutionary impulses through empathizing with Neo.


The same double binds blunt the critical thrusts of A.I. and Dead Man, Cabbalistic and alchemical siblings of the Gnostic Matrix. In Steven Spielberg’s A.I., Professor Alien Hobby, also known as “The Visionary” — a character portrayed by William Hurt — creates androids that resemble his dead son. These machines are totally “lifelike,” indistinguishable from human adolescents. Through his technology, the Visionary has fashioned a sort of golem, a mixture of miracle and monster — a being beyond decay that recalls Adam before the fall; an aberrant blurring of death and life, a violation of natural order.

One of Hobby’s products, David Swinton, played by Haley Joel Osment, struggles to transcend his mechanical condition and to become a human boy. He wants to overcome his monstrosity, his conflict between machine and organ, and to enjoy the miraculous, a harmony between unconscious grace and conscious thought. Davids battle is successful. After staring for centuries at a blue fairy at the bottom of a frozen ocean, he ascends to the light, where he meets a race of godly aliens. These beings arrange for the human android to reunite with his lost mother and to play all day in a paradise in which desire and fulfill­ment, thought and deed, exist in perfect concord.9

The film appears to depict the return to Eden: the glorious labor of moving beyond the limits of mechanistic determinism and toward the freedom of full humanity. However, the picture ultimately works to fit its audience into the fated grids of the corporate machine. Regardless of its emphasis on overcoming determin­ism, the picture worships machines. It is a meditation on the wonders of technology, the ability of a visionary to create life in cogs. It suggests that machines are more vital, compassionate, and intelligent than human beings. It dazzles with its slick spe­cial effects, cinematic magic dependent upon sophisticated technologies.

Dead Man

Watching a boy convert from machine to man, viewers likely descend from men to mechanisms. Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man shows its hero, William Blake, played by Johnny Depp, undergo the death of one self and the birth of another, a conversion akin to the alchemical process by which lead is dissolved into gold. Blake begins the film as a Cleveland accountant of the late nineteenth-century making his way toward a west­ern town called Machine. This town is run by a dictator, John Dickinson, portrayed by Robert Mitchum.

Blake plans to become a mechanism in Dickinson’s metal works factory, a human calculator, a quantifier of experience. However, after accidentally killing Dickinson’s son and being shot himself, the nervous accountant in the working suit must head for the western wilds, where he changes his threads for furs and comes under the care of a Native American named Nobody, played by Gary Farmer. Versed in the poetry of William Blake, Nobody believes that this wounded accountant is an incarnation of the dead artist. Since Blake himself is on the verge of dying, Nobody, like an alchemical guide, decides to lead this suffering man from the physical plane to the spiritual realm.

With the aid of his strange com­panion, Blake achieves this conversion over the course of the movie through dying to his external vocation and awakening to the artist within: he becomes a preternaturally skilled gunfighter. In making his way through the dangerous forests of the Northwest, Blake metamorphoses: from the bewildered accountant undergoing the chaos of fear, to the skilled gunfighter assured of grace in the gloomy wood, to the sage fearless before his demise in the timeless ocean.10

Though Jarmusch’s film is much less commercial than The Matrix and A.I., and though this picture avoids many Hollywood conventions, it still falls into the same traps as its mainstream companions. Blake achieves his transformation through the help of the very conventional “exotic sage” — in this case, a mystically minded Native American. This cultural stereotype suggests that change is not autonomous, issuing from a mysterious interior, but that conversion is determined, emerging from an external force. If Blake had not met Nobody, he would have died ignobly. Only through the agency of this shamanic figure does he mutate from a cipher for the industrial ideology to a sort of noble samurai. Identities remain the same until altered from without by otherworldly others.

Transformation is arbitrary, unlikely, fantastical. Stasis is natural, common, ordinary. That the film inspires audiences to change virtually, through empathy with Blake, reinforces this ideology. Moreover, the film marks the “change” through the conventional registers of western genre. A weak hero is bullied by brutes; he masters the pistol; he becomes a formidable killer. The hip western resembles the staid.

The Redemption of Failure

The Gnostic film appears to be committed to unveiling reality behind illusion. But this kind of picture annihilates the possibility that the real will ever emerge from the illusory. The Cabbalistic movie wishes to reveal our identity with the unfallen Adam. However, this type of film blurs categories — freedom and fate, machine and man — and precludes a clear sense of self The alchemical picture wants to explore the potential for conversion from dead to living, yet the cinematic alembic rein­forces the conditions that keep the world stable. Such are the skeptical conclusions of the critics of the culture industry.

Against expectation, however, one in another mood might discover something else in these exoteric commodities disguised as esoteric revelations — hidden interstices to depths beyond images. Without rejecting the analyses of Adorno, Horkheimer, Baudry, Mulvey, and Baudrillard, one might be able to show how Gnostic movies push beyond the oppositions with which these critics condemn commercial cinema, how these pictures transcend the categories of concrete and abstract, objective his­toricity and subjective idealism, simulacra of “life” and simulacra of “art.”

The three Gnostic films under discussion here appear to be aware of the main point of these critics — commercial cinema alienates from reality, however one defines the real. These movies deploy alienating conventions; at the same time, the films undercut these very motifs. With apparent self-consciousness, these Gnostic efforts seem to argue for, while rejecting, the validity of a Baudry or a Baudrillard. At odds with themselves, these pictures push toward a third term opening to the impossible: the living abyss, the ideal human, the perfect conversion.

The Matrix is a highly self-conscious film, aware of the contradictions pulling it asunder. Early in the film, Neo, not yet awakened to the illusory nature of his alleged life, hides black market computer software in a hollowed-out copy of Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. The page to the left of the cut-out area, locat­ed in the middle of the book, features a chapter heading, “On Nihilism.” This chap­ter actually comes at the end of Baudrillard’s book. The Wachowski brothers are deliberately pointing their audience to connections among Baudrillard, nihilism, and their cinematic world.

The scene itself features a “Follow Instructions” message on Neo’s computer. Those outside the Matrix have sent this imperative, followed by several clues, in hopes of awakening the future savior. Such a scene, a microcosm of the film, causes vertigo. A book meant to reveal the meaninglessness of the visible world is itself empty, a surface with no depth.

In this way, Baudrillard’s book is like Neo, an illusory form hoping to awaken his world from illusion and, like the film itself a dream critiquing the dreams that we take for fact.  The bottom falls out. The profane world of everyday material existence is an oppressive delusion; the sacred realm of exotic, spiritual being is a veil of a veil. This double bind turns and turns, a never-ending spiral of infinite regressions — phantoms point to ghosts that reveal haunts who mimic dreams that are themselves the products of phantoms.

The Matrix is replete with similar binds, dizzying whirlpools: the man from outside the Matrix who awakens Anderson from dubi­ous illusion to alleged reality is named Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams. The world outside of the Matrix, reality, is sordid and ugly, while the environment inside the Matrix, illusion, is a paradise of color and light. Inside the Matrix, the bodies of men and women are hard drives into which an intelligent computer downloads dreams; outside the Matrix, the film’s heroes possess plugs in the backs of their heads into which they load computer programs.

These double binds urge a third term, a thing beyond these poles. What tran­scends while containing opposites? What is neither this nor that and at the same time both that and this? The answer is nothing, but in two senses — the concrete and the abstract. No thing, no object or event in time or space, is capable of being two entities at once and no entity at all. But nothing, the absence of objects and events as well as of the categories of space and time, is both beyond the conflicts of matter — it is an undifferentiated abyss — and within these same divisions. It is the pervasive emptiness from which fullness emerges. While no thing, no particu­lar being, can serve as this third term, nothing, the ubiquitous void, can.

Nothing as concept is the annihilation of matter as well as the origin of material. It is void, where no pairs of opposite exist, and plenitude, the ground of all polarities. It is matrix, the unseen network of emptiness at the core of all fullness, and matrix, the invisible mother of all visible beings. Revealing the inadequacy of our concepts of illusion and truth, The Matrix pushes us to this absence, this abyss. To watch The Matrix in a theater is to glimpse this Gnostic Godhead, not in the moving images of the celluloid but in the blank screen, the absence of all color and the ground of all hues. The Matrix is a film that removes the film.

A.I. is also aware of its contradictions. In calling Professor Hobby a visionary, the film not only forges a parallel between the technological genius and the Cabbalistic magus. It also creates an analogy between this scientific figure and the artist — specif­ically, the film director. The divine mechanic fashions an artificial intelligence, a sort of golem. The result is a being that struggles between determinism and freedom. The filmmaker produces an artificial intelligence, a film that appears to live though it is inanimate. The result is a group of viewers torn between filmic conventions and lib­erating messages. This is the film’s golem-like double bind: be a machine, a passive receptacle of cultural commodities; be a human, an active creator of unique realities.

Struggling  between these poles, the picture proves a mechanism, a predictable pattern programmed to finite behaviors, and an organism, a meta-pattern reflecting on its own activities. The film troubles the idea of identity, suggesting that mechanism and organism are inadequate categories for describing a self. Machines ruin their effi­ciency by striving to be human while organs destroy their intensity by descending to habit. If organs are machines and machines are organs, then how can one articulate a stable self?

The picture does not provide an answer. Though David might transcend the troubled poles splitting him asunder when he rests with his mother, he nonetheless remains an artificial being, half android and half adolescent, the toy of the film’s demiurge and a commodity of the pictures director. Though the Visionary is a human genius capable of creating life, he is David in reverse, a human who wants to be a machine, fixated on dead things — his sons corpse and the cogs of his con­traptions. While the film is self-conscious of its own contradictions, it depicts the cinematic art as a blind tool for surveillance and control — the only moving image shown in A.I. is that of Dr. Know, a phantom wizard used by the authorities of industry to determine David’s path and direct him toward the oppressive powers that he is trying to escape.

Reaching Toward an Ideal Third Term?

Where can one glimpse a vision of identity not undone by irreconcilable dif­ferences? As with The Matrix, A.I. pushes viewers beyond the paralyzing parameters of the kinetic images on the screen to a synthetic figure outside yet within the oppositions. This figure must be beyond control and contingency alike, a site where levers lurch as gracefully as leaves and limbs stride with the clarity of pistons.

Beyond determinism, this ideal structure cannot exist within the limits of the empirical realm; it must stand somewhere behind the forward gaze. Not shapeless, this figure cannot simply be as free as air; it must be bound by form. In gathering while transcending organ and machine, this object must further be conscious, a light endlessly projecting studied mental images, and unconscious, a movement untroubled by the rift between thought and deed. As such, this impossible thing would be able to partake of the ceaseless illuminations of self-awareness, undying light, and of the delimiting darkness of oblivion, the death of thought.

Ever behind the eyes, visible and invisible, a machine expressing human vision, a melding of light and darkness, this site is approximated by the cinematic projector, a gesture toward Spielberg’s Visionary perfected, and his golem made calm. To imagine this ideal condition is to experience the Eden that the film prohibits.

Dead Man also points to a portal out of its prisons. Like The Matrix and A.I., the film expresses a self-consciousness of its irreducible conflicts, especially the rift between metamorphosis and stasis. While William Blake undergoes his transmuta­tions in the alembic of the wilderness, his image on a “wanted” poster remains the same, a stable container for the increasing quantities of money offered as rewards for his capture. This repetition suggests that change might be illusory or meaningless.

The possibility becomes a fact throughout a film that features circular patterns. Blake begins as an accountant, a man inseparable from numbers and money; he ends as a gunfighter with a price on his head, a person of quantities and cash. He starts out as fugitive fleeing from an unsuccessful past in Cleveland, and he concludes as a fugitive running from the law in the Northwest. The picture opens showing Blake traveling in a train to an unknown frontier while it closes focused on Blake floating in a canoe into the unmapped ocean.

Certainly, these recurrences appear to constitute repetitions with a difference, markers of Blake’s conversion from fumbling greenhorn to graceful gunfighter. However, these circles could just as easily reveal the impossibility of meaningful change, especially if interpreted in light of the unchanging visage on Blake’s “want­ed” poster. The latter reading is further reinforced when we remember, again, that the film itself, as commodity, is more likely to reinforce cultural status quo than it is to inspire personal rebellion. Bombarded by the conventions of the western — even if they are ironically inflected by Jarmusch — audiences experience the same old clichés that have controlled their consumptions.

Even if these viewers, like the film itself, entertain significant transformation, they likely conclude that they, along with Blake, cannot escape the rigid facial image they witness each morning in the mirror. This is the dilemma of which Dead Man is aware. On the one hand, mean­ingful metamorphosis seems impossible. On the other hand, the status quo is per­nicious, a system of capitalistic exploitation. Dead Man likewise suggests that one must strain beyond these double binds on screen to an ideal third term. Combining the virtues of turbulence with the beau­ties of pattern, this tertium quid would have to be a crepuscular realm where soft beams organize the blackness into vague forms, where shadows reveal the glory of the light.

Imagine a man in the dark theater witnessing Dead Man. Unsettled by the conflicts in Jarmusch’s film, he briefly looks to one side or the other to see if his fellow viewers feel as he does. He discerns curious figures in the twilight, faces flickering in and out of the darkness, familiar yet bizarre, stable but vague. He envisions himself in a similar way—not as a discrete self, a cogent unit struck by the beams; not as a distributed stream, a casual current spread through the gloom. He envisions himself as a merger of these two drifts: an eddy of the dark air.

Losing a grip on himself, he focuses again on the bright screen. He hopes to recover some security, but the comfort is gone. He is different. He has been briefly dismembered and reconstituted. That this occurred once might mean that other worlds, fresh ways of walking and loving, exist, in potential, waiting to be embodied. Torn asunder by irreconcilable poles, Dead Man points to this realm beyond its frames, suggesting that the dark hall might serve as a cipher for an invisible alembic never seen on land or sea, an ideal retort where the conflicts of the hard world for a time relax, where lumps of flesh metamorphose into shapes of golden air.

Screen, Projector, Auditorium

Obviously, the screen and the projector and the dark auditorium are not literally vehicles of redemption. They figuratively point to ideal powers—the Gnostic plen­itude, the Cabbalistic Adam, the alchemical retort—that reconcile the polarities pulling the world apart.

These elements intimate these invisible potencies beyond empirical registers because of their interesting physical qualities. These three visi­ble patterns constitute what Paul Valéry calls “privileged objects,” forms, like crys­tals or flowers or nautiluses, that stand out “from the common disorder of percep­tible things” because they are “more intelligible to the view, although more myste­rious upon reflection.” Duplicitous sites of “order and fantasy, invention and neces­sity, law and exception,” these palpable shapes are disclosures of secret relationships between opposites, unexpected interstices and unions.11

If Valéry’s crystals, crocus­es, and conchs are natural specimens that appear to be artificial, then the screen, camera, and theater are artificial products that seem to be organic. Let us pause on the vital mysteries of these familiar contraptions. The white screen, if one is pushed to imagine it resting beyond the moving pic­ture, at first appears to be too ordinary to notice. It is a bland square, a boring flat box. But then something happens. What initially seemed to be a positive color becomes the negation of all hue, emptiness. The box becomes a portal to nothing in particular. The absence is condensed indifference, the annihilation of all distinc­tion, the void. Staring into this gap, one suffers vertigo, the feeling of falling into the abyss. If one does not immediately recoil in fear, however, this descent becomes transcendence, a going beyond the given, a passing through Blake’s door of percep­tion, which, if cleansed, shows everything as it is: infinite.

Experiencing the empti­ness as infinity, one further senses the absence as fullness, the indifference as unity, the void as plenitude. What was before the nothing, no color, now turns into the ground of all living hues, the ubiquitous transparent current. The white square becomes alive with marigolds and toucans. It contains all things because it is no thing. It issues all life because it is beyond death.

The Projector

When the moviegoer is urged by his movie to turn his gaze from picture to pro­jector, he thinks on the clattering machine as more than a mere system of cogs. The first thing he notices is that the projector appears to be just another spectator watch­ing the picture. Perched above the obscuring heads and annoying murmurs of the audience, the projector seems an ideal, unencumbered eye.

The viewer below wish­es for this perspective himself. He imagines his own orb merged with the lens. Picturing himself inside this contraption, however, he remembers that this eye in the sky is an irradiator of light. The projector does not passively take in the picture; it actively emits the movie. Unable to reject entirely his earlier notion of the projector as neutral perceiver, the movie watcher is pulled in two directions. He wonders if all acts of seeing are conflicts between objective reception and subjective projection, between discovering a world and making an environment.

He further wonders if vision is both immanent, a reflection of temporal events, and transcendent, a refrac­tion of the events into fresh patterns. He realizes that the projector is an embodi­ment of self-aware seeing: participation in the flow of things and elevation above the current, both doing and watching, both being in the world but not of the world.

The Auditorium

Sometimes a film invites a viewer to take his eyes off the screen and notice the dark hall. He sees an indifferent blackness. He feels this dark atmosphere consume him. He is lost, nothing but a vague shape. This loss of identity results in a horri­fying weightlessness, the dissolution of the ego’s density.

But if the viewer can endure this blotting of self, he will soon feel as if he has escaped from gravity and floats freely around the dusky air. This distribution is liberating, a wide breath beyond the boundaries of social role. As this viewer imagines himself hovering among the shadowy billows, he realizes that the darkness is not monotonous after all but divided into blurred orbs and vague waves. He becomes keen on locating patterns in the turbulence, imbrications of chaos and order. Roving among these uncolored figures, he again fixes on the moving picture.

This clarity of form and color recalls him to his own volume of being. He returns to the chambers within his own skin. But he is not the same. He now realizes that he is distributed as well as discrete, a current as well as a pattern. Everything, he feels, conspires with his breathing. Nothing, he thinks, cares about his small respiration.

The mysteries of the bare screen are not revealed only by Gnostic films; the den­sities of the projector are not manifested solely by Cabbalistic cinema; and the cre­puscular airs are not inspired only by movies on alchemy. Any picture, be it Gnostic or Cabbalistic or alchemical, be it esoteric or exoteric, can point to the symbolic qualities of these phenomena. Esoteric films, however, are more likely to intimate these meanings than are exoteric pictures. In the same way, Gnostic movies are more apt to point to the void than are Cabbalistic and alchemical ones; Cabbalistic narra­tives are more prone to gesture toward the spiritual Adam than are Gnostic and alchemical stories; and alchemical tales are more attuned to the womb than are Cabbalistic and Gnostic parables.

The Self-Conscious Gnostic Film

The self-conscious Gnostic film encourages viewers to become conscious of the screen behind the flickers and thus to become aware of the white squares dynamic interplay between presence and absence. The self-aware Cabbalistic picture motivates audience members to grow aware of the projector generating the images and there­fore to cultivate consciousness of the machine’s merging of immanence and transcen­dence. he reflexive alchemical movie invites its watchers to meditate on the darkness surrounding the screen and hence to grasp the atmosphere’s polarity of difference and identity. Inspiring these cognitive acts, these films ultimately push their audiences to achieve self-consciousness similar to that depicted on the screen, an ecstatic witness.

In intimating ideal syntheses beyond the conflicts troubling their frames, the films encourage this conclusion: self-consciousness, through vexed by an endless gap between thought and action, is a mode of transcendence. To experience the irreducible double binds agitating these movies—limbos between appearance and reality, late and freedom, stasis and change—is to suffer seemingly inescapable lim­itations.

But to be aware of the complexities of these labyrinths is to gain a slight mental distance from the twists and turns, a third position that gazes on the con­flict. When the strife between opposites begins to overwhelm this third perspective, this invisible gaze is always one step ahead, always just beyond the images and objects that bedevil it.

This is the nature of self-consciousness. It opens into an infi­nite regress because it is capable of thinking about its own thinking, of seeing its own sights. While chronic spiraling might horrify some—might constitute a sym­bol of our fallen state—its ecstatic motion exhilarates others, serving as a figure for infinity, the eternal reservoir of consciousness, the indomitable “n + I.”

Intensely self-conscious of their own consumptions, the esoteric films under discussion here urge viewers to become ceaseless spectators, audiences to their own unending films. In watching their thoughts and perceptions, in then witnessing their observations on these thoughts and perceptions, and then in gazing on the witness, ad infinitum, the viewers of these movies might discover in their own interiors a placeless place and a timeless time, a fullness as empty as nothing.

To view these films as self-consuming artifacts aware of their erasures is to question the cultural critiques of Adorno, Horkheimer, Baudry, Mulvey, and Baudrillard. One wonders, can the movie space, obviously a place of hallucination, also serve as a temple? Is it possible that the culture industry is, without knowing it, an initiation cult? Are the cinematographic apparatuses—screens, projectors, dark halls—not so much dreams of the transcendental subject as figures for abysmal energies beyond Phenomenological epistemology and cultural materialism alike? Can the simulacra on the screen point to a void not nihilistic but numinous?

Criticism: The Split Between Formalism and Realism

What does this awareness of the tension between film and gnosis really have to do with the numinous, the tremendous mystery of spirit? To answer this question, one must pause on the enduring split in film criticism between formalism and realism.  A brief discussion of this rift will result in a meditation on the golden mean between these two extremes, a middle path called “transcendental irony,” or self-consciousness turned holy.

The earliest defenses of the artistic value of film were based on comparisons between cinema and the visual arts. Watching film emerge at the same time as schools of nonobjective painting—including surrealism, Dadaism, and cubism— the first apologists for film as art praised the transformative power of the moving image, the fact that the filmmaker could shape his filmic world to fit his abstract idea.

Early theorists such as Rudolf Arnheim, Ernest Lindgren, Sergei Eisenstein, and Vsevelod Pudovkin agreed: if film is to be accepted as art, it must avoid mere “objective” representation and instead must endeavor to transmute image into idea. The striking disjunctions of dream are superior to the mere unfolding of record­ed time. Georges Méliès’ visionary Trip to the Moon is of more value than the Lumière brothers’ quotidian Arrival of a Train.12 Around the middle of the twentieth century, critics began to counter this formal theory of cinema. Led by André Bazin, Henri Agel, Alain Bandelier, and Siegfried Kracauer, this rising realist school distinguished film from painting by espousing the radical objectivity of mechanical recording.

Because film records the world through chemical processes, it removes the observer and thus offers a medium grounded on the absence of the subject. Film grants the artist the possibility of actually dis­closing the world, not simply interpreting it. The film is not a representation of reality but a presentation of the real. This emphasis on the continuity between film and reality favors highly mimetic films and documentary-style films—the classical Hollywood of Weyler over the reveries of Weine, the graininess of Von Trier over the dreams of Tykwer.13

The work of Bazin and his followers inspired one of the few theoretical efforts to study film as religion. Realizing that most so-called religious films are simply about religion in untroubled thematic ways, Amédée Ayfre argued that films can only be significantly religious through realistic style.

A Sense of Wonder From the Material

Truly religious films—which need not feature overt religious motifs at all—record the world directly. They aspire for this immediate presentation not to reduce reality to the familiar but to reveal the mys­tery of the real. This idea is based on a paradox: the filmmaker transcends the image through the image. By steeping his work in stark materiality, the director calls atten­tion to the density of things. This transformation of everyday objects into ineffable events instills in the audience a sense of wonder toward things unseen.

As Michael Bird summarizes, Ayfre’s theory of “spiritual realism” requires that the sacred be grasped through both “the incarnational (a rootedness in reality itself) and the tran­scendent element (a self-negating quality discernible in reality).” Exemplars of this “spiritual realism” are Bresson’s The Diary of a Country Priest and Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, films that deploy “cinemas technical properties” to explore “the depth of reality.”14

This notion of sacred materiality tells only one side of the story. Can’t one also imagine a formalist religious cinema that deemphasizes matter to intimate something like spirit? What of the spiritual possibilities of surrealism, of montage, of camp?

Spiritual Formalism

If the realist religious film attempts to reveal the sacred through opacity—the mystery of the dense—the nonobjective religious picture tries to disclose the inef­fable by way of transparency—the mystery of illusion. All films pushing against realism are on some level skeptical toward the idea that the empirical world is sub­stantial. The surrealist picture suggests that reveries brimming up from the uncon­scious are more authentic than the conscious mind’s facts. Filmic montage intimates the primacy of the perceiving mind over perceived events. The campy film high­lights the idea that behaviors are performances of clichéd scripts and not authentic actions. Each of these modes emphasizes the mental over the physical, the idea over the image.

While films in these styles can be cynical toward transcendence, assum­ing that we are trapped in the delusions of our own minds, these movies can also be intensely transcendental, because they presuppose the ghostliness of the visible and inspire viewers to explore the substance of the invisible—the unconscious, the mind. A film instancing this “spiritual formalism” renders the image transparent to insubstantial energies.

This drainage of solidity disorients audiences, shocks them out of their habits of seeing, and throws them into nothing in particular—the undifferentiated plane that might be spirit itself.  Exemplars of this “spiritual for­malism” are Antonioni’s Blow Up and Fellini’s 8 l/2, movies whose experimental tech­niques empty images of essence in order to point to mystery beyond the given.15

Spiritual realism emphasizes matter over mind, parts over the whole, concrete over abstraction. Spiritual formalism does the opposite, valuing mental action over material stasis, holistic vision over its actual manifestation, ungraspable abstractions over things at hand. The realist stares at one object until it becomes luminous; the formalist only glances before leaving the thing behind as nothing. The realist thirsts for the simple; the formalist revels in the complex. The realist is serious; the for­malist can’t stop smirking.

I have detailed these opposing modes of representation not to condemn one or the other. The reason I have described these realist and formalist tendencies— admittedly in a somewhat reductive way—is that I want show how the pervasive style of Gnostic cinema places realism and formalism into a tense, conflicted rela­tionship and how this relationship invites transcendence of opposites.

The primary feature of this Gnostic interplay between spiritual realism and spiritual formalism is irony. This irony is of a particular kind. It is not irony as a literary ornament, a trope or figure in the dialogue dealing in double meanings, a character saying one thing but meaning the opposite. It is not irony as a sardonic attitude toward all meanings, a satirical stance capable of making fun of everything, of undercutting all seriousness through curl of the lip or the eye’s glance. This is the special type of irony developed by Romantic theorists at the turn of the nineteenth century: irony as a path to transcendence.

Transcendental Irony and Plato’s Dialogues

Irony, regardless of its mode, exists in the gap between appearance and reality, rep­resentation and presence. Certain thinkers at the end of the eighteenth century, namely Friedrich Schlegel, believed that this gap is the primary feature of the human condition, an antagonism between our desire to represent the world and our inability to do so. The only way to transcend this conflict, Schlegel feels, is to become aware of it, to undercut our representations the instant we posit them. Unexpectedly, this perpetual creation and destruction leads not to nihilism but to vital participation in the energies of the cosmos, itself a constant metamorphosis from form to formless, formless to form.

According to Schlegel, the exemplar of this kind of irony is the Socrates of Plato’s dialogues. Socratic irony is the “only involuntary and yet completely delib­erate dissimulation.” Both “perfectly instinctive and perfectly conscious philoso­phy,” the method of Socrates grows from his raw desire always to know more and his studied performance of ignorance. At odds with itself, this way of being is both “impossible to feign” and to “divulge.” The authentic passion for knowledge over­whelms the unstudied persona while the mask of ignorance covers the deep know­ing.

This opposition between the quest for truth and the feigning of stupidity “arouses a feeling of the indissoluble antagonism between the absolute and the rel­ative, between the impossibility and the necessity of complete communication.” This is the tension of all gestures, all utterances: between the fullness of the cosmos’s becoming and the fragments by which humans attempt to represent this abundance. To become conscious of this conflict and to enact it oneself through “continuous self-parody” is to achieve freedom from fixation on any one representation and to suffer the limitation of never knowing anything finally.16

Though skeptical of reaching the absolute, this irony is, Schlegel believes, “tran­scendental.”17 In measuring the real against the ideal and the ideal against the real, irony never becomes fixed on one form or idea. Irony turns into a sort of sacred buf­foonery, a boundless jest never seriously moored in the world. Destroying as it cre­ates, standing in itself and outside of itself, irony approaches the infinitude of self-consciousness, the mind’s ecstatic ability to think and watch itself think, to contain itself in an image while gazing at the image. This is the terror of never being able to rest on any representation of the world, the joy of escaping any final structure.

The aesthetic dimensions of this type of irony are many. Schlegel’s favored form of representation is the fragment, a self-consciously incomplete element that nonetheless gestures toward the completeness it can never realize. Other aesthetic modes of this kind of irony include the self-aware narrator who calls attention to his own constructions of reality and thus highlights their limitations; the mixture of primary text and commentary on the same page, a blending that sets the text at odds with itself; the unresolved depiction of irreconcilable worldviews that leaves the reader in interpretive limbo; the self-consuming poem that bears two contradic­tory meanings at the same time.

Though developed as a poetical and philosophical idea and method, Schlegel’s romantic, or transcendental, irony illuminates a certain kind of religious seeking that takes matter seriously as a possible revelation of spirit but also demeans mate­rial as a veil to the invisible. The Gnostic tradition and its two primary issues exemplify this ironic religious questing.

Transcendental Irony and Gnostic Film

In viewing matter as an illusion blocking knowledge of spirit, Gnosticism, as we shall see in detail in chapter one, necessarily suffers a complex relationship to mate­rial. On the one hand, the Gnostic must reject matter as unreal; he simply cannot take palpable events seriously because they ultimately do not exist. On the other hand, this same Gnostic must take matter somewhat seriously either as a negation of spirit that suggests the positive qualities of its opposite or as a corrupt pattern of spirit that intimates the virtues of its original.

Irony is the only way that the Gnostic can negotiate between these extremes, the only way that he can pretend that matter is significant while knowing it is meaningless, that he can study matter as negative disclosure and ignore matter as obscuring veil. The Cabbalist golem-maker must view matter in a similar fashion — both as a covering film and a transparent window. The golem-maker knows that the material plane is a discordant copy of spiritual harmony. However, he also realizes that the best way to transcend matter is through matter. His golem is meant to be both a material form, a fallen shape, and a spiritual ves­sel, a redeemed human.

This duplicity is troubling. It means that the magus must embrace the matter he manipulates into a man and hate the very material that he hopes to transcend. Only an ironic stance can empower him to achieve this double business, this authentic effort to meld matter into a noble form and this equally serious attempt to destroy this same shape.

The alchemist is likewise constrained to Schlegel’s transcendental irony. For the magus over his alembic, every material form is a pattern of the primal chaos to which it will regress as well as of the pristine order to which it will progress. This is the mercurial world of the alchemist — every­thing is constantly in metamorphosis, either dissolving or resolving, sinking into the mire its mother or rising to the crystalline father. The primary figure of the alchemical tradition is Mercury himself, the androgynous shape-shifter, everyone and no one.

The goal of the alchemist is to find the Mercury dwelling in all ele­ments, the potential pressing for actuality, the actuality deflating back into poten­tial. This pursuit requires irony: the ability to hold forms while exploding them, to realize that all stasis is change and that transformation is tranquil.



1. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, “The Culture Industry: The Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” 120-67.

2. Jean-Louis Baudry, “Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus,” 345-55.

3. Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure’s and Narrative Cinema,” 198-209.

4. Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, 1-42.

5. Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society, 1-18.

6. In this regard, see especially Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences.

7. Of course, here I could invoke other important theories of the conspiracy of the commercial film. One thinks in this context of David Bordwell’s chapter on classical Hollywood cinema in Narration in Fictional film. In this section, Bordwell discusses the basic structures of the commercial film — how it goes about representing the “real.” Noel Carroll’s entire body of critical work has been indispensable in helping me think through the relationship between film and insight, especially his chapter on ideology in Theorizing the Moving Image. Richard Allen offers an especially lucid account of cinema view­ing and philosophical theories of perception in “Looking at Motion Pictures” (76-94). While each of these pieces — along with those of Adorno and Horkheimer, Baudry and Baudrillard — have helped me to articulate my position, none has focused on how cinematic perception might connect to esoteric transcendence.

8. The Matrix has already spawned a voluminous amount of criticism. Although no one has yet focused on the film’s esoteric self-contradictions, several have noted the film’s religious elements and its relationships to Baudrillard. Sec, for instance, Frances Flannery-Dailey and Richard Wagner’s “Wake Up! Gnosticism and Buddhism in The Matrix;” James L. Ford’s “Buddhism, Mythology, and The Matrix” 125-44; Dino Felluga’s “The Matrix: Paradigm of Post-Modernism or Intellectual Poseur? (Part I),” 71-84; Andrew Gordon’s “The Matrix: Paradigm of Post-Modernism or Intellectual Poseur? (Part II),” 85-102; Michael Brannigan’s “There Is No Spoon: A Buddhist Mirror,” 101-10; Gary Bassham’s, “The Religion of The Matrix and the Problems of Pluralism,” 11-25; Christopher Williams’s “Mastering the Real: Trinity as the ‘Real’ Hero of The Matrix,” 2-17; and David Lavery’s “From Cinescape to Cyberspace: Zionists and Agents, Realists and Gamers in The Matrix and eXistenZ,” 150-57.

While these essays more or less track die ways in which The Matrix inflects either religious currents or Baudrillardian ideas, a few other pieces intelligently reveal the film’s rich contradictions, even if these pieces do not relate the contradictions to the esoteric tradition. See Russell A. Kilbourn’s “Re-Writing ‘Reality’: Reading The Matrix,” 43-54; Thomas S. Hibbs’s “Notes from the Underground: The Matrix and Nihilism,” 155-65; and Sarah K. Worth’s “The Paradox of Real Response to Neo-Fiction,” 178-87.

9. Two recent essays on the ways in which A.I. explores relationships and reversal between humans and machines are John Tibbetts’ “Robots Redux: A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001).” 258-61; and Tim Kreider’s “Review: A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” 32-39. Though these essays meditate intelligently on the film’s blurrings of the boundaries between mechanism and organism, neither focuses on how the movie inflects the golem tradition or urges, through paradox, transcendence of the rift between cog and consciousness.

10. The two most revealing pieces on Dead Man are Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Dead Man and Mary Katherine Hall’s “Now You Are a Killer of White Men: Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man and Traditions of Revisionism in the Western,” 3-14. Although neither of these works explores the alchemical elements of Dead Man. both meditate on the ways in which Jarmusch’s picture attempts to revise the traditional Western through its “mystical” commitments.

11. Paul Valéry. Sea Shells. 23. In this regard, see Philip Kuberski’s chapter, “The Metaphor of the Shell,” 78-93. Like Valéry, Kuberski finds that the shell is double—a familiar geometry and a strange involute: “The prophetic and the memorable, the future and the past are . . . conserved within the inward and outward whorls of a shell, as if within the covers of a book. And yet the pages of this book are themselves blank and nacreous, streaked by blues perhaps but without trace or inscription. Its form is thus apocalyptic in the sense that it speaks of destruction and revelation, and suggests how each can be the consequence of the other. More ancient, more marvelous, more unfathomable than the wonders of the ancient world . . . the seashell is, like them, a recollection of life’s earliest architectures and enig­mas” (80).

12. Michael Bird, “Film as Hierophany.” 10-11.

13 Ibid., 11-13.

14. Ibid., 14-17. Paul Schrader’s idea of the transcendental film, expressed in Transcendental Style in Film, as based on sparseness—as opposed to overabundance—is similar to Bird’s notions. It is signifi­cant that Schrader uses Bresson and Dreyer—along with Ozu—to exemplify his ideas (1-15).

15. This idea runs counter to Schrader’s notion that transcendental cinema is grounded on sparse-ness. I’m suggesting that overabundance can exhaust significance.

16. Friedrich Schlegel, Philosophical fragments, 36.

17. Ibid., 45.


This excerpt is from Secret Cinema: Gnostic Visions in Film  (Continuum, 2006). This is the second of three parts with parts one here and  part two here.

Eric G. WilsonEric G. Wilson

Eric G. Wilson

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

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