10 October 2005

Footprints of film in the U.S. religious landscape.

By S. Brent Plate

At the top of the great steps of Philadelphia’s statelyMuseum of Art, one can find the footprints of Rocky. Tourists from all over the world make pilgrimages here to climb the enormous stairway leading to the museum and the footprints, a little hunk of bronze and cement, imprints of Rocky’s Converse high tops. Jumping up and down with arms raised, these tourist-pilgrims have their picture taken, then go home and put that image in their scrapbooks and on their web pages to say, “Look, I stood where Rocky stood!”

“Rocky,” of course, refers to Rocky Balboa, the character played by Sylvester Stallone in the Rocky films. WhileGrauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood is well known for its footprints and handprints of movie stars, the impressions there are accompanied by the actors’ real names, people who have actual hands that can make an imprint in setting cement. But in the case of Rocky’s footprints, there is no Rocky. He was only a fictional character in a movie.

The religious landscape of the U.S. is littered with such footprints of film. Far from being immaterial — nothing but light projected on a two-dimensional surface — filmic images have leapt off the screen and entered physical, three-dimensional spaces, leaving their marks in American cement, religious consciousness, and ritual practices. Many scholars of religion have, in recent years, turned to film as a rich resource for thinking about religious subjects, and use film in the classroom as illustration or even as theological source. Yet, we no longer find the intersection where religion meets film simply in theaters or living rooms. Instead, we must look to the streets, stairways, weddings, funerals, cities, and deserts of the U.S. Like the character Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) in Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo, film has stepped down off the screen to infiltrate political, social, and religious lives, hallowing the ground it touches. Only, it is not just a movie.

A survey of the online annals of bridal media reveals that “theme weddings” are a hot trend in the wedding industry. Many wedding planners offer a variety of focal themes, from Renaissance themes to underwater weddings, from Hawaiian to Scottish to fairy tale lands, and the ever-popular Elvis impersonator presiding. “Wedding Shops Online” offers suggestions of wedding themes such as “country/western,” “ethnic,” “nautical,” and “Movie or Television”: “Have all in attendance dress up as characters from your favorite movie or television program (i.e. Star Trek). Carry the theme throughout the reception — serve food that was served during the movie, play theme music, etc. Send invitation and program designed as a ‘Play Bill.'” Other Internet searches reveal couples having theme weddings based on films such as Gone with the Wind,Casablanca, and Braveheart.

Similar film themes can be created for b’nai mitzvahs (mitzvoth). Indeed, Woody Allen’s 1997 film, Deconstructing Harry, depicts a Star Wars-themed bar mitzvah, complete with child cutting the cake with a light saber. The scene, however, did not stem from the imaginative mind of Allen, but from life itself. Since then, partypop.com has made a business of offering planning advice for bar mitzvahs with themes such as Back to the FutureThe Terminator, and Lost in Space. Or consider the bat mitzvah of one Lisa Niren in 1998, reported in the Associated Pressfor its lavish Titanic theme in which a hotel ballroom was transformed into the luxury liner, including a greatly enlarged photograph with the bat mitzvah’s face superimposed over that of Kate Winslet, giving the impression that Leonardo DiCaprio was peering over her shoulder.

Lest anyone think these filmic footprints are confined to the fun and games of a few isolated rituals — even as we recall the serious and necessary fun that is ritual — consider the U.S. Supreme Court ruling this past June allowing the display of the Ten Commandments in Austin, Texas. Situated between the state capitol and judicial buildings, the 6 ft x 3 ft granite sculpture of the Decalogue is chiseled in a quasi-Gothic script King James English, the words surrounded by decorative flourishes: the Christic Greek chi-ro characters, stars of David, and an American flag. Usually hidden beneath the legal language of the case, a few articles on the court case eventually do point out how the plethora of Ten Commandment sculptures outside courthouses, capitols, and urban squares in the United States today actually came into being through the publicity stunts of the great filmmaker, Cecil B. DeMille.

In the mid-1950s, DeMille was finishing his second version of The Ten Commandments, famously starring Charlton Heston as Moses. As promotion for the film, DeMille got in touch with the Fraternal Order of Eagles, a nationwide association of civic-minded clubs (founded in 1898, interestingly enough, by a group of theatre owners), who had been distributing copies of the Ten Commandments to courtrooms across the country as “guidance” for juvenile delinquents. DeMille and the FOE upped the symbolic stability of the Decalogue by commissioning hundreds of granite sculptures of Moses’ tablets to be placed outside courthouses across the United States, including Austin, Texas. DeMille died in 1959, but the FOE continued the task of planting the sculptures through the 1960s (they erected the Austin Decalogue in 1961), and those sculptures have now become a focal point for Supreme Court decisions that impinge directly on church-state issues in the United States.

Film has left its footprints in U.S. culture, ritual life, political discourse, and religious consciousness, morphing from its two-dimensional, light-projected existence to a three-dimensional incarnation. The interesting point emerges when we recognize that film has so permeated cultural consciousness that we forget how material “reality” can have its origins in ethereal light projected onto a screen. There is no Rocky, and granite Ten Commandments are as much vestigial publicity stunts as they are making a statement about God-given law as the origin of the modern legal system.

Rocky’s footprints allow us mere mortals to step into Rocky’s shoes, perhaps in a double-edged ironic gesture that both knows the falsity of the experience and yet delights in it anyway because we take our place in a certain mythological history. The case of the Ten Commandments, on the other hand, shows us the power of the filmic image in the making and shaping of political, social, and religious life.

In either case, the image becomes the grounding, or at least the catalyst, for that which we consider “real,” letting us see how film has stepped down off the screen and challenged us to think again about the construction of the world. Film fuses into the public spaces of civic life as it engenders court cases promoting deep political dialogue that harkens back to the founding of the nation, long before the moving, refracted-light image was a twinkle in the eyes of the Lumìere brothers and Thomas Edison.

S. Brent Plate is assistant professor of religion and the visual arts at Texas Christian University. His most recent books are Walter Benjamin, Religion, and Aesthetics: Rethinking Religion Through the Arts (Routledge) and an edited volume Re-Viewing the Passion (Palgrave Macmillan).