LAMP OF THE BODY
This is a really random story, but it popped into my head while walking my dog about a week ago so I figured I would share it. When I was in college I took a class about the cinema of liberation. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I signed up, but it was a study of the way that film is used to subvert authority and expose oppression. It was my least-favorite film course, to be honest. I hardly ever participated because I had a hard time entering the conversation. At the time I thought that was because the professor was clearly an angry atheist with an agenda, but looking back I can admit that the problem was it was a bit over my head. Even though I didn’t particularly enjoy the class, in the long run I think it has stuck with me just as much as any film class I took because of one particular film we watched. It took me until this past week to fully process the whole experience (maybe it was more than a ‘bit’ over my head). Since I can’t go back in time and discuss my thoughts in the class, I figured I would tell the story here.
As the course went and we were watching these films about oppressed people groups, the professor kept telling us that we weren’t angry enough. (In hindsight, maybe his own anger was due to the fact that he was teaching us how powerful film can be while simultaneously we were all relatively un-moved. I don’t know.) So he started threatening to show us a certain film that he knew would cause a reaction in us. Something about the way he described it, coupled with past experiences in film classes told me to expect something pretty raunchy. I think it was his obvious desire to shock us that caused me to pray about showing up to class the day he was going to show the film. I’d never done that before because I was pretty serious about taking film seriously as an expression and I figured everyone has the right to be heard. This time though, it was like someone saying to me, “I’d like to express myself by taking you into a room and just screaming vulgarities at you in order to purposefully disgust you. That cool?” I didn’t see a need to hear that or deal with the possible affects it would have on me to see whatever promiscuous stuff he was going to show us. I ended up skipping class that day.
The next class I came in and had already forgotten about the whole thing. The professor got up and said “Ok, today we’re finally going to get to the movie I’ve been telling you about.” In my head: “….#$*%.” So I was once again finding myself conflicted about whether to stay or whether to go. I decided I didn’t want to be ‘that guy’ and make some sort of scene so I just prayed and stayed. What I ended up seeing was worse than I expected. Later, the professor proudly said that we would never forget that day and of course he was right. I sat at my desk with the distinct feeling that what I was seeing was the face of evil, even though I didn’t fully understand the feeling. I don’t want to give the impression that I was being dramatic, I wasn’t. I sat at my desk quietly and then left quietly and never voiced any complaint, but I was sure that there was something dark about the experience. Without giving too much detail, the shocking thing about the film, in addition to all of the purposefully (albeit skillfully) grotesque imagery, was that nothing in the film was suggestion. Nothing was simulated and this went far beyond pornography. Sometimes the fact that an actor is performing an action in reality becomes part of the story of a film, such as a Jackie Chan movie where the audience knows he is doing his own stunts. In the most shocking scene of this particular movie, the actors were given the direction to try and strip away all of their inhibitions until they became like children and to just improvise while the cameras rolled. The results were absolutely horrific.
So now that I’ve had about 4 years to process the whole experience, it suddenly came back into my mind and I tried to think about it from the perspective of a guy with 4 more years of wisdom and experience. I decided to research the film and the director a little bit. I read articles and reviews, including Roger Ebert’s. Ebert actually said what made the whole thing click for me. He said this about the director: “It’s as if he wanted to test himself; to see how far he could go with his notion that the fundamental human acts…provide the ways and moments in which we’re most alive, and that all the systems we lay on top of them (Marxism, fascism, any-ism) block the natural flow.” Perfectly said! The whole point of the movie, as well as the point of the class, was that all systems and “ism’s” are meant to give power to some while oppressing others. They stop us from living out our natural humanity. I finally understood what the professor and the film were trying to say and I finally understood why the thing I was looking at felt evil. As an atheist, my professor has a very different understanding of what a human being is than I do. I think Ebert was right that the director of the film was trying to test his own limits and expose all the ways in which he could defy oppressive social-norms by asking his actors to do unspeakable things. (‘unspeakable’ probably being an oppressive term used by people like me who live by an ‘ism’, according to the director) When everything was stripped away, the result was literally what I would call hell. It was people without dignity, without boundaries, without coherence and without value. I look back on that experience as a glimpse into the heart of atheism. Let me be clear, I’m not saying I saw the heart of the ATHEIST, I’m saying I saw the heart of ATHEISM. Human beings devoid of the value I believe they’re given by their Creator. If someone were to ask me why I believe in the existence of Hell, I would point to that film and claim that I’ve seen it. Separation from God leaves us confused about who and what we are.
The whole thing begs the question of whether or not this justifies the creation of the film or my watching it. Well, my understanding may have grown as a result, but I don’t believe I needed that film to get me here. In fact, the woman who played the main character was so upset by being subjected to such terribly humiliating things that she walked out of the movie and they had to change a lot of the story. I don’t think we can look at that as positive.
Hope you enjoyed my little journey back to film class.