The Revelatory Experience in Cinema

Yesterday I saw Life of Pi. The critics have, of course, lavished their praise on the film, an adaptation of critically acclaimed novel. Directed by Ang Lee, and produced with the latest in computer special effects, it is certainly a pretty film.  And why shouldn’t it be?  Film is a visual medium, so one that fails to capitalize on the possibilities presented (within its budget) is an ill-conceived one.   But it’s not just the strength of the images that has critics enthralled, it’s the power of the story presented as well.  It results in the usual array of words floating across the screen overlayed with clips from the movie during commercials: dazzling, stunning, and beautiful, just to name a few.  One that I’ve seen showing up more than once was “spiritual” and even “revelatory” once or twice.
Apparently those last two words aren’t just typical critical bluster; the audience seems to believe it as well.  For instance, a critic on Slate happened to not give a glowing review of the movie and was met with some derisive commentary from readers.  Mostly along the lines of how the spirituality of the film clearly went over the reviewer’s head.  You know, the way certain music fans think they’re profound intellectuals because they caught some obscure reference in a lyric.

But I have a problem with the idea of a movie being particularly revelatory.  That word has a certain gravitas to it.  You don’t use it unless it involves something downright life altering.  Movies can be a lot of things and evoke many emotions but how easily manipulated are you if you find a film revelatory?  And if you are that easily controlled by a movie, doesn’t that make the experience rather meaningless?

An anecdote: at my first job, I had to endure a co-worker coming into work one Monday all depressed because he had seen Passion of the Christ over the weekend.  He said he’d really been moved by witnessing Jesus’ sacrifice for us and it really made him think about things.  Imagine that, a religious conversion at matinee prices! Christian Propaganda never worked so well! And such profundity from the guy who called me a faggot for seeing the Return of the King just a few months earlier. This was when I first realized that the sort of person for whom a movie can be a life altering experience is probably an attention whore or maybe just an idiot.  Not that this was a life altering experience; he never mentioned Jesus or mentioned religion again in the time that I knew him.

Even then, what spirituality is there to be found in movies besides what the audience brings to it in the first place?  I remember reading about how people cheered during screenings of the Horton Hears a Who movie several years ago at the line “a person is a person, no matter how small” because they felt the line was an explicit endorsement of the pro life movement.  Sure, the movie created a rallying point for their cause, but that had far more to do with them projecting their own views on it than anything the film provided.  Can something be revelatory if you’re just using it to reflect your own beliefs back at you?

Life of Pi did no less than “make you believe in God” according to its own story.  So the question would then be; did it convert a non-believer (which I supposed would be revelatory) or simply re-affirm the believers’ beliefs?  Will my former coworker show up to his job on Monday all depressed because he’s not a tiger?


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