In her book, Seeing and Believing: Religion and Values in the Movies, Margaret R. Miles calls for contemporary filmmakers to invent conventions that describe cinematically the experiences of religious people today. She complains: "...contemporary Hollywood films have not developed conventions to signal religious motivation and commitment," in order that we may look to film when we ask, '"How should we live?'" This is necessary, she later argues, because "what film does best...is to articulate the anxieties of a changing society." She has a valid complaint. There are many films today that feature religion—they have characters that are Christ figures or go to church, synagogue, or mosque, or have stories based on the life of Buddha or the Dalai Lama—but rarely is their subject religious commitment. In my experience writing about religion and film for the Cresset, religion is often an incidental part of the movies about which I write. Often I read them from the perspective of a religious person, asking, "What in this movie applies to my understanding of the Christian mission?" or "What in this film expands my understanding of what religion is?" I don't ask the question "How should we live?" directly, because the films themselves rarely view their subjects from a religious point of view. (The religious components of Dead Man Walking, The Last Supper, and The Shawshank Redemption were all secondary to the exploration of political agendas, for example.)
But I differ with Miles when she states that to properly answer the question "How should we live?" a film must advocate religious experience. Why can't a film simply evoke it? Two recent films, What Dreams May Come and Beloved themselves ask the question "How should we live?" though their answers couldn't be more different.
A possible answer to Miles' complaint about the absence of cinematic conventions to explore religious matters may be to resurrect the medieval literary genre of Dream Vision for the screen. The cinema may be uniquely suited to the very visual use of allegory and fantastic and transformative events that belong to the genre. In addition, to use it today would be to draw a parallel between our era and an earlier period of history equally obsessed with The End. But except for some of Terry Gilliam's films (you could make a good argument that Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas brings Dream Vision to film), its conventions are largely alien to cinema. What Dreams May Come may be an example of Dream Vision. The elements are there: the searching protagonist, his object of devotion, his guide. Like some medieval dream visions its subject is the human soul. But this isn't what Miles has in mind. This film stumbles as it attempts to answer fundamentally spiritual questions in a secular way.
What Dreams May Come is about Christy, a pediatrician who dies and goes to the afterlife where he meets a spirit guide and mourns the loss of his wife, Annie, who survives him. She takes her own life shortly afterward and goes to spend eternity in Hell. Christy convinces himself that he cannot spend eternity without Annie and elects to find her in Hell and get her out.
Both the Heaven to which Christy goes and the death he experiences are manufactured to appeal to secular audiences at once frightened by the prospect of what dreams may accompany death, and unwilling to give up material security to find out. This is an audience wholly unlike Truman, the questing character in The Truman Show. Where Truman leaves a secure but empty life to sail to the end of the world and meet his Maker, What Dreams May Come keeps us secure, but answers none of our questions.
What is it like to die? The movie describes death much the way an "X-Files" episode might: we see Christy's soul hovering over his body; Christy watching his funeral; Christy walking through a dark tunnel toward a bright, white light. But is what we have come to recognize as near-death experience an adequate way to describe the physical failings of the body or our separation from our loved ones? The events that cause Christy's death look gruesome and bloody, but the death itself is surgical, familiar, painless. What about suicide? We don't get to see Annie's death.
What will it be like to meet God? It appears, according to What Dreams May Come, that God isn't in His heaven after all. When Christy asks, "Where is God?" his guide dismisses his question as if it were merely rhetorical. God is there "somewhere," the guide says, pointing to the sky.
Will I be with my loved ones in Heaven? Again, the guide answers unsatisfactorily: "'Here' is big enough for them to have their own private universe." In fact, in this film's afterlife, Heaven is what you and everybody else always imagined it to be.
The relativism suggested by the answers that the film gives us obviously appeals to the sense of secularism prominent in America today. We value personal freedoms, so we refuse to "impose" our idea of Heaven or God on anyone else. We are secure in our beliefs, we say, so we don't have to. Like Christy and the other inhabitants of the heavens in What Dreams May Come, we live isolated spiritual lives. We are more comfortable talking to our neighbors about our plastic surgeries and our sex lives than about our experience of God. What Dreams May Come fails to satisfy our need for spiritual communion, partly because it has no context within which to frame even these most cursory questions. The best it can do is the popular culture (near-death experience has its origin in television, popular literature, and the movies, not in any moral or religious tradition), a house whose foundation lies in sand.
What Dreams May Come could also be called The Consolation of Psychology or begin with the phrase "The Kingdom of Heaven is like a psychiatrist's couch." The movie substitutes psychoanalysis (or rather, a pared-down, generic, trivialized version of the process—contemporary Americans want their problems solved fast) for religion and the self-discovery that accompanies analysis for spirituality. The result confuses that which helps us in life with that which gives us a framework and a purpose for our lives. The film mistakes the hammer for the house. Emotional awareness becomes the criterion for being. At one point a character actually utters the words "I am aware, therefore I am." The search on which Christy embarks leads him progressively inward to the point where his guide through Hell reveals himself as having been a psychiatrist in life. The absence of God dilutes the possibilities for a moral universe, so should we really be surprised when Christy learns that the populace of Hell are not prisoners of sin but regular folks who just couldn't manage their lives? "The real Hell," according to Christy's guide, "is your life gone wrong." This statement assumes a couple of things, neither of them good for psychoanalysis, not to mention human psyches and human souls. First, it assumes that therapy ultimately results in happiness, and secondly that happiness and salvation are equivalent.
It's easy to see the feeling of security this film's audience can take from these assumptions. Therapy becomes salvific while the patient is accountable only to himself. In therapy the therapist makes no judgments and encourages the patient to make choices. This model therefore replaces God with an interlocutor. In the film, souls may choose to be reincarnated. It isn't a decision that a higher power makes for you, or even the way of the universe. "As long as we don't allow our lives to go wrong, we human beings can have complete control over eternity." Very comforting for an audience that knows it doesn't have any control over what happens in life. The Dow-Jones may tumble, the millenium bug may wreak havoc with our credit cards, our children may run with the wrong crowd, but in death we will find peace in our choice to ignore all of this in our own private universe.
The message of the film aside, the director of What Dreams May Come commits the greatest sin in filmmaking today by failing to connect what's happening visually on screen to the narrative. The film's art director gives him so much to work with, too! Allusions to everything from impressionism and post-impressionism to Romantic painting to the Dore illustration of The Divine Comedy to Michaelangelo's Last Judgement appear on screen before us but the director doesn't notice. His lack of insight fails the film, for Christy is supposed to be an art connoisseur and Annie an artist. Even if he were sadly under-educated about fine art, you'd think he'd be able to play around within his own artistic tradition. When you have Max von Sydow dressed as a medieval cleric preparing to take your protagonist into Hell, how could you resist a well positioned chess piece, a prop in the shape of a sickle—anything?
Absence of allusion causes Jonathan Demme's film, Beloved, to suffer, as well. It's a pity, too, because Toni Morrison's novel, the text of which the film follows almost exactly, is richly allusive. Reading the novel, with its nods to Homer and Hawthorne, Faulkner, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and the Bible, you get the feeling that it is a culmination of American literature and all of its influences. To paraphrase marketing departments at publishing houses everywhere, Beloved belongs on the shelf next to the works of other "great" American authors. But in Beloved, Morrison also brings the genre of American slave narrative not simply to sit next to Faulkner, but to intermingle with it. Indeed, the novel Beloved makes a good case that the story of slavery is central to the American experience, that without it we would have no framework to tell any of our other stories. The only thing that Demme's Beloved alludes to is the pea-soup scene in the Exorcist. Demme, who has a special sense for the creepy, gets caught up in the innate creepiness of the story, so, while you won't see Hannibal Lector walking down Bluestone Road, you do feel that the ghost story has taken over some of the movie's other stories.
The big clue, of course, is Beloved herself. Played by Thandie Newton, Beloved snorts and snores like the Beast itself, and when she first opens her mouth to speak the ghost of Linda Blair emerges from between her lips to hover over the production. While Newton's choices as an actor bring definition to what is a shadowy character, Demme should have reined her in and let Beloved remain a mystery—at least for little while longer. From the time Beloved first speaks the mystery of her incarnation disappears and too early in the story we know what must happen at the end. In fact, we know before the rest of the film's characters know, and for a director to achieve that without foreshadowing must be embarrassing.
Beloved needs to be more literate. Morrison didn't win the Nobel Prize for lack of skill, and any film interpretation of her work should be in part an homage to her understanding of her own place in America's literary tradition. In the novel, there is a moment when Sethe is led from the toolshed to the sheriff's wagon, carrying one daughter in her arms and covered with the blood of another. Her resemblance to Hester Prynne leaving the jailhouse for the scaffold in that passage could not be more clear. The power of allusion—and even evocation—is that when it surfaces the texts involved at that moment enter into a kind of dialogue and begin to illuminate each other. When Sethe and Hester stand side by side, the questions about sin and forgiveness in both their stories multiply. But in the film of Beloved there is no such scene.
Though we could wish for Demme or the screenwriters to have read more books before they sat down to work on Beloved, it would be shortsighted to condemn the film on this ground alone. Demme's decision to bring elements of the horror genre into Beloved is bold though not ineffective. In part, horror's conventions give the cinema language to use to describe evil. Furthermore, Beloved remains a ghost story, and therefore genres which perhaps speak of evil more subtly—noir, for example—have no words to communicate what Beloved needs to communicate. Needless to say, Demme walks an unfamiliar path with this movie, for Beloved is also a story of salvation—one could say the Christian story of salvation—and how often does that appear, from beginning to end, in American cinema today?
Not just one character's story, the film Beloved follows a family of former slaves from slavery into freedom. The story revolves around Sethe, her daughter Denver, and her friend Paul D. Haunted both by memories and by a real spirit capable of causing the house to quake and brutalizing the family dog, they are joined by a young woman named Beloved.
If What Dreams May Come imagines freedom where in reality spiritual isolation lies, Beloved explores the relationship between spiritual isolation and freedom. Beloved identifies the separation of families as being one of the crueler aspects of slavery. The film is full of separation: Sethe from her mother, her children, her husband; Sethe and Denver from the community. When Sethe tells Paul D that her sons have run away, he imagines a life separated from loved ones as a preventative of slavery. It's best that they wander, he says. If they stay in one place for too long, some one will find a way to put them in chains. But it's clear from Paul D's actions that he prefers a life of connectedness to the life of a wanderer. He talks to his friends about wanting to have children and know them. He appears on Sethe's doorstep and demands her company. He entices Sethe and Denver to walk out beyond their front gate. His presence in the film sets the narrative running. He banishes the ghost, he challenges the strange visitor. Paul D's ability to do these things grows from his understanding of himself as a free man. When he talks to his friends about wanting to have children and know them, he mentions that he has been bought and sold five times in his life. His need to foster connection by fathering children comes from his experience of having this simple, basic joy denied him when he lived as a slave, unable to govern his own comings and goings. He may draw a parallel between slavery and staying put, but after 20 years of running, he decides to remain in one place, connected to it not with iron, but by a choice to belong.
Sethe's determination to isolate herself grows from the same desire to have children and to know them. She articulates her wish to keep her children out of slavery by explaining that she wants to keep the family together. She explains her actions in the woodshed as a plan for her family. She was trying to get the whole family "to the other side," she tells Beloved. The difference between Paul D and Sethe is that he is able to embrace freedom, while Sethe escapes from literal slavery into a life as a slave of her memories. Late in the film when Sethe, jobless and friendless, comes to believe that Beloved is her daughter come back from the grave, she curses Paul D for "distracting" her from the truth.
Demme's decision to make Beloved evil incarnate is particularly powerful considering Sethe's retreat into shame. The decision makes clear that by refusing to seek forgiveness for killing one child and trying to kill the rest, Sethe invites evil to dwell with her.
Beloved's most satisfying conclusion is that when forgiveness isn't asked for it still can be given. Faced with a mother gone insane with guilt and the devil lying in her bed, Denver seeks to restore a relationship between her mother and the community. Unfortunately for the film, Demme is better at the gruesome than the holy, because the scene in which the women of the community come to Sethe's house to drive Beloved out should slap us in the face with as much force as the opening scene or the scene in which Sethe takes the saw to her children's throats. Demme is much too serene. He films the scene as if he were five years old, in church and some adult told him to sit quietly and to look straight ahead. The devil doesn't disappear from your life that easily. Still, it is an admirable scene because it is something that would never happen to Christy or Annie. In this scene, neighbors make Sethe's soul their business.
What Dreams May Come answers the question "How should we live?" by telling us to move inward, inviting isolation. Beloved answers the question "How should we live?" because it has a sense of what brings us joy and a sense of what separates us from that which brings us joy. It envisions the individual as a part of a community, and the community as being responsible for the well-being of the individuals within it. The most effective part of the movie, when Demme's direction is at its best, is when the character Baby Suggs preaches. Inserted into the narrative in a manner that looks like flashback but suggests something else, the scenes appear to transcend memory, to take place outside of time. "Love your flesh," the preacher tells the people who were once slaves. "They do not love your flesh." Resurrected bodies laugh, dance, and cry to Baby Suggs's direction. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a woman who was once a slave and who is now free.