Tuesday, May 18, 2010

a mustard seed of violence

this is a video mashup for my theology and film course on which I spent last weekend working. I ought to warn you that its theme is violence and thus its imagery, much of which is devoted to films we studied in class, is violent (including a scene from m.i.a.'s "born free," on which I've written). also below is the short theological statement I wrote for it.

this is the sort of thing I do nowadays, consider the mashup of theology and reality. tonight I begin work on an essay about the mestizaje future of american religion. all this is very different from any of the scenes I ever imagined in my life over the past half century. that is a plus.

A Theological Statement to Accompany
A Multi Media Statement
By Bob Bledsoe

Americans are less a people of violence than we are a people who love violence. Especially when it is done by or to our factotums. Like the mustard seed of Luke 13:18-19, violence “is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air perched in its branches.” It is this tendency toward metastasizing rather than a love for violence itself that betrays something uniquely American.

From the beginning, Americans enjoyed violence. The Great Train Robbery (1903) features a lethal gun battle at midway; similarly, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) often speeds up its plotline with war battles and gunplay, including a reenactment of Lincoln’s assassination. What may be noted about both is their lack of realism: in Train Robbery the actor who is shot throws up his hands as if in frustration and spins several times before falling; Lincoln is shot at close range from behind but there is no blood and no observable damage to the actor himself beyond his slumping. If Griffith’s take on violence is accepted, being shot in the back of the head merely leads to poor posture. This neatened violence reaches its apex in the epic but apparently harmless kung fu battle between Neo and hundreds of Agents Smith in Matrix Reloaded (2003).
Spiritually more honest is the violence of movies like Kids (1995), Transamerica (2005), and Hustle and Flow (2005). The violence is short, spontaneous, and people bleed. Their violence has consequences. Whether the violence is directed outward at strangers, as in these films or allegorized against an ape in The Hunger (1983), or in the direction of loved ones, personally as in Brokeback Mountain (2005) or the representational Daughters of the Dust (1991), or in the direction of the self, as during Virgil’s nightwalk with The Brother From Another Planet (1984) or the recitation of Venus Xtraveganza’s suicidal behavior in Paris is Burning (1991), it is not inconsequential. Quotations from the Psalms and Micah suggest the same thing: violence is real and expressed not for our entertainment but against us (the video “Born Free” [2010] and American History X [1998]).

The violence need not be physical. It can be social, systemic, and endemic, against a class of people (as shown in The Soloist [2009] and Addressless [2007]). We cannot dissociate from it: the violence is in the best and the most innocent of us (for instance the children in the opening to The Wild Bunch [1969]).

Perhaps it’s more accurate to say violence in American movies are often played as a game as suggested by the girls’ dance sequence from Daughters of the Dust. Proverbs encourages us to be aware we are remembered by what we do. Violence, correctly employed, can be cathartic. The lesson of Rudy Yellowlodge in the final moments of Skins (2002) reinforces that what we do matters.

• Addressless: Homelessness, Problems, and Solutions. [Documentary] (2007) Directed by Gino Salerno.
• American History X. [Film] (1998) Directed by Tony Kaye.
• Birth of a Nation. [Film] (1915) Directed by W.D. Griffith.
• “Born Free.” [Video] (2010) Directed by Romain Gavras.
• Brokeback Mountain. [Film] (2005). Directed by Ang Lee.
• Brother From Another Planet. [Film] (1984) Directed by John Sayles.
• Daughters of the Dust. [Film] (1991) Directed by Julie Dash.
• Great Train Robbery. [Film] (1903) Directed by Edwin S. Porter.
• Hunger. [Film] (1983) Directed by Tony Scott.
• Hustle and Flow. [Film] (2005) Directed by Craig Brewer.
• Kids. [Film] (1995) Directed by Larry Clark.
• King of Jazz. [Film] (1930) Directed by John Murray Anderson.
• Matrix Reloaded. [Film] (2003) Directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski.
• New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha. NRSV. (2007) Oxford University Press.
• Paris is Burning. [Documentary] (1991) Directed by Jennie Livingston.
• Skins. [Film] (2002) Directed by Chris Eyre.
• Soloist. [Film] (2009) Directed by Joe Wright.
• Transamerica. [Film] (2005) Directed by Duncan Tucker.
• Wild Bunch. [Film] (1969) Directed by Sam Peckinpaugh.

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