Thoughts On: Religion, via Au Hasard Balthazar (Balthazar, At Random, 1966)
This is a post that very lightly touches on Bresson’s film.
The following, the title of this essay, is an idea I’ve been thinking about for quite a while, but have been refraining from writing about. Firstly, this is because it sounds like a frivolous and rather silly idea that would take some careful articulation to do justice. But, secondly, I had not yet seen Au Hasard Balthazar. This is a movie I’ve been wanting to watch for years, but have only just managed to find, sit down and watch. In doing so, it has become an immediate personal favourite and one that has really lit a fire under me to pursue this idea.
So, as the title suggests, I’ve been contemplating cinema’s textures and qualities as a kind of religious body. By this I do not mean to suggest that there is a God, certainly not one of cinema, that needs to be prayed to – nor are there rules, doctrines or particular hierarchies and divinities (beyond maybe personal conceptualisation). The parallels I mean to draw between a religion and cinema as a holistic body of art is a simple one predicated on the nature of stories as a medium for the sharing of ideas and values.
We all, arguably and in a certain sense, have some kind of religion. This is a common idea that is often used cynically to suggests that T.V, material objects or certain celebrities have become a form of pop religion. Whilst I understand that this can be a valid form of critique as many ‘pop deities’ are useless, vapid and, frankly, stupid, there is an impulse or sensibility in all people that clearly has them drawn to ‘religion’. It must be said, however, that I use this term very loosely. In saying ‘religion’, I do not really refer to an idea of God or even an entity of superhuman power – as most definitions will outline religion to be. I instead mean to imply that most people are bound to some form of hierarchy, an ambiguous one that often transcends realistic, tangible comprehension, that provides reason or purpose to an individual. As suggested with the allusion to ‘pop deities’, these figures, their provisional reasons and purposes, may be ridiculous and harmful – just as many sects and interpretations of actual religions have the capacity to be. However, the paradigm stands as a poignant, self-evident and strong one nonetheless.
With that established, we only need to recognise that all forms of religion come with some body of narratives and stories to begin to see my point of ‘cinema as a religion’. In such, all established religions have texts; the Bible, Qur’an, Guru Granth Sahib, etc. Mirroring this, all other forms of ‘religion’ have texts too. If T.V is your religion, then your texts are the T.V guide (if those things are commonly used anymore), more specifically, the T.V shows you watch. If the internet is your religion, then the sites you use that provide you information and entertainment are your religious texts. If science is your religion, then the texts are the lectures, papers and text books. If a sport, say for instance, football (soccer), is your religion, then your texts are the statistics, matches and written histories. We could go on establishing hundreds, if not thousands, of alternative religions, but what all of them have in common are individually voiced, yet archetypal, narratives that each teach fundamental lessons and philosophies about the human condition.
This is something that, in my view, has been overlooked throughout the world and history. Religion, philosophy and thinking have seemingly always been bound to entities that govern us all – if not, huge sects of populations. This often occurs through education, religion and government. All of these entities are perceived as established and true mediums through which people may unite under common ideas, beliefs and practices. By suggesting a more ambiguous definition of ‘religion’, I am then essentially asking the following: Why are there so few recognised structures that act as uniting concepts of philosophy and action?
The reason for this seems to be an obvious one: my distinction of religion is far too arbitrary. Religion, education and government are institutions that are often protected and managed by a collective idea of a country. In such, these are often state-run entities or are sympathised with greatly by states. You only have to consider the function of taxes and law in respect to the mentioned entities to realise how they are managed and sympathised with as significant pillars of human dedication. It is for this very reason that all arts and entertainment can’t, and won’t (and probably shouldn’t), be recognised as traditional religions. After all, we cannot all claim that T.V is our religion and expect to have national holidays and for our industry to be tax exempt (among other things) – the effect on the world would, after all, be catastrophic.
However, there is another answer to be given to our question, Why are there so few recognised structures that act as uniting concepts of philosophy and action? The second answer is actually a contradiction. The fact is that alternative entities, arts especially, have almost always been considered significant elements of society through which education, thought, politics and philosophy have ran through. After all, why would any art form, whether it be painting, writing, dancing, songwriting or filmmaking, ever confront censorship if they weren’t universally recognised to be, under our current interpretation, ‘religions’; pillars of education, philosophy, morality and ideas?
There are then only a few entities that are protected and governed by states that serve as archetypes of thought, morality and action because people need to have as few distinct categorisations as possible so that these institutions can all be best managed. However, I nonetheless question this notion. I don’t so much question why there can’t be a plethora of religions recognised by states – T.V, sports and cinema being amongst them. Instead, I question why any religion (not so much government and education) is supported in the manner it is.
Whilst I respect religion as a medium through which people find structure, reason and purpose, whilst I can respect elements of its humanly fundamental content that teach stories and ideas, I don’t respect the form that religions assume. In such, I think that dogma, especially when it concerns ambiguity, is reprehensible. When people do not have definite answers, they should be truthful and suggest their ideas, their personally sourced answers, as exactly what they are – no disguises. For there to be a ‘word of God’, one that is often translated through parables, metaphors and content that must be interpreted, is a huge fault of thinking and propagating ideas. Not only are we suggesting that ideas are inherently true on only belief and with no evidence by doing this, but we are providing ‘answers’ through constructed stories with no direct clarity – only a plethora of mines and catch 22s that tie indoctrinated subjects into a web. In such, religion often associates authority with ambiguity, and that is the biggest problem, in my view, with the whole phenomena.
If ambiguity is a device or tool that humanity is to wield responsibly, it must be done so with clarity. In such, though religious texts have profound answers and guidance within them, to mask these with authoritative references to a benevolent god is to treat people, religious followers, like complete fools who cannot handle the truth – that truth being that, though humans have a lot of great ideas, we’re not sure if this is what ‘God’ said, designed or wants.
This is a significant reason as to why I’m suggesting that cinema can or should be seen a ‘religion’. Not only does cinema have countless narratives that can contain profound, life-changing messages within, but cinema, especially in the modern age, is a somewhat democratic and an entirely transparent entity. In such, everyone knows that cinema is a constructed entity once they hit about age 6 and realise that people don’t actually die for real in films. This means that the use of ambiguity and answers by cinema is a relatively ethical one (relative to religion – there are of course ethical conundrums concerning cinema). No matter how full of verisimilitude and seeming reality a film is, we all know that ‘cinema’ is made by people and industries. All other religions have their human touches, their prophets and founders, but always refer to something intangible, a god, to deceitfully appeal to an inescapable authority that cannot be rationally argued against due to its basis outside of reality. What’s more, cinema can be contributed to by any and everyone. Whether it is with your phone’s camera or through your free blog on the internet, everyone has a potential voice when it concerns cinema. And this is so important as it fully embraces the idea that human ideas come from people – not some constructed deity. However, whilst it is certainly true that the market place for film is heavily weighted toward big-budget American cinema, anyone can quite easily find a plethora of directions towards a more diverse cinema that isn’t entirely weighted down by Hollywood’s influence if this is what you seek and are concerned about. Moreover, anyone can make films and change the landscape (even to a minute degree) of cinema, inserting into the vast, ever-evolving body of text their own chapters.
What I am then imploring with an idea that cinema can be your religion is nothing at all radical. You do not need to change your birth certificate, drop other religions, start or join a film society or go pray at your local cinema – and I think that is a major advantage of cinema as a religion; there is no real form or structure if you do not want it. With an idea such as ‘cinema as a religion’, all you are recognising is the cultural influence of stories, moreover, the powerful ability for cinema to articulate them. This is the crux of all religions; it is the substance of the stories they tell – a lot of everything that surrounds that is just bullshit. Recognising that cinema may be one of your ‘religions’ is simply a way of grappling and taking control of this entity and what it provides to you. In other words, seeing cinema as a ‘religion’ is simply a means of recognising it as important to all of humanity as well as personally significant to you.
A note I then have to touch on before concluding is the film that spurred me to write this: Au Hasard Balthazar. Whilst this is a subtextually religious film, one that you may say entirely corrupts my idea that cinema is a purer or better religion than others as it differentiates itself from the traditional archetypes, it can be interpreted and understood without this given subtext. What this film then does is, in my view, transcend dogma, using its intertextual nature to refer to age-old ideas instead of allowing them to engulf it. Another film that manages this in a different light for me was The Seashell And The Clergyman. This is a seen to be a feminist film, but I simply don’t view it as such. What this suggests is that cinema can also act as an ideology – and maybe that is a part two to this initial claim. Nonetheless, what lies at the very heart of all we’ve discussed is this ethical use of ambiguity to tell stories and impart knowledge, philosophy, morals and ideas.
In conclusion, if you choose to consider cinema as a religion, what you are recognising is its capacity to provide meaning and purpose to people through stories. An extension of this may – this probably will not directly apply to all people – an extension of this may be that you appreciate more, or have better hopes for, the structure of the world-wide cinematic industry than any other religion; you believe that these stories are provided and voiced in a manner that is overwhelmingly more accessible and pliable (in that it can evolve and change as cultures do) than any traditional and established religion.
So, to end, I simply leave you with a question I always do: what are your thoughts on this subject?
Au Hasard Balthazar – The Silent, Voidal Archetype
Every Year In Film #13 – Poor Pierrot
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