The Aesthetics of Meaning:
Jewish Arts & Culture

Do Movies Have a Religion?
by David Chack and Roberta Morris

This dialogue began in a coffee shop in New York. David Chack is working on a critical book on Jewish Performance Aesthetic, though his interfaith and Jewish cultural and social service work were a major focus of his energies. Roberta Morris, a novelist and philosopher of media, invites David to pilot a series of movie reviews for television at the Toronto International Film Festival, including reviews of Mike Figgis' Hotel, Claire Peploe's Triumph of Love, and Henry Bean's The Believer.

Fade-in to the middle of the discussion in the Any Old World Coffee shop. The conversation is getting heated after an hour and a half and they still have trouble finding a mutual language with respect to movies. Morris' Catholic background and involvements with Jewish friends have led her to an awareness of Judaism that is knowledgeable, curious, respectful, and frighteningly frank. Chack is Jewish to the hilt, and values Jewish-Christian dialogue, even while doubting its ultimate efficacy. Both feel they are about to have a break-through.

RM: It's a passion like religious experience. I'm not talking about movies on a thematic level - this or that movie on this or that subject. There's something ontological, what they are, not just what they're about. I'm talking about Hotel as much as The Believer. For Bazin and Bresson movies are a Catholic medium, which might seem especially true in France. In Hollywood it might seem that it's a Jewish medium. The documentary Hollywoodism (Simcha Jacabovici, 1998)

DC: That comes from, Neil Gabler's An Empire of Their Own; How the Jews Invented Hollywood. It's not a bad book. City of Nets is better. (Otto Friedrich, 1986)

RM: So how about India? It has a huge industry, more movies made there than in Hollywood. So what do we say? Is it also a Hindu and Islamic medium?

DC: Clearly, one thing we can say is that film is a medium. And a medium can be used in the way its users wish to use it. If they bring to it a Catholic sensibility, that will come through.

RM: I'm NOT suggesting that Catholics make movies in a particularly Catholic way. The point is, movies present iconography which is part of the Catholic tradition.

DC: If one uses film with symbols, visual imagery, ritual, etc., then the film could be seen as Catholic.

DC: But that's what Nikos Kazantzakis claims he's doing in novels like The Last Temptation of Christ, and that's what Scorsese accomplished in the movie adaptation. Filmmakers working from a Jewish sensibility make films "Jewish-ly". Take Henry Bean's The Believer; he creates a film which aesthetically and textually interacts with a narrative. Of course, this is midrash . He transposes a narrative that substantiates the real (this world) and surrealizes it through discourse.

RM: Surreal as a verb? Well, that's not my issue. The Believer is text-based movie. We both agree it is midrash, but that is particular to that movie, not particular to movies generally.

But even Figgis' Hotel where you've got multiple images and sounds that play off each other - well okay, he makes the screen actually look like a talmudic midrash with various narrative lines being carried through various quadrants simultaneously - but that's not what's rather particular as well, not what is happening generally. He's doing what some rock videos do, creating a symphony of images and sounds that affect us very differently than a literate discourse like midrash. The things imaged leave a trace; they are there, but not wholly "there" while the sound is wholly there, it doesn't exist separately.

DC: You're right about Figgis' approach seeming midrashic, and yet he still keeps what might be called a Christian core. Let me explain where I'm coming from. What I'm saying is that the Jewish aesthetic both engages the world (tikkun olam-restoring the world) and conflates time, place, and action. This technique, as opposed to the mystical transformation that takes place in Christianity (which Figgis also uses), creates a back and forth time element, which then surrealizes the subject matter.

RM: Isn't that more semiotics than Jewish theology? Whatever. I see the medium presenting what Emmanuel Levinas talks about as the Other, the Other we can encounter without colonizing it, without making it other than other, without making it one's own. The thing is the movie, and it remains weird, this and not this. Anyway, I suspect that's what makes movies appealing to many cultures and traditions, as well as to Jews and Christians. Of course, hyper-literate text-oriented people appreciate movies as much as illiterate people. Get almost anyone on the subject and it will be pursued passionately.

DC: You take my use of the word 'text' too literally.

RM: A text refers to what is literal.

DC: (pause) Well, let me pursue my intertextual argument a bit further. A perfect example of early film that comes to mind is the Marx Brothers and the scripts that were written by the incredibly creative George S. Kaufman and S.J. Perelman. Their usage of vaudeville routines, stock ethnic characters, double and triple entendres, stories layered over stories--all show film being used in a unique way.

Consider that famous scene from A Night At The Opera (Sam Wood, 1935) by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind. It shows a Talmudic discussion over contract law. This discourse could have come from a Jewish legal tractate Bava Metzia on property law. It is also from an old vaudeville routine between two shyster lawyers. By conflating the two, the Marx Brothers and their writers (they often changed and improvised through performance) create an intertextuality in their films that was truly Talmudic. Albert Goldman has observed that the comedy of the Marx Brothers brings into focus "the anarchic mockery of conventions and values, which crumble to dust at the touch of a rudely irreverent jest. 'Subversive' was the word for the Marx Brothers...." (from The Big Book of Jewish Humor by Waldoks and Novak, pg. 172). They create a narrative of intertextual dialogue similar to Talmudic discourse.

Dissolve to "A Night at the Opera"

Groucho:....Now pay attention to this first clause. (reads) The party of the first part shall be known as the party of the first part. How do you like that? Pretty neat, eh?

Chico: No thassa no good.

Groucho: (indignantly) What's the matter with it?

Chico: I don't know. Less hear it agin.

Groucho: The party of the first part shall be known in this contract as the party of the first part.

Chico: It sounds a little better this time.

Groucho: Well, it grows on you. Want to hear it once more?

Chico: Only the first part.

Groucho: The party of the first part?

Chico: Nooo. The first part of the party of the first part.

Groucho:....Look, why should we quarrel about a thing like that (he tears off the offending clause) We'll take it right out.

Chico:....Well, I don't know. I don' like the second party, either.

Groucho: You should have come to the first party. We didn't get home till four in the morning. (slight pause) I was blind for three days. (He indicates willingness to further tear the contract)

Chico: Fine. ( they both tear off another piece).....Saayyyy. How is it I got a skinnier contract than you?

Groucho: I don't know. You must have been out on a tear last night. Anyhow we're all set. Now sign right here. (he produces fountain pen)

Chico: I forgot to tell you. I cannot write.

Groucho: That's alright. There's no ink in the pen, anyway. But listen, it's a bargain, isn't it? We've got a contract no matter how small it is.

Chico: (extending hand. Groucho clasps it.) You betcha!! Only one thing I want to know: what does this say? (showing last piece of contract left)

Groucho: Oh, that's nothing. That's the usual clause in every contract. It says if any of the parties participating in the contract are shown not to be in their right mind the contract is nullified.

Chico: What do you call it?

Groucho: That's what they call a sanity clause.

Chico: You can'ta fool me. There ain't no sanity clause!

RM: Well, a scene about text is probably textual. That scene in Night at the Opera is specifically linked to textual traditions (written legal contracts) and let's not forget what they are doing in that scene -- ripping up their copies of the text.

DC: Exactly, exactly, (Chack gets excited) and they are also studying together as Jews. (He gesticulates with his hands, getting into it.) Their frame of reference is rabbinic discourse and, as they discuss the practicalities and absurdities of contract law, they end their discussion by bringing up mental instability--presumably theirs after we've seen their inability to agree on anything or to treat contract law with any kind of respect. Their ripping of the contract is similar to rabbis discussing law over the centuries with commentators from France, Babylonia, Egypt and Germany in an intertextual way. They then deconstruct it and come together on the real joke, which is there ain't no "sanity" (Santa) (C)clause.

This of course becomes more pronounced as Jewish filmmakers become more comfortable and experienced as filmmakers and members of American society. That is, U. S. American society. (He winks at his friend who is from Toronto.)

RM: How American, or how Jewish, did they understand their practice to be? They took Italian names. Perhaps their comedy draws as much from commedia dell'arte.

DC: There is no question that commedia has an influence on vaudeville. Others have written about this. But the Marx Brothers and other Jewish comic artists like Eddie Cantor and Danny Kaye used a mixture of styles, contributing to a non-linear diachronic sense of time. Stephen Whitfield in American Space; Jewish Time has written that Jewish artists have less trouble mixing artistic forms, thereby creating a unique mixed form. He has said that Jewish art can be characterized by a blending of highbrow and lowbrow. George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein were both accused of the impurity of their work, due to their ways of doing this. Once again this comes from the cultural/midrashic thought patterns of Jews.

By ripping up the contract, the Marx Bros. do a "riff" on destroying the text because they get to the final conclusion that Santa/sanity (C)lause does not exist. And surrealistically, neither does their deal or the contract, the place they are in or the time they are in for that matter. Everything else around them is temporal. The only thing that really exists is the text that is unseen. This is also the notion of the talmudic midrash--the text that is seen and that is unseen-the text that exists and the text that is not present. The Written Law and Oral Law. This is the Jewish Performance Aesthetic--seen and unseen. It engages us and de-physicalizes us. Perhaps it spiritualizes and de-spiritualizes us, too.

RM: Oh my, and I was just about to agree with you. In photography generally, and especially with movement and sound in movie time, even with animation, you have what is present and what is absent, what is more and what is other than there. It's all part of the medium. And the intertextual aspects you claim are particularly Jewish. But de-physicalizing us?

RM: Now this is something I have wanted to talk about! They say movies are all about sex, sex and violence. The celebration of sexuality is shared with many spiritualities and, on both a thematic and ontological level, it is celebrated in so many movies. On the thematic level it's easy to see. There is also a good deal of love in many sexy violent movies. The representation is so much 'other'; it is mental yet there is a trace of the thing represented in the image and sound which is a physical experience. That is sexy. The idea of Liz Taylor, which is there in the image, may be sexier than Liz Taylor, and certainly the idea of the fly, its representation and its image, is sexier, creepier, more fly-like than an actual fly.

DC: Jews go into film and other sexual/sensual modern art forms because they do not have this physical/spiritual barrier, that I believe Christians have. Christians see the body as inferior to the soul and consequently film is a low art form because it is voyeuristic and leads to sensuality. To me that is what Breaking the Waves (Lars von Trier, 1996) does so beautifully. By placing the sexual in conflict with the spirit it takes Christian body/spirit separation and deals with it head-on.

It is my theory that the Jewish religion's and culture's openness to the physical, as being one with the spirit, allows for a freer expression to sensual experience. That is what the new movie Kadosh (1999), directed by Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai, is about.

What Gitai does, is show the repression that still remains in the male dominated ultra-orthodox society and in his showing that, provides the contrast to the sensuality that actually is within Judaism. The tension in the film occurs because the man and woman are unable to have children and under strict ultra-orthodox interpretation, he must divorce her after ten years and marry another in order to fulfill the mitzvah of "being fruitful." Yet in their sensual love for each other, even as ultra-orthodox Jews, their love for the body as a source of kodesh (holiness), that is mystical union, makes itself clear.

RM: Christianity and Judaism inherited a tendency toward a body-deprecating dualism from the Greeks before Plato, long before Jesus. It is neither particularly Jewish nor Christian though there are expressions of it in both traditions. And both traditions resist this tendency, in affirming the body as you say is true in Judaism and, well, with each Eucharist Catholics declare, "God so loved the world that he sent his only son."

Besides reiterating that a woman's self-sacrifice/self-destruction is fast-tracking your way to heaven, the movie portrays a tension between the mystical and the dogmatic aspects of religion. The tension parallels the tension between the metaphysical and the thematic aspects of movies, don't you think? What a movie is may be different than what it portrays on a thematic level. On a thematic level, the moviemakers might present something about Christianity. They make a dogmatic (propositional) claim that belies the medium, which at its best is addressive - talking to the audience and calling for response - rather than dogmatic. If the movie relies solely on its dogmatic claims to be meaningful, regardless of whether the claims are truth-bearing, it is probably as interesting as those educational clips about dental hygiene.

Breaking the Waves for the most part works on both levels, though fails to some extent on the metaphysical level there at the end, I would say. I think you're right, though; on a thematic level it highlights the extreme contradictions between spirit and body in some Christian communities. On that thematic level it succeeds brilliantly. Then on the other level, particularly with the representation of the divine, first it succeeds and then it fails. When Bess McNeil (played by Emily Watson) is praying she speaks in her own prayerful voice and then in prophetic speech. In a sense she's representing the divine with her prophetic speech, and when the divine is represented through human agency it can work in a movie.

An easier example here is in the Jesus movies. As long as Jesus is presented as human, then the movie works - for those who believe in the divinity of Jesus as well as for those who don't. But miracle scenes, like Jesus walking on water in Pasolini's The Gospel According to Matthew, doesn't work for anyone. It doesn't work because it belies the aesthetic of the medium.

Bess might be simply crazy or she might be speaking prophetically while she's praying there in those scenes, but in either case this is totally human behavior. There in the end though, with the miracle of the bells ringing and the above-it-all perspective, that SOoooo doesn't work. It can't work. You can't represent the divine so graphically, making what is other, what is not this 'this', a thing, 'this thing here'.

DC: Don't you think Von Triers is being sarcastic?

RM: I think you're overly optimistic, overly generous. I have so much respect for Jews for banning such representations of the divine. Thank you, thank you. It's not actually banned, though, is it?

DC: The prohibition against idol-making creates a tension against making representations of God. This can be seen in the way Christians number the Ten Commandments differently from Jews, joining the First Commandment "I am the Lord Your God.... with "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." Jews separate that out and join the "...having no other gods" with "...not making graven images." This, I believe, shows a fundamental difference in the theology of the two religions and in the way they view representational images related to God.

Christians, in their linkage of the first two statements, weaken the primacy of one God, thereby opening up the possibility for God's son to emerge. Jews leave that first statement alone as commandment and address--"I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the house of Egypt, out of the house of bondage..." The address is commandment. The statement or Word is the commandment. It is important to note that the "Ten" are not called the Ten Commandments in Judaism, but the Ten Words or the Ten Statements--the Aseret HaDibrot. The Hebrew word 'diber' means word, thing, statement, or utterance.

By joining 'having no other Gods before me' and not making graven images as one statement, this also strengthens the prohibition against representations of God. Yet, in art and in celebration of life one needs to depict the divine or the sacred. How to do it? That is the tension in Judaism. It is a resolution that is never totally resolved since images are eschewed. The primacy, then is through words, narrative, and the text.

RM: Is this why the prohibition is associated with Judaism more than Christianity? But certainly some Christian denominations are pretty strong in this, as well, and criticize Roman Catholics for worshipping idols, particularly with respect to Mary. The "Ten Statements" are applicable to Christians as well as Jews.

DC: This concept against images that might be worshipped is a very strong prohibition and even filters down to more liberal and secular Jews. This is why (it is my theory) Jews are more prominent in abstract and modern paintings such as the works of Mark Rothko, Helen Frankenthaler, Jackson Pollock, etc. Even Marc Chagall and Chaim Soutine--very representational painters of defined areas of Jewish life--painted in surreal ways and pushed the envelope in abstraction.

The art work of surrealism as depicted in writers such as Kafka, who writes in a style reminiscent of Talmud (inter-textually and counter-textually), in a memory and dream-like way, (which is a characteristic of midrash), evoking mythic images with a wandering loss of place (which conjures up a Jewish mythos), from an Outsider perspective- taken all together create a Jewish Aesthetic. Clearly, all of these elements are not exclusive to a Jewish aesthetic, but the combination of all these aspects is.

In film this is seen most pointedly in the work of the Coen Brothers. They write in a particularly midrashic way, creating text, counter-text, and myth. Their film Miller's Crossing is a masterpiece that way. I won't go into a full analysis of the film here, but I want to mention one scene which to me is the most remarkable I have ever seen in its inter-textual religious evocation. It is when Tom played by Gabriel Byrne is going to execute the Jewish character, called in the film Schmatte (the "Ragman", which is another way of saying the itinerant, wandering Jew in Yiddish) played by John Turturro.

This scene operates as a central metaphor for the entire movie, which in Coen Brothers style is made up of many disparate parts that do not flow linearly. Here, Tom takes the Schmatte out to the woods far away from civilization. Tom is accompanied by two gangsters up to the edge of the woods. They have come to witness the killing. Tom then takes the Schmatte, leaving the two behind. Tom and the Schmatte go on their journey into the forest until they come to a clearing. At that point Tom forces the Schmatte to his knees to shoot him in the head. The Schmatte is crying and crying. He pleads for his life and pleads with such fervor that Tom shoots, deliberately missing him. Tom then leaves the Schmatte there so that the two witnesses back at the car having heard the shot will believe that Tom fulfilled his mission. They then leave.

To me this scene evokes very strong mythical Jewish inages. The first, in Jewish mythos is the near-sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham at Mt Moriah. The scene similarly to the Biblical story begs the question of a moral universe when we are asked to participate in evil, either knowingly or unknowingly. As the Schamtte, the Jew, begs for his life we remember the times other Jews had to beg for their lives. We remember other times Jews had to beg for their lives. The Schmatte is the only character identified as a Jew and when he is brought to the moment of near-death and then left in the forest, as Tom returns to the two men waiting for him, the story of the Binding of Isaac in the Bible is evoked word for word.

This Biblical passage in Genesis is so important in Judaism that it is the reason we blow the Shofar on Rosh Hashana, the beginning of the days of awe leading to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement and repentance. The Shofar is blown remembering the ram that was caught in the thicket that was substituted for Isaac. The ram's horn then becomes the cry and call for repentance. At this point in the film Tom seeks repentance as does the Schmatte.

Stylistically the Coen Brothers use this passage to juxtapose text and narrative from another source. This is very Midrashic. And the scene in a post-modern context, after the Holocaust, conjurs up a deeper meaning. The Schmatte (Ragman/Wandering Jew) as the victim-Isaac cries and prays to Tom and to God, that he may live. This opens the question of the presence/non-presence of God. Style, context, and content come together moving beyond the linear, to create a new myth, and re-contextualize what had been up to this point a gangster film into a religious movie that questions the role of God in an immoral universe.

RM: But Isaac was innocent; the Schmatte is a murderous schmuck. How do you square that? And in the end the audience might be persuaded that Tom was right in shooting the Schmatte. Your analysis seems, then, problematic to say the least if you identify this character with the Wandering Jew. Is the deeper meaning self-loathing of the post-Holocaust Jew, or what?

DC: In a post-modern world, is anyone innocent or untainted? There were Isaacs in the Holocaust and though I don't consider them to be perpetrators, they had to do things to survive that were reprehensible. In Miller's Crossing the Schmatte and all the ethnic characters were caught up in a world that used them to control the city of Chicago. The universe concentrationnaire may not be totally apt as a metaphor, but the way these ethnicities, as Other, are used in the U. S., the victim becomes all of us and the near-sacrifice scene at Miller's Crossing is a set-up of "God-ly" proportions.

RM: Perhaps not coincidentally then my aesthetic sensibility here draws upon a Jewish philosopher, Levinas. The medium's ability to present the Other without colonizing it, without making it other than other, may be what also makes it appealing to many cultures and traditions as well as to both Jews and Christians. All those things are both there and other than what is there, those things representing ideas of things and persons, and especially close-ups, the faces. Levinas identifies the face as the encounter with the other, and it's the face, the close-up, that is so particular to movies. All these 'other' things might make one consider what is Absolute Other.

DC: Yes. That's it! I believe you're becoming more Jewish in your thinking.

RM: But with the Eucharist it's not real through its the consumption but in the presence; through the gathering of people saying the words of consecration, the gestures (the dance) of the consecration. Hey yeah, you're right. When we try to present the divine in movies thematically we miss the mark - we will miss the mark every time. The sacred that is incarnate is easy enough to present - the merely other. But what is sacred in all things (maybe everything in a movie) becomes laughable when it is identified with the Absolute Other, the divine itself.

Think about Alanas Morisette in Dogma (Kevin Smith, 1999) as God - now that was meant to be funny, and most of the movie I found funny, but that part I found just plain stupid. I'm a fan, or was, inclined to think of her as divine, but I know she's not. She's merely other. The metaphoric relations entail these terms - her face, her movements, all of which are aspects of the other we can encounter, which is more than and other than what we encounter as well, but its not absolutely other.

But this time, well, it's not me saying so. There's a whole tradition of wisdom behind this: Don't even speak or write the Word. For heaven's sake, don't try to film it. Wittgenstein was right about this one: "That about which we can not speak, we must pass over in silence."

DC: And silence is the most difficult to portray. Elie Wiesel and I have had this conversation. Ideally he would rather leave it at silence. Yet he realizes that the story must be revealed, that the horror must be faced, that humanity must be challenged--both people and the concept of a "civilized" humanity. Writing must continue, art created. But how?

For Jews the prohibition is just another structure, similarly to the prohibition against creating graven images. In Judaism prohibitions are not to be discounted, but they are also not always to be adhered to when there is a greater value at stake. Just as Jews create, though in a particular way in opposition to the second commandment, so must Jews portray the silence of the unutterable, though in opposition to its un-utterability.

RM: And there it is again. To drift off the topic of movies and consider the discourse structure here, David, have you noticed how I keep universalizing concepts and you keep particularizing the Jewish experience and aesthetic. If my position of inclusiveness in practice is erasing the Otherness of the Other, to use Levinas' term again, then it should be resisted. I should resist my own position.

Okay, okay, on a thematic level yes, there are particularities even if I don't think there's anything particularly Catholic or Jewish about movies. Movies can still reveal a great deal about our spirituality, but really nothing of the divine except the otherness, this Absolute Other. Still, there is that talmudic expression: "To understand the invisible, look carefully at the visible."

DC: Because they are one.

RM: Or absolutely other.

Morris and Chack leave the Toronto coffee shop. Their visit was too short. Chack's wife and son are waiting at the museum. They are cold and he has a long drive back to Guelph. Morris is off to edit more videotapes. Slow fade to black.

Copyright 2004 by David Chack and Roberta Morris. All rights reserved.

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