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October 1997, Week 3


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David Conner <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 16 Oct 1997 14:30:05 -0400
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In a message dated 10/16/97 6:13:16 AM, you wrote:
<<I find that many American movies of the last twenty years or so,
which depict an encounter with supernatural phenomena (e.g., Close
E.T., Contact, maybe 2001) tend to suggest the possibility of the
offering an experience of transcendent redemption:  In each of these movies
something fantastic arrives from far away, from the future, or from another
dimension, equipped with superior intelligence, technology,  and --more
important--sensitivity, and releases the characters in the film, and thereby
the audience in the theater as well, from the intolerable or meaningless
or repressive existence they have known. By contrast, encounters
with the supernatural in American films of the 1930s and 40s like It's
a Wonderful Life and The Wizard of Oz seem to convey the message that in
fact American life as we know it is just fine, and that when it comes
down to it there really is no place like home.>>
As a longtime teacher of film at UCSC, let me say, I wish I had more
undergraduates like sounds like a really interesting and
provocative topic.  It seems like your student has already read Leo Bersani's
Culture of Redemption - if not, he definitely should.  Bersani's work can
also be taken in conjunction with Kaja Silverman's (esp. Male Subjectivity at
the Margins which she wrote while in close association with Bersani at
Berkeley) -- her essay in that book, "Celestial Suture" deals with historical
trauma and masculinity in It's A Wonderful Life.  Both Silverman and Bersani
are very interested in the possibilities of an anti-redemptive art, so their
work should provide a useful jumping off point.
While I think that the focus on aliens as the latest figuration of "heavenly"
intervention is fascinating, he might also want to consider the spate of
"angel films" - many of them remakes of Forties films - that have recently
become so popular: The Bishop's Wife, Michael, Field of Dreams, and possibly
the unaccountably popular TV series Touched By an Angel and Highway to
Heaven.  The independent film, The Rapture (starring none other than Mr.
Supernatural Intervention himself, David Duchovny) also offers a very
provocative twist on this genre.  If he's interested in broadening the focus
to include European films, Wings of Desire, of course, would provide an
interesting point of comparison.
The problem that redemption narratives raise, according to Bersani's account,
is that they reduce the substance of everyday life to complete insignificance
by placing it in some sort of teleological schema: generating meaning only
through reference to some supernatural moment of utopian completeness or
completion (whether religious, political, or even epistemological, as in the
case of Flaubert's "encyclopedic fictions"), the content of human life is
thereby trivialized, debased, and demoted to the status of "what comes
before."  Tracing this notion through cultural shifts in American film
sensibilities sounds like a great project; I wonder if, in some of these remak
es especially, the idealized historical past constructed by Capra and others
doesn't become something of a supernatural entity itself.  Consider Field of
Dreams, for instance, in which the all-American specter of a
(pre-integration) baseball team serves to redeem the yuppie fantasy of a
return to a "simpler" time.  Aren't pastiche films like The Bishop's Wife,
Always, Heaven Can Wait basically about the fantasy of older, simpler
narrative forms returning to redeem a corrupt and deficient contemporary
culture too?
David Conner
History of Consciousness
UC Santa Cruz
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