‘Cinema: Part-Machine, Part-Man’

Progress Report on my Independent Study – it’s taking a very strange and exciting turn, tell me what you think:

‘CINEMA: PART-MACHINE, PART-MAN’

There are a couple of ‘dots’ I want to try to connect and here’s two lines I think I can do it with:

  • ‘theology of cinema’ – art & technology as a form of creation – as a way of emulating God – as a way of building a theology out of the chaos of life.
  • ‘cinema as consciousness’ – cinema is more than art – narrative that tells a story caught by someone’s eye (via the camera), edited for casuality and brevity – similar to the way we store memories.

Each of us has a theology. We’ve either accepted an established religion or pieced one together from our life experiences – each valid options. Even if you don’t believe in a supreme being or think Man a divine creation, those ‘disbeliefs’ sum up a personal theology.

This personal theology represents a huge part of who we are, how we interpret the world around us and what we aspire towards. It’s strange that we rarely talk about it when discussing one of our loves – films. Somehow the theater is secular. Maybe because each of us has our own set of beliefs we try to find common ground in talking about the cinematography, set design, etc – things we can all see and agree upon – the world has enough conflict as is.

But what if cinema is religious – an inadvertent reflection of our own theologies?

What if cinema is religion – preaching a theology of its own?

Bear with me.

We learn a great deal about a religion through it’s creation-myth of the Earth and Mankind. Let us take Islam for example, which shares many similarities to Judaic-Christian stories of Adam’s origin:

‘. . . He first created man from clay, then made his descendants from an extra of underrated fluid. Then he moulded him; He breathed from His Ruh (Spirit) . . .’ [Quran 32.7-9]

Words fundamental to any theology like Ruh are very difficult to translate, especially considering there really is no definition of it in the Quran. But we can learn more about it, this divine element, through studying it’s context in other verses:

‘You Lord said to the angels, ‘I will create a mortal out of dried clay, formed from dark mud. When I have fashioned him and breathed My Ruh into him, bow down before him’ [Quran 15.28-29]

To extend this crucial moment in Man’s creation and to fully appreciate his station because of this Ruh relative to the Angels & Creation let us look at:

‘When your Lord told the angels, ‘I am putting a khalifah (successor/deputy) on earth,’ they said, ‘How can You put someone there who will cause damage and bloodshed, when we celebrate Your praise and proclaim Your holiness?’ but He said, “I know things you do not.’ He taught Adam all the names [of things], then He showed them to the angels and said, ‘Tell me the names of these if you truly [think you can can]’. they said, ‘May You be glorified! We have knowledge only of what You have taught us. You are the All Knowing and All Wise.’ Then He said, ‘Adam, tell them the names of these.’ when he told them their names, God said, ‘Did I not tell you that I know what is hidden in the heavens and the earth, and that I know what you reveal and what you conceal?’ When We told the angels, ‘Bow down before Adam,’ they all bowed . . . [Quran 2.30-34]

What can we understand about Ruh in relation to Man from the context of these verses?

  • it is fundamental to what it means to be Human
  • it is the cause of Man’s position as khalifah of creation
  • it is our divine connection/software
  • tied to our ability to name things/language

And maybe  . . . our ability to create. This is not suggested by the verses but bear with me –

When I use the word ‘create’, I don’t mean in the sense of ‘forming something out of nothing’, but of combining existing elements.

We create through art – a relic of an emotion or thought – and through technology – tool-making that hopefully improves our lives.

Let us back up a little bit and talk about theology with broader strokes. Theology and religion are taught in terms of parameters – good & evil, this life and the hereafter, the body & the soul, etc. This idea of parameters, of the fathomable and impossible as somehow affected our own discussion of Man and his abilities. We have raised mankind’s uniqueness and gifts to the point that many of us believe there are limits to what our inventiveness will be able to accomplish. Specifically, some have suggested artificial intelligence is an impossibility. Why? It’s only a matter of time before we start terraforming planets and building things atom by atom. Acts of God. I believe eventually we will create human-like machines, able to reason, love and ‘create’, maybe even better at it than ourselves.

Not to be blasphemous but is it possible, that like God, we breath in our own spirit/ruh, albeit not as divine and perfect, into the things we make? Many of the things we create represent our yearnings, our shortcomings, and an attempt to make order out of chaos. If so – then why did we create cinema? Why do we continue to create cinema? Why are we so earnest to consume it?

I believe Cinema is part theology-building, a playing out of our moralities, origins, creation-myths, etc – THE NEW RELIGION – with celebrity idols, conventions of good & evil. Where we learn a scripture of what to aspire to and what to avoid. Where we witness stories of creation, destruction and salvation, related to us by new Prophets.

I believe Cinema is part man-building, building a Frankenstein-like consciousness out of a series of images and sounds, a voice that converses with the audience, like a real person or storyteller, in the form of a narrative. A narrative that depends heavily on your own brain to process and store. Cinema is not art, it is not simply an object that represents an emotion or object, it is built from the ground up like a Human memory that inserts itself through your eyes into our your own recollections as if you really experienced it.

Does this make any sense?

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2 thoughts on “‘Cinema: Part-Machine, Part-Man’

  1. What a wonderful turn of events! I didn’t see this coming, but it’s a discussion I’ve had with myself- although considerably less articulated.

    Because of my design background, I’ve extended that into film. And I personally prefer to call it “film design” rather than film making. Simply because design has been notorious for the endless debate on the differences between art and design. I’ve always contended that art is a selfish act, whereas design is a selfless act -although not in absolute terms.

    The term film making gives films a somewhat utilitarian feel, like a pot, a building, or any relic of material culture, which because of its physicality, can easily be re-appropriated. Which is rarely the case with cinema.

    Although there isn’t a consensus over the etymology of the word design, I’d like to believe that it’s the one that comes from the two Latin words “Deo” and “Signo” which basically mean’s “God’s Sign (or mark)”. Why I like this is because this proves our inclination that we do have the ability to create. And so, God’s mark on us is our ability to design. And for creation to be creation, I do not think that it necessarily has to be ex nihilo.

    But although I cannot recall any Islamic concept that addresses this matter (although knowledge (and it’s pursuit) have been mentioned countless times in both the Quran and Hadith). I think if we take one step back from the concept of creation. We would find that the raw material of creation is will. Which is basically the difference between an animal like a beaver and, lets say, Frank Gehry. The beaver does not create, it fabricates based on embedded instructions and instincts. While Frank Gehry chose to design the Guggenheim. And I think that before we look at why we create films, perhaps we should ask ourselves, “Why do we even want to create films?”. And in the matter of will the Quran has repeatedly mentioned that God has absolute will, while we get to have a will of some sort.

    “But you will not, unless God wills, this. Assuredly God is ever Knower, of His creatures, Wise, in what He does.” [76:30]

    “but you will not [wish], to go straight along the [path of] truth, unless God, the Lord of the Worlds, [of all] creatures, wills, that you should go straight along it.” [81:29]

    I must stop typing. My head hurts! Good luck moving forward!

  2. Thanks for the enthusiasm and support brother – I need it.

    I think I prefer revising this post starting off with the etymology of ‘design’ because it gets me to the same destination without the load of theological terminology that is alien to most.

    And then, like you’ve done, I can connect it to the difference between what animals do, out of instinct, and what we do out of acquired skill.

    I also think including the story of Promestheus – the creation of man from clay and the theft of fire (a symbol for creativity) – a more universal story to start off with. Incidentally, off wikipedia I was able to find the following:

    -In the Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elish, the goddess Ninhursag created humans from clay.

    -In Africa, the Yoruba culture holds that the god Obatala likewise created the human race.

    -In Egyptian mythology, the ram-headed god Khnum made people from clay in the waters of the Nile.

    -In Chinese myth, the goddess Nuwa created the first humans from mud and clay.

    -According to Genesis 2:7 “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”

    -According to Qur’an[23:12–15], Allah created man from clay.

    -Mayan myth holds that Tepeu and Kukulkán (Quetzalcoatl) made the first humans from clay, but they were unsatisfactory.

    -The Māori people believe that Tāne Mahuta, God of the forest, created the first woman out of clay and breathed life into her.

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