Book Review

Imag(in)ing Otherness:
Filmic Visions of Living Together

Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1999

Edited by S. Brent Plate and David Jasper
Reviewed by Rubina Ramji

Imag(in)ing Otherness: Filmic Visions of Living Together

Reviewed by Rubina Ramji

[1] The essays offered up in this book consider the different ways of imag(in)ing the other, by making us see structures and communities from a different angle: by speaking for the other. They point out communities of difference in order to show that living together does not always mean living in harmony, because difference is always able to permeate.

 [2] The first section of book sets up issues related to Surviving Community, and the role culture and religion play in establishing living together. The essays also focus on the reimag(in)ings of communities after suffering through catastrophes.

 [3] Gregory Salyer, in his essay "Poetry Written with Blood: Creating Death in Dead Man," begins his essay with the opening scenes of the movie Dead Man described in order to provide a symbolic and structural frame for the film itself. Salyer examines the movie using mythology, technology and capitalism as lenses or themes for seeing what the movie itself contributes to ones imagination and the imaging of otherness. Dead Man, rather than being a story that reflects the values and ideologies of American culture, instead tricks the spectator, in a postmodern fashion, into a story that reveals our own susceptibility at believing these plots. Dead Man warns us of the danger of believing in stories because these stories that inform, shape and maintain America, regardless of the century, are deadly. Thus, through the lens of mythology, this film questions our notions of heroes and heroines, and the forces of good and evil, rather than enforcing them. Salyer sees falseness and inauthenticity being at the heart of the movie: it shows us that we fear the thought of our myths and rituals being false and, therefore, we spend our lives in pursuit of false dreams. This film dramatizes these fears through a twist in mythology. 

[4] Salyer views technology as a tool that produces inauthenticity or falseness, as well as a creator of death. The use of metal to produce bullets, guns, and trains is heralded as an American concept of technology, but is also the cause of death for many of the characters portrayed in the film. 

[5] Salyer also recognizes within this film the ideologies of capitalism and Christianity, which are so fundamental to the American west. Although each can be seen as supplementing each other to form the perfect myth for late twentieth-century American culture, Salyer suggests that the film in fact shows that those who live this way are already dead men. 

[6] In conclusion, Salyer explains that the movie Dead Man helps us encounter otherness by finding the edges of America and going beyond them. This films offers us a way of interpreting otherness, by making us face the ultimate otherness of death. 

[7] Jennifer L. Koosed's essay "Joseph and His Brothers: Quarreling After the Holocaust" is the second essay in the section "Surviving Community." Koosed focuses on the movie The Quarrel, a story that tells of two Jewish men who quarrel about the deed of writing. It is felt that one of the men, Chaim, has betrayed his family, community and even God by writing for a general public and adopting the ways of the outsider. Hersh, the other man, feels that the Torah is all that one needs to know, and is strongly bound to Jewish identity. 

[8] The movie shows that both men have chosen the world of the book, Chaim choosing the secular book and Hersh choosing the religious book. Books are seen as the homeland of the wanderer. Both men have betrayed each other in their youth and betrayed their families, yet they cannot ask for forgiveness as their families died in the Holocaust. Koosed illustrates through this movie the continuing lives of those living in the post-Holocaust world, a world where many are alone in the world, friends and family gone, exiled from their homeland. Koosed helps us see the continuing question to God, where God is in need of forgiveness. She illustrates the ambiguity of the world that exists after the Holocaust. 

[9] The second section, "Desiring Communities," deals with the theme of desire and its relation to otherness, a relation that addresses the paradox of analyzing otherness. Desire is seen as a dangerous force that is bound up with loss and with death. 

[10] Kyle Keefer and Tod Linafelt, in their essay "The End of Desire: Theologies of Eros in the Song of Songs and Breaking the Waves" show us the portrayals of desire in the biblical book and the movie. The Song of Songs is the only example of erotic literature found in the Bible, a great love poem about different realms and senses, and the authors claim that it is strikingly similar to the portrayal of Eros in the movie Breaking the Waves: given the fundamental dynamic of the erotic, there is the breaching of borders, the commingling of bodies and of different realm. 

[11] The function of Eros in both of these pieces is to link the divine and the human in the allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs as the character of Bess serves to link the divine and human in the movie Breaking the Waves. 

[12] "Transgressing Goodness in Breaking the Waves" by Irena S.M. Makarushka sees the character Bess caught between two culturally constructed paradigms that reflect traditional patriarchal assumptions about women: the virgin and the whore. Makarushka focuses on the dilemma brought about by Bess's decision to prostitute herself for the health of her ailing husband. She makes us wonder if we can step outside of the culturally convenient and patriarchally over-determined categories of goodness to see Bess not as a victim, but as a woman who chooses out of her own desire to be good and live for the other on her own terms. 

[13] Although other feminist critics of this film feel that this movie is yet another in a constant theme of violence against women, Makarushka sees the director Lars von Trier as more of a critic of the religious and cultural attitudes that condemn women to the bondage of some stereotype of normal femininity rather than a misogynist. 

[14] The desire in this reading of the movie Breaking the Waves focuses specifically on Bess's desire to be good and the notions of good that represent themselves through two extremes (Bess and the Church elders). In order for Bess to be good, she must defy the notion of good espoused by her religious community and her family (their refusal to affirm desire and to experience pleasure). Since the elders hold the power, the cultural norm of a good girl is transgressed by Bess. In fact, Makarushka argues that Bess's obsession with being good is a transgressive act that reflects multiplicity and excess. Through desire, Bess becomes a character that is defined by her culture and at the same time alienated by her culture. 

[15] It is von Trier's eroticization of Bess's religious faith that the author utilizes to make us question whether the director meant for Bess to be a victim of patriarchy or heroic in her choice to live and die by her desires. 

[16] The third section entitled "Eating Community" deals with the economics of living together in the household, and focuses on the dinner table. The household table is seen as the site of transformation, the site where otherness is brought together in communion. 

[17] Maria Consuelo Maisto, in her essay "Cinematic Communion? Babette's Feast, Transcendental Style, and Interdisciplinarity" states that her aim is to weave together critical and metacritical elements of a discussion of Babette's Feast in order to explore otherness and community both in and through the film. By offering us two approaches to the study of religion and film, by comparing the writings of Paul Schrader and Wendy Wright, we see that opposite conclusions can be drawn about the interpretation of otherness found in this film. The religious studies interpretation presents otherness as the beneficent and redemptory agent of communion/ community. On the other hand, a film-centered analysis presents Babette's Feast as a dialectic of form, content, and reception in which otherness is symbiotically connected to, even a precondition for, community as an act of grace and redemption. Therefore Maisto makes us realize that scholars from both fields must approach film at an interdisciplinary level which is transformative, not just instrumental. By being open to otherness, we can be challenged and changed. 

[18] Patrick Caruso and S. Brent Plate, in their essay "When Your Family is Other, and the Other Your Family: Freedom and Obligation in Frank Capra's You Can't Take It With You," pay close attention to the multiple and dynamic relationships portrayed in this film. Their focus lies specifically around the dinner table, a pragmatic site of communion/community, in order to highlight the tensions between freedom and obligation within the household found in the film, as understood through contextual therapy. Freedom and obligation do not exist independent of each other or in opposition, but rather freedom is born out of obligation: this theme is played out through the two families in the movie. By way of this film, Caruso and Plate help us to understand human behavior and the family system, through the concepts of inclusivity and exclusivity (one cannot exist without the other). 

[19] The next section called "Colonizing Community" offers postcolonial perspectives on India and on competing images/imaginings of culture, religion and nationality. 

[20] David Jasper's essay "What Happened in the Cave?: Communities and Outsiders in Films of India" focuses on the films A Passage to India and Aparajito in order to understand what it means to be Indian in the first half of the twentieth century from two culturally different points of view. Jasper, in his description of A Passage to India, describes the movie as a exotic image of an ancient noisy, dirty other India versus the nobility of the British. It is a film made for Western audiences. In Aparajito, a film made for Indian cinema, a different India is visualized: one more beautiful and understandable. Although the film still remains exotic to Western eyes, it is believable to those who share the experiences portrayed in the movie. India is the site of community, but these two movies show how otherness and outsiders can rearrange the way we structure our views of such places. Each movie offers a drastically different India: in A Passage to India we see an alien culture imposing itself upon a whole subcontinent, while in Aparajito we see the reflection of what really exists through the lens of the camera. 

[21] Ira Bhaskar, in the essay "Postmodernism and Neo-Orientalism: Peter Brook's Mahabharata --Producing India Through a Body of Multicultural Images," outlines the implications of postmodernist Peter Brook interpreting the Mahabharata for diverse audiences through theatre and film. Bhaskar wonders about the questions of adaptations, cultural interpretations and responsibility towards the complex of significances that the original texts represents. By interpreting a distinctive culture to the world, Brook and Jean-Claude Carriere (adapted the text) would have to deal with the question of language, representation and signification: Bhaskar feels that although they claimed multicultural conviction and practice, the interpretation of this Oriental text still reveals strong Eurocentric undertones. By borrowing from Oriental traditions, Bhaskar feels that Brooks, rather than achieving the effect of universality, instead trivializes and only exoticizes the Indian culture. In fact, the Orientalist gaze affects all aspects of the narrative despite its futile attempt to capture the culture it wishes to represent. The author backs this argument by offering various political, ideological, as well as cultural contradictions that occur throughout the dramatization. 

[22] The two concluding essays are found in the section entitled "Ending Community." These essays challenge the theoretical issues of otherness and community themselves. 

[23] Francisca Cho, in the essay "Imagining Nothing and Imaging Otherness in Buddhist Film," tries to accomplish two things: by examining Buddhist manifestations of otherness, to reveal the semiotic reversibility of otherness', both socially and spiritually, which in turn questions the stability of the concept of self; and, to argue for a Anon-ideological, cultic way of viewing film. By focusing on the Buddhist film Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East?, Cho demonstrates that the construct of otherness is both a real as well as a illusory spiritual condition within the film and in Chan Buddhism: it is an example of cultic religious significance. In fact, Cho illustrates that this faulty concept of otherness which fails to grasp Buddhism's metaphysics of presence can be found in a variety of other Buddhist-themed movies from Korea. 

[24] In terms of cultic reading, Cho borrows from David Freeberg's theory of response that images can make real what is represented and thereby make what is absent now present. The movie Bodhi images otherness. From a cultic perspective, the film deploys nonlinear leaps, making parts of the movie seem like reality while others fictional. There is also a section of the film which is devoid of any storyline. There is more emphasis on images rather than narrative, and the movie fails to establish the expected elements of story--the delineation of character, plot and time sequence. By being so unconventional through imagery, the movie Bodhi reinforces standard constructions of intelligibility while at the same time destroys the same construct. It signifies meaning in an alternative way. 

[25] The final essay in this chapter in entitled "Behold Thou the Behemoth: Imaging the Unimaginable in Monster Movies" by Timothy K. Beal. By drawing upon monster movies (the embodiment of otherness) Beal examines how otherness can be imag(in)ed or filmed without making it familiar or same. Beal states that there are three common cinematic strategies for imag(in)ing monstrous otherness: the monster movie often remythologizes otherness as an embodiment of the forces of chaos that perpetually threaten the cosmos; within the mythic structure of the monster movie narrative, the otherness of the monster is maintained primarily by resisting visualization; and thirdly, the image of the monster is presented as a conglomeration of mutually exclusive categories, working to confuse distinctions between inside and outside, this-worldly and other-worldly, and especially between self and other. 

[26] Although there is a sense of sacredness in going to the movies, Beal suggests that monster movies represent a particular kind of sacred time, because they often remythologize otherness. Through the reenaction of myths, the world is recreated through the battle with the monster as it threatens to bring the world to an end. By overcoming the monster, the world is set right again and order is maintained. But just as there is a shift in the monster movie theme from chaos to order, there is also a sense of getting to know/visualize the monster, something that was unseeable at one point but can now clearly be seen, and therefore can be destroyed. This is done through camera shots of shot/reverse shot formation, and through the formation of a monster that does not fit together: it is made up of incompatible elements. Through these cinematic techniques, Beal argues that tension is created between a gradual visualization and annihilation of the monster versus imaging the unimaginable. 

[27] Finally, Beal questions the reasons for cinematic horror. It is true that by pointing out and naming otherness, we are therefore able to control it and exorcize it, but Beal finds that in the end, the camera cannot exorcize, because the camera inevitably fails to present or image the other. 

[28] All these essays demonstrate to us that we are self and other: that for one to exist, the other must be present. Although otherness is discussed in many different ways, we are still left with the sense that otherness cannot be eliminated. 

[29] Many of the essays also offer new theoretical frameworks in which to critique the field of religion and film studies, with ethical and religious considerations. This is substantial, as the field is still deficient. As cinema becomes international, many movie goers are now constantly encountering different cultures and religions. We need to understand the complexities of these before we deconstruct what is on the screen. I would have to say that as a whole, the various contributions in this book have been able to accomplish this goal. 

[30] Although this goal was reached by examining mainly alternative films, I do believe the same can be achieved through mainstream Hollywood-type movies. We do not have to look too far afield to find otherness on the silver screen. The question is, in what other ways can we imag(in)e otherness? 

[31] As David Jasper (co-editor) succinctly puts it in the conclusion, "the art of the cinema seriously continues that great task of art in all ages, a task which is at the same time profoundly religious, which is to draw us back to an imagining of otherness and a relearning of the business of living with the Other and living in community." This book takes a large step in comprehending this task.


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