Film, Lacan, and the Subject of Religion

| April 29, 2011

Despite the relatively short life film theory has enjoyed thus far, the propensity in film theorists to disavow the most important developments that contributed to the growth of the discipline’s popularity and prestige is staggering. Immediately after Sergei Eisenstein developed his montage theory, André Bazin showed up with a counter theory allegedly rendering Eisenstein’s theory irrelevant; immediately after auteurism began to catch on through Cahiers du Cinéma, film theory ushered in the “death of the author;” immediately after the Lacanian/Althusserian paradigm of psycholinguistics started to pick up steam courtesy of the Screen film journal, it was allegedly buried by the declaration of the post-theory era courtesy of David Bordwell and Noël Carroll. The primary cause for celebration in light of Dr. Steve Nolan’s 2009 book, Film, Lacan, and the Subject of Religion: A Psychoanalytic Approach to Religious Film Analysis, is that it is a “return” to past film theory.
Now, that is not to say that I want to turn back the clock and bring the world of film theory back to the “golden age” of auteur criticism led by Cahiers du Cinéma and psychosemiotics led by Screen, nor is it to imply that that’s what Nolan wants/is arguing for in his text. More accurately, what I want is a more tolerant atmosphere for analysis. Film theorists have been far too elitist and dogmatic in the past, shutting as many of the doors to past theorizing as they could instead of throwing open every door possible so as to promote the most diversity attainable in the field. What is so admirable about what Nolan has done is that he succeeded in finding a subject that was of interest to him, a subject that connected his two greatest passions, film and religion, and he used what theorizing worked best for his thesis, regardless of whether it was “in style” or not. Evincing the zeitgeist initiated by Bordwell and Carroll, Nolan is able to sidestep the paradoxicality of the open-minded Bordwell/Carroll paradigm by avoiding the postulation that his methodological choice (appropriating aspects of Lacanian psychoanalysis, particularly subject identification, to highlight the connectedness between film spectatorship and liturgy) is the best method for all film analysis.
By way of an introduction, Nolan discusses his initiation into the respective worlds of religion and cinema. He then explains his inspiration for analysis, his fascination with “the idea that liturgy can be understood as a medium of representation that parallels the representational medium of cinema.” Considering the frequency of redundancy in film theory, this novel exploration demands engagement, especially for those closet fans of psychoanalysis who have been waiting for a text like this. It’s been a while, but thanks to theorists like Slavoj Žižek and Todd McGowan, the “return to Lacan” bandwagon is picking up a lot of members nowadays, and what’s great about Nolan’s book is that he is not only offering a novel approach to film analysis, arguing a connectedness between film and liturgy, but he is also refining the psychoanalytical discourse that was being developed by Screen in the 1970s.
Following “the trajectory of Screen” apropos Antony Easthope, Nolan “returns” to the Screen theorizing of the 1970s, but rather than mere recapitulation, the section on Lacanian psychoanalysis is an illuminating reconfiguration of Lacan’s most famous concepts, particularly his theory of the Mirror Stage and subject identification, and how it applies both to moviegoing and religious worship. While acknowledging, respecting, and following in the footsteps of the scholarly rigor displayed by Screen theorists, all the same, Nolan believes there were some key misinterpretations of Lacan resultant from the dominance of Althusserian Marxism in the 1970s theoretical zeitgeist. Nolan attempts to “return to Lacan in order to explore his theory of subject construction,” rescuing Lacan’s theories from their Althusserian “politicization” in order to make use of them in his treatment of film as a medium of representation.
From Lacan, Nolan then attempts to revitalize the theory of suture, arguing that, “operating by the same psychic processes […] by which subjects come to ‘believe’ and so participate in [filmic/liturgical] reality,” moviegoers and worshipers end up being sutured into a constructed reality. While much of the book consists of elucidating past film and religious scholarship, Chapter 7, entitled “Suturing Suture: Joining the Theory Together,” is where Nolan begins to really develop his thesis, and it makes for enthralling reading. Also of note is Nolan’s ability to apply his theoretical insights to films as diverse as one could ever imagine, applying his unique brand of analysis to On the Waterfront, The Exorcist, The Mission, and even current films such as Batman Begins and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to name only a few.
In the final analysis, Nolan’s efforts here provide a history of film theory as well as a blueprint for future theorizing, making it not just theoretically useful, but pedagogically useful, as well. Students and scholars alike looking to get a better handle on concepts such as Lacanian psychoanalysis and suture theory and their respective places in the history of film theory will find this book indispensable, and those already possessing a firm grasp on such concepts will find Nolan’s subsequent work with them exceedingly stimulating. Whether one agrees or disagrees with Nolan’s methodology, the ideas expressed require considerable rumination, and I hope theorists in the future either take the baton from Nolan and continue down this intriguing path of filmic and liturgical concomitance or at least start anew the exhilarating dialectic that made for some of the most important developments in the young field of film studies.
About the author
Rev. Dr. Steve Nolan is an experienced film critic and theorist as well as a full-time chaplain at The Princess Alice Hospice in the United Kingdom. He has authored a multitude of journal articles and book chapters on issues related to film theory, theology, and the connections between film and religion. He has also extensively researched spiritual care in both religious and non-religious patients, and is currently working on a book exploring how chaplains work with end-of-life patients.

About the Author:

Kyle Barrowman is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at Columbia College in Chicago. In addition to his work for Film Monthly, he has previously published essays for Cashiers du Cinemart, Offscreen, and The International Journal of Žižek Studies, on subjects ranging from film noir to Alfred Hitchcock, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bruce Lee.
Filed in: Books on Film
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