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A Style-Sensitive Approach to Religion and Film

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Abstract Religion and film courses have become popular additions to undergraduate course calendars. However, this relatively new discipline still lacks methodological sophistication. The present study proposes that instructors and critics should begin to afford attention to the ways in which films articulate meaning through their audio-visual, stylistic dimensions. Film style is an important element of filmmaking that has largely been ignored by scholars of religion. By affording attention to the aspects of film that distinguish it from other artistic media, critics and instructors will be able to better illuminate the manner in which religious material is expressed through the film medium.

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36. FN1 1)I follow Steve Nolan (1998) in using this term to denote film analyses written by scholars of religion.
37. FN2 2)This is to say nothing of the impact of religion in film upon contemporary Western society. Wright points out that The Economisthad even suggested that “The 2004 [American Presidential] election could well turn into a choice between Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.” Unattributed, “The Passion of the Christians,” The Economist, 2 October 2004, p. 50; cf. Wright 2007:25.
38. FN3 3)It should be noted that Bakker does make interesting insights while considering modes of narration (e.g., 2009:47–50) and sound (e.g., 2009:86–108, 140–161).
39. FN4 4)Sometimes these proposals even have unappealing suggestions such as the disuse of popular filmmaking. For example, see Plate 1998.
40. FN5 5)This trend is well-represented by the articles appearing in the online Journal of Religion and Film. This periodical is an excellent resource for instructors and students of religion and film, but the approach taken by most of its contributors is in need of revision.
41. FN6 6 )On the history of mise-en-scène as a concept in film studies, Brewster and Jacobs 1997; Brockett and Findlay 1973. On costume design, Maeder 1987; Lees 1976. On color design, Marmoulien 1960. For examples of how the film critic can interpret the chromatic scheme of a film, see Sharits 1996; Branigan 1976.
42. FN7 7 )For alternative theories of mise-en-scène, see Eisenstein 1988; Burch 1981.
43. FN8 8 )For general introductions to cinematography, see Hummel 2001; LoBrutto 1999; Malkiewicz 1989.
44. FN9 9 )Film stock comes in different varieties. It is differentiated by the chemical make-up of the mixture. Choosing between film stocks is an artistic decision that will have aesthetic implications. The degree of contrast depends, in part, on the kind of stock used, and contrast functions to guide the viewer’s attention to parts of the frame deemed most important by the filmmakers.
45. FN10 10)Tonalities of color may be altered after filming. The color grader is generally responsible for these decisions.
46. FN11 11)Options include: freeze-frame, slow motion, “regular” speed, and fast-motion.
47. FN12 12)This refers to depth, scale, and spatial relations of objects in the image. By manipulating these aspects of the shot, filmmakers again betray how they want viewers to interpret the image.
48. FN13 13)This refers to the borders of the shot. Framing can vary in terms of angle, height and distance. The frame is not a neutral aspect of the shot; it “imposes a certain vantage pointonto the material within the image” (Bordwell and Thompson 2004:252). Framing is an aspect of other forms of art as well, such as photography and fine art. In film, the frame is moveable. There are several methods by which to create a mobile frame. These include: zooming, craning, panning, and tracking.
49. FN14 14)The longer the shot, the less editing and the greater emphasis on mise-en-scène. Without frequent cutting, the viewer is in greater control of what he/she observes on screen and is given more opportunity to decide what is of importance and of interest.
50. FN15 15)For works on film editing in general, McGrath 2001; Bordwell 1993; Lo Brutto 1991; Burch 1981.
51. FN16 16)For more on sound in film production, consult Murch 1995, written by the most acclaimed sound designer in Hollywood; and Kenny 2000.
52. FN17 17)Rouben Marmoulien (1960) argues that the director must design a comprehensive “chromatic plan” for the film. For examples of style analyses that focus on color, see Sharits 1966; Branigan 1976.

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Affiliations: 1: Department for the Study of Religion, University of Toronto 170 St. George Street, Toronto, Ontario M5R 2M8, Canada


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