Cinema—The New Cathedral of Hollyworld

How films are replacing religion in our cinematic age.

Okay, that's a helluva long title. It pretty much explains it, though.

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“The mind is insatiable for meaning, drawn from, or projected, into the world of appearances, for unearthing hidden analogies, which connect the unknown with the familiar, and show the familiar in an unexpected light.”

—Arthur Koestler

Imagine yourself on a Sunday afternoon. You’ve just walked into a very tall building, been greeted with a smile by the same person who greeted you last week, and ushered into a dark room with seats all facing forward. There is music playing. You feel reverent. And then the previews start. You are about to worship at the new altar of technological culture, the movie theatre.

After one hundred years of tinkering, film has arrived as an alternate form of transcendence, replacing in interesting and strange ways the once venerated position held by the institutional church. Or, to put it another way, the medium of motion film has finally received its birthright: born right around the time Nietzsche declared that God was dead, film has now matured to the point that America is now accepting cinema as the culture’s chief myth maker.

Think about the odd similarities: Churches and movie theaters are both large buildings in public space, with signs out front indicating what is going on inside each week. As physical structures, they both create a sense of sacred space through the architectural elements of high ceilings, long aisles running the length of the main room, darkened rooms (with few if any windows), the use of dim lighting, sweeping wall curvatures, and the use of curtains to enhance the sacrality of the front space. Both offer similar row-style seating, and as an incentive to increase attendance, many churches and cinemas are now offering “stadium-style” seats.

There are an increasing number of churches (in Washington, D.C, Virginia Beach, VA, and San Diego, CA to start with) that actually rent a movie theater to host services, a nice arrangement for both institutions since religion is now American culture’s only legitimate excuse for being awake at all on Sunday morning. Entering a space of this size and design, you find yourself speaking in hushed tones: you feel small, a feeling that encourages acquiescence to any messages—fact or fiction—received therein. There is, in both cases, the feeling that something larger is going on, and that only through submission can you be a part of it. Albert Speer, Hitler’s Armaments Minister and chief architect, understood this feeling implicitly when he said that architecture could be a form of propaganda.

Once inside either church or cinema, the ritual begins, offering the attendee an experience designed to stimulate all the senses with signature sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches. As Aldous Huxley saw it, attending church was the most exciting part of medieval man’s weekly life, because only there could he escape his otherwise brown and gray world of dun and dung. The medieval church’s incense, rose windows, gold altarpieces, and priestly adornments of silk and rubies were one of the earliest forms of multimedia experience. These tactile symbols heightened the worshipper’s sense of the presence and magnificence of an otherwise invisible God.

Unlike the facile distinction being made in some corners between “religion” and “entertainment,” there was always a sense in which the cathedral was entertaining, in the root sense of the word of engaging the senses agreeably, in diverting, amusing, and interesting ways. The diversion was there to take your mind off the drudgery of daily life, and lift it up to God. Though the theology was serious, the actual experience was a form of escapism, despite how readily we associate “escapism” today with moral and social decline. In other words, church was a physical escapism into a spiritual reality. In truth, both cinema and church offer a form of art as a means of transcendence, and whether we see them as sacred or profane seems to be a matter of personal interpretation, now that the church has ceded its meaning-making authority to the mass media.

In the church of the cinema we take communion not with bread and wine, but with an equally ritualistic consumption of popcorn and Coke. How else can you explain the irrational economic behavior of paying ten times the retail price just to consume these particular foods in this particular setting?

Consider that brief but intensely memorable moment when you finally get into the auditorium with soda and snack in hand, find your personally perplexing perfect viewing angle, and then sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight. This moment of relief and gratitude is very much like the physical and psychic limbo of plane travel, in that it allows you to temporarily cocoon yourself away from the world’s troubles and your own. This is perhaps the nearest we can come in approximating the simultaneous joy and relief the typical medieval penitent felt upon receiving communion and having his sins forgiven. It may also explain why we feel especially comforted watching movies on airplanes. If we don’t quite receive absolution in the movie theatre, then at least we receive a two-hour reprieve from the burden of self-consciousness. Two hours, incidentally, is how long the average church service lasts.

By the time the sermon is over in either setting, you’ll be about ten dollars poorer. People resent the high cost of movies as much as they resent donating to the offering plate at a supposedly “free” church service. The proper attitude, of course, should be that of gratitude, whether you are making contact with the creator and redeemer of the universe, or merely experiencing the most expensive art form known to man. Cinema extracts its price from you up front, and the experience that follows may or may not justify the expense. Church, on the other hand, is theoretically free. It is what truth in advertising would look like if there were such a thing: you only give money to the offering plate if you do find meaning in the service provided, and you do so out of the excess of your heart’s appreciation.

This is one reason why churches, unlike movies, don’t have an elaborate structure of previews, trailers, and rating systems to convince the potential audience that it’s worth the money. All church is rated G, which is why so many people find religion phenomenally boring in today’s endlessly stimulating R- to X-rated mental environment. The most bizarre manifestation of cinema as civic religion is the jarring sight of ushers passing the basket in the theater for donations to such worthy causes as The March of Dimes, Jerry’s Kids, The MS Foundation, etc. In some theaters, the collection plate has migrated to the ticket booth itself, in an attempt to make you impulsively altruistic by donating your fifty cents change from a $9.50 ticket to a tin can with a hungry child’s eyes staring up at you.

The actual service begins: The seating, the pre-show quizzes and advertisements, the onscreen theater welcome, and the previews constitute a nearly identical liturgy for all the welcoming ritual that happens in a church service prior to the sermon. And, if you’re like most people, you obey an unwritten but strictly enforced rule that requires you to be in place in time for either the singing (if you’re in church) or the previews (if you’re in the theater). If you do arrive after either of these defining moments, the disappointment you feel is such that you’d almost prefer to go back home and try again next week. At the very least, it’s a disappointment famous for starting arguments between spouses.

And weekly is, by and large, how often you go. Church offers you a weekly service, and to the faithful there is the midweek service or, for Catholics, the daily mass. The mass media has created an equally compelling unspoken cultural obligation to see at least one movie a week (whether in theaters or at home), which is in fact practiced by most Americans. You are coerced to attend neither institution, but by and large, Americans will do one or the other (or both), on a weekly basis. To the cinematically devout, Hollywood offers an equivalent daily mass in the 400 feature-length films they produce each year. Cinema attendance has risen steadily in the last nine years, no matter what the economy does, while church attendance has gone up and down. At the modern multiplex theatre, you are given a daily choice of denomination, and can get into the mood of worship according to genre—action, arthouse, cartoon, comedy, documentary, drama, history, horror, romance, slasher, thriller, etc—these are all just modes for the preferred mood of your psychic submission to the great sociological function of religion that cinema so perfectly delivers. And, like different denominations, different genres invite a more active participation from the audience. Feel free to give a heartfelt “Amen!” in a gospel church, or even get up and dance during the singing at the Rocky Horror Picture Show, but keep your epiphanies to yourself when watching Where Angels Fear to Tread with your Presbyterian kin.

And then, there is the transcendence! The feeling of complete and total transportation, elevation, and awe in the presence of a great film is something that very few people are even capable of feeling in church these days, simply because of the overwhelming difference in the symbolic power that the two institutions enjoy. The rhetorical and technological bag of tricks made available to modern ministers of the word simply pales in comparison to the gadgets at the disposal of a $90 million movie.

What we want from church is actually precisely what we get from film: we want a special effect. In our daily lives, we have this vague but unshakable sense that the eternal and invisible world is all around us, and we keep hoping that it will erupt into our daily lives, and yet it doesn’t, and Tuesday afternoons just go slowly by one after the other, year after year. But in the movie theater, the supernatural is really there for us to behold—we can transport ourselves all over the planet and beyond just by sitting still; we can see the progress and acceleration of time, and we can see life begin, progress, and find redemption all within two hours. In recent years, films like American Beauty, The Matrix, The Game, The Truman Show, Magnolia, and Fight Club are all films that are much more than mere entertainment; they are thoughtful meditations on our place in society and our purpose in life.


Like religion, a good movie really does answer the only three questions worth asking in life: who you are, where you come from, and what you should do. In its essential narrative arc, a movie gives you clues as to your ultimate identity, the nature of how the world really is, and your mission in life. And if you learn the basics of screenplay writing, you discover very quickly that almost every film script follows a dramatic formula identical to the formula of the standard religious sermon. In the screenplay, the writer’s task is to create an emotionally sympathetic character who is nevertheless guilty of some form of misbehavior, who then must, through an escalating series of forced crises, confront his or her misbehavior and overcome it. Likewise, in your standard sermon, the preacher’s art is to describe, through personal, historical, and anecdotal evidence, the universal sin (read: misbehavior) of the human species, and how God alone can solve this basic problem, and happily, how he does. Both sermons and movies (in America at least) thus, have the same theological bias that favors a happy ending.

At the end of a great film, like after hearing a great sermon, one’s desire is to go out and eat a large meal with good friends and discuss what you’ve just experienced. Phrases and moments from both experiences are carried with you during the week, and you find yourself facing an old frustration with a new resolve, thanks to the lines of dialogue or monologue that you’ve heard, memorized and incorporated from either theater or church. Conversely, the feeling of disappointment at a bad film or a bad church service, is such a severe disappointment that you often will take it personally, and vow to never again watch a film with that actor, or from that director, or listen to a sermon from that preacher, or maybe it’s time to think about switching churches, or worse, denominations.

Actually, the subtlety of the difference in disappointment tells a larger truth: if you dislike a film, you tell all your friends and family to avoid it, whereas, if you don’t find meaning in a particular church service, you will most likely keep it to yourself, expressing your disappointment only to a confidante. This difference not only reflects the different economic structure of both institutions; it also defines the difference between an audience and a community. After the movie, you don’t hang out, gossip, and make friends with the other attendees. Church is still somewhat unique in offering a space where the kindness of strangers can actually be trusted.

And if you look at the most basic cultural yearnings of the medieval period under the universal church and compare it to our desires under the system of mass media today, you see similarities so ubiquitous as to be practically invisible. The American mass media system answers the three great questions with three great answers: Who are you? A consumer. Why are you here? To shop. What should you do? Go to the mall.

In the American holy trinity of commercial meaning, cinema reigns supreme, with TV in second place (sociologists have long noticed how TV is situated in the home where the personal altar or shrine used to be), and the city is the physical proof of the reality that the other two point to. The mall is how America brings the styles and fashions and news of the city to the suburbs. It is mass media’s version of the word made flesh. It is where you go to put your theology into praxis, to satisfy the hungers media has so artfully created, to show yourself a devout practitioner of your culture’s belief system.

In the middle ages, everyone wanted to be a saint, wanted to be well known for their moral virtues, their love of God, their piety. The Catholic saints constituted the medieval star system of moral exemplars and were so widely adored that people named their children after them, had special feasts on their birthdays, and took pilgrimages to see the sites of their burial places and life’s work. Today, we all want to be actors, singers, or dancers—in a word, we all want more than anything to be famous, to be well known not for our moral virtues, but as Daniel Boorstin puts it, to be well known for being well known. We name our children after movie stars. We find their clothing, their signatures, and their discarded objects to be—like holy relics—extremely valuable, so much so that we will outbid one another for the right to own such a piece. The imparted value of $20 million that we pay at auction for say, a Marilyn Monroe dress, is a value far beyond anything that Ms. Monroe herself would have considered paying. And in the gap, we see how deep our spiritual hunger is to be associated with and thereby found equal to or worthy of our saint’s discarded possessions.

And thus we find ourselves, at the beginning of a weird new century that seems so much like the middle ages that we can’t tell if we’re moving forward or backward in time, in a world where the role of the church has been usurped by the cinema, and millions are unconsciously but actively attempting to lead their spiritual lives through the symbols, scenarios, and situation comedies of popular culture.

This was not always so, largely because it was the church that used to be the de facto cultural arbiter of what was sacred and what was profane. Now that the church has ceded its cultural authority to mass media, the very distinction of sacred and profane, or its secular equivalent attention and diversion, seems to be pointless. It’s enough to make you laugh and cry at the same time. Frederick Buechner says the church should tell the truth in all genres—that we should relate the message of the gospel as comedy, tragedy, and fairy tale. Hollywood consistently beats the church at its own game.

The human species will find meaning wherever it is approached with manifest ritual and symbolism. If a plastic bag sailing on the breeze is a finer intimation of immortality for you than a plastic cup of grape juice passed between your lips, then that is something to truly consider in thinking about the difference between an art of diversion and an art of attention, and how symbolically serious our current trouble seems to be.

From the long view, it’s an interesting trajectory—five hundred years after the printing press splintered the universal church into a thousand sectarian fragments, the new technology of film is bringing us all back into the same room again. Cinema is now the only real place to air new ideas in parable form, a safe forum where participants come in with their guard not only down, but also with their minds open and hungry for meaning. Like it or not, the cinema is delivering what the Reformers only hoped for, and what that means for the future of the church is a question that admits of a wide solution.

Read Mercer Schuchardt is publisher of Metaphilm.

Posted by: editor on Nov 09, 2001 | 2:46 pm

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