Dec 15, 2019
If you are one of those people who will settle in this evening with a hot cup of apple cider to watch a holiday movie, you are not alone. Holiday movies have become firmly embedded in Americans’ winter celebrations.
The New York Times reports a massive increase in new holiday movies this year. Disney, Netflix, Lifetime and Hallmark are now in direct competition for viewers’ attention, with both new releases and reruns of the classics.
Holiday movies are so popular not simply because they are “escapes,” as my research on the relation between religion and cinema argues. Rather, these films offer viewers a glimpse into the world as it could be.
Charles Haynes Haswell, who grew up in the 1820s in New York City, remembered in his memoirs that in his youth, “Christmas was very slightly observed as a general holiday.” A few years later, when Haswell was at boarding school on Long Island, Christmas was altogether ignored.
It wouldn’t be until 1849, by which time Haswell was on his way to a long career in the city’s Tammany Hall political machine, that Christmas became a legally recognized holiday in the state of New York, following Alabama and other Southern states a decade earlier. But by then New York City had already given birth to the winter festival that is celebrated today across the United States and beyond.
Oct 13, 2018
May 31, 2018
May 31, 2018
In the midst of one shooting after another of unarmed black men by police officers, one comment keeps sticking in my mind: officer Darren Wilson’s expressed fear of Michael Brown before he shot him six times and killed him. Wilson claimed of Brown, “he looked up at me and had the most intense aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon.”
What does it mean to look “like a demon”? How would Wilson know what a demon looks like? Was he implicitly claiming he’s actually seen a demon? Or was Wilson, most likely, projecting an image of a demon from popular media onto the face of a real person? A monstrous, unreal other overlaid on the face of another, real person? And has media so influenced us that we don’t know the real from the fake and we’re ready to pull the trigger regardless?
Dec 27, 2017
Cinema and religion are never far apart—both bring light to darkened places. Sometimes the illumination comes from bright souls gathered together to confront dark forces. Sometimes it’s the light of bonfires lit to root out (perceived) monsters. Sometimes the light beckons to us from outside the window, or at the end of a tunnel, showing us another world beyond, full of possibilities. The lights are at times alluring, and other times frightening, and usually a bit of both.
It may sound strange to say, but in an era of fake news and truthiness, we might need the lights of fiction now more than ever. Yes, for a kind of escape (though the belief in cinema simply as escapism is a dangerous tale), but also for testing, trying, experimenting, becoming other. In the cinema we are given the point of view of someone else, made to feel what someone else does, prompted to become part of the stories playing out on screen.
If you drive into Palmyra, New York, today you’ll come upon a site not unlike what the Mormon founder Joseph Smith saw two hundred years ago: a cluster of four tall steeples rising from four Protestant churches. Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, and Episcopalians confront each other at adjacent corners of the town’s crossroads. Though they aren’t the same steeples as in Smith’s day, the inter-denominational face off was already in force, leading Smith to reflect: “There was in the place where we lived an unusual excitement on the subject of religion. . . . Priest contended against priest, and convert against convert so that all their good feelings one for another were entirely lost in a strife of words and a contest about opinions.”
In a newly settled land rife with new religious movements in direct competition for people’s souls, Smith was able to work within the discord to form something fresh and novel. As is well known through contemporary caricature and acclaim alike, he forged one of the most powerful religious traditions operating in the world today.
What isn’t so well known is that the origins of Mormonism, like the origins of many American religious practices and beliefs, are deeply bound up with the birth of the Erie Canal, on whose banks the town of Palmyra grew. The early lives of both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were nourished by canal-based social and economic developments, and ultimately the printing and distribution of the Book of Mormon would not have had an impact without the canalway.
In 2015, Montreal-based artist Guy Laramée placed a large-format Bible from the 19th century upright with the spine open. Then, using a power grinder, he carved a landscape into the pages and painted along the curvatures, evoking the space of a cave whittled into a sheer mountainside.
It is a beautiful summoning of desert spaces, conjuring the place of the biblical prophets. It is, however, an unusual treatment of the Good Book.
Laramée, along with a number of contemporary artists, has been working with books not as muse, but as medium. You could call these artists book lovers, but only in the way that you could call Michelangelo a marble lover or Edward Scissorhands a tree lover.
Aug 20, 2017
Austin Steward was born into slavery in 1793 in Virginia, where he worked as an errand boy on the plantation of a cruel master. Whippings were common, and meager food and clothing were all he was given for his excruciating labor. Yet he was a person of remarkable energy and spirit. He managed to teach himself to read in secret, an act for which he was beaten.
Steward eventually escaped after his master sold the plantation and moved his household and slaves to New York state. Steward gained his final freedom with legal help from the New York Manumission Society, an abolitionist group, and made his way to Rochester. In short order he opened a butcher shop and then a general store on Main Street, creating a thriving business. He was just 24. He saw his success as a reason to help others and found time to teach Sunday School, host black reform meetings and distribute abolitionist newspapers. Freedom was not simply the release from a former state of being. For Steward it was a call to action and responsibility.