Some Notes on the Ethics of Seeing Film

by Margaret R. Miles and S. Brent Plate

The first exhibition of Impressionist paintings (1874) provoked angry criticism, to which one of the Impressionist painters replied, “You will soon see nature as we do.” The power of film might be summarized by a slight revision of that prophetic statement, “You will soon see social arrangements as movies do.” Masked by an engaging plot, special effects, and/or visual beauty, film communicates values that are seldom inspected. Yet even if not inspected, cinema has transformed the modern view of reality itself. The televised images of the destruction of the World Trade towers on September 11, 2001 revealed but one way this is evident: viewers watched people fleeing imminent danger down New York streets, and numerous commentators were amazed at how this looked just like the movies, like this was all some horrible remake of Godzilla or Armageddon. For many, these events were impossible to see apart from the mediations of movies. On a more banal level, visitors to the Philadelphia Museum of Art can find footprints from Rocky at the top of the great stairway leading to the entrance. Never mind that “Rocky” was the eponymous, fictional character from a film—a character that very truly has no footprints—people from all over the world have taken their pictures alongside these footprints. Because of this remaking of social life, some attention to these filmic reconstructions is worth our time if we are interested in ethical engagement with the world.

Responding to some of the crucial social reorientations that film has enacted in our modern lives, in this essay we hope to highlight three aspects of the religious and ethical approach to film: first, to argue that we must pay attention to the relation between the world on-screen and off-screen, that there can never be a strict delineation of the “real world” from that of film. Second, as a way to think more fully about the specificities of an ethical film criticism, we advocate the necessity of moving beyond narrative analyses of film (treating a movie as just another story) toward more explicitly visual analyses. Finally, we lay out some suggestions for the cultivation of a critical practice of what we will call a “hospitable vision,” a mode of viewing film that opens up space for otherness.

From Reel to Real

In Cultural Studies as Critical Theory, Ben Agger criticizes the kind of cultural studies that depoliticizes popular culture, failing to interrogate popular culture’s connections with the public sphere. Agger argues persuasively that “because culture matters so much . . . it deserves full critical attention.”1 Study of popular culture he wrote, should aim at “debunking the stimulations bombarding [people] from every direction,” seeking instead “a more stable ground of value from which to engage in dehierarchizing cultural and political practices.”2 The task of religion and film studies could not be put more succinctly. Studies of religion and film should investigate the quintessentially religious questions: How should we live? What values actually direct our everyday choices in the public world? How are these values circulated? And, are they compatible with religious values?

In just over one hundred years, film has become a powerful force in modern life that changes the way we think about, interpret, and live in the world. Because of this alteration of the ways we literally see the world, critical attention to film becomes a vital task for those engaged with issues of religion and ethics, and concerned with more equitable social arrangements. Attention to Hollywood movies with large box office success and independent movies with wide circulation enables analysis of the values circulating through American society. Art and avant-garde films may be more interesting to film critics than popular movies, but to the extent that these films defy Hollywood conventions, they do not attract large audiences and thus cannot be thought of as circulating values to large and diverse American audiences. We will return to the status of these less frequently distributed films in due time.

Because movies are powerful, critical attention to them is not only justified, but essential. For example, in Something’s Gotta Give (2003), Hollywood movies’ insistence that “love (meaning romance) conquers all” receives its latest iteration. After seeing this movie, many Americans left theaters persuaded that the Diane Keaton character, a fifty-something woman, will be happier with the Jack Nicholson character (who, by his own admission has pursued much younger women for forty years) than in her own comfortable and stimulating world that includes a profession in which she has achieved international recognition, a loving daughter, a beautiful home by the ocean, and congenial friends. However distant from experience, the expectation that a man will revise lifelong habits in order to “settle down” with a woman after a brief initial attraction “makes sense” to movie viewers accustomed to film conventions that make a “happy” ending mandatory in a romantic comedy.

How do the values embedded in film conventions affect a viewing audience? Is there any connection between the expectations of relationships promoted by movies and the approximately 50% divorce rate in the United States? While the connection would be difficult to document with precision, a connection is intuitively persuasive. To deny the myth that movies are “pure entertainment” is to find it imperative to examine the symbiotic relationship between Americans’ interests and tastes and the ways in which these are both reflected in, and shaped by, media culture. We suggest that the future of the field of religion and film lies in trespassing the deceptively solid boundaries of films to ask, and attempt to answer, the vexed and pressing questions surrounding spectators’ and society’s relationship to the values communicated by films.

The further step of assuming that film and society are mutually porous augments active engagement, urging viewers to examine how the film relates to, or is authorized by, contemporary social interests. The political dimension of a film is elicited by asking the ancient question of the Holy Grail, “Whom does it serve?” When we no longer believe that “entertainment” has no further effects than to make us briefly forget our worries, we will be motivated to examine who are the primary and secondary beneficiaries of a film’s values. We will also want to study the critical difference between a director’s intentions and a film’s possible effects in a particular society in a particular historical moment. To begin to analyze the relations between film and reality, we need to develop a more complex approach to film, one that takes seriously this connection between how we see and how we live.


Seeing, believing, and living are intricately imbricated. Any attempt at heuristically disentangling this triad must, at some level, take note of the complexities of seeing, of the constructed nature of vision itself. In other words, to see this interrelation we must come to a fuller understanding of the importance of visuality.

Scholarship on film from ethical and religious studies standpoints has increased exponentially over the last two decades.3 Somewhat freed from the scholarly disdain for popular culture, film has proven to be both a popular medium and one that serves great pedagogical value: students like it and scholars like it, a nice neutral ground. Yet, most of the work up to this point has focused on the narrative content of film. While not unimportant, this focus betrays many scholars’ linguistic biases and inabilities to “think visually.” This is not merely a media battle of words against images. Who we are depends on how we see, how we see the “other,” and how we are looked at in return. Donna Haraway’s powerful statement, “We are responsible for what we learn how to see” summarizes the ethics of film viewing.4 In turn, how we see the other affects the way we treat the other. Film, as a medium of mass reception, promotes, negates, and generally alters our perception of identities, especially with regard to gender, race, ethnicity, and religion.

Yet the result of this is not merely to suggest that more underrepresented groups be represented on screen—though this is part of it—it is also to delve deeper into visuality in order to critically understand the ways in which humans learn how to see, how our very perceptual abilities are shaped before we even arrive at the movie theater. Seeing is an activity that humans learn how to do, it is not an innate ability. We both learn how to see, and how not to see. For our very creaturely survival we must learn to recognize certain persons, places, or things (things that are dangerous, things that provide love and nourishment, for example), and forget other visual stimuli (that pile of paper and books on the desk would paralyze us if we paid it any attention!). Among other factors, this sensual activity is shaped by visual technologies such as film, television, video games, and the Internet, as well as ever more powerful telescopes and microscopes. By moving beyond the search for religious characters in film, scholars can look at the larger religious questions involved in the social construction of reality through visual terms.

Such visual learning is intriguingly brought out in the story “To See and Not See,” in which neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks tells the tale of a man in his 50s who had been blind since childhood and who later undergoes an operation that restores his sight. The results were not so straightforward, and the man— pseudonymously penned “Virgil” in the story—struggled in his attempt to reconceive his world with his new visual abilities: “But when Virgil opened his eye, after being blind for forty-five years—having had little more than an infant’s visual experience, and this long forgotten—there were no visual memories to support perception; there was no world of experience and meaning awaiting him. He saw, but what he saw had no coherence.” This observation, coupled with parallel observations by other physicians in other places, leads Sacks to suggest “When we open our eyes each morning, it is upon a world we have spent a lifetime learning to see. We are not given the world: we make our world through incessant experience, categorization, memory, reconnection.”5 Our ability to see is a process of socio-visual construction, taught by parental and educational structures, and deeply influenced by cultural and religious values. Film has become one of the more potent of these influences, altering the way we perceive national tragedies, heroic activities, gender roles, and sexual conduct, among other activities.6

In this light, what we want to suggest is that from an ethical standpoint we must begin to move beyond the emphasis on verbal narrative and toward the visuality of film. Visuality does not simply refer to the images on screen, but rather to all the interrelations that create how we see. This of course includes the edited and cinematographic images, but also must take into account the ways sound (as spoken words, music, and sound effects), characters, and, yes, the narrative structure of plotlines, help create the visuality of film. Film is a medium of communication that utilizes symbols through a particular apparatus, yet it is also multi-media as it synthesizes other media such as oral speech, music, and still and moving images. As W. J. T. Mitchell suggests, “all media are mixed media, combining different codes, discursive conventions, channels, sensory and cognitive modes.”7 Film brings together the phonograph as much as the photograph, orality as much as literacy.

Images are never observed in a cultural void; they are always set in a context that is shaped by previous experiences, memories, and other sensory perceptions. The visuality of film also includes the critically productive space between the film viewed and the perceiving body of the film viewer. The seeing-body of the viewer perceives from within a cultural-sexual-religious-political milieu, and filters the reception of film through her or his particular location. Then there is the relation of this seeing body to other seeing bodies who also view film and perceive from their own locations. There is therefore almost no sense that an individual sees a film from a singular, subjective standpoint, for whether we attend a film theater with other people who laugh or cry at certain points and thus effect our own responses, or whether we come to a film with preconceived ideas due to trailers, published reviews, word of mouth, or because we have seen the actor before and like the characters she plays, we are caught up in the visuality of film. Most of us, of course, are rarely aware of many of these influences, and the populist argument that film should simply be entertainment is strong, yet it is precisely at these points where a certain ethical vigilance becomes crucial. For it is precisely when we believe we have escaped, when we feel we are in the realm of pure entertainment, that the ideological world of the cinema becomes most seductive, lulling us into a dream state.

Since screen-seeing cannot be “face to face,” must the spectator’s experience in the movie theater train her/him to practice an objectified view that very likely, if not inevitably, carries over into the way we see the real human beings around us? We suggest that viewing films passively as entertainment does indeed lead to the notion that we are separate from the objectified world on screen. But critical engagement, by which a spectator examines how a film’s details produce and communicate effects and deliver pleasure to viewers, creates and exercises an active eye, establishing a relationship between spectator and film by which both are challenged.

All of this makes for a complicated, nay impossible, process in the ethical analysis of film. Certainly not everyone needs to go to film school to learn all the tricks of the trade in order to be active viewers, and there are ample film theories that while intending to be critically astute nonetheless wind up with arcane and often far-fetched interpretations. Yet, from an ethical, active, and religious point of view the question of responsibility is a constant and inescapable one. And so, to bring several of our interests together here, we turn to suggest a few dimensions involved with a hospitable mode of viewing film.

Hospitable Vision

To be ethical film viewers we need to acknowledge distribution structures, the formal aesthetics of film production, along with the great narratives that films so wonderfully bring to life on screen, and we need to ask questions about who is producing, promoting, and distributing films, and what kind of values the films are offering. In this way we begin to become critical film viewers, made aware of the values circulating on screen and on into the rest of our lives. To be fully engaged with film—in mind and body—might be to revive something like a postmodern version of Saint Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises. This would not be, as some contemporary spirituality enthusiasts suggest, an “imaging” practice whereby one imagines one’s self in particular circumstances designed to enrich one’s soul, one’s interior life. No, this is ultimately an exterior-oriented, outward-focusing toward the face and body of the other. Since our abilities to see are learned, we can also unlearn and relearn them, but it requires practice. Such practice might help create an exercise in “hospitable vision.”

While many religious studies approaches to film tend to denigrate psychoanalytic perspectives—suggesting that it leads to widely speculative theories, which is no doubt sometimes the case—there are many ways in which psychoanalysis can offer insights into the ethics of seeing, particularly as it has to do with processes of identification. Kaja Silverman’s work in film theory provides several worthy directions for what she terms an “ethics in the field of vision.” Working out of a primarily Lacanian perspective, she is interested in the functions of identification that arise from the concomitant processes of viewing and being viewed. Ultimately interested in how we see “otherness,” she promotes “heteropathic identification,” whereby the human subject steps outside her or his self and takes the risk of identifying with the other. This is in distinction to the more common approach that industrial film relies upon, which is termed “idiopathic identification,” whereby separation between self and other is maintained and the entertainment value is brought to the fore. This certainly has its place, but it ultimately serves to reaffirm our own identity, and does little to allow us to see otherwise.

An intriguing example of idiopathic vision can be seen by looking at the Hollywood film, At First Sight (1998), based on Oliver Sacks’s story mentioned above. In Sack’s story, “Virgil” is a fifty-something, overweight, unhealthy man who gives massages at a YMCA in Oklahoma City. In the Hollywood version “Virgil” is played by Val Kilmer—an attractive, muscular, thirty-something actor—and his occupation is also masseur, but the setting is an upscale New England resort. There he falls in love with the equally attractive Amy (Mira Sorvino). The ironies of this transposition from word to image are astounding in a story so deeply engaged with the learned nature of seeing. Yet it is not out of the ordinary in industrial film production.

Opposed to an idiopathic vision, Silverman argues, “we need visual texts which activate in us the capacity to idealize bodies which diverge as widely as possible both from ourselves and from the cultural norm.”8 Indeed, as we have each claimed in previous writings, contemporary US culture needs these “other” images that will help us to imagine differences in race, class, sexual orientation, and gender.9 Silverman is clear that such heteropathic identification is perhaps only a utopian mode of seeing, and there remains a certain impossibility of actually seeing through an other’s eyes. Indeed, inspired by the ethical philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida has continually revisited such issues, and suggests that there is ultimately no escape from narcissism. Even so, there is a continuum of narcissisms:

Narcissism! There is not narcissism and non-narcissism; there are narcissisms that are more or less comprehensive, generous, open, extended. What is called non-narcissism is in general but the economy of a much more welcoming, hospitable narcissism, one that is much more open to the experience of the other as other. I believe that without a movement of narcissistic reappropriation, the relation to the other would be absolutely destroyed, it would be destroyed in advance. The relation to the other—even if it remains asymmetrical, open, without possible reap- propriation—must trace a movement of reappropriation in the image of oneself for love to be possible, for example. Love is narcissistic.10

We must practice hospitality, care and concern for the other, even if we can never escape our own image in the other. The absolute heteropathic identification remains eschatologically out of reach, but we can see ourselves and the other as we look. Film might then become a kind of training ground for such spiritual exercises. Through viewings of films that do diverge from our cultural norms, we can also come across the visions of other cultures.

Because postmodern, postcolonial life consists of multicultural and interreligious encounters on a regular basis, there is an obvious need to branch out beyond the Hollywoodcentrism evident in a majority of film and religion studies in the past. Films made outside of Hollywood do not conform to the same aesthetic standards that capitalist, industrial film relies upon, and by looking at independent films made in the United States and Canada, as well as South America, Africa, and Asia, for example, and through attention to film form and reception, the student of film and religion begins to see the ways other worlds, including religious worlds, are visually constructed. We leave off with two examples of films that allow us to see otherwise, stirring us toward a hospitable vision.

A beautiful example of such seeing the other might be found through Daughters of the Dust (dir. Julie Dash, 1991), which tells the story (in word, image, and sound) of a Gullah family on the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia, and their struggles with change in the modern world. In the film, as Judith Weisenfeld states,

Dash requires that viewers enter Gullah cultural fully from the outset, and she provides little context for her American audience to translate the characters or the story into the more familiar classical Hollywood style. Translation, the film insists, damages the integrity of the unique cultural and social experience of the Gullah people, and, as viewers, we are called upon to take the difficult road of letting go of ingrained expectations for what a film about the consequences of slavery should look like, how characters in a story should behave, and what the function of religion in the community should be.11

Because of the style of cinematography—the careful use of camera angles, film stock, and lighting—Dash invites viewers into a different world, and through such a film we gradually realize how much we have been trained to see in very specific ways through commercial film production.

To move away from the United States, we might highlight many of the wonderful films being made on the continent of Africa today. For example, at the time of writing this the nation of Chad has only produced three films. Two of these are by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, whose recent Abouna (“Our Father”; 2002) is a striking portrayal of two young brothers searching for their missing father. Their quest takes them from a film theater into mischief and ultimately to a Muslim school, along the way offering a glimpse of life in Chad that is both familiar to those of us raised on commercial Hollywood cinema and unfamiliar because of the manner of the boys’ search and the details of their surroundings. Abouna allows Westerners a peek into a way of life radically other, even as it is linked in its possibly universal quest for family and the struggles of growing up. Haroun understands this dichotomy and does not suggest the world should simply get rid of Western, commercial films. Nonetheless, the heavily financed and mass-distributed cinema of the West, Haroun claims, “takes up too much space. It gets bigger and leaves less to others.” In contrast, “Our [African] films are a little like candles, no? They illuminate only a small space, small groups of particular people. But those people can be everywhere, all over the planet.”12 If we cannot see the culture of Chad—beyond the images of starvation every so often on the nightly news—how are we in Europe and North America to understand other ways of life? Such questions are pivotal to those involved in ethical and religious leadership and education.

How we see and how we live are interconnected. We are arguing here that cinema provides us with a sort of training ground, a place to be confronted with visual otherness, and to practice our response. But this only occurs if we remain critical of the images that we see, and do not rely too easily on our Hollywood-constructed modes of vision. And if we begin to see differently, opening up space for the other to come into our view, then we might also be stimulated to live and act differently, more open to the face, the body, the skin of the other.


1. Ben Agger, Cultural Studies and Critical Theory (Washington, D. C.: The Falmer Press, 1992), 25.  
2. Ibid., 196.  
3. The study of film and religion became solidified through the decade of the 1990s, as evidenced by the upsurge of publications in the field, the establishment of a program unit on film and religion within the American Academy of Religion, and the launch of the online Journal of Religion and Film.  
4. Donna Haraway, “The Persistence of Vision,” in Writing on the Body: Female Embodiment and Feminist Theory, ed. Katie Conroy, Nadia Medina, and Sarah Stanbury (New York: State University of New York Press, 1997), 286.  
5. Oliver Sacks, “To See and Not See,” in An Anthropologist on Mars (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 114.  
6. There has been in increase in work done on vision in recent years, and the results have been fascinating. For a good history of theories of vision, see David C. Lindberg, Theories of Vision from Al-Kindi to Kepler (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976); Marius von Senden's Space and Sight, trans. Peter Heath (Glencoe, ILL: Free Press, 1960), tells the stories of some of the first cataract operations and the struggles many of these people went through. From a more scientific view, with a strong eye toward the arts, see Donald D. Hoffman’s Visual Intelligence: How We Create What We See (New York: Norton, 1998) and Margaret Livingstone, Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing (New York: Harry Abrams, 2002).  
7. W. J. T. Mitchell, Picture Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 95.  
8. Kaja Silverman, The Threshold of the Visible World (New York: Routledge 1996), 37.  
9. See Margaret Miles, Seeing and Believing (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996) and S. Brent Plate, introduction to Imag(in)ing Otherness: Filmic Visions of Living Together, S. Brent Plate and David Jasper, eds. (Oxford: Oxford University Press/ American Academy of Religion, 1999).
10. Jacques Derrida, “There is No One Narcissism,” in Points . . . : Interviews, 1974-1994, trans. Peggy Kamuf (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1985), 199; emphasis added.  
11. Judith Weisenfeld, “‘My Story Begins Before I was Born’: Myth, History, and Power in Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust,” in Representing Religion in World Cinema, S. Brent Plate, ed. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003). See also Margaret Miles’s chapter in Seeing and Believing (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996).
12. Quoted in Dave Kehr, “Themes of Film and Fatherhood in Chad,” New York Times, 13 March,  
2004. [online site: ww.nytimes.com/2004/03/13/arts/13ABOU.html?ex=1080280516&ei =1&en=812af166e891434b]

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Source: Cross Currents, Spring 2004, Vol. 54,  No 1.