Sunday, December 15, 2013

i gotta go do this report

I've mentioned, of course, how one of my papers this fall quarter was on the cinematic Christ-Figure. I shared a bit of it a while back. That section got broken up a little and there was a separate introductory bit added and... well, don't worry, I'm not going to share the whole paper. The prospectus actually worked out well enough, that doing the research is doable. So, I'll hold onto it for now.

That being said, I'd like to take a position today that would probably be a part of my conclusions in the final paper that would come from that research. See, the scale I plan to use--

(Keep in mind, the prospectus was supposed to be written as if we intended to go ahead with the research afterward, and so I will also write of it here in the same terms. So, when I say "I plan" to use" this scale, imagine it, if you must, as "were I to go ahead with this research, I would use." I will necessarily be writing in definitive terms for brevity while extending this research is still a hypothetical exercise.)

--for measuring the Christ-Figure in several films, notably Man of Steel (2013), Die Hard (1988), and of course Groundhog Day (1993), would be what I've termed the Kozlovic Scale. Using Anton Karl Kozlovic's various pieces, especially "Superman as Christ-Figure: The American Pop Culture Movie Messiah" (2002), "The Structural Characteristics of the Cinematic Christ-figure" (2004), "How to Create a Hollywood Christ-Figure: Sacred Storytelling as Applied Theology" (2009), tempered a bit by Deacy's (2008) "The Pedagogical Challenges of Finding Christ-Figures in Film," Walsh's (2013) "A Modest Proposal for Christ-Figure Interpretations," and Larsen's (2013) "Man of Steel and the tiredness of Christ figures," I would examine a varied selection of films and rate their protagonists in terms of Christ-Figuredness. Kozlovic's basic list of criteria has 25 elements to it. I dealt with Phil Connors as Christ-Figure using the unaltered Kozlovic (2009) Scale here and here. In would use the various Christ-Figures to critique Kozlovic's criteria to find what attributes should be added or removed. And, one thing that is not on the Kozlovic Scale is atonement. Larsen (2013) tells us, "Every Christ will fall short in some way, but what's commonly lost in these glib associations is the difference between sacrifice and atonement... At the movies, Christ figures will sacrifice themselves to save another--or maybe even all humankind--but they rarely do so to atone for the fallen state of others."

I get where Larsen is going--and arguably one of the points in my research would be to fabricate a Christ-Figure scale that would somehow separate the shallower associations from the more meaningful ones. In my introductory paragraph, I say, "The Christ-Figure, on the one hand, works as shallow shorthand to suggest depth and meaning to a character that may not be there; on the other hand, it links the modern hero to a long-standing religious tradition, building on that depth." Note: I intend to demonstrate that it's not just a religious tradition but a cinematic one as well. I want to counter the obvious Christ-Figure--Superman in Man of Steel, scoring 19/25 on the Kozlovic Scale--with the less obvious--Phil Connors in Groundhog Day, scoring 20/25--and critique the classification process with the likes of characters like John McClane in Die Hard, scoring 17/25.

You might note that Phil's score here is only 20, while I gave him a 22 before. These scores here come from the handout I made for my presentation in class regarding my prospectus. In my official textual analysis for the research I would have to probably weigh each character on the Kozlovic Scale at least twice, once using broader, more subjective interpretations of each criterion, and once with a more strict interpretation. With at least two scores for each Christ-Figure I could more readily discover the most appropriate interpretation of the criteria. I would also have to decide by a subjective assessment some rating of meaningfulness in terms of the Christ connection. This assessment could be influence by third party interpretation as well; for example, Kozlovic himself suggests Superman as an example, though I question the, for lack of a better word, spirituality of both the character and his filmic representations. Meaningfulness and spirituality may have to be defined and rated separately, now that I think about it. The point is that I will necessarily have to broaden the Kozlovic Scale before potentially narrowing it back down, adding extra categories for meaningfulness, spirituality, and possibly some pass/fail type rating for whether or not the character's sacrifice is for the whole world or not...

Which brings me back to Larsen (2013) and his notion of atonement. Larsen suggests, "atonement is hard to capture onscreen partly because it is an act that we can barely comprehend, let alone depict. Rather than capture that sense of salvific mystery, Christ figures pin Jesus down by focusing on more tangible traits: otherworldly powers, saving acts, flying. (Surely, Jesus flew as part of the Transfiguration, right?)" That last bit is a joke, since Larsen's focus is on Superman; flying is not a part of the Kozlovic Scale. It is necessary at this point to define some terms:

First, I think I should define "salvific" because I had never seen that word until I read Larsen's piece. Quite simply, salvific means, according to Merriam-Webster, ": having the intent or power to save or redeem," or more simply, "leading to salvation."

So, the next word to define would be "salvation." I'll list all the definitions from Merriam-Webster:

  • deliverance from the power and effects of sin
  • the agent or means that effects salvation
  • Christian Science : the realization of the supremacy of infinite Mind over all bringing with it the destruction of the illusion of sin, sickness, and death
  • liberation from ignorance or illusion
  • preservation from destruction or failure
  • deliverance from danger or difficulty

In particular, I find it interesting there that the one definition that specifically references Christianity gives a definition that could fit many a religion. It actually reads to me more Buddhist than Christian. And, it certainly applies to Phil Connors, or at least Groundhog Day, but I'll get into that more below.

The next word to define would be "redemption." Simply, it means "the act, process, or an instance of redeeming." And, "redeeming" means: "serving to offset or compensate for a defect."

Phil Connors' journey is certainly redemptive. Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals suggest in "Groundhog Day's Phil Connors and the Heroic Theme of Redemption" (Fictional Heroes 31 January 2011),

One of the most compelling actions that a hero can perform is an act of redemption. A redeeming act is any behavior that corrects a previous misstep of wrongdoing. ... Especially powerful instances of redemption are great acts of morality that follow prior moral transgressions. This type of more redemption is portrayed in a most poignant way in Groundhog Day...

They go on to say, "The story of a hero's redemptive journey has universal appeal and touches something powerful inside the human psyche." But, what about atonement.

Merriam-Webster defines "atonement" as
  • obsolete reconciliation
  • the reconciliation of God and humankind through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ
  • reparation for an offense or injury : satisfaction
  • Christian Science the exemplifying of human oneness with God

Obviously, the Christ-Figure doesn't have to be about oneness with God. I say "obviously" but that would, of course, be one of Larsen's complaints, I am sure. That the Christ-Figure needn't relate to God let alone Christianity let alone religion would be a problem. I would argue, though, that Phil Connors in particular is actually quite a religious figure despite any overt link to any particular religion. Like Foley (2004) suggesting that Phil "indirectly acknowledges God as Creator by reciting the verse, 'Only God can make a tree,'" Maolsheachlann at Irish Papist argues that Phil "casually assumes the existence of God when he tells Rita: 'Well, maybe the real God uses tricks. Maybe he's not omnipotent. He's just been around so long he knows everything." Still, Groundhog Day is not explicitly a Christian film. Nor is it explicitly a religious film. But, I would say, it would rate high on the meaningfulness scale.

But, the question I pose today is this: does Phil's redemption qualify as atonement? I have joked about having t-shirts made that bear the message, Phil Connors died for you. But, I would argue--and I think I have before, but I cannot recall the specific entry to link to it--that Phil Connors did, in fact, die for all of us in the audience. His death allows for his redemption, which allows for the film to have the meaning it does. If Phil's sacrificial death reconciles the audience with, well, God or whatever spirituality we may have, then my contention would be that Phil Connors' journey is, at least on some level, one of atonement. Separate from God or religion or spirituality, Phil's redemption fits quite concretely with that third definition: "reparation for an offense or injury." Phil's own pre-loop and early-loop actions are the offense, and his self-improvement is the reparation.

So, I must conclude that Larsen's complaint, that the cinematic Christ-Figure does not demonstrate atonement, is invalid, at least in the case of Groundhog Day.

Today's reason to repeat a day forever: to research and then research some more.

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