here's the report

A bit of a rough beginning for a paper that's going to involve Groundhog Day:

In the latest Superman film, Man of Steel, we see once again deliberate similarities between Superman and Christ. Metaxas (2013) suggests that these similarities are not deliberate this time but rather the “oft-noted parallels between Superman and Christ” are simply not obscured by director Zach Snyder. For example, Superman, in this film is 33, the age of Christ at his death. In 1978’s Superman: The Movie, Superman was 30, the age of Christ when he began his ministry. This is just one of many parallels. For more, we can turn to Kozlovic’s (2002) exploration of Superman as Christ-Figure, in which Kozlovic outlines 20 Superman-Jesus parallels and 8 Christic personality traits shared by Superman. More generally, Kozlovic (2004 and 2009) outlined 25 structural characteristics that all cinematic Christ-Figures share. Kozlovic (2009) points out, “not all of these elements must exist in the one character, or in the one film, or at any one time to qualify as a legitimate Christ-figure, but the more of them, the stronger the christic construction, the more profound their holy resonance and the better the sacred storytelling parallels” (p. 4). But, there may be a rhetorical danger in linking the modern hero to Christ too readily; as Walsh (2013) tells us, “Basting heroes with allusions to the Christ, then, is part of film’s deifications of the modern individual, and an interpretive focus on Christ figures runs the risk of turning from this modern context to ancient religious traditions too quickly” (p. 81). Larsen (2013) takes this one step further; he suggests that “the practice of identifying Christ figures almost always brings more to the movies at hand than it does to our understanding of Christ. It adds a religiosity and resonance (even if neither are intended), yet rarely informs our faith. As a theological exercise, Christ-figuring is a one-way street.” For students of film or communication in general, the search for the Christ-Figure then, in Larsen’s terms, would be useful. But, Larsen would certainly not recommend such a search for students of religion. Kozlovic (2002) counters, “Seeing biblical resonances in secular films may seem a theological heresy, but it is a legitimate activity.” Miles (2001) argues, “Contemporary movies can be seen as part of a long tradition in which images have been used to produce emotions, to strengthen attachment, and to encourage imitation. To neglect to analyze these images is to grant them an unexamined role in our attitudes, values, and relationships” (p. 70).

Indeed, modern cinema seems like an obvious extension of Bormann’s (1972) rhetorical vision of the masses, serving to “sustain the members’ sense of community... and to provide them with a social reality filled with heroes, villains, emotions, and attitudes” (p. 398). In fact, Kozlovic (2004) maintains that Christ-Figures exist in modern films because Hollywood films especially are “frequently created within a Judaeo-Christian context. Therefore, it is almost a natural response for Western scriptwriters looking for ideas and archetypes to tap into this familiar religious heritage when creating their new heroes.” Larsen (2013) counters, though, “If any figure who dies and returns; any figure who offers sacrifice in any way; any figure who comes from another world to do good, is a Christ figure, then how is Jesus all that different from so many of our movie heroes? At what point does Superman become less like Jesus and Jesus more like Superman?” Larsen may have a point when it comes to the big heroes of cinema like Superman, but not all cinematic Christ-Figures are big. Kozlovic (2004 and 2009) cites Selma Jezkova (Björk) in Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000), Bess McNeill (Emily Watson) in Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996), Karl Childers (Billy Bob Thornton) in Thornton’s own Sling Blade (1996). None of these three is an over-the-top action hero like Superman (2013’s Henry Cavill or 1978’s Christopher Reeve). In fact, none of these is an obvious hero in our usual cinematic terms at all. Yet these sacrificial characters can be explained in christic terms. I would argue that despite Larsen’s complaints, the problem is not in simply identifying a character with Christ but in the message one takes away from that character. While 2013’s Man of Steel is a notably darker film than its 1978 predecessor, and some of its Christ imagery is so obvious as to seem trite, the character of Superman is still symbolic of hope, and not just because Man of Steel tells us that is what the S on his chest literally stands for.

In examining the cinematic Christ-Figure, I would add another Christ-Figure to the already extensive list—Phil Connors (Bill Murray) in Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day (1993) specifically because he is not a heroic character in any way until nearly the end of the film’s third act. Also, I would examine Phil Connors because he is far from our modern superhero, and thus bypasses (or perhaps spotlights) the complaints of Larsen (2013), and because despite its simplistic structure, a mere romantic comedy with a science fiction twist, the film “has become a curious favorite of religious leaders of many faiths, who all see in “Groundhog Day” a reflection of their own spiritual messages” (Kuczynski, 2003). Obviously, there is a “theological dimension to Phil’s transformation” in Groundhog Day (Foley, 2004). However, I would argue that because Groundhog Day has been accepted by many as a film with a religious message that Phil Connors is worth exploring as a Christ-Figure to maybe add new criteria to the likes of Kozlovic’s (2002, 2004 and 2009) various lists. The Christ-Figure hero need not save the entire world, he needn’t demonstrate the difference between sacrifice and atonement (which Larsen (2013) might say is missing from Kozlovic’s lists), but he should inspire the audience to be better than they already are. Kozlovic (2005) suggests that “secular films can engage in religious storytelling without appearing ‘religious.’” Groundhog Day, which on its surface is not at all religious, fits this notion to a T. Walsh (2013) makes “a modest proposal” the exploration of Christ-Figures in film, specifically, that they “should recognize the syncretic, cinematic, and modern character of cinema heroes, respect the genre of the films under review, and seek to learn what ‘christ’ means in the films’ own intertextual play” (p. 97). “A modest Christ-figure analysis,” Walsh further suggests, “would assay a meaningful, interesting interpretation of the film in question” (p. 83). Larsen suggests a danger in the “one-way street” of “Christ-figuring” but I would counter that the danger does not lie in reducing the biblical Christ by replacing him with a cinematic Christ-Figure but in taking nothing meaningful from either.

(What's fun here, for me, is not that I'm Phil Connoring grad school with this blog or vice versa, but that I get to approach these sorts of things more casually (here) and more formally (in school). But, also, just on this particular topic, I get to both write entirely against it and entirely for it and both sides can make sense.

(To be fair, those "entirely"s are a bit misused, but my point still stands.)

The thing is, as an atheist, I can very much argue that a particular film is religious, that a particular character is a Christ-Figure. And, I can write a paper suggesting we redefine what it means to be a Christ-Figure. And, I can suggest that we not only take meaning from a film but from the Bible. I'm reminded of Reza Aslan confronted about his book Zealot when he guested on Fox News. Just because he's a Muslim, he's not allowed to write about Christ? I say anyone can write about anything... well, as long as your writing isn't mediocre, unintelligent crap anyway.)

Today's reason to repeat a day forever: to watch a lot of movies and catalog them mentally like I am Groundhog Day here... and mentally.


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