Levinas and the Cinema of Redemption

Levinas and the Cinema of Redemption: Time, Ethics, and the Feminine

SAM B. GIRGUS
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 272
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/girg14764
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Levinas and the Cinema of Redemption
    Book Description:

    In his philosophy of ethics and time, Emmanuel Levinas highlighted the tension that exists between the "ontological adventure" of immediate experience and the "ethical adventure" of redemptive relationships-associations in which absolute responsibility engenders a transcendence of being and self.

    In an original commingling of philosophy and cinema study, Sam B. Girgus applies Levinas's ethics to a variety of international films. His efforts point to a transnational pattern he terms the "cinema of redemption" that portrays the struggle to connect to others in redeeming ways. Girgus not only reveals the power of these films to articulate the crisis between ontological identity and ethical subjectivity. He also locates time and ethics within the structure and content of film itself. Drawing on the work of Luce Irigaray, Tina Chanter, Kelly Oliver, and Ewa Ziarek, Girgus reconsiders Levinas and his relationship to film, engaging with a feminist focus on the sexualized female body. Girgus offers fresh readings of films from several decades and cultures, including Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Federico Fellini's La dolce vita (1959), Michelangelo Antonioni's L'avventura (1960), John Huston's The Misfits (1961), and Philip Kaufman's The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988).

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51949-6
    Subjects: Film Studies, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. INTRODUCTION Time, Film, and the Ethical Vision of Emmanuel Levinas
    (pp. 1-24)

    At first, it could be argued that the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas was thinking primarily of himself when he wrote in 1947 that time had come “unhinged.” Clearly, this statement, in his first important philosophical work, Existence and Existents, reflects the trauma of his experience as a Jew, a French soldier, and a prisoner of the Nazis during World War II. Levinas writes, “It is in times of misery and privation that the shadow of an ulterior finality which darkens the world is cast behind the object of desire. When one has to eat, drink and warm oneself in order not...

  5. CHAPTER 1 AMERICAN TRANSCENDENCE: Levinas and a Short History of an American Idea in Film
    (pp. 25-48)

    Redemption and regeneration are old stories in America. The Puritans brought those concepts with them to the New World nearly four centuries ago, and in the mid-nineteenth century, Transcendentalists such as Emerson and Thoreau revivified regeneration itself, ingraining it, at least until our own era, in the American psyche. Hollywood, however, gave the story a new twist with the creation of a uniquely American version of the cinema of redemption.

    From the 1930s until at least the early 1960s, some of America’s most influential directors, actors, and producers developed a film form devoted to the idea of redemption. These films...

  6. CHAPTER 2 FRANK CAPRA AND JAMES STEWART: Time, Transcendence, and the Other
    (pp. 49-76)

    At the beginning of Totality and Infinity (1961) Levinas prophetically wonders if the idea of morality still obtains in the contemporary world: “Everyone will readily agree that it is of the highest importance to know whether we are not duped by morality.”¹ Levinas, of course, committed several decades of his life to articulating an original philosophy that answers his own question by affirming that morality and ethics not only remain relevant but inescapable in the human experience. The publication of Totality and Infinity signified his growing influence on the philosophical world of his time. From being a student of both...

  7. CHAPTER 3 THE CHANGING FACE OF AMERICAN REDEMPTION: Henry Fonda, Marilyn Monroe, Paul Newman, and Denzel Washington
    (pp. 77-112)

    Faces, it would seem, should dramatically help to establish the relationship between ethical philosophy and film. Given the importance of the face to cinema and to Levinas, the medium and the philosopher appear made for each other. For many, the cinema proffers a unique means for studying the face. To the Swedish auteur director Ingmar Bergman, cinema is about the face. As Bergman says, “Our work begins with the human face. . . . The possibility of drawing near to the human face is the primary originality and the distinctive quality of the cinema.”¹ Throughout his writings Emmanuel Levinas refers...

  8. CHAPTER 4 SEX, ART, AND OEDIPUS: The Unbearable Lightness of Being
    (pp. 113-143)

    Inspired melding of ethics and transcendence often motivates the films in the American version of the cinema of redemption. In other films in the cinema of redemption, however, the journey tends to follow a more circuitous path into an imbroglio of ambiguity. In these films the extremism of Levinas’s ethics frequently confronts the nihilism and disillusionment, the oppression and violence that many deem the modern condition. These films consider how such elements of modernity influence the search for redemption. More specifically, in these films such aspects of the modern condition color the construction of Levinasian “ethical subjectivity” in the relationship...

  9. CHAPTER 5 FELLINI AND LA DOLCE VITA: Documentary, Decadence, and Desire
    (pp. 144-167)

    Love and redemption in The Unbearable Lightness of Being differ from the triumphant form of regeneration found so often in the American cinema of redemption. Redemption for Tomas and Tereza occurs in isolation from other characters in the film and in distinct separation from both Prague under Soviet control and Geneva at the apex of modern capitalistic cultures of “conspicuous consumption” and commodification. Tomas achieves redemption in part by refusing to acquiesce to communist intimidation. He undergoes a form of internal self-exile in the country with Tereza in their personal sanctuary of idyllic love that makes redemption possible. Accordingly, Tomas’s...

  10. CHAPTER 6 ANTONIONI AND L’AVVENTURA: Transcendence, the Body, and the Feminine
    (pp. 168-218)

    A Levinasian reading of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura (1960) as a journey to achieve redemption in terms of ethics, transcendence, and alterity also should include a reading of Levinas by Tina Chanter, Luce Irigaray, Ewa Ziarek, and Kelly Oliver, among other feminist interpreters of his work. Feminist interpretations of Levinas provide a bridge between the philosopher and the filmmaker and help measure how far Antonioni in L’avventura ventures beyond Levinas’s own sexist limitations in articulating a case for transcendence, ethics, and the other. Their writings can help show how Antonioni contributes to our understanding of the great ethical potential of Levinas’s...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 219-242)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 243-258)