Vivian Sobchack, “Embodying Transcendence: On the Literal, the Material, and the Cinematic Sublime,” Material Religion 4 (2008): 194-203.
Published 17 years after her important The Address of the Eye, this article from Sobchack is a kind of addendum to that book that clarifies some of the ways in which transcendence and immanence, important categories in phenomenology, work with and against each other in the cinema experience. Associating transcendence with the immaterial and immanence with the material, Sobchack argues that certain religious films (Bee Season, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Song of Bernadette, The Passion of the Christ, Diary of a Country Priest, and Thérese) exemplify the various ways in which transcendence is evoked in the viewer in relation to immanence. As usual with Sobchack, bodily materiality is of prime importance, since it is “the viewer’s lived body where both immanence and transcendence emerge and phenomenologically constitute both the sense and meaning of religious or spiritual experience” (194). Further, the idea of ex-stasis is helpful in describing the way in which the lived-body simultaneously experiences the here and the there, situated in a material body even while intending toward and vicariously experiencing that which an other experiences. In this way, our presence vacillates between here and there. Cinema offers an important manifestation of this type of experience, since in cinema “we not only feel but often also feel ourselves feeling” (198). Films can “help” us with sensually experiencing transcendence and bringing it into clearer relation with immanence with they make “the transcendental intelligible by making it literally visible” (199). A film like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ probably fails in this regard by collapsing the transcendent into the immanent, zooming in on the flayed flesh of Christ to such an extent as to render our experience of it entirely “here” and not “there,” such that we derive no experience of ex-stasis except perhaps through “sadomasochistic immersion in the materiality of one’s own flesh” (201). On the other hand, the death of Christ in The Last Temptation of Christ and the priest’s death in Diary of a Country Priest may fail to achieve ex-stasis in the spectator by the opposite problem. Respiration, here in the “last breath” of these characters, Sobchack says is “the least material regime of corporeality,” and she may be right about this (202). Even on an etymological level, the Greek term for “breath”–πνεῦμα–also translates as “spirit.”