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Cinematic Ceremony: Toward a New Definition of Ritual Gregory W. Schneider

To cite this Article Schneider, Gregory W.(2008) 'Cinematic Ceremony: Toward a New Definition of Ritual', Visual

Anthropology, 21: 1, 1 — 17 To link to this Article: DOI: 10.1080/08949460701424114 URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08949460701424114

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Visual Anthropology, 21: 1–17, 2008 Copyright # Taylor & Francis Group, LLC ISSN: 0894-9468 print=1545-5920 online DOI: 10.1080/08949460701424114

Cinematic Ceremony: Toward a New Definition of Ritual Gregory W. Schneider

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Defining the concept of ritual remains a difficult task for a variety of scholars of ritual studies, from anthropologists to psychologists and sociologists. For cultural concepts that are difficult to define, the documentary film offers a unique opportunity for inquiry. By assessing the responses of critical film viewers and filmmakers with regard to cinematic portrayals of rituals, some new insights emerge. By examining filmmaking and film viewing in conjunction with ritual studies, the author offers a new definition of ritual for societies that rely on film and media for much of their cultural reflection and conversation.

As contemporary North Americans and Europeans continue to embrace film as a medium of personal and collective expression, analysis of the making and viewing of films can serve as a source of profound insight into the perceptions of various cultural phenomena among these Westerners. Documentary films, in particular, provide explicit portrayals of social conditions, including an analysis of those conditions and a perspective by which the viewer may interpret the phenomena shown [Dowd 1999: 324–325]. The nonfiction film strives to offer a concrete depiction of features present in the world of the filmmaker and her subject in such a way that viewers undergo a ‘‘documentary response,’’ feeling they have come to know a subject as it actually is. This pursuit of a particular viewer response makes the documentary an intriguing cultural object, at its best, shedding light on the filmmaker, the subject, the viewer, and the worlds they all inhabit. One cultural phenomenon that defies easy definition is the ‘‘ritual.’’ The success or failure of a film about ritual to achieve the documentary response in critical viewers highlights certain characteristics of ritual. This essay will concentrate on those aspects of ritual brought into relief by an analysis of film viewing and making as related to this difficult topic. In a wry comment on the difficulty of uncovering the origins of ritual, and consequently on defining ritual, the philosophical anthropologist Rene´ Girard GREGORY W. SCHNEIDER teaches literature, philosophy, and science at Saint John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, having come to the college after completing training at Montana State University in science and natural history filmmaking from 2004 to 2005. He previously completed a medical school and family medicine residency, training for this at the University of Missouri— Columbia. From 1998 to 2004, he was on the faculty of the University of Southwestern Medical School in Dallas, Texas, teaching clinical medicine, medical ethics, and literature and medicine. E-mail: gwschneider@sjcsf.edu

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(1923– ) muses, ‘‘It is really impossible to imagine that the cradle of human cultures was once watched over, as by the legendary good fairy, by a distinguished group of ethnopsychiatrists, who, in their infinite wisdom, endowed these cultures with ritual practices and institutions’’ [Girard 1987: 23]. As such, contemporary anthropologists, psychiatrists, ethnographers, and others who study ritual often disagree on the essential elements of the phenomenon. After beginning with an overview of ritual studies, this essay will attempt to interweave documentary film theory and criticism with the reflections of an ethnographic filmmaker on the subject of ritual. Film may provide insights into ritual not obvious to various other experts because the nature of filmmaking and viewing offers a critical window into the nature of ceremony. Film, like ritual, can be an exercise in public reflexivity; it can provide an opportunity for an audience to examine some aspects of its social world by watching them unfold on screen. The critical creators and receivers of nonfiction films consider the authenticity of the phenomena portrayed, in some sense checking them against their own life-worlds. By concentrating on filmmaking and film viewing as related to ritual, this paper will help provide a relevant definition of this elusive phenomenon for societies that rely on film and media for much of their cultural reflection and conversation. In her comprehensive introduction to ritual studies entitled Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions, Catherine Bell (1953– ) acknowledges the difficulty of defining ritual: ‘‘To anyone interested in ritual in general, it becomes quickly evident that there is no clear and widely shared explanation of what constitutes ritual or how to understand it. There are only various theories, opinions, or customary notions, all of which reflect the time and place in which they are formulated’’ [Bell 1997: x]. Given this difficulty, she manages at least to lay the groundwork for a definition for a contemporary audience: ‘‘Today, we think of ‘‘ritual’’ as a complex sociocultural medium variously constructed of tradition, exigency, and selfexpression; it is understood to play a wide variety of roles and to communicate a rich density of overdetermined messages and attitudes’’ [Bell 1997: xi]. Ritual communicates its messages and attitudes by serving as a means to invoke the ordered relationships between humans present in the here-and-now and ‘‘non-immediate sources of power, authority, and value’’ felt to be present in a particular community. In this interpretation, the fundamental efficacy of ritual arises from its ‘‘ability to have people embody assumptions about their place in a larger order of things’’ [Bell 1997: xi]. From this starting point, then, ritual looks as if it is some kind of cultural medium that relies upon tradition and self-expression and offers a channel of communication between humans and more intangible forces that convey a sense of social or cosmic order. A survey of some of the more influential ritual theorists reveals just how tenuous this starting point can look. Ritual, this medium that touches upon ‘‘nonimmediate’’ sources of human ordering, appears very different, depending upon one’s focus. Many theorists, taking the lead from some of the foundational work on ritual in the 19th century, concentrate on ritual’s social functions. Emile Durkheim (1858–1917), the influential French sociologist, bases much of his work upon his distinction between the sacred and the profane. ‘‘All known religious


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beliefs . . . present one common characteristic: they presuppose a classification of all the things, real and ideal, of which men think, into two classes or opposed groups, generally designated by . . . the words profane and sacred.’’ Religious beliefs, he contends, express the nature of sacred things, and rituals act as ‘‘rules of conduct’’ as to how people should act in the presence of the sacred [Durkheim 1965: 52–56]. Even ideas such as ‘‘God’’ or the ‘‘Ancestors,’’ so revered in many cultural groups, are merely collective representations of the social group itself. Religion, therefore, acts to sacralize the social structure and bonds of community by means of a set of ideas and practices. Ritual practices play a key role in how religion functions to ensure communal identification. A leading proponent of the method of structuralism in anthropology, Claude Le´vi-Strauss (1908– ), attempts to explain ritual as a cultural form in relation to the deep structure—the fundamental grammar of mythical thought—that he feels underlies all specific manifestations of culture and society [Norris 1995: 482]. Le´vi-Strauss opposes ritual to myth, emphasizing myth as a verbal process and a matter of content, and ritual as a nonverbal process and a matter of form. In this account, myth takes the continuous nature of human existence and breaks it into segments ‘‘by means of distinctions, contrasts, and oppositions.’’ Ritual strives to reunite ‘‘the discrete units’’ created by myth into a new seamless model of human experience. Unable to reconstruct fully the whole fractured into parts by mythology, ritual at times appears stubborn and ineffective and frequently unfolds in a ‘‘desperate and maniacal’’ manner [Le´vi-Strauss 1981: 679]. Various structural-functionalists have followed Le´vi-Strauss’s lead and explored possible social roles for ritual, from the ‘‘formation and maintenance of the social bonds that establish human community’’ to ‘‘the socialization of the individual through an unconscious approbation of common values and common categories of knowledge and experience’’ [Bell 1997: 59]. Ritual, these theorists contend, transforms and renews the conceptual and social structures lying beneath community life. Many of the leading structuralists, including Le´vi-Strauss, look to the structure of language as a model for examining cultural phenomena. A linguistic approach continues to influence contemporary, nonstructuralist, ritual scholars, including Maurice Bloch. In his schema, Bloch sees the formalized language of ritual as instrumental in upholding what he calls ‘‘traditional authority.’’ Traditional authority, a kind of sociopolitical and religious authority, supposes that the power behind an individual or office springs from sources not fully controlled by one’s community. In this manner, the power of a king might arise from ‘‘divine right,’’ or the power of a traditional healer might arise from the world of the spirits. The key aspect of traditional authority, however, stems not from the semantics of ritual but from its syntax, according to Bloch. Observers of ritual need not seek some hidden coded meaning in the language but should instead concentrate on the obvious formalized and restricted manner of speech involved [Bloch 1974: 55–56]. These syntactical mechanisms become the very means by which ritual enacts its influence—‘‘namely, exercis[ing] considerable social control by creating situations that compel acceptance of traditional forms of authority’’ [Bell 1997: 70]. Once again, the social, power-related features of ritual are emphasized.


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Other 20th-century anthropologists seem less impressed with ritual’s ability to establish authority and power, and instead note ritual’s role in grappling with the chaotic forces in society. These theorists often note the chaos embedded in certain rituals, a chaos that reflects some of the disorder under the surface of society. Max Gluckman (1911–1975), for instance, emphasizes the powerful friction displayed in the Swazi Ncwala rite in southeastern Africa. This rite, which overtly celebrates the first fruits of the harvest and unfolds near the time of the winter solstice, also includes many elements that highlight the tenuous nature of kingship in the Swazi community. Certainly no simple assertion of traditional authority, the rite stresses conflict, including that between the king and his people, the people and the state, the Swazi king and neighboring rulers, the queen mother and the king, etc. By embodying this conflict so vividly in ritual form, the Swazi come to terms with their own ambivalence. At least in this case, Gluckman argues, ritual provides an opportunity for cathartic unity even amidst the conflict [Gluckman 1963: 119–126]. The constraints of ritual allow for an expression of support for the kingship as being sacred even if the relations with the king are problematic. Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), as one who sought sources of conflict both conscious and unconscious, expresses his analysis of ritual based on his conception of the taboo. Freud sees the taboo and ritual as inseparable. Taboo mandates ritual as the acting out of an obsessional neurotic’s mechanism of repression. Freud claims, We cannot get away from the impression that patients are making, in an asocial manner, the same attempts at a solution of their conflicts and an appeasement of their urgent desires which, when carried out in a manner acceptable to a large number of people, are called poetry, religion, and philosophy. [Freud 1946: 183]

In this vein, ritual serves as a mechanism by which obsessions manifest themselves in the attempt to mollify tabooed and repressed desires. Ritual hopes to solve the internal psychic conflicts, individual and collective, that these tabooed desires generate. When looking at specifically religious ritual; many theorists see ceremonies as expressions of various desires that are difficult to articulate and understand. In particular, rites of communion and sacrifice touch upon the enigmatic relationship of the human and the divine. At their most poignant, sacrificial rites entail the sacralization and then the killing of a living human or animal. At its core, sacralization or consecration of the sacrificial object allows that object to participate in the divinity of the god to whom it is offered. In some cases the consecration implies that the sacrifice offered becomes the god itself. According to Catherine Bell, this radical form of consecration appears in a diversity of religious practices: for example, the ‘‘Christian doctrine of the real presence of Jesus Christ in the sacralized bread and wine; the offering and ingestion of the ritual consumption of peyote among some Native American tribes; and the Aztec sacrifice of prisoners of war to their sun god’’ [Bell 1997: 113]. By manifesting a situation in which an object of the world participates in the divine, such practices purport to offer opportunities for human communion with each other and the divine as well.


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At the secular end of the ritual spectrum, investigators have concentrated on the way in which ceremonies or ritual-like activities pervade even the least religious of societies. The sociologist Erving Goffman (1922–1982) devotes much attention to the rituals associated with social interaction in industrial and postindustrial cultures. He suggests that each person constructs a ‘‘face’’ or identity that serves as a kind of sacred object in the ritual of social exchange. The interchange among these socially constructed self-images culminates in a ‘‘ritual order’’ or system of communication based upon understandings, ‘‘blindnesses, half-truths, illusions, and rationalizations,’’ as opposed to facts or some kind of objective language. The formal actions and events that organize social encounters train people to be ‘‘self-regulating participants’’ in an array of social and ethical rules that define how a particular culture sees humanity [Goffman 1967: 19–45]. The prolific fiction and nonfiction author Joyce Carol Oates has turned her critical eye toward contemporary sports as a ritualistic phenomenon. In her view, the sets of rules that regulate and define a sport also constitute its ritual-like nature. Constrained by these rules, the combatants in a sports contest follow very controlled and forced patterns of interaction. The highly coded means of engagement counters the raw human energy expended, resulting in a dramatic spectacle that still conveys some kind of social meaning. The rule-based limits on brutal human competition seem a symbolic version of a fundamental tension at the core of human social life [Bell 1997: 154]. For any of these various ceremonies, secular or sacred, the degree of ritualization highlights aspects of the cultural values and sources of power implicated. In Bell’s assessment, the degree of ritualization refers to factors such as ‘‘how much communality, how much appeal to deities and other familiar rites, how much formality or attention to rules, and how much emphasis on performance or appeal to traditional precedents’’ is involved. In general, the more ritualization, the more the event reflects an aspect of social life in which the authoritative forces and values concerned ‘‘lie beyond the immediate control or inventiveness of those involved’’ [Bell 1997: 169]. Strategies of ritualization fundamentally imply an appeal to a sense of cosmic order, whether simply the superiority of some people over others or the existence of divine beings, that lies beyond the range of immediate human access. As this overview of ritual theory demonstrates, most scholars either concentrate on ritual’s social aspects—as a way to assert power and authority or to reflect the existing social order—or on ritual’s contact with the difficult to articulate—on chaotic forces in a human community, on unconscious drives and desires, or on the human quest for the divine. These poles of concentration may seem difficult to reconcile. Is ritual one of the main ways that a society recapitulates itself? Or is ritual mainly a way for a society to grapple with things it does not understand? Is ritual somehow both? Finally, where does the individual in that society fit into either of these points of focus? For these questions, a new point of focus may help. Turning to film for answers regarding a cultural phenomenon as difficult and elusive as ritual actually has theoretical underpinnings that stem from ritual itself. Much of the recent investigation of ritual focuses on its performative aspects. Richard Schechner (1934– ), the esteemed American professor of performance studies, finds much insight to be gained by exploring ritual as a


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performance. In his classic text, Between Theater and Anthropology, he contends that structural analyses of ritual are inadequate; the performance is the thing and, in fact, constitutes the core of ritual. Performative behavior is specifically restored behavior or twice-behaved behavior. In its repetitive enactment, performative behavior becomes refined, taking on a life of its own. Ritual unfolds, then, in a sequence involving training, workshops, rehearsal, the performance itself, cool-down, and aftermath, but it never becomes fixed. Schechner’s account treats performance behavior like a film director might treat a segment of film, as material to be shuffled and rebuilt [Schechner 1985]. The very nature of ritual, perhaps, includes elements analogous to filmmaking. The renowned anthropologist Victor Turner (1920–1983), whose work was inspirational for Schechner, places both ritual and film under the rubric of ‘‘public reflexivity.’’ During a speech late in his life, he defines public reflexivity as a type of performance that communicates through ‘‘dramatic, that is, doing codes.’’ In particular, public reflexivity remains concerned with liminal or threshold phenomena and explores the boundaries of potentiality and actuality, experiment and play. One way of characterizing the relationships among social life and the performance genres that make up public reflexivity is to see society as ‘‘cutting out a piece of itself from itself for inspection.’’ These genres accomplish this inspection by setting up a frame in which ‘‘images and symbols can be scrutinized, assessed, remodeled, and reorganized’’ [Stoeltje 1978: 450]. Naturally, examining a filmic inspection of another reflexive phenomenon like ritual may be difficult, but that doubly reflexive examination might reap interesting results. In his exploration of ways in which to incorporate film in teaching sociology, James Dowd borrows from Wendy Griswold in advocating the use of a ‘‘cultural diamond’’ approach [Dowd 1999: 330–332]. This method for the analysis of cultural objects is illustrated in Figure 1, and will inform the approach to film used in this paper. By seeing any cultural object, including film, as connected to a ‘‘creator,’’ ‘‘receiver,’’ and ‘‘social world,’’ the cultural diamond approach yields at least three benefits for the purposes of this investigation. First, it encourages inquiry into film as similar to any other artifact in its immersion in a social world. Cultural understandings, beliefs, meanings, and ideas infuse the entire filmmaking and viewing experience. Second, it highlights the role of the audience, allowing for exploration of audience impressions and preferences in the analysis of the object itself. Ideally, after all, the moviegoer gains knowledge of everyday life through the action depicted on film. Finally, it draws attention to the creative process. The creator of a film observes social life in order to portray it on film. If available, the reflections of a filmmaker can prove extraordinarily valuable in the analysis of a film and its subject. Taken as a whole, the cultural diamond approach can sustain a complex and worthy evaluation of a cultural object. For the purposes of this paper, two poles of the diamond will be emphasized. A study of viewers’ responses to films about ritual will precede the study of a moviemaker’s reflections about the depiction of ritual. Analysis of the creator and receiver ends of the diamond will provide insight into the social world involved, and, in this case, into ritual as a specific aspect of that social world. Focusing on the receiver or viewer of film comes naturally to the British documentary film editor and theorist Dai Vaughan (1933– ). In fact, Vaughan defines


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Figure 1 The cultural diamond.

documentary by the viewers’ response: ‘‘Stated at its simplest, the documentary response is one in which the image is perceived as signifying what it appears to record; a documentary film is one which seeks, by whatever means, to elicit this response’’ [Vaughan 1999: 58]. Relying on the viewers’ response suggests that the viewers can make judgments about the reality of what Vaughan calls the ‘‘profilmic,’’ or that which was filmed. The filmmakers’ intention may indeed coincide with the moviegoers’ perception of the film, but the final judgment lies in the hands and eyes of viewers. In this manner, ‘‘the fact remains that documentary is what we-as-viewers can perceive as referring to the pro-filmic, it being supposed that we can thus construe it as meaningful’’ [Vaughan 1999: 59]. Placing the burden of meaning and ‘‘reality’’ on the spectator raises some intriguing difficulties regarding the identification of the images seen, but also underscores how the viewers’ response can serve as a ‘‘test’’ of the images themselves. One of the bigger difficulties for audiences to overcome in watching a so-called documentary lies in the labeling of the images. As Vaughan notes, ‘‘The photograph—once we are sure that it is a photograph—cannot lie. But it can be wrongly labeled . . . . If we accept that documentary is best defined as a way of perceiving images, we cannot evade the implication that it is blind to the falsity of labels’’ [Vaughan 1999: 59]. Given this difficulty, the viewer must rely on the ethical standing of the filmmaker. Yet the moviegoer does have some responsibility in judging the authenticity of the labels before him or her. Like it or not, the documentary will include errors. Some materials will be falsely labeled, either intentionally or through oversight. Some scenes may be more or less rehearsed, more or less spontaneous, more or less influenced by the camera’s presence than the viewer expects or believes. Herein lies the challenge: ‘‘there is no sharp demarcation between the misunderstandings of documentary and the misunderstandings of life. And the documentary stance is essentially one of interrogation’’ [Vaughan 1999: 78]. The astute filmgoer, then, interrogates the film before him. He inspects the labels on the images and the viability of the images themselves. For the purposes of this paper, film critics and anthropologists can serve as the interrogating viewers.


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I will rely on a spectrum of reviews of cinematic portrayals of ritual, as opposed to my own personal critiques of the films, in order to have access to a wider variety of films. This approach also assesses the documentary response among a broader range of critical viewers. Vaughan provides clues as to a standard to use to assert that the highest documentary stance has been achieved, that the critical viewer attests to the authenticity of the pro-filmic. If knowledge of the world consists of some intersection of ‘‘our constructive faculty’’ and the ‘‘material signals’’ of the world, documentary becomes both ‘‘materialist’’ and ‘‘voluntarist.’’ The documentary is materialist in that the images seen are held to signify those things which were the material prerequisites of their formation; it is voluntarist in that the viewer volunteers her judgment that these images of the world ‘‘no matter how [they] may be manipulated, will engage [her] on a level of direct relevance to this world.’’ The excellence of documentary emerges in this sense of genuine relevance to the way things are in the world. In this formulation, the world’s material is all that is available to human perception. The world’s meaning occurs in human interaction with the material of the world and the summoning of that material before consciousness. As such, ‘‘every documentary is a do-it-yourself reality kit. The mountain is nonfictitious if the viewer deems it so’’ [Vaughan 1999: 136]. For the aims of this essay, the ritual on film is nonfictitious if the viewer deems it so. If the critical viewer finds the portrayal of ritual as valid and relevant, that portrayal then speaks to some actuality about the pro-filmic. By scanning a variety of reviews of documentaries depicting rituals, a pattern emerges regarding what elements seem necessary to foster a sense of the ‘‘nonfictitious.’’ Separating out the purely filmic elements helps to provide a picture of the pro-filmic, indeed, of ritual itself. In 1999, Jerome Lewis attended an Italian ethnographic film festival dedicated to the topic of music and rituals on film. Writing for Anthropology Today, he reports: Each filmmaker recreated the ritual differently, compressing time and choosing what to show. Finding the balance between storytelling and rendering the image-atmosphere of an event is difficult. The tendency in film to over-simplify can create the feeling of being a tourist watching a performance. [Lewis 1999: 20]

That overview of the festival provides key indicators of the successful documentary response to ritual. The compression of time, no matter how achieved, must be skillful, allowing the viewer to get a real sense of the actual unfolding of the event. Similarly, the compression of information must be carried out in such a way that the viewer actually lives the event and does not merely stand by watching something that seems just a performance. Although Richard Schechner may have highlighted something important about ritual in emphasizing its performative aspects, ritual does not consist simply of performance. A phenomenological approach to film helps to shed light on the difference between the documentary response and the ‘‘feeling of being a tourist watching a performance.’’ The latter experience suggests that a film or portion of film has missed its mark as documentary, and in so doing, achieves less power as a means of lending knowledge about the world to the viewers. The film studies professor


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Vivian Sobchack, in delineating a phenomenological approach to the documentary, describes three principal ‘‘spectatorial modes’’ on a continuum of filmviewing. Borrowing from Jean-Pierre Meunier, she sees the documentary as an intermediate form between the home movie and the fiction film. Key to all of these modes are several important presuppositions: (1) just because the cinematic object is absent, one cannot assume that it is ‘‘irreal’’ (sic); (2) the viewer’s personal and cultural knowledge of the existential position of the cinematic object in relation to his own existence influences the film viewing experience; and (3) the viewer’s consciousness is neither disembodied, impersonal nor ‘‘empty’’ when he goes to the movies [Sobchack 1999: 242]. In this way, the life-world of the viewer influences the experience of a particular film. With the home movie, he identifies with the screen objects as already known in their particularity. His principal mode of identification is one of evocation; he tends to look through the screen to ‘‘see’’ his pet, his wife, his children, etc. With the fiction film, he identifies with the screen objects as unknown in their particularity. He depends upon the screen for all his knowledge of the world being created. His principal mode of identification is one of submission; he surrenders to and attends to the screen to see and hear the details of the new world envisioned. With the documentary, however, he identifies with screen objects known partially in their particularity. He may not know this particular dog, but he knows of its existence, has ‘‘heard of such things,’’ etc. He looks both to and through the screen for knowledge, checking the cinematic world against his own lifeworld. His principal mode of engagement is comprehension, not evocation or submission [Sobchack 1999: 243–249]. The successful documentary, by this explanation, achieves comprehension, an acknowledgment of the cinematic images as now known, as fitting into and making sense within the viewer’s life-world. A film about ritual that feels like a home movie does not offer this comprehension. It may offer the viewer something else along a spectrum from evocation to entertainment, but it does not offer the viewer new insights into ritual itself. Examining viewer responses that fall outside the documentary response may indicate something about the viewer’s life-world, some way in which this particular depiction of ritual does not ‘‘ring true.’’ Moving back to Lewis’ experience at the ethnographic film festival, his reviews indicate the importance of time and of ‘‘feeling a part’’ of the action portrayed. Ritual on film, from his stance as a critical viewer, must move beyond home movie to documentary. His solution to this dilemma may reveal both something about ethnographic film and about ritual. He suggests, Too few of the films focused on the expression of individuals’ experiences to provide local exegesis of filmed events. Some argued that the problems in interpreting ritual are related to its music-like nature. Ritual, like music, causes different reactions in participants. Thus, interpretation of a rite can only be subjective points of view, like taste in music. In this context, the need for participant’s exegesis to orient the viewer is important. [Lewis 1999: 20]

Successful ethnographic films about ritual, he implies, draw viewers in as subjects taking part in the event. In order to comprehend ritual, and not just sit back as if watching someone’s home movies, the testimony of local participants can


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aid the viewer. Ritual, it seems, is something one participates in as a subject in a larger drama. Ritual may be a performance, but to feel like ritual, members cannot merely watch; they must participate in the rite. At the other end of the spectrum, some expert viewers comment on how particular ethnographic movies tend too much toward the fiction film response. Robert Gardner’s esteemed film Dead Birds puts forward a powerful representation of the ritualistic warfare cycle among the Dani people of what is now Indonesia. The cultural anthropologist Craig Mishler has criticized this classic film on the grounds that its ‘‘aesthetic and dramatic face value’’ obscures a certain lack of ‘‘scientific and educational merit.’’ He acknowledges that the film contains a genuine charm for audiences, with its ‘‘rich, compelling imagery and its sequences of raw violence, which give it high entertainment appeal, at least by American mass media standards.’’ The difficulty, Mishler contends, lies in the manner in which the life of the Dani becomes encoded within filmic language. He finds the film ‘‘colored by so many subtle fictional pretensions and artistic ornamentations that it has surrendered most of its usefulness as a solitary scientific document’’ [Mishler 1985: 669]. In particular, Mishler claims this film provides too much structure to the ritual of warfare that unfolds. At the outset it proffers an overriding metaphor that compares birds to humans, a metaphor that makes for a nice thread to follow throughout the ceremony of war. This metaphor, however, becomes confused and Westernized in the narration; and by the end of the piece, it is difficult to tell how much of the metaphor springs from the Dani and how much springs from Robert Gardner. In addition, the overriding narrative deviates significantly from known anthropological writings and the general pattern of Dani mythology. Mishler writes, ‘‘To a folklorist, Gardner’s version of the story sounds inauthentic because on stylistic, textual grounds it reads not like a closely translated and transcribed traditional text but like a literary summary, fragment, or edited report of a text.’’ The film does not place the warfare cycle in its proper context, and removes some of the crucial aspects of ritual warfare—the ceremonial preparation of weapons and the very chaos that does not allow for a neat narrative to develop [Mishler 1985: 670–671]. Obviously, Mishler is not an ordinary viewer. From his life-world, he brings an entire body of prior knowledge and experience into the theater. His observations, however, still suggest some key features of ritual brought about because he witnesses the film as attempting to foster submission in its audience as opposed to comprehension. Specifically, he notes the overemphasis on metaphor and on a clear-cut narrative arc. Ritual, he intimates, certainly employs metaphors and stories, but these elements unfurl within a larger, more chaotic context. Any portrayal of ritual that neglects preparation and unpredictability neglects vital aspects of ceremony. Most film criticism that relates to depictions of ritual lies outside any clear sense of eliciting an overall home movie or fiction film response. Other patterns, however, emerge in the commentary critical viewers provide that gives evidence of their interrogation of the pro-filmic. Thomas Kehoe, in reviewing the Canadian film Iyahkimix: the Blackfoot Beaver Bundle Ceremony, applauds the filmmakers for not attempting ‘‘a production for entertainment viewing’’ but, rather,


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‘‘an unrehearsed genuine religious ritual.’’ He recognizes audience differences, finding that general viewers could appreciate the first portion of the movie but might become bored as the repetitive nature of the ritual emerges. He also cites the film for trying to tackle with authenticity the problem of time condensation for this lengthy ceremony and achieving a ‘‘ritualistic composite’’ that might be confusing to some but that ‘‘is handled as well as possible in the editing’’ [Kehoe 1975: 697–698]. As this review suggests, ritual unfolds on its own oftencomplicated timetable, one that often involves much repetition that becomes tedious to the nonparticipant. Richard Gould, commenting on Roger Sandall’s The Mulga Seed Ceremony, finds ‘‘slight traces of staging’’ present but, on the whole, asserts that ‘‘the actual ceremony is entirely traditional in every respect, and the film reproduces it faithfully.’’ He reports that the piece ‘‘preserves on film an accurate and detailed record of an important and fairly typical desert increase ceremony,’’ yet finds serious fault with the narration. The narration provides no background on the rituals, states some things that are obvious to the viewer, and offers no explanation of some of the other events shown. Gould laments that ‘‘one hears but one does not understand,’’ making the film very difficult for all but the most sophisticated audiences already well-versed in aboriginal ceremonies. In his experience, many students, after watching the movie, ask ‘‘What did it mean?’’ or ‘‘Why did the men do those things?’’ In his harshest statement, he retorts, ‘‘One can always argue, of course, that a totally naive and unstructured appreciation of the artistic qualities of aboriginal ritual is possible through such a film, but this view has nothing to do with anthropology or scholarship’’ [Gould 1972: 190]. The failure of the work to achieve the documentary response in many viewers highlights certain characteristics of ritual felt to be missing. First, the lack of background or context does not allow one to feel a participant in the process; the viewer craves, in relation to ritual, a sense of the social order involved. Second, moviegoers seek not a blow-by-blow of the events depicted but at least some account of the signification involved; ritual, as an event that attempts to have an impact on the world, touches on cultural meaning and the ‘‘why.’’ Finally, to comprehend a ritual, one has to move beyond aesthetics; ritual, it seems, has some functional purpose for a community. A series of other film reviews corroborates this general pattern. Jon Abbink’s appraisal of Leslie Woodhead’s series on the Mursi Nitha ceremony praises the films for clearly demonstrating the preparation involved with the process. The structure of the films also draws his admiration: ‘‘The good thing about these two films is that, through the dialogic form, viewers are brought to a full recognition and understanding of the Mursi problems from the Mursi point of view’’ [Abbink 1992: 1028]. The filmmakers show actual dialogue between the interviewers and interviewees, creating a sense of ‘‘being there’’ for the viewers. Once again, an intricate awareness of the way in which each individual experiences a ritual differently, while still acknowledging that ritual clearly has a collective dimension, provides a feeling of authenticity for the viewer. By contrast, poorly done editing and narration can so distract viewers as to make them crave silent footage. Karen Biestman, remarking on the film Neshnabek: The People, finds herself so sidetracked by the ‘‘fragmented editing, narration,


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and recording’’ that she could not appreciate the Potawatomi dances recorded. She asks to see the raw footage, with traditional music underneath, in order to recognize the value of what is portrayed [Biestman 1984: 395]. Even if chaotic and enigmatic, ritual seems to portend some sense of honor and the need for respect. While from Gould’s perspective raw aesthetic appreciation is not anthropology, imposing an arbitrary structure upon a ceremony might be worse than providing no explanation at all. The most recurrent criticism of ethnographic films on ritual relates to the decisive idea of ‘‘context.’’ The reviewers of the following movies—Thorne North American Indian Series: Southwest Indians (Navajo Sand Painting), A Curing Ceremony, N=um Tchai, Magical Curing, and The Return of Gods and Ancestors: The Five Year Ceremony—all bemoan the lack of adequate ‘‘context’’ for the viewer of these particular ceremonies [Larner 1975: 298; Gonzales et al. 1975: 175; Seronde and Gonzales 1975: 176; Roscoe 1990: 461; Graves 1987: 263]. To achieve the documentary response and to foster comprehension, moviegoers desire points of contact between the images seen and their own life-worlds. Ceremonies in particular demand a form of engagement that involves placement in a specific context. Rituals gain meaning only within a framework, some inkling of a larger social and cosmic order. The most successful anthropological films bestow a sense of context without giving the impression of being heavy-handed. In the opinion of the critic William Clements, David and Judith MacDougall come close to this achievement in their film The House Opening. The piece, which depicts an Australian Aboriginal woman who stages a ceremony that will allow her and her children to reopen their house after the husband=father’s death, is narrated by a member of the woman’s Aboriginal community. The filmmakers make no attempt at hiding their own presence or the presence of clearly modern changes to the ritual. Water sprinklers and a power mower appear in the film. As Clements puts it, ‘‘Technically, the film is flawless. Treating the several days from the ceremony’s preparations through its aftermath, the pacing and editing seem to account for all the necessary details while not lingering on matters extraneous to the film’s theme’’ [Clements 1985: 121]. The inclusion of the entire process of the ceremony from preparation to aftermath, along with the recognition of the evolving incorporation of modern elements into the ceremony, lend to the work’s apparent authenticity. Ritual, as a performance, includes rehearsal and resolution. Ritual, as the living embodiment of a community, includes subtle changes. In his 1994 article entitled ‘‘The Interpretation of Ritual: Reflections from Film on Anthropological Practice,’’ the Australian anthropologist Howard Morphy presents thoughtful consideration about his role as a filmmaker depicting ritual. His writing allows for the exploration of another pole of the cultural diamond with regard to cinematic portrayals of ritual—that of the ‘‘creator.’’ He calls his reflections ‘‘an exercise in the meta-practice of anthropology,’’ and discusses how the use of film influences the fieldwork he has done among Australian Aboriginals with then film director Ian Dunlop. The particular focus for the article revolves around Aboriginal mortuary rituals among the Yolngu people and results in the finished film Madarrpa Funeral at Gurka’way. Morphy distinguishes


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between two uses of film: ‘‘film as ethnography, referring to the use of film in the process of data gathering, and ‘film’ as text, referring to the construction of a finished ‘film’ for a viewing audience’’ [1994: 117]. For the purposes of this paper, his deliberations about the construction of a finished film are key. Morphy finds film a useful tool for anthropology precisely because it fosters questions about the relationship between reality and interpretation and the nature of representation. With regard to the Madarrpa funeral, the process of gathering information through filming and then constructing it into a final form highlights the retrospective nature of coherence in ritual events. Morphy argues, ‘‘Although the detailed form of the ritual is the product of negotiated and contingent factors that develop as the ceremony is performed, the retrospective coherence is integral to the cultural process of the transmission of ritual action and meaning’’ [Morphy 1994: 117]. The construction of a final film presents one overall problem—providing a product that makes sense to an anthropological audience while conveying Yolngu understandings of the ceremony. In Morphy’s words, Rituals are often prime examples of what Loizos . . . refers to as ‘‘non-transparent local narratives.’’ ‘‘Making sense’’ is understood to mean that the audience [is] able to contextualize the action by gaining the necessary background information about Yolngu society during the course of the ‘‘film.’’ [Morphy 1994: 125–126]

Once again, the emphasis on context, living at least temporarily as a member of the local community giving the ceremony, becomes apparent. Other problems trouble ethnographic moviemakers as they consider their potential audience. Morphy strives to produce a work ‘‘that creates the sense of presence at the ceremony, that provides an interpretation of the ritual to an audience of anthropology students, and that fits into the [requisite] time slots’’ [1994: 126]. These considerable constraints mirror the criteria that critical viewers express. As a structural center for the film, Morphy and Dunlop choose the guiding theme of the spirit’s journey. Such a theme offers a narrative thread that runs throughout the entire ritual, forges connections between the successive stages of the event, and conveys an idea about Yolngu religious beliefs. Morphy is aware, however, that this approach runs the danger of being susceptible to the charge hurled at Robert Gardner’s Dead Birds earlier, that the film comes too close to engendering the fiction film response. To assess this danger, Morphy considers two main issues: (1) ‘‘the question of retrospectivity—to what extent did the journey emerge as a theme during the course of the ceremony and to what extent was it a retrospective interpretation of its structure?’’ and (2) ‘‘how was the spirit’s journey conceptualized by the participants, and what were their beliefs about what occurred?’’ [1994: 128]. Morphy concludes that the film, of course, has its biases, but that on the whole those biases accurately reflect the particular event witnessed and the documentation offered by the footage. The filmmakers are not the only people who construct a retrospective coherence to the event. So do the key interviewees. Certainly diverse interpretations about the event exist. The film even alludes to that


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diversity, though only briefly. As Morphy observes, ‘‘the time-space available makes it difficult to position the film with ease in the center of a diachronic process. Yet the possibility must remain that this is a dilemma not only of ‘film’ or anthropology but also of ritual itself’’ [1994: 131]. With regard to the interpretations of the majority of participants, he recognizes that many of them were simply focused on playing their part in the performance correctly. He chooses not to concentrate on these experiences in the film and to focus instead on the ‘‘meaning as it appeared to the most reflexive of the participants, those who were most involved in organizing the ritual sequences’’ [1994: 133]. In this way, the audience members may receive a privileged interpretation of the funerals, but they will receive an interpretation that seems to reflect the actual make-up of the ritual itself. Throughout the process, Morphy comes more and more to recognize the importance of retrospectivity both for film and ritual. As he puts it, ‘‘anthropologists, but also [ritual] participants, in particular senior ones, tend to look at sequences of events, once they have occurred, as wholes. . . . The tendency to make something into a story by selection and emphasis is not necessarily restricted to the European tradition’’ [1994: 140]. Ritual, as a dialogue with ‘‘non-immediate sources of power,’’ demands retrospective coherence. Using the cultural diamond approach and reflecting upon films about ritual from the perspective of ‘‘receivers’’ and ‘‘creators’’ builds on the extensive writings about ritual that already exist. These writings emphasize ritual as either a medium of social coherence or as a means of coming to grips with chaotic forces or sources of power and authority out of society’s immediate control. From the deliberations offered by critical viewers and filmmakers, certain crucial aspects of ritual become apparent. Ceremonies have their performative traits and, as such, include stages of preparation and aftermath, yet they are more than mere performances. To feel they are attending a ceremony, those involved must participate in the rite and not merely stand by watching. In order to achieve participant status, people require some knowledge of the rite’s context: they must have some sense of why the more active participants are performing particular actions and what those actions mean. By the reading of ritual offered by film viewers and makers, this cultural phenomenon involves both predictability and unpredictability. Ritual, as a cultural conversation about one’s place in society and the cosmos, manifests, like society itself, both order and disorder. Film theory and criticism help to bring out one fundamental feature of ritual often neglected in writings about the topic— the role of the individual. Ritual indeed centers on questions of power, authority, and the social order, yet individuals are members of that social order. Each individual sees that order somewhat differently and participates in it differently. Participants in ritual reflect that variety within a larger framework. The ceremonial allows for chaos within structure because it allows for an infinite range of individual interpretations within an overriding, evolving framework. Intriguingly, this sense of an overall framework may only arise retrospectively, after the work of the ritual is done. Individual participants involved during the preparation, enactment, and aftermath of a ritual will each have their own interpretation of the ritual. As part of its community-building function, however, participants tend to build retrospectively a story of coherence and meaning into the ritual. Members of the community can then pass this story of meaning along


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to the next participants in the ritual. This ritual, as a new event, will contain differences from its predecessor, but those differences, upon retrospective reflection, will also likely be folded into the ongoing story of meaning. Perhaps, then, a new definition of ritual emerges. Ritual is a set of actions that embody a conversation among participants in a more or less chaotic performance that attempts to find order in society and the universe beyond. Guided by some sense of inherited meaning and collective context, the participants each find their own interpretation within a community story that only becomes fully delineated retrospectively. This delineated story, passed onto the next set of ritual participants, always contains an element of unpredictability, of the unknown. Hence, ritual always becomes both a way that a society recapitulates itself, and a grappling with things it does not understand.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

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The author wishes to acknowledge the invaluable editorial advice of Jessica Jerome, PhD, and the prompt assistance of Laura Cooley and the entire library staff at the Meem Library of Saint John’s College, Santa Fe.

REFERENCES Abbink, Jon 1992 The Mursi: The Land Is Bad and The Mursi: Nitha. American Anthropologist, 94(4): 1027–1028. Bell, Catherine 1997 Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions. New York: Oxford University Press. Biestman, Karen W. 1984 Neshnabek: The People. American Indian Quarterly, 8(4): 395. Bloch, Maurice 1974 Symbols. Song, Dance, and Features of Articulation. Archives Europe´ennes de Sociologie, 15: 55–81. Clements, William 1985 The House-Opening. Journal of American Folklore, 98(387): 120–121. Dowd, James J. 1999 Waiting for Louis Prima: On the Possibility of a Sociology of Film. Teaching Sociology, 27(4): 324–342. Durkheim, Emile 1965 The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Trans. by J. W. Swain. New York: Free Press. Freud, Sigmund 1946 Totem and Taboo. Trans. by A. A. Brill. New York: Vintage Books. Girard, Rene´ 1987 Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. Trans. by Stephen Bann and Michael Metteer. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. Gluckman, Max 1963 Order and Rebellion in Tribal Africa. New York: Free Press. Goffman, Erving 1967 Interaction Ritual. Garden City, NY: Doubleday. Gonzales, Nancie L., Stella Silverstein, Kathleen Sheehan, Bonnie Holcomb, and Patricia Perrier 1975 A Curing Ceremony. American Anthropologist, 77(1): 175. Gould, Richard 1972 The Mulga Seed Ceremony. American Anthropologist, 74: 189–191.


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Graves, William 1987 The Return of Gods and Ancestors: The Five-Year Ceremony. American Anthropologist, 89(1): 263–264. Grimes, Ronald L. 1990 Ritual Criticism: Case Studies in Its Practice, Essays on Its Theory. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press. Kehoe, Thomas 1975 Iyahkimix: The Beaver Bundle Ceremony. American Anthropologist, 77(3): 697–698. Larner, John W. 1975 Thorne North American Indian Series: Southwest Indians. History Teacher, 8(2): 298–299. Le´vi-Strauss, Claude 1981 The Naked Man. (Vol. 4 of Introduction to a Science of Mythology). Trans. by John and Doreen Weightman. New York: Harper and Row. Lewis, Jerome 1999 Music and Rituals. Anthropology Today, 15(1): 20–21. Mishler, Craig 1985 Narrativity and Metaphor in Ethnographic Film: A Critique of Robert Gardner’s Dead Birds. American Anthropologist, 87(3): 668–672. Morphy, Howard 1994 The Interpretation of Ritual: Reflections for Film on Anthropological Practice. Man, 29(1): 117–146. Norris, Christopher 1995 Claude Le´vi-Strauss. In The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Ted Honderich, ed. P. 482. New York: Oxford University Press. Roscoe, P. B. 1990 The Bamboo Fire and Magical Curing. Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 4(4): 459–461. Schechner, Richard 1985 Between Theater and Anthropology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. Seronde, Antoine, and Nancy L. Gonzales 1975 N=um Tchai. American Anthropologist, 77(1): 175–176. Sobchack, Vivian 1999 Toward a Phenomenology of Nonfiction Film Experience. In Collecting Visible Evidence. Jane M. Gaines and Michael Renov, eds. Pp. 241–254. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Stoeltje, Beverly J. 1978 Cultural Frames and Reflections: Ritual, Drama, and Spectacle. Current Anthropology, 19(2): 450–451. Vaughan, Dai 1999 For Documentary: Twelve Essays. Berkeley: University of California Press.

FILMOGRAPHY Csonor-Barabash, Elvira, Alan L. Bryan, Bruce A. McCorquodale, Eric Waterton, David M. Tallow, and John Hellson 1975 Iyahkimix: The Blackfoot Beaver Bundle Ceremony. Produced by the University of Alberta Photographic Services. Dist. by the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Dunlop, Ian 1979 Madarrpa Funeral at Gurka’wuy. Dist. by Film Australia, Sydney. Gardner, Robert 1963 Dead Birds. Produced by the Film Study Center, Peabody Museum, Harvard University. Hightown, NJ.: Dist. by McGraw-Hill Contemporary Films. Hu, Tai-Li 1984 The Return of Gods and Ancestors: The Five-Year Ceremony. Flushing, NY.: Dist. by Jean Tsien.


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MacDougall, David, and Judith, Mac Dougall. 1978 The House Opening. Berkeley, CA: Dist. by University of California Extension Media Center. Marshall, John 1975 A Curing Ceremony. Watertown, MA: Dist. by Documentary Educational Resources. 1975 N/um Tchai. Watertown, MA: Dist. by Documentary Educational Resources. Mitchell, William E. 1987 Magical Curing. Prospect Heights, IL: Dist. by Waveland Press. Sandall, Roger 1972 The Mulga Seed Ceremony. Berkeley, CA: Formerly dist. by University of California Extension Media Services. Stull, Donald 1979 Neshnabek: The People. Lawrence, KS: Dist. by the University of Kansas Film Rental Service. Thorne Films 1975 Thorne North American Indian Series: Southwest Indians (Nayajo Sand Painting). Produced by Thorne Films, the Robert H. Lowie Museum of Anthropology, University of CaliforniaBerkeley, and the National Science Foundation. Boulder, CO: Dist. by Thorne Films. Woodhead, Leslie 1991 The Mursi: The Land is Bad. Dist. by Disappearing World, Granada Television, New York. 1991 The Mursi: Nitha. Granada Television, New York: Dist. by Disappearing World.


Gregory Schneider