Cinema: the secular temple


Leonard, Richard: The Mystical Gaze of the Cinema: The Films of Peter Weir. Melbourne University Press, 2009, ISBN 9780522856620. Order online

Barbara Creed:
I remember Richard telling me that although, or because, he was a Jesuit he did not want to write his thesis on anything to do with religion. I agreed that was a good idea because, from my perspective, this was not a topic in which I had research expertise. Before very long however Richard found himself writing on the very topic he had decided to rule out.

Richard was interested in working on the films of Peter Weir. Neither of us realised at the time, however, that this meant that in the end we would embark on a spiritual journey.

One of the first things Richard discovered was that in the trade Peter Weir's nickname was 'weird Weir' because many of his films explored unusual — mystical — spiritual themes. Most of his characters are on a quest — the schoolgirls who simply vanish in Picnic at Hanging Rock; the best friends who fight at Gallipoli; the cop who takes refuge with the Amish people in Witness; the alternative family in Mosquito Coast; the lawyer in The Last Wave; the trapped suburban husband of The Truman Show and so on.

Peter Weir is definitely an odd man out in Australian Cinema in that he is not interested in teen movies, road movies, cop movies, mateship movies, films about sex and violence, films about violence and sport. Weir is fascinated by the possibility of an encounter with otherness — from the mystical to the spiritual.

And we are very fortunate indeed that Richard did decide to plunge headlong into film and the mystical gaze — otherwise we would not have this fascinating, original study of the mystical gaze in the cinema. For Richard's book does nothing less than explore the mystical and transformative experiences of film viewing.

Often compared to a modern shrine, the cinema has the power to transfix audiences with its pantheon of heavenly stars, tales of love and redemption and array of special effects such as the spiritual use of lighting and its ability to transport us to other dimensions.

Through an original study of Peter Weir's classic films, Richard expands our knowledge of film theory to include an understanding of movie going as a mystical experience.

This finely researched study is a must-read for film scholars, film lovers and anyone interested in the spiritual dimensions of popular culture and popular entertainment. No-one else has written on the mystical gaze in film — which is interesting given there is so much scholarship on almost every other form of viewing such as the male gaze, the voyeuristic gaze, the gaze of astonishment and so on.

When Richard discovered one of the meanings of 'Hollywood' it was clear that popular cinema may well indeed offer a spiritual experience in a secular context. The word 'Hollywood' originally stood for 'hollyrood' — 'rood' is an old word for 'cross' usually meaning the crucifixion cross and 'holly' means either 'holy' or holly'. There is a 'Holyrood Abbey' in England for instance. 'Holyrood' also means 'holy relic'.

Richard's book offers a fascinating study. It gives us a very original interpretation of the cinema which has been attacked by some for having taken the place of religion — for offering only secular pleasures. The Mystical Gaze, however, shows us that there is much much more to film viewing than that.

There is a very interesting line in the film version of Moby Dick. One of the characters says: 'If God ever wanted to be a fish, he'd be a whale. Believe that. He'd be a whale.'

Well, Richard's book is indeed a whale of a book. It tackles the biggest form of entertainment of the modern era, and raises a series of significant questions. Both of Richard's examiners were deeply impressed when they read his dissertation — both suggested that it should definitely be published. So after a long journey, and with thanks to Melbourne University Press, we now have Richard's book at hand.

I hope you all buy a copy — you won't be disappointed. The Mystical Gaze is an impressive and important work.

Richard Leonard:
As with many books, this one has a long history. When I returned home from graduate studies at the London Film School, it was clear that I would not be working full time in media production.

The next year, however, two fortuitous things occurred. Our then Jesuit Provincial, Daven Day, started talking to me about undertaking doctoral studies, and at almost the same time our Superior General in Rome wrote to the Provincials around the world suggesting that communications was one of five areas within which Jesuits should be sent for higher studies.

A match made in heaven — or least between Rome and Melbourne! The Provincial told me to explore my options here and overseas.

At that time there was only one film academic in Australia with whom I wanted to work. If she took me on, then I would stay here for the PhD. If not, I would go abroad. Barbara and I had a hard time initially meeting up. In fact, stranger things have happened at the Wentworth Hotel in Sydney, but it was there, in the foyer of that hotel, over a bad cup coffee, that we met for the first time ... an academic match was made.

I knew I wanted to write on Peter Weir. I figured that if you had to spend a lot of time analysing films it might be advantageous to thoroughly enjoy them to start with. Weir's work does that for me.

At first I wanted to look at some foucaudian principle in Weir's work, but it was Barbara who suggested that with my theological background I might like to look at the commentary about Weir's work, that it is 'mystical'. I was not convinced, fearing that priest-does-mysticism was playing into the stereotype. Still, off I went to read away, and the metaphysical commentary on Weir jumped out and bit me.

Dare I say, I was transported. Neither Barb nor I knew at that stage that within the year we would soon be defining a new gaze, or look of the cinema.

I remember saying to Barb at one stage that my thesis might be dismissed because it was so bloody obvious. 'They're the best theses,' she said, 'where the obvious is organised and analysed for the very first time.'

This book argues that the quest for the mystical encounter, as attested to in every social community in the world, is still active in the increasingly secular Western world, and that its secular temple is now the Multiplex.

People have stopped going to church to the same degree, but they still have an eye for and an expectation of the mystical. At the cinema, spectators, primed by the structures of the cinema itself, see films like those of Peter Weir which construct a world for them where they can exercise the mystical gaze while simultaneously entering into a mystical experience with the shadow world being played out on the screen before them ...

I hope you enjoy reading this book, and that, at very least, when you can't leave you seat after a screening, or you say, 'that film changed my life', 'I know where I was when I saw that movie', 'time stood still' or 'I could never look at that situation in the same way again after that picture', you will have the comfort of knowing that you are exercising the mystical gaze of the cinema.

Excerpted from speeches given at the Melbourne launch of The Mystical Gaze of the Cinema: The Films of Peter Weir.

Barbara CreedDr Barbara Creed is Professor, Screen Studies and head of the School of Culture and Communication, The University of Melbourne.


Richard LeonardFr Richard Leonard, SJ, directs the Australian Catholic Film Office and is a Visiting Professor at the Georgian University, Rome, and the United Faculty of Theology, Melbourne. He is the author of several books including Movies That Matter: Reading Film Through the Lens of Faith.


Topic tags: Mystical Gaze of the Cinema, Peter Weir.richard leonard, barbara creed, 978-0-522-85662-0



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Existing comments

Where can one buy or borrow these two works - Movies That Matter & The Mystical Gaze.
Clare Avalon O'Callaghan | 23 March 2009

Have read other books by Father Leonard and look forward to this one.
Jill D'Arcy | 27 March 2009

pass it on!
Gerard S | 23 April 2009


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