I found Jim Caviezel’s story to be very compelling and encouraging.
Category Archives: Cinema
When I came into the Catholic Church the Order of the Mass had just been updated with a few changes, mostly of the verbiage I believe. Because I had no prior experience, the changes meant little to me. One, however, caught my attention. As I understood it, previously the priest would say, “The Lord be with you,” or during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, “The peace of the Lord be with you always,” and the faithful responded with “And also with you.” This phrase, “And also with you,” was probably the only “liturgical phrase” I had heard prior to deciding to become Catholic and going to mass regularly.
The recent changes to the Roman Missal by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops altered the well known response to now be “And with your spirit.” This wording is closer to the older Latin:
P: Dominus vobiscum. (P: The Lord be with you.)
R: Et cum spiritu tuo. (R: And with thy spirit.)
It did not have to be changed, but it was. I am used to it. Anyway, a number of U.S. Catholics were confused a bit, and not a little non-plussed. It seemed a bit clunky, and somewhat strange to their ears. Also, long practiced habits are hard to break. But now it seems old hat.
Then, not long ago, I re-watched one of my all time favorite films, My Night at Maud’s (Ma nuit chez Maud), a 1969 film from the late, great Éric Rohmer. (I wrote some time ago about this film.) The film begins with the protagonist, Jean-Louis, going to mass. The two screen shots above are from that scene. And what caught my attention, now that my ears were ready, was that in the French the phrase is “And with your spirit.” The subtitles captured in the screenshots show the English translation, but if you listen to the soundtrack, and also take a look at the order or the mass in French, or Plan de la messe, you will notice the wording is just that:
P : Que la paix du Seigneur soit toujours avec vous.
A : Et avec votre esprit
As I would expect, the French, who generally care much more about language than do us Americans, maintained the essence of the Latin back in the heady days of the post-Vatican II 1960’s. Still, Catholicism was already beginning to diminish in France, fidelity to the Latin or not – which makes the rest of the film, with its deep discussions of religion, politics, sexuality, and personal commitments in the face of social pressures, all the more interesting.
Interestingly, the film was being filmed and edited during the winter of 1968 and 1969, almost exactly three years after the end of the Second Vatican Council, and right about the time (I believe) the liturgical changes were going into effect. I don’t know much of the history of post-Vatican II France, but I think mass in the vernacular happened right around the time of the film. And notice the priest faces the faithful. My guess is that this mass, in the new manner, was still very new at that time. If this is true, then this was probably the first time the new liturgical form was put on film, perhaps anywhere.
Sofia Coppola’s latest film, The Bling Ring (2013), is an interesting, beautiful, and laconic work that would appear to be only as shiny and shallow as the film’s subjects, their obsessions, and the world they inhabit. And yet this film effortlessly floats on depths as ancient as the human soul and its craving for love. Though the film presents the activities of several high school kids who steal fashionable designer clothing and jewels from movie stars’ unprotected homes just so they can feel some connection with the famous and glamorous (until they get caught of course), the story is, in fact, about the need to be loved and cherished.
Sofia Coppola is a director of subtleties. Rarely offering a direct judgement of her subjects, she instead pulls back and lets us observe their actions and judge for ourselves. Those who would prefer a clear condemnation of theft, or of trespassing, or of the shallowness of Hollywood culture, are not going to get it from Coppola. Instead she gives us little shifts in tone as the film begins with the crazy fun (and criminal) life of these friends and gradually slides towards the dissolution of both the “ring” and their friendships. In the end what we are left with is the revelation of who these kids are, not just a chronicle of what they did and what they got. In other words, Coppola seems to follow that old dictum that if a camera is pointed at something or someone long enough the truth will naturally reveal itself. What the viewer takes away, then, has more to do with what the viewer brought to the viewing than what ethic the filmmaker is trying to push.
Arguably the lead character in this ensemble piece is Marc (Israel Broussard), a soft spoken new student at Indian Hills High School who, like anyone in his situation, looks for a friend and a way to connect in this new environment. Soon he is befriended by Rebecca Ahn (Katie Chang). Rebecca becomes the driving force of the Bling Ring. Marc is truly the only character in the film whose heart is laid bare before us. Although he is fully an accomplice in the crimes of the ring, his motivations are not so much the fame obsessions of the others, but the desire to be loved, especially by Rebecca. This love is not romantic love from her, for he is gay, rather he wants acceptance and understanding. Like all of us, he needs and craves friendship.
At the end of the film we see Marc in the bright orange coveralls of prison. He has received a sentence of four years in jail for his part in the thefts. Surrounded by older and more hardened criminals, we could feel sorry for him, but not only because he looks too young to be in prison, but because we know how easy it is to give in to wrongdoing because of personal weakness. If we look at ourselves we might see how often we have been in his position, experiencing the consequences of stupid choices because deep within us drive desires we often do not recognize and often cannot control. The human heart is driven by the need for love. Wherever we go, wherever we find ourselves, we cannot help but need affirmation, friendship, and love. In short, we are always looking for salvation. I could not help but be reminded of an opening chapter from The Wellspring of Worship by Jean Corbon:
Men thirst and look for water wherever they think they will find it. As they wander without any horizon in sight and no way of escape, they dig a well each time they pitch their tent. The wonderful thing is that the history of their salvation always begins with the digging of a well. “We find the patriarchs constantly digging wells.”¹ We ourselves are these patriarchs, traversing a promised land as strangers in our own inheritance. Beside their wells they also build altars to their gods; their religion, their ideology, their money, their power. Men are thirsty: How could they fail to dig where they think they may find water?
Even the denials that spring up from our atheistic unconsciousness betray our nostalgia. “They say that they thirst not; they say that this is not a well, that this is not water. They say that this is not a well of water as they have imagined it to be, and they say there is no water.”² But these same men, so sure of themselves, cannot but continue to be still expectant, for to stop thirsting would mean they were already sunk in the sleep of death.
Is it no wonder that Marc sought love where he could? To “dig a well” where he was? To be still expectant? Are we not all like this? Perhaps now Marc, discovering the well he dug has turned out to be dry, has a genuine chance at salvation. Perhaps now he can find a well that will issue forth living water.
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —
The Wellspring of Worship by Jean Corbon, trans. by M. J. O’Connell, (pages 21-22). First published as Liturgie de Source, 1980
¹Origen, Homilies on Genesis 13.
²Paul Claudel, The Humiliation of the Father, act II, sc. 2, in Three Plays, trans. J. Heard (Boston, 1945), 185.
I made these lists about two or three years ago for my other blog. I will probably revise them in the near future, as there are several films I MUST add to the lists below.
Truth is, I do not like top ten lists at all, not one bit, but I do love them because they’re candy. I have avoided jumping into the ever present top-ten-film-list milieu because, I say, I just don’t see the point. Fact is, I really want to, but can’t make up my mind. And the more I look at the list below, the more I realize I’ve missed some that should, should, should be there.
I also cannot rank films – I mean, it’s like choosing between steak and lobster, how can I pick a favorite? So what I have is a top 25 “pool” of films that seem to constantly swirl around my consciousness, that I find myself returning to over and over, and that send me into the closest thing to a religiously ecstatic experience I can find. This pool is also fed by underground springs and winding tributaries, and it empties into larger and larger pools until it connects with a vast ocean where all the films swim. Huh?
My top 25 favorite films (in alphabetical order):
Andrei Rublev (1966)
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Au hasard Balthazar (1966) See my post on this film.
BDR Trilogy (The Marriage of Maria Braun, 1979; Lola, 1981; Veronika Voss, 1982)
Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932)
Hiroshima mon amour (1959)
La Dolce Vita (1960)
Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953)
Nights of Cabiria (1957)
Rules of the Game (1939)
Singing in the Rain (1952)
The American Friend (1977)
Bicycle Thieves (1948)
The Blue Angel (1930)
The Godfather (1972)
The Godfather II (1974)
The Last Laugh (1924)
The Searchers (1956)
The World of Apu (1959)
Wings of Desire (1987)
25 films is really not a lot. If I had the inclination I could come up with a lot more, but to what end? At some point all cinephiles end up mentioning most of the same films over an over, and then throw in a few odd ones as if to say “I’m also a unique cine-hipster.” The truth is, great films are objectively great on some level. To recognize those films is to be human and, in some instances, thoughtful and observant too. So the above list isn’t really all that insightful. Consider it a kind of common ground.
But I can’t just stop there, for movies are like potato chips, and I gots the cravings…
My 25 favorite “makes-me-want-to-be-a-filmmaker” films that are not in my top 25 (in alphabetical order):
A Man Escaped (1956)
Alice in the Cities (1974)
Ashes and Diamonds (1958)
Citizen Kane (1941)
Diamonds in the Night (1964)
Dog Star Man (1960s)
Harlan County U.S.A. (1976)
La Strada (1954)
La Terra trema (1948)
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Life of Oharu (1962)
sex, lies, and videotape (1989)
Street of Crocodiles (1986)
The 400 Blows (1959)
The Civil War (1990)
The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936)
The Seventh Seal (1957)
Week End (1967)
“Why stop there,” said the voice in my head, “you know you don’t want to.”
My 25 favorite films “no one” ever lists on their all-time favorite films lists (in alphabetical order):
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)
A Room with a View (1986)
From Russia with Love (1963)
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
La Belle Noiseuse (1991)
Jean de Florette (1986) & Manon of the Spring (1986)
Meshes in the Afternoon (1943)
Monsoon Wedding (2001)
My Dinner with Andre (1981)
My Life as a Dog (1985)
Rear Window (1954)
Scenes from a Marriage (1973)
Stealing Beauty (1996)
The Boxer and Death (1963)
The Decameron (1971)
The Golden Coach (1953)
The Road Warrior (1981)
Vanya on 42nd Street (1994)
Window Water Baby Moving (1958)
I have come to the conclusion that top whatever film lists are like tee-shirts and bumper stickers – they have everything to do with telling others about oneself, of staking out some psychic and moral turf and saying “this is who I am… for now.” It’s also like a banker wearing a suit or a professor wearing a sweater with elbow patches; it’s a way for other like minds to say, “ah, you’re one of us!” You can take it or leave it, but when I look at the lists above I see an awful lot of myself up there.
…wait a minute, where are Dr. Strangelove? Umberto D.? The Earrings of Madam d…? Star Wars? Last Tango in Paris? Manhattan? Mulholland Drive? How could I have left them out? And where are Man with the Movie Camera? The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp? The Man Who Skied Down Everest? El Capitan? I just realized I haven’t listed a single film by the Coen brothers! And there’s not one film by Terrence Malick — and I could add ALL of his films and put them near the top of the list. Oh Lord, what have I done?!
I just don’t know where to stop. Or maybe I really don’t know where to begin. I vow in the future I will craft a true top ten list and stand by it… for a while. (or not)
I’ve been thinking lately about the role and function of priests. I did not grow up with priests being a part of my world. My Baptist world did not have a place for priests. And I did not know other “kinds” of Christians outside of the narrow world of my youth (really most of my life). I also did not grow up with either a Catholic or Protestant “high church” kind of liturgical Sunday services, and thus the sacredness at the heart of Sunday worship was nothing more than one’s emotions as they were conjured and manipulated by the “worship” team and prodded by the sermon−this does not mean Truth was not preached or my emotions were entirely false. God can use anything and I was blessed to hear many great sermons, be encouraged in my faith, and find fellowship with other Christians. But now questions arise: Are some called to be priests, and do priests have a real role in the life of the Church? Do priests fulfill a function?
While I’ve been pondering these questions I found the story below at Courageous Priest:
The greatest priestly action I have ever seen was at Mass on a hot summer Sunday at St. Mary’s Parish in New Haven, Conn.
This was back before the parish had air conditioning. It was tough for the congregation, but worse for the visiting priest who said Mass in the summer. He had diabetes and some kind of degenerative nerve disorder that made his hands shake.
“It’s hot for you,” he would joke. “But I’m up here wearing a horse blanket!”
This priest’s homilies were excellent, but the moment that is burned in my memory happened during the Eucharistic prayer.
Father was slowing down through the first part of the prayer, like an old record player that needed to be cranked. When he started the consecration, it sounded like he was going to stop altogether.
But after he started the consecration, it quickly became clear that nothing could make him stop.
“Take this,” pause, “all of you,” pause, “and” … long pause … “eat it.”
He took a long gasping breath and looked like he wouldn’t recover. A parishioner ran to his side. The priest made it clear he wasn’t about to leave the altar, so the parishioner brought a chair for him to rest on.
“This … is … my … body … which will be … given up … for you.”
He lifted the host with shaky hands. We watched in rapt silence.
He slowly worked through “When the supper was ended, he took the cup …”
And then a replacement priest had been brought over from the rectory.
But Father wasn’t about to stop halfway through the consecration.
Word after agonizing word, he got to the end of the consecration.
By then, an ambulance had come. After he elevated the chalice, he was carried away on a stretcher.
Then the replacement priest stepped up to the altar. “Let us proclaim the mystery of faith,” he said.
Talk about alter christus. Watching that priest was like watching Our Lord consecrating the Eucharist — from the cross.
“Mom, why wouldn’t he stop?” the kids asked their mother in the car.
“Because he’s a priest,” said April. “That’s what priests do.”
She was right. It is vitally important that priests preach and that they do it well. But preaching isn’t the most important thing priests do. A priest doesn’t need to be talented, interesting or well-read to do the most important things priests do.
“That’s what priests do.” This sentence raises a lot of questions for me, for which I do not yet have the answer.
Also, one of my favorite films is Rome, Open City (1945). I wrote about a priest who plays a crucial role in the story of that film. I suppose there are, and always have been, “muscular” or heroic priests. The early church is full of them.
Priests are not so revered these days as they once were, at least not in the popular media. And there has been a lot of deservedly bad press because of a few notorious priests who abused their positions. But I wonder if in the vast, quiet place that is far removed from popular media that there isn’t a world of honorable priests who labor for the Kingdom and the Christ they love. I think this must be true and I would like to learn more about that world.
This post is a (re)working of another.
Let’s begin here with this video:
Arvo Pärt struggles to put into words what is so natural to him in music. At the end he says, “I’m always looking for it. Sometimes it comes easily, sometimes it doesn’t come at all. Every time I feel I have to start from scratch.” It is that searching that points to a kind of depth not found in much artwork. Pärt is one of the greatest living composers. His music is the result of struggle and faith. His music also points to something beyond, something transcendent, something objective yet unknowable. However, this is not a post on Arvo Pärt per se, rather it is a post on mystery.
I am drawn to mystery.
What is mystery? More than mere confusion or lack of clarity, mystery is the intimation of a reality beyond the physical or psychological. In its ultimate sense, mystery is the nature of the truly transcendent as it either interfaces with our contingent reality, or as we perceive, at some level that may not yet (or ever) be describable, the truly transcendent. In short, it is when and where we encounter the eternal.
I have often wondered what it is about certain artworks that I love so much, and what it is that draws me towards these kinds of art and, in particular, these kinds of films. I believe that the kinds of artworks and the kinds of films one seeks out and enjoys is directly related to why one views such art or watches films in the first place. Consider watching films: for some, watching films has everything to do with lighthearted, end-of-the-day escapism. For others it may be a kind of testosterone drug fix. And for others it might be some kind of romantic battery re-charging or escapism. Of course, for most of us it is a combination of many reasons. But I have to say that over and over I find myself seeking certain kinds of films and certain kinds of film experiences. Much of the time these experiences, at least the ones that stay with me long after the immediate viewing is over, are what I might call transcendent, or sublime. Another way of saying it might be that the more one digs into the realities of life, death, love, and suffering, the more one keeps coming up against mystery. This mystery is not a Gnostic sort of knowledge for only a select few, for only those with the “secret knowledge,” rather the mystery is there for everyone to experience and contemplate; it is fundamentally human.
Some might say this mystery is the experience of getting a kind of semi-translucent glimpse of the hand of God creating everything, including us, moment by moment. Others might say it is the place where the limits of reason and emotion converge at a kind of metaphysical precipice. Or it could be the place where one merely has the feeling of overshooting one’s rationality only to discover rationality is a bigger thing than one previously imagined. And maybe, finally, the goal is about arriving where one started and knowing that place as though for the first time.
What fascinates me is the ability of artforms and, in particular cinema for me, but also poetry, photography, music, etc., to evoke mystery. Some examples might include the painting by Gerhard Richter at the beginning of this post and the photograph below by Minor White. But there really are countless examples. Why is it that certain images can bring about deep, almost indescribable emotions from within my soul?
Pacific, Devil’s Slide
In my opinion a great example of a film that does this for/to me is Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1969). There are so many powerful images from that film, and so many moments that produce powerful feelings that I am drawn to re-watching the film repeatedly. This post is not a review of Rublyev; my point is to say that art works can evoke strong feelings of mystery that seem to point to more important aspects of human existence, but do so via a kind of internal mystery, a mystery inherent within art itself. Again, that mysteriousness one finds in certain films is one of the powerful cinematic draws for me.
But what do, or can, we mean by this term mystery?
I am troubled, I must say, at trying to explain the sense of mystery in art. I have come to believe, however, that maybe it arise from the tension between life and death, and the reality that life comes from death. In art we often refer to beauty. But what is beauty and does it have a place anymore in art? As a kind of doorway to an answer, I like this quote from an interview with Andrei Tarkovsky about his, as then yet to be made, film Andrei Rublev:
I am not going to say anything directly about the bond between art and people, this is obvious in general and, I hope, it’s obvious in the screenplay. I would only like to examine the nature of beauty, make the viewer aware that beauty grows from tragedy, misfortune, like from a seed. My film certainly will not be a story about the beautiful and somewhat patriarchal Rus, my wish is to show how it was possible that the bright, astonishing art appeared as a “continuation” of the nightmares of slavery, ignorance, illiteracy. I’d like to find these mutual dependencies, to follow birth of this art and only under those circumstances I’d consider the film a success. (from Nostalghia.com)
Maybe it is only through suffering that true mystery in art appears. I don’t know.
If I could point to an artwork that offers for me one of the best examples of the mystery of art, the feeling of mystery in the receiver of that art work, and also describes the feeling of overshooting one’s rationality or coming into contact with some kind of cosmic mystery, it would be from a tiny section from William Wordsworth’s great autobiographical poem, The Prelude, The first time I read this section I was floored. I continue to be floored each time I read it, but I also recognize that my response is a personal one. And so will be yours.
One summer evening (led by her) I found
A little boat tied to a willow tree
Within a rocky cave, its usual home.
Straight I unloosed her chain, and stepping in
Pushed from the shore. It was an act of stealth
And troubled pleasure, nor without the voice
Of mountain-echoes did my boat move on;
Leaving behind her still, on either side,
Small circles glittering idly in the moon,
Until they melted all into one track
Of sparkling light. But now, like one who rows,
Proud of his skill, to reach a chosen point
With an unswerving line, I fixed my view
Upon the summit of a craggy ridge,
The horizon’s utmost boundary; far above
Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky.
She was an elfin pinnace; lustily
I dipped my oars into the silent lake,
And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boat
Went heaving through the water like a swan;
When, from behind that craggy steep till then
The horizon’s bound, a huge peak, black and huge,
As if with voluntary power instinct,
Upreared its head. I struck and struck again,
And growing still in stature the grim shape
Towered up between me and the stars, and still,
For so it seemed, with purpose of its own
And measured motion like a living thing,
Strode after me. With trembling oars I turned,
And through the silent water stole my way
Back to the covert of the willow tree;
There in her mooring-place I left my bark,–
And through the meadows homeward went, in grave
And serious mood; but after I had seen
That spectacle, for many days, my brain
Worked with a dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being; o’er my thoughts
There hung a darkness, call it solitude
Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes
Remained, no pleasant images of trees,
Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;
But huge and mighty forms, that do not live
Like living men, moved slowly through the mind
By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.
first published in 1850
I can think of no better way to express why it is I am drawn towards some kinds of films more than others, why it is I love the mystery of art, and why it is I come away from some films with the film still burning in my soul. There is a sensibility in that poem that perfectly describes that feeling of being overcome with awe, fear, and joy all mixed together. This mystery, this feeling, is often referred to as the sublime.
But then I wonder. For I am convinced that the source of mystery is not merely a feeling, even if that feeling is objectively located in the work of art causing the work to function as a kind of talisman of sorts. Mystery must, I am certain, have its roots in God, pointing to, then through, the energies of God towards the essence of God, which is the ultimate mystery. Therefore we have a choice: do we seek mystery as a feeling, attempting to conjure it in our choice of artworks, and using it as a kind of replacement for a more ultimate mystery, or do we seek the ultimate mystery and, therefore, more carefully chose works of art that might point to that mystery, the true mystery?
Historically we have inherited a stream of thought, a modern shift, that has reduced God to nothing and, therefore, reduced the nature of being, of what was once called the true glory of man, to mere narratives of the sublime. The sublime, then, becomes a way of describing the absence of God. Rather than be in awe of true mystery, we rejoice in the ever liminal, psycho-emotional stories of personal and anti-personal contingency. We rejoice in différence and violence, taking them for both something greater than us and something ultimately insignificant. I worry that I would love the sublime only to find that I have been merely playing with mystery and avoiding God. Pointing to that shift, David Bentley Hart says this:
The event of modernity within philosophy (which arrived, at least visibly, in the age of nominalism) consisted in the dissolution of being: the disintegration of that radiant unity wherein the good, the true, and the beautiful coincided as infinite simplicity and fecundity, communicating themselves to a world whose only reality was its variable participation in their gratuity; and the divorce between this thought of being, as the supereminent fullness of all perfection, and the thought of God (who could then no longer be conceived as being and the wellspring of all being, revealing his glory in the depth of splendor in which created things are shaped and sustained). This vision was so thoroughly and quickly forgotten (long before Heidegger would diagnose it, ineptly, as just another mode of the “forgetfulness of being”) that being itself could now be conceived only in absolute opposite terms: as a veil or an absence, thought or un-thought, but in either case impenetrable—the veil that veils even itself, the empty name that adds nothing to the essence of beings, sheer uniform existence. And God’s transcendence, so long as nostalgia preserved philosophy’s attachment to “that hypothesis,” could be understood now only as God’s absence, through perhaps, but only as an alienum or an explanatory cause. Being, no longer resplendent with truth, appearing in and elevating all things, could be figured then only as the sublime. (The Beauty of the Infinite, p. 44)
I am convinced Tarkovsky points beyond the sublime to the transcendence of God, and thus the transcendence of being. I am not fully convinced Wordsworth does that consciously, though I think he may do sounitentionally. Richter, I believe, may be merely exploring narratives of the sublime. And yet, I love the artworks of all three. What is one to do?
If we seek mystery, if we seek works of art that take us to a metaphysical precipice, or create the feeling of overshooting one’s rationality, or drop us in the deep-end of the sublime as it were, then it only makes sense that we ought to stake our experiences to the infinite and permanent things lest we be swept away into the prison of false transcendence. Another way of putting this is that we should seek something other than a life of amusements, even so-called serious ecstasies, and prepare ourselves for for both death and the life that can come only by death. I wrote about this previously here, but I would add that as we might seek mystery, let us seek God first, seek to imitate one who is inimitable, and let us know that we are, as yet, only shadows of our future selves. It is there, and only there, that we find the true mystery that does not disappoint.
Finally, there are many artists exploring the boundaries of mystery and transcendence. Below is a short documentary hosted by Björk that looks at several minimalist musicians/composers. What I find most fascinating is to consider how each of these artists may or may not exemplify a search for true mystery. Some, I fear, are only playing with a false mystery for the sake of the merely sublime, while others may go further. And, or course, Arvo Pärt comes last, and that’s the real reason to watch.