I found Jim Caviezel’s story to be very compelling and encouraging.
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)
56 faces from Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (1964):
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.
In my previous post I said that I am a kind of “by default” post-modernist, that it is the sea in which I swim, and that I love aspects of it, but that I also loath it. My desire, as I said, is to strip away all the post-modern garbage and get to the Truth. I was reminded of a post I wrote a while back on another blog about this post-modern sea we swim in. I am re-posting it here.
We have learned to trust the photographic image. Can we trust the electronic image? With painting everything was simple. The original was the original, and each copy was a copy – a forgery. With photography and then film that began to get complicated. The original was a negative. Without a print, it did not exist. Just the opposite, each copy was the original. But now with the electronic, and soon the digital, there is no more negative and no more positive. The very notion of the original is obsolete. Everything is a copy. All distinctions have become arbitrary. No wonder the idea of identity finds itself in such a feeble state. Identity is out of fashion.~Wim Wenders, 1989
The following screengrabs are from Wenders’ film Notebook on Cities and Clothes (1989). They are all of images within images, and represent/re-present places within places and ideas within ideas.
It is perhaps not a surprise that photography developed as a technological medium in the industrial age, when reality started to disappear. It is even perhaps the disappearance of reality that triggered this technical form. Reality found a way to mutate into an image.
-from Photography, or the Writing of Light (2000)
I suppose this blog plays a part in how I mediate the world for myself. I write for an audience, largely imaginary, but I also write for myself. Subconsciously, and maybe sometimes consciously, I write so that I can understand the world and my place in it. In this sense I can say that I have my take on reality. But the question is, are all distinctions truly arbitrary? And can this notion apply beyond the world of images to the rest of life?
Examples include this appropriated “restricted” card from the early days of the MPAA rating system:
But what is so fascinating is that Tarantino is not making a 70s film. He is making modern film. Consider that while the characters seem to live and play in a archetypal film of a previous era, and while the film makes a point of looking aged and worn out, characters still drive modern cars and use cell phones – like Jungle Julia below.
I am reposting this from my other blog.
I have been examining my inclinations lately regarding the kind of cinema I am drawn too. The fact that I do that, and say that I do that, marks me as a questionable character. Nonetheless, I am one of those types who cannot stop noticing my own thoughts, wonder about their provenance, and question their meaning. Naturally, if that is the right word, I prefer films that work along similar lines as my mind. In other words, I prefer films that give my mind time to think and reflect as I watch. I like slow films that carefully, and with nuance, build image upon image, and rely on subtleties and levels of meaning. I find action films the most boring of all films. This is strange because cinema is the art of movement. It is also strange because I love some action films quite a lot (e.g. Die Hard, 1988).
Though I came to film as did many of my generation, through Disney and television, through comedy and western, I took an educational turn down the path of art history, of philosophy, of the humanities, and so went the course of my mind. In college I was introduced to foreign films and they became a kind of revelation for me. I discovered I was sensitive to film as an artform as much as a way to tell stories and entertain. Sometimes viewing films became difficult for me as each scene, each pan of the camera, each edit evoked a multitude of thoughts. I would be simultaneously transfixed and distracted by a film. I would frequently not finish films, then, when I did, I would sometimes be overcome for days. Needless to say, this kind of film viewing is not typical, though I know it is not uncommon either. I will admit that it may be a kind of limitation, but it is who I am. It is also personally annoying at times. I find that I seek that “overcoming” kind of experience, even to have my life changed forever, and yet I fear it too. One does not wish the existential crisis to come, but one cherishes those that have come. One does not want one’s mind to be taken over, as it were, but one needs to be shaken. So I struggle between the desire to be profoundly redone by a work of art and the desire to remain safely as I am.
I have wondered why I seek out art for this purpose. I know art can be a distraction or a light pleasure. But I have often disdained art used for those purposes, though I know this attitude is incorrect, for art can function in many ways and for many purposes. Recently I realized how I have though about art; I cannot say it better than Russian filmmaker Andre Tarkovsky:
The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as an example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good. (Sculpting in Time, p. 43)
To prepare a person for death, that is what I have sought; to be prepared for death. I am not morbid in this sentiment. I do not seek death. But I have been on a mission of sorts since my youth to seek the final implications of belief. I long for films (and any art) to take me there, or push me there. A film does not need to be heavy handed, nor does it need to be dark. It can be full of light and life, but it does, at least, need to reach into one’s soul, as it were, and open it up to a kind of receptivity. I long for that harrowing and rendering. that is why, in the face of so many competent and popular films, my reactions are so often a shrug of the shoulders.
Andrei Tarkovsky and Aleksandr Kaidanovski shooting the film “Stalker”
in the summer of 1977 in Jägala, Estonia. Photo: Arvo Iho
It is not that I cannot be amused, but I cannot help but think that amusement means “without the muses.” To be amused is to stop thinking, to be diverted from the the realities and implications of existence. Life, as we know it in this whirling electronic age, has become a world of diversions. We all need diversions at times, but diversions are not only not hard to come by, they are thrust upon us with such repetition and force that it takes an active and committed individual to ward them off. I believe such a commitment comes from the orientation of one’s soul toward (or away from) the infinite—to borrow a word from Kierkegaard. To turn away from diversions into a powerful work of art, and then to let that work of art do its function, and to be receptive to that function, is a kind of antidote (though not a complete cure) to a life of amusements. It is not the only way, but it is one way.
There is, however, a caveat somewhere in all this. That is, one must be able to trust the artist, the filmmaker, if one is to be thus undone. I cannot, I should not, allow any artist to plough and harrow my soul unless I know that artist’s character. This may require one to push back against that first viewing, that sacred viewing that no one wants disturbed, and to take a cautious approach. This is why the choice to view one film over another, or to take a chance on a film, ought to be based first on who is the filmmaker and not the actor. It is the filmmaker who is accountable. It is the filmmaker who must be trusted. I like a great many films for various reasons, but this need to trust the filmmaker brings me back time and again to the likes of Bresson, Dreyer, Rohmer, Tarkovsky, and Renoir, and why I appreciate, but with caution, the likes of Bergman, Allen, Antonioni, and Tarr. I’m sure anyone reading this can come up with their own list of filmmakers.
Does anyone else think this way?
From an interview* with Andrei Tarkovsky by Charles H. de Brantes in 1986:
de Brantes: Some folks have questioned the intertwining in your work, especially in THE SACRIFICE, between Christian motifs, for example the recitation of the “Our Father,” and ideas more archaic, more pagan, such as the character of Maria, the “good witch.” This leads to a certain confusion . . . Are you or are you not a Christian filmmaker?
Tarkovsky: I believe that it’s truly not important to know if I subscribe to certain beliefs, whether pagan, Catholic, Orthodox, or simply Christian. The important thing is the work itself. It seems to me better to judge the work from a general perspective, and not to be searching for contradictions which some wish to see in my work. A work of art isn’t always a mirror reflection of the inner world of the artist, particularly when it comes to the smallest of details. While it’s true, there exists a certain logical connection . . . it’s possible for there to be an opposition to the personal beliefs of the artist.
Also, when I directed this film, I was convinced it had to address itself to all types of audiences.
When I was very young I asked my father, “Does God exist—yes or no?” And he answered me brilliantly: “For the unbeliever, no, for the believer, yes!” This problem is very important.
I want to say in relation to this that it’s possible to interpret the film in different ways. For instance, those who are interested in various supernatural phenomena will search for the meaning of the film in the relationship between the postman and the witch, for them these two characters will provide the principle action. Believers are going to respond most sensitively to Alexander’s prayer to God, and for them the whole film will develop around this. And finally a third category of viewers who don’t believe in anything will imagine that Alexander is a bit sick, that he’s psychologically unbalanced as a result of war and fear. Consequently many kinds of viewers will perceive the film in their own way. My opinion is that its necessary to afford the spectator the freedom to interpret the film according to their own inner vision of the world, and not from the point of view that I would impose upon him. For my aim is to show life, to render an image, the tragic, dramatic image of the soul of modern man. In conclusion, can you imagine such a film being directed by a non-believer? I can’t.
Later in the interview:
de Brantes: You’ve said that man should create in the image and likeness of the Creator . . .
Tarkovsky: It’s all together important and not important. For me, it’s like breathing air . . .
de Brantes: But how do you distinguish the artist from the monk and from the saint?
Tarkovsky: These are truly different paths. The saint, the monk, refuses to create because he’s not participating in life. The banner of the saint or the monk is non-participation. This has a lot in common with Buddhist and Oriental philosophy. . . . But the artist, the poor artist . . . he finds himself again in the mud amidst everything that happens. But we also know about the example of the French poet who rejected being a poet, Rimbaud. There are a lot of people like that.
For the monk, I fee a sort of compassion, because he lives with only part of himself. As for the artist, he has a tendency to scatter himself, to make mistakes, to sully himself, jeopardizing his soul. But this isn’t to characterize the saint and the poet as angel and devil. It’s quite simply people who find themselves in some very dissimilar situations. The saint will have salvation, the artist perhaps not. In this sense I believe in the grace which descends upon you from above, just like that . . . Herman Hesse had this thought: “All my life I aspired to be a saint, but I am a sinner. I can only count on inspiration from on high.” What he’s saying is that he’s unable to be consistent.
There’s a parallel between the saint and artist, but there are some different problems. . . . The essential thing is that one live in a just and proper way; seeking to imitate the Creator, or seeking his salvation, saving oneself, or searching to create a far richer spiritual climate for the entire world.
Who knows how much time remains for any of us? One must live thinking that tomorrow we may have to deliver our soul up to God. You ask me a question to which some geniuses have dedicated their whole life. That’s what it is to make a film. I want to speak to this in my film about Saint Anthony,** in order to understand and explain this unbearable problem for man. In the end to die or not to die isn’t a problem, we all will die, either together or one after the other . . .
* This interview was found in Andrei Tarkovsky Interviews, ed. John Gianvito, 2006, Univ. Press of Mississippi.
** Andrei Tarkovsky died before he could make his film about Saint Anthony. He was fascinated with Saint Anthony because, for him, the saint represents the choice to forsake “everything for the desert.” That includes forsaking communion, which is important in the Orthodox Church, for the purpose of saving himself. Tarkovsky was an artist fascinated with that kind of religious tension.
>What do Christians do about the end times? We wait for them of course. And we have opinions. We may think we are in the end times already. We look forward to Christ’s return. We pray for the salvation of others as well as our own. We scare people into heaven with tales of the coming judgement, tribulation, etc.
Some Christians appear to salivate at the thought of destruction coming upon the wicked. A gleam comes into their eye as they speak of Armageddon and blood as high as a horse’s bridle. Some get excited at the idea that cars and planes will suddenly be driverless and pilotless when the “rapture” occurs. Much of the time we can substitute “the other” for “the wicked,” for it is the other, who is not like us, not of our faith, who will receive condemnation. Right? I am not yet a universalist, but I am close—at least I want to be one, but I have not yet reconciled my understanding of scripture to that doctrine. Still, Christians carry around with them some concept of an end times, of Christ’s return, of a new heavens and new earth. And some versions are more popular than others. But not necessarily more correct.
I recently viewed an interesting documentary film that takes a look at Christians who are eagerly waiting for the rapture and the end times. The film is Waiting for Armageddon. These particular Christians, and this particular form of Christianity, hold eschatological perspectives largely the same as found in the Left Behind books and films—a perspective that I have mostly abandoned. The film also gives space for countering viewpoints. I felt the film was very fair and even handed, and fascinating.
I used to be in that dispensationalist camp. When I was a boy I read Hal Lindsey’s book The Late, Great Planet Earth. I now think about 90 percent of the book is wrong, though I have not read it for many years. And I still eagerly wait for Christ’s return. Even earlier in my life than reading Lindsey’s book I was scared by the film A Thief in the Night. This film was a dramatic depiction of the rapture and the basic ideas in Lindsey’s book. I was merely a child and the leaders of a Christian summer camp showed us this film in order to scare us into a personal relationship with Jesus. The movie freaked me out for years afterward.
I have now come to view the rapture, as popularly understood and portrayed in such films and books mentioned here, as unbiblical. And yet, I do believe we may be in the end times. Exactly what that means is hotly debated, and I am no expert. But like I mentioned above, I look forward to Christ’s return.
The following quote is from Michael Ondaatje’s book: The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film. The book is a combination of several interviews that Ondaatje had with Murch. Ondaatje is the author of The English Patient and Anil’s Ghost, amongst others, and Murch was a principle editor on such notable films as The Godfather II, Apocalypse Now, and The English Patient. Murch is also a kind of quiet renaissance man. His knowledge is rather wide and deep. His passions range across many subjects. When he speaks on film editing and human creativity it is worth hearing what he has to say.
Ondaatje: Ingmar Bergman talks somewhere about how making a film, with a large group of people, is akin to a medieval community building a cathedral.*
Murch: We were talking earlier about having multiple editors on a film like Apocalypse Now. But it seems to happen throughout the filmmaking process. How do you get 150 temperamental artistic types to work together on the same project, and make something that not only comes in on schedule, on budget, but that has an artistic coherence. It’s simply beyond the ability of a single person, a director or a producer, to cause that to happen by any series of direct commands. It’s so complicated that it just can’t be done.The question is: How does it happen?
If you’ve ever remodeled a house, you’ll know how difficult it is even to get four or five carpenters to agree on anything: billions of people have been building houses, for thousands of years—”houseness” should almost be encoded in our DA. And yet when you remodel, it’s very common to go double over budget and schedule.
By comparison, we’ve only been making films for a hundred years, and a film crew is made up of sometimes hundreds of people, yet somehow, miraculously, at the end of “only” a year, there is, one hopes, a wonderful, mysterious, powerful, coherent, two-hour-long vision that has no precedent—and the more original the vision, the more the process is amazing. And yet studios are furious with us if we go ten percent over budget and schedule!
We tend to accept this miracle because we’re right in the middle of it—it seems somehow normal—but I think in the future, hundreds of years from now, people will look back on our period a bit the way we look back at Gothic cathedrals. How did they build those cathedrals, when they didn’t have computers, when they didn’t have engineering knowledge and tools that we have? How did they know exactly how to build those gigantic creations, each more marvelous that the last? It would be a challenge for us today, despite all our power and knowledge, to duplicate Chartres cathedral. And yet it was done with human muscle and, literally, horsepower. How did they dare to dream and then accomplish such a thing? These fantastic buildings seemingly came out of nowhere. Suddenly Gothic architecture was happening all over Europe at the same time. It’s phenomenal what went on, and it’s mysterious to us today how it was actually accomplished. It’s the same with the Egyptian pyramids. I think future generations with powers we can’t even imagine will look back on filmmaking in the twentieth century and say, How did they do all that, back then, with their ridiculously limited resources?**
When I read these words I cannot help but think of how our creativity, our tendency to make things and come up with new forms and new ideas, is one of the times we are closest to God. We are creators because God made us in his image. I do not know if Walter Murch is a Christian in any sense of the word, but look how he uses the words miraculously, miracle, phenomenal, and mysterious. Even though he is deeply in the midst of the creative process, surrounded by the latest editing technologies, by movie scripts and his own notes, he still sees the process as fundamentally miraculous. In other words, though the creative process is evident at some level, it is baffling at another. We do not create out of nothing, yet our creations sometimes strike us as amazing, even staggeringly so. But Murch is also getting at something even more mysterious, that is the process of a group being corporately creative and productive. How is this like God? Arguments from trinitarian theory always seem rather weak to me. Maybe the corporate creativity we see in filmmaking is like a more intentional version of how humans create culture. In that sense it is even more mysterious than we fist suppose. If this is so then our corporate creativity may actually be more of a miracle than even Murch might grant, in that it requires both our freewill intentions and God’s sovereignty working in concert: action and grace intertwined together. This idea makes sense to me, especially given that corporate creativity requires one of the most virtuous of human activities—compromise.
* See my previous post Bergman’s cathedral.
** I changes some words to bold.
The following quote is from the introduction to Four Screenplays of Ingmar Bergman, 1960:
“People ask what are my intentions with my films — my aims. It is a difficult and dangerous question, and I usually give an evasive answer: I try to tell the truth about the human condition, the truth as I see it. This answer seems to satisfy everyone, but it is not quite correct. I prefer to describe what I would like my aim to be.
There is an old story of how the cathedral of Chartres was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. Then thousands of people came from all points of the compass, like a giant procession of ants, and together they began to rebuild the cathedral on its old site. They worked until the building was completed — master builders, artists, labourers, clowns, noblemen, priests, burghers. But they all remained anonymous, and no one knows to this day who built the cathedral of Chartres.
Regardless of my own beliefs and my own doubts, which are unimportant in this connection, it is my opinion that art lost its basic creative drive the moment it was separated from worship. It severed an umbilical cord and now lives its own sterile life, generating and degenerating itself. In former days the artist remained unknown and his work was to the glory of God. He lived and died without being more or less important than other artisans; ‘eternal values,’ ‘immortality’ and ‘masterpiece’ were terms not applicable in his case. The ability to create was a gift. In such a world flourished invulnerable assurance and natural humility.
Today the individual has become the highest form and the greatest bane of artistic creation. The smallest wound or pain of the ego is examined under a microscope as if it were of eternal importance. The artist considers his isolation, his subjectivity, his individualism almost holy. Thus we finally gather in one large pen, where we stand and bleat about our loneliness without listening to each other and without realizing that we are smothering each other to death. The individualists stare into each other’s eyes and yet deny the existence of each other.
We walk in circles, so limited by our own anxieties that we can no longer distinguish between true and false, between the gangster’s whim and the purest ideal.
Thus if I am asked what I would like the general purpose of my films to be, I would reply that I want to be one of the artists in the cathedral on the great plain. I want to make a dragon’s head, an angel, a devil — or perhaps a saint — out of stone. It does not matter which; it is the sense of satisfaction that counts. Regardless of whether I believe or not, whether I am a Christian or not, I would play my part in the collective building of the cathedral.”
Ingmar Bergman was the son of a strict Lutheran pastor. I find it interesting that Bergman longed for the kind of anonymity associated with a Medieval Catholic enterprise (building the cathedral) yet made the kind of individualistic and ego-centric films by which he made for himself a great name—the very opposite of being anonymous. It would seem that his art and legacy is more Lutheran than Catholic, more about the individual’s existential struggle than about the corporate, hierarchical identity (to hazard a gross oversimplification). Bergman, though he walked away from his Christian upbringing at the personal existential level, was nonetheless a child of the Reformation and so was his art—and he longed for the other.
Robert Bresson was a genius and one of the most spiritual of all filmmakers. As a Christian I rejoice when I find works of art that speak to me as though another soul is whispering to my soul, calling me to contemplation, asking for my participation, seeking my redemption. Such it is with the brilliant film Au hasard Balthazar (1966). This film feels to me like Bresson cares about my soul, and yours too. If you have not seen the film from which these images are taken, set aside some time without distractions and treat yourself to one of the greatest works of art of all time.
“…the deeds of a man’s hands will return to him.”
– Proverbs 12:14
42 images of hands from Au hasard Balthazar (1966):
I am posting this from an old, now defunct blog of mine. But I feel there is enough good stuff in it to warrant posting again here. It was originally posted 21 April 2008.
In this post I ruminate on the relationship of art to our belief, or absence of belief, in God, god, or gods. As is typical for me, my train of thought is more lurching than steady, and my end goal is more personal than pedagogical.
I love Pasolini’s seminal film Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (1964). It is a work of great and simple beauty. It is also a powerful film that flies in the face of the overly sentimentalized and often lifeless cinematic versions of Jesus’ life that came before. And yet, Pasolini, though he seems to be taking the story directly from the words on the page (the Gospel of St. Matthew), understands Christ through his own political and personal commitments. In other words, Pasolini, the devout Marxist, unabashed homosexual, and hater of the Catholic Church, saw a Christ that was both thoroughly materialist (philosophically) and politically radical (of the socialist ilk).
As I understand it, for Pasolini, Jesus was a kind of pre-incarnate Karl Marx (rather than the incarnate God) who challenged the status quo of his day, and died as the earliest socialist martyr. Pasolini’s belief in the non-existence of God played a big part in how he saw Jesus and why he made the film. In a sense one could say Il Vangelo secondo Matteo is a kind of materialist corrective to the church’s position.
As I said, I love Pasolini’s film, but he got it wrong. I say this because of my own beliefs about God and about Jesus which, though personal on the one hand, are also objectively true (arguably). My understanding of God is integral to the set of the “lenses” through which I look at the world. In other words, the difference between me and Pasolini is not really about any of his films, rather our differences go back to our presuppositions about God, truth, and the goals of human existence—even if we may agree on many things, and no doubt I am generally in awe of Pasolini as an artist.
Certainly great works of art are not, in our experience, predicated on any particular belief about God. [Though I would argue they could not exist unless God exists.]
The God Who Is There
I have been thinking lately (and off and on for a long time) of the role that theology plays, or does not play, in how one approaches watching a film, looking at a painting, listening to a piece of music, or reading a book. So much of what we get out of a work of art comes from what we are able to bring to it, especially what it is we want from that particular work of art, and of art in general. What we want, I believe, is deeply affected by, and even grows out of, whether or not we are convinced of the existence of God, or god, or many gods, or none at all. So much depends on whether we are convinced of some ultimate meaning in the Universe, or whether we believe there is no ultimate meaning. And so much depends on how honest, even ruthlessly honest, we are with ourselves about these issues and their implications.
I use the word theology specifically. The term “theology” is a compound of two Greek words, θεος (theos: god) and λογος (logos: rational utterance). What I am interested in is a reasoned and rational examination of God, not merely of some vague spirituality (but that’s another presupposition isn’t it). What I find critical is the blunt question: Do you (do I) believe in God? How one answers that question has profound implications across the board.
But the question is already on the table. We have inherited it. We can’t get away from it, just as we can’t get away from a myriad of other questions. And how we live our lives, including the art we make, is directly related to our answer. Art is a part of how we live our lives and, in many ways, emerges from the very heart of the matter. This is as true for Pasolini as it is for Spielberg as it is for Tarantino.
Often a work of art has, embedded within it, the answer to the question. Sometimes that answer is obvious. More often the answer is like backstory, a kind of presupposition that sits in the background and informs the art out front, as it were.
A work of art is, in some ways, a mysterious thing. Like love, we know what art is, but we can’t always nail it down and give it a clear definition and well defined boundaries. Art emerges from deep within our humanness. Every culture and society has organically produced art, that is, art which emerges naturally from within that culture or society. When I was an art history major many years ago I was introduced to many ancient works of art, via slides of course, like this exciting number:
Seated female, Halaf; 7th–6th millennium B.C., Mesopotamia or Syria
Ceramic, paint; H. 5.1 cm, W. 4.5 cm
Metropolitan Museum of Art
This little statuette dates from nearly nine thousand years ago. Most likely it is a symbol of fertility. And most likely it was part of the symbolic rites and proto-religious system of that time. Many thousands of figures like this one have been unearthed. This little object speaks volumes about what was important to that ancient culture, like the importance of fertility to agrarian societies, and the importance of sexuality, and the very human need to supplicate before a god for one’s well-being. It also speaks of the human tendency to create symbols and to understand the world in terms of abstractions.
What I find interesting is how ancient and deeply ingrained is the human need to grasp at metaphysical solutions to the everyday muck of life problems, fears, and desires. I also find it fascinating that humans have to make physical objects that express the metaphysical, the ontological, the teleological, etc.
Even the Israelites, who had seen the ten plagues on Egypt, who had witnessed the parting of the Red Sea, who had the pillar of fire and the pillar of smoke in the wilderness, who had seen the walls of Jericho miraculously fall, and who had seen many other wonders of Yahweh, still created the golden calf, and still kept idols of other gods in their houses, and still built or maintained the high places (religious sites on hilltops to worship gods other than Yahweh). Today we have our idols and gods too—witness the way we worship our sports teams, or entertainers, our possessions, ourselves, for example.
What humans have always seemed to enjoy are stories of moral dilemmas played out in both mundane and fantastical ways. Consider the medieval mystery plays. These were more than merely pedagogical in nature, they were social events that brought people together and incorporated some audience participation, including talking back to the characters during the performance.
I hear that in some movie theaters in other countries (I write from the U.S.) audiences are very vocal and even talk to the screen, as it were, and critique out loud the actions of the characters while the film is playing. Regardless, quiet or vocal, we all seem to gravitate toward the moral. We like passing judgment, we like justice, and, interestingly, we like wickedness too. However, without some kind of absolute from which morality emanates, having a moral opinion is, in final terms, as much comic as it is tragic.
So why do we continue to hold moral positions in a morally relativistic and credulistic world? If I had a clear answer I could probably chair some philosophy or psychology department somewhere. My guess, though, is that we will invent an absolute if we can’t find one. In other words, if one doesn’t believe in moral absolutes, or in something big enough (God for example), then one will invent a substitute absolute, for example: an economic or political system, or a biological and physical set of laws, or maybe an absolute that claims there are no absolutes. Regardless, the moral story still digs deep into our souls.
Even the most mundane and vapid kinds of films have some moral content which can be understood within a larger framework of meaning. Consider this audio review by a pastor at Mars Hill Church in Seattle of the recent film Tranformers.
Only Physical, or Metaphysical?
As I take a look at the popular art of today, that is, television shows (i.e. CSI, Survivor, et al) and film (i.e. Michael Clayton, Enchanted, et al), I see worlds presented that do not include God, or any so-called traditional god, that is, a creator deity with whom our destiny lies. These are materialistic worlds, worlds in which stuff is the ultimate reality, where there is no final truth, and where one can find no source of meaning of life. Interestingly, the goals of the characters are still all about meaning, and soul searching, and truth.
The characters or contestants are driven forward by things or ideas that they deem important. This is basic story telling. This is fundamental script writing. But it doesn’t make sense if there is no final meaning in the universe, otherwise it’s just a cruel game. Why should we care that someone is searching for something that doesn’t exist? Or even if, for some untenable reason, we do care, why should they search? (Why should anyone wait for Godot?) Consider this quote regarding the modern predicament:
The quality of modern life seemed ever equivocal. Spectacular empowerment was countered by a widespread sense of anxious helplessness. Profound moral and aesthetic sensitivity confronted horrific cruelty and waste. The price of technology’s accelerating advance grew ever higher. And in the background of every pleasure and every achievement loomed humanity’s unprecedented vulnerability. Under the West’s direction and impetus, modern man had burst forward and outward, with tremendous centrifugal force, complexity, variety, and speed. And yet it appeared he had driven himself into a terrestrial nightmare and a spiritual wasteland, a fierce constriction, a seemingly irresolvable predicament.~Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind
What most recently sparked my thinking about all this God and art stuff was a recent viewing of Michael Clayton. The story in this film plays itself out in a Western (geographically & conceptually), materialistic world where there is no transcendent god. It is a thoroughly modern view of human existence. There are no moral absolutes. And yet, Clayton is a man in search of himself. He is in desperate need of a positive existential moment. He needs to make a self-defining, self-actualizing choice so that he can move beyond his cliff-edge existence and become who he should be. He needs to make the right choice even if it is difficult and painful, even if it means giving up who he has been. There is nothing narratively original in this aspect of the story. It is as timeless as a Greek tragedy. [Note: Need implies the metaphysical. There is no “need”, no meaningful calling or longing, without transcendence.]
The film’s story revolves around a legal battle in which a company is being sued for its harmful actions. Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) is the attorney working the case. Unfortunately for his law firm and for his client he is deeply troubled by the case. He feels he is defending murder, in a sense. The firm sends Michael Clayton (George Clooney) to talk with Edens. Part of that conversation goes like this:
Michael Clayton: You are the senior litigating partner of one of the largest, most respected law firms in the world. You are a legend.
Arthur Edens: I’m an accomplice!
Michael Clayton: You’re a manic-depressive!
Arthur Edens: I am Shiva, the god of death
Wow. Where did that come from? Shiva, the god of death? It certainly grabs one’s attention, and it sounds rather cool, but why, in this film, out of nowhere make a reference to one of the principle deities of Hinduism? I say “nowhere” because there is no indication throughout the film that any of the characters believe in any kind of god or religion. In fact, it could be argued that the problem facing all the characters is that, because there is no god, no ultimate reality to which they are finally accountable, they are lost in a sea of moral floundering. Morality becomes personal preference, personal conviction, and power.
Making a reference to Shiva, the destroyer and transformer Hindu god, makes some sense then. First, Edens feels like a destroyer, or at least one who defends the destroyer. He has personal convictions of wrongdoing and it is eating away his soul. Second, in a world personal morality one can choose, as one needs or sees fit, any god that works for the moment, so why not Shiva? Shiva becomes Eden’s god of choice because the concept of Shiva explains his convictions somehow. Shiva is his self-image for the moment. Tomorrow it might be a different god. Maybe Vishnu or Brahma. Or maybe a Sumerian god.
Interestingly the reference to Shiva comes up again. Once Clayton confronts Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) with the fact that he has carried out Eden’s plan to expose the company, we get this bit of dialog:
Karen Crowder: You don’t want the money?
Michael Clayton: Keep the money. You’ll need it.
Don Jefferies: Is this fellow bothering you?
Michael Clayton: Am I bothering you?
Don Jefferies: Karen, I’ve got a board waiting in there. What the hell’s going on? Who are you?
Michael Clayton: I’m Shiva, the God of death.
Again it’s Shiva, the god of death, and this time the line is used as a final punctuation to the film’s climax. However, unlike Eden, Clayton uses the line more for its effect on Crowder and Jefferies than from a sense of personal identification. What might that effect be? Within the context of the film, and within the context of a largely non-Hindu society, this line comes as a kind of shock, a non-sequitur of sorts, that specifically draws attention to itself. I imagine the filmmakers intend the line to read something like “I am the fictional, mythological god Shiva (in a metaphorical sense of course) who is bringing about a kind of death to you, a death that you are powerless to avoid.” In other words, we are not to assume that the filmmakers or the characters actually believe in the existence of Shiva, rather the idea of Shiva is appropriated in order to convey something meaningful. It becomes a “helpful myth” to underscore the moment. [Note: Many materialists see all religion this way. Religion is the “helpful myth” of choice for the individual in the moment—but no more.]
To the person who does not believe in Shiva, such a line might merely have a kind of cool factor, like an ironic t-shirt. To a devout Hindu this line might be somewhat disconcerting —I don’t know because I am not a Hindu. What is interesting is that none of the characters have made an actual conversion to any religion, or even gone through any particularly religious experience. Edens has had mental breakdown because of deep moral tensions. Clayton has crossed over into a personally powerful existential decision. But neither have obviously embraced Hinduism. (If I missed something, let me know.)
Interestingly, the narrative arc of Michael Clayton follows a traditional Western style morality tale. And yet, one could say the characters, who do not overtly believe in any god, still wrestle with issues that derive their moral content from a Judeo-Christian heritage, and then, ironically, symbolically claim a Hindu god as justification for their actions. I find this both puzzling and not surprising. It is exemplary of the pluralistic/post-modern society that I live in.
In the film’s final shot we see Clayton riding alone in the back of a taxi. It is a meditative shot. He does not look happy or fulfilled; it reminds me of the last shot in The Graduate (1967). Maybe he is, but his countenance is rather sullen. Has he saved himself by his actions? Has he found redemption for who he was? How can he be sure he has actually changed as a person? None of these questions are answered. One could say that finally he made the right decision after a life of bad ones, and that is good. Although on what basis can we judge? But one could say that he still has not solved the deeper question of his existence. After all that his life is meaningless and he will eventually die. The film offers no hope. It cannot based on its presuppositions.
The radical truth is that in a world without a God that stands as an ultimate source of meaning, then any decision made by Clayton cannot have any meaning. His final decision, though it may resonate powerfully within us the viewers, doesn’t really matter, no matter how personally, existentially transforming it may be for him. At best one can say he made his decision, so what. Any decision would have had the same value. But, of course, we know deep down that can’t be true. We live knowing there is right and wrong, and what we believe we believe to be true. Because of those beliefs the film succeeds as a kind of cheat. We let it work, we fill it with meaning, though it does not deserve such grace.
Crimes and Misdemeanors
Consider the film Crimes and Misdemeanors, Woody Allen’s brilliant 1989 film about morality, choice, and justice. In this film Allen explores how morality flows from where one begins, that is, from the set of presuppositions one claims about God, the universe, our existence, meaning, etc. He also seriously toys with our expectations (our need) for justice to win out.
The film is also very much about the existence, or non-existence, of God, and what that means. I love this quote from Judah Rosenthal:
I remember my father telling me, “The eyes of God are on us always.” The eyes of God. What a phrase to a young boy. What were God’s eyes like? Unimaginably penetrating, intense eyes, I assumed. And I wonder if it was just a coincidence I made my specialty ophthalmology.
There is something both sinister and humorous about it. It also represents our modern tendency to analyze ourselves and mistrust our motives.
But there is so much more to consider in this quote and in this film. The following three part video analysis by Anton Scamvougeras is an excellent overview of the film’s themes. If you have not seen the film, then don’t watch these clips yet; first go watch the film!
When I first saw Crimes and Misdemeanors I was both stunned and thrilled. At the end I thought “perfect”, that’s how it should end, with him getting away with murder, not because I wanted him to, but because I so expected him to get caught and I liked the irony. Allen turns everything on it head and gets us to think. Thinking is a good thing, especially about truth and morality.
Our view of God has a great deal to do with how we understand and appreciate Crimes and Misdemeanors. If there is no God are the characters and their actions meaningless? Is our desire for justice merely a temporary chemical reaction to a situation that emerged from the chance combination of sub-atomic particles? Or do we live as though our desire comes from someplace more profound?
[Side note: In Star Wars, when the Death Star blows up the planet Alderaan, do we merely observe the rearranging of material particles (something of ultimate inconsequence), or do we assume that blowing up a planet and its inhabitants is an act of evil? Get over it old man Kenobi, you moralist! That was no tremor in the force. Probably just gas.]
I am convinced there is no such thing as a story without some moral content. Either a series of events are purely a-moral, an arbitrary grouping of cause and effect acts without meaning, or they are, in some way, the result of decisions. If decisions are involved then those actions have meaning and therefore have a moral dimension. I see narrative as being fundamentally the result of decisions and therefore fundamentally moral.
But as soon as we make a moral claim we assume an absolute. We might say our claim is purely cultural or situational or merely a personal decision, but we don’t really live that way, we don’t really believe it. When we say war is wrong, or rape is wrong, or Nazi death camps are wrong, we assume a universal. We know they are wrong. And if we claim universals then what is our foundation? This is the very point at which our belief or non-belief in God, god, or gods, has the most gravity. This is also a good time to go and re-read C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity.
Woody Allen leaves the question open in Crimes and Misdemeanors, but he is relying on the fact that we cannot. He creates in us a tension, and something to talk about. Michael Clayton leaves us somewhat satisfied, yet under its surface there is no final meaning, its only opinion. What is great about both of these films is how they tap into the very human predicament of having to sort out the deep questions of how we are to live our lives and upon what are we going to base our choices.
I can be in awe of an artist even though our beliefs about God may differ. What we have is a common humanity, which is a truly profound, fundamental connection. Even so, it is worth calling out our differences as well, not for the sake of creating divisions, but of understanding each other and seeking the truth. For we are, by nature, truth seekers. But then that’s another universal I am claiming.