Friday, March 5, 2010

Lights, Camera, Contemplation

Last post, I wrote about Maddie's fascination with Disney's The Lion King, which concerns me on several levels.

That's because movies have real power, some of the greatest power our culture wields. They can provide us (and so often do) with inherently evil targets for our latent inner violence, allowing us to enjoy without guilt the suffering and death visited on "deserving" irredeemable villains (this is where film's ability to conjure aliens comes in handy). But they can also help to break us open, at least at our crusty surface (sorry, just watched 2012). And on the spiritual journey, we must of course be broken open -- despite the ego's best efforts to combat the process -- again and again.

So I was interested to find a story online yesterday courtesy of "Arts & Faith" listing the "Arts & Faith Top 100 Films:" I was further interested to note that I have only seen five of them: Andrei Rublev, A Man for All Seasons, The Apostle, It's a Wonderful Life, and Chariots of Fire. It's possible I've seen one or two others, but if I have I don't remember, which tells you a great deal right there.

Though I thoroughly enjoyed all five, including the Christmas fruitcake that is the ever-circulating It's a Wonderful Life, I don't recall any of them really bowling me over. Perhaps that's because I simply wasn't in the right place in my life to be bowled. Perhaps it's also because Andrei Rublev moves at the pace of a lazy glacier, and Thomas More comes off rather better in A Man for All Seasons than under a less hazy, historical lens.

So having pondered the "Arts & Faith 100," I've decided to list a few films that didn't make the "100" that made an impact on me when I first saw them. This doesn't mean they were great films, but that I was in the right place to get something from them. This is, after all, the way movies tend to move us, regardless of whether or not we can also appreciate them as worthy and enduring works. I am therefore providing the list with full awareness that your list is probably different, as may be your personal take on the movies I have chosen to mention. But I found the effort to consider and create it an interesting undertaking, and maybe you'll be inclined to do the same.

In no particular order:

St. Francis is without compromise, willing to descend to the very cellar of society in order to grow closer to - and into - God. If you've ever been at a place in your life where you've wrestled with the thought that maybe you should simply walk out the door with only the clothes on your back to follow Jesus then you know where I was when I watched this film. Utter renunciation always has immense power. It's always out there as the ultimate option, the path that goes through the eye of the needle without so much as brushing the edges. But it can also lead to mental illness if you're uninvited and unprepared (as I was), and God won't try to stop you. Utter renunciation will have to happen sooner or later anyway, so why be precipitous. Still think about it sometimes, though ... thanks, Francesco.

The Mission
The power in the film for me was partly visual, partly the way in which historical situations force existential choices. One of those choices has to do with with non-violence as a personal spiritual path. But mostly I dug the visuals.

Black Robe
I actually liked this movie better than The Mission (where would the intellectual religious film world be if not for the Jesuits?) It is flawed in its portrayal of indigenous peoples, but I wasn't equipped to recognize it at the time. But the clash of cultures in the film at least inspired me to try to equip myself. Culture clash is often a good place to start in examining one's own perspective.

The Fisher King
Another film whose power for me derives from the way in which the main character comes to see the world, and himself, from the bottom up. At the time, it also provided a haunting image of a whole alternative society that exists unseen, or at least ignored, across America - rural, urban, and in-between. I think marginalized people exert a certain fascination for some non-marginalized folks - a parallel universe of meaning and activity in which they're unprepared to function. I think that was part of the movie's pull for me. Having spent time acquainting myself with the margins, I'm no longer fascinated, but I'm a lot more educated. And my own middle-classness, whiteness, and maleness have been silhouetted in the process.

Dead Man Walking
Another uncompromising view, with the force that only an uncompromising view can generate. Either every human life has inherent value, and killing is wrong. Or not. And there's no attempt at making the question palatable.

C.S. Lewis gave me permission to re-explore my jettisoned Christian upbringing by showing me that it is possible to be both a thinking, appropriately skeptical person and a person of faith.

Oscar Romero didn't need to go looking for trouble -- it found him in his historical moment. (See, this is why you don't necessarily need to walk out the door with only the close on your back to follow Jesus.) His response brings to mind Hemingway's famous phrase "grace under pressure," right up to his martyrdom. The countless people who only respect and recognize cruder forms of power will always underestimate someone with Romero's quiet courage and latent self-confidence.

Natural Born Killers
Rightly or wrongly, I felt the violence of this movie was trying to make a point. It did make me physically ill at the same time. But if the violence of this film is "excessive," then what's the appropriate amount? How much violence should we be able to sit calmly through while munching our popcorn? How much - and what type - of violence qualifies as "entertaining?" At least I was prompted to ask those questions, if no one else was. And when Woody Harrelson's character says that "only love can kill the demon," I thought that was as succinct an expression of the gospel as I've come across. How ironic that it came from the "evil" character. Of course, that line can also be dismissed as unrealistic, simplistic, naive nonsense. The gospel usually is.

While writing about Black Robe I thought about Disney's Pocohantas. They're not remotely similar films in any discernible way, except that they're both about, or have as subject matter, the indigenous peoples of North America. Both get some things right, but other things wrong. Both tell the story from one perspective while omitting others. Both are intended to push emotional buttons in the interest of entertainment.

But you can't easily eliminate Disney from the equation either (fought that battle: lost). So when possible, I've been discussing the movies Maddie watches while watching them with her. Not all the time, but hopefully enough for her not to grow up a passive, accepting consumer of every sugary treat the media, and indeed the wider culture, concocts. I realized just how important this is when Maddie asked me if someone we'd recently encountered was a "bad man" because he wasn't smiling and that's how the bad people look on TV. Like it or not, that's the power movies can have.

- monk about town

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