Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Tao of Film: Pure Cinema and The Christian Aesthetic Part 2



"When we accede to being moved by logic or by love, the feeling with which we do so is not ordinarily one of dispirited impotence. On the contrary, we characteristically experience in both cases - whether we are following reason or following our hearts - a sense of liberation and of enhancement. What accounts for this experience? It appears to have its source in the fact that when a person is responding to a perception of something as rational or as beloved, his relationship to it tends towards selflessness. His attention is not merely concentrated upon the object; it is somehow fixed or seized by the object. The object captivates him. He is guided by its characteristics rather than primarily by his own. Quite commonly, he feels that he is overcome - that his own direction of his thoughts and volitions has been superseded. How are we to understand the paradox that a person may be enhanced and liberated through being seized, made captive, and overcome? Why is it that we find ourselves to be most fully realized, and consider that we are at our best, when - through reason or through love - we have lost or escaped from ourselves?"-Harry G. Frankfurt

This comes from Frankfurt's thoughtful work The Importance of What We Care About. In trying to explore the value of an art form like film we must always been aware that this is what we are: creatures who care about things. We care about things because they move us beyond ourselves. As persons we desire relation. We desire to connect, to feel, to understand, to touch and to be touched. When we watch a film this is what we are experiencing. We are experiencing this desire to relate. 

When God created Mankind he made us in his image. He took Himself and made an image of Himself. An image bears likeness, it has many similarities but of course it is not the original. It is an image. Pick up a photograph. Turn it around. Is it three dimensional? Does it capture the smells of the moment depicted? It does maintain the colors (unless it is black and white, in which case it only bears the tones or shades). And it also bears the likeness of the things being depicted. But it is quite literally 1 dimensional. Now look at the room around you. You can touch, smell, taste, and experience so much more about this room than you can experience by looking at the photograph. The comparison of these two experiences is a poor analogy for what the differences between man and God must be like. 

We are the photograph and God is the entire universe! But in all of scripture nothing else is said to have been made in God's image. Just ourselves. We are a special representation of what He is like. So what we are like He is like. What we care about He cares about. Of course there is the problem of sin. It has disorganized, killed, and maimed our nature to a point where in some people God does seem to be visible at all. But where the image shines through I believe we can and do see it, and see it clearly. And one of those places is in the arts. Humans have always had a desire to create. And we should not find this strange or perplexing, because if we were created by God in His image then why wouldn't we want to create as well. God created. God created all sorts of things. Colors, stars, dinosaurs, volcanoes, rainbows, snow, the cosmological constants, language, Richard Dawkins, DNA, jellyfish, hair, and humans. Since God created all these things we would assume that man, having been made to bear his image, would reflect whatever qualities we can.

One of those qualities is obviously to create. To create all kinds of things. But part of the creation process should be to reflect ourselves. God reflected Himself by creating us. Wouldn't we also do the same? Deeply looking at the things that we care about, the things that we create, the things that entertain us, and even the things that make us laugh is like looking at another smaller reflection of God. It's like taking a piece of that original photograph and trying to understand just one object, and hopefully by understanding that one object we can better understand the whole. Studying film is like studying little pieces of God, or at the very least what God cares about. Of course not all art and not all films do in fact reflect anything about God. If we really believe that sin has been devastatingly pervasive all through human nature, then some of these little reflections are in fact reflections of sin and not God. But in order to understand the problem we are dealing with, in order to understand the human condition and how far from God we really have traveled even these pieces need to be examined. Not by everyone. And not all the time. God wants different people to do and care about different things. But God has made some of us with such a deep love and passion for things like film that we simply cannot ignore the way it pulls at our heart strings. I am one of those people. I don't know when it happened, or why, but cinema has gripped my heart. Because in the arts I see the reflection of God's image again and again. I see the depth of the human soul and the deep tragedy of the human condition. I see myself and what I care about. 

Great art has always been and always will be just like this. When we as humans endeavor to describe the world with colors, poetry, words, and images we are reflecting our hearts, whether they be full of darkness or full of light. The Christian Aesthetic seeks to value this honesty. The Christian system of value has always been one that looks for the good, the true, and the beautiful. The Good and the Beautiful are usually the easiest for us to find. But sometimes the true, is more illusive, or in fact harder to enjoy. How many people can say that they truly enjoyed Schindler's List? Probably not many. There are things about it that we can enjoy but the truth it portrays is so shocking and so disturbing that for much of the film the proper response can only be sorrow. Deep regretful sorrow.

But how different is this from the Old Testament? Or even the great persecutions of the early church? Or even the crucifixion of our Lord? I have stated that the Christian Aesthetic is Philippians 4:8. We are given numerous things here that the Lord wants us to meditate on. But how many of these adjectives can be used to describe the Old Testament? But doesn't God also want us to meditate on all the scriptures? Meditating on the life of King David or his son King Solomon much of what you find is not honorable or praiseworthy? In some ways it is very reminiscent of Coppola's Godfather films. Two men who have so much going for them and yet somehow they manage to screw up their lives in many ways. But this is something God wants us to meditate on. God wants us to see our frailty, and our need for Him.

This brings me back to the Fundies and Libbies. I love my Grandma Gleason very much. I have grown in my love and respect for her over the years as I've come to see her devotion to my family, my Grandfather even after his passing, the church, and most importantly to God. But she buys these films from a company called Feature Films for Families. That was what we watched whenever we went to her home. Which is fine. It is her home after all. And some of the films weren't bad. But something that they did far too often was poorly integrate positive values in the story lines. The values weren't drawn out of the narrative but were placed there to make a point. This is a great example of how Fundies view art and film in particular. It must be positive. It must be optimistic. Even the villains in many of these stories barely qualified as "bad" guys. My father lent her Remember the Titans, one of the cleanest most positive films to come out of Hollywood in decades, but my Grandmother shut if off after the first few minutes. Why? Because she thought that the violence at the beginning of the film was "terrible." I am not mocking my Grandmother. Somehow that piece of storytelling violated her conscious. And if it really disturbed her that badly then I'm glad she is principled enough to do what she thought was right and turn off the movie. I'm not preaching to my Grandmother. She is who she is, and it doesn't bother me that she wasn't able to watch Remember the Titans. But I am afraid for the next generation of filmmakers who are going to end up making more Fireproofs, Left Behinds, Omega Codes, Facing the Giants, etc. We can be Christians and appreciate and make truly great films. If you're going to make films you need to immerse yourself in this world and see what it truly has to offer. And the same thing goes for Christians who really love movies. I am not saying don't be discerning, but I'm also saying don't be overly cautious. You'd be surprised where you'll find the good, the true, and the beautiful.

But at the same time we can't simply give way to the Libbies. Film is like anything else. If we are going to bring it into our lives we need to evaluate it and treat it as if it matters. We can't simply compartmentalize it, saying our theology and our cinema never mix. They can and should. Remember the scriptures are full of darkness, but we have to accurately understand both the darkness and the light. Film can help us do this. It can show us the power of redemption and damnation. But if we treat movies as if they don't matter the darkness in them will distort and eat away at us instead of helping us to understand ourselves and God. And the light may give us false hope about our own abilities if not properly understood. 

I will continue to work out the Tao of Film soon.

Further Reading:
Francis Schaeffer's Trilogy: The God Who is There, Escape from Reason, He is There and He is Not Silent     

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