Sister Rose Pacatte writes for the National Catholic Reporter. In her recent article Seeds of the Gospel in Cinema she talks about cinema divina - a practice of watching film as a spiritual discipline, derived from lectio divina. She mentions Father Benedict Auer's article "Video Divina: A Benedictine Approach to Spiritual Viewing," in which he writes "Video divina requires a set disposition which says, 'This evening, I wish to get closer to God, so I think I'm going to watch this film, which might give me better insights into myself or why my neighbor acts as she or he does.'"
I'm quite in tune with this idea, though it has its risks. If you enter into a story "looking for the message," or intending to distill some simple moral lesson, you're really not engaging with the film on its own terms. Playwrights say "If you want to send a message, use Western Union," and the desire to boil a story down to a handy tip for living or a high school English paper theme statement, you're missing the rich experience of actually engaging with the piece as a narrative, a world to inhabit, a work of art (or at least craftsmanship). The story - indeed, the performances, the design, the film's rhythms and music and cinematic aesthetic - are not just the pretty wrapping paper to be discarded to get to the good part, the message. They are very much the good part, the thing itself, and whatever a film (or play, or novel) may mean is entirely embodied in those particularities. A good story doesn't say just one thing: it layers meanings and perspectives and contradictions and ideas, choices and consequences, all the complexities of actual life intensified and shaped by the artists involved.
Even Jesus' parables are not quasi-Aesop fables with readily distilled bits of moral advice. I quote it too often, but theologian C.H. Dodd's definition is right on the money:
"A parable is a metaphor or simile
drawn from nature or common life,
arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness,
and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application
to tease it into active thought."
(The Parables of the Kingdom, 1961).
Fables have little tag-lines that provide the take-away bit of advice: parables are more about what happens in us as we wrestle with their peculiar, not-quite-fathomable story reversals, characters, consequences. While movies, films, plays aren't exactly parables, they're a lot closer to Jesus' stories than Aesop's.
But with that in mind, I still find myself onside with this idea of cinema divino. So long as we acknowledge that the texts of the cinema are no less mysterious than the texts of the lectio, or scripture. While I understand that film criticism isn't about "criticizing" a film in the vernacular sense, that vernacular sense matters to me, and I would always rather frame my movie watching and writing as film appreciation. "Appreciate" signalling both celebrating the value of a thing, and also enhancing the value of a thing. Our culture is full of glib and dismissive consumer evaluations: how we pride ourselves on our ability to see the flaws in a thing and enumerate them. It is lazy and mean and narcissistic, putting the critic and his tastes at the centre of the interaction rather than the creation itself. There is no humility, no acknowledgment that perhaps a particular film doesn't appeal to us because we aren't up to it. How ready we are to dismiss a film as boring, failing to recognize that it may be we who are bored, and the failing is ours, not the film's. Such dismissiveness reminds me of the schoolyard bully, as if putting someone or something down puts yourself up.
I think there is value in approaching art - including even the movies! - with humility, submitting yourself to the story, suspending your judgments along with your disbelief (the two are related, and neither is honourable) for at least the duration of the film. I think of the chastened Ebenezer Scrooge, his former arrogance dissolved by the sobering vision of his own life offered by the Ghost of Christmas Past, standing before the second of the Ghosts and saying "Tonight, if you have aught to teach me, let me profit by it." We do well, when confronted with such visions, to obey when they say "Touch my robe!" and hold fast.
Again, the analogy isn't exact. The Ghosts of Christmas came to Scrooge specifically to teach him a lesson: few artists set out to do precisely that. When we approach a work of art, it's a mistake to think we ought to be on the lookout for Handy Tips For Living. But I sincerely believe our posture should be the same as Ebenezer's, the same as we bring to scripture. The same that an actor brings to a role he plays: I don't stand in judgment on the character I'm seeking to embody, I don't distance myself from the work by critiquing the playwriting, I give myself over to it, I enter in. I ought to bring to the viewing of a story the same discipline I bring to the acting of a story: and if I'm not in the centre of the role, that's not the character's fault, that's my own.
This is not to say that all films are good films, or that we should set aside any sort of aesthetic (or, I suppose, moral) discernment whatsoever: but perhaps some of that critical judgment can at least be suspended for the duration of the experience. One cannot strive to become a better artist without coming to discern between what is true and excellent, and what is not: the same wisdom grows as we watch more films, and watch them better. Still, if we enter a film armed and buttressed with our sophistication, expectations and ready judgment, we're unlikely to encounter the film in any meaningful way. Jadedness and cynicism are the occupational hazards of the film critic, and the danger in over-exposure to too many films (especially films one sees only out of obligation) is that we blunt our capacity to meet the film on its own terms, unfiltered by preconceptions or hasty judgment.
The watching of films, the viewing of any kind of art, is an art in itself, a discipline, as demanding as the creation of the work in the first place. If I fail to appreciate a film, it's entirely possible that I have in fact failed. As much as I strive to bring my best game to every rehearsal, every performance of a show I'm acting in, humility and truthfulness require me to admit that not every kick at it is perfection. Not every trip to the plate yields a home run, or even a single. Not to own that as an athlete or an artist is to settle for mediocrity. I wonder if we don't often settle for mediocrity in our movie-going?
Think about how a child drinks in a story. "Except you become as little children, you shall not enter the Kingdom of God."
I suggest entering into a film like a child, hungry for a story, a dream, images, clues about how the world works, excitement, terror, experience, beauty - whatever the film is going to offer. And when the film ends, before beginning the critique, weighing strengths and weaknesses, begin by simply calling back to mind all the film's details. What did you see, hear, experience? A plot reversal, the image of a beautiful face, recurring references to roses or food or The Hardy Boys, empathy with a character's situation. Then move on to what you notice: the way the sea imagery seemed to coincide with moments when the character altered his course of action, or the way the story seems to be about the same sort of things that this screenwriter's other movie is, or the fact that your attention was especially engaged when a particular character was onscreen. Then maybe move to what those things might add up to, what they might signify. Reserving for last all the weighing and assessing, the judgments of how the film may have fallen short or why it's not as good as another film you've seen. In our know-it-all, "please me" consumerist culture of criticism, those muscles are overdeveloped already: exercise the under-utilized muscles of close observation, correlation, appreciation and contemplation before flexing your impressive critical pecs. And when you move into that final phase, maybe a spirit of discernment rather than judgment?
The fact is, God often speaks to me through films. Even flawed films. Sometimes I suppose I do go away with an action step toward self-improvement, but that's not mostly what I'm talking about. A film may cause me to question my preconceptions. It may stir my compassion. It may impart wisdom, show me how the world looks from somebody else's angle, confront me with the consequences of choices or actions. It may simply expose me to beauty, to wonder, to awe, to terror, to the extremes of human experience that might subtly transform me, potentially enrich or deepen me, the way those experiences themselves might if they happened to me. A story might force me to face realities I would rather ignore, it might subject me to horrors I haven't been unlucky enough to live, it might or might not provide wisdom to deal with those darknesses. But if it doesn't, perhaps God, or my neighbour, or some other lectio might.
The storyteller takes life and compresses it, boils it down to some essence, and offers it up to us. A film can be life intensified, an examination of the sequence of desires and choices and actions and consequences rendered visible and potent. Because in fact, that's what the screenwriter's or playwright's craft consists of: the telling of a story. Where intention leads to consequence. Where what we want leads to what we do, which leads to What Happens Next.David Mamet:
"Each time we try to subordinate all we do to the necessity of bringing to life simply and completely the intention of the play, we give the audience an experience which enlightens and frees them. In a morally bankrupt time we can help to change the habit of coercive and frightened action and substitute for it the habit of trust, self-reliance and co-operation.... not by preaching about it, but by creating it each night in front of the audience - by showing how it works." (Writing In Restaurants)Yet still, that assertion requires a corollary. David Mamet, being a prophet (and a crank - the two are often indistinguishable) overstates any point he makes. The potential moralism of that impulse in Mamet has to be held in balance, or in tension, with his other assertion, that
"The theatre is an expression of our dream life. The theatrical artist serves the same function in society that dreams do in the subconscious life of the individual. In dreams we do not seek answers which our conscious (rational) mind is capable of supplying, we seek answers to those questions which the conscious mind is incompetent to deal with. If the question posed is one which can be answered rationally, e.g.: how does one fix a car, should white people be nice to black people, are the physically handicapped entitled to our respect, our enjoyment of the drama is incomplete. Only if the question posed is one whose complexity and depth renders it unsusciptible to rational examination does the dramatic treatment seem to us appropriate, and the dramatic solution become enlightening." (Writing In Restaurants)In separate essays in that same volume, Mamet lays out the two poles of the dialectic: narrative as something like moral patterning, and theatre as dream, as vision, as Mystery.
Which brings me back to the Catholics, and their various divina. At the risk of setting up a false dichotomy, it might be said that the risk inherent in the practise of cinema divina would be to approach it as the caricature of a Protestant, looking to extract rationalist moral nuggets with clear life applications. Though of course there are moralistic, pr at least unsophisticated Catholics who would be that reductive, and robust Protestants like C.H. Dodd or Robert Farrar Capon or your neighbour Bert who would know better. Who would approach the Mystery with humility and imagination and the disciplined wonder of a child. And would come away wiser, if not necessarily smarter.
Well. That was a long walk down a side road, wasn't it? When all I really set out to do was give you a list. Of the films that Sister Rose and her friends have found fruitful for their practise of cinema divino (which is described in detail in the article). I was also going to mention the National Film Retreat, described in the NCR article, and the fact that I've often fancied offering such retreats myself. Can you image, a Soul Food Movies weekend? Cool.
But back to the point. Here are a pile of movies recommended by Sister Rose and the Daughters of St. Paul. (Sounds like a sixties girl group, don't you think? Maybe not.) With my own occasional editorial comments.
Adam's Apples (good pick!)
The Lives Of Others (yup)
The End of the Spear (a little on the nose for me. But look at me judging, eh?)
Gran Torino (primitive tyro screenplay, but glorious premise)
The Diary of Anne Frank
The Diving Bell and The Butterfly (cinema as dream)
Three Colours: Blue (more Mystery)
The Secret Life Of Bees
The Soloist (veers toward maudlin, but its heart is in the right place)
Julie & Julia
Where The Wild Things Are (Amen! and anything but moralistic/proscriptive)
The Wrestler and Crazy Heart (the first far more rigorous than the second: swap Tender Mercies for Crazy Heart)
Children Of Heaven
Life As A House (a bit by-the-book, perhaps, but I found it very moving)
Changing Lanes (another favourite of mine)
And, in spite of the fact that this massive thesis proposal is already fifteen times too long for a blog post, I'll leave you with these anecdotes from Sister Rose's article about my beloved Joe Vs. The Volcano...
A few years ago someone at a retreat brought up the John Patrick Shanley film Joe Versus the Volcano. She loved the quirky story, but the retreat director vehemently disagreed. It is the story of a world-weary man (played by Tom Hanks) who is a hypochondriac. An exasperated doctor finally tells him he has a brain cloud, that it was terminal, and that all he could do was live the rest of his life to the fullest. The man ends up dancing on the rim of a volcano with the love of his life.
Some time later I was speaking at a religious education convention and told this story about how people can interpret films very differently. A young woman shared that for her and her husband, Joe Versus the Volcano was their favorite movie. She explained that when her husband was 9 years old, he tried to kill himself. He got help. A couple of years later he and his mother went to see this film together. As they came out, he turned to her and said, “See, Mom? That was me. I had a brain cloud. And I don’t have to die.”
I don't know what theological bug the retreat director had up his butt, but as for me, I'm with the kid. "Except you become as a little child..."