Saturday, October 30, 2010

cinema divina

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)
The Visitor
Goodbye Solo
Erin Brockovich
Children Of Heaven
Bagdad Cafe
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..."


Sunday, October 24, 2010

oct 31 | psycho | cineplex classic film series

Psycho (1960)
"Check in. Relax. Take a shower."
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles
Plot: A young woman steals $40,000 from her employer's client, and subsequently encounters a young motel proprietor too long under the domination of his mother. Still terrifying after all these years!

Wednesday, October 13, 7:00pm
Sunday, October 31, 1:00pm

Presented in 2K Digital. All tickets five dollars. SilverCity Riverport, SilverCity Coquitlam, Colossus Langley, Scotiabank Theatre. The Classic Film Series presents one great title each month on the big screen from September 2010 to August 2011: details here.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

netflix & procrastination

The essence of procrastination lies in not doing what you think you should be doing, a mental contortion that surely accounts for the great psychic toll the habit takes on people. This is the perplexing thing about procrastination: although it seems to involve avoiding unpleasant tasks, indulging in it generally doesn’t make people happy. . . .

Most of the contributors to the new book (“The Thief Of Time,” ed. Chrisoula Andreou and Mark D. White) agree that this peculiar irrationality stems from our relationship to time – in particular, from a tendency that economists call “hyperbolic discounting.” . . . Hyperbolic discounters are able to make the rational choice when they’re thinking about the future, but, as the present gets closer, short-term considerations overwhelm their long-term goals.

A similar phenomenon is at work in an experiment run by a group including the economist George Loewenstein, in which people were asked to pick one movie to watch that night and one to watch at a later date. Not surprisingly, for the movie they wanted to watch immediately, people tended to pick lowbrow comedies and blockbusters, but when asked what movie they wanted to watch later they were more likely to pick serious, important films. The problem, of course, is that when the time comes to watch the serious movie, another frothy one will often seem more appealing. This is why Netflix queues are filled with movies that never get watched: our responsible selves put Hotel Rwanda and The Seventh Seal in our queue, but when the time comes we end up in front of a rerun of The Hangover.

The lesson of these experiments is not that people are shortsighted or shallow but that their preferences aren’t consistent over time. We want to watch the Bergman masterpiece, to give ourselves enough time to write the report properly, to set aside money for retirement. But our desires shift as the long run becomes the short run.

from Later: What does procrastination tell us about ourselves?
by James Surowiecki
The New Yorker, October 11 2010
One might posit that the length of time Syndromes And A Century has sat on the shelf is directly proportionate to how much we consider the Apichatpong Weerasethakul flick a responsibility, something one should be doing, an unpleasant task. However unconsciously.

Busted. By their queues shall ye know them.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Watching for... THE PORTUGUESE NUN

Faith, Film, and Lots of Fado in The Portuguese Nun
by Nick Pinkerton
The Village Voice, Oct 20 2010

A French actress, Julie de Hauranne (Leonor Baldaque), arrives in Lisbon to shoot a 17th-century costume drama. She’ll star in an arty adaptation of the Lettres Portuguese, a pathetic epistolary monologue addressed from a Portuguese nun to the French officer who seduced and abandoned her.

The sensation of 1669, the letters are today identified as the invention of French pol Gabriel de Guilleragues. They’re only briefly heard from in The Portuguese Nun, but the paradox of their counterfeit origins and emotional verity are very much in line with the film and its dissolving dialectics between loves profane and sacred, self-service and spiritual charity, secular display and religious interiority, actress and nun. . . .

With much downtime from Verde’s set, Julie — Portuguese on her mother’s side and familiar with the language, but little else — explores. Her walking tour takes her through sloped streets and empty stairwells—Lisbon often seems uninhabited, in perpetual siesta. The camera detaches gently, moving with Julie, then past her, digressing to get lost in the feet of passers-by and surveying vistas in metronymic pans. An overture of limping Fado, Portugal’s dolorous national folk music, sets the pace and infuses the atmosphere. Julie is lured into an obscure cantina by the shivering strum of a Portuguese guitar, transfixed by a fadista and his band. His song is translated and subtitled, but the mournful meaning would be clear without. How long has the band been here, dressed in album-cover impeccability, waiting to be seen? The musicians are apparitions as out-of-time and unlikely as the candelabra-carrying aristocrat (Diogo Dória) Julie will befriend. Another contradiction: Green greets these Old Europe phantoms with both poker-faced irony and real reverence.

Julie also takes in a show at the Chapel of Nossa Senhora do Monte, near her hotel, where she returns night after night to watch a young nun (Ana Moreira) performing her steadfast vigil of prayer. The eventual exchange between these two actress-nuns is the film’s spiritual capstone.

Green has explained his cinematographic project with winning immodesty: “I would like to re-enchant the world.” Here, re-enchantment comes in witnessing Julie’s discovery of self in the act of discovering an unfamiliar city through its music, living faith, and genteel poverty....

A chafing awareness of art-film ghettoization runs through Nun. “The film is . . . unconventional,” Julie explains to her make-up lady, who translates: “Boring, you mean.” Green deals in essential, universal emotions — but in a cinematic vocabulary alienating to most of his potential public. As French playwright Jacques Audiberti said: “The most obscure poem is addressed to everybody.” The name of Portugal’s King Sebastian I, who disappeared on a quixotic crusade at the head of a ridiculously undersized army, recurs in the film. Perhaps Green sees a kindred spirit.

Friday, October 15, 2010

fall picks from telluride | joe morgenstern

Joe Morgenstern is the Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic of the Wall Street Journal, and his weekly podcast for NPR station KCRW is one of my favourites. Here are a couple films I'm eager to see since hearing Joe rave...
Every year I go to the Telluride Film Festival with the same fervent hope: to put the summer’s junk behind me and recharge my enthusiasm for the fall and winter. This year I got super-charged. It was a wonderful program with all sorts of treats that will be showing up in the weeks and months to come.

The hands-down standout was a film called The King’s Speech, with a magnificent performance by Colin Firth as King George VI, the father of the current Queen Elizabeth, and beautifully comic counterpoint by Geoffrey Rush as an irreverent Australian speech therapist who treats the king’s paralyzing stutter. It’s a rare combination of crowd pleaser and consummate artistry. The director, Tom Hooper, works from a script by David Sidler. . . Remember, you heard it here first: a film that will make your spirits soar.

An Israeli documentary called Precious Life is about a Palestinian baby who was born in Gaza three years ago with a severe immune deficiency, then treated in Israel by Israeli doctors. . . . As of now, the only thing I can imagine standing in the way of an Oscar for Precious Life is peace breaking out before the ballots go in the mail.
Morgenstern's full article about his Telluride discoveries is here

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

oct 13 & 31 | psycho | cineplex classic film series

Psycho (1960)
"Check in. Relax. Take a shower."
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles
Plot: A young woman steals $40,000 from her employer's client, and subsequently encounters a young motel proprietor too long under the domination of his mother. Still terrifying after all these years!

Wednesday, October 13, 7:00pm
Sunday, October 31, 1:00pm

Presented in 2K Digital. All tickets five dollars. SilverCity Riverport, SilverCity Coquitlam, Colossus Langley, Scotiabank Theatre. The Classic Film Series presents one great title each month on the big screen from September 2010 to August 2011: details here.