The old words of grace are worn smooth as poker chips and a certain devaluation has occurred, like a poker chip after it is cashed in. Even if one talks only of Christendom, leaving the heathens out of it, of Christendom where everyone is a believer, it almost seems that when everyone believes in God, it is as if everybody started the game with one poker chip, which is the same as starting with none.
(Walker Percy, The Message in a Bottle)
David Dark, author of Everyday Apocalypse and Gospel According to America, has just bombarded us again with The Sacredness of Questioning Everything. It is largely a book about God, the constructs we believe in as God, and the kinds of questions we can pose to either as we “aspire to be more reality-based.” The book surfs the waves of an inquisitive piety and a cathartic cultural immersion that will annotate any rss feeder with question marks. But in Filmwell terms, many of the book’s cutting edges correspond to all those moments in which the cinema becomes a storied means of self-critique or unexpectedly shifts the brackets of our cherished assumptions. We tend to shorthand these experiences as transcendental, or expressionist, or a range of stylistic terms whose Venn diagram intersection is the constructive experience of doubt, fear, and ideological shell-shock.
In cinema terms, Dark’s book is a massive montage of folk anthem choruses, bits of television shows, snippets of editorials or famous speeches, and fragments of poetry. A bit of a Grin Without a Cat for contemporary Christianity. The connecting rhythm of these thoughtful edits is a form of justice that begins in “listening a little harder,” or even a theological ethic that prizes the search for “new stories” as a guiding principle. In Notre Musique, Godard famously described the kind of shots that are the staple of montage as “the very principle of cinema” because “the truth has two faces… shot: reverse shot.” Sacredness is sown with similarly alternating glimpses of cultural reference and creative theological response. One man’s REM album is Dark’s rich pageant of ideas groping for application in sidetracked spiritual biographies.
Dark spends a lot of time in the book with Noboddady, a character borrowed from a terrifying Blake poem. This figure becomes shorthand for the same culturally embedded ideological First Cause famously nudged by both Shaw and Joyce, a flimsy idol that Dark dismantles with gracious precision. His angry, easily offended theophanies quickly unravel in Dark’s sermonic stream of questioning, wondering pop-culture voices. But cinema has also long had a grievance with this Nobodaddy. His legacy is a vocabulary stripped of question marks and leading questions, Walker Percy’s poker chips worn smooth in a shell game of cheap grace. As Herzog said: “We are surrounded by worn-out images, and we deserve new ones.” Cinema often responds.
And there are many untapped images of God and Jesus in the history of cinema. Bresson’s shuffling donkey in Au hazard Balthazar is a fascinating reflection on the ungainly form of Jesus in culture, failing to fit in any of the social or narrative boxes we typically assign to him. The film can find no other way to evoke his awkward presence than this farmyard abstraction. Gus Van Sant’s rewriting of the final documents of Kurt Cobain’s life is Last Days is a passion narrative for the MTV age. He becomes a figure broken by the same social mechanisms his message attempted to critique. In such a film, the hackles of our Noboddady sensibilities are raised. But the discordant blasphemy of Last Days’ resurrection scene is as rife with “cosmic plainspeak” as the parable of the prodigal son. By means of one melon in Nazarín, Bunuel eviscerates a model of Christian ethics that has only in recent years been critiqued by Christian thinkers.
But even beyond films so steeped in the outsider art equivalent of theological reflection are directors attuned to the sacredness of questioning cinema. It would be easy to write an addendum to Dark’s book with this very title. It would chronicle the thunder of percussion at the end of Haneke’s Code Unknown. The concluding cacophony of Herzog’s Stroszek. The haunting surreality of Wender’s Wings of Desire. The staggering club scenes in Lotz’ Heartbeat Detector. Denis Lavant dancing with utter abandon at the end of Beau travail. The whale in Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies. Stalker‘s Zone.
There is a long list of scenes and images begging for a Darkian analysis of cinema’s natural fluency in “cosmic plainspeak.” So many of these scenes and images stick with me because they continue to call my assumptions about life, cinema, and spirituality into question. Hospitality. Witness. Listening. Wonder. These are cinema keywords. (Who else really talks about “hospitality” as a critical category other than André Bazin?)
A clip from a good chapter on our “radioactive days”:
This good news broadcast is multipartisan. Properly understood, it makes equal-opportunity pilgrims of males, females, Jews, Gentiles, slaves, and the legally free. Nobody owns the copyright on the good, truthful, reality-bearing word. No label can contain the reach of the people’s good news. In this sense, gospel is a wider ranging broadcast than we tend to imagine. Perhaps inevitably, the term would eventually be used for advertising purposes, but that doesn’t mean we have to define it so rigidly. The biblical witness is a little muddier than the “spirituality” market allows. When we think of the biblical broadcast as “religion” that exists primarily to “uplift” emotionally, we’re missing the point. And gospel, in the deepest sense, can’t exactly stay out of politics, as the saying goes, because the news bears witness with no neat divisions. Gospel speaks truth to everyone, high and low alike.
Take Johnny Cash who, as a kind of newsman, purposefully sought to channel, in his words, “voices that were ignored or even suppressed in the entertainment media, not to mention the political and educational establishments.” That’s a vocation, for sure, and we shouldn’t reduce such a witness to a particular marketing genre any more than we’d characterize William Blake’s vision as either religious or political. It’s all folk music. The dichotomies don’t fly when we’re dealing with a human heart in conflict with itself—and that’s every human heart. Folk expression is a way of staring down madness with mirth and death with determined truth telling. In this sense, there is no terrain outside folk’s jurisdiction, no subject that’s inappropriate or irrelevant to the stories and sayings and lamentations.
We’re sold “news” that has the same effect on the human heart as foot-binding had on women’s feet in ancient China. When that which passes for news is untruthful—largely void of real, investigative power—and never urges us to look a little harder at other people’s faces or our own, we become people who are no longer capable of the give and take of human conversation. Such images and sounds don’t invite real listening, only consumption.
To maintain some grip on reality, we have to constantly remind ourselves that the news is never what happened. It’s a story about what happened, and it is only rarely worthy of its own advertising. News product, usually quick and dependably shallow, will usually be the opposite of “in-depth coverage.” We know this is how it works. What are we left with?
How about folk? A more reliable witness to what’s going, demanding to be inherited, committed to memory, sung around a fire, rehearsed and recited. Folk isn’t so arrogant as to view itself as a No Spin Zone, because folk music understands that to spin is human. And those who think they’re without spin have a nasty, high-ratings habit of casting the first stone. Folk music is a little more modest in its goals, but folk will try to tell truth as well as it can, even among the slow to believe. Folk invites our consent. And if we’re willing, its gospel will become a part of the way we see, chastening and invigorating our way of looking at the world. It’s the possibility of finding ourselves based in reality humanely mediated. Folk is good news. Folk is people talking.