May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
March 1, 2010
Back in 2005 I said this about one of several iterations of the Arts and Faith Top 100 list:
I like to think of the list as a sort of back door to faith, your own private entrance to the houses of the holy. The Hidden God contains an essay by Nathaniel Dorksy on “Devotional Cinema,” in which he addresses the moments “not where religion is the subject of a film, but where film is the spirit or experience of religion.” He talks about a transcendent “alchemy” that happens in good film, in films that “lay the ground for devotion.” The list ostensibly contains these sorts of films. It is a monument to a history of people speaking a different language about eternal concepts, testing this new grammar of light, texture, and rhythm as it contacts the contours of faith and reality. The list honors artists in tune with the human condition, putting human faces on high-concept theological realities. And most of these films do more than simply describe these realities; they rehearse them, reproduce them, and enable us to inhabit them. These films are catalysts, mirrors, and antidotes. Simply put, the list is a guide to spaces of insight and reflection that exist off the beaten track of tried and true spiritual practices.
This was back when it was referred to as the “100 Most Spiritually Significant Films.” I really liked these annual lists despite the dozen or so movies that seemed to appear repeatedly with little regard for my annoyance. But even a cursory spin through the current list, the 2010 Arts and Faith Top 100, indicates that times have changed. It has shed films like American Beauty, Changing Lanes, Dogma, Fight Club, The Matrix, Signs, Sixth Sense, or The Truman Show, and along with these a lot of its initial popular appeal. And then it has picked up many of the truly great films from this last decade, like Heartbeat Detector, Summer Hours, Syndromes and A Century, and In Praise of Love. Somehow even Brakhage and Deren found their way onto the list.
And in the midst of all these changes, I think the loose descriptor “spirituality” has become an even more abstract point of common ground for this wide range of films. This is not the fault of the over 40 voters involved this time, the list of films nominated, or even the voting process. I actually don’t think it is even a problem. What do Playtime, Meshes of the Afternoon, and Beau travail have in common? Not much other than the fact that they are on this list. I find this new sense of indeterminacy really compelling. It reflects the work the diverse community that developed the list has put into talking about international cinema since its inception.
In a talk delivered at a 2003 event, visionary INTERFILM president Hans Werner Dannowski remarked: “…the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known.” There is a lot of border crossing going on this list, culturally, ideologically, and formally. Brakhage’s wash of colors, perhaps along with the Punch Drunk Love interludes, responds to the clinical claustrophobia of The Passion of the Joan of Arc. The last scene of Beau travail provides an interesting formal counterpoint to the end of Ordet or Stroszek. The gentle comedy of Ozu’s reflection on modernization in Early Summer becomes a discussion partner with Heartbeat Detector’s more sinister take on the modern industrial complex.
This list is a work in progress, and next year may see it shifting towards a more eclectic or even mainstream taste index. Does my above 2005 description still apply? Yes. But I think it does now in a way that embodies the increasing border-crossing agility with which many have learned to talk about theology or spirituality and cinema in the same sentence.
Jeffrey Overstreet has written a handy Q and A.