May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
January 20, 2012
There is often talk of framing our cultural experiences in terms found commonly in Christian spirituality. On account of this, we find film and theology groups that are structurally identical to group bible studies. We reserve watching certain films for certain spots on the Christian calendar, like annual Easter screenings of Gibson’s Jesus film. In a more specific example, a few years back it was popular to talk about cinema and the practice of lectio divina, which was an interesting idea that never seemed to gain much traction in evangelical circles due to the way it equivocates between cinema and scripture.
But two additional concepts commonly found in Christian spirituality sprouted out of this conversation that felt like a good framework for the amount of time I was spending pruning Netflix queues, picking up library holds, and scheduling classes around press screenings.
The first is that of pilgrimage. An illustration: My wife and I once took a terribly long and chilly trip to the Hermitage to see the Matisse Room, in which are installed his giant paintings “Dance” and “Music” opposite each other. If you stand in the right spot you can see both giant spaces of color and rhythm at the same time just at the edge of your field of vision, which remains one of my favorite glimpses of modernity. We were sustained through this very long trip by a concept of pilgrimage, making our way through trial and tribulation to a destination that had fueled my spiritual and aesthetic imagination for years. Pilgrimage by definition involves three things: a reasonable distance, a sacred location, and a penitential or celebratory vibe. Various modernizations have unfortunately subverted the concept such that one need not actually travel very far or with much difficulty to a place that has limited associations with the divine to be on a pilgrimage. We ritually visit shopping Meccas or gush about our last concert or festival experience. Much marketing has also co-opted the pilgrimage concept, leaving us with people camped for days outside film premieres or Apple stores. But in Russia, at least, we suffered. The cheapest seats on the overnight train to St. Petersburg in late December are unpleasant, if not downright scary (we dozed in shifts, accosted at intervals by grifters). We eventually made it through days of ice and arctic darkness to that room high up in the Hermitage and reveled in the flat vista of Matisse’s two paintings there. When it was all over, we could officially check off all three boxes for what constitutes a pilgrimage, provided one would accept the Matisse Room theologically as a “sacred location.” This really isn’t that difficult to do.
Importing this concept of cultural pilgrimage into film watching requires a sense of adventure, an rss feed dialed into a few trusted critics, and patience. A healthy spirit of travelogue should attend the way we begin looking for and anticipating the films trickling into festivals and art houses every year from so many sources.
The second is that of intentional isolation. One repeated theme in the broad narrative of the Bible is the positive effect of periods of withdrawal and solitude. Inasmuch as historic monastic practice shares in these important narratives, from Moses on Sinai to Jesus in the wilderness, there are precedents for temporarily disengaging oneself from the endless movement of culture and commerce. The tendency of the critic in our age is to feel that in order to comment on anything, one must have seen everything. But this sort of thinking often derives from the insistence by the marketplace that its cultural products are continually important, that each Cannes or Oscar season represents a quantum advance over the last. We need to step away from twitter and the local release schedule every now and then. It is okay to take a few months and watching nothing but Douglas Sirk films. Or even nothing at all.
There is a helpful analogy in Bill Bryson’s account of hiking the Appalachian Trail. At one point, he discovers that completing the entire AT would be too difficult for him to do, so he decides to skip his way up to Maine on selected segments of his own choice. At first he, like the reader, is disappointed in his failure to make it all the way. But it slowly becomes okay, his appreciation of the trail no longer deriving from its tradition history of sheer endurance but from its grandeur unfolding across so many states. In other words, it can be critically valuable to be selective.
A way to merge these two concepts is embedded in Nathaniel Dorsky’s essay in The Hidden God on “transcendental” or “devotional” cinema. In this essay he is interested in explaining why a certain sort of filmmaking, with slower pacing and broader compositions (think: Tarkovsky, Bresson, Alonso, etc…), tunes us into spiritual reflection. Dorsky explains this is largely because such films partake in the paces, cycles, and rhythms that characterize our own spiritual reflection; such films simply mimic the process of reflection we exercise in those times and spaces we consider sacred.
But we can also transpose this notion to film watching in general. Dorsky’s descriptions of devotional cinema morph quite naturally into depictions of more devotional ways of participating in culture. For me, the rhythms of pilgrimage and the intentionality of isolation have provided a fitting alternative to the constant hum of the new, one that requires cycles and motivations divorced from those guided by commerce and trend.