The Arts and Faith discussion board, an online conversation hosted by Image, has more than a decade’s worth of dialogue in its history. And many of its founding personalities are still there. The board’s longevity has much to do with the substance of its discussions. It has had its heated arguments, its lamentable spirals down into flame wars, and its dull seasons, just like any discussion boards. But sometimes, even frequently, it’s an inspiring discussion.
And once in a while, somebody makes a contribution to the conversation that leaves readers stunned, amazed, and grateful.
One of those moments happened last month, and Michael Leary and I thought it would be worth sharing with you.
Here’s how it played out.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s film The Master is inspiring a great deal of discussion. This has led people to revive conversations about his past movies as well.
Thus, A&F contributor Ryan Holt said:
I don’t believe this has been posted before. Matthew Sewell has an interesting essay on MAGNOLIA that focuses on picking apart the “but it did happen” moment in the film. The most thought-provoking aspect of Sewell’s argument is its suggestion that the following Anderson quote is key to understanding what Anderson is up to in the film:
“I’m a film geek; I was raised on movies. And there come these times in life where you just get to a spot when you feel like movies are betraying you. Where you’re right in the middle of true, painful life. Like, say, somebody could be sitting in a room somewhere, watching their father die of cancer, and all of a sudden it’s like, no this isn’t really happening, this is something I saw in Terms of Endearment. You’re at this moment where movies are betraying you, and you resent movies for maybe taking away from the painful truth of what’s happening to you.”
I don’t know about you, but I hadn’t seen that quote before. It made me think: Have I ever felt betrayed by a movie?
Another contributor resonated with that post. Powerfully.
So here’s John Drew, whose A&F name is Baal_T’shuvah, responding to Ryan Holt and that quote from Paul Thomas Anderson:
Wow… not only does he portray something I’ve felt for a very long time, but he references the exact film where this feeling began. The only difference is that instead of feeling as though we were in one of those movie moments, we were actually waiting for one of those movie moments to occur in the situation my family and I were living through.
My mom died of lung cancer twenty five years ago this past March. About six or seven months after her death, I remember my dad asking if me if I would watch Terms of Endearment with him. My dad and I found a connection through movies, but this was one of the few times I turned him down. This was a film that I had admired for what I thought was an honest portrayal of dealing with illness (and I’m not saying it doesn’t), but now that we had been through the situation ourselves I could see that it only lightly skimmed the surface of the reality. There’s a lot it skips. And that in itself now felt like a betrayal.
For my family and I, there was never that moment of screaming at seemingly uncaring hospital staff to help with my mom’s pain – they were always very diligent. There wasn’t a moment where family and friends all got to have their turns at goodbyes, because she isn’t at that stage, and she’s doing all she can not to get to that stage.
Sometimes there isn’t a vigil.
Sometimes you’re just taking your mom to the hospital because she’s had a bad day, and she needs to stay the night so the doctors can get her pain and breathing meds resynced to allow her a good nights sleep.
Sometimes your last contact isn’t face to face, but rather over the phone, with your mom giving you a list of things she’s going to need in the morning when you come to pick her up. Sometimes you’re careless with words. Or at least in remembering what you may or may not have said. Because she’s going to be calling early the next morning to make sure you’ve got everything on that list she’s given to you, and there’s always that phone call to make sure you say the right words.
Sometimes, when that call comes at the appropriate time, it’s not your mom. Sometimes it’s the doctor on call, who doesn’t know your mom. He only knows from your mom’s chart that she has cancer, and now that she’s gone into pulmonary arrest he needs to know what life saving measures (if any) he should take.
Sometimes moms die without having anyone they love nearby.
Sometimes the hardest part of that day isn’t when you and your dad are waiting in that little anteroom a nurse ushered you into, waiting on the doctor to come in and tell you officially what you already know. Sometimes the hardest part of that day isn’t when you leave your mom’s side for the last time, in that room where she spent her last night. Sometimes the hardest part of that day is a little later, when you first re-enter the house she won’t be returning to, and all you can sense is that familiar scent that comes from her room, because she puts bars of lavender soap in all of her drawers to keep her clothes smelling fresh.
Sometimes that fog-like state you’re in on that day is suddenly cleared, like when you go to the supermarket your family has shopped at for over a decade to buy some coffee cake, because you and your dad should really eat something. Sometimes you feel like ice water has been thrown in your face when the nice check out lady who knows your family’s situation kindly asks you, “How’s your mom doing today?” Sometimes you’re not ready to admit the truth, and to my shame I say, “Okay.”
Sometimes, even after twenty five years, you can clearly remember saying over the phone “I’ll see you tomorrow.” And sometimes after twenty five years you’re still racking your brain, because you’ve always been kind of fuzzy about whether you added “I love you.”
Sometimes you have to tell your dad no when he asks if you would watch a movie with him, because you’ve realized that sometimes even when a film tries hard to get it right, you can’t forgive it for all that it leaves out.
And sometimes, in the intervening fifteen years since my dad passed away from lung cancer, long after I’ve realized that he wasn’t just asking me to watch that film with him, but rather saying he needed me to watch that film with him, I regret saying no.
Well, this isn’t at all what I had intended to write. And it has been exhausting.
That was a moment that reminded me, and many others, why we come back to ArtsandFaith.com again and again. It’s a remarkable community. They surprise you often. Sometimes, they move you to tears.
Contributor and film reviewer Jeremy Purves responded:
Baal_T’shuvah, thanks for writing this. It’s incredible how often we allow movies to shape what we think reality and real-life relationships are like. I can identify with what you’re saying a little. There were moments in Iraq where I felt like I was in a film. Then, suddenly, you found yourself in circumstances that you realized all the films you’d even seen on the subject could never even touch. Films naturally dramatize and give resolution to what, in real life, sometimes has little of the dramatic and no resolution. One day your friend is full of life, healthy and whole, laughing heartily with you about the troubles of being in a place so foreign and away from home. The next day he doesn’t come back from his mission, you never see him again, and all you get is a official clinical announcement that, afterwards, there was nothing left of him and his team. No last words, no goodbyes, no time to even realize what is about to happen. That’s not how the movies show it.
We have to be careful with how we allow films to shape how we think what life and death is going to like. We have to be very careful in applying what we’ve seen on film (and allowing film to create expectations) to the relationships that we have with those around us.
Amen to that, Jeremy.
Now, you’re all invited over to ArtsandFaith.com. It’s such a lively discussion that I’m closing in on Post #15,000… and I’m not even close to the top contributor.
Many thanks to Ryan, Drew, Jeremy, and the gang for giving the Internet such a substantial hub of conversation and inspiration, and many thanks to Gregory Wolfe and the Image team for hosting it and keeping it alive.