Friday, April 2, 2010

Spiritual Cinema

What follows is my presentation from Sunstone last weekend. I was part of a panel discussion regarding spirituality and film. Its a challenging topic and one I've been interested in for over 10 years. In defining the genre of Spiritual Realism I take a somewhat formalist (and modernist) approach to defining the relationship between the spiritual aspects of human existence and Cinema as an art form. (since my notes have not been preped for publication or anything like that please excuse obvious problems with grammar etc.)

The assertion that the cinema has a spiritual dimension or potential is radical and we should hold on to the radical nature of this idea, it is not merely one problem among others, nor is spiritual cinema something that we can create by simply applying traditional methods, tools and ideas. At the very least the idea of spiritual cinema suggests that the cinema might be able to some how rise above its obvious and cumbersome material condition or use such structures to strive for something totally other. Thus the idea of the spiritual film should not be naturalized, or easily accepted. It should remain strange, challenging and distant. It should be something that we can’t quite grasp but that we strive to imagine anyway. This being the case what I say is going to be challenging, but I hope also provocative as an aesthetic, philosophical call to action.

In the next few minutes I want to present the aesthetic, philosophical, and poetic challenges, present in the films and writings of filmmakers such as Yasujiro Ozu, Majid Majidi, Abbas Kiarostami, Ingmar Bergman, and the director I will spend most of my time on, Andri Tarkovsky. I mention this very small group of filmmakers because it’s their work that forms the genre that is best described as Spiritual Realism.

For me the starting point for understanding Spiritual Realism is the presence of a certain kind of frustration expressed by both Bergman and Tarkovsky. If you read their interviews and journals you will notice that from time to time they both expressed a deep frustration with narrative structure. Both directors were aware of specific limits imposed by narrative, these were limits they very much wanted to escape while at the same time not knowing how to make their escape, how to take the step beyond. To me it’s noteworthy that perhaps the two most renowned directors to come from the European tradition shared the same kind of frustration. But what was the nature of the limitations they fought against? It was difficult for them to express, but surprisingly enough the philosopher Jacques Derrida gave a very good and concise description. When describing his own relationship to narrative he said:

“Narrative has always been a serious question for me. I’ve always said that I can’t tell a story. I’d love to tell stories but I don’t know how to tell them. And I’ve always felt that the telling is somehow inadequate to the story I’d want to tell.”

This quote gets remarkably close to the heart of the issue, but it does so from the opposite position of filmmakers like Bergman and Tarkovsky because they did know how to tell stories, in fact they were very good at telling stories but still had this same sense that the telling was inadequate. Now in America this is a strange notion, we don’t think this way, because we have such tremendous faith in narrative that its difficult for many to fathom that narrative might not be an infinitely dynamic form. What is worse, in America the cinema is almost always thought of as synonymous with narrative. But from a spiritual perspective narrative is violence. Not just any violence but the destruction of the individual, of the subjective, of the unique.
That being said the question remains, what is it that these directors wanted to express that could not find its home in narrative? What does this have to do with anything spiritual?

I sketch a very brief answer around at three concepts, these being: time, observation and duration.

Tarkovsky wrote and talked about the cinema as spiritual more than anyone else and he forcefully argued that the cinema is a spiritual medium in the truest sense, this being that as a medium in its essential formal characteristics it has a closer relationship to the spiritual dimension of human existence than any other artistic form. And that’s really how he described it, as if he were constructing a modernist spiritual formalism of the cinema; in doing this he gave a definition to the spiritual through the special emphasis he placed upon time and observation.

Of time he wrote:
“Time is necessary to man, so that, made flesh he may be able to realize himself as a personality. But I am not thinking of linear time, meaning the possibility of getting something done, performing some action. The action is a result and what I am considering is the cause which makes man incarnate in the moral sense.”

He goes on to say:

“The time in which a person lives gives him the opportunity of knowing himself as a moral being, engaged in a search for truth. . .The rigid frame in which [we] are thrust however makes our responsibility to ourselves and others all the more starkly obvious. The human conscience is dependent upon time for its existence.”

But perhaps the most provocative thing he has said is that:

“. . . Time is a state: the flame in which lives the salamander of the human soul.”

Now this is a challenging metaphor, but what it, along with the other quotes, points to is the idea that what matters most, what gives our lives spiritual potential and what the cinema is going to need to comprehend in order to become spiritual is the way we inhabit time. For me this leads in several directions at once, and it’s not easy to pull all the threads together. So let me just mention two.

The idea that the spiritual and moral fulfillment of our human potential is a result of the way we inhabit time resonates with the work of Henri Bergson’s and his concept of Duration.

Bergson was also very concerned with time, and he was interested in trying to describe the movement of human consciousness, through time. Bergson described Duration by several metaphors, including music, memory as a cloak, and human experience as like a melting cube of sugar. The cube has a form that is identifiable as a thing as having being. Yet as it melts it becomes formless, and in that movement from form to formless there are a few moments in this process in which the melting sugar cube is both a sugar cube and its own transformation. In those moments it is itself, but it is also not itself, it is in a process of differing radically from itself in time.

As a metaphor for human experience it suggests that our movement through time is a process of continuous transformation, of continuous becoming. In our subjective habitation of time, none of us are now the persons we were a few moments ago, or will be at any given point in the future.

As Mormons such notions of time should sound somewhat familiar, in that our doctrine of eternal progression is made of similar stuff, progression means transformation, it means difference, and differing, and heterogeneity and continuous becoming while at the same time carrying something of a unity, a notion of self manifest in memory forward into this stream of continuous becoming. Granted a great deal of this transformation is probably of little interest to many of us. That is until we get to the transformations that have value and meaning to us, such as existential crisis.

Regardless of that, what matters here is not the idea that Duration is in some way similar to a religious doctrine, what matters is that this philosophical concept and this religious doctrine both point to something that is essential to the experience of being human. Continuous change and the entirely unique way any given individual inhabits time, and thus experiences the moral and spiritual expression of their lives.

So time is what we inhabit as moral / spiritual beings, and Duration is the way we inhabit it. The question remains: How does the cinema relate to this?

This brings us back to Tarkovsky’s formalism. For what he felt distinguishes the cinema as a medium from other art forms is not light, or line, or color, or space, or movement or any of the other characteristics it shares with photography, painting, sculpture and so on. What makes cinema unique is the fact that it takes an impression, and creates an image of time. And can reproduce that impression of time as often as we like. There are other arts such as dance, or music or theater that unfold in time, but that is something else entirely. What the cinema does is records time. And by extension, under the right conditions, the ability to record time should also be the ability to capture the duration of a character. To capture the unique way he or she inhabits time, his or her moral essence, that which makes an individual totally other.

In order to do this though, the cinema must turn away from the violence of narrative. Narrative, that nearly universal construction of 3 acts comprised of 8 sequences imposes a universal “story time” upon everything it touches. There is no room for an individual’s duration, within “story time” within structure intent on telling a story. For the way an individual inhabits time cannot be, packaged or universalized, it can only be observed in its individuality. Through precise observation the temporal structure of the film will adopt the temporal structure of the individual, as they inhabit the time of their existential crisis.

The possibility of recording time and capturing duration is artistic observation, observation in which someone who comprehends or senses what it is that makes an individual unique, can figure out a way of imprinting that uniqueness in time. Filmmakers such as Ozu and Kiarostami are masters of observation who insist that observing the material world can be in Kiarostami words “a jumping off point to something more.”

Tarkovsky believed this also and described it through an appreciation of Japanese Haiku such as those by Bosho:

Reeds cut for thatching
The stumps now stand forgotten
Sprinkled with soft snow.

Tarkovsky writes:
“What Captivates me here is the refusal even to hint at the kind of final image meaning that can be gradually deciphered like a charade. Haiku cultivates its images in such a way that they mean nothing beyond themselves, and at the same time express so much that it is not possible to catch their final meaning.”

He goes on say “The Japanese poets knew how to express their visions of reality in three lines of observation. They did not simply observe it, but with supernal calm sought its ageless meaning. And the more precise the observation, the nearer it comes to being unique, and so being an image. . .In cinema it is all the more the case that observation is the first principle of the image.”

So, I’m not sure how to conclude or summarize this very brief description. We have time that is the medium of the spiritual development of the human; we also have time the singularly unique formal characteristic of the cinema. And we have duration and observation as what makes it possible to join filmic time to the unique temporal existence of the individual.

By this schema, its safe to say that there has never been and may never be a Mormon film that is spiritual. Perhaps that is alright but I am already mourning the loss of what won’t come if Mormon cinema doesn’t find the courage to move beyond entertainment, to move beyond being a copy cat, “me too” party trick. To move beyond being a merely sub cultural appeal to a religious / institutional / cultural affiliations. There is a cinema worthy of the name spiritual out there, waiting to be made if only we could produce an artist skilled enough and willing to fulfill it.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Postmodern Christianity: The Snakes on a Plane of Christian “Teaching” About Post Modernism

O.K. its doesn’t have to be Snakes on a Plane, but we all know movies, novels or other cultural products that are so terrible that we find perverse pleasure in them. Often times this enjoyment arises from the fact that the work in question takes itself very seriously as it launches, with abandon, down the course of its own absurdities; while at the same time containing a high level of formal and or technical ineptitude. The Twilight series of books and movies being the most recent examples of kitsch so painfully bad that there is an honest – admittedly morbid- pleasure in the experience of the work.

For the philosophical / religious version of this experience I recommend Dr. Leroy W. Thompson’s power point lecture series titled “Postmodern Christianity” which is available at iTunes U for free. It may well be the worst, most poorly informed, most derivative, and just plain wrong attempt at a critique of postmodernism I have ever encountered, and yet I was riveted. I listened to the lectures in one sitting. Beyond being bad, they are actually quite instructive as to how and why a certain kind of mind needs to knock down straw men that go by the names of “postmodernism”, “Jacques Derrida” and “Michel Foucault” among others. Granted, Thompson does not address Derrida and Foucault, rather he talks about someone named “Dairy-day” and someone else named “Michael” Foucault –its actually spelled that way on the power point card. This does make me wonder what Thompson would do if a student of his started talking about “Jesus Crust” or “Pontius Captain.”

Not surprisingly Dr. Thompson relies on a set of standard issue misconceptions of postmodern and post structural thought: the idea that postmodernism teaches there is no such thing as truth, that nihilism is inherent to it, that postmodernism is inherently anti-enlightenment, anti-reason and anti-religion. And of course Thompson insists that postmodernism can’t be defined. A claim he makes with the help of a series of images of Bart Simpson. What is curious is that Thompson spends a lot of time defining characteristics of postmodernism that he does not like and yet he repeatedly says that is has no definition.

This sort of thing has been going on for years so its no surprise to find it repeated yet again, but, what I find interesting is how it is repeated here. First, the lectures provide a very good example of the way certain types of conservatives see it as their job to advance a set of propositional statements that they believe provide intellectual certainty and fully describe the truth and correctness of their own ideology. What is more, these folks seem to believe that everyone else is up to the same thing, even post structural thinkers. Thus for Thompson all of human thought is reduced to ideological competition. This helps explain why some conservatives (and perhaps some liberals as well) are so threatened by contemporary philosophy and why they can’t understand it. It’s lost on someone like Thompson that Nietzsche or Foucault aren’t advancing a simple ideological scheme, that they might be presenting detailed critiques of the concepts of God or Truth and how these concepts function historically, culturally and so on, without making broad propositional claims of their own. For Thompson Nietzsche is simply guilty of attempting the pre-meditated murder of an actual God. Similarly, Foucault is a vicious cynic, who seeks to deny reality, destroy all truth, and everything Thompson believes with it. I find this fascinating and it sheds light on what is meant when some conservatives talk about a “biblical world view”. Its less a form of religious faith than it is a competitive ideological program that sees itself as embattled and always in need of defending, while at the same time its greatest hope is to achieve ideological hegemony.

Another notable feature is the way Thompson points in the direction of phenomenology but does not recognize it or see it as salient to his own truth claims. Thompson criticizes scientists for believing that if something can’t be perceived with the senses it does not exist. His big “gotcha!” moment is when he claims to have asked a scientist if the man loved his wife. Thompson reports that the scientist answered in the affirmative that he did love his wife. Thompson insists therefore that the scientist’s worldview is inconsistent and unlivable because the scientist’s love for his wife can’t be perceived directly through the senses of sight, touch, taste, smell, or hearing. What’s odd here is that Thompson seems unable to tell the difference between a crude form of phenomenology and the application of qualitative and quantitative methodologies to scientific observations. Further, while Thompson is on some level aware of the distinction between human consciousness and the objects of experience, his awareness only extends to his own misunderstanding of science. The idea that this might be a broad issue for anyone attempting to describe the nature of the world, including himself, is not present.

One final point, Christianity is also done considerable violence by Thompson. It’s interesting that pretty much all of the villains in Thompson’s scheme are philosophers. In taking on philosophy as such he can’t help but to make his argument in philosophical terms that, unfortunately, reduce Christianity to a pre-modern ontological and epistemological conglomerate that is largely free of messy things such as faith, interpretation, and theology. Although he wants to argue from a Christian point of view, its very difficult to see how Christianity as such, as a matter of faith, informs Thompson’s understanding at all. In the end its clear that the Christianity Thompson seeks to defend is synonymous with a reactionary politics that longs for the good old days of pre-modern, pre-humanism, pre- phenomenology ontology.

Enter Caputo

The good news is that we don’t have to rely on Thompson as the only source available on the Internet that describes the relationship between postmodernism and religion. In 1999 John D. Caputo gave a talk at the Sunstone Symposium on deconstruction and religion, in which he summarizes a number of sections from his 1997 book The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida. You can down load an Mp3 of the presentation here.

The juxtaposition of Thompson and Caputo is stunning. Unlike the embattled, ignorant, cynicism of Thompson, Caputo’s reading of Derrida is original, and poetic. What Caputo sees at work in Derrida in general and in deconstruction in particular is the structure of the messianic, a deeply religious structure that occurs in Derrida’s work without the formal trappings of religious institutions or authority. In short messianism is a way of describing an aspect of the future. Not a future that is predictable, like going to work in the morning or keeping appointments. This is a future that exceeds our horizon of expectations. It’s the arrival of the totally other, an arrival that cannot be predicted or anticipated, it can only be welcomed. This openness, the welcoming of the other is quite clearly located in close proximity to the notion of hospitality that has a long history in religion and philosophy. It’s the idea of openness to the stranger, the foreigner, and the outsider. This openness allows the other to lay claim to us, and calls us into a relationship of responsibility for the well being of the other. This openness is also called the messianic because the in the truest sense the totally other of the human is the divine. Thus the messianic in general finds specific examples in things such as the second coming of Christ, or in Jewish hopes for the arrival of a messiah.

It’s this religious structure that I find so exciting, and that provides the perfect counter to people like Thompson. Hospitality and the messianic are deeply rooted in the Christian tradition but as Christianity in America becomes more reactionary and overtly political in the narrowest sense, it has come to understand the arrival of the other as always consisting of a threat to the self. The other is always an opponent that must be defeated in order to preserve the ideological, political, social and economic position of the self. Thus, in order to preserve the institutional characteristics of formal religion, contemporary Christianity betrays one of its central and most beautiful challenges.

Postmodern Christianity then is the movement by which the entanglement of ideology and theology is put into question for the sake of allowing concepts such as hospitality, the gift, forgiveness and so on, to do their work without needing to directly serve the limited interests of political ideologies. Not that the entanglement of ideology, politics, and theology can ever be undone, it can’t be; but the impossibility of a total separation does not mean that we shouldn’t take the critique as far as it can go. Guiding us in the act of taking spiritual risks for the sake of a faith capable of finding expression in ways that we are quickly forgetting the names of.

Do listen to Thompson and Caputo and enjoy.