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.