By Jeffrey Overstreet
A poem needs understanding through the senses. The point of diving into a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore, but to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out, it is a experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept the mystery.
—John Keats, quoted in the film Bright Star
All week, I’ve been buzzing with unusual electricity. I feel a little smug, like I’m carrying around a winning lottery ticket, and nobody knows why I’m smiling.
It’s not a secret. I’ve just been to The Glen Workshop.
For years, I’d heard about this week-long gathering of artists and art-lovers in August, at St. John’s College, in Santa Fe. I’d told myself it was too expensive, and that it would take too much of my vacation time.
My first visit changed that. There were no more questions—I was sold.
I’ve been there six years in a row, and counting.
Something special happens at the Glen. Unlike other conferences, there’s no competition for meetings with agents and publishers. It’s designed instead to cultivate community. (Andy Crouch calls it “culture-making.”) The Image team invites us to encounter inspiring art, and to learn from the artists’ testimonies. They set the kindling...and conversations blaze.
In that perfect pace of presentations, exhibitions, discussions, reflections, and Santa Fe excursions, we are feasting on something extravagant. And nourishing.
And you know the glow of gratitude you feel after an exceptional meal.
This year, I had the honor of hosting the Glen’s film seminar. Eighteen people joined me to watch and discuss six celebrated films.
We watched Chris Marker’s science fiction short La Jetee, which is made of still photographs. Denied the familiar rush of motion, and the conventions of “performance” and “action,” our imaginations pieced together sound effects, music, and images. We reflected on the how the film’s form demonstrated its themes. That prepared us to consider the formal distinctions of the other films.
Our first feature was Au hasard Balthazar, Robert Bresson’s 1966 classic about the sufferings of a donkey and the sins of humankind. It demands vigorous attention and interpretation. It’s more poetry than prose.
Bresson’s scenes resemble still photographs—they’re short, stark, and delicately composed. Each cut draws our attention to an image, a gesture, a simple moment; then we must weigh how those moments relate to, and transform, others.
By employing “models” instead of actors, Bresson deprives us of the theatrical expressiveness that mainstream movies have conditioned us to expect. This makes us lean forward to inquire about characters’ thoughts and motivations. We saw how hands, feet, gestures, silences, and objects—power lines, radios, motorcycles—can be as eloquent as dialogue and facial expressions.
After each screening, the group dispersed to absorb the experience. Art needs time to sink in. The next day, we’d discuss myriad details and how they contributed to the film’s meaning.
We enjoyed four more films, four more discussions. Heavy stuff.
Ordet, the highest-rated movie in the Arts and Faith Top 100, again proved its richness. Director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s work is different from Bresson’s in almost every way. And yet, composition, stage props, silences, and editing are all essential to the meaning. Its thrilling conclusion moves us not only by what happens, but also by a transformation of editing and camerawork.
The Son, a film by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, focuses on two characters—a carpentry teacher and his sullen apprentice. But like Bresson, the Dardennes deny us the conventional access to their characters’ histories, thoughts, and motivations. They challenge us to interpret posture, clothing, objects, and environments. Every seemingly incidental element becomes relevant, even revelatory.
The film’s riveting realism makes it seem as if our own lives might be so pregnant with meaning. Imagine.
Michael Haneke’s tapestry of story fragments, Code Unknown, has a form that reinforces its theme. It’s about the near-impossibility of meaningful communication. Each chapter is a single, long take that begins and ends in the middle of something. We witness communication breakdowns between cultures, generations, and genders. Parents despair over children. Spouses fight in a grocery store. Policemen fail to comprehend the nature of a sidewalk dispute. It’s harrowing.
And yet (irony of ironies) the film conveys this powerfully. It unites us in a longing for connections. And in rare moments of true intimacy—an embrace, a dance, laughter—lightning strikes. People connect.
What is more, we’re challenged to question our assumptions, as each scene causes us to reconsider what we’ve seen so far. That’s a healthy discipline—and humbling.
We concluded with Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Blue. What a finale.
While other filmmakers stuck to essentials, Kieslowski embraces all of the tools available to a filmmaker: light, color, motion, theatrical acting, bombastic music, and special effects. And yet, even in this abundance, every thread is carefully interwoven to strengthen the whole. The music does not tell us what to feel; it’s a character, a spiritual presence, influencing everything else. Even an incidental image on a TV screen in a character’s room quakes with poetic significance.
Day after day, I grew in my feeling of gratitude—that we had a place to explore this.
This was not about becoming experts in cerebral cinema. It was about learning to look closer. Art is beauty. Beauty is the stuff of prophecy and revelation. And revelation is supposed to discomfort us, inspire us, change us. Tuning our imaginations to interpret art, we learn to read the world and see that every space, face, and gesture is pregnant with meaning.
It’s all incarnation.
Back at my home church in Seattle, the music and liturgy seemed especially vibrant, as if the instruments of my head and heart were recalibrated to apprehend mysteries more fully.
Pastor David Richmon raised the bread and the wine, and they seemed to glow with potential. “Did you know,” he asked, “that ‘Eucharist’, in Greek, simply means ‘gratitude’?”
Of course it does.
I hope I can hang on to that feeling until next August.