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Good Letters

This post is my first for Good Letters—hi, everyone!—and I’m going to start with something that is small but, I think, important.

“Small but important” describes a lot of what I plan to do in this space—describe little moments of religious reflection and representation in film, TV, books, and music, and see if we can make some sense of what they are doing there.

A few months ago, I sat down to watch Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) with a stopwatch and a notepad, prepared to analyze its long opening sequence. Ryan’s first battle scene depicts the United States Army storming Normandy beach in June 1944, though Spielberg’s version of the event shows how limited is a metaphor like “storming.” The work was grimy and gruesome, filled with fits and starts.

Spielberg’s twenty-minute scene is shot with handheld cameras—there is no sweeping crane shot that would lend the event majesty, nor many tracking shots primed to give viewers a thrill. Instead, we’re placed amidst the action. We’re as likely to witness intestines falling from a felled soldier as we are to see a heroic act of soldiering.

As I discovered with my stopwatch, one of the most unusual aspects of the scene is its use of shot lengths. Average Shot Length (ASL) is a relatively new tool of film analysis pioneered by scholars such as Barry Salt, David Bordwell, and Yuri Tsivian as part of a larger field known as “cinemetrics.” (Tsivian’s website stores data for a host of other film geeky details that break down movie methods.)

One finding in early ASL studies is that shot lengths have—no surprise here—become considerably shorter in the contemporary era. Between 1930 and 1960, the ASL in Hollywood was between eight and eleven seconds. Today, an ASL of under five seconds is normal. Action films often have ASLs of under two seconds. (That headache you get while watching Michael Bay’s Transformers? Blame it on his ASL.)

Saving Private Ryan’s opening sequence has an ASL of 16.7—a full five seconds higher than the highest-ever range for American film. Part of the reason the Normandy scene is so shuddering, so emotionally wrenching, is that Spielberg does not cut up the action with a bunch of dizzying edits. His long takes enforce a close and brutal focus. His sparse use of edits prevents us from avoiding the slow boil of battle.

But amidst this concentration on the realities of war, Spielberg uses a twist in his shot length to reveal a special focus on religion. Late in the scene, we meet Private Daniel Jackson (Barry Pepper), a skillful sniper who quotes Bible verses to himself as he fires at the enemy. We never learn anything of substance about Jackson’s religious faith, but throughout the film, each time we see him firing his gun, the noisy film soundtrack quiets down in order to highlight the sound of Jackson’s voice as he calms himself by reciting Bible verses.

When Spielberg first introduces Jackson’s strange praying ways at Normandy, it is as part of a mini-montage of Christian prayer. First, we see a close-up of Jackson holding a cocked rifle, peering through its scope, and muttering Psalm 22:19: “Be not thou far from me, O Lord.” The camera pulls closer to him as he says this, then cuts to a close-up of his finger pulling the trigger, followed by a shot of the German soldier felled by Jackson’s bullet.

Next, we see an army chaplain lying on top of a dying solider and urgently delivering last rites. Next, we see another soldier praying the rosary. The film then cuts back to an extreme close-up of Jackson as he prays and peers through his scope. Jackson’s prayer is offered not with the chaplain’s urgency, nor with the soldier’s fear, but with calm: “Oh my strength, haste thee to help me,” he says, then shoots.

This montage of prayer is thirty seconds long. It contains seven shots—just over four seconds per shot. Given the lengthy shots we’ve been watching, this moment is striking—carved out within the rest of the opening battle, presented with a distinct style. Amidst the long and groaning battle sequence built with dozens of extended takes, we’re given this one moment that is heavily cut up.

Why is this? Why does Spielberg structure this scene so as to set apart these religious moments? The movie has very little other religious content, so why go to such lengths to focus on the religious aspects of battle in this one section?

Those questions aren’t rhetorical. They are why I’ve come here. What do you think? Do you remember Spielberg’s praying sniper, and if so, what did it mean to you?

There’s a lot more where this comes from. For years, I’ve been fascinated by the small moments of religion that show up in American film, literature, music, and television. I’m convinced that we can learn a lot about cultural attitudes toward religious belief and behavior by examining these small moments.

I promise that not many of these moments will depend on arcane film knowledge, not least because I don’t possess much arcane film knowledge. But aesthetic phenomena like these are not happenstance. They are difficult to produce. Spielberg’s mini-essay on religion suggests a certain preoccupation, and it’s worth discussing what his preoccupation amounts to, and why.

To my mind, that is what blog comment threads are for. I hope you’ll help me make sense of some of the unusual moments of religion in American culture. I also hope you’ll point me to some of your own curiosities. I don’t expect to have a tidy point each time I post, but I do expect to develop a useful anthology of religious reflections in culture.

In time, maybe we can tidy them up together.

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