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Essay

FOR nearly a generation in Hollywood, a gulf has existed between the secular and religious perspectives. It is a rift that appeared in the sixties for many reasons, not least as an expression of a cultural rebellion which was arguably both liberating and destructive. But one result was the lamentable loss on screen of an essential part of the human spectrum of thought and feelings: the religious and spiritual.

This gap appears to be closing. The word ‘spiritual’ is now in frequent use in Hollywood, although seldom with a religious connotation. (I have even heard an actor, describing another, say simply, “he’s spiritual,” the way one might say “left-handed” or “short.”) The term ‘spirituality’ suggests at least the recognition of an active, defining dimension of life which cannot be subsumed by human power, wealth, politics, or, indeed, art itself. However, “spirituality” can also be an evasive, subjective expression which avoids the inescapable relationship between an authentic movement of the spirit and the demand for moral change, personal and social.

Whether the emergence, or re-emergence, of religious belief will significantly affect the entertainment industry or not, the turn towards the spiritual is already evident in the other arts, as Image has chronicled. In Hollywood, this new sensibility has already produced a virtual host of fictional angels, whom are, to some, delightfully airy; to others, decidedly earthbound.

The test of this emergent spirituality in Hollywood will be if it produces significant new work. Robert Duvall’s The Apostle is a hopeful sign yet it was produced without industry help and took years to realize. There are also independent films with religious themes which employ the popular styles of traditional Hollywood storytelling (Romero and The Spitfire Grill are recent examples). Yet, while these films can be admired on their own terms, artistic and pastoral, there is another path as yet largely untrod.

In a book written over thirty years ago, writer-director Paul Schrader raised questions about the dimension of transcendence in film that, in many ways, have yet to be realized on the American screen. The truly adventuresome work in the spiritual dimension of film has been done in Europe and elsewhere. As Schrader defined it, the evincing of the transcendent produced a style of filmmaking which could be seen in the pioneering work of Dreyer, Ozu, and Bresson. It was a form that sought a transcendental reality primarily through elements of ritual and silence. This approach is evident, in varying ways, in the work of Bergman, Tarkovsky, Kieslowski, Wenders, and, most recently, von Triers.

What of the future? What does this convergence, however tentative, imply about the future of films? I will risk and speculate: If this spiritual awakening is authentic and lasting, it will change the art of film. The challenge to both filmmakers and critics informed by faith will be to consider not only the spirituality of the work but the aesthetics that best express it. This will mean not so much the inclusion of inspiring content but a transformation of form and style, and a move away from theatrical manipulation. The wild fire of the Gospel will, as always, consume the present forms, and the new wine will shatter old bottles.

Jean Cocteau, one of the earliest of the film poets (creator of the original Beauty and the Beast), upon returning to his faith late in life, remarked in a letter to philosopher Jacques Maritain that “what comes from God is always shocking, and what shocks my contemporaries is the idea of order.” When Cocteau wrote those lines, over fifty years ago, he was obviously not referring to the stale order of academic convention or conformity. The academy of today, in fact, proclaims a rule of fundamental disorder, the vanishing of the foundational. This perception of Cocteau, a rogue modernist, suggests something on the horizon. The order to which he refers is the wondrous design we hear in Bach and Mozart, the “inscape” of Hopkins, and the intuition of deep structure that has inspired the leap into mysticism of many contemporary physicists.

What might this shocking sense of profound order bring to the contemporary film? It would be a kind of revelation that probes a reality beyond obscenity, violence, and despair. It would offer stories that confound the facile tales of political ideologies and religious enthusiasms. It may reveal an ordering difficult to initially perceive or accept (the ending of Kieslowski’s Red? The ending of von Trier’s Breaking the Waves?), and, as with any breakthrough in the arts, the work may be unsettling, even unwelcome. Imagine a film which reveals the primacy of the spiritual with the detachment that has been called “holy indifference.”

To plunge fully into reality as an artist does not mean merely defending belief and virtue, nor simply protesting injustice, but ultimately the revelation of the transcendent, “the eternal beneath the accidental.” This evocation of the transcendent may be the frontier of post-modern film.

Meanwhile, just as Andre Bazin’s personalism guided him to “look not for fleeting reflections but for the soul,” an inspiration that fostered the unprecedented nouvelle vague films in France, including the work of Truffaut and Rohmer, the present-day critic should be open to innovative work that risks to embrace the spirit. The primary function of film criticism is not to seek or impose any formula but to liberate us from the crippling assumptions of the times. We critics need to be as brave as artists, and as humble.

The Spirit listeth where He will.

 

This special edition of Image offers, happily, quite different assessments of the relationship of the art of film to religion and spirituality: the sometimes uneasy alliances of the past, the convergences of the present, and what might be appearing on the horizon.

This issue appears at a time of yet another significant convergence: The 1998 Image Conference on the Arts and Religion (Screening Mystery: The Religious Imagination in Contemporary Film) will be held concurrently with the City of the Angels Festival, an ecumenical religious film festival held in the heart of Hollywood. We welcome all to this celebration of film and spirituality which will be held November 5th through 8th at the Directors Guild.


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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