An Introduction by Guest Editor Scott Teems
The first issue of Image I read was Issue 31, in the summer of 2001; it was the first in a subscription gifted me by the Act One screenwriting program in Los Angeles, which I had just completed. Initially, I was intimidated by the journal’s focus on fine arts. I was just a kid from Georgia; I went to public school! I didn’t know this world or understand its vernacular. I nearly set the issue aside mere minutes after opening it, until I came upon an essay by Ron Austin—and my world was blown open.
Like the deepest art, the essay has layers that reveal themselves over time. At first it seemed primarily theoretical, but upon multiple readings its practical applications were uncovered, idea by valuable idea. The ancient principle of unity of form and content is the bedrock of the essay, and it receives new life through Austin’s explication; he transforms it from concept to tool.
Austin not only opened my eyes to a trove of spiritually minded films and filmmakers I had yet to encounter, he gave me a new way of thinking about how I might make films of my own. Making spiritually seeking films is no easy endeavor, and he offers no formats or quick fixes. What we are trying for, he says, is “nothing less than a miracle: a film with a few seconds of eternity in it.”
Austin carries a torch handed down by philosophers like René Girard and Gil Bailie, applying their work to the art of film. He introduced me to Girard’s concept of mimetic desire and its place at the root of ritual and religion; that, in turn, helped me understand more about my primary concerns as a storyteller: men, violence, religion, and the South. The journey I am on, Austin showed me, is “a search for what is heard in silence.” The answers, he writes, “can only be found in simplicity.”
I’ve read this essay countless times in the years since it was first published. I’ve photocopied it for friends, quoted it in emails. My original is marked up with so many highlights and underlines that they’ve become essentially pointless. It is a gift that continues to stir my soul, as relevant today as it was fifteen years ago. The advent of digital technology allows films to be made less expensively every year, which encourages experimentation. Ron Austin gives us a vision for these new kinds of filmmaking, one that taps into the very foundations of civilization while connecting to the modern viewer in radically contemporary ways.
He shows us our way forward and our way back at the same time.
I’ve asked Image to reprint the essay here simply because I want more people to read it. It’s as vital a work on the art of filmmaking as any I’ve ever read.
We now must have the courage to breathe moral and spiritual motivation into everything.
THE FOLLOWING REFLECTIONS emanate from many years as a writer and producer in the media industry, but primarily from my subsequent work as a teacher of aspiring screenwriters. I believe that a growing number of writers and filmmakers feel the need to create films in a new spirit. They are seeking new paths, yet are open to an ancient light, an age-old, never-exhausted source of artistic energy: the light that comes from our spiritual lives, from faith and religious belief, light that we can find within us, yet a mysterious gift from without.
My premise is that screenwriting as an art must be evaluated by an aesthetic criterion: the principle of unity of form and content. This principle suggests that an attempt to find a contemporary expression of Gospel truths, to impart transcendent experiences through film, demands a change in form and structure. Further, the prerequisite for such a quest is to be found not simply in craft and practice but in the discipline of a spiritual life. There is no formula, nor would we desire one. To begin the search for these new forms, I am convinced that we must first break down the walls between art and faith and integrate the disciplines of writing and prayer.
Art that shares some of the revelatory power of religion can be described as diaphoric, meaning “showing through,” and offering an epiphany, a coming to light. It is this new light promised by a renewed relationship between art and spirituality that we now seek in considering the art of screenwriting.
Art has always had a religious function in that it derives in part from the rituals that celebrate and preserve the human encounter with the transcendent. The extraordinary experiences that constitute our shared epiphanies are preserved in our collective memory not just by religious tradition and teachings, but, most powerfully, by our images, stories, poems, dances, and songs.
However, to explore the spiritual frontiers of our present-day storytelling, we must first explore the relationship between our art and our own religious experiences. How do we experience God, the transcendent, the sacred, the holy? How do these experiences relate to our work as screenwriters?
We can recognize some common ground. Two central characteristics of religious testimony are found in the experience of art as well. When we confront the vast dimensions of the universe, or the beauty of the sea, we are simultaneously encountering nature and something beyond the natural. This primordial religious sense is found in all cultures and can even be called a defining characteristic of the human species.
Certain decisive personal experiences, intense moments of joy or pain or fear in which time seems to stop, are often considered religious by nature. This kind of disclosure relates to what theologian David Tracy calls a “limit-experience” in which we encounter the utter “otherness of the whole” as an unfathomable mystery. To speak of a “disclosure within limits” is to approach the vocabulary of art.
The second characteristic that connects art and religion is related to revelation: it is a claim to truth, or at least a partial grasping of truth that offers a certainty beyond opinion. This is based not merely in personal experience, but validated by the experience of others over time. Jewish scholar Emil Fackenheim describes these “root experiences,” such as the Exodus, as constituting the core of a tradition.
Experiences of an awesome reality and compelling, revealed truth ultimately create a religious consciousness characterized by a sense of undifferentiated unity, something akin to the “born again” experience of renewal and transfiguration. While most in the contemporary art world rigorously avoid the “born again” language, many speak of similar experiences in aesthetic terms. This is what Rilke described when he said that an encounter with a great work of art is a demand that you change your life.
These common characteristics of art and faith suggest a possible and desirable unity. Through the ages, attempts to describe encounters with great art, including the aesthetic experience of beauty, also witness to a unity and a kind of truth claim. There is a sense of a wholeness, as well as intimations (if not something stronger) of how one ought to live. When we attempt to integrate our artistic work and our faith experiences, therefore, it seems clear that we are not trying to force an unnatural union. It is the artificial distinction between “public” values and “private” religious beliefs that is unnatural and forced. We are bringing back together what no one should have separated.
The common denominator in art and religion is the perception of a formal unity that points beyond itself. It is the goal of the artist to discover and express this unity in specific and concrete forms. Yet in confronting the highest art we are often left with a lingering sense of estrangement. We delight in a great gift, but there is a feeling of incompleteness. This relates, I suggest, to the highest purpose of art, and it is only the greatest works that fully achieve it. Paradoxically, at its most sublime, art achieves a unity that reveals its own radical insufficiency. It can now only point beyond itself; it can only hint at the glory of its origin.
Another element common to art and religion comes from our perception that there is an incomprehensible depth to what we call reality. We have experiences beyond our rational grasp: insights, dreams, intuitions, and revelations. This is a recognition of the mystery of existence, of being itself, and throughout the ages, art has stirred these deeper ways of knowing. In both art and religion we encounter a high wall and a call from somewhere beyond. This awareness of the multi-layered nature of reality may not provide in itself a spirituality or a work of art, but its denial closes the door to the exploration of the riches of both.
What perhaps most clearly connects our spiritual experiences with art and writing, however, is the mystery traditionally called beauty.
The experience of art as it relates to beauty has been observed—and disputed—throughout the ages, reflecting differing concepts of the nature of the human being. Saint Thomas Aquinas approved of beauty as a form of sensual pleasure, but in a context quite different from that of popular entertainment. The eminent Thomist Jacques Maritain further observed that, through the senses, “art teaches men the pleasures of the spirit.”
A more recent and remarkable affirmation of the redeeming nature of beauty came in Pope John Paul II’s 1999 Letter to the Artists of the World. This document can well serve those who are primarily motivated to speak the truth or affirm the good but whose truths and goodness seem to fall short of art.
Quoting Plato, John Paul affirms the classical view that beauty is the visible form of the Good: “The power of the Good has taken refuge in the nature of the Beautiful.” The Pope sees the artist’s true vocation as the creation of beauty—a view that contrasts sharply with the motivations encouraged by a competitive marketplace—rejecting “cheap popularity” and personal profit as appropriate goals.
John Paul notes that Christian art began in tension with the ancient world. The Edict of Constantine brought a freedom to Christian artists during the late Roman Empire, making art “a privileged means of expression of faith,” and from Giotto to Rembrandt to Rouault, from Gregorian chant to Górecki, from Dante to Eliot, the privilege proved highly productive. But in the modern era the history of western art culminated in a humanism largely without religious expression or guidance. John Paul nonetheless sees this secularized humanism as a bridge to religious experience, if not belief. He recognizes that there are different paths to wonder, awe, blessedness, and joy—paths based upon experiences that great art can facilitate.
John Paul quotes Dostoevsky: “beauty will save the world,” suggesting that beauty is the way to God for the people of today. He speaks of a “transfiguring beauty,” a form of transformation. This does not mean prettiness, nor do unity and harmony come easily. There is a Yeatsian “terrible beauty” in the world: the beauty—for that is the word—of Christ on the cross. John Paul is speaking of an Easter beauty that makes no attempt to circumvent Good Friday.
Art as beauty is the transformation of the ordinary. And nothing has been more transformative, more revolutionary, than the effort throughout the history of western art to find form for the content of the Gospel. Language itself was transformed by this effort, whether by Saint Augustine’s Latin, Dante’s Italian, or the evolution of English from Chaucer to Shakespeare.
The challenge from John Paul is of a high order. It is to invite the Holy Spirit within us to create truthful, courageous, transforming—that is to say, beautiful—art.
Beauty as the basis for religious and spiritual unity is what Chiara Lubich, the founder of the international Focolare movement, proclaims. Unity is ultimately a form of nonverbal assent, whether in recognition of the world’s grandeur or of common human suffering. We will never achieve unity through argumentation.
There’s a splendid example of this in David Brandes’s film The Quarrel, in which two middle-aged Jews, childhood friends who survived the Shoah, meet after many years. One is a rabbi, the other now an atheist, angry at God for allowing such suffering. They argue endlessly and come to no conclusion. Their lives have taken on different meanings, but there is a wonderful moment in which they close their eyes, sing, and weave a dance together. This is the assent of beauty, an assent not theological, certainly not ideological, but profoundly religious.
This challenge is a call neither to return to the past, nor to bless the status quo. It is a demand for change and transformation.
We are now staring at a horizon. How can we express in the contemporary language of film the beauty and transcendence that have existed in art through the ages? This is not a question to be answered with intellectual propositions. We must first admit that we do not and cannot fully know. We are seeking nothing less than a miracle: a film with a few seconds of eternity in it.
We can only offer some prayerful speculation.
A breakthrough in art, as is evident in the history of film’s formal development, is related to, if not motivated by, a crisis in circumstances and belief. It is the crisis of modernity, the loss of faith in secular substitutes for religious faith, a crisis emerging at the time the art of film was born, that has led to the search for the human soul evidenced in the best of cinema.
This search continues now under a condition of maximized freedom, but is largely deprived of the resources of religion, much less theology. Yet what is evident in the best work is implicitly Trinitarian: we discover the human soul in the dynamic yet mysterious process of relationship. How can films further enter into this sublime contemplation?
Images of Christ throughout western art have reflected changes in theological points of view—a shifting back and forth between renderings of a recognizable human being in a specific time and place, and images that aspire to be transcendent, timeless, and iconic. Given the exhausted, dead-end subjectivity in the arts, it is the latter shift, toward the transcendent, that we might now anticipate in film.
In suggesting this direction, I am aware of the ever persistent theological questions involved—by using commonplace, time-locked imagery, does artistic expression embody a Gospel truth or obscure it? Conversely, is the “spiritualizing” of art a flight from reality, even a denial of the incarnation? Inherent to these questions is the limitation of art itself. Thinkers as diverse as von Balthasar, Dupré, Tracy, Wolterstorff, Tillich, Pieper, and Schönborn have addressed these issues systematically. My response is more intuitive. An argument would be beyond my competence, but let me attempt to justify my intuition.
I sense a deep dissatisfaction with the remnant mythology of progress, particularly among the young. The incessant noise, the defiant indulgences signal despair, not vitality. But there is simultaneously a search for roots and origins which goes beyond the need for identity; I believe it is a search for what is heard in silence and can only be found in simplicity.
An art reflecting this search, I suggest, will be drawn toward the primordial and cyclical, toward the vital, long-neglected relationship between art and religious ritual.
At the heart of ritual is human sacrifice. Modernity rebelled against the false sacrifices demanded in the name of human power, but came to a late realization that the predominate fraud was secular in nature: human sacrifice in the name of the crowd or the leader—war, nationalism, political ideology, and now the cult of technology.
The other arena of sacrifice, sexuality, is too complex to be explored here, but as true sacrifice is found in love, human and divine, this is the essential, definitive frontier. As writers we must openly defy the misuse of the word love, the most abused in Hollywood. The essential precondition of love is truth, and the truth of love resides in its origin. Human love is precious, yet only a pale reflection of the mystery of creation. Love is not a formula for anything, much less movies. The transformative nature of love, the provocative inseparability of eros and agape, will, as always, provide the questions for which we must find the forms.
I detect, also, especially in the young, an acceptance of the tragic nature of life that is somewhat new in American culture and defies the lingering convention of the happy ending. While this tendency remains unreflective and veers toward a neo-paganism which melds rebellion with resignation, it at least cleanses the palate of the sour tastes of religious sentimentalism and liberal utopianism. It prepares the way, one hopes, for the recognition of tragedy in a metaphysical sense, the plunging of the soul into matter, and the recognition of death as essential to the process of creation: Unless the grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone.
What I anticipate is, in essence, the further evocation of the transcendent. I say further because, though largely neglected in American films (and in film schools), there is already a rich spiritual inheritance to be found in the relatively short history of film.
First, let us clarify what we mean by transcendence in this context. The term suggests the experience of a mysterious gift, beyond definition. But, if this is a gift offered through art, we might further ask, what do we sense to be the difference between this encounter and the refined delights of the senses called aesthetic pleasure? Or, in drama and film, how is it different from catharsis, the purging of emotion? Are we simply describing deep emotions that lead to insight? Is transcendent, in this case, a superfluous, even meaningless label?
The term is certainly subject to such reductionist trimming, unless one holds some underlying religious convictions, such as the belief that the gift assumes a donor. Perhaps we can only share this experience vaguely, like wakened dreamers, but the variety of attempts to describe it suggest that transcendence is all of the above—and more. It is beyond the aesthetic in that it is provoked by the work but offers more than the work. Our shared, inexplicable reactions to certain works of art inspire the label. We discover, in our converging responses, that they are more than subjective longings.
Drama engages our emotions and may produce catharsis, but what then? What stays with the viewer after the best of films? In some there is something more than the moment of tears or laughter, inspiration or insight, but a gift that lasts, grows, continues to provoke. There is catharsis, but also a kind of shared attention that, again, goes beyond the work itself.
Perhaps it is foolhardy even to attempt to explicate what is, after all, a mystery. We can only validate the term transcendent as a legitimate referent, knowing that others can only be convinced of what we describe by experiencing the art that inspires us. The transcendent is to be found in more than one form and style, just as it is inspired by more than one religious tradition. And it can now be found as a legacy in the art of film.
A generation ago, screenwriter Paul Schrader, in his book Transcendental Style in Film, argued that the formal achievements of Carl Dreyer, Yasujiro Ozu, and Robert Bresson were derived from their apprehension of the transcendent. Whether or not one accepts the premise of a common style, an ongoing search is also clearly evident in the films of Ingmar Bergman, Éric Rohmer, and most notably in more recent times, Andrei Tarkovsky and Krzysztof Kieślowski .
Our inheritance also includes such films as Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, Alain Cavalier’s Thérèse, and Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire, as well as unforgettable and often inexplicable moments in films of varying styles and cultures. See for example the old man in the children’s park in Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru, or the soldier wandering among the dead in Kon Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp. Or consider the endings of films as diverse as Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, Robert Benton’s Places in the Heart, or Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves.
Paul Schrader’s study of the “transcendental style” was groundbreaking and invaluable, but Schrader was looking primarily at effects, rather than probing spiritual sources. Radical spiritual freedom pushes the limits of style, and a conscious effort, creatively or critically, to limit what we seek by category or analysis would be self-defeating. It is the source of this freedom that must guide us. The forms and style will follow.
The central question is, at this moment, which artistic direction will best open us to the living and unifying presence of God? Only the finished work will tell us, but in order to undertake the project, we must challenge many of our current assumptions and inhibitions.
So let us further speculate.
The films I anticipate, rather than depending primarily on sentiment and emotion, would aim to induce a state of spiritual attention in the viewer, a detached and reflective state. The formal elements would most likely include prototypes, rhythm and repetition, as well as a new relationship between word and image.
The screenplays, premised on the primacy of the spiritual, would be stories of mystery, in the sense that mysteries are not finished events. In our art, ultimate mystery resides not in plot twists, but in the human face. This means discovering the mysteries in the ordinary, and it implies a way of life that takes the writer out of the studio and into an engagement in a world beyond career advancement.
The stories would acknowledge multiple levels of meaning, and might include unrepeatable elements, unique and not easily categorized—the portrayal of an event as if it had happened before, or a sense of pattern and convergence such as we find in the ending of Kieślowski’s Red. While contemporary in mood and setting, the stories and symbols would nevertheless evoke in the audience the deep and dangerous memories that link us with our distant past. This suggests a form and style more rooted in ritual and rhythm than in theatrical story structures.
Structure itself would have to be reconsidered. We might begin with the Gospels and recognize that while this “greatest story,” the ur story, has a triadic nature—the mysteries of incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection—it is largely incomprehensible in human terms unless we begin in the middle. (We might also consider the structural implications of the Jewish concept of teshuvah, a continuous flow from and return to the divine, which is viewed by the faithful as a revelation of the primordial structure of the world.)
If the central characters reflect the times, they will undoubtedly be people conducting a search, people who are finally unwilling, even incapable, of living with illusion. The film of the future will be part of this search, but not its ultimate conclusion. Such an ambition would be a sign of pride. I once heard a perceptive Christian novelist caution his colleagues at an arts conference that “the problem with many Christian writers is that they often have the answer before they have lived the question.” The answers in our stories, if any, will be ancient and universal; it is the questions that must be refined and understood anew.
What I’m describing could be called an avant-garde, but not with the self-conscious posturing the term now implies. It would also be a radical traditionalism, in that our peers would be Giotto and Dante. If these works were to emerge, they would not be wholly new but would come from a rediscovery of some of the most venerable principles of art. Aristotle described tragedy as “incidents arousing pity and fear” that evoke wonder because “the agents are not visible.” If the future filmmaker were truly to invoke this principle of wonder in his or her stories, one can only ponder what form the story might take.
Not only would storytelling change, but so undoubtedly would every aspect of style and technique, in production and post-production as well. The look of such films would be strikingly different. In retrospect we can recognize look and style—without even understanding the dialogue or knowing the story content—at almost every stage of film’s artistic development. We recognize, for example, the back-lit alley of the German expressionists, the deep-focus staging of Renoir and Welles, the newsreel look of the Italian neo-realists, and the jump-cut editing of the early French New Wave.
God doesn’t need publicists, nor a public relations campaign. What God needs from writers is simply the truth. One of the desert fathers said that “the man who would draw near to God would do well to attend to what he can see in his image…with nothing left out.” The God of the Bible does not whittle down the truth, and the filmmaker must not try to do so either. The prevalent narcissistic state of our culture will only be overcome by a severe realism—a blow with a two-by-four, at least. The spiritual films of the future might therefore be among the most harshly realistic films yet seen.
Who will make these films? Those who have the talent and the courage, of course, but also those willing to explore new creative relationships—to work more collaboratively, even communally, and to be less restricted by the territoriality of ego and specialization. In that all human effort has a transcendent potential, there is no reason to expect that these films would necessarily be made only by religious believers. The common denominator would be the filmmaker’s desire to cross over a boundary, as people do in prayer, to provoke in one’s self (and one’s audience) a state of heightened awareness in which the light is not seen, but only the objects it illuminates are seen.
Finally, filmmakers must have an audience. This challenge too will require creativity and patience. Films evoking the primacy of the spiritual would question the most basic assumptions of the culture, and would probably be, at least initially, more challenging than satisfying. The stories might be less than immediately accessible, not for the sake of some pretentious avant-garde obscurity, but because of the need to capture more than one dimension of reality. The transcendent films of the past—the works of Bresson and Tarkovsky, in particular—are frequently labeled inaccessible and difficult, and are, in fact, often puzzling and ambiguous. Many simply “don’t get it,” because what we want to “get” is what we already have. We don’t want empty spaces. We want a confirmation of what we already know, or think we know. Experiencing the best of these works is not a matter of intelligence or taste. It is not a question of learning something new; it is letting go of what we think we know.
An audience seeking the spiritual or transcendent in the film experience must first become finally disillusioned with the mirages of a materialistic popular culture. A completely new orientation between film and viewer is required. The audience must encounter the film as a person, must be open to its possibilities, and filmmakers must reject the concept of a mass audience and speak always as if to a person.
The intuitive needs of the artist, however, must coincide with the largely inchoate needs of the audience. If the needs of the audience remain primarily for escape and diversion, then serious artists’ work will languish, but we cannot wait; the work must come first. No theory or plan is available. We must struggle to remain open to the needs of others, and be ready to do as we are called.
These are mere intuitions, and they can, at best, take us only to the boundaries of the future. In truth, future cinema will be influenced more by coming revelatory moments in history than by the internal developments in the art form. Meanwhile, many of the important stories of our times have yet to be told. We know that Christian belief has been shaped by tragedy and martyrdom, and yet few if any significant films have been made about our contemporary martyrs. We must eventually find the appropriate means, including the forms, to tell the stories of witnesses such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Edith Stein, Pavel Florensky, and Maximilian Kolbe. Stories remain to be told about other figures who may not be saints, or even religious believers, but who also bore witness to their times, people such as Simone Weil, Walter Benjamin, Garcia Lorca, and Anna Akhmatova.
This is not to suggest that it is only the figures of the past who should inspire us. Perhaps our most memorable stories will be about anonymous saints, such as the growing number of as-yet unsung martyrs in Africa.
As people of faith we are in the modern world, but not of it. We have inherited the modern legacy of freedom, but we do not need to invent ourselves; we have each been given a soul. We do not need to invent so much as search for what already exists. To find the means to tell our stories, we must first be transformed by the light of grace. Only then will we know what lies ahead, if we are willing to proceed with the eyes of faith, and to risk learning how to see again.
Image Goes to the Movies: A Coda
In 1998, privileged by Image to be a guest editor [of Issue 20] and commentator on the state of film, I claimed to perceive hopeful signs, sprouts of green, in an otherwise dismal environment. Along with some of the other contributors, I foresaw a spiritual if not religious awareness emerging among artists and writers.
Then in 2001 I contributed another piece to Image, which the editors have generously reprinted here. I was somewhat more sober by then. Clearly no religious renaissance had emerged, and American society was becoming even more fractious and confused.
It is salubrious yet sobering to look back at one’s assessment of a past reality. It is also risky to one’s reputation as a sage or even astute observer. Was my earlier optimism simply wrong, or did it perhaps reflect impatience more than wishful thinking? In any case, I’ve been offered another chance to be wrong. And yet, once again, I am more or less optimistic, though one might be justified in qualifying that term.
I believe that the filmmaker guided by faith and religious tradition now must embrace (or run from) a new freedom. As Christians in a society that has lost even its secular moorings, we are no longer obligated by even reasonable accommodation. Of course, as people of faith we have moral obligations to reach out, whether as artists or in ministry, to those in need. But we can now see more clearly that the most prevalent and devastating poverty in America is not primarily economic but spiritual—the result of a loss of common standards of historic proportions. We face a poverty of alienation and despair that no government program can remedy.
What is needed, as always, is faith, family, and genuine community. Our work as filmmakers must now be in that context, and we must labor to overcome our own alienation. This is what I mean by our new freedom; whether we welcome it or not, we are no longer bound by the illusions of success or material security. We are forced by freedom to do our best and most unaccommodating work.
If I am now more sober in my appraisal than in 1998, I’m also more encouraged. I predicted that the communities necessary for the freedom to create the art we are called to achieve would only be formed out of necessity. The necessity is increasingly apparent.
Artists, like other people of faith, face some decisive choices. Presuming that we recognize that seeking success in what’s left of a mainstream is as undesirable as it is illusory, I suggest that we have two remaining options: we can either hope to restore some foundation, moral and aesthetic, for our work, or we must venture forth into the desert with the biblical analogies as guides.
By restoring foundations, I mean reinvigorating the artistic forms of the past. As I disavow the concept of “progress” in the arts as one of the disordered notions of modernity, I would welcome the recovery of the great tradition of the West. There are giants of the past upon whose shoulders I would gladly climb. This would require, however—as it always has—enormous discipline, as well as the recognition of not merely standards but authority. Frankly, it is hard to imagine a contemporary American willing to put on that harness.
In the art of film, what might this restoration imply?
Do we aspire to make films in the manner of Hollywood, old or new? Do we still find credible the smooth linearity of the storyline, despite its utter lack of truthfulness and reality? Religious artists are always at risk of allowing our faith to slip into wish-fulfillment. Do the dreams that Hollywood still sells tempt us to our own escape from reality?
There are, of course, other traditions in the art of film—European and Asian, such as the postwar neorealists and later cinéma vérité explorations. But what is it that we hope to offer in our work? What needs do we sense that should be met?
If we hope to offer something more substantial than pious propaganda (the trap of the American Christian) how can we share the grace we have been granted by Christ? Under these increasingly bleak circumstances, isn’t this going to require something so bold as to appear new?
This second path, the desert path, seems to me inescapable. As much as I revere the filmmakers of the past, I don’t see how their forms are going to contain the demands of our content. In other words, we are now blessed or condemned to a new freedom forced by our increasing marginalization. I find nothing in this challenge discouraging, but then, I’m no longer trying to make films and a living at the same time.
Elsewhere I’ve suggested—if not advocated—that the contemporary filmmaker is now more comparable to a poet than an entertainer, though I do not disparage the latter. This is because in a post-cultural atmosphere in which language is so debased, only forms of poetry, the idiom that best expresses the transcendent, are likely to communicate or, better, commune with others.
If my musing and speculations of some years ago are still of value, I hope they will encourage you to persist in the search for the appropriate forms for the always new and liberating message of the Gospel. You are in my prayers.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.