Editor’s Note: This is the second in an ongoing series of articles looking at films and their nontraditional correspondences with my faith. Click here for the first installment.
When I first begin exploring this very challenging question of a “holy form” in cinema, I thought it would be beneficial to begin by examining the very nature of the cinematic medium. What is it in the form of film that makes it so effective on a spiritual level—that gives us those goosebumps and provides those occasional “holy moments” of transcendence?
The first and most important thing to recognize about film is that it is a temporal art. Like theater, music, dance and other performance media, the moving image takes place in the passage of time. But film also has the ability to manipulate time: to stretch it, condense it, rearrange it, cut and paste it at will. In a film we can experience a timespan of thousands of years (see The Fountain, for example), or just 90 real-time minutes (see Before Sunset). The point is that time is crucial in cinema: It is the primary means of expression. As Andrei Tarkovsky (Russian filmmaker/theorist) says, filmmaking is “sculpting in time.”
When we go to see a film, we are experiencing time as a foremost feature: We see it play out in front of our eyes, and we can’t help but focus upon it, be present with it and bear its burden along with the characters. In our everyday lives, time (in the profound sense) is rarely at the forefront of our minds. We are constantly worrying about the trivial aspects of time: What’s next on the agenda, what else do I have to do? But when it comes to really considering the weight of time and its awkward opposition to what we feel is our true nature (eternity), cinema is one of the best—and only—places to encounter it.
I’ve found that the films that really hone in on the temporality of time—that are in some ways about the passage of time—are those that seem to me the most transcendent. But why? I think it has to do with the fact that the only way we can really experience the holy, transcendent, or eternal (things we have little human reference for) in art is through the encounter with its absence, or desperate rarity. It is in the glimpse, the blip, the solitary brushstroke of glory that we can begin to approach it.
In The Mind of the Maker, Dorothy Sayers says that “Only X can give reality to Not-X; that is to say, Not-Being depends for its reality upon Being. In this way we may faintly see how the creation of Time may be said automatically to create a time when Time was not.”
When we see time for what it is, we also see it for what it isn’t: a wholly other, more fulfilling, tearless thing called eternity. This is a realization that invites transcendence. And it is an epiphany that comes across rather often in cinema. Here are three recent examples that might clarify the idea:
All the Real Girls: The World in Decay
David Gordon Green’s All the Real Girls (2003) is a film about change. The story follows the highs and lows of a romance between a twentysomething guy (Paul Schneider) and girl (Zooey Deschanel) in a rural North Carolina town. The film is less about the blossoming of young love than it is about the gradual loss of it—the changes and challenges that every relationship goes through.
Fittingly, the film takes place in autumn, and is shot in a palette of burnt reds, oranges, browns and yellows. There are ubiquitous images of decay—of broken down pianos, rundown cars, crippled dogs, trees losing dead leaves, etc. In the characters as well, there is decay—each one is facing the challenges of growing older, assuming new responsibilities, and leaving the carefree innocence of childhood behind. Decay is not a bad thing; in nature it is an essential part of the cycle of growth (i.e. autumn). But both decay and growth are unique to a temporal existence in which all is evanescent, and this realization can lie heavy on the heart.
Throughout the film, the passage of time is an important stylistic mode. The first scene is a static, 4 minute shot of the couple as they share (what we assume is) their first real kiss. As we watch this, we are drawn in to the awkward energy and joy of their connection—as it unfolds in reality, in real time. Later, at a crucial turning point of the film, there is an extended sequence of time lapse shots—of rapidly passing clouds across a mountain vista, gaslight sunrises over industrial factories, and shifting stars in the moonlit sky. In this imagery we see how the film is about more than just love and the loss of love. It is about the broader, more root-level force that drives earthly existence: change.
Once: The Music Metaphor
If you haven’t seen this summer’s sleeper hit, Once, you simply must seek it out. The tiny Irish film—about a Dublin street musician (Glen Hansard of indie band The Frames) who meets a Czech immigrant (Markéta Irglová) and forges an intimate connection through a mutual love of music—is quite truly the feel-good film of the year. Though it’s certainly not feel-good in the typical sense of the word. With a title so fleeting as Once, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the film doesn’t end with a happily-ever-after future. Rather, it is a film that revels in the joy of the moment.
Once is a kind of musical; or at least, it is film very much centered on music and the performance of it. The film is loaded with lovely songs and impromptu jam sessions, in which characters harmonize and produce magical musical moments. Music is a temporal thing, however, and in Once it serves as a metaphor for the central relationship of the film: it is a passing joy, a flash of beauty sparked by the unlikely collision of two very different people (like a collection of disparate notes that together form a beautiful chord). And like an experience of music, it creates an imprint in our memory that lasts much longer than its physical presence.
Like music, film is made up of artistic instances (images, sounds) that are here and then gone, in the blink of an eye. Every song performed live is only ever experienced “once,” and thus the musical motif of Once makes perfect sense. We can record these moments and revisit them (as the characters of this film do when they record a song together), but the original “now” is forever lost. Likewise, the film’s visual aesthetic (which is barren, naturally-lit, and unembellished) and its shooting style (slow-paced, unobtrusive, and meditative) help to convey this bittersweet reality of a transcendent, holy moment peaking through the superficial, mundane everyday, if only for a fleeting flare of a moment.
Lost in Translation: The Morning After
It’s a bit of a hipster cliché to love this movie, but some clichés are grounded in truth. Sofia Coppola’s 2003 film cemented her status as an auteur with something significant to say, and for me, the film speaks new truth and beauty each time I see it. The story is about two lonely Americans (Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson) who meet in Tokyo—one of the most overwhelming cities in the world—and share a rare, deep, and fleeting connection.
For anyone who ever shared a brief connection with someone but had it cut short by extenuating circumstances (i.e. life), the ending of Translation hits close to home. As Murray’s character leaves Tokyo to go home to his family, he and Johansson must face the fact that their connection was temporary—a bittersweet tease of something that could have been more, but was only ever meant to be a four day affair. As the unforgettable Jesus and Mary Chain song (“Just Like Honey”) plays, and the two characters go their separate ways, we are left with a montage of images of Tokyo in the milky light of dawn: empty streets, ghostly quietness, and the hollow feeling of having only the memories of the night before.
Sofia Coppola excels at juxtaposing the isolation and existential confusion of the dreaded everyday with the lively and vibrant experience of connection and present joy. In each of her films, her characters experience life and time both at its most stifling/burdensome (as told in long, static shots) and in its most hurried, frenetic, and rapturous (as seen in more mobile, dizzying camera work and jump cuts). The ending of Translation is an awakening of sorts from the dreamlike escape that was the long night’s journey into day. It mirrors similar “morning after” scenes in Coppola’s other films (The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette) in which characters awake, hungover and weary with the realization that parties end, life goes on, and episodes of transcendence are always surprising, and always brief.