Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Film as Devotion

In 2001 the avant-garde filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky gave a lecture at Princeton University entitled Devotional Cinema. Two years later the talk was published as a book by Tuumba Press. Dorsky’s presentation touches on issues of faith, film and philosophy. It is a deep and profound book, not overly academic whilst not shying away from complex and difficult themes. What follows is a meditation on Dorsky’s themes and an attempt to flesh out some of the underlying issues not directly addressed by Dorsky. It is meant to be an open interpretation, a reading, in the classical sense of the word, where one attempts, with analysis and rigor but also charity and good humor to appropriate, express and expand upon what the original conveys. Philosophy is, after all, dialectical, a dialogue, a space for ideas to breathe and grow.

Dorsky begins with clarifying his subject in the following way: “Where film itself is the spirit or experience of religion.” He is not interested in films that deal with religious subjects, per se, but rather with a religious or spiritual quality in the experience of film. In this sense film can become a form of devotion. Not devotion as the expression of a specific religious form but rather the shared “opening or the interruption that allows us to experience what is hidden, and to accept with our hearts our given situation.”

As an example of such an experience Dorsky recounts the story of when he went to the movies as a young boy for an all-day Saturday matinee, filled to the brim with delectables that included “three features, ten cartoons, and a good dose of previews, all in one sitting.” After this marathon of film Dorsky found, upon reentering the “outside world,” that his perception and experience was changed. Everything looked strange, off-kilter, new. The very “givenness” of the world, to use the language of phenomenology, had changed through his viewing of these films. “Quite suddenly, the normal things that were my usual reference points, everything that had been familiar to me in my hometown, all its archetypes and icons, became eerie and questionable. I felt alien and estranged.”

Though this experience may sound unsettling, even frightening, it is nonetheless ultimately life-affirming, a wondrous awakening. It is the experience of what Rudolf Otto called the “numinous,” the awareness of the hidden and unseen within that which we do see. It is the ability to be amazed by the everyday world, even shocked by it. Few have expressed such experiences with as much grace and poesy as Thoreau. In his essay “The Main Woods,” he writes: “Talk of mysteries!—Think of our life in nature,—daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it,—rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! The actual world! The common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? Where are we?” It is the cry of profound wonder and joy at having one’s eyes opened, of seeing the beauty in what is “everyday” or “normal.” It is, indeed, to have the vision to see that which gives itself to us in this supposed normalcy as infinite and mysterious. To see the invisible in the visible. Or, as William Blake wrote, to have the “Doors of Perception cleansed,” so one may see “eternity in a grain of sand.”

This is the devotional aspect of film. It is a transfiguring experience, one of spiritual magnitude. It is a shared element in all great art, but film presents a devotional form only hinted at through other artistic expressions. Dorsky goes so far to suggest that film, through its very metaphysical nature, has the ability to “mirror and realign our metabolism.” Dorsky’s essay abounds with such enigmatic sayings, many of which cry out for further explanation or explication. In a spirit of generosity I suggest that he might be pointing to a fundamental connection between how we view films and how we view the world and moreover that films have the power to alter and realign our ability to truly see. This is, of course, not just perceptual sight but the comprehension of an inner, hidden reality, the eidetic seeing described by Plato through which the forms, the inner principles of things in the world, are revealed to us. In such a way, Dorsky suggests, films (and art in general) have the ability to affect our spiritual health: “There was something in the actual nature of the cinema, its view, that could produce health or illness in an audience. There might be a film that had a very meaningful subject but was so inelegantly handled that it actually left one feeling unhealthy or alienated.” One need look no further than the recent Academy Award winning film Crash to see a perfect example of this. It is a film dealing with a subject of great importance and depth that is turned into a preachy, moralistic soap-opera with all the emotional depth of a Hallmark card. To view such a film is to be left drained of energy and spirit. On the other hand, one can point to a film dealing with a seemingly “unimportant” subject matter, such as David Lynch’s The Straight Story, where the simplicity of the story does nothing but add to the artistry and poetic expression of the filmmaking itself. Such a film makes one more alive, more attuned to the subtleties and beauties of this world. It is an ode to life, both happy and sad, like all such odes must be.

Another theme worth mentioning here is of the essential nature of film as being light sculpted in time. Dorsky says: “On a visceral level, the intermittent quality of a film is close to the way we experience the world. We don’t experience a solid continuum of existence.” Dorsky goes on to distinguish between two kinds of time, relative time – which is the flow of time, from the start of a film to its end or the birth of an individual to death at old age – and absolute time, or nowness – which is the “eternal now,” the present moment which connects the flow of time with eternity. In a beautiful passage Dorsky explains the ability of film to connect the two: “Experiencing the relationship of nowness to relative time is akin to walking on a treadmill: the nowness is your presence while relative time passes under your feet. Nowness in cinema deeply respects the nowness in an audience.” Furthermore, cinema must appreciate both elements together. They must invigorate each other. A film that relies too much on relative time is a filmed play or book, a literary art form masquerading as a visual one. It is an affront to the unique quality and poesy of film. A film that focuses too much on the nowness is ultimately unfocused, unable to immerse us in the waking dream of film. It is a series of unconnected images (which may be beautiful in themselves) that does not affect us except perhaps in a cold, scientifically-aesthetic way.

Even more interesting is Dorsky’s analysis of the essential prerequisites for a harmony between absolute and relative time. One must have a kind of detachment, the ability to refrain from imposing concepts or ideas on an image. On this analysis, the filmmaker must practice a kind of spiritual asceticism whereby he is able to let go of his ego-thoughts in a manner similar to the teachings of zen or the “Gelassenheit” (the letting-go) of the German mystic Meister Eckhart. Dorsky says: “When the absolute and temporal are unified, film becomes a narrative of nowness and reveals things for what they are rather than as surrogates for some predetermined concept. It is the fear of direct contact with the uncontrollable present that motivates the flight into concept.” Later he adds: “If a film fails to take advantage of the self-existing magic of things, if it uses objects merely to mean something, it has thrown away one of its great possibilities. When we take an object and make it mean something, what we are doing, in a subtle or not so subtle way, is confirming ourselves. We are confirming our own concepts of who we are and what the world is. But allowing things to be seen for what they are offers a more open, more fertile ground than the realm of predetermined symbolic meaning. After all, the unknown is pure adventure.”

Dorsky here echoes the spirit of such philosophers as James, Thoreau, Emerson and Whitman in their celebration of the unknown, the “pure adventure.” But he is also reiterating the philosophical/spiritual concept of detachment. A clear and beautiful example is the teachings of the Tao te Ching:

The master stays behind;
that is why she is ahead.
She is detached from all things;
that is why she is one with them.
Because she has let go of herself,
she is perfectly fulfilled.

The master observes the world
but trusts his inner vision.
He allows things to come and go.
His heart is open as the sky.


The relationship between this concept and film is twofold. First, the filmmaker must be able, just as the Taoist master, to let go of the temptation to label things or conceptualize them, to moralize or preach a message. Rather, he is to offer that which he films in its very givenness, to allow us to see the things as they truly are. He is to be a mediator between us and the numinous, the hidden reality at work in the universe. A filmmaker can, in this way, show us a whole life, filled with sadness, joy and triumph, in an image as simple as that of a playground swing, as in Kurosawa’s beautiful film To Live. Second, film enables the viewer, if its energy is right, if it is made with grace and generosity and a spirit of adventure (and a fair amount of technical mastery of form) to achieve a state of detachment. It is a method of unlearning, much like Socrates described philosophy. Our preconceived notions and conceptual frameworks are broken down and instead our hearts are opened to the reality of the things themselves, of people themselves, instead of the fears, anxieties and ideas that we project on them to assert ourselves. The recent film Brokeback Mountain is an interesting example. The film struggles with allowing the image to breathe, to break free. It is often heavy-handed and relies too much on the relative flow of time, attempting to make a point through the story. This in spite of the wonderful technical aspects of the film, be they acting, directing or cinematography. But when the film allows the moment to breathe it truly breaks down barriers, as in the touching final scene of the film. Those barriers are not so much cultural or moral but rather epistemological, the inability to see other human beings as human, to label them as “homosexual” or “gay” (or even more venomously as “faggot” or “queer”) and to reduce them to such a label. The film ultimately transcends its tendencies to offer nothing but a liberal point of view towards a politicized subject and becomes an offering, a devotional form, whereby the sadness of the human condition is revealed through a simple love story. No point is made. No message is preached. In that final scene we are presented with nothing more and nothing less than the inevitable moment facing us all when we are faced with the all-consuming presence of absence, the realization that someone we love has gone and that they are not coming back.

Film, like all good art and philosophy, can make us better. It can heal the soul. This does not mean that it can offer us salvation, whether one takes that word in its existential or spiritual connotations. One will not be all that one can be by only watching films or reading books. We must first and foremost live. And, if we are religiously minded, we must engage in a devotional form which ultimately transcends all worldly art or wisdom. But film, especially in its capacity as philosophia (love of wisdom/way of life) is a powerful way for us to move forward on our journey, to break down the barriers in our minds that keep us from learning more and from loving more. It is a devotional form in which the world is revealed to us as filled with meaning.

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