Friday, March 25, 2011

Symbols and devotion - On going to the theater

We live in an age without real symbols. If we consider symbols at all then they only denote a lack, an absence. The modern understanding of a symbol has been largely influenced by such thinkers as Freud and Jung, the latter of which saw symbols as an attempt to point towards a reality that is largely unexplainable and that cannot be clearly articulated. Yet our age tends to deny the validity of the mysterious or anything that cannot be reduced to formulas, theorems, concepts or scientific "proofs." Given that symbols only suggest such a reality it becomes very easy to deny the validity of the symbol altogether. This is why myths, poetry and allegories are considered fanciful entertainment at best.

Contrary to this understanding is that of pre-Enlightenment Europe and of indigenous cultures throughout the world today. On this view the symbol does not simply point towards the mysterious, it makes it manifest. The symbol is considered a window into the divine, into the unfathomable aspects of human nature and the cosmos that lie at the center of our very being. Though these things cannot be explained through ordinary language, theorems or proofs they can nonetheless be experienced. The symbol, on this account, offers the opportunity for mysticism - not as some vague, new-age concept relating to visions, magic or the occult - the possibility of human beings to directly experience spiritual realities, to make the invisible visible. This could be understood in terms of something as unfathomable and magnificent as God, Truth, Beauty - or it could touch on more everyday experiences that cannot be reduced to language: Hearing a piece of music so beautiful that this vale of tears suddenly begins to make sense; encountering the reality of death, either our own or that of a loved one; falling in love. The symbol enables us to make sense of these things, not in order to understand them (such a thing is not only impossible but ugly) but rather to enter into them more deeply.  

A film theater is a powerful symbol. One enters into a large cavernous room and is engulfed in darkness. There is a tangible excitement in the air, a breathless moment of anticipation that is shared with everyone else in that room, strangers united in something very real, human and mysterious. There is a devotional aspect to seeing a film in the theater. A space is created, perhaps a sacred space. And in that space light emerges. And through the sculpting of this light we experience stories, images, moments, ideas, beauty, truth, excitement, humor and the ability to expand our consciousness towards the heretofore unthought. We empathize, fantasize, question and understand. In the darkness we are completely focused on the light and in this light we not only recognize something in ourselves but come to learn something about what it means to be human.

Thoughts on this from Nathaniel Dorsky, from his wonderful essay Devotional Cinema:

Viewing a film has tremendous mystical implications; it can be, at its best, a way of approaching and manifesting the ineffable. This respect for the ineffable is an essential aspect of devotion. 

Most film theaters are ugly multiplexes, industrialized entertainment centers, churning out rollercoaster rides in resplendent 3D for people hungry to dull their senses and their minds. Any sort of devotion is impossible in such a setting. Seeing a film at an old, independent movie house, filled with history and memories and years and years of beautiful films and songs and poetry, is a powerful experience of which most people today are completely bereft. What is important is not the technical qualifications of the projector or the quality of the screen or sound system but rather the setting itself, whether or not the theater is a place that opens us up towards receiving beauty, receiving art, receiving symbols. Whether the theater is, to some extent, a symbol itself. One can, of course, be completely receptive to a beautiful work of art in any setting. Some of my most cherished cinematic memories came from rather nasty theaters. Yet such a setting makes it harder to truly see what is being presented. We have to ready our minds and our bodies before exposing ourselves to art, before seeing a film, reading a book, hearing a story. Perhaps a prayer is in order. And the setting can either help or hinder our receptivity, our ability to enter into communion and dialectic with the artist.

This is why viewing films at home, no matter how great our digital TVs and our Blue Ray players may become, can never equal the experience of seeing a film at a theater. Yet there are variations on this theme. What is important when viewing a film at home is not the quality of the equipment or how crisp the image is but rather the reverence of the viewers towards the devotional aspect of film. This does not imply a dour, stiff, "Protestant" attitude of grim silence and determination. True devotion should be a dance and a celebration. If one sees a film with like-minded lovers of film in an attitude of shared reverence and joy then this matters more for our ability to truly see the film than any Blue Ray player, television set or surround sound ever could.

But the magic of cinema is most complete in the dark. In the dark we share in the vision of the artist, that eternal now that they are attempting to open up through their art. The theater is still the best place to see films.

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