Last November I had the privilege of responding to Walden Media co-founder Micheal Flaherty’s lecture at USC. Here is the text of my response:
The Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies at USC
Religion and Film
Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies
USC Lecture Series 2008-2009
Brave Knights and Heroic Courage
and Holy Moments
Featured Speaker: Micheal Flaherty
Co-Founder of Walden Media
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe,
Prince Caspian and Amazing Grace
Respondent: Sr. Rose Pacatte, FSP
Founding director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
USC Davidson Conference Center
When Father Heft invited me to be part of this wonderful series on Religion and Film as the respondent to my esteemed friend Micheal Flaherty, I replied that I was flattered but wondered if I was the best person for this since Micheal and I are friends and pretty much on the same page. In fact, and I don’t know if Micheal knows this, I am the president of my community’s Walden Media fan club, one of their most fervent cheerleaders (note the outfit) …. Walden Media can pretty much do no wrong because with almost every project they are bringing audiences, young and old, to a shared understanding, a deeper understanding, of our humanity. And if this is not authentic religion or religious experience, I don’t know what is.
Walden and great filmmakers generate the possibility for this understanding by telling stories through image and sound. Walden is successful in its cinematic story-telling because they preference story, that is art, over message. The authentic art connection is what evokes experiences of transcendence in film, film and spirituality, film and religion.
Richard Linklater has captured the essence of this perspective in his 2001 film Waking Life. Waking Life is about a young man searching for meaning in one long dream sequence. The movie features the poet David Jewel interviewing the filmmaker Caveh Zahedi about the transcendent meaning of film. In a most surprising sequence Zehedi speaks about the French Catholic film critic Andre’ Bazin’s (1918 – 1958) belief that every shot is the incarnation of God manifesting the divine in creation – and that the audience’s encounter with God, and this manifestation of God, is a Holy Moment. We see it in one another’s faces brought to us in celluloid (or by digital means.) Since I believe that any conversation about film requires an experience of film for authenticity, let’s take a look at Linklater’s Waking Life: [CLIP]
Religion is defined basically as “belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe.” Taken further religion is a belief system. Yet, as the great American film critic Roger Ebert once said: the purpose of film is not to teach Sunday school; it is to tell stories.
Spirituality is what connects the person and God, it is a relationship described by Martin Buber (1878 – 1965)thus: “I-Thou” relationships are sustained in the spirit and mind of an “I” for however long the feeling or idea of relationship is the dominant mode of perception. And it is in that ‘I’ towards ‘Thou’, that we move into existence in a relationship without bounds. Buber holds that all human life finds its significance, its meaning, in relationships. All of our relationships, Buber contends, bring us ultimately into relationship with God, who is the Eternal Thou.
The amazing, existential reality of film is that it mediates these relationships through cinematic stories. These stories, already mediated by celluloid or by digital means, take place entirely in our heads because of the phenomenon of persistence of vision. Through the experience of film we make meaning, we come to an understanding that something matters (cf. Theresa Sanders: Celluloid Saints: Images of Sanctity in Film, 2002).
Film is the landscape for the moral imagination, like a young woman I met at the end of Ron Howard’s 2003 film The Missing. She told me that the reason she and her friends go to movies is to figure out their lives, especially when a big decision had to be made (she was a health care professional and she thought her physician boyfriend was going to propose to her.) This was an amazing insight and so I asked her first “What is in your Borders’ bag?” She had three books: Five People You Will Meet in Heaven (Mitch Albom, 2003), a journal and another spiritual kind of self-help book. Then I asked “Would you like to go and have a cup of coffee?” During our conversation I continued: “Don’t you think a visit to church or a retreat or speaking to a spiritual director would be a good way to discern life’s choices, more so than a film?” She responded: “Church? All they do is preach at you. That doesn’t touch me. But here it’s a different world and I can think about how other people live.”
A holy moment.
And then there is Joe vs. the Volcano, John Patrick Shanley’s 1990 tale about a man (Tom Hanks) who finds no meaning in the aimless humdrum of life and is a hypochondriac. His frustrated physician tells him he has a brain cloud and that he should go out and live life to the full because he is going to die.
For almost ten years I have had the privilege of being a director for the National Film Retreat (www.SisterRose.WordPress.com). This special retreat is for people who love movies, spirituality and theology, who come together to screen films according to a theme, to converse, pray, and break bread. Each year one lady would suggest that we use Joe vs the Volcano in the retreat and finally announced that she wasn’t coming to another retreat until we did. The founding director of the retreat cannot stand the film as he considers it “stupid”. The lady thought differently, and as I came to find out, a young boy named Jim, found it life-saving.
I met Jim’s wife Ann at a conference and I was telling this story of how good people can view the same film, like Joe vs the Volcano, and see it, interpret it, make meaning from it, quite differently because of age, education, human, faith, moral development, and most importantly, life experience. Ann raised her hand (very excitedly) and told the group, tears running down her face, that Joe vs the Volcano had saved her husband’s life. When he was nine years old he had tried to commit suicide – more than once. He survived and a couple of years later he and his mom went to see Joe vs the Volcano. As they came out of the theater, Jim turned to his mom and said, “That’s me, Mom. I have a brain cloud. And I don’t have to die. I can live.”
A holy moment.
I would like to be that filmmaker who could make a movie that would save one child’s life.
In 1990 a film academic named Ellen Draper wrote an article entitled “Controversy Has Probably Destroyed Forever the Context: The Miracle and Movie Censorship in America in the Fifties” (Light Velvet Trap, 25) I won’t go into the controversy that resulted in a significant Supreme Court decision that extended 1st Amendment protection to films. But I would like to make the point that the polarization between content and context in the minds of the US audience even today regarding cinema stories has resulted in a kind of static condition of cultural, religious, and moral schizophrenia – often by people who don’t even go to the movies. As in the 1950’s, and before that the Progressive Era of the early part of the 20th century, so today, audiences let themselves be scared into a reactionary mode because they trust the opinion of someone else rather than defining terms, articulating criteria, and thinking for themselves.
For example, the controversy over The Golden Compass film (vis-à-vis the book trilogy His Dark Materials, 1995, 1997, 2000 by Philip Pullman) spawned by the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, is a case of a visceral reaction to the perception of a book series and a film – the content – taken out of context. Without having ever seen the film, the league sent out a press kit of information with a booklet entitled: The Golden Compass: Agenda Unmasked to at least 500 Catholic schools (and that the Catholic League’s website says has sold over 20,000 copies). This went out two months before the film’s release and caused a moral panic, one factor that helped put The Golden Compass book in the top ten censorship-challenged books of 2007 (see http://www.catholicleague.org/images/upload/image_200710053349.pdf )
The League’s contention is that the film was being falsely advertised as a fantasy rather than a tool of atheism and an attack on the Catholic Church. There is much that can be said, but since time is limited I would like to note that the author, Phillip Pullman does kill of “god” in the third volume of his trilogy (but not in The Golden Compass book or film). And if people would have read the series, they would have realized that Pullman was actually doing us a favor by killing off this old, distant, mean, pessimistic god, the god of the Puritan’s, Tom Shadyac’s 2003 theological treatise: Bruce Almighty, and fundamentalist Christians of every stripe. At any rate, New Line Cinema tried pretty successfully to be sensitive to Catholic or religious concerns by removing 99% of religious references from the film (and fatally changing the story leading to a disappointing box office in the US), but the controversy sparked by the Catholic League over the books, and by extension the film, has perhaps destroyed the context for Pullman’s books and others to receive a well-reasoned response: the League wanted people to draw a line in the sand: the film may be innocuous but the books on which they are based are not.
The Catholic League caused a moral panic with their own “materials” that linked three hard-to-read books with an innocuous film adaptation and missed a golden opportunity to teach critical thinking skills and how to discern cinematic stories. One boycott after another teaches people how to boycott, not to question, think for themselves, or motivate their film choices for their children. Inciting fear is an empty pedagogy that provides a hollow premise for choosing a film and once chosen, to make meaning from it.
Walden’s 2007 cinematic interpretation of The Bridge to Terabithia, a film based on the Newbery Award-winning novel by Katherine Paterson (1977)presents another view of content over context. Though the film does not seem to have attracted the attention of the Catholic League, some teachers, librarians, and Christian folk took issue with the film because of the character Leslie Burke’s image of God: “I seriously do not think God goes around damning people to hell. He’s too busy running all this! (meaning creation)” and because she dies. Indeed the novel was one of the most frequently banned or challenged books in the USA in the 1990’s. However, thoughtful viewers, and I like to consider myself one, saw this scene in the film as luminous, a holy moment, to be savored.
The need for teaching and developing critical thinking skills for all ages, including teachers and librarians, is an educational and faith formation imperative for the 21st century. Moral panics and boycotts based on content over context, raise the heat for a moment, but shed little, if any, light on our stories nor do they promote deeper understanding of our humanity.
One way to encourage critical thinking (as opposed to negative thinking) is to begin explicitly teaching and implicitly integrating the elements of story-telling, literary forms, and questioning of the text (books, on TV, in songs, and films) in age-appropriate ways, from the child’s early years: asking questions about what is going on, about characters and what motivates them, asking how the child would feel in that character’s place, making connections, and pointing out metaphor, analogy. At some point in our lives, parents especially, we need to struggle with the answer to this question: what does it mean that everything in the Bible is true and that some of it actually happened? Fact, truth; truth, fact.
The Indian Jesuit Anthony de Mello (1931 – 1987) expressed Jesus’ own pedagogy: “The shortest distance between truth and a human person is a story.” (One Minute Wisdom, 1988)
I contend that we miss many holy moments in life because as a person’s image of God, so follows his/her image of self, other people, the world … and cinema. If the caring person’s idea of God is distorted or unclear because of religious teaching, life experience, or any reason, stories, especially cinema stories, are (probably) going to take a hit.
The contributions of Greek philosophy to theology has been a mixed blessing: applying the concept of objective truth to storytelling art has forever confused the audience because applying the objective truth test in all things leads to literal interpretations and a one dimensional universe that can close down the imagination – again causing controversy with the capacity to destroy or seriously damage the story’s context – and slowing down, stunting or even blocking the development of the human, religious, and spiritual imagination.
I love to bring Flannery O’Connor (1925 – 1964) into my presentations because she was a Catholic fiction artist from the American South who never wilted at the fear-induced and unfortunately uninformed criticism that came her way because of her dark fiction. She knew how much her audience floundered under a fuzzy image of God, the human person and the Church. She wrote once to a friend:
“The novel is an art form and when you use it
for anything other than art, you pervert it.
I didn’t make this up. I got it from St. Thomas
[Aquinas] (via Maritain) who shows that art is wholly
concerned with the good of that which is made;
it has no utilitarian end. If you manage to use it
successfully for social, religious or other purposes,
it is because you made it art first.”
(The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, ed. By Sally Fitzgerald, 1979.)
I would like to end by reading a very brief story from Kenya recounted by the novelist Angela Carter (1940-1992; as quoted by Marina Warner in From the Beast to the Blonde: Fairytales and Their Tellers, 1994, xi). I will let it speak for itself:
“…while a poor man’s wife in the village thrives, the Sultan’s wife in the palace grows thinner and scrappier by the minute. The Sultan summons the poor man and demands to know the secret of his wife’s happiness. ‘Very simple,’ he replies. I feed her with meat of the tongue.’ The Sultan sends out for all the tongues that money can buy- ox tongues and lambs’ tongues and larks’ tongues; still his sad Sultana withers away. He orders his litter, makes her change places with the poor man’s wife; she immediately starts to thrive, becoming the picture of health, plumper, rosier, gayer. Meanwhile, in her place, her replacement languishes, and soon has become as scrawny and miserable as the former queen.
“For the meats the poor man feeds the women are not material, of course. They are fairy tales, stories, jokes, songs; he nourishes them on talk, he wraps them in language; he banishes melancholy by banishing silence.”
Storytelling makes people thrive.
A holy moment; endless holy moments.
Rose Pacatte, FSP, MEd in Media Studies, is the founding director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Culver City, CA, the film/TV critic for St. Anthony Messenger magazine, an award-winning author on books about scripture and film, and an international and national speaker on faith and media, and a media literacy education specialist.