Shortly after receiving the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami remarked, “I used to think they turned the lights out in the theatre so we could see the screen better. I now realize there is another purpose: to isolate ourselves from one another.” New technologies keep making that isolation easier: we watch DVDs on our laptops or pull films off satellites onto iPhones.
I’ll admit it: I like being alone with my thoughts when watching a film. When a movie really gets me, I want to enter the screen, like Jeff Daniels in The Purple Rose of Cairo.
Yet I seldom emerge from a film without a strong urge to talk about it. There’s the pleasure of being a good detective, trying to fit the jigsaw of symbols and themes into a meaningful design. Most of all I want to tell someone why the film moved or provoked me. How it resurfaced memories or reshaped my view of the world.
Ten years ago we opened the Barrington Center for the Arts at Gordon with its 80-seat cinema classroom. That small cinema helped spark the idea of the Provost’s Film Series, an occasion to get together for watching and talking about films—avant garde films, pop films, the classics, the eccentrics, the visual poems.
I love that we have been able to sample a bold fare at Gordon. When I was younger, talking about movies at church was like discussing the best cigarettes or bars. Films were often dismissed as a danger or, at best, a diversion. Today, though, few people question that film has become one of the most—if not the most—influential of the art forms, a mirror and a molder of our culture, our values, our spiritual longings.
We have travelled a long way during these 10 years, exploring nearly 100 films from more than 25 nations. I can’t come close here to savoring all my favorite moments in the series. There was that fierce January nor’easter during the very first film, when a crammed house delivered a split verdict on the integrity of Duvall’s Apostle. And the bus ride to Logan Airport when I ran into a Gordon alum still eager to talk about Before the Rain with its interlocking riddles about religious violence in Macedonia. Or the long email exchange with a student curious why I was so moved by the Berlin Wall and the weed-filled lots in Wings of Desire. Or the young man who described what it was like, as the child of a Vietnam veteran, to watch Morris’ documentary The Fog of War. Without the post-film discourse, I might never have realized that the fierce undercurrent of grace in Babette’s Feast is that the magnificent chef, unbeknownst to all, serves the Eucharist to a man who may well have had a hand in her husband’s slaughter.
As we launch a new decade, Lawrence Holcomb, assistant professor of sociology, is helping coordinate the 2009–2010 Provost’s Film Series—or PFS 2.0, as we are calling it this fall. He’s worked with other faculty to select films about “forgiveness and redemption,” from Eastwood’s Gran Torino to Lynch’s Elephant Man and Gabriel’s South African tale Forgiveness.
Forgiveness is always one theme on Maundy Thursday when my church holds a Tenebrae service. “Tenebrae,” a Latin word, means “darkness” or “shadows.” As the story of Christ’s passion is read from the Gospels, candles are extinguished until we linger in full darkness. It is the solemn preface to Good Friday. We leave in silence, not sure where to find the next word.
Once, as the lights in the cinema dropped, I thought of Tenebrae. The words we must find when we leave the darkness of a theatre can help us discern more fully how to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.
Mark Sargent has been provost at Gordon since 1996.