Essay for Stillpoint, 2009
Shortly after receiving the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami remarked, “I used to think that they turned the lights out in the theatre so that we could see the screen better. I now realize that 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, though: I like being alone with my thoughts when watching a film. I need the darkness to shield me from others. When a movie really gets me, I want to enter the screen, like Mia Farrow in The Purple Rose of Cairo. I want to believe there is a world that is richer, emotionally and spiritually, than last night’s commute and this morning’s emails.
Yet I seldom emerge from a film without a strong urge to talk about it. I suppose it’s like vacation photos: perhaps if someone else endures them, you can remain on that journey a while longer. There’s also 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 me or provoked me. How it resurfaced memories or reshaped my view of the world. How it prompted me to think about my life and my faith.
Ten years ago we opened the Barrington Center for the Arts at Gordon, with its 80-seat cinema classroom. That small theatre helped spark the idea of the Provost’s Film Series, an occasion 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. I knew about Cecil B. DeMille and Ben Hur, but I never heard of Ordet or Andrey Tarkovsky. 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.
So for the past decade I have enjoyed exploring nearly 100 films with students and faculty. We have travelled a long way in the process, observing works from more than 25 nations. Cinema can be a magnificent window on the struggles and hopes of other peoples. If I go too long without subtitles, I get anxious to fly away.
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. Such conversations always bring more light than I could have imagined. 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, the Provost’s Film Series—or PFS 2.0, as we are calling it—is devoted to the theme of forgiveness. Several faculty, led by Lawrence Holcomb, have selected an array of visions 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 in its basement. Tenebrae, in Latin, means “darkness” or “shadows.” Gradually, 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 I thought of Tenebrae as the lights in the cinema dropped. The words that 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.