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Saturday, April 30, 2011

Pope John Paul II: Actor

His ambition, as a young man growing up in Wadowice, Poland, was to be an actor.

In these years, as he later described himself, he was “completely absorbed by a passion for literature, especially dramatic literature, and for the theater” (Pope John Paul II, Gift and Mystery, p. 6).

In his last year in high school he was asked to give an address in honor of a visit to the school by the archbishop of Kraków. Impressed by the speech, the archbishop inquired of one of the young man’s teachers if he might make a priest one day. The teacher replied that the young man was intent on his literary and theatrical ambitions. “A pity,” the archbishop replied.

When the young man entered Kraków’s Jagiellonian University in the Fall of 1939, he immediately became involved with an avant-garde student theater troupe called Studio 39.

But then, in that same Fall of 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland, and the young man’s life—along with the fate of the entire world—changed forever.

Not that the young man gave up his artistic ambitions. He took them underground, where they flourished in an even more intense—and unexpected—way.

With a group of like-minded friends he helped form a theater troupe, the Rhapsodic Theater, inspired by the ideas of an older friend from Wadowice, Mieczyslaw Kotlarczyk.

As George Wiegel writes, for Mieczyslaw Kotlarczyk “the actor had a function not unlike a priest: to open up, through the materials of this world, the realm of transcendent truth. His “theater of the inner word” would make present universal truths and universal moral values, which stood in judgment on the here-and-now and offered the world the possibility of authentic transformation” (Witness to Hope, p. 37). 

The Rhapsodic Theater was a resistance movement. It devoted itself to Kotlarczyk’s vision and to keeping alive the tradition of Polish Romantic literature, determined to keep this flame of Polish culture burning in the midst of Occupation. The troupe promoted its performances in secret, and played in living rooms behind closed curtains. If caught, the members of the troupe would certainly have been arrested and no doubt killed.

The young man from Wadowice came under the spell of Kotlarczyk’s dramatic ideas. But even as his commitment to the underground theater intensified, the theater’s concentration on the “word” led him ever deeper into the mystery of the “Word.” The “universal truths” that Kotlarczyk saw as the aim of all theater led the young man to the “Universal Truth” Himself. The young man, Karol Wojtyla, began to feel the stirrings of a very different calling: to the priesthood.

But in a deeper sense, Father Wojtyla—later Pope John Paul II—did not cease to be an actor. Weigel writes: “Theater, for Wojtyla, was also an experience of community, the self-disciplined action of a group of individuals who, by blending their individual talents with the talents of others, become something more than the sum of their parts. And the intensity of the theatrical vocation, particularly according to Mieczyslaw Kotlarczyk, was, perhaps, the beginning of other intuitions to be pursued later. If drama could unveil the deeper dimensions of the truth of things, might there be a dramatic structure to every human life? To the whole of reality?” (Witness to Hope, p. 38).

For Pope John Paul II, the pope the Church will beatify on May 1, the answer to both of these questions is a resounding “yes.” God is the protagonist of a great drama, a romantic comedy, in which all human beings have a part to play in finding True Love in God. The glory of the arts is that they can serve as a way for human beings to enter into this drama, to become actors in the greatest story of them all. Writing of the relationship between art and faith in his 1999 Letter to Artists, Pope John Paul II observed:

“With this Letter, I turn to you, the artists of the world, to assure you of my esteem and to help consolidate a more constructive partnership between art and the Church. Mine is an invitation to rediscover the depth of the spiritual and religious dimension which has been typical of art in its noblest forms in every age. It is with this in mind that I appeal to you, artists of the written and spoken word, of the theatre and music, of the plastic arts and the most recent technologies in the field of communication. I appeal especially to you, Christian artists: I wish to remind each of you that, beyond functional considerations, the close alliance that has always existed between the Gospel and art means that you are invited to use your creative intuition to enter into the heart of the mystery of the Incarnate God and at the same time into the mystery of man.”

“Human beings, in a certain sense, are unknown to themselves. Jesus Christ not only reveals God, but “fully reveals man to man.” In Christ, God has reconciled the world to himself. All believers are called to bear witness to this; but it is up to you, men and women who have given your lives to art, to declare with all the wealth of your ingenuity that in Christ the world is redeemed: the human person is redeemed, the human body is redeemed, and the whole creation which, according to Saint Paul, “awaits impatiently the revelation of the children of God” (Rom 8:19), is redeemed. The creation awaits the revelation of the children of God also through art and in art. This is your task. Humanity in every age, and even today, looks to works of art to shed light upon its path and its destiny” (no. 14).

So in the end, paradoxically, it was in abandoning his original desire to be an actor that Pope John Paul II enacted the true meaning not only of drama, but also of all the arts.

Pope Blessed John Paul II, pray for us. 

* For those interested in learning more about Pope John Paul II and his youthful ambition to be an actor, see George Weigel’s magnificent biography, Witness to Hope, especially chapters 1 and 2.  

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Fairy Tales and Holy Week

One of my favorites passages in Dante’s Purgatorio is when Dante finally reaches the summit of Mount Purgatory and enters the Earthly Paradise—that is, the Garden of Eden. It makes good theological sense that Dante imagines the topography of Purgatory this way. For having purged his intellect, will and passions from the ill effects of his sin, Dante is now wholly innocent again. He is like Adam and Eve before the Fall. And so it is appropriate that, before he ascends to the celestial Paradise, he be given a glimpse of heaven on earth.

In the Earthly Paradise Dante meets a beautiful lady named Matelda, who tells him that he has come to the place “fashioned to be the natural nest for man.” Matedla explains:

“The Highest Good, pleased in Itself alone,
made man good, and for Good, and gave him this
place as an earnest of eternal peace.
By his own fault, man did not dwell here long.
by his own fault, he took up grief and toil,
pawning his honest laughter and sweet play.”

The Earthly Paradise, depicted by Dante in lush, bucolic imagery, is “an earnest of eternal peace.” For all its beauty, it is still a mere forerunner of the beauty and peace that await Dante in Heaven. But in lines I especially like, Matelda adds this:

“A corollary granted as a grace.
It will, I think, be no less dear to you,
for I will walk beyond my promises.
The poets in their melodies of old
may have dreamed on Parnassus of this spot,
singing about the happy age of gold.
For here the human race was innocent;
forever spring, and fruit upon the vine.
This is the nectar which the poets meant.”

Images of a “happy age of gold” were a commonplace in ancient poetry (in Greek mythology, Mount Parnassus was home to the Muses). Matelda is saying that when ancient poets wrote of golden ages where all was Spring and innocence, they were in fact, whether they realized it or not, “dreaming” of the Garden of Eden.  

It may be a stretch, but I believe fairy tales, or many of them at any rate, fall into the category of stories that depict golden ages, and thus are dreams of Eden—as well as of that greater Paradise of which Eden itself is but a dream. J.R.R. Tolkien, the Catholic author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, wrote a famous essay entitled, “On Fairy Stories.” In the essay Tolkien argues that, at its best, the fairy story or fantasy is far from being a flight from reality; it is, rather, a flight to reality. According to my friend Professor Brad Birzer, in his book J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, Tolkien understands the fairy story as a pathway toward reality insofar as it

1.   illuminates the vast inheritance our ancestors have bequeathed to us;
2.   gives us a new sense of wonder about things we have taken for granted or which have become commonplace (Tolkien writes that fairy stories allow us to see “things as we are (or were) meant to see them”);
3.   and provides us with a means to escape the drabness, conformity, and mechanization of modernity.

The desire to escape the nightmare aspects of modernity, Birzer warns, is not the same thing as wanting to escape from reality—quite the opposite, in fact. In the best kind of fairy tale, writes Birzer, “[w]e still deal with life and death, comfort and discomfort. We merely escape progressivism and the progressive dream, which reduces all of complex reality to a mere shadow of creation’s true wonders.”  

The “progressive dream,” in which human beings reject God and seek to divinize themselves by mastering nature, is thus the very opposite of the “dream of an earthly paradise” that we find in the best fairy tales, such as those written by Tolkien himself. Is not a Middle-Earth after Sauron’s defeat, where the hobbits in Hobbiton can tend their gardens and eat their multiple breakfasts, where justice and peace reign in Gondor now that the rightful line of kings has been restored—is this not an image of a “happy age of gold”?

On this the holiest week in the Christian calendar, we call to mind another and far greater fairy story. Turning the above analysis on its head, the fairy story we celebrate this week is not a dream of some other, more real paradise. No, this fairy tale is the reality compared to which everything else in our lives is but a dream.

In Holy Week we celebrate the paradigm case of what Tolkien argues is the most essential element of a great fairy tale:  eucatastrophe—a word that means “a good disaster.” The great fairy tales, says Tolkien, always show us a defeat that turns out to be the source of unexpected victory. In this way, the realm of fairy gives us a “fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world.” But the greatest eucatastrophe of all is of course the great defeat we recall in the coming days, a defeat that turns out to be, wondrously, the very means of Christ’s victory over death. Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection is the greatest of all fairy tales, precisely because it is the one fairy tale that happens to be true.     

It was probably from G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man that Tolkien gained the insight that allowed him to say: “The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact.” Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis similarly affirms that in Christianity, “[t]he old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history.”

With the Incarnation of Christ, Tolkien further proclaims, “art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.”

Our natural love of myth, of the fairy story, is a manifestation of our desire for a Reality that can only be fully satisfied in Christ. Yet this natural love of fairy tales, like every natural impulse, can fail to mature. In the same essay on fairy stories, Tolkien writes:

Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific veracity. On the contrary. The keener and clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make. If men were ever in a state in which they did not want to know or could not perceive truth (facts or evidence), then Fantasy would languish until they were cured. If they ever get into that state (it would not seem at all impossible), Fantasy will perish, and become Morbid Delusion.

One wonders whether our popular culture’s fascination with fairy tales is settled deep into such Morbid Delusion. Today’s LA Times ran a feature story on the current spate of fairy tale-based films. Now in production are not one but two Sleeping Beauty films, a Peter Pan origins film, a Hansel and Gretel, and not one but two versions of Snow White. This is not even to mention the Red Riding Hood currently in theaters, or the recent Disney hit, Tangled, an updating of Rapunzel. My family and I rather enjoyed Tangled; a little bit of innocent updating on a classic tale is no bad thing in and of itself. But I’m more suspicious when the updating involves more dangerous features of our culture. The injection of tired and muddled feminist themes into tales of the Brothers Grimm, as the LA Times article indicates we should expect soon in the theaters, is not the sort of dream one wants one’s screenwriters dreaming on Parnassus.

On a side note: Tolkien is on record as saying that it is best to leave fantasy to the imagination and the written word. To put fairy tales on stage or on a screen via animation must result in either “silliness or morbidity.” Needless to say, Tolkien was no fan of Walt Disney.

And yet—although in one sense one shudders at the prospect of what Hollywood is doing in this resurgence of interest in fairy tales, in another sense it is promising that our culture is still fascinated by them. In the LA Times piece we find the following observation by Kate Bernheimer, professor at the University of Arizona and editor of the journal Fairy Tale Review. Bernheimer is quoted as saying  

that all sorts of zeitgeist reasons are behind the fairy-tale revival. She cites a need, in a technologically-crazed time, to reconnect with the nature of fairy-tale environments as well as the “uncanny pull that the ‘ever after’ holds in an age of extinction.”

During this Holy Week, perhaps we can also pray that the “uncanny pull” so many feel toward the “ever after” will lead to a deeper reflection on the paradises, earthly and heavenly, from which the fairy stories we enjoy get their point and purpose. For only when we realize that the myths we love have actually become fact, will our stories once again be healthy dreams of a real world where everything is “honest laughter and sweet play.”

* For quotations from and analysis of Tolkien's essay "On Fairy Stories," this post is deeply indebted to Brad Birzer's discussion in J.R.R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth. Also, the translation of the Purgatorio I use is that of Anthony Esolen.   

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Out of the Mouth of

I was struck by Andrew O’Hehir’s column today on “Why Are Christian Movies So Awful?” The target of O’Hehir’s vitriol is the recently-released Soul Surfer. Whatever the merits of his case against that movie, what struck me were the observations O'Hehir makes about Christian films in general.

For example, as I also touched upon in my series last week on faith-based filmmaking, O’Hehir sees the current Christian film phenomenon as symbolic of large-scale cultural shifts in our country:

But American cinema and the Hollywood system and the rest of our society were turned upside down in the ’60s and ’70s, and the rise of the Christian-oriented film industry, like so many other things in our cultural life, is an aftershock from that earthquake. It’s only oversimplifying a little to say that pop culture went in one direction and the evangelical population went in another, and despite a long process of reconciliation, it’s still not clear that they speak the same language. If I really had any faith in American pluralism and in my fellow human beings, I guess I would predict that someday soon Christian filmmakers will ramp up their craft and make much better movies than Soul Surfer.

Earlier in the piece, O’Hehir expresses surprise that, given the resources at their disposal, Christian filmmakers have not hitherto ramped up their craft:

On the face of it, this is a curious turn of events. Whatever you want to say about Christianity as a system of thought or a force in history, you'll have to admit that it has a pretty impressive record as a source of inspiration for artists and writers. But when we use the buzzword “Christian” in contemporary American society, we’re talking about a distinctively modern cultural and demographic phenomenon that has almost no connection to the spiritual and intellectual tradition that fueled Dante and Milton and Leonardo and Bach.

It is welcome to find such pertinent reflections coming from O’Hehir is absolutely right. The Christian—and I would emphasize Catholic—tradition does indeed have a “pretty impressive record” as a source of inspiration for artists and writers. This is the point I was trying to make last week in recommending Dante and the great Catholic novelists of the 20th century as rich sources of inspiration for Christian filmmakers. We Christians shouldn’t need to remind us that this spiritual, intellectual and artistic heritage is, for the Christian artist, about as low as low-hanging fruit can get, and should be plucked without further ado.

But we should be grateful all the same.

And for what it's worth, I would recommend that one begin with Dante.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Movies On-Demand and the Sovereign Self

Tell me this. What is your ratio of movies watched in a movie theater to movies watched in some other format (i.e., on your television, laptop, or smart phone)? I would guess that my own ratio is something like 10:1, the one being the movie I actually drive to the theater to see.

Wonderful, isn’t it? Digital technology has made possible an era of on-demand entertainment. Long gone are the days when a movie would arrive at the movie theater, have its run, and then disappear, perhaps forever, perhaps to reappear one day on television. Right now, if I choose, I can open up my Netflix account and watch any number of movies. I am no longer confined to the new releases that happen to be in the theaters. I can watch just part of a movie and finish it tomorrow—or even next month. Digital technology has enabled me to become more sovereign in my entertainment choices.

But as Manohla Dargis, chief film critic for the New York Times, has pointed out in a perceptive piece, “Out There in the Dark, All Alone,” there is a downside to this rise of the sovereign self. For what we have gained in sovereignty over our entertainment choices we have lost in the communal experience of going to the movies. The movies are less and less a place where the political community gathers to watch images of human beings working out, or failing to work out, their happiness. More and more, the movies are becoming private experience, with at most a couple or a handful of family members or friends huddled around a (relatively) small screen.

Consequently, as I’m sure we’ve all experienced, we are losing our sense of good movie theater manners. Despite the urgings of the theater management before the lights go down, it is rare to get through an entire movie without being distracted by the glow from somebody’s cell phone. Not even The King’s Speech could hold the attention of the young woman sitting near my wife and me, who when Colin Firth and Co. got a little dull for her decided to catch up on her texts.  

One might argue that while the communal experience of watching movies in our culture has changed physically, it hasn’t  changed psychically (i.e. intellectually and emotionally). I may have seen The King’s Speech in the theater. You may have watched it at home via AppleTV or on an airplane, but we both saw the same movie, and so we together are able to talk about it, reflect upon it, and receive its impact just as much as if we had been sitting next to one another in the theater.

This is true enough. But still I believe something is lost when we no longer gather in the same physical space to watch a movie. What could it be? Why does the venue matter? It matters because the on-demand movie-watching experience encourages the thought that entertainment is essentially a private matter, rather than, in the oldest and best of that term, a political one. When ancient Athenians came together to watch a tragedy by Aeschylus or Sophocles, they came together, not as sovereign individuals who, by a stroke of bad historical luck, didn’t have the technology to allow them to enjoy their drama at home. No, they came together as a community to enjoy a work of art that was at once entertainment and commentary on how the community should understand itself and the kind of life it was trying to lead. The same could be said about those who in Elizabethan London walked across the frozen Thames to watch one of Shakespeare’s plays. And, to a point, the same could be said about Americans who throughout most of the 20th century could only watch their movies communally in movie theaters. More than any other art form, the movies have been the communal art of our democracy.   

Although the example is taken from musical theater rather than the movies, I vividly remember last summer when my wife and I went to see a Broadway musical on its summer tour. Neither of us had been to the theater in some while, and we were both struck by the electricity in the experience of coming together in the same room with people who were in an important sense our neighbors and being entertained together.

Dargis writes: “We still commune with others when we watch a movie alone at home — if only in later conversation, online or in our head. But watching that movie with other people is a discrete experience from watching a clip on YouTube and noticing it has 200,000 hits, each a ghostly trace of someone else.”

Digital technology, for all its wonders, bends toward the private. The portability and reproducibility of its products enhance the range of choices to be enjoyed by the sovereign self. There is quite a bit of good in this.

Yet we shouldn’t forget that in its privatizing tendency, on-demand entertainment tempts us into thinking that we are not essentially made to be part of larger communities outside our homes. But we are not made to be sovereign selves, above all, but communal selves. Missing this point, we might not see that, along with the ghostly traces of 200,000 other viewers on YouTube, we too have become ghosts.

On-demand entertainment also tempts us into thinking that watching a movie is a mere evening’s distraction. It causes us to forget that even the most popular cinema is an opportunity for the community to contemplate what it means to live the best sort of life.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Faith-Based Filmmaking, Part 3

I’ve been thinking about what the great Catholic writers of the 20th century might teach us about making great films. By great films, I mean screen stories that artfully manifest the Christian Mystery in the face of the deranged manners of the modern world. The following is a set of notes on this theme, an attempt to learn especially from the writings of Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and Evelyn Waugh—with a bit of Dante, Pope John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI thrown in. 

Diagnosing the Modern Malaise

As Percy says in one of his essays, the contemporary writer’s duty is first to name the death-in-life that characterizes so much of the modern world.

For the modern self is lost, marooned on a desert island, breathing in the noxious fumes of nihilism. This culture of death is often only thinly masked by a grotesquely sentimental “humanitarianism.”

All of which is a result of the fact that we no longer seek to conform ourselves to the transcendental order. We miss the distinction between natural and supernatural ends, on the one hand, and our purposes, or personal projects, on the other. We miss the fact that our purposes may or may not comport with our ends.

The more ends disappear from view, the more human persons are thought to be utterly malleable, and the weak and dispossessed ever more threatened for the purposes of power, which often goes by the name of Progress. 

Yet the cultural ideal of Progress, though still captivating to many, is also felt by an increasing number to have run its course (notice the surge of apocalyptic, dystopian stories in books as well as movies).

Still, without wisdom about the true ends of human life, efforts to ameliorate the situation work like Chinese handcuffs, binding us more tightly the harder we try to escape.

The Unwelcome Quest

So what’s a poor Christian storyteller to do? First of all, to remember what Horace said: that while you can throw nature out with a pitchfork, it will always come running back. We yearn for natural and supernatural ends even in the act of discarding them. As Dante teaches us in his Comedy, even the lost and doomed are searching for Love and Truth.

So the narrative problem is that of showing characters being compelled into learning something that they, in a vague, obscure sense, already know. This is the beginning of wisdom, of their re-education in Love and Truth.

Which is to say: characters have to be brought to a place where they see, or the audience sees, all their work as vanity and a striving after wind. They have to see how, in a sense, they have nothing, are worth nothing, can do nothing—that they have no “hope.” For it is only in this place of utter humility, a consent to what we would rather not have to consent to, that the Mystery reveals itself, that God is able to act, and cover us with faith, love, and the Great Hope that is Christ.

When there seems to be no hope, when we abandon, only then does the inexhaustible light of the Great Hope break through.

In his book on film noir, Arts of Darkness, Thomas Hibbs puts these points in the following way while remarking on the work of O’Connor and Percy: “A writer in the position of O’Connor or Percy must seek to effect a double dislocation of the reader. The fundamental goal is to induce in the reader a sense that something is deeply awry in the human condition. But to accomplish that in present circumstances the author must induce in the reader another sort of dislocation, from optimistic assumptions of contemporary beliefs in progress, intelligibility, and the pursuit of happiness. The author must force the reader to take up an unwelcome quest.”

Narrative Strategies

There are various strategies for taking a character on the unwelcome quest, or at least showing him the need for it. In the early work of Evelyn Waugh, we find depicted the savagery of nihilism. Novels like Decline and Fall,Vile Bodies, and Scoop reduce modern manners and mores to darkly comic absurdity.

In later Waugh, in Brideshead Revisited and the Sword of Honor trilogy, Catholicism plays an explicit role. The only meaningful response to the meaningless of modern culture is shown to be transformations in faith, hope and charity.  

Flannery O’Connor believed that it often takes an act of violence to bring a character—and the audience—to the place of dislocation. At the same, her grotesques, especially those doomed prophets the Misfit, Francis Marion Tarwater, Hazel Motes, show us how much the human heart, precisely because it is made for the love of Christ, is haunted by Christ even as when it struggles to reject Him. 

In Walker Percy’s novels we have lost souls at least aware that they are living in despair, sunk in everydayness; they can smell the malaise. In contrast to that of O’Connor, Percy’s mode is existential and contemplative.

“The common thread that runs through all my novels,” said Percy in an interview, “is of a man, or a woman, who finds himself/herself outside of society, maybe even in a state of neurosis, psychosis, or derangement….What I try to do is always pose the question, “Is this man or woman more abnormal that the ‘normal society’ around them?” I want the reader to be poised between these two values, ad I want the question always to be raised as to who’s crazy, whether the psychotic person is crazy, or the outside person….Maybe I try to design it so that it will cross the reader’s mind to question the, quote, “normal culture,” and to value his own state of disorientation.”

Fade Out:

In the preface to his book, Ironies of Faith, Anthony Esolen writes: “Esteeming the experts too highly, many Christians  have abandoned their literature to the mainly secular scholars that inhabit our universities. But Shakespeare, Herbert, Dickens, and Hopkins did not write for scholars in universities. What would have been the point? For the sake of the literature itself, meant to be loved by anyone who could read or attend a play, Christians should reclaim their heritage.”

Filmmakers, too, should not allow the great heritage of Catholic literature to be the sole domain of professors. It demands to regain its central place in our common culture, inspiring not only the novels, short stories, and plays we will enjoy in the future, but also the stories we will watch on television and at the multiplex.