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Monday, June 27, 2011

Admiring The Tree of Life

I highly recommend Terrence Malick’s remarkable new film, The Tree of Life, winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and featuring excellent performances by Jessica Chastain, Brad Pitt, and Sean Penn, not to mention the three young actors who play the O’Brien boys.

The Tree of Life is a difficult film to summarize, and admittedly my thoughts on it are far from crystallized. It might be best to call it the story of two spiritual quests. The first is that of Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain), a woman raising three boys in 1950s and 60s Waco, Texas, with her husband (Brad Pitt). The second quest is that of the O’Brien’s eldest son, Jack (Sean Penn), a quest begun in boyhood and continuing as he reflects back upon his childhood in the present time, especially upon his relationship with his father.

Mrs. O’Brien’s quest recapitulates themes from the Book of Job, beginning with the news of the death of her middle son, R.L, at the age of nineteen (which takes place sometime in the 1960s, from causes which are never revealed). Indeed, Malick begins the film with a quotation from Job over black:

Where were you when I laid the
foundation of the earth?...
when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings
shouted for joy?
(Job 38: 4, 7)

Jack’s quest takes its impetus, in his present middle age, from a general sense of dryness and dislocation in his life—including a certain emotional estrangement from his wife. But as we experience his thoughts drifting back to his childhood, we also see him grappling with the memory of his dead brother, as well as with his memories of his demanding, distant, sometimes cruel, father. At one point, in voiceover, middle-aged Jack asks, apparently of God, “My brother…my mother…did they lead me to You?”

Early in The Tree of Life, Malick, who both wrote and directed the film, sounds a contrast between the greediness and self-absorption of nature, understood as fallen nature, and the selflessness of grace—seeming to link the former with Mr. O’Brien’s character, and the latter with the warm, loving and childlike Mrs. O’Brien.  

One of the most interesting features of the film is the approximately twenty-minute sequence showing the creation of the world (including dinosaurs!)—in which we witness God “laying the foundation of the earth.” It is a very moving sequence, though it will also try the patience of moviegoers who expect their stories to progress at Hollywood speed. Yet it is interesting to see Malick’s attempt to give his seemingly small story of family relationships eternal significance by setting it against this cosmic backdrop. In a way it reminded me of similar moves made by Thornton Wilder in Act III of Our Town and in The Skin of Our Teeth.

Are the spiritual quests of Mrs. O’Brien and Jack Christian? They seem to be. The O’Brien family is shown practicing at what looks to be an Episcopalian church, and trying to live out their faith within their home. An image of Christ is shone in one of the stained glass windows at church just as Mrs. O’Brien, in voiceover, is making an appeal to God to help her make sense of her suffering. The general imagery that we find in the film is definitively Christian.

Such as the images of the Fall. In the film’s longest section we follow Jack through various adventures of his boyhood where he encounters the reality of his ability to sin. But there are images of Reconciliation, too. Even in Jack’s boyhood Mr. O’Brien apologizes to Jack for his failures as his father, and Malick also shows us middle-aged Jack on the phone with his father, telling him how he also thinks of his dead brother every day and how he is sorry for some rudeness to his father in an earlier conversation.

Finally, there is the climactic sequence with middle-aged Jack on the beach, a sequence that appears to take us inside Jack’s contemplation, in which he steps through a door into—Heaven?—and where he meets his family members, including his brother, in poignant scenes of reunion and ultimate beatitude.

So perhaps in choosing a tree as the central metaphor for his film, Malick is thinking of the tree as an image of life, growth, and continuity through time; but perhaps he is also thinking along the lines of the following thoughts, set forth by Fr. Anthony Thorold in a little devotional book called Conversation with God, published by Sheed & Ward in 1940. The chapter in which this passage is found is called “The Tree of Life”:

The Tree of Life was planted on Mount Cavalry by the Roman soldiers. It is the sacred sign of salvation radiating God’s Light and Truth which will lead us away from evil, and guide and goad us onwards towards our goal.

Still, as I say, Malick’s film will test the patience of those, like me, used to a steady diet of Hollywood cinema. Though there is a narrative, it unfolds quite slowly, and impressionistically, and out of chronological order, with Malick depending far more on gesture and imagery and voiceover than on dialogue and conventional plot points.

And yet, The Tree of Life repays attention. As I watched it I thought of these lines from Iris Murdoch’s essay, “The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concepts,” in which she says about beauty:

Beauty is the convenient and traditional name of something which art and nature share, and which gives a fairly clear sense to the idea of quality of experience and change of consciousness. I am looking out my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious to my surroundings, brooding perhaps on some damage done to my prestige. Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel. In a moment everything is altered. The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared. There is nothing but kestrel. And when I return to thinking of the other matter it seems less important.

Malick does not give us kestrels, but in the loving, meditative, prayerful images he offers to us of the O’Brien family, he gives us a film that does shake us out of our everyday frame of mind, and takes us into territory where few films take us today, and even fewer still with much persuasiveness: into the world of the spirit.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

St. Thomas Aquinas--Poet

One of the treasures of this Feast of Corpus Christi is the office written for it by St. Thomas Aquinas, which includes such masterworks of Catholic poetry as the Pange Lingua and the Lauda Sion Sequence. Of this poetry G.K. Chesterton wrote in his little biography of St. Thomas, The Dumb Ox:

All sanctity is secrecy; and his sacred poetry was really a secretion; like a pearl in a very tightly closed oyster….

But the composer of the Corpus Christi service was not merely what even the wild and woolly would call a poet; he was what the most fastidious would call an artist. His double function recalls the double activity of some great Renaissance craftsman, like Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci, who would work on the outer wall, planning and building the fortifications of the city; and then retire into the inner chamber to carve or model some cup or casket for a reliquary.

The Corpus Christi Office is like some old musical instrument, quaintly and carefully inlaid with many colored stones and metals….”

For more on the history of St. Thomas’s Office for the Feast of Corpus Christi, as well as excerpts from the poetry itself in both Latin and English translation, enjoy this short piece by James Chegwidden.

Jesu, Shepherd, Bread

Thou take pity on our need!
Thou Thy flock in safety

Thou protect us, Thou us lead,
To the Lord of Heavenly Life.

(St. Thomas Aquinas, Lauda Sion Sequence)


Friday, June 24, 2011

Impressive, Charming--But Is It Art?

Australian Aelita Andre is one of the most talked-about young painters on the world art scene right now.

Her abstract, surrealist paintings have invited comparisons to Picasso, Pollock, Dali, and Kandinsky.

She’s just wrapped up a solo exhibition at the Agora Gallery in New York—and a year ago her work was the subject of another solo exhibition in Hong Kong, where she painted live in front of 60 Chinese and International media crews.

Her website features a comment by Australian art critic Robert Nelson, who observes that “Aelita’s art is an antidote to the oppressive qualities of expectation in western painting.”

Her canvases have sold for as much as $24,000.

Aelita Andre is four years old.

Her paintings first appeared in a group exhibition when she was two.

Is Aelita Andre making art? Check out her website. The pictures of her paintings shown there certainly reveal a burgeoning artistic talent. But is the work of a child three years shy of the conventional age of reason capable of making a genuine work of art? 

To help consider the question of what counts as a work of art, and to launch our Virtual Summer Circle of Thomistic Studies, let’s turn to a distinction that Jacques Maritain makes in Chapter II of Art and Scholasticism, a chapter entitled “The Speculative Order and the Practical Order.”

The two phrases in this title will sound strange to those not used to reading the work of St. Thomas Aquinas. What do they mean?

The “speculative order” and the “practical order” refer to two modes of activity of the human intellect or mind.

In the speculative order, the mind is active purely for the sake of knowing something. The word “speculative” is derived from the Latin verb speculare, which means “to look at,” or “to gaze upon” (speculum, the noun, means mirror).

When we go to a gallery to enjoy the paintings, watch a movie or read a novel, or when we engage in a scientific inquiry, our minds are active in the speculative mode. The sole end of the activity is to know—“to look at” some bit of reality, not for what we can do with it, but for its own sake.

Maritain speaks of speculative activity as immanent to the mind. Which is to say, speculative activity remains “within” the mind. It does not of itself flow into the world in order to transform it.

The opposite is the case with the human mind in its practical mode. When we cook, or clean, build a birdhouse or a computer network, our minds are not engaged with reality simply so that we can look at it, but so that we can do something with it.
Of course, it’s possible that something that we speculate upon can later be used for some practical purpose. The study of physics, for example, is in and of itself a speculative activity, but when an engineer puts physical principles to use in the building of a bridge, truths arrived at in the mind’s speculative mode are pressed into service for a practical goal.

Nonetheless, there is a clear distinction between the human intellect in its speculative mode, and in its practical mode.

What does this have to do with art?

In Chapter II of Art and Scholasticism, Maritain follows St. Thomas in saying that “Art belongs to the practical order. It is turned towards action [the mind in its practical mode], not towards the pure interiority of knowledge [the mind in its speculative mode]” (p. 6*).

So think of the simplest work of art—without yet making any distinction between a piece of useful art, or “skill,” or a work of “fine” art. Take, for example, a birthday cake. A birthday cake is a work of art—some birthday cakes more so than others. It is a product of the human mind exercised upon suitable matter: eggs, flour, butter, more butter, sugar, etc. Art belongs to the practical order, says Maritain. It is something made by mind in its practical mode.

A Shakespearean tragedy, or a Mozart symphony, is in essentials no different. Hamlet is a product of the human mind exercised upon the matter of human language, gesture, voice, costume, etc. Hamlet thus belongs to the practical order.

Now that we’ve defined art as an activity of the mind’s practical mode, let’s return to Aelita Andre. Is this no doubt very talented little girl making art?

The distinction between the mind’s speculative and practical modes does not itself settle the question. But it does help us clarify the question by enabling us to ask: is Aelita Andre capable of exercising her mind in its practical mode, such that her paintings can be called works of art?

I believe the commonsense answer is that Aelita Andre, while capable of exercising her practical mind to a certain, in many ways impressive, degree, is still not yet capable of exercising her mind to the degree of maturity that characterizes a person who really owns his or her actions.

Try this analogy. When Aelita Andre disobeys her parents’ commands, or when she obeys them, I am sure she is either reprimanded or praised. Even though she has not yet reached the “age of reason,” she is treated, insofar as she is capable, as an apprentice moral agent. Small children are what we might call proto-moral agents. They are moral agents “under construction.” No one would think of bringing a four year-old to trial for stealing (that is for fully mature moral agents). But nonetheless we reprimand the child who steals, or praise the child who does good, because his or her reason is capable to a certain degree of being formed by our negative or positive responses.

In a similar way, just as a small child is capable of proto-morality, Aelita Andre’s practical mind is capable of proto-art. I wouldn’t call her paintings art properly speaking, just as I wouldn’t call her obedience to her parents virtue properly speaking.

This is not to take anything away from Aelita Andre’s remarkable gifts. But it is to reserve the term “art” for mind in its fully mature, practical mode.

Why is such reservation desirable? Why should we care how old our artists are? We should care because we should see art as a human, that is rational, activity--and rationality is a power made to grow into a mature state. Art is more than the making of marks—even very colorful, expressive, charming marks—on a canvas.

If we fail to see art as human in this way, then we shall start thinking that art can be made by monkeys or pigs or dogs. I wouldn’t call the paintings made by monkeys, pigs and dogs, art at all, except in a purely equivocal sense. A non-rational creature—and yes, Fido is a non-rational creature—is simply not capable of art.
That the artworld takes Aelita Andre’s paintings as art without qualification is a measure of how far our high culture has fallen from the commonsense approach to art—a human approach to art which grounds it in reason—that we find in the works of St. Thomas Aquinas and in Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism.

Or do you disagree?

* Page numbers refer to Art and Scholasticism and The Frontiers of Poetry, trans Joseph W. Evans (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1974).

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Introducing: Virtual Summer Circle of Thomistic Studies

Beginning in 1919, the French Catholic philosopher, Jacques Maritian, along with his wife Raïssa, organized at their home in Versailles a kind of “book club” known as the cirque du études thomistes: the circle of Thomistic studies. That word “Thomistic” refers to the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, whose work provided the intellectual inspiration for the Sunday afternoon discussions of the circle.

At the website of the Jacques Maritain Center at the University of Notre Dame, directed by my friend, John O’Callaghan, you will be able to find translations of Maritain’s notebooks. In one chapter, Maritain gives an account of the founding of the Thomistic circle, and in the following passages he engagingly describes the atmosphere of the meetings:

I would like to recall a few features of these study meetings…. First of all, those who attended them formed a most varied ensemble. There were young persons and old persons, male students and female students, and professors—laymen (in the majority), priests and religious—professional philosophers, doctors, poets, musicians, men engaged in practical life, those who were learned and those who were uneducated—Catholics (in the majority), but also unbelievers, Jews, Orthodox, Protestants. Some were already experts in St. Thomas, others were serving their apprenticeship with him, others knew nothing about him or almost nothing. They were all searching. The unity came either from a profound love, or from a more or less great interest in Thomist thought. It came also from the climate of friendship and of liberty in which all were received.

They did not go to class, they were not assembled in a classroom of a college or convent to listen to the teaching of a master or to have a seminar with him, nor were they the guests of a more or less stiff intellectual trying to offer them seats and passing out drinks and cigarettes before the exchange of ideas. They were received in the hearth of a family, they were the guests of Raïssa Maritain. Such meetings and such a work in common are inconceivable without a feminine atmosphere. There were three women in the house: there was Raïssa's mother—she attended the meetings more often than not, without understanding much of them, but too good a Jew, and of too serious a mind, not to take pleasure in intellectual debates. And she busied herself with the samovar, and with the dinner to be prepared for the evening. There was Vera, silent and diligent, who took care of everyone, and listened passionately to the discussions, not without secretly praying that everything would go well. And above all there was Raïssa, whose gaze and smile illuminated our humble drawing room, and who received everyone in her fraternal charity, and who did not cease for many days to carry all of this work in her prayers. She was the ardent flame of these meetings, in which she took an active part, always discreetly, but with the mad, boundless love of truth which burned in her. It is very evident that without her -- and without her little sister -- there would have been no Thomist circles…

The conversation continued after tea. The friends (after a session which lasted the whole afternoon) departed just before dinner. A few remained, more or less numerous, to dine with us. And these left by the last train. At midnight we were half-dead with fatigue, but generally very happy with the day.

Starting this week on High Concepts I am launching a virtual summer circle of Thomistic Studies. Though it will not be a circle enjoyed in the comfort of someone’s home, I hope nonetheless that it will encourage the same spirit of friendship and free intellectual inquiry that characterized the Maritain’s circle. The fact that the circle is virtual has the advantage of being able to include far more people than can fit into my family room, people in fact from every corner of the globe who can participate in it at their leisure. 

Given the focus of High Concepts—the arts, the entertainment industry, culture—and in a spirit of gratitude to Maritain himself for originating the idea, I am going to take as the focus of our Thomistic studies circle Maritain’s own 1920 volume, Art and Scholasticism, a meditation on the meaning of art as understood by medieval theologians (“scholastics”), principally, St. Thomas Aquinas.

But this will be no mere historical exercise. Since its publication, Art and Scholasticism has exerted an enormous influence upon working artists and intellectuals. Flannery O'Connor, for instance, regarded Art and Scholasticism as the book that she “cut [her] aesthetic teeth on” (O’Connor, The Habit of Being, 1979, p. 216).

Art and Scholasticism is an immensely important work that helps put the whole notion of art back into its proper relationship to truth, to morality, and to the supernatural life. 

Here’s how the circle will work. I do not expect everyone to read the entirety of Art and Scholasticism, though for those who want to it does have the benefit of being a fairly short book. Once a week, and usually going into the weekend, I will post a reflection on one of the larger themes from the book, in such a way that makes it possible to follow the discussion even if one has not read the passage or chapter in question. The point is not to add a book to your summer list of things to do, but to encourage a deeper meditation on the nature of art and what it means for the formation of culture.

No previous study of Maritain or of St. Thomas Aquinas is necessary. Neither is it necessary to be Catholic or an academic. My hope is that participation in this circle will be as wide and various as that of the Maritain’s own in Versailles. Comments, questions and discussion, of course, are most welcome and highly encouraged. Alas, unlike the circle in Versailles, our circle will lack a woman’s touch—not to mention a samovar and all the ingredients for tea! But we will have to make up for it by feasting on juicy ideas and rich conversation.

For those uninterested in the circle, be assured that High Concepts will continue in its regular vein in other posts during the week.

But for those who are interested, the ultimate point of the circle, as Maritain wrote about the first Thomistic circle, is “to examine a little more closely, in free discussions, the doctrine of St. Thomas, and to bring it face to face with the problems of our time.”

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Super 8 and the Real Presence, Part 3

Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.
John 15:4

Communion: the third constituent of “real presence.” “What differentiates real presence from just being with others in a crowd,” writes Father Cameron, “is belonging: unity in charity, forgiveness, helping people, self-sacrifice, intimacy. We long for this oneness with others; united with the one who loves me, I can face any fear…I am up to any challenge. In the Most Holy Eucharist, wrote John Paul II, “is the pledge of the fulfillment for which each man and woman, even unconsciously, yearns” (Ecclesia de Eucharista 59).”

In Super 8 J.J. Abrams plays with this theme of communion in the relationships between the kids, in the relationships between Joe and Alice and their fathers, and in the relationship between Joe and Alice themselves. But it also arises in a curious way in regard to the alien menace. The kids’ biology teacher at their middle school, Dr. Woodward (Glynn Turman), is a former government employee at Area 51, and knows all about the alien. For years he has been hiding his research on the monster, including a Super 8 film showing him being attacked by the alien at an Area 51 facility. After he is captured by the U.S. Air Force, Woodward reminds his interrogator, Nelec (Noah Emmerich), that a kind of psychic connection has been forged between him and the alien. “He lives in me,” says Woodward, “and I in him”—an echo, wittingly or not on Abrams’ part—of both John 15:4 and Galatians 2:20.

There is something in the alien’s touch that causes this strange connection. So that when the alien picks Joe up in their climactic encounter, Joe also enters into psychic communion with it (as do, presumably, the other people whom the alien captures, such as Alice). But it’s not clear what all this amounts to. The alien does listen to Joe’s plea in the climactic scene (see Tuesday’s post), but it seems to be the plea itself, rather than the psychic connection of which Woodward speaks, that persuades the alien to let Joe go. At least when it comes to the alien, then, this theme of communion, of entering into the very life of the other, enters as a bit of sci-fi mysticism but it is never really explored.

In a film in which the principal theme is how to go on living in the face of death (again, see Tuesday’s post), it is tempting to wonder whether the alien might be an image of supernatural life. But nothing in the film supports this possibility. True enough, the alien is from another, unknown world, and does turn out to have a benevolent side. But rather than representative of a transcendent realm, the alien is more a projection of Joe’s—and Alice’s—own psychic life, an imaginary friend with super-human strength and intelligence, but with the same emotional needs. Right before the climax in which he is captured by the alien, Alice tells Joe that the alien, like them, is just scared and lonely and wants to go home. So that when Joe tells it, “Bad things happen—but you can still live,” the alien realizes that it is being spoken to by a kindred spirit. The alien then lets Joe go, quickly finishes rebuilding its ship, and goes home, leaving all of us to wonder: what does the movie mean when it declares that we can “still live” in the face of bad things?

It means, I take it, that we can still live in the loving relationships we have with other living people—and not by trying to hang on to those who have gone before us (the last thing the magnetic attraction of the alien’s space ship draws to it is the locket in which Joe keeps a picture of his dead mother). There is obvious wisdom in this. Super 8 is undoubtedly affirming the real presence that is achieved through forgiveness, helping other people, self-sacrifice, and intimacy—and for that reason it has the “heart” that Abrams has said he strove to give to the film. And yet, apart from some fleeting images of a church (or synagogue?), Super 8 leaves no room for expanding that presence through the experience of Divine intimacy. In the film, communion is wholly and exclusively a human achievement, played out in a world underneath a heaven containing nothing more than creatures just as strange as ourselves. Writes Father Cameron, “Pope Benedict teaches us “that “communion always and inseparably has both a vertical and a horizontal sense: it is communion with God and communion with our brothers and sisters” (Sacramentum Cartitatis 76).””

As so in reflecting upon Super 8, as so often when I think about contemporary films, I am reminded of the words uttered by Binx Bolling, the protagonist of Walker Percy’s novel, The Moviegoer: “the movies are onto the search, but they screw it up.” 

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Super 8 and the Real Presence, Part 2

It is not, of course, that J.J. Abrams in his new film Super 8 is saying anything explicit about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. My point, rather, is that for all its character as a “summer popcorn movie” (Abrams’s own description), Super 8 reflects our culture’s hunger for the experience of “real presence” in our ordinary lives—and therefore, on a deeper level, the hunger for the most Real Presence of all.

In his lead editorial of the June 2011 Magnificat, Father Peter John Cameron names three constituents of real presence on both the human and supernatural levels: commitment, communication, and communion. Yesterday I considered the theme of commitment in Super 8; today I want to say a word about the theme of communication.

It is no coincidence, Father Cameron observes, that receiving the Eucharist at Mass is called “communicating.” For it is in the Eucharist that the faithful enjoy the most intimate encounter with the Lord possible on this earth, in which we have a chance to speak but more importantly to listen. “The goal of conversational communication and eucharistic communication is the same,” writes Father Cameron, “the sharing of self with the other. Pope Benedict XVI says that conversation between people only comes into its own when they are no longer trying to express something, but trying to express themselves….” Real communication, on both the human and supernatural levels, is a meeting in that quiet, hidden place where, in the motto of Cardinal Newman, cor ad cor loquitur: “heart speaks to heart.”

The name of Abrams’ movie is Super 8. The name comes from the type of motion picture film stock—8 mm, made by Kodak—popular with home movie enthusiasts in the 1970s. In the movie, the tween protagonist Joe Lamb and his friends are making a Super 8 zombie film, a movie that eventually helps the kids rescue their town from an alien menace. Thus Abrams harks back to his own childhood as a Super 8 film enthusiast (ironically, years before Abrams met Steven Spielberg, the executive producer of Super 8, he was paid $300 by Spielberg’s company to clean up some of Spielberg’s own boyhood Super 8 films). So the first thing that Abrams wants to communicate about his film is that it is about filmmaking—the most characteristic form of communication of our age. Super 8 celebrates kids in an era where DIY filmmaking is surging to the fore, kids yearning to express themselves through this exciting new medium that they now have the means to control. True, what the kids are making is a cheesy zombie movie—stay for the credits after Super 8 and you’ll see the hilarious finished product. But as I noted yesterday, their film can be seen as an adolescent meditation, equal parts puerile and charming, on the meaning of death. Interestingly, their finished film ends with the detective in pursuit of the zombies saving his zombified wife by injecting her with an antidote. The main theme of Super 8 is thus recapitulated in the kids’ own Super 8 film: loving sacrifice enables one to remain alive even when “bad things happen.”

Related to this theme of filmmaking as communication is the eagerness of Charles (Riley Griffiths), Joe’s best friend and the writer-director of the kids’ film, to find “production value”—elements that will make the film seem more real. When the train carrying the alien first comes around the corner near the station where the kids are filming, Charles orders everybody quickly into place so that they can get the real train in the background of the shot. So too when the kids use the Air Force as a backdrop when it scours the town for evidence of the missing alien’s presence. Filmmaking for the kids, as it is for our culture, is a way of making things real, of getting to the real, of finding that “value” in which we encounter—not simply trains and soldiers—but that “other” with whom we can express our heart.

Heart speaks to heart in Super 8 not only through the medium of film, but also through conversation. Because of their lack of commitment to their children, both Joe’s father and Alice’s father are unable at the outset to communicate with them. Joe’s father would even like to send his son to six weeks at a baseball camp, simply to be relieved of the burden of having to care for him. Later in the story Joe reacts angrily to his father’s failure to communicate with him, shouting at his father that he doesn’t even know him.

Apart from his last-ditch speech to the alien at the climax of the film, it is in his relationship with Alice that Joe experiences the genuine communication he longs for. One of the nicest things about Super 8 is that it doesn’t push this budding tween romance too far. The kids spend time alone together, even sneaking out at night to do so, but Abrams is wise to keep the relationship innocent. What is nice is that the kids are far more interested in talking to one another. They are starving for communication—to be known. So that even when they are alone together at night in Joe’s room, they spend the time talking about Joe’s mother’s death and watching Super 8 movies of Joe as a baby with his mother.

The need to communicate who one is and to receive the real presence of another: this is a second lesson of Super 8. Tomorrow we'll take a look at the theme of communion in the film. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Super 8 and the Real Presence

It is no slight to the new J.J. Abrams film, Super 8, that while I was watching it I was thinking of the editorial by Fr. Peter John Cameron, O.P. at the front of this month’s Magnificat. Super 8 is just about everything one could want from a summer blockbuster—thrills, chills, comedy and heart. Abrams is a master of high concept storytelling—and judging from the success Super 8 enjoyed in its opening weekend, not to mention the successes of Abrams’ other projects, e.g., the television series Alias and Lost, and the feature film, Star Trek, it is clear that his stories are giving a large portion of our culture something that it badly longs for. Which is where Fr. Cameron’s editorial comes in.

Fr. Cameron notes a recent survey concluding that close to fifty percent of American Catholics do not understand the Church’s teaching on Christ’s Real Presence—body, blood, soul and divinity—in the Eucharist. He speculates that a big part of the reason for this is that we do not understand “real presence” in our daily lives—on account of which the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist becomes an abstraction. “People have no frame of reference for seeing its relevance to their needs.”

I think it’s true that our culture in many ways undermines the experience of “real presence” in everyday life, and thus contributes to the disconnect between even acknowledged believers and Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist. But I also think that the success of Super 8 shows that our culture maintains a deep longing for “real presence,” not to mention Real Presence, especially when we consider the three constituents of “real presence” according to Fr. Cameron: commitment, communication, and communion.

Let’s begin with commitment. Fr. Cameron writes that commitment begins “very simply by giving the person in front of me my undivided attention.” He refers to Blessed Pope John Paul II’s remarkable ability to make the person he was looking at feel as if he or she was the only person in the world. In Super 8, the virtue of eye contact is very much in play when the tween protagonist, Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), describes to his friend, Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), the way in which his (now deceased) mother used to look at him so intensely. It was in her gaze, Joe says, that he felt “alive,”—a feeling he tries to keep fresh by carrying a locket with his mother’s picture inside. Super 8 is a film about finding that place where we can feel confidently alive in the commitment of the other. In one way it is a movie about death. The opening scenes depict the aftermath of the death of the Joe’s mother. The story takes place in the town of Lillian, Ohio—the lily being one of the most traditional images of death. Joe is the “lamb” led to slaughter. The super 8 movie that Joe and his friends are making, and that leads to their encounter with the alien, is a zombie film—a projection, one might say, of their fear and fascination with death. But Super 8 questions how one can maintain the sense of being alive even in the face of death. As Joe tells the alien at the climax, in another moment of close eye contact in which trust and commitment are forged, “Bad things happen…but you can still live.”

While death is the biggest obstacle to commitment in the film, the family dysfunction that in part results from death also looms large. When Super 8 begins, the very first image that comes on screen, even before the story itself gets underway, is the famous silhouette image from E.T. that Steven Spielberg, the executive producer of Super 8, uses as the logo for his production company, Amblin Entertainment. In that silhouette image we see Elliott, the boy protagonist of E.T., cycling in front of the full moon with the alien E.T. in the basket of his bike. E.T. is not only, through Spielberg, a kind of commercial ancestor of Super 8; it is also Super 8’s creative and emotional ancestor. Spielberg has said that he made E.T. as a way of meditating upon his boyhood as the child of divorced parents. Super 8 also deals with family dysfunction, not through divorce, but through the disconnect between Joe and his father (Kyle Chandler) in the wake of his mother’s death, as well as through a similar disconnect between Alice and her single-parent father (Ron Eldard), who drinks and emotionally abuses her. But after the encounter with the alien which puts both Joe and Alice in grave danger, both fathers discover the need to commit wholly and entirely to the well-being of their children. They discover the importance of the gaze, and the touch, that registers true commitment.

The root of man’s wretchedness, Father Cameron quotes Pope Benedict, “is loneliness—is the fact that my existence is not embraced by a love that makes it necessary.” Super 8 ends with the embraces of two fathers in which the lives of their children are confirmed as necessary. “I’ve got you,” Joe’s father says to him as he hugs him—meaning, perhaps, not only that he has got Joe back physically, but also that he has finally “got” what Joe needs from him as a father.

Tomorrow we'll take a look at Super 8 and the theme of communication