Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Real joy in a reel world

Robert Johnston’s Reel Spirituality is terrific. It’s a compelling read and the man is a genuinely literate cineaste - and it shows. In broad strokes and some deft analyses he surveys the influence of films on culture (and vice-versa) and challenges Christian moviegoers to think through contemporary issues addressed in films. The idea of engaging films in a kind of reverse hermeneutical dialogue is timely and I found his theological reflections insightful.

So I didn’t think twice grabbing Prof Johnston’s new book Useless Beauty in Kinokuniya. Titled after Elvis Costello’s song about “all this useless beauty,” the book looks at connections in contemporary movies and Ecclesiastes, fleshing out the futility of life in a Godless universe in a fresh new way. Interesting. I have read Ecclesiastes several times (even taught a young adults class), but putting on cinematic glasses to read this old Book of Wisdom – now that’s right down my alley!

As modernity unravels, increasingly people are turning to reel life for help with real life, says Johnston:
“To hold together joy and sorrow, meaninglessness and meaningfulness is a vexing problem in any age. But it was particularly difficult during most of the twentieth century, given our philosophical commitment to a linear epistemology. We came to believe that when understood clearly, everything would or could follow logically and orderly without friction or intrusion. But as modernity’s epistemological bankruptcy became more and more evident, our culture turned elsewhere for models by which to understand existence, including the arts.”
Hmm, movies as signposts and reference points (I think of Sleepless in Seattle – a movie inspired by Cary Grant’s An Affair To Remember, and whose characters referenced the latter for its plot). Of course you don’t watch a movie merely to pick up philosophical or theological nuggets. You know, you just want to sit back and have a good time taking in a really great movie (i.e., LOTR Trilogy which is one long movie, really) or maybe indulge in two hours of brainless diversion (i.e., Napoleon Dynamite). Yet neither medium nor message is without consequence, so one is either naïve or plain lazy to imagine a movie is a movie is a movie, and nothing more.

The existentialist underpinning of many of today’s movies (ie, American Beauty, Ikiru) compares remarkably well with Ecclesiastes where the themes of meaninglessness, contradictions, and paradox are prevalent. Yes, all these may be a painful fact of life, but that’s not the end of the matter: there’s hope yet, and Ecclesiastes tells us why in its concluding verses. As messy as life appears, God is in his heaven, and joy, one hopes, is not beyond grasp.

On the question of joy and pain, Johnston quotes Lewis Smedes’ How Can It Be Right When Everything Is All Wrong?:
“Joy also has to be compatible with the pain within me. To promise joy without pain is Pollyannaism, make-believe, deceit. Legitimate joy must be the experience of joy along with pain. And it seems to me possible.”
Here at home away from the reel world, we’re dealing with an illness in the family, my Dad’s. I’m treading water; in a sea of possibilities, I’m trying to keep my head up in spite of bleakness and pain. Naturally the conversation that Useless Beauty prompted had me hooked from page one.


The Hedonese said...

Great stuffs... am ploughing thru a simpler "Reviewing the movies" by Fraser/Neal!

David BC Tan said...

Hey Dave, thanks for visiting. BTW is there anything 'simple' about a movie review? :-)