Phillip Lopate - The Movies and Spiritual Life

copyright Phillip Lopate, 1997, and currently available in Portrait of My Body from Anchor.

The earliest film I remember seeing was The Spanish Main, made shortly after World War II had ended. I must have been all of three or four-which is to say, too young to offer the auterist apology I would now, that the wonderful romantic director Frank Borzage was simply misused in a swashbuckler. I remembder a good deal of blushing orange-pink, the color of so many movies by the time a print got to our local theatre. But what irritated me were the love scenes, especially the long clinch at the end, when the hero held Maureen O’Hara in his puffy sleeves. “Cut out the mushy stuff!” I yelled.

What children want from movies is very simple: a chair smashed over the gunman’s head, a battle with a giant scorpion. They get restless through the early development scenes that give background information, the tender glances, the landscapes. But then a knife is hurled through the air and they are back into it. The kinetic at its most basic captivates them.

This was the initial charm and promise of the medium, as a somewhat astonished Georg Lukacs reflected in 1913 after a visit to the motion picture emporium:
The pieces of furniture keep moving in the room of a drunkard, his bed flies out of his room with him lying in it and they fly over the town. Balls some people wanted to use playing skittles revolt against their “users” and pursue them uphill and downhill….The “movie” can become fantastic in a purely mechanical manner…the characters only have movements but no soul of their own, and what happens to them is simply an event that has nothing to do with fate….Man has lost his soul, but he has won his body in exchange; his magnitude and poetry lie in the way he overcomes physical obstacles with his strength or skill, while the comedy lies in his losing to them.
What Lukacs could not have predicted was that, side-by-side with this fantastic cinema of movement, would develop a cinema of interiority, slowness, contemplation. Certain directors of the so-called transcendental style, like Dreyer, Bresson, Ozu, Mizoguchi, Rosselini, Antonioni, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, would not be content until they had revealed the fateful motions of their characters’ souls on film.

I remember the first time I saw such a movie, in college: Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest. The picture follows the misfortunes of a young priest, alienated from his worldly and cynical parishioners, who undermines his health in a quest for divine communion by eating nothing but bread soaked in wine. At the end he dies, attaining grace on his deathbed. Bresson frustrates conventional expectations of entertainment by denying the audience melodrama, spectacle, or comic diversion, offering instead an alternation of tense theological discussions and scenes of the priest alone, trapped by landscape or interiors in psychic solitary confinement. No doubt I identified, in my seventeen-year-old self-pity, with the hero’s poetic heartache. But what affected me so strongly at the time was something else.

There was a solitary chapel scene, ending in one of those strange short dolly shots that Bresson was so fond of, a movement of almost clumsy longing toward the priest at the altar, as though the camera itself were taking communion. Suddenly I had the impression that the film had stopped, or, rather, that time had stopped. All forward motion was arrested, and I was staring into “eternity.” Now, I am not the kind of person readily given to mystical experiences, but at that moment I had a sensation of delicious temporal freedom. What I “saw” was not a presence, exactly, but a prolongation, a dilation, as though I might step into the image and walk around it at my leisure.

I’m sure most people have at one time or another experienced such a moment of stasis. If you stay up working all night and then go for a walk in the deserted streets at dawn and look at, say, a traffic light, you may fixate with wonderment on the everyday object, in an illumination half caused by giddy exhaustion. Recently, while watching Diary of a Country Priest on videotape, I confess I kept dozing off, which made me wonder whether that first celluloid experience of eternity was nothing more than the catnap of a tired student faced with a slow, demanding movie. But no, this is taking demystification too far. Bresson’s austere technique had more likely slowed down all my bodily and mental processes, so that I was ready to receive a whiff of the transcendent.

In Paul Schrader’s Transcendental Style in Film, he accounts for this phenomenon by arguing from the bare, sparse means of Bresson’s direction, which eschews drama and audience empathy: “Stasis, of course, is the final example of sparse means. The image simply stops….When the image stops, the viewer keeps going, moving deeper and deeper, one might say, into the image. This is the ‘mirace’ of sacred art.”

All I know is that I was fascinated with the still, hushed, lugubrious, unadrenalated world of Diary. I kept noticing how the characters gravitated toward windows: could not the panes’ transparency be a metaphor for the border between substance and immateriality? “Your film’s beauty,” wrote Bresson to himself in Notes on Cinematography, “will not be in the images (postcardism) but in the ineffable, through the most visually concrete and literal of media. Yet perhaps this is less of a paradox than it might at first appear; perhaps there is something in the very nature of film, whose images live or die by projected beams of light, must derive some of its iconic power from self-reflexive commentary on the medium itself.

I noticed at the time that Bresson was also very fond of doors-in much the same way that Cocteau used mirrors in Orpheus, as conductors from one world to another. Pickpocket, Bresson’s greatest film, has a multitude of scenes of a door opening, followed by a brief, tense dialogue between well-meaning visitor and protagonist (the pickpocket), and ending with the frustrated visitor’s exit through the same door. This closed-door motif suggest both the pickpocket’s stubbornness, his refusal of grace, and the doors of spiritual perception, which (Bresson seems to be saying) are always close by, inviting us to embrace salvation. Bresson’s world tends to be claustrophobic, encompassing a space from the door to the window and back, as though telling us how little maneuvering room there is between grace and damnation. Curious how such a chilly idea, which would be appalling to me as a precept to follow in daily life, could prove so attractive when expressed in cinematic form. But part of its attraction was precisely that it seemed an intensification, a self-conscious foregrounding of problems of cinematic form.

A director must make a decision about how to slice up space, where to put the camera. Jean Renoir generously composes the frame so that it spills toward the sides, suggesting an interesting, fecund world awaiting us just beyond the screen, coterminous with the action, if momentarily off-camera; a Bresson composition draws inward, implodes, abstractly denies truck with daily life, cuts off all exits. In many scenes of Diary, the priest, let into a parishoner’s house, encounters almost immediately a painful interview in which his own values are attacked, ridiculed, tempted. Ther is no room for small talk; every conversation leads directly to the heart of the matter: sin, suicide, perversity, redemption, grace.

I wonder why this forbidding Jansenist work so deeply moved me. I think it had something to do with the movie’s offer of silence (“Build your film on white, on silence and on stillness,” wrote Bresson) and, with it, an implicit offer of greater mental freedom. A film like Diary of a Country Priest was not constantly dinning reaction cues into me. With the surrounding darkness acting as a relaxant, its stream of composed images induced a harmony that cleansed and calmed my brain; the plot may have been intimate tragic, but it brought me into a quieter space of serene resignation through the measured unfurling of a story of human suffering.

I could say a good deal more about Bresson’s Diary, but, first of all, the film has already been picked clean by scholars and academics, and, second of all, rather than fall into the prolixities of scene-by-scene analysis, I want to concentrate on the challenge at hand: to explain how this one movie changed my life.* It did so by putting me in contact with a habit of mind that I may as well call spiritual, and a mental process suspiciously like meditation.

The monks in Fra Angelico’s order were each assigned a cell with a painting on which to meditate. It may sound far-fetched to speak of watching a movie as a meditative discipline, given the passivity of the spectator compared with the rigors of Zen or monastic sitting; but parallels do exist. There is a familiar type of meditation called one-pointedness, which focuses the meditator’s attention through the repetition of a single sound or mental image. Yet another meditation practice encourages the sitter to let thoughts fall freely and disorientedly, without anchoring them to any one point. The films of Mizoguchi, say, seem to me a fusion of these two methods: by their even, level presentation of one sort of trouble after another, they focus the viewer’s mind on a single point of truth, the Buddhist doctrine of suffering; and by their extreme cinematographic fluidity, they arouse a state akin to free fall.

At first I used to resist my mind’s wandering during such films, thinking I was wasting the price of admission. But just as in Buddhist meditation one is instructed not to brush aside the petty or silly thoughts that rise up, since these “distractions” are precisely the material of the meditation, so I began to allow my movie-watching mind to yield more freely to daily preoccupations, cares, memories that arose from some image association. Sometimes I might be lost to a apersonal mental thread for several minutes before returning with full attention to the events on-screen; but when I did come back, it was with a refreshed consciousness, a deeper level of feeling. What Diary of a Country Priest taught me was that certain kinds of movies-those with austere aesthetic means; an unhurried, deliberate pace; tonal consistency; a penchant for long shots as opposed to close-ups; an attention to backgrounds and milieu; a mature acceptance of suffering as fate-allowed me more room for meditation. And I began to seek out other examples.

In various films by Ozu, Mizoguchi, Naruse, there will be a scene early on where the main characters are fiddling around in the house and someone comes by, a neighbor or the postman (the traditional Japanese domestic architecture, with its sliding shoji, is particularly good at capturing this interpenetration of inside and outside); a kimono-clad figure moves sluggishly through the darkened interior to answer, to answer, some sort of polite conversation follows; and throughout this business, one is not unpleasantly aware of an odd aural hollowness, like the mechanical thud-thud of the camera that used to characterize all films just after sound came in; and it isn’t clear what the point of the scene is, except maybe to establish the ground of dailiness; and at such junctures I often start to daydream, to fantasize about a movie without any plot, just these shuttlings and patient, quiet moments that I like so much. Ah, yes, the lure of pure quotidian plotlessness for a writer like myself, who has trouble making up plots. But then I always remember that what gives these scenes their poignant edge is our knowledge that some plot is about to take hold, so that their very lack of tension engenders suspense: when will all this daily flux coalesce into a single dramatic conflict? Without the catastrophe to come, we probably would not experience so refreshingly these narrative backwaters; just as without the established, calm, spiritual ground of dailiness, we would not feel so keenly the ensuing betrayals, suicide pacts, and sublimely orchestrated disenchantments.

I tried to take from these calm cinematic moments-to convince myself I believed in-a sense of the sacredness of everyday life. I even piously titled my second poetry collection The Daily Round. I wanted the security, the solace of a constant, enduring order underneath things-without having to pay the price through ecstasy or transcendence. My desire had something to do with finding an inner harmony in the arrangement of backgrounds and foregrounds as I came across them in real life; an effort, part spiritual, part aesthetic, to graft an order I had learned through movies onto reality. How it originally came about was this way: watching a film, I would sometimes find myself transfixed by the objects in the background. I remember a scene in Max Ophul’s Letter from an Unknown Woman, when the heroine is ironing in the kitchen, and suddenly I became invaded by the skillets and homely kitchenware behind her. For several moments I began to dream about the life of those objects, which had become inexplicably more important to me than Joan Fontaine.

Certain directors convey a respect for rooms and landscapes at rest, for the world that surrounds the drama of the characters and will survive it long after these struggles are over. Ozu frequently used static cutaway shots of hallways, beaded curtains in restaurants-passageways made for routine human traffic, which are momentarily devoid of people. Bresson wrote: “One single mystery of persons and objects.” And: “Make the objects look as if they want to be there…The persons and objects in your film must walk at the same pace, as companions.” Antonioni also engaged in a tactful spying on objects, keeping his camera running long after the characters had quit the frame. Why these motionless transitions, I thought, if not as a way of asserting some constant and eternal order under the messy flux of accident, transcience, unhappiness?

I tried, as I said, to apply this way of seeing to my own daily life outside movie theaters. I waited on objects to catch what Bresson calls their “phosphorescence.” In general, these exercises left me feeling pretty pretentious. Just as there are people whom dogs and children don’t seem to trust, so objects did not open up to me, beyond a polite, stiff acquaintance. They kept their dignified distance; I kept mine.

Once, I took Kay, a woman I had been dating for several years while steadfastly refusing to marry, to see Dreyer’s Ordet. It has been as hard for me to surrender spiritually as conjugally; I have long since become the kind of skeptic who gets embarrassed for someone when he or she starts talking about astrology, out-of-body experiences, past lives, or karma. I don’t say I’m right, just that I’m rendered uncomfortable by such terms. And if the exotic vocabulary of Eastern religions makes me uneasy, the closer-to-home terminology of Christ the King and Christianity makes me doubly so-perhaps for no reason other than that I’m an American Jew. In any case, there we were at the Carnegie Hall Cinema, Kay (who is Presbyterian) and I; we had just seen the magnificent final sequence, in which Dreyer “photographs” a resurrection: the mentally disturbed Johannes, invoking Jesus Christ, raises Inger from the dead-which is shown not by any optical trick, mind you, but simply by filming the event head-on, unadorned. One moment the woman is lying in her bed; the next moment she sits up and kisses her husband. I don’t know which move me more, Dreyer’s own seeming faith in miracles, his cinematic restraint, or the audacity of his challenge to the audience to believe or disbelieve as we saw fit. The lights went up, and, just as I was wiping away a tear, Kay punched me. “You see, you can take it in films, but you can’t take it in life!” she said.

Sometimes I think I am especially inclined to the spiritual, and that is why I resist it so. At other times this seems nothing but a conceit on my part. You cannot claim credit for possessing a trait you have run away from all your life. This does not prevent me from secretly hoping that spirituality has somehow sneaked in the back door when I wasn’t looking, or was miraculously earned, like coupons, through my “solitary struggles” as a writer. (It would not be the first time that making poetry or art was confused with spiritual discipline.)

Every once in a blue moon I go to religious services or read the Bible-hoping that this time it will have a deeper effect on me than merely satisfying some anthropological curiosity. I do not, by and large, perform good works; I do not pray, except in desperation. I have never pursued a regular meditative practice, or even meditated under a learned person’s guidance (though I have many friends and relatives who described the experience for me). No, the truth is I probably have a very weak (though still alive) spiritual drive, which I exercise for the most part in movie theaters.

It is, I suppose, a truism that the cinema is the secular temple of modern life. A movie house is like a chapel, where one is alone with one’s soul. Film intrinsically avows an afterlife by creating immortals, stars. In its fixing of transient moments with permanence, it bestows on even the silliest comic farce an air of fatalism and eternity. All well and good. What I want to know is: Did I purposely seek out the spiritual in movies in order to create a cordon sanitaire, to keep it from spilling into the other facets of my life?

Films have been a way for me to aspire to the spiritual, without taking it altogether seriously. Diary of a Country Priest may have helped shape my sense of beauty, but I notice that as a writer I have never striven for Bressonian purity. I am too gabby; such austerity is beyond me. In fact, when I encounter Bresson on the page, in interviews and in his writings, he sometimes seems to me insufferable. Even some of his films, especially the later ones like The Devil, Probably, and Lancelot du Lac, have passages that strike me as moronically solemn. And, as I am not the first to observe, there is often something mechanical in the plots of Bressons, along with those of other modern Catholic storytellers-Graham Greene, Mauriac, Bernanos (who supplied the novel on which Diary of a Country Priest is based)-that stacks the deck in favor of sin, perverse willfulness, and despair, the better to draw grace out of the pile later on. I think even as a college student I suspected this, but the very air of contrivance, which alluded to theological principles I ill understood, filled me with uncertainty and awe.

Another reason why I did not build more on the glimpses of spiritual illumination I received in movies occurs to me belatedly: All the films I was attracted to were either Christian* or Buddhist. I could not travel very far along this path without becoming disloyal to Judaism. Though I haven’t been a particularly observant Jew, I retain an attachment to that identity; put bluntly, it would horrify me to convert to another faith. What, then, of Jewish models? Was there no Jewish transcendental cinema? I think not, partly because modern American Judaism doesn’t appear to be very big on transcendence. Catholicism asserts that death can bring redemption and an afterlife, but it is unclear whether Judaism even believes in an afterlife. In my experience of Judaism, there is only morality, guilt, expetiation, and satisfaction in this life. Catholicism insists on the centrality of a mystery. Bresson quotes Pascal: “They want to find the solution where all is enigma only.” And in Bresson’s own words: “Accustom the public to divining the whole of which they are only a given part. Make people diviners.” This language of divination and mystery seems to me very far from the analytical, Talmudic, potentially skeptical methods of Jewish study; as it happens, it is with the latter that I have come to identify.

One of the most beautiful passages in motion pictures is the ending of Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu, when the errant potter returns to his cottage after long travels and a 180-degree pan finds his old wife sitting there, preparing him a meal. He falls asleep happy, only to wake up the next morning and learn from neighbors that his wife is dead: the woman who had tended him the night before was a ghost. The 180-degree movement had inscribed the loss all the more deeply through its play on absence and presence, invisibility and appearance. Such a noble presentation of the spirit life, common in Buddhist art, would be extremely rare in Jewish narratives, where ghosts are not often met.

If you were to think of a “Jewish cinema,” names like the Marx Brothers, Woody Allen, Ernst Lubitsch, Jerry Lewis, Mel Brooks, Billy Wilder spring to mind-all skeptical mockers, ironists, wonderful clowns, and secular sentimentalists. Yiddish films like Green Fields and The Light Ahead do have scenes of religious piety and custom, but even these celebrate the warmth and sorrows of a people rather than the spiritual quest of a lonely soul straining toward God. Whatever the virtues of Yiddish movies-humanity and humor in abundance-they are not aesthetically rigorous: indeed, it is the very muzziness of communal life that seems to constitute the core of their triumphant religious feeling.

As I look back, I realize that I needed to find something different, something I did not know how to locate in my watered-down Jewish background. I took to the “transcendental style” immediately; it was obviously the missing link in my aesthetic education. Movies introduced me to a constellation or ritual and spiritual emotion that I could willingly embrace so long as it was presented to me in the guise of cinematic expression, but not otherwise. At that point these appeals, these seductions, came into conflict with a competing spiritual claim, indefinitely put off but never quite abandoned: to become a good Jew, sometime before I die.

* Even Bunuel, another early favorite whom I took to be antireligious by his parodies of the transcendent, seems, in films like Nazarin, Viridiana, Simon of the Desert, heavily shaped by a Catholic world view. To turn something inside out is still to be dependent on it.

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