Tag Archives: movies

Close Encounters: Spiritual Aura Shines

The hope symbolized by light from the heavens is that renewal awaits us, if only we remain open to the mystery and take the opportunity to appreciate the wisdom abiding in the spiritual.”

(Repost)

Earth's aura and crescent moon (NASA photo)

Earth’s aura and crescent moon
(NASA photo)

The arts offered a space where we could pause for reflection, and perhaps glimpse a faint glow from over the horizon, amidst the malaise weighing on 1970s America. That most innovative of film makers, Steven Spielberg, slipped the bonds of science fiction’s conventions in a visionary movie. He portrayed an alien spaceship with a spiritual aura, like those Renaissance religious paintings where the radiance from above promises a hopeful future and a chance of renewal.

“Children Opening Doors to Beautiful Sources of Light”

When the 1977 film Close Encounters opens, a luminous space ship dazzles airline pilots by its unearthly maneuvers, while air traffic controllers in the American heartland try to make sense of what they see on their screens. Unable to reconcile what they are witnessing with their familiar experience, they dismiss the extraordinary, rather than seeking its meaning. As the story unfolds, an aged Mexican villager with a beatific smile tells scientists that the sun came out at night and sang to him, as a Madonna might to her child. When the scene shifts back to Indiana, the specter reappears, and Spielberg sends a curious, not fearful, child chasing an elusive orange vapor into the prairie night. What is hidden from the wise and learned is sometimes revealed to children. As Spielberg later explained, “Close Encounters is all about children opening doors to beautiful sources of light.” It is difficult to imagine a more numinous response to the angst then afflicting America.

In Close Encounters, the viewer is from the opening drawn into a world of light, music, and wonder, which captivates the senses more than the intellect. Instead of intrepid explorers, we meet ordinary people, tentative in their search for the strangers. They are warm and approachable, unlike the steely glint of heroism. The viewer can identify with their uncertainty in the face of the astonishing. Close Encounters shares Hamlet’s response to the dreams and phantoms of other worlds: as strangers, give them welcome.

As the story begins, a utility company repairman, Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), heads out in his truck when the spaceship’s over flight turns out the lights and plunges Muncie, Indiana into an eerie darkness. He gets lost in the outer burbs, but the aliens seem to find him, and he looks up to a dazzling white glare before the ship glides off into the night sky. Although rattled, Neary listens to the cacophony of voices on his CB radio so he can track the ship’s path, and pursue it. Throughout the movie, this Everyman follows his inner voice, strange and compulsive though it may be, to search for the unknowable. Does obsession lurk in the shadows of the deepest religious experience? Implicit in the movie is this ambivalence.

Enlightened guide and a counter-vision

Although the events in the film unfold as seen by the Everyman character, we have to focus elsewhere to approach the essence of the film. A marvelous work of art, or an idyllic scene in nature, when truly taken in by the viewer, can inspire a sense of awe, but a more profound appreciation flows from knowledge. Similarly, a childlike wonder may inspire a quest for the mysterious light, and Neary’s obsession may pursue it, but only an enlightened guide can enrich the numinous experience.

In Close Encounters, the awareness is provided by a scientist, Claude Lacombe–although what variety of scientist remains nebulous. The actor is an icon of French New Wave cinema, Francois Truffaut, who had expanded the frontiers of film creativity in the 1960s. As the refrain in the movie goes, this means something.

Lacombe’s point of view gives permission to the viewer to reflect on the mystical light. “The light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not.” Through Lacombe’s perspective, we are invited to wonder and perhaps to begin to understand; what the radiance might represent is left to us. Given the increasingly materialist and secular outlook that was emerging in the 1970s, and since then has become increasingly dominant, this signifies a counter vision.

Consider that Lacombe is not an American pragmatist, but a French intellectual with a philosophical hue. He is drawn to the mystery, and his métier is the illuminating question. Yet, he is neither conducting an investigation nor solving a problem–that is the province of the technician. Lacombe might well agree with Einstein that scientific thinking involves a free play with concepts. He has the brilliant intuition to use several musical tones as the language to reach out to the aliens, relying on child’s play in the most fateful of communications. Recall the Mexican villager’s description of the ship: the sun that sang. Where a film involving space travel might well focus on the technology, the crucial tool in Close Encounters is simple music, and the goal is communication with strangers.

Quest and possibility

The scientist has set out on a quest—as have the child, Neary’s everyman, and, through identifying with the film’s characters, the audience. Each has taken a risk, even if it is only the hazard of unsettling their comfortable thinking, in hope of being renewed.

Lacombe’s philosophy accepts the possibility that there are things in heaven and earth that dwell beyond the realm of facts. He is like Einstein, who once said that he developed his relativity theory because he was still able to ask childlike questions about space and time. Lacombe has retained the child’s sense of wonder, yet he has cultivated the detachment necessary for insight into the shining enigma. William Blake wrote that the child’s toys and the old man’s reasons are but the fruits of the two seasons. Close Encounters’ script mirrors this: Lacombe is the adult companion to the Indiana boy who opens the door to the beautiful light. Not by force of logical argument, but through being open to creativity and inspiration, he calmly persuades his colleagues of the potential inherent in reaching out to the visitors. Lacombe is a prophet without self-righteousness.

No longer through a glass, darkly

With the majestic arrival of the mother ship at Devil’s Tower, a light from above shining in the darkness, time seems to be suspended, and the spiritual quest of Close Encounters reaches its apotheosis. We are by now alerted to the interplay of light and music that bounces back and forth between the ship and human technology. Emerging at last, the aliens appear, bathed in a diffuse white light. Neary and other explorers ascend into the ship, but the viewer does not follow them into the inner sanctum. What waits beyond the pale is left to the imagination, as each individual’s spiritual vision is her own. We no longer look through a glass darkly, but we are not yet seeing face to face. In Close Encounters, there is enlightenment, but no revelation—no definitive answers, only intimations. The hope symbolized by the light from the heavens is that renewal awaits us, if only we remain open to the mystery and take the opportunity to appreciate the wisdom abiding in the spiritual.

© Tom Schultz, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express consent from this blog’s author is prohibited.

Meryl Streep Fires at Trump, Misses the Mark

Kensington Park Michigan autumn fallMeryl Streep, in 1978, appeared in The Deer Hunter, a great movie which sympathetically treated the experience of working class Americans during the Vietnam War. Railing against Donald Trump is easy. I would rather have heard Streep criticize Hollywood for not following Deer Hunter with more art that reflected the lives of people like those played by Robert DeNiro and Christopher Walken. Instead, Hollywood too frequently in recent years (with notable exceptions) has treated working class Americans as invisible or caricatures–a disdain that significantly contributed to Trump’s appeal. Something about seeing the speck in your brother’s eye while ignoring the plank in your own.

Katniss Everdeen: The Truth in the Myth

 

forebear of Katniss

The goddess Diana, forebear of Katniss

 

In Greek myth, Artemis served as goddess of both the hunt and childbirth. Katniss Everdeen, the young hero of our modern myth, Hunger Games, combines within herself the nurturing for which women have traditionally been known, with the assertiveness and competence that have been the touchstone of women’s evolving identity. She takes care of the inner world of emotions, as she grows proficient in the world of action. Solicitous to those most in need of solace, yet entirely capable of the hunter/warrior’s resolve, Katniss’ character suggests a renewal for our society’s ailing spirit.

(With the finale of the Hunger Games movies, I re-post this musing on the Katniss character)

Drawing on my own family’s story, I took an early liking to Katniss, the coal miner’s daughter. Her father has been stolen from her by an underground explosion amidst primitive conditions; the mine where he dug coal becomes his tomb. Yet, her bond with him endures. Memories of her father return to Katniss in her dreams, often as nightmares of his violent death–but we are sure, also as a well from which she draws her inner strength.

Her mother has been plunged into depression by the wrenching loss of her husband, and merely walking through life is her daily struggle. She often falters. Despite her trauma, Katniss’ mother retains her gift as a healer for the ill and the injured, practicing natural cures. This, too, blends into Katniss’ identity.

Growing up in want and on the margins of starvation, far from the safe harbor of a middle class life, Katniss’ empathy for the oppressed comes naturally to her. Admirable emotions, though, will not ward off the gaunt wolf of hunger, constantly prowling the coal mining district. In the face of threatened sanctions from authority, she steadily learns the hunter’s craft to provide for her mother and younger sister. At the worst of times, she is the most resourceful.

Given her sympathies and her spirit, we are not surprised when Katniss descends into the vicious combat of the Hunger Games reality show–not through fate, but by choice. The Capitol’s impersonal lottery, designed to intimidate the working class population of the Districts, marks her fragile younger sister, Prim, for a brutal death in the arena. Rather than passively accept the destruction of her sister, Katniss steps forward to take Prim’s place. In the movie, trepidation is etched on her  face–she is not a steely action hero. Knowing the odds against her, she chooses to act as a defender of the defenseless. I was reminded of Martin Luther’s declaration: “Here I stand; I can do no other.” Fear is not banished, but conquered through resolution. At this point, the haughty lords of the Capitol have met their match, though they are still blissful in their ignorance.

Katniss preserves her identity, and acts upon it, in the face of the relentlessly dehumanizing Hunger Games. In her search for allies in the arena, she picks the most unlikely of combatants, the slight and vulnerable Rue, who reminds Katniss of her sister. Unable to prevent Rue’s death, she dispatches the executioner with a well-placed arrow. Then, in a touching and understated act of defiance of the Capitol, she covers Rue’s body with flowers. She openly weeps over the loss of her friend, and over what she has forever lost in having to kill another human being. With her floral tribute, she retains as much of her integrity as she can, and still survive the Hunger Games.  Katniss uses beauty  as a protest against her abhorrent situation.

Skeptics might scoff that reading social import into the Hunger Games is a stretch, as it is merely a work of fiction. Myths, however, often crystallize a society’s truths. In seeking to discern the course of underlying social change, we are often as sleuths sifting through clues. The Hunger Games novels and movies have received a tremendous reception. This is a fact which we can grasp, and to which attention should be paid. Could one really believe that the novels and movie would have been embraced in the same manner, particularly by young women, if the hero had been a Justin or a Michael, or a female action figure strutting in a purely macho style? It strikes me as no coincidence that a young woman with Katniss’ character has fulfilled this role in our culture at this time. Her personality, her inclusion of her mother’s nurturing gift with her father’s steady courage and willingness to face a dangerous task, these qualities draw the audience to Katniss in 2014. When the spirit in  politics has ossified, and the political conversation becomes utterly predictable in its myopia, we might better explore the arts as a palette for an alternative, creative vision.

Love and the Terrible Swift Sword

antietam

Antietam National Battlefield, Maryland
NPS photo

 

Fine art, like great leaders, appeals to the better angels of our nature, to borrow Lincoln’s words.  The 1989 film, Glory, touches its audience  in that way, while exploring the story of the 54th Massachusetts, the first Union Army regiment  made up of black soldiers.  This is history told from the ground up, beckoning  the audience  to come closer, inviting them to feel as the characters do.

A simple quality makes Glory unique as a war film: love.  As the story unfolds, the focus never strays from the bonds between the men, and between a leader and his troops.  In the course of campaigns, soldiers often  develop affection for their commander, but in Glory the formula is altered: the  young, idealistic colonel  grows up as he learns to first appreciate and then love his men.

Captain Robert Gould Shaw, 23 year-old son of upper crust Boston parents with Abolitionist sympathies, sees the landscape turn red at the battle of Antietam.  Returning home on leave, he is feted at a sumptuous banquet.  The guest list includes the Governor and the great black leader, Frederick Douglass.  Governor Andrews promotes Shaw (Matthew Broderick) to Colonel of a regiment to be recruited solely from free black men and former slaves.

After seeing slaves fleeing the South, Shaw had written to his mother: “We fight for men and women whose poetry is not yet written.”  Yet, as their commanding officer, he finds that these men are strangers to him.  He cannot breach the distance between them, and the former slaves appear to his eyes as if enshrouded in a fog.

A turning point for Shaw occurs early in the film.  The Confederate government in Virginia declares it will consider black men captured in Union blue and their white officers as being engaged in servile insurrection, subject to summary execution.  Shaw informs the assembled men of the grim news and offers to accept any soldier’s resignation.  The next morning, to Shaw’s astonishment, the men stand as one in defiance of the slave master government’s no quarter threat.  The young colonel recognizes he is in the presence of extraordinary courage.  He no longer sees his troops dimly, but begins to see them face to face.

Shaw is helped in his growing appreciation by the regiment’s sage, Sergeant Rawlins, played by Morgan Freeman.  The older man mentors his colonel in the subtleties of human nature, while he acts as a father figure to the soldiers.  Learning from  Rawlins’ tutelage,  Shaw comes to realize that he also must fight the condescending, racist Army upper echelon to gain recognition for his men as worthy soldiers.

While their colonel is maturing, the soldiers are growing in self-confidence and pride.  The culmination of the men’s transformation takes place as they gather around a campfire on the eve of battle.  They invoke their religious tradition to steel their hearts,  as they testify to their faith in God and their faith in each other.  Choking with emotion, a fiery soldier played by Denzel Washington says, “I love the 54th.”  After pausing, he says,  “It don’t much matter what happens tomorrow,  Because we’re men now, ain’t we!”  The chorus responds, “Yessir!” and “Amen.”

The next morning, with cannon shot arcing toward the fort they are to storm, the men of the 54th stand in their ranks, ready to give the last full measure of their devotion.  Colonel Shaw faces them expectantly in a communication of shared courage and love.  The emotion is there for the viewer to touch.

Spiritual Resistance in the Crucible of American Slavery

Flight to freedom (photo, public domain)

Flight to freedom (photo, public domain)

 Inspiration  shines like a beacon  from great films when the screen portrayal reflects historical truth. In the 1989 movie, Glory, blue-clad soldiers of the famed 54th Massachusetts regiment sing hymns around a campfire on the eve of a Civil War battle.   The former slaves—the United States Army’s first black unit—invoke their religious tradition to steel their hearts,  as they testify to their faith in God and their faith in each other. “It don’t much matter what happens tomorrow,” one fiery soldier says, “because we’re men now, ain’t we!”  The chorus responds, “Yessir!” and “Amen.”

 [Repost from April]

The historical truth is that the religion of American slaves played a crucial part in preserving their humanity in the face of a brutal system that tore down their human dignity. There was no escape from this existential threat. Slave revolts in the American South proved suicidal. Flight was possible, but so fraught with peril that it was available to only a heroic minority. For the vast majority who remained on the plantations, there was cultural resistance, and the center of that culture was the slaves’ religion.

The slaves’ Christianity taught that there was a power higher than that of the plantation owner, and that before Him the slaves were the equal of any man, with an equal claim to human dignity. Their religion also provided a source of solidarity and collective identity. These were powerful messages in the face of the master’s pervasive control of the slaves’ lives, providing an enclave for the slaves’ human spirit, an inner space protected from the toxic corrosion of slavery.  Religion promised a better future, but also fortified the slaves’ community to endure in the here and now.  100 years later, the civil rights movement’s great orator echoed this spirit. “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope,” Dr. King avowed before the Lincoln Memorial.

The story of this cultural resistance in times that  tried men’s souls is  told in a remarkable book published two generations ago, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, authored by Eugene Genovese. The title itself says so much. Slaves in the American South have often been portrayed as passive, even submissive, and as victims. In Genovese’s account, they are the active subjects who make history, not merely objects to be used and abused by actors who wield greater power. From his narrative, it becomes clear that the slaves’ social labor and their collective struggle to maintain their human dignity contributed as much to the history of the American South as the actions of the planter aristocracy or the exploits of the great political families.

Genovese’s achievement  in writing Roll, Jordan, Roll merits admiration today. Although he is passionate, his book is reliably objective, untainted by the self-righteous tone that so often mars the current spirit in politics. His history reads from the bottom up, giving ordinary men and women their due as historical actors. For an activist and scholar on the left (as Genovese was then), it was a signal mark of creativity to recognize the critical part the spiritual played in enabling the slaves to maintain their humanity.

We are urgently in need of such objectivity and creativity in our politics today. As Abraham Lincoln said in the rancorous 1850s:  ” If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it.” Indeed, with contemporary efforts to ban religion from public spaces and airbrush religion from American history, Roll, Jordan, Roll and its tale of communal spiritual strength speaks to us as a timely voice from the past.

Before Katniss, There Was Julia

Diana, the forebear of Katniss (photo: public domain)

Diana, the forebear of Katniss
(photo: public domain)

Before Katniss Everdeen emerged as a strong, vital female character, there was Julia. The year was 1977, and feminism at its most fervent reached the screen. The movie, Julia, garnered 11 Oscar nominations, winning 3 awards. Vanessa Redgrave, in a luminous performance, plays the title character, a young leader of the antifascist underground in Nazi Germany. Jane Fonda portrays her lifelong friend, who with Julia’s encouragement leaves the comfort and safety of her writer’s beach house in America to smuggle money into Berlin for the Resistance.  Each time I watch this movie, I marvel at Jane Fonda’s artistry.

[Repost from April]

In a scene that defines Julia’s character and sets the tone for the way the film depicts women, Nazi hooligans invade her university’s campus in Vienna and begin gleefully tossing Jewish students and professors over a balcony. Brandishing a table leg, Julia leads her fellow medical students in a charge to defend the mob’s hapless victims. In the ensuing combat, she endures a savage beating and loses a leg as a result. Later, swathed in bandages and lying in her hospital bed, she is visited by her friend from America, Lillian, who insists on staying by her side. When Julia recovers, she returns to the Resistance.

In the mid 1970s, the feminist movement was newly ascendant. Julia and Lillian as screen characters epitomized sisterhood in the face of peril and reaction against progress. Their camaraderie glows from the screen. In art, they dramatized the reality of the ferment in society. They did more; in the film, Julia and Lillian presented a counter vision of how social change might proceed. The glow was the light of hope. Continue reading