Friday, June 23, 2006

I Wish I Could Have Been There / Kevin Murphy, part 2

A Year at the Movies, by Kevin Murphy, chronicles a Super Size Me style stunt, only with movies and fewer physical ramifications. Murphy watched a movie a day for a whole year, and not just in his home state of Minnesota, either. I wish I could have been at the Boston Theological Institue's first Faith in Film Festival. (Incidentally, my alma mater, Andover Newton Theological School is a member of the BTI.) I'll have to settle for the next best thing, the account of Kevin Murphy. And unless you go out and by his book (go ahead, click the link at the top of the post, buy it, it's fun!) you'll have to make do with just this bit about the last two movies, Ordet, from Carl Theodor Dreyer and Bringing Out the Dead, from Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese.

In a nutshell, it’s the story of a family in rural Denmark, maybe a hundred years ago. Dad is an inflexible religious fundamentalist. He has a son, Mikkel, who’s an atheist; another, Anders, who wants to jump religions and marry outside the family’s faith; and yet another, Johannes, who thinks he’s Jesus.

So, it’s a lot like Minnesota.

Ultimately, Inger, the wife of atheist Mikkel, dies in childbirth, No, she doesn’t. Wait—yes, she does. The movie goes back and forth on this in a scene that lasts eleven months, real time. But she does die, and her children come to Johannes (Jesus) and ask him to raise her from the dead. Johannes bolts, I believe for three days. And he come back, no longer smelly and in rags, but cleaned up and obviously sane. Thing is, he still believes he’s Jesus, and he performs a miracle all the same.

Ordet is a powerful, spellbinding fable of death and rebirth, of grace and redemption, of tolerance and forgiveness. It is considered one of the greatest films of its kind ever made.

And the audience laughed at it.

One reason is the characters, their stereotypical Scandanavianness. They all seem like they stepped out of A Prairie Home Companion. Caricatures. Big, intolerant Danes.

Another reason to laugh is the coffee. Honestly. These people are obsessed with coffee. I counted about ten separate occasions in which characters sat down to have coffee, making a huge fuss over it every time.

But the biggest reason to laugh was the technique. Everything is symbolic and portentous. The perdurable shots, the stultified pacing, the stony seriousness of it all. The pace is slower than the Great Boston Molasses Spill of 1919. And the sheer mass of the melodrama weighs down on a modern audience like an old sweaty grandma.

So, we, the audience, chuckled. Then laughed out loud. Then heckling started. I heard “Oh, come on, get on with it!” from the back of the room. Remember these are theologians, Harvard folk, film scholars. And still we laughed and heckled what has been called one of the greatest films on faith ever made.

All this leads me to a thesis: We have outgrown classic cinema. But we are also too immature for it.

Dreyer developed his art in silent films and never left these techniques behind. Only one generation in this century grew up on silent film. They learned to read spectacular film style, an art form that evolved and matured faster than rock and roll. But this film style was abandoned so quickly and thoroughly it makes you reel. Along comes The Jazz Singer, and, wham, silent film gets it in the head. Chaplin struggled to make silent films an enduring art from, and he couldn’t do it. There was no money in silents, so they died.

But there is a direct link from Ordet and Dreyer to the film that closed the festival, Bringing Out the Dead, by Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese, and my favorite film in the festival. Bringing Out the Dead addresses the very same themes as Ordet, but in a style as different as night is from day. Both are in the transcendental style, using film techniques to create an experience beyond the narrative; something spiritual, emotional.

Paul Schrader is brilliant at this kind of writing. Remember Taxi Driver? Raging Bull? The Last Temptation of Christ? (Okay, forget American Gigolo.) I have no idea how he writes a script for a movie like this. The screenplay is an astounding read.

Bringing Out the Dead is nonstop, almost non-narrative, experiential. It’s three days in Purgatory, with glimpses of Hell along the way. Its stage is the lives of paramedics in New York City. But ultimately, like Ordet, it is a story of grace and redemption.

I loved this movie. The audience loved this movie. If they were honest, the whole audience would cop to loving it head and shoulders above Ordet. Ordet is a lecture, a slow sermon on a hot day in a stuffy church delivered by Reverend Lovejoy from The Simpsons. Bringing Out the Dead is an acid trip.

Sitting in the Brattle Theater, shivering because the heat sucks, I watched the audience watch this film. They were riveted. Bringing Out the Dead was made for us. And made very well, in a manner barely conceived of in 1955 when Ordet was made. It is proof to me that we’ve outgrown Dreyer.

Here’s the funny part: Paul Schrader loves Dreyer. He learned from him. He even wrote about him in the book Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer.
We sat there, intelligent, sophisticated film lovers, and we squirmed like fourth graders. And during a festival of faith in film, with God watching and everything. All because we were unused to a classic style of filmmaking, and too impatient to learn from it.

In short, as a culture, with more movies available than ever before, we are becoming film illiterates.

Shame on us.

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