For all the whining I do about Mack Wilberg and his role in the Choir (for those of you who have as of yet not been so privileged as to hear my rants, I feel that Craig Jessop is the greatest aesthetic shift in the history of the Church and that Mack Wilberg is the worst—we're always most critical of the present), I must say that he has allowed us to revisit the Hymns in a new way. I hope to do that with this entry, though I'm hopeful our outcomes may be more beneficial here.
The Purpose of Hymns
For those of us familiar with the Church handbook or anyone who's stopped to notice the order of things in our meetings, it is obvious that hymns most often come before the ordinance. The reasons for this, thank goodness, are not specified, but I will list a few observations and a little guesswork to clarify my perspective.
The hymn, is one of the most curious of all Christian phenomena. I will admit my ignorance as to the history of hymns and the singing of them, but as far as I can tell, it is a practice that most non-Catholic, Christian congregations entertain. Hymns are not simply choral music. Most religions make use of music as a part of their religious practices. Partly to praise, partly to reify, partly to teach. As with all music, there is always an emotional element (even if it is anti-emotional) in religiously-based choral music. But much choral music is simply sung to the congregation, while hymns are sung by the congregation. In an ideal meeting, there would be no listeners, and only singers; no audience, only performers. Yet 'performers' is the wrong word describing a hymn-singing congregation. We do not 'perform' for anyone, unless we consider God our audience, or ourselves a simultaneous audience.
It could be argued that the heart of every hymn is the text sung, but this text is unique to any other in our or any church. Any preaching is, like choral music, delivered to the congregation. But in singing, all parties are unified. In many instances, even the conductor becomes all but obsolete. The only real distinction comes through which line of music we choose to follow. Our role, then, as members of the congregation is to recite the text in unison with our neighbor, but varying, if we are able, from the melody— choosing, instead, to harmonize. This choice requires us to listen, both to the music, and to ourselves, and to the text we are singing. So in order to be singers, we must also train to be listeners.
This text, then, becomes a unique unifying experience, while the music itself and the singing of it becomes an opportunity for variation and diversity to coexist, amplify and compliment the other expressions. Truly, the singing of hymns is a glorious ritual.
Yet its purpose, in official church meetings at least, is not self-sufficient. The hymn (which does not include 'musical numbers') is sung to prepare us, its singers, and us, its listeners, for the ordinance: be it the opening prayer (where we all are praying, but only one is speaking), the sacrament (again, a prayer), or the closing prayer. In other words, either direct communion with God, or a ritual where his power is manifest. The only exceptions are rest hymns, of which could be argued that they further prepare for further direction from the closing speaker. Thus, I argue that the use of hymns is primarily two fold: its effect is both unifying (while allowing for as well as calling for complexity and harmonization within bounds), and preparatory for a greater act, often a covenant.
The Similarities to Cinema
Film, like music, is one of the few mediums which can experienced with other people. Reading is incapable of unifying groups, as it is a wholly individual activity. Likewise, viewing of the plastic arts is one wholly separate from time and does not require the attendance or attention of a group for its duration — an aspect so key to the unifying nature of both music and film.
But aside from their duration, group nature and other obvious similarities, hymns, and I would like to suggest film, require the participation of everyone involved.
The participation of those viewing the film (a pre-composed hymn waiting to be sung) obviously cannot be as verbal or as set as with hymns, but nonetheless participatory. One version of how is listed in a link at the side of this site entitled "Abbas Kiarostami—An Unfinished Cinema." I know I write often about Kiarostami, but few other filmmakers have affected me as deeply or changed my world view more. However, his essay linked on Gary Tooze's DVD Beaver is only one way to create this kind of film. Another take on the same subject might well focus on the act of "listening" to the 'recitation' of our neighbor and carefully comparing it to see how well we are harmonizing with our own 'recitation.'
Mostly I am advocating a more engaged viewing than we might currently practice. I fear that we let the movies we watch do things for us that we should be doing for ourselves. This week, I realized that thought I consider myself quite proficient in the Polish language, I have still come across a particular word some four of five times this week, asking the person each time to repeat the work and describe its meaning for me, only to find later that each time it is the same word. Yet today, I found myself ashamed that I cannot for the life of me remember more of the word or its meaning than that it starts with a 'z.' Yet had I done the work myself and looked it up the first time, I most likely would have been proficient in using it by now. I do believe that most of the responsibility of what I'm talking about her lies with us the viewers. I believe that we need to be more engaged, more responsible.
Most importantly I hope to propose that our 'ordinance' should be after the film, and not in it. This could be something very literal, such as kneeling after we've left a film (preferably once we're at home or someplace private), but I mostly have our work in mind. I mostly mean changing those ghastly diapers, going home teaching or finding our own widows, children, or ill to visit. A viewing model that encourages to action certainly seems more in tune with gospel teachings to me.
A Cinema Hymnal
Perhaps I am taking this too far but the prospect intrigues me too much to leave it with out mention here. In order to have a cinema hymnal (a collection, a canon of sorts that we are all tuned to), we must first have a hymnal cinema. Our films must require the singing of the congregation and it must lead to the ordinance. We must remember that ordinances are always participatory and require action. It is true that the true priesthood is required, but for the purposes of this analogy, I think it best to leave that point.
One option coincides, as I mentioned above, with Kiarostami's 'unfinished cinema.' The clearest example of this to my mind is his 2003 film Five created in commemoration of the anniversary of Ozu's birth. As he discusses in his 'making of' feature (arguably the superior film, and I have listed it on my personal list of favorite movies under my personal profile at the bottom of the page) the five takes are each a chance for the viewer to discover the mysteries of nature. None of them are traditional narratives that focus around a moral lesson, instead they simply observe a process which exists in nature. The insight and lessons learned from such an experience invariably come dependent on the person viewing them. (The clearest example of this I can think of, though not the most profound, is the hymn "Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief." No matter how beloved or oft-sung it is, it will hold a different meaning for someone who is endowed, than for someone who is not).
Though this idea of an "unfinished cinema" seems to be at the core of what would make film ultimately more participatory and preparatory, both, Kiarostami's filmmaking is but one way. I think of Peter Greenaway or Peter Brook (as a theatre director more than as a film director) both as examples of artisans who create in such a way as to open up their scripts in ways so as to allow them to require participation as well as preparation. Also, this "opening-up" allows for the harmonization of those viewing, and in that way, also allows for a unique form of complex unification.
In closing, I believe that our perception of film as a kind of hymn could greater enhance both our viewing and making of films. It will teach us great skills about 'listening' to our neighbors, and about harmonizing with them. Likewise, I believe it will give us more tools with which to judge and evaluate cinema. We do not criticize a hymn for its harmonic simplicity or its repetition or cliche. We rejoice in the ritual and familiarity of it. We focus on our horizontal relationships with the others singing with us, and find new pleasure simply in the recitation. It is these ideas I hope we can further expound upon.