Saturday, March 15, 2008

Liken the Scriptures/Psychology in Film

One phrase that every seminary student knows is that we, as readers, should 'liken the scriptures,' but what is discussed less frequently, and we might be the lesser for it, is what the scriptures do specifically in terms of form (as well as content) that make them especially conducive to our ability to 'liken' them to our lives. It is this likening ability that is at the heart of my contention against 'entertainment' in film and other media. When we take a passive position in viewing or 'reading' films, we are no longer able to make the applications to our own perspectives and/or behaviors and no positive change can be brought forth. I seek here to present the contention that one major reason that the scriptures are more conducive to being 'likened' than many "Hollywood" films is in the use of 'psychology' in both.

I would first like to define what I mean by 'likening,' as well as emphasize its importance in a Latter-day Saint experience. In order for something to be likened, there, of necessity, needs to exist at least two separate realities: the reality presented in the media and the reality of the viewer or reader. There is a battle for dominance between the reality of the text and the reality of the audience. In commercial or 'escapist' films, the viewer is asked to forgo their reality and submit wholly to the reality of the text. The phrase most often associated with this action is "the willful suspension of disbelief." When we are asked to read the scriptures, yet simultaneously to liken them to ourselves, we are reminded to hold fast to our own reality and to assert the importance of our own reality at all times (i.e. when we read Nephi's lament in 2 Ne 4, we our encouraged to think of the ways that we might lament over our own sins rather than passing judgment on him or wondering what his specific sins might be). If we are to benefit from our reading in a pragmatic as well as an eternal way, we must engage with the text's reality in terms of our own, constantly asking 'what am I to learn from this?' or 'how am I to change?'.

Next I must define what I mean by the term 'psychology.' Ordet is one of the least 'psychological' films by my definition, though Dreyer often asserted that his main goal was to show the character's psychology in opposition to events or plot points. By 'psychology' I do not mean a film which is concerned with human nature, as I indeed feel that this very often is what makes film great and is in many ways what the scriptures themselves are concerned with. Rather, I do mean a specific character's mental cause and effect. An example of this is the "psychological thriller." This genre is usually concerned with the mental workings of some social deviant, usually a killer of some kind. The goal of the film is to 'keep you on the edge of your seat' while you are left guessing what drove the killer or who the killer was. I, for one (by way of disclosure), often find myself bored by such films and this inevitably affects my perspective on the genre as well as its role in our relationship with the divine.

To illustrate my contentions concerning this act of likening as it pertains to psychology in film, I will look at three specific films. Two—Michel Haneke's Caché, and Coppola's The Godfather—are more widely seen though often-considered artistic triumphs, while the third —Kiarostami's Five, which I have discussed elsewhere on this blog— is admittedly more obscure and less accessible (though I highly recommend the Kimstim release). I will discuss these films in terms of social structure, reality, and our relationship with the divine, respectively.

There are many things that have been said of Caché and much more that could be said here, but I will limit my comments to the film as it applies to psychology. Haneke has described his filmmaking as 'anti-psychological.' Looking at this film in the terms I've set forth above might explain why. The end of the film does not reveal who the social deviant is, and therefore, also their motives are left unknown. The film's goal, I would argue, is not to discuss the menace. Its goal is not even to discuss (if that word connotes a conclusion) anything. Its goal is instead to meditate on the class and social causes of that menace. The film plays within the rules of the 'thriller' genre in its tension-building and constant threat of danger, but from the film's climax we are slowly eased away from that genre to be more fully aware of the structures surrounding the incident. Likewise, it could be argued that the film does not even present a message as much as it requires the audience to fill in the missing pieces and actively make their own decisions concerning this menace.

The item I most wish to discuss in terms of this film is the binary between social concern and narcissism. This film may have left us the portrait of a killer or the portrait of a delinquent, yet we're left with the image of inequality and of class antagonism. I ask what we would be left with if this were a simple portrait of a deviant? We might have been scared a little bit, and maybe even had some realization similar to "Aha! So that's why he's doing this — envy!" or "his mother didn't love him" or "he's really schizophrenic!" But what do these realizations give us? I might add that in most cases, this style of filmmaking, if we follow the identification patterns the film requests of us (having willfully given up our reality and traded it for that of the film's), we will indeed not only see the psychology of the character in question but we will be unable to see the structures outside of the character. If this becomes our practice, viewing films that simply become deeper and deeper studies of psychological motives, then we will, in fact, delve deeper and deeper into ourselves and accomplish nothing more than navel gazing. Thus, on the one hand, we can choose narcissism and a psychological cause and effect (like the razzle-dazzle of Memento) or a thriller concerned with seeing society and becoming socially conscious like Caché.

The next film I will discuss, The Godfather, has its place here because it signaled a shift toward and a return to pictorialism and poetry in storytelling in my view of American film history. The film, which I consider masterful and simply enjoyable to watch, is however the antithesis of subverting its reality in praise of the reality of the spectator. The film's poetry and painterly sense asserts the supremacy of its own reality rather than championing the reality of the spectator.

The reason I choose this film, of all films, is specifically for its pictorialism. In a symposium on Poetry in Film, Maya Deren and Arthur Miller had a conversation about Shakespeare that has always stuck in my mind. Deren described poetry as being vertical while plot was horizontal, meaning that in a 2-dimentional frame, poetry is concerned with reflection and stasis while plot is concerned with forward movement and reaching a goal. Both then agreed that Shakespeare was the ultimate fusion of both vertical and horizontal movement. While his plots were thorough and engaging, very often he slowed the plot's forward movement and sometimes halted it altogether for the sake of poetry. The plot serves the poetry and the poetry serves the plot. I am most interested in the 'slowing of the plot' so that the plot is in service of poetry.

This slowing occurs in The Godfather, as it does in most if not all of Coppola's work. He is one of the most poetic of American filmmakers. Yet I'm troubled because I ask to what end is that plot slowed and that poetry used. Coppola's use of color and composition especially seem like they are included to reaffirm the reality of the narrative he's telling. The characters he has created and the story he is telling seem, at every turn, to be more important than the reality of the spectator. This makes it very difficult to liken the movie to myself. While Shakespeare's poetry is filled with maxims concerning the meaning of love or the nature of man, life, or friendship, Coppola's filmmaking is concerned with his reality above universality and above the spectator's reality. This is one reason that Shakespeare is so quotable and so quoted. He, like the scriptures, is concerned with the meaning at the core of his stories rather that the specifics of his characters.

Lastly, I would like to discuss Kiarostami's Five (a film that is almost wholly vertical in its movement), and how it pertains to our relationship with the divine. The film, which is five takes observing five interactions in nature, has contemplation as its goal. Kiatrostami has stated that he watches the film, and made the film, to discover the mysteries of nature. Such a film seems at the apex of 'likening.' The scriptures, whose medium is words, can state truths that exist through the eyes of prophets. This film allows us to see truths as they have been made manifest by God, and it is up to us to apply the lessons we learn from nature to our own lives. In this way, we experience a more direct line to God rather than a direct line to a fictional character and his fictional psychology. Here, we learn the lessons we are ready to learn, but the teacher is God and not a thriller screen writer. The poetry opens us up to become more sensitive, and hopefully, more repentant and sincere.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your wonderful comments on Cache, a film that resonated with me for a long time. I was unable to pinpoint exactly why, but I think you've hit the nail on the head. I've yet to see Five though I'll now have to give it a look.

I understand that you currently reside in Europe; have you been able to visit the Kiorastami/Erice installations that have been staged in France and Spain at various times over the last couple years. I'd love to hear your thoughts on those correspondences. Indeed, your thoughts on Victor Erice I'm sure would be insightful as well.

Fantastic (and much needed) blog. You've earned a loyal reader.


Trevor said...


Thanks for your comment (they're always welcome). I do live in Europe, but haven't been anywhere near enough to the Erice/Kiarostami installations to catch them. I'm not even sure where I might have caught up to them, but I had assumed that their screening tenure had ended, though I admit that such an assumption is careless at best. I really will look into that more thoroughly, but if you or anyone else knows anything else on the topic, please let me know the specifics.

On Erice: I admit that I bought a cheap copy of Spirit of the Beehive on a VHS before criterion put out there edition. I have not seen either. DVD beaver has "Dream of Light" (along with the Criterion release of Spirit) listed as one of their top 100 DVD's, but I have to admit I've only seen his ten minutes in "Ten minutes older: trumpet." However that ten minutes did more for me than more than a dozen films I've seen this month.

It's true that we do have a young one and children are a sensitive topic for me, but I don't know that I've been so effortlessly been mored to tears from so little. That ten minutes alone also made me rethink everything I believed about Bazin, Eisenstein, and Malick. That's no small order for a 10 minute short.

I will be on the look out for more of his films and writings (which I've heard are just as profound as his films.

Also, something I read by Geoff Andrews on Senses of Cinema eluded to the thought that the video correspondences might continue. It was just a guess, but he does have more access to both filmmakers than I do.

keep us updated if anyone hears more.

Anonymous said...

I know this is a new comment on an old post, but I'm trying to catch up and I trust that you'll still be notified of the addition.

I love what you said about "two realities." I personally am nearly incapable of suspending my own reality in favor of that presented by a film. At least, I can't do it without pangs of conscience. For me, this likening idea is so deeply ingrained that I just can't feel that any pursuit that doesn't utilize it is really worthwhile. In other words, if I'm not learning about myself, my goals, my surroundings, or how to make my own or someone else's life better, I feel unedified - like I've been wasting time.

Incidentally, this is what your blog does for me - it edifies. That's why I'm trying so hard to catch up.