Monday, June 23, 2008

Light, Truth, Spirit, and Cinema Part One: The Power of Film

"For the word of the Lord is truth, and whatsoever is truth is light, and whatsoever is light is Spirit, even the Spirit of Jesus Christ" (Doctrine and Covenants 84:45)

I felt honored by Trevor's invitation to contribute to this blog. I take the responsibility seriously, and so I thought I'd start with the topic that encompasses my approach to both creating and receiving cinema. I think it is at the heart of everything we do.

I can't put this all into one post, so I'll break it up as needed. My purpose in this series is to suggest that the above verse is both true and crucial to the success of LDS filmmaking and viewing.

First I want to say that I believe this verse is literal when it says that light is Spirit. And not just any spirit, it is the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Let me make clear from the beginning that I don't think that this is the same thing as the Holy Ghost; I think it is what is referred to in Section 88 verses 11-13 this way:

"And the light which shineth, which giveth you light, is through him who enlighteneth your eyes, which is the same light that quickeneth your understandings;

Which light proceedeth forth from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space—

The light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed, even the power of God who sitteth upon his throne, who is in the bosom of eternity, who is in the midst of all things."

In other words, light, or Spirit, is an element that can be manipulated. Again, this is not a member of the Godhead, it's an element. Of course, the Holy Ghost does not fill the immensity of space. He is a being with a finite shape. And, of course, light exists in more forms than those which are visible to our eyes. But I believe that the Spirit of Christ also encompasses what we know as visible light, and that is what we work with in film. I don't think anyone would argue that light can be manipulated, but as soon as we throw around words like "spirit" and "truth," people start thinking heresy. For the purposes of this discussion, I'm asking you to think of these three things: light, truth, and spirit, as one and the same. The scriptures say that they are and I believe them.

The medium of film, even in the digital sense of the word, is defined by the manipulation and capture of light. Oftentimes we actually use tools to create the light that we capture. Sometimes it is not so much that we create the light as it is that we control the way it is recorded and displayed. Using our current paradigm about light, this has major implications. We no longer simply light a scene, we establish its spirit. We dictate its truth. On a movie set, this is what cinematographers do and this is our great art.

To quote Kiarostami, one of Trevor's favorite filmmakers, "Originally, I thought that the lights went out in a movie theatre so that we could see the images on the screen better. Then I looked a little closer at the audience settling comfortably into the seats and saw that there was a much more important reason: the darkness allowed the members of the audience to isolate themselves from others and be alone. They were both with others and distant from them."

I'm not as versed in film as Trevor, but you can find the link to this quote on the right side of this page under "An Unfinished Cinema."

When the lights are turned down in a theater, where does the light in the room originate from? Technically, it's from the projector, but from the audience's perspective, it's from the screen. Either way, it comes to our eyes "from" the film itself. That's a powerful concept.

Now let me ask you this: is there any other art form in which the art itself is a source, not a reflector, of light? Even in photography, which uses similar techiniques to capture images, the finished product is ultimately made visible by a light from outside itself. A film is created when light prints an image on an emulsion or a sensor, and it is reproduced when light is passed through that captured image, or it is recreated electronically. Switching terms, we record Spirt and then recreate it using the image we have recorded. We color the truth generated by the projector with our own recorded version of the truth.

As Kiarostami points out, how that Spirit is received depends upon another device that utilizes lenses: the human mind. Fortunately, the audience can filter the truth we give it by its own experience and understanding. But I think this is one reason why film is so persuasive and powerful, not to mention popular. Because of this, I am also not comfortable (and never have been, even before I thought about this) watching any film, video, or TV show in a room with no other light source. I like to have the lights down a bit, but not off altogether, because I feel like the film is being unfairly imposed upon me. I'm being oppressed by its Spirit. This is not what the Spirit of Christ was intended for, and it feels wrong. Even in an otherwise dark theater there are strip lights on the floor to illuminate the aisle. The human eye is capable of detecting a single photon and mine notices even these small but comforting ties to a world other than that created by the film.

We live in an age in which "the whole world lieth in sin, and groaneth under darkness and under the bondage of sin" (Doctrine and Covenants 84:49). People are yearning for light, and we as filmmakers can, in a sense, provide it. As partakers of film, we need to be careful how the Spirit we receive is colored.

Now, I'm not saying that filmmakers are the ministers of all truth, but I am saying that film is by its very nature a spiritual art. By using Spirit to communicate our messages, and by doing so in a theater in which all other sources of Spirit are minimized, we open a passageway to the Spirit that lies within each member of the audience. This builds upon the idea discussed elsewhere on this blog that art opens a space for Spirit to communicate with spirit.

I don't mean to misuse this verse, but I believe it applies: "The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light" (Isaiah 9:2) Of course, our audiences are usually sitting, and how great the light in question is depends on its unity with the ultimate source of light, truth, and spirit. This unity is meant to imply not only content, but also every other aspect of the production and presentation.

I want to make it clear that in this post I make no attempt at saying how this information can be appropriately handled. I'm not that arrogant or that wise. I only assert that these principles are true.

Film is so powerful because it is given to us as a source of light, which is Spirit and truth. Because of its nature, there is no other feasible way to view it. As a result, the messages a film contains are persuasive and some films generate large followings. The same is true of television, the internet, and any other screen machines we use to collect information. The more exclusive the light they emit, the more imposing the truth they convey. This medium was reserved for the dispensation of the fulness of times, when all truth would be sent down from Heaven, even things which had been withheld from the foundation of the earth. In conjunction with the Spiritual element, we use music and other things to add to our films. We use every tool used by artists in any other medium in this, what Gideon Burton at the 2008 LDS film festival called, "The fulness of art." How appropriate.

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