Sunday, August 31, 2008

Light, Truth, Spirit, and Cinema Part Three: The Perfect Day

So, this line of writing has seemed to me to be somewhat unproductive, but I thought I would give it one more chance. Please bear in mind that nothing I say should be construed as an outright approval or condemnation of any work in its entirety and that no comment of mine is meant to be exclusionary of other ideas or in any way final or absolute. These are ideas that I hope we can work through together. I hope this legalistic disclaimer prevents at least some misunderstanding of my intentions here.

Let me start with the promised quotation from Alma 32.

O then, is not this real? I say unto you, Yea, because it is light; and whatsoever is light, is good, because it is discernible (Alma 32:35).

This is one of the most interesting light verses in all the scriptures to me, because it gives the reason why light is so good, and in so doing, further connects it with truth. We all know that the Lord tailors His speech to our imperfect understanding, and light assists in this regard. Our temporal natures endow us with a tendency to trust what we see with our eyes. In other words, if we can see it, it's easier to understand and believe. We sometimes give greater weight to evidence that is readily perceptible.

Interesting to me that Alma says that an evidential witness that causes our minds to expand and our souls to swell is real because it is light. This hearkens back to my other post on this subject that mentioned the "messenger" function of the photon. When we consider light, truth, and spirit to be one, this makes perfect sense.

Additionally, Alma says that all light is good because it is discernible - i.e. we can comprehend it, or it is truthful. The Spirit speaks to our spirit and we understand.

That's quite a concept for a filmmaker, in my opinion. According to Alma, not only does light imply truth, but it actually establishes reality and goodness. Again, I have to say that this really seems obvious in retrospect. I don't think that I'm guiding anyone through deep and uncharted intellectual territory here. I'm talking about things that we all get intuitively but that I, at least, have not often heard or seen discussed verbally.

How many films adorn the "good guys" with light and cloak the "bad guys" in darkness? How many films would exist without the ability to create a reality using light? Probably none. The medium itself wouldn't exist.
This raises some interesting questions for me, because it seems to me that a growing number of films are featuring protagonists whose lives are not only touched by, but defined by darkness. In other words, the good - or the reality we are supposed to accept as true - is coming from the darkness. Interestingly, in many cases, so is the evil. Only rarely do I see a film in which any antagonistic forces are surrounded by light, especially white light. The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers come to mind as examples of films that have elements of this.

The question I'm forced to ask is this: is creating a story in which the "hero" is a dark being or the "villain" is a light being tantamount to calling evil good and good evil? I don't think there's a universal answer to that, and I realize that in many of the best films, there is no absolute one way or the other, but is it at least a danger of such a story?

I'd be willing to guess that some of you reading this think I'm talking about The Dark Knight. Well, I'm not. At least not exclusively. I still haven't seen that and so can't comment on it so specifically. I do think of Daredevil while I write this, as well as The Chronicles of Riddick, only one of which I've seen - and that was a TV version. I just remember that the narrator of that movie said that sometimes good is too weak to fight evil, and therefore it must be fought by a different kind of evil. Hmmmm.

Kate DiCamillo's beautiful book, The Tale of Desperaux deals with light and darkness in a way that I think sets a good example. I hope the animated version of it coming out this December doesn't forsake that. I would love to see a serious animated version of that book.
I digress.

Going back to Alma, in the next verse, he says that the above mentioned experience with light does not equal perfect knowledge - at least not in the sense that "perfect" means "complete." Faith is still required.

I mention this because it seems to me that this takes the didacticism out of the thing I've been saying in this series. A film can present, through the united medium of light, truth, and spirit, a reality to be considered by the viewer. Light can be used to set forth ideas as true or false, to impress concepts related to good and evil, and to open spiritual communication with the viewer. But the film that does this does not require the viewer to lay aside his/her faith. In other words, the application of the film to the individual viewer is not dictated by the film itself. As much as it may have seemed so previously, I am not advocating shallow, preachy films that overuse obvious symbolism. I'm saying that an understanding of the spiritual nature of natural light can help a filmmaker harness the power of his tools.

The last thing I wanted to mention was a quotation from Harold B. Lee's Stand Ye in Holy Places. Here it is:

One is converted when he sees with his eyes what he ought to see; when he hears with his ears what he ought to hear; and when he understands with his heart what he ought to understand. And what he ought to see, hear, and understand is truth-eternal truth-and then practice it (Lee, Stand Ye in Holy Places, 92).

Here's my take on the application of this quote to filmmaking. A movie that doesn't mean anything is, well, meaningless. The goal in film is not always, or even often, to convert, but it should't be. Film uses spirit, but only the Spirit can convert. One thing a film can do is manage its use of light to enhance spiritual communication - to provide an opportunity for truth to be taught by presenting ideas that the viewer may not countenance in any other context. In this way, physical light can open a pathway for spiritual light to show, tell, and teach a person the truths "he ought to see, hear, and understand." Remembering our assumption that physical light is the spirit of Christ, in this way, a film can become "the light which shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehendeth it not" (Doctrine and Covenants 10:58).

I think this should be the goal of LDS filmmaking: not conversion, but awakening, enlarging - preparing the mind and heart for the teaching of the Holy Ghost. This can be done in a limitless number of ways, and it won't work for every viewer, but I think it should never be forgotten. If my films can't contribute positively to someone's spiritual journey, they ought not to be.

The process can be begun with the film, but in the continuation of it lies the great potential. “He that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day.”18

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


So I didn't go to Bill Viola, and a wonderful decision that was. I somehow forget how stressful moving is every time... and international moves with a small child doesn't make things any easier. My wife and I had plans to take care of things while we were staying in Utah on my way to Los Angeles for Film School. Our eyes were bigger than our stomachs (which was worsened by an extra day in travel due to missing connecting flights).

I'm at the American Film Institute's Conservatory, and homeless to boot. I'm really imposing on a friend of a friend's hospitality, and pirating internet access to post this. My family is in another state until we find affordable housing.

I'm planning on making some changes here, but right now is what they are terming "boot camp" and my life is consumed. I'm very grateful that my Sunday was clear, and I am planning to make that a rule, but the buzz word "24/7" is thrown around here a LOT, so we shall see. I'm learning a great deal, but I may not have much ability to write about it for some time.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Film Languages and the "Real Story"

I was just writing on my blog about an experience I had with Arnold Friberg at a dinner where he was receiving an award. I thought it was relevant to what we do here, so I wanted to repeat it. This is mostly verbatim from my other post:

I didn't meet him. I only heard him speak. At 95 years old, it wasn't easy for him. He said two things, however that I wanted to write down and comment on. The first thing was about how he speaks.

He said that some people speak in the language of words, but he speaks in the language of paint. He said that since he forgot to bring his brushes with him that evening, he was having a hard time.

The second thing was about his painting Peace, be Still, shown above. About that, he said the following - paraphrased: In paintings of this scene today, you see a lot of waves. That's dramatic, but it isn't the story. The story isn't the storm, it's that a man stood up and said to the storm, "be still" and it obeyed.

Although Friberg is a painter, not a filmmaker, we probably all know his connections with the film industry. I thought that it would be worth our while, as his first comment suggests, to consider the various languages involved in creating and viewing film.

I also think that the second comment of Mr. Friberg's - about the real story - is something we could profitably consider in our own film activities, be it production or interpretation.

What do you think?

Monday, August 4, 2008

Do I go (about Bill Viola)?

Right before we got to Poland last year, another Bill Viola exhibition closed. It crushed me to find how close I was to the exhibition just missing it by a few weeks and a short train ride. As I've written before, I consider Viola to be one of the most important American filmmakers especially for those interested in spirituality. I have yet to encounter someone who took his work on their terms who was not moved by them.

The majority of criticisms I hear are on the cliche nature of the discussion of his work, but I've yet to come across a valid argument for the devaluation of his installations or video work.

Do to the nature of installations, access to such video work is severely encumbered for those of us hicks who are moved by the avant-garde.

So we're moving (and international moves are quite severe, aren't they?), and less than an hour ago I finished a grueling shoot and just now I sat down to read an email advertising another Bill Viola exhibition in Gdansk (we're about 7 hours away). The opening is Friday. We leave Sunday evening after church.

So much stress, and yet I can't imagine being able and not going.

I will almost surely not go, but I wonder how much sleep I'll lose if I don't.

Friday, August 1, 2008

The Filmmaker as Rebel

I think the seeds of this writing came from a recent Elders' Quorum lesson in which we talked about diversity in the Church compared with the scriptural imperative to be of a single heart and mind. I commented then, and still think, that something about worldly philosophies has subtly twisted the value of diversity into a mindset that values rebellion, non-conformity, and unfettered individualism. In other words, when Isaiah points out that "all we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way" (Isaiah 53:6) the world replies, "Oh, good. We should all try to be ourselves."

I've found this philosophy to be especially apparent in the arts. I'm not sure why that should be so other than the deeply personal nature of art, but it seems to me that art, and film more so than some other media, has become a vehicle of choice for rebellious personalities. There's a mindset that says, "If I make a film, I can show my rage against the system," or "Since I'm such a rebel, I should make a film about it." You get the idea. Film itself seems to have become a symbol of extreme individualism - particularly independent film. Interesting that it should be called that.

I'm all in favor of personal expression and I recognize the diverse ways and means of the Spirit, but it seems to me that LDS filmmakers should shy away from this mold. I commented on another post about Richard Dutcher and whether or not his personal apostasy was related to his filmmaking path. I don't know the answer to that, but when I think of Brigham Young and his ideas about how the stage can reinforce the teachings from the pulpit, I wonder if it is wise in us to hold edginess and envelope-pushing as values in the creation of art, as we sometimes do.

It seems to me that honesty, charity, and other virtues should be at the forefront of our portrayals, whatever other devices or approaches we take. I also think that personal worthiness on the part of the artist - and by this I mean temple worthiness at least - is paramount. There is another kind of worthiness that has to do with whether our character can support our knowledge and creativity, and Katsuhiro Otomo's film Steamboy gives what I consider to be an excellent discussion of it.

I think I'll leave it there for now, but I would like your ideas on this. I want to know if I'm the only one who sees it this way and, if not, where we go from here.