The holy grail of cinema: Jacques Rivette’s “Out 1”

Emilie/Pauline (Bulle Ogier) in Jacques Rivette's Out 1 (1971)

Emilie/Pauline (Bulle Ogier) in Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 (1971)

We are all rehearsing parts of which we are as yet unaware (our roles). We slip into characters which we do not master (our attitudes and postures). We serve a conspiracy of which we are completely oblivious (our masks).

— Gilles Deleuze[i]

 

Last weekend I watched a nearly 13-hour film on the big screen at the Seattle Film Center. Jacques Rivette’s Out 1: Noli me tangere (1971) has been called the “holy grail of cinema” — made infinitely precious by the rarity of its appearance. Only in recent months have art-house screenings and a home video release[ii] made it accessible to wider veneration.

Critic B. Kite has written about this fabled film as an object of longing: “Out 1 grew in darkness, secret and seemingly made of secrets, and due to this unavailability … it joined that pantheon of broken and vanished objects [e.g., von Stroheim’s Greed or Brian Wilson’s Smile] … in which, even against our better judgment, we place some unspecified hope of a definitive experience, maybe a bit too good for the world, as indicated by the fact that they live in a half-light, next door to oblivion.”[iii]

As soon as I heard about the Seattle screening, I bought my ticket. A thirteen-hour movie? Can’t miss that! I have a penchant for immersive experiences, long-form retreats from everyday reality into alternative worlds. Among the most memorable were a 72-hour science-fiction film marathon, an all-night Epiphany liturgy in a circus tent, Peter Brook’s 11-hour staging of the Mahabharata, Masaki Koybayashi’s 10-hour film epic, The Human Condition, the 500-mile Camino de Santiago, and Christian Marclay’s 24-hour video, The Clock.

But unlike any of these, Out 1 is not so clearly shaped by a sense of plot or structure. It does not set out from a premise or question toward a place of arrival or resolution. Instead, it begins and ends in media res, adrift in a sea of occurrences and characters whose connections or meanings remain perpetually elusive.

There was no original script. Rivette, one of the most experimental of the French New Wave filmmakers, sought the same freedom as the Abstract Expressionist painters, whose process was largely free from the constraints of predetermined outcomes. His actors, provided with various situations, simply improvised their lines throughout the six weeks of shooting. Since much of the action takes place in the streets and cafes of Paris, the actors at times enlisted unsuspecting Parisians in their scenes.

The first hours feel like a documentary as two separate experimental theater companies engage in warm-up exercises, acting games and psychodrama designed to break down barriers, loosen inhibitions, and spark creativity. One exercise, bordering on hysteria, is shown in a single 45-minute shot as the hand-held camera moves restlessly among writhing, clamorous bodies. In a 13-hour film, you can do this sort of thing, and still have plenty of time left over to attend to the story.

However, if this film does have a story, it consists only of hints and speculations whose reality is always in doubt. Documentary and fiction, imagination and reality, the written and the improvised, are intertwined, inseparable, often indistinguishable.

Halfway through the film, a troubled loner named Colin, played by New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Leaud, begins to piece together fragments of Balzac and Lewis Carroll as if they are clues to a great conspiracy involving a secret society called The Thirteen, formed to subvert the social order with a radical utopian vision. But it may be that The Thirteen is no more than a long-dormant idea some of the other characters once dreamed but never enacted. When told that the object of his obsessive quest may be a hoax, Colin replies, “But that would mean that the magical, mysterious world I’ve been living in is nothing but illusion. And that,” he insists, “is impossible!”

To live in a world without underlying connections or purposeful ends is a bleak, even terrifying prospect, as Thomas Pynchon notes in Gravity’s Rainbow:

If there is something comforting-religious, if you want — about paranoia, there is still also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long.[iv]

Is there a middle way between the fictions of paranoia and the despair of anti-paranoia? Colin’s quest proves a dead end: there is nothing to find. He stops searching for answers and resumes his original persona as a (pretended) deaf-mute passing out envelopes at sidewalk cafes. Inside the envelopes are “messages of destiny” — pages ripped at random from paperback novels.

The two theater groups, meanwhile, are pursuing their own path toward meaning as they each grapple with a tragedy from Aeschylus. One of these, Prometheus Bound, provides a text perfectly descriptive of the obstacles to coherence in our personal and social narratives:

…they had eyes, but sight was meaningless;
Heard sounds but could not listen; all their length of life
They passed like shapes in dreams, confused and purposeless.

 In stealing fire from Zeus, Prometheus became humanity’s great benefactor, the bringer of light, technology and civilization. He would also be credited with securing us meaning, purpose, and future. But he paid the highest price for this gift. Chained to a rock in a ritual of perpetual sacrifice, he would be devoured and regenerated daily. His sacrificial suffering on behalf of humanity has drawn comparisons with Christ. And while Noli me tangere (“Touch me not”), may have been no more than Rivette’s joke about his film being something that few would ever see, its direct quote of the risen Savior (John 20:17) may be an intended link between Prometheus and Christ.

At the end of the film, Thomas (Michael Lonsdale), who assumes the role of Prometheus in his troupe’s improvisations on Aeschylus, lies forsaken on a beach, arms outspread in a crucifixion pose. After a time, he gets up and walks along the shore toward the rising sun. But this seems only a parody of resurrection. We sense no renewal, no passage to a place of transformation and new life. All the heaven-storming, psyche-delving exertions of the Aeschylus project have led precisely nowhere. Thomas has not been transposed into a higher key. He remains as “confused and purposeless” as ever.

But as we take our leave of him, after twelve hours and forty-one minutes, Thomas is still moving, not yet done, like the protagonist in Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable: “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

As the intrepid audience of eighteen men and four women exited the theater sometime after midnight, we were awarded with a button for our labors. I wore it proudly on the 2 a.m. ferry home.

New Wave button

The film ended as it began: in media res. It had not delivered us to a resting place of resolution or catharsis, but it would continue to haunt me in the days that followed. As the many online essays about the film attest, recovering from the experience may take some time. It’s not just that cinema’s magic carpet whisked me off to the Paris of 1970 for thirteen hours, or that the actors were infinitely watchable, or that Rivette’s audacious play with form was deeply fascinating.

What moved me most about Out 1 was its immense sympathy for the human condition as something more to be lived than solved. Comedy and tragedy, laughter and tears, are equally at home in Rivette’s film, as the actors rehearse “the parts of which we are as yet unaware” and “slip into characters which we do not master.”

 

Related post: Jacques Rivette’s “Around a Small Mountain”

 

 

 

 

[i] Gilles Deleuze, Cahiers du Cinema, no. 416, February 1989. Reprinted in Two Regimes of Madness (MIT Press, 2006): p. 355-8, and available online at http://www.jacques-rivette.com

[ii] Available from Carlotta Films

[iii] B. Kite, “Jacques Rivette and the Other Place,” Cinema Scope, no. 30 (Spring 2007), p. 12. The article, along with many other essays about the film, may be found at http://www.jacques-rivette.com

[iv] Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow, p. 434

Bill Viola’s “Martyrs”

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The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace.

– Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9 (Lectionary reading for All Saints)

At the far end of the south choir aisle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, four “martyrs” perform a perpetual sacrifice in a slow-motion passage from suffering to glory. These martyrs are not the painted or sculptured figures of a traditional altarpiece, but two men and two women, recorded on high-definition video, and played back continuously on a polyptych of four adjacent vertical plasma panels, each 55” x 33.”

This stunning work is by Bill Viola, who has long been exploring the interplay of “technology and revelation.”[i] As David Morgan has written, “Viola’s work suggests that the human condition consists of the fact that we are embodied beings yearning, but ill-prepared, for communion with one another; that we suffer pain and loss, that we struggle to transcend our bodies and our suffering by connecting with a larger or inner aspect of reality; and that we die. Bodies, communion, suffering, transcendence, and death collectively constitute a condition, a worldview that the artist seeks to investigate in his work.”[ii]

Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) was installed at St. Paul’s in 2014, and this week I had my first chance to see it. It is 7.5 minutes long, continuously repeated. Mesmerized and deeply moved, I watched it ten times, and each viewing provoked some new thought or feeling.

The figures begin in stasis, undergo an ordeal involving time and motion, and finally come to rest in a perfect stillness: not the anti-life of death or nonbeing, but something implicitly wondrous.

All the figures are facing in our direction. In the first panel, a kneeling man, head bowed to the floor, is almost completely buried beneath a triangular pile of dirt. We only see the top of his head, clutched by his two tense hands. The dirt begins to fly upward in a column, disappearing into whatever is above the frame. He rises to his feet, ever so slowly, as if it is a great struggle against gravity, or stasis. By the time he is upright, the last of the dirt has vanished into the “above,” and he is staring out at us impassively.

In the second panel, a woman in a white shift is suspended by a rope tied to her wrists. Her feet are anchored two feet above the ground by another rope securing her ankles. She is blown by a great wind coming from the left, buffeted back and forth within the constraint of her tethers, at the mercy of a relentless exterior force. After a while, the wind subsides, her suspended body grows still, and she gazes out with an unexpected measure of serenity.

A black man sits in a chair in the next panel, his head tilted to the side and downcast. Then bits of flame begin to drop from above, continuing to burn where they land. More and more flames fall, some leaving trails like shooting stars, until the whole floor, and the chair, are on fire. By this time the man has raised his head to look out at us, but he appears calm and still even as the flames envelop him. He remains in that position as the flames finally relent and die out.

In the last panel, a man is curled up in a fetal position with eyes closed. A rope tied to his angles is suspended from somewhere above the frame. The slack starts to be taken up, pulling his legs upward, and then his entire body, until he is completely upside down like the Hanged Man in the Tarot, or one of those skinned animals dangling in a Dutch genre painting as a secularized image of Christ’s Passion. When a stream of water begins to fall from above, his arms slowly stir, moving into a prayer position, bent 90 degrees at the elbow, then gradually sweeping backward, like a swimmer’s breaststroke, until they are near his side. Meanwhile, his inverted body begins to be pulled upward by the rope, toward the source of the falling water.

All of the figures have been handed over to forces or situations beyond their control. One buried, one bound and buffeted, one burned, and one left for dead. Yet none of them rages or resists. They accept their condition with a calm grounded in something greater than their own survival.

Each of the first three, after gazing out at us for a time, gradually shift their attention to whatever is above them, out of our sight, until their upturned faces glow with the light of eschatalogical radiance. Their faces never become expressive, or call attention to their own personalities; they remain still and quiet, in a condition of “absolute unmixed attention.”[iii]

The fourth figure, the “Hanged Man,” provides the dissonant harmony within this suite of images. He is the one who appeared already dead, his suffering behind him. His eyes, either closed or obscured by the water streaming down his face, are never quite visible. Although his arms eventually make hopeful gestures of prayer or embrace, the rest of his body stays limp, totally given over to the power at the other end of the rope, which pulls him up and out of the frame. The water continues to fall when he is gone.

Unlike the prayerful final images of the other panels, the fourth is fraught with absence. The other martyrs only gaze at the transcendent. The fourth has already ascended there, and we are left with only the water as a reminder of the one we can no longer see.

Noting that martyr means “witness,” an accompanying statement by Viola and his producer Kira Perov compares the active witness of martyrs to the passive witness of those who merely consume images of suffering through mass media, adding that these four figures “exemplify the human capacity to bear pain, hardship, and even death in order to remain faithful to their values, beliefs, and principles. This piece represents ideas of action, fortitude, perseverance, endurance, and sacrifice.”[iv]

But these evocative images can’t be reduced to a single meaning. The more I watched, the more meanings and associations were generated. The first figure suggested Adam formed from the mud, or Christ rising from his grave, shedding mortality clump by clump. It also seemed a kind of birth.

The strongly sidelit second figure, whose white shift and platinum hair glowed against the black background like a Zurburan crucifixion, mirrored both Jesus and Joan of Arc.

Like gold in the furnace God tried them, and like a sacrificial burnt offering God accepted them.[v] The fire in the third panel not only recalled the light of burning martyrs, but the positive biblical tropes of the refiner’s fire and tongues of flame.

The fetal position of the fourth martyr evoked both the womb and the grave. The falling water made me think of both baptism and waterboarding. Once he was gone, however, it spoke to me of both memory and promise: what had happened to him, and what might happen to us.

Just what – or who – is at the other end of that rope anyway?

[i] “Technology and Revelation” is the title of a lecture I heard Viola give at the University of California at Berkeley, September 28, 2009.

[ii] David Morgan, “Spirit and Medium: The Video Art of Bill Viola,” Image, No. 26 ((Spring 2000), 32

[iii] This was Simone Weil’s definition of prayer.

[iv] From the installation’s explanatory text.

[v] Wisdom of Solomon 3:6

Dreaming the Church that wants to be

The Rev. Neil Lambert diagrams his ecclesiastical dream.

The Rev. Neil Lambert diagrams his ecclesiastical dream.

Now I look at my own experience and feel the intimate rightness of Lear’s words: ‘I have taken too little care of this.’…Today it is clear that one’s isolated efforts are straws in the wind, and we can do nothing alone – we need others, all the time… we only begin to exist when we are serving an aim beyond our own likes and aversions.      

– Peter Brook

Make visible what, without you, might never be seen.

– Robert Bresson

During a 6-hour layover at London’s Heathrow Airport last spring, my friends Neil and Helen Lambert, who live nearby, spirited me away to a picnic in the green fields of Runnymede, where the Magna Carta had been signed 799 years and 50 weeks earlier. Rain fell as we arrived, so Helen and I retreated to the site’s tea room while Neil got the lunch together under the shelter of a great oak. While drinking our tea, we met a British army veteran who had played the trumpet solo at Winston Churchill’s funeral.

When the rain let up, Neil summoned us out to the feast he had prepared with colored tablecloth, English china, three different courses and a fine local wine. As an Anglican artist/priest with a gift for ceremonial whimsey, he had successfully answered the Psalmist’s question, “Can God make a banquet in the wilderness?” And so it was that over a delightful lunch we conceived the idea of the Venice Colloquium: an intimate international gathering of Christian creatives to “dream the Church that wants to be.”

As artists of faith, Neil and I had been discussing the need for more imagination and creativity in the churches, not only in the way we worship, learn and grow, but also in the way we engage with the world we exist to serve. Part of the challenge, we agreed, was fostering community among the scattered creatives whose isolated efforts, in Peter Brook’s words, are too often “straws in the wind.”

So in the days following that Runnymede picnic, we began to ask around, starting with some people we knew, who knew some other people, and pretty soon we had collected a group of ten creatives, young and old, from the United States, Great Britain (including a man born in Peru), and New Zealand. There are seven Anglicans, two Methodists and one Baptist. Three are women, seven are clergy. All are practitioners in one or more art forms, including painting, music, film, conceptual and installation art, printmaking, writing and poetry. All have been leaders in the exploration of alternative worship.

In three weeks, we will gather in Venice to spend seven days in conversation with each other, not only exchanging ideas, dreams and stories, but also listening attentively to whatever the Spirit might have to say through the experimental chemistry of ten such people thrown together in one place.

Why Venice? We had to meet somewhere, and monastic housing made it amazingly affordable. And “La Serenissima’s” haunting beauty makes a doubly inspiring venue for creatives, since its renowned wealth of historic art and architecture is augmented by the cutting-edge work on display at Biennale, one of the world’s leading exhibitions of contemporary art.

What can emerge from such a collective interplay and cross-pollination of practitioners and thinkers over the course of a week together in the intimacy of a small-group setting? While we believe our gathering will be inspiring and enriching for everyone’s personal ministry and creativity, we think it can bear fruit as well in the wider communities to which we will return. We also hope that it will stimulate further networking among creatives within and beyond the church, and become a useful prototype for similar gatherings in the future. But as the biblical God repeatedly demonstrates, faith means not falling in love with planned outcomes. As T. S. Eliot put it, “wait without hope / For hope would be hope for the wrong thing … / Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought.”

Of course we will each arrive in Venice with our share of specific hopes and dreams. We have been exchanging some of these online already. On the one hand, we all care deeply about the nature, quality and purpose of our common life. On the other hand, we also want to look beyond our walls, making sure the boundaries necessary for identity are sufficiently porous to allow flow both inward and outward. What about those who don’t fit the inherited definitions of Christian? How much diversity can we incorporate and still be the Body of Christ? What do the unchurched or uninitiated have to tell us about who we might be for them – and how they might change us? How can we listen to voices from the margins, and cultures beyond our own? Where might interfaith collaboration lead?

As the angel of Resurrection famously said, The tomb is empty and Jesus has left the building. Where should we be looking for Jesus now? In the “other.” In the “elsewhere.” And what does this sometimes unsettling centrifugal dynamic mean for how we are to do and be church?

One participant has asked, “Are artists called to a particular way of being in the world, and if so how do we nurture environments that foster that way of being?” Another calls us to dream collectively a “rebirth of wonder.” Another wants to explore “the salvific power of beauty.” Another envisions doing for church what Cirque du Soleil has done for circus, so that imagination, creativity, and art are not frills or strategies or institutional departments, but “the DNA of who we are as God’s people.”

They say democracy was born at Runnymede. To dream that a rebirth of wonder began there as well would be, of course, ridiculously grandiose. We are simply a few of God’s friends gathering in a small room to see what happens.

Every day, a miracle

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The Greek island of Santorini is famous for its singular beauty, shaped by ancient catastrophe. Like many of Greece’s treasures, it is a ruin, the curved remnant of an immense volcanic crater. When the caldera collapsed, the sea poured in, leaving only a few bits of the crater still above water. Santorini is the largest and tallest of these, with vertical walls rising a thousand feet above the Aegean. And perched along the edge of its towering cliffs are several whitewashed settlements, shining bright and cheerful against the fierce dark rock beneath them.

The village of Oia on the island’s western tip is the picturesque mecca for romantic travelers hoping for a travel poster moment. It has always drawn honeymooners, but it is also increasingly popular for destination weddings. The fairytale warren of cliffside dwellings, the dizzying prospect of the vast Aegean blue, the vivid sunsets and candlelight dining can persuade even the forlorn and forsaken to recover the idea of happiness.

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“The secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment,” said Nietzsche, “is to live dangerously! Build your cities on the edge of Vesuvius!” So on Santorini, after one of the biggest cataclysms in recorded history, humans returned to the edge of disaster and pitched their precarious towns. It’s been the isle of romance ever since.

Perhaps it has been loved too much. Since I first came here in 2001, the main pedestrian avenue has been developed into a trendy corridor of shops that feels more like a generic consumerist mall than a local village. We couldn’t see Greece for all the shoppers funneled in from the cruise ships. We resolved to retreat to our quiet balcony just outside town, to while away our time with reading and gazing.

But grace had other plans. Santorini had more to give us. The first gift was Atlantis Books, ensconced In the cozy quarters of an old sea captain’s house. You must descend steps to enter. Painted on the handrail: “Books are no more threatened by Kindle than stairs by elevators.” The music playing inside was Texas legend Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty”; Living on the road, my friend, was gonna keep you free and clean …” 

Great song, but not widely known. I knew I was onto something here. I struck up a conversation with Nick Hunt, a writer from London visiting for a few months to help mind the store. Painted in an expanding spiral on the ceiling above us were the names of hundreds like him who have worked here during its eleven-year history, drawn by its literary fervor and high-spirited whimsey. There are quotes on the walls in several languages. Charles Bukowsi’s caught my eye: “Find what you love and let it kill you.” The book inventory was rich and full of unexpected treasures, such as a first edition in red leather of Lewis Carroll’s logical conundrums, The Game of Logic.

I had just been reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s riveting account of his walk across Europe, at the age of eighteen, from Britain to Byzantium (Istanbul) in the 1930’s. It’s some of the greatest travel writing of the twentieth century, and I was delighted to learn that Nick had recently retraced Fermor’s journey on foot to see what may have changed in 80 years. His own book about what he found, Walking the Woods and the Water, will be at the top of my reading list when I get home.

  

It was lovely to make such resonant connections, both musical and literary, in such an unexpected place. But the day had even more to give us. Just down the street we stopped in at the workshop of the celebrated icon “writer,” Dimitris Kolioussis, a man of great heart and generous spirit. His exquisite icons, painted meticulously with traditional methods, but often on found materials from old doors to cutting boards, are profoundly moving. His workshop, filled with these holy images, seems a kind of church, and his calling is clearly sacramental: bringing the invisible into visibility.

  

“I started making icons when I was a boy,” he told us. “Then I discovered it was my job.” He paused thoughtfully before adding, “Every day, a miracle. Every day, I give thanks.”

A guitar leaned against his easel. I picked it up and sang him a couple of American folk songs as a modest thank offering. He replied with some tasty blues licks.

It was a day of gifts which never would have happened had we remained on our beautiful balcony and kept to ourselves. Once again, Santorini, you have taught us happiness.

Heart work and heaven work

Robert White portrait of George Herbert painted 41 years after his death.

Robert White portrait of George Herbert painted 41 years after his death.

Today is the feast day of George Herbert, the seventeenth-century Anglican poet and priest whose remarkable verse was inseparable from his prayer life. As one admirer put it, “Herbert wrote most of it, but God wrote quite a lot.” That’s a proportionality to which every creative, and every priest, might aspire.

Izaak Walton tells a story about a time Herbert set out for a walk with some friends. Suddenly, without saying why, he excused himself and returned to his church. His friends assumed he’d only be a moment, but they waited and waited and he still didn’t come back out. So they went up to a window and peered in. As Walton relates, they “saw him [lying] prostrate on the ground before the Altar; at which time and place (as he after told [his friend Mr. Woodnot] he set some Rules to himself, for the future management of his life.”

The “holy Mr. Herbert,” they called him around his parish. It was a term of affection. In his late thirties he had given up worldly ambitions to enter the priesthood, and he spent the rest of his life at a country parish in the English village of Bemerton. He died of consumption only four years after being ordained. But his famous manual of advice to country parsons proved a lasting legacy, shaping the self-understanding of clergy for generations to come.

And his poetry! Such astonishing verbal images in a century famous for great language, where words could be bent to the subtlest purposes without losing a speck of passion or truth. Herbert’s art, as the Puritan Richard Baxter put it, was “heart work and heaven work.”

He was both poet and priest; indeed, he showed that poet and priest have similar business, the sacramental work of paying close attention, and enabling others to do the same. Another poet, Mary Oliver, has put this perfectly: “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is, but I do know how to pay attention.”

Herbert liked puns. It wasn’t just a cleverness with language. It was the way he saw the universe: one thing becomes another, like bread becoming God. He often starts with a word or an image, and morphs it into a multiplicity of resonant meanings, or as one critic put it, “he breaks the host of language.” The one is broken into the many so that all the scattered fragments may one day again be made one when God is all in all.

In ‘Church Monuments,’ he’s sitting in church, his mind wandering, and he starts looking at the big marble tombs all around him. First he thinks of his own mortality, “this heap of dust,” but in a few more lines he makes us see the marble monuments themselves crumble into dust, pressing upon us the awareness that everything on this earth must pass away. We are all passing away. And then in one stunning final image, Herbert makes our dust to be the sand in an hourglass, where time is always running out.

flesh is but the glass, which holds the dust
That measures all our time; which also shall
Be crumbled into dust… (‘Church Monuments’)

And in the process he makes a nice pun: “flesh is but the glass” makes the biblically literate reader think of “all flesh is grass,” one of the most vivid evocations of mortality in all of literature.

Herbert believed in words. Language was held more dear in his day, and he used it as a ladder to bridge earth and heaven. Grammar itself became a finely tuned instrument of praise. In ‘Prayer I,’ there are almost no verb forms. It’s mostly nouns, conveying a changelessness transcending the busy world of doing: Prayer the Churches banquet, Angels age, Gods breath … The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage … Engine against th’ Almightie, sinner’s towre, Reversed thunder … Heaven in ordinairie, man well drest … The land of spices, something understood. And in ‘The Call,’ it is nouns that dominate both the stresses and the structure of every verse: Way, Truth, Life  … Light, Feast, Strength … Joy, Love, Heart.

Some of Herbert’s imagery speaks of humankind misreading or misspelling reality, and it was the poet’s job to put it right, to give everything its proper name once again.

We say amisse
This or that is:
Thy word is all, if we could spell. (‘The Flower’)

When Herbert lay dying, he entrusted his poems to his friend Nicholas Ferrar. They were, he said, “a picture of the many spiritual Conflicts that have passed betwixt God and my soul, before I could subject mine to the will of Jesus my master, in whose service I have found perfect freedom.” As to whether to publish his manuscript, he left that to Ferrar. “If he think it may turn to the advantage of any poor dejected soul, let it be made public; if not, let him burn it.” Thank God for Ferrar’s good judgment!

The Herbert whom we meet in his poems is a person very much in process: unfinished, imperfect, always aspiring to something higher. He cared deeply about formation and growth – his own as well as that of his congregation. As poet and priest he used all possible art to move those with ears to hear.

Hearken unto a Verser, who may chance
Ryme thee to good, and make a bait of pleasure.
A verse may finde him, who a sermon flies,
And turn delight into a sacrifice. (‘The Church Porch’)

As the subject of many of his poems, he used his own life, his own wrestling with God, as a lens for examining the frailty of mortals and the workings of grace. And as his own audience, he used the very process of writing as a form of prayer and self-examination. His poems are both the record of a soul and a source of instruction.

Herbert was extremely honest – even ruthless – about his prayer life. His mind was a “case full of knives,” as he put it, and he was no stranger to doubt, particularly doubt about traversing the abyss between human frailty and divine glory.

He wrestled with God, he wrestled with his own frail and mortal nature. “My searches are my daily bread,” he wrote, “but never prove.” He doesn’t get proof. He gets something better – faith.

Perhaps his signature poem is ‘Love III,’ which Simone Weil called “the most beautiful poem in the world.” I often use it to begin the liturgy of Maundy Thursday, with the congregation taking the part of the guest, and a solo voice speaking for Christ the host.

In the poem, the guest is full of self-abasement: not worthy to be here, not worthy even to look upon the One who invites him to the feast. And yet, the calmly insistent voice of Love will not be denied. There is nothing the guest can say or do that can ever separate him or her from that Love.

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, obeserving me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked anything.

A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.

Simple gifts

Shakers dance

Who will bow and bend like a willow
Who will turn and twist and reel
In the gale of simple freedom …

– Shaker spiritual

John Ciardi said that the poet is known by the valor of his refusals. So too the saint. But the austerity of self-limitation is not what we might have expected from the Wooster Group, the edgy New York City troupe long known for its Dionysian blends of experimental theater and multimedia technologies. Their latest production, however, not only reincarnates the music of the Shakers, it does so with a minimalist restraint worthy of that nearly extinct American sect.

Early Shaker Spirituals: A Record Album Interpretation presents all 20 songs from side A of a 1976 LP recorded at the dwindling Shaker community in Sabbathday Lake, Maine. After the liner notes for each song are read aloud, four women in plain 19th century dress sing along with the actual spinning record as it is transmitted to them through wireless receivers. The voice of Suzzy Roche is especially haunting, lean and lonesome and saturated with pastness like a faded tintype. While we listen to these contemporary reproductions of long departed voices, we sometimes hear the faint traces of the original recorded sound leaking into the room from the women’s earpieces. As the New York Times has written: “The aural effect is subtle and eerie, suggesting a kind of phantasmal possession of the present by the past or, if you prefer, the eternal.”[i]

Sitting quietly, passive and still, replicating out loud what they are hearing in their ear, the singers seem to be channeling something not of their own making, a transcendent voice entering the present world by first passing through their own souls and bodies. It feels like the spiritual ventriloquism of biblical prophecy. What shall I sing? Sing this. How fitting for a repertoire which the Shakers often attributed to the gifts of unseen spirits or divine inspiration.

The contrast of the singers’ personal inexpressiveness with such passionate, ecstatic and sometimes eschatological song texts (“with leaping and with dancing / we’ll hail the jubilee”) only strengthens the sense of otherness. What they sing does not come from them, but through them. It is not a spontaneous construct whipped up by emotional display. Such unassertive transparency achieves a strange oracular force. We hear a message from beyond.

Even when the singers rise from their chairs to approximate the original Shaker dances, it is not an exaltation of the self, but a yielding to the higher rhythms of divine choreography. As they reel, turn and twist to “shake out all the starch and stiffening,” they do not express. They surrender.

When I saw this compelling performance the other night in Los Angeles’ Redcat Theater, I was transported – whether to the past, or to the eternal, who can say? But I came away touched by a larger world than my ordinary domain. Voices distant in time had spoken to me. And is this not analogous to the eucharistic liturgy? We listen to ancient voices as if they were here and now, and speak their words from our own lips. Transparent presiders at the altar reproduce actions first performed in Jerusalem 2000 years ago. If we manage to keep our ego out of the way in the liturgy, the eternal Word, like that 1976 Shaker recording, may be heard and received in the fresh particularity of the now.

Some of the Wooster Group might take issue with my theological interpretation. Frances McDormand, the ensemble’s best-known actress, has resisted the religious dimensions of the Shaker tradition, preferring to stress the communal qualities of their musical environment. “It’s not religiously based,” she said in an interview. “It’s more poetic. There are parables to it, but it’s not about Jesus so it’s a little bit easier to take.”[ii]

Such indifference to Christian theology and practice is the common currency of secular modernity, the default position posing a perpetual challenge to those who would speak of faith. Many people think of Jesus and Christianity as something over and done, at least for them.

And yet, here is a cutting edge theater troupe performing religious songs without irony or ridicule, in a creative simulacrum of the otherness of the music’s reputedly transcendent source. While I won’t presume to baptize the Wooster Group, or attribute overt belief where it is explicitly denied, I still wonder whether there might yet be something larger at work in the world than any of us are able either to understand or admit. Whatever the Wooster Group actually thinks about what they are doing, and whatever ideas I might have about it, the “simple gifts” of love and delight go on being given and being received. Whether the mechanism of that exchange can be adequately described or named is perhaps the least important part of the whole thing. Experience trumps the language we put to it. In the end, you don’t need to possess the perfect map before you can dwell in “the valley of love and delight.” You’re already there. Its song is already whispering in your ear.

[i] Ben Brantley, The New York Times, May 29, 2014

[ii] James Kim interview with Frances McDormand, KPPC radio, Jan. 21, 2015

 

The ten best Jesus movies

Enrique Irazoqui and Pier Paolo Pasolini on location for "The Gospel According to St. Matthew"

Enrique Irazoqui and Pier Paolo Pasolini on location for “The Gospel According to St. Matthew”

The Feast of the Epiphany, recalling the journey of the Magi to adore the Christ child, ultimately celebrates the “showing” of Christ to the world. It seems the perfect day to post my list of the “ten best” Jesus movies, a genre which has fascinated me ever since I was a child extra in my father’s production of “Day of Triumph.” Surprisingly, that independent film by an Episcopal priest was the only Jesus film produced in the 1950’s, a decade packed with every other kind of biblical film.

For the last twenty-five years, I have taught “Jesus and the Movies” in seminaries, churches and retreat centers. I use clips from 19 feature films made between 1912 and 2014. The films always provoke rich conversations about biblical studies, Christology, religious art and film studies. Perennial issues of representation and interpretation are both repeated and transformed by the film medium, and the Jesus films, for all their limitations and imperfections, ask each viewer: “Who do you say that I am?” Even you don’t like a particular movie Jesus, you are compelled to think about the Jesus movie in your own head, your own heart. How does it differ from (or resonate with) what is on the screen?

As I noted in a prior post on the ten best religious films, top ten lists are subjective, revisable and always questionable, which is what makes them fun. And the Jesus film genre, burdened by religious expectations, commercial considerations, artistic pretensions and cultural controversies, has not produced any completely great films (each has its flaws, and the gospels themselves resist translation into perfect narratives), but it has given us many great scenes. I’ll list my favorite scenes in another post, but for now, in chronological order, here are my ten recommendations for your Epiphany binge-watching.

King of Kings (1961) Nicholas Ray’s uneven, studio-butchered epic was savaged by reviewers (“Incontestably the corniest, phoniest, ickiest and most monstrously vulgar of all the big Bible stories,” thundered Time Magazine). Blue-eyed fan-mag cover boy Jeffrey Hunter, although 33 years old, was dismissed as the “teenage Jesus,” though other saw echoes of JFK, inspiring and youthful, or “James Dean without the delinquency” (Ray had also made Rebel Without a Cause). And religious critics found too much humanity, not enough divinity. So what’s it doing on my list? Well, Ray was a terrific director, and the film is very watchable. It is also a prime example of cultural context shaping both the making and the reception of a Jesus film. Released at a time when both the biblical epic and the dominant Protestant metanarrative were on the wane in America, it failed for interesting reasons. At the same time, a Jesus constantly preaching “peace and love” reflected the ongoing anxieties of the Cold War era. And where else can you get narration by Orson Welles, a marvelous epic score by Miklos Rozsa (of Ben Hur fame), and the longest traveling shot in film history (160 feet of track on a steep Spanish hillside)?

The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1965) Pasolini’s black & white, hand-held, documentary “you are there” style, the rough-hewn faces of Italian non-actors, and the first dark-eyed Jewish Jesus all created an illusion of realism that instantly overthrew the conventions of biblical cinema. It is the first Jesus movie not to blend all four gospels or invent new dialogue and narration, though it significantly edits Matthew’s text (apocalyptic sayings, the Transfiguration, and some miracles are omitted). The director treats Jesus as a “revolutionary whirlwind” sweeping through Palestine. For some the protagonist is too strident, humorless and emotionally remote, but his relentless otherness nicely resists our domestication.

Jesus Christ Superstar/Godspell (1973) Permit me to link the Jesus musicals together: they came out in the same year, each is dated in its own way (singing and dancing on top of the World Trade Center, for example), and both remain strangely affecting, at least for persons of a certain age. In breaking the conventions of literal treatments, they not only opened new options for the genre, but influenced a rising generation of liturgists who brought street theater, comic play and contemporary music into the churches. Some critics glowered from the other side of a generational divide (“Jesus is just a teeny-bopper stoned on himself”), but there were more substantial controversies as well (in Superstar, a black Judas, an erotic Magdalene, Jewish villains caricatured as vultures, and a doubting Jesus). But each film provides a lively retelling with some very moving scenes.

Jesus of Nazareth (1977) Franco Zefferelli’s beautiful 6-hour miniseries on NBC, while shunning the artificial grandeur of Hollywood sets for a humbler, dustier Palestine, is suffused with its own pictorial conventions: Catholic iconography and Italian painting. Robert Powell’s engaging and self-assured Jesus, whose divine nature is clearly on display in key scenes, gives one of the most popular portrayals, though the film has been criticized for an overly interior spirituality that leaves the sociopolitical world untouched. Rather than trying to make Powell carry the entire burden of his character’s significance, Jesus of Nazareth focuses on the faces, reactions and emotions of his followers. Peter and Mary Magdalene, standing in for all of us who hear and follow, are unforgettable.

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) The most controversial film of the genre prior to Mel Gibson’s Passion, Scorcese’s energetic, visceral take on the Kazanzakis novel is really a mashup of three bible characters: Jonah (the reluctant prophet resisting his inevitable vocation), Jesus of the gospels (creatively retold with a few quirky additions), and the Prodigal Son (who leaves the cross for the “far country” of a long, ordinary life, only to return “home” to Calvary at the end). This flawed but fascinating film has many firsts: the interior thoughts of Jesus, New York accents, sexuality, a restless camera always on the move, Peter Gabriel’s world music soundtrack, women at the Last Supper, and a novelistic source that exacerbates the confusions of fact and fiction.

Jesus of Montreal (1989) Denys Arcand’s postmodern play within a play furthered the transformation of a genre freeing itself from the restrictive conventions of piety and/or box-office caution. A group of contemporary actors, invited to reinvigorate a staid annual Passion Play, do so in wonderfully imaginative ways. At the same time, they find their personal lives starting to embody the characters they play. Earnest, clever and compelling, the film asks us to consider what it might mean to “play” Jesus in our own place and time.

Jesus (1999) This 4-hour television special offers a Jesus who seems quite modern in manner, speech and outlook. Jeremy Sisto is a “California slacker” type whose identity quest seems very American. This is often effective in putting us in the story, as if it’s something that could happen to us. But does it also reflect our own cultural selves so much that we can no longer believe we are seeing anything resembling history? An unprecedented use of special effects for the miraculous and mythic elements of the gospels is visually interesting, but it does create significant questions about what we are being asked to believe, since a special effect is transparently fictional, undermining the real but unseen content of faith.

The Miracle Maker (2000) Fresh, creative and often moving, this film uses claymation figures by Russian orthodox artists. Parables, dreams and inner experience are contrastingly rendered in two-dimensional animation. The engaging script, written by an Anglican, tells the Jesus story through the eyes of a child. The clay Jesus, resembling an eastern Christian icon (but with a ready smile) is more charismatic than many of his live-action brethren. The voice of Ralph Fiennes is part of the reason, but the animation itself engages us directly with the story in a way that real human faces do not. A dramatic film is always both a scripted fiction and also a kind of documentary about what the actors themselves are doing while the camera is rolling. With animation, you see only the story, not the actors, and that works beautifully here.

The Gospel of John (2003) This film gave itself a uniquely challenging task. Most Jesus movies invent dialogue to fill gaps in the narrative or articulate meanings left unsaid in gospel texts, but such a strategy is renounced here. The script uses only the words of the Fourth Gospel (in modern translation), forcing ingenious, if occasionally labored, strategies to keep the story moving and the viewer involved. The long speeches of the “Farewell Discourses” (John 13-17) are the supreme example. Ian Cusick’s Jesus is warm and passionate. You may never again hear “I am the bread of life” without seeing his smile.

Son of Man (2006) Produced in South Africa, it sets the Jesus story within a fictional 21st century African country beset by the horrendous legacy of colonialism, corporate exploitation, and factionalism. The first black movie Jesus is deeply embedded in contemporary times, teaching nonviolence to his disciples while speaking out against corrupt and evil powers. But we never lose sight of the original gospel story. The stunning depictions of Annunciation, Pieta and Resurrection will knock you flat. And the singing! So exhilarating. Here is a film where you really “meet Jesus again for the first time.”