Saturday, December 02, 2006

Movies, Mike, and Me

Even if that is bad English...

Mike Hertenstein, co-author with me of Selling Satan and friend and neighbor in our shared communal life for more years than either of us care to admit, has posted some fascinating stuff on movies. No wonder. Mike is submerged in movie-dom, as Flickerings (both the Flickerings website and the annual "event" at Cornerstone Festival) illustrates.

Rather than rattle on, I'll merely point Blue Christian readers to Mike's latest:

What Mike calls the Dionysus thing is, for some of us at least, one of those many points where movements, movies, history and personalities come into new configurations. C. S. Lewis and Apocalypse Now? Whoa. How about a mega-showdown between Apollo and Dionysus? Sounds like an action flick, right? Well, Mike's major mind candy will, like all the best hard sweets, stick with you for a long time. (And I hope the producers of the Narnia movies read it very carefully...) In fact, here's a taste:

It would, for example, be most enlightening — or should I say intoxicating — to survey the landscape of the Gospel and Christian history for clues to locating a more Dionysian faith. In so many places you can actually feel some ancient, even primal energy straining against whatever cultural container barely holds it back, ready to explode into something sensual, even (dare we say it?) sexual. The Passion of the Christ. The ecstasy of St. Teresa. The throbbing beat of that ancient prayer, the Anima Christi: "Blood of Christ, inebriate me." John Donne's poem, "Batter my heart, three-person'd God… Except you enthrall me, [I] shall never be free. Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me." You can almost hear the hypnotic rhythms of drums, the seductive melodies of the flutes, the sighs of the maenads, lost in their mad, whirling, self-forgetting dance...

And we could certainly talk more about C. S. Lewis in this connection, who throughout his writing divides human knowledge and ways of looking at the world into a division that coincides very well with the Apollonian-Dionysian opposition. Like Lewis the popular theologian, Lewis the literature teacher makes it clear that learning to engage with art requires wrestling away from Apollonian control a way of seeing that is closer to (he doesn't put it quite this nakedly) sex — as in "knowledge in the Biblical sense" — than in the abstract, practical, utilitarian, even scientific sense that some people approach art. Perhaps the very real relation between Dionysian seeing and Biblical knowledge is why RUSH pairs Apollo with Reason and Dionysus with Love, and also why N. T. Wright can call for Christian approach to knowing that makes knowledge not a subset of power but of love.

Fresher than the latter is Mike's CIFFBLOG from the Chicago International Film Festival this fall. Mike saw all the good movies (well, a lot of 'em), and offers his take. He didn't take me, and I'm in a snit over it. If you are a hardcore movie buff, or just interested in this coolest of Windy City alternative film options, make sure and check Mike's blog out.

But I really like Mike's Roberto Rossellini riffs (Mike loves that word) from last summer's Cornerstone Festival "Flickerings" program. Actually not quite finished, the multi-part set of postings is entitled "The Post-War Journey of Roberto Rosellini." Mike delves into what WWII did to the sensibilities of artists, and this great Italian director in particular. From Flowers of Saint Francis to Stromboli, Rossellini's early career, post-war vision offers some deeply faith-affirming, along with faith-wrenching, moments.

For instance, in his Flowers of Saint Francis treatment, Mike begins with a Merton quote and immediately begins making the reader uncomfortable:

The Plaster Saint, the stereotype of sanctity, is but a caricature, says Thomas Merton. Shaped by the unrealistic conventions of hagiography and pious art, that which offers itself as a divine pattern is generally a pious fraud: sinless perfection, immunity to temptation, pristine motivations, all the pat answers, right actions, and edifying clich├ęs — all of which could almost be chapter titles in a book on screenwriting for a Hollywood film about a saint. The Plaster Saint of the movies tends to stand above the world, abstracted from it, without humor, wonder, curiosity, or doubt.
They are always there kissing the leper's sores at the very moment when the king and his noble attendants come around the corner and stop in their tracks, mute in admiration...
Worse than this kitschy perfection, says Merton, is that most of us secretly think this model is the right one, that in our hearts we believe that the supernatural is equal to the denial of the human. Therefore, it should be no surprise if filmmakers can never seem to get it right. Especially in Hollywood, where the sanctimonious glow of celebrity has already baptized a dubious culture, the litany of saints and Messiahs, religious or secular, range on a continuum from stiff to fluff.

Well, I haven't done Mike justice here... but what can he do about it other than walk by my desk and stick his toungue out? Nothing... that's what. Or maybe cough up a copy of that Rossellini movie, Blaise Pascal, which I didn't hear of from Mike but sure want to see.


Whisky Prajer said...

I've been holding off on this comment, but since this post is so lonely ...

While I have a deep appreciation for what your amigo Mike has to say (especially post C-stone Fest) ... any chance he could tweak down that "Hot Pink" a bit? I do believe I'm courting retina burn-out!

Jon Trott said...

I think Mike was going for a color schema that fit the "Day of the Dead" theme. After all, he could have used the ghastly purple I -- for some reason unknown even to me -- used on my pages. Yeesh!

Anonymous said...

Hi Jon,
Did you ever get to see Rossellini's Blaise Pascal? I am very fond of this director's work. I have seen a number of his films: Stromboli, Journey to Italy, Europe 51, The Messiah, Franceso, Socrates, Viva l'Italia and some other films by him.