Entering Into a Film Like a Child

Filmwell’s Ron Reed discusses an interesting way of looking at movies:

Sister Rose Pacatte writes for the National Catholic Reporter. In her recent article Seeds of the Gospel in Cinema she talks about cinema divina – a practice of watching film as a spiritual discipline, derived from lectio divina. She mentions Father Benedict Auer’s article “Video Divina: A Benedictine Approach to Spiritual Viewing,” in which he writes “Video divina requires a set disposition which says, This evening, I wish to get closer to God, so I think I’m going to watch this film, which might give me better insights into myself or why my neighbor acts as she or he does.’”

I’m quite in tune with this idea, though it has its risks. If you enter into a story “looking for the message,” or intending to distill some simple moral lesson, you’re really not engaging with the film on its own terms. Playwrights say “If you want to send a message, use Western Union,” and the desire to boil a story down to a handy tip for living or a high school English paper theme statement may deny us the rich experience of actually engaging with the piece as a narrative, a world to inhabit, a work of art (or at least craftsmanship). The story – indeed, the performances, the design, the film’s rhythms and music and cinematic aesthetic – are not just the pretty wrapping paper to be discarded to get to the good part, the message. They are themselves the good part, the thing itself, and whatever a film (or play, or novel) may mean is entirely embodied in those particularities. A good story doesn’t say just one thing: it layers meanings and perspectives and contradictions and ideas, choices and consequences, all the complexities of actual life intensified and shaped by the artists.

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I suggest entering into a film like a child, hungry for a story, a dream, images, clues about how the world works, excitement, terror, experience, beauty – whatever the film is going to offer. And when the film ends, before beginning the critique, before weighing strengths and weaknesses, I suggest we begin by simply calling back to mind all the film’s details. What did you see, hear, experience? A plot reversal, the image of a beautiful face, recurring references to roses or food or The Hardy Boys, empathy with a character’s situation. Then move on to what you notice: the way the sea imagery seemed to coincide with moments when the character altered his course of action, or the way the story seems to be about the same sort of things that this screenwriter’s other movie is, or the fact that your attention was especially engaged when a particular character was onscreen. Then maybe move to what those things might add up to, what they might signify, how they might speak to you. Reserving for last all the weighing and assessing, the judgments of how the film may have fallen short or why it’s not as good as another film you’ve seen. In our know-it-all, “please me” consumerist culture of criticism, those dismissive, reductionist muscles are overdeveloped already, and jerk as readily as the muscles of the knee. How much wiser to exercise the under-utilized muscles of close observation, correlation, appreciation and contemplation before flexing your impressive critical pecs. And when you move into that final phase, maybe a spirit of discernment rather than judgment? Assessing, rather than criticizing?

This entry was originally published on Christ and Pop Culture on .