SOMEHOW OVER THE years I have attained, in the minds of some, the reputation of being something of an authority on film. This could be because of the film festivals that I have been involved in at the Immaculate Conception Center in Douglaston, or because of my frequent references to film in this column. Whatever the reason, I don’t deserve the description “film authority.” However, I do admit to loving movies, to having been deeply influenced by some great ones and to believing that film is a relatively untapped treasure among Catholics, a treasure that can provide insight into self, neighbor and even to God.
The role that films have played in my life is on my mind right now because the 50th Friday Film Festival will start soon at the Immaculate Conception Center. Reflecting on the upcoming festival, I have become aware that my belief in the power of film has evolved. When the current program of film festivals began in 1993, I was so interested in film technique that I emphasized it when presenting films to the audience. I emphasized what I call “cinematics” in trying to persuade audiences of the value of film.
By “cinematics” I mean the ingredients that make a movie a movie, rather than a novel, short story, poem, sculpture, painting, symphony or any other art form. I tried to encourage viewers to notice camera angles, acting, lighting, music, dialogue and even editing. Those ingredients are important and I try to focus my attention on them as I watch a film or reflect on it afterwards.
Because of some philosophy courses that I teach at St. John’s University, I have come to appreciate in a new way the importance of the story that a film tells. Stories can have an enormous influence on us. This is one reason why I think that a really serious problem among many contemporary college students is that they have not developed the habit of reading really good stories. Some ideas that theologian John Haught presents in his excellent book, “What Is God? How to Think About the Divine” (New York: Paulist Press, 1986, pp. 143), helped me to see the power of story. Haught writes this about beauty:
“…one of the most intense instances of aesthetic experience lies in the spectacle of an heroic story. Since such stories involve the narrative patterning of struggle, suffering, conflicts and contradictions into a complex unity, they stand out as one of the most obvious examples of beauty. In fact, it is often our being conditioned by the stories of great heroes that determines our whole sense of reality, personal identity and purpose, as well as the quality of our aesthetic experience in general…
“The meaning of our lives is determined by the way each of us participates in an ongoing story. And where people today speak of their experience of meaninglessness, isolation, alienation, rootlessness etc., such experiences can almost invariably be traced to an inability to find some meaningful story in which to situate their lives.” (p.74)
Obviously reading great stories can influence our consciousness and conscience. By reading classics we can gain insights into self, neighbor and God.
Classic films tell great stories too. I have come to realize that great films present stories that can have a great impact on our lives. As I am writing this column, I am recalling the films that have profoundly influenced me. Some presented insights into family life, others were a depiction of the evils of prejudice, some vividly created the horrors of war and a handful deepened my understanding of the priesthood. A few explicitly religious films offered insights into the mystery of God. Many films, because of the insights they present into the mystery of persons, suffering, death and love, indirectly reveal the mystery of God. Others reveal the mystery of God because of their overwhelming beauty.
Each of us is writing his or her own personal story with God. Our stories always have more meaning than we can imagine because of the presence of God’s love. Our stories ought to be deepening and widening, increasing in mystery and filled with a more profound joy. Even as we age and perhaps are less physically strong and healthy, this should not diminish the meaning and mystery of our stories.
I could present a list of classic films that have had a profound impact on my life. Instead, I am going to ask you, the reader of this column, to think of films that you think have had a profound influence on you, perhaps deepening your understanding of self, neighbor and God.
Father Robert Lauder, philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, is the author of the recently published “Pope Francis’ Spirituality and Our Story” (Resurrection Press).