22 March 2012

Some Inconclusive and Malformed Thoughts on the Place of Prophets in Cinema

One of the characteristics of a lot of the spiritual leaders beloved of modern American culture is their apparent inoffensiveness. We like Buddhists who claim nothing and believe nothing and are merely striving to empty themselves and attain peace. We like fuzzy Taoists who talk a lot about "the source", and strange "New Age" spiritualists who have ideas about self-realization that I don't really understand. And to a great extent the Americanized versions of these things are all corruptions and consumerized falsifications of whatever the authentic original was, with its distinctive strengths and errors. The main thing is that spiritualists be inoffensive, that they not demand anything which might require people to grow in courage, and that they offer an open-ended fulfillment of everyone's deepest desires (whatever they may be). One wonders at times, whether virtue ethics would have a chance to become popular if we informed people that having prudence and temperance and the rest would enable them to be more free to do what they want in life.

In any case, we have to compare the modern pop guru (think maybe of the popularized version of Gandhi -- a soft-spoken universalist with a taste for poverty and a will welded to non-violence) to the traditional prophet of Israel. Elijah was not very cuddly, and Elisha's lack of youth-appeal is rather disheartening (cf. 2 Kings 2:23-4). We could go on with particulars, but the main thing is that prophets are weird people. Often grouchy, almost always depressive, they seem to have been selected for their ability to make themselves hated. They go around performing strange symbolic acts, wailing at uninterested crowds about the oncoming doom and the need for repentance, offering strange predictions of future redemption, performing miracles that are difficult to interpret, etc. What does Jeremiah have in common with Gandhi? What does John the Baptist have in common with Rhonda Byrne? Virtually nothing.

In this light I find rather odd the idea of taking portraits of holy people and presenting them in a movie theater or comfortable home environment as matter for entertainment. In doing so we are almost guaranteed to lose the prophet, all too likely to convert his power to shiver the soul into some combination of feel-good inspiration and alienation melodrama, limited to the world of the screen, basically stripped of its authority. But then ultimately it seems that the only way to really be a prophet is to speak the truth, and very few screenwriters have their prophets tell us the whole truth. It seems easier for writers/directors to act as quasi-prophets themselves by means of their stories than to place genuine prophets in their movies. Some attempts at this that come to mind:

American Beauty, Caché, Children of Men, The 400 Blows, Citizen Kane, City of God, Good Night, and Good Luck, High Noon, Ikiru, Koyaanisqatsi (and the Qatsi trilogy as a whole), Lost in Translation, Network, Pi, The Graduate, The Last Days of Disco, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, The Third Man, The Seventh Seal, Whale Rider, Michael Clayton.

Though, now that I've constructed this (pretty arbitrary) list, I really have to admit that I'm more confused about what a prophetic movie would look like than I was at the beginning.