Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Faith and Imprisonment, Part 1

In a few weeks, I will begin a Mythological Studies Masters program. My goal - besides immersion in myth and story - is to understand how myth is used in our society in film and literature. Even more important is to then explore how mythic underpinnings in our art and culture help explain our politics and history while foreshadowing our future. Myth is the stories of our lives, and our lives are the stories of the world. Big ideas to get a grip on and sometimes the wonder is in whether it even makes sense to try.

Timing is everything though, and sometimes parts of the whole crystallize out of nothing. Imprisonment has been a theme running through texts I have recently been reading and watching. I will explore that in my next post, but first I want to explore some films that have served as an underlayment to my thoughts as I was thrust into these Imprisonment texts.

I began watching the Ingmar Bergman Faith Trilogy recently, consisting of the following films: "Through A Glass Darkly", "Winter Light" and "The Silence". Though known as the Faith trilogy, each one revolved around the theme of imprisonment. Bergman explores the effects, and reasons for imprisonment, whether it is just or not, and the effect it has on people's faith (in many things). The images, themes and stories have been simmering in my unconscious for weeks as the films are truly complex works of cinematic art.

The most distinctive part of these films is the cinematography of Sven Nykvist, as the black and white (and gray) imagery shimmers in the light of the filmed worlds. Just like the shading of the filmed light, the theme of Faith is not always explicit. Implicitly, faith seems to be tied to trust and family in these films, but not always with pleasant results.

"Through a Glass Darkly" depicts a small family's struggle to come to terms with a woman's ongoing insanity. The father, husband and brother all seem to have lost faith that anything can be done to actually prevent the woman's illness.

"The Silence" explores the relationship between two sisters, the older one who is dying and the younger that wants to escape from under her dominance. The eldest has lost faith in the younger, who resents having to tend to her and acts out in a destructive manner. Complicating the situation is the small son of the younger daughter - he cannot comprehend what is happening with his mother and tries to comfort his aunt as best he can. As the eldest is dying, alone in a hotel room, the boy is the only one who even thinks about her.

Only "Winter Light" explicitly discusses faith as Faith. A priest's lack of faith in his god spreads to the people of his church, who begin to stay away from him. He is imprisoned by his role as pastor of a congregation and as his belief leaves him he becomes unable to help anyone else believe. When this leads to a father's suicide, we see faith, and perhaps loss of faith, causing undue stress in our lives.

As usual with great film, the thematic situations and magnificent imagery stayed with me even when I was concentrating on thinking about these films. For an example, the last amazing shot of the eldest sister in "The Silence" - the lighting of the scene almost making the shot look like a negative image. It is of her in agony, mouth open to scream but unable to, as she is about to die, alone and abandoned, her faith in her sister and in the way she was taught to live utterly dissipated. Powerful image to go with large ideas to ponder. And there are many more scenes of equal quality.

In the next few days, I will be examining other films and stories that look at imprisonment, as well as some disturbing American history. If you are familiar with the Bergman trilogy, keep these films in mind. He works with the spiritual and mental imprisonment in ways that linger - and also in ways that come to mind when faced with real imprisonment.

Also - I would welcome any comment about these films or other Bergman films. I have not seen many more and don't see general discussion of his work brought up usually. It would be interesting to hear what others had to say about him.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

A First Look at Recovery

J.R.R.Tolkien, in his justifiably famous essay "On Fairy Stories", uses the term Recovery. It is used to describe the effect of how Fairy stories - about other worlds and the fantastic - enable us to see our own "real" world in a clearer way. I like this term because it is absolutely what happens to me when I read fantasy literature - I start to think about things in a different way, envision the world anew.

But fantasy is not the only medium that does this. Science Fiction is, in a sense, a "recovery" of our view of the future. We see new possibilities. An even more interesting idea to me is that recovery can happen when we learn things - science, history, culture and politics opening up our eyes and minds to how the world works and to what may actually be possible.

An example: I tend to trace my recovery of the wonders of nature back to a snowstorm that hit one afternoon. I had a day off from work and was visiting my Mom that day - a cold sunny morning turned quickly to a storm. It left a few inches of snow in a very short time. However, in an hour or two, the sun was back out, but the ground was covered. I noticed that birds, immediately after the storm passed over, went flying back and forth in search of food. And I noticed, for the first time in a long time, the variety of different birds that were actually around. It had been a long time since I had looked so closely at what was around me, but that afternoon I spotted at least six different species - sparrows, starlings, crows, pigeons (rock doves for you birders!), mourning doves and a blue jay - looking for some food to get through the day. There may have been a gull sighted also.

My wonder at nature - the recovery of the reality of my life and what surrounded it - took place in that crazy storm. It led me to do a little birdwatching and to realize that there are a lot of different birds flying around, if only we take the time to notice them. I now see all kinds of birds just on my daily commute.

Recovery is probably a word we would associate more with medical rehabilitation today, but I really like it for use in the sense of our renewed vision. Seeing things in a new light is the only way we can get out of the ruts of our daily lives and perhaps make changes to what life actually is. We may even make changes that change the world. This is what looking beyond the veil means.

In future posts, I will be looking into recovery in more detail - going back and re-reading Tolkien's essay and then writing a few different ideas down here. The stories we tell - from fantasy to "real-life" stories of culture, history and science - all go to the heart of recovery, using story to change the way we perceive the world. If some stories are made up and others simply revealing facts we never knew, what's the difference? For our purposes, we are learning new things in either case. I like to look at History and Politics as a mirror image of Literature and Film.