During my London-fog period of a couple of days ago, Salt Lake City Weekly film critic Scott Renshaw ran a noteworthy piece on Bilge Ebiri‘s Screengrab, voicing a view that “serious-minded filmmakers need to begin tackling issues of spirituality, in order not to leave it to the hacks.”
HE response: The finest all-time films have always been about spiritual connections between wayward mortals and something eternal or transcendent (like Anthony Quinn‘s moment on the beach at the very end of La Strada), but serious filmmakers need to stay away, far away, from films about faith or religion. Leave faith films to the hacks (i.e., the purveyors of the mostly conservative, faith-based market), which is where they belong.
“The reason that Fox Faith and its slate of noxious innocuousness can exist is that there’s a vacuum to be filled,” wries Renshaw, “in case The Passion of the Christ and the success of [the gross and ghastly] Tyler Perry had not made that excruciatingly clear. Mainstream cinema generally seems scared to death of dealing with religion or faith in any way, for fear of giving offense.” Quite so! And for good reason.
“How many fingers does it take,” Renshaw asks, “to count the number of fiction films you’ve seen in the last 15 years, even in art houses, where a character’s religious beliefs played a significant role in the events?”
And how many times has it been repeated that there’s a huge whopping difference between people who feel the only true path to communion with all things Christian and eternal is through “faith” (a word pretty much owned by American heartland types) and through established religions with tax-deductible status, and the free-thinking, stand-alone satori crowd — i.e., the spiritual seekers, mystics and knowers who feel that anyone who uses the word “faith” in the first place is going “baaaah” and doesn’t really get it in the first place?
Apart from being inclined to wear vaguely uncool hair styles and clothing from Target and J.C. Penney-type stores, people who are into “faith” are, I believe, good-hearted souls who, for the best of reasons, are basically into submission and, in a manner of speaking, a kind of spiritual cluelessness.
Faith people are basically saying the same thing in cultures around the globe, which is this: in order to derive a sense of spiritual comfort, I am committed to regularly proclaiming a belief in a wondrous and eternal realm that I can’t see or touch but which I believe lies on the other side of the door. I am but a lamb but proudly so, knowing as I do that God wants me to maintain a certain devotional ignorance. It is not my task to truly know, much less commune with, cosmic wonders and truths.
But a true mystic and spiritualist, someone who feels a greater kinship with (take your pick or make your own list) the writings of Herman Hesse, Aldous Huxley and Alan Watts than, say, the stiff-necked, drop-your-money-in-the-collection- plate creeds of traditional Catholics or Baptists or right-wing evangelists — that liberal-minded person regularly communes with and in fact knows — has savored, tasted, swum in — the spiritual nectar of that realm beyond the door. The interconnected cosmic totality of it all resides within, and both sides of the door are equal parts of the equation. And either you’ve been there and are living there right now, or you haven’t and you’re not.
Faith, in short, is for spiritual pikers — believers in ritual and community and constancy who sense a certain cosmic order and altogetherness but haven’t really formulated it, and in some cases would even prefer not to. There’s nothing wrong in the least with being an adherent of this or that religion — anything the least bit soul-nourishing or soul-sustaining is obviously good to clasp to one’s breast — but faith is for the flock and true mystical God-knowledge is for the shepherd.
The only way I’ll accept a film about a spiritual matter or river of any sort — a depiction, say, of the life of Yeshua of Nazareth, to name but one topic — is if it’s directed by an artist who would rather listen to late ’90s Limp Bizkit or John Coltrane than go to church on Sunday. Pier Palo Pasolini‘s The Gospel According to St. Matthew is my kind of spirit movie. Or Martin Scorsese‘s The Last Temptation of Christ, which the hard-core faith types, fired by their charming righteous certainty, demonstrated against in 1988 outside of movie theatres.
That idiotic response to Scorsese’s film opened my eyes to the essential blindness and bigotry of conservative Christianity, which, as we all know, is a very powerful social force in Salt Lake City. Which is why I (and hundreds of others, I’m fairly sure) quickly discounted Renshaw’s piece when it first appeared on Screengrab. It’s impossible not to suspect that he’s picking up on that SLC vibe and trying to run with it in an erudite film critic-type way. If the piece had been written by, say, a Hassidic Jew from Manhattan’s Lower East Side, I would have seemed a different matter.