Ploughed and harrowed: Watching films as a preparation for death.

I have been examining my inclinations lately regarding the kind of cinema I am drawn too. The fact that I do that, and say that I do that, marks me as a questionable character. Nonetheless, I am one of those types who cannot stop noticing my own thoughts, wonder about their provenance, and question their meaning. Naturally, if that is the right word, I prefer films that work along similar lines as my mind. In other words, I prefer films that give my mind time to think and reflect as I watch. I like slow films that carefully, and with nuance, build image upon image, and rely on subtleties and levels of meaning. I find action films the most boring of all films. This is strange because cinema is the art of movement. It is also strange because I love some action films quite a lot (e.g. Die Hard, 1988).

Though I came to film as did many of my generation, through Disney and television, through comedy and western, I took an educational turn down the path of art history, of philosophy, of the humanities, and so went the course of my mind. In college I was introduced to foreign films and they became a kind of revelation for me. I discovered I was sensitive to film as an artform as much as a way to tell stories and entertain. Sometimes viewing films became difficult for me as each scene, each pan of the camera, each edit evoked a multitude of thoughts. I would be simultaneously transfixed and distracted by a film. I would frequently not finish films, then, when I did, I would sometimes be overcome for days. Needless to say, this kind of film viewing is not typical, though I know it is not uncommon either. I will admit that it may be a kind of limitation, but it is who I am. It is also personally annoying at times. I find that I seek that “overcoming” kind of experience, even to have my life changed forever, and yet I fear it too. One does not wish the existential crisis to come, but one cherishes those that have come. One does not want one’s mind to be taken over, as it were, but one needs to be shaken. So I struggle between the desire to be profoundly redone by a work of art and the desire to remain safely as I am.

I have wondered why I seek out art for this purpose. I know art can be a distraction or a light pleasure. But I have often disdained art used for those purposes, though I know this attitude is incorrect, for art can function in many ways and for many purposes. Recently I realized how I have though about art; I cannot say it better than Russian filmmaker Andre Tarkovsky:

The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as an example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good. (Sculpting in Time, p. 43)

To prepare a person for death, that is what I have sought; to be prepared for death. I am not morbid in this sentiment. I do not seek death. But I have been on a mission of sorts since my youth to seek the final implications of belief. I long for films (and any art) to take me there, or push me there. A film does not need to be heavy handed, nor does it need to be dark. It can be full of light and life, but it does, at least, need to reach into one’s soul, as it were, and open it up to a kind of receptivity. I long for that harrowing and rendering. that is why, in the face of so many competent and popular films, my reactions are so often a shrug of the shoulders.

It is not that I cannot be amused, but I cannot help but think that amusement means “without the muses.” To be amused to to stop thinking, to be diverted from the the realities and implications of existence. Life, as we know it in this whirling electronic age, has become a world of diversions. We all need diversions at times, but diversions are not only not hard to come by, they are thrust upon us with such repetition and force that it takes an active and committed individual to ward them off. I believe such a commitment comes from the orientation of one’s soul toward (or away from) the infinite—to borrow a word from Kierkegaard. To turn away from diversions into a powerful work of art, and then to let that work of art do its function, and to be receptive to that function, is a kind of antidote (though not a complete cure) to a life of amusements. It is not the only way, but it is one way.

There is, however, a caveat somewhere in all this. That is, one must be able to trust the artist, the filmmaker, if one is to be thus undone. I cannot, I should not, allow any artist to plough and harrow my soul unless I know that artist’s character. This may require one to push back against that first viewing, that sacred viewing that no one wants disturbed, and to take a cautious approach. This is why the choice to view one film over another, or to take a chance on a film, ought to be based first on who is the filmmaker and not the actor. It is the filmmaker who is accountable. It is the filmmaker who must be trusted. I like a great many films for various reasons, but this need to trust the filmmaker brings me back time and again to the likes of Bresson, Dreyer, Rohmer, Tarkovsky, and Renoir, and why I appreciate, but with caution, the likes of Bergman, Allen, Antonioni, and Tarr. I’m sure anyone reading this can come up with their own list of filmmakers.

Does anyone else think this way?

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