Mythology is neither true nor false in a historical sense. Myths convey the deep, fundamental, and often spiritual, truths of existence, in a manner that transcends factual statements. In this way, myth is more similar to art than it is to science or history.
Moments of illumination occur in the most surprising places: A movie about a cabaret dancer becomes a parable of sacrificial love (Moulin Rouge, 2001). A satire on the empty facade of modern suburban life reveals the Transcendent in the mundane (American Beauty, 1999). The biographical tale of Alvin Straight's lawnmower ride across Iowa urges us to recognize a guiding presence in the farm fields and impoverished rural towns of middle America (Straight Story, 1999). I suspect that each of us can recall our "Aha!" moments, when the aroma of popcorn and melted butter became an incense as we were drawn to experience something more than ourselves, outside of ourselves, while we were lost in the onscreen world.
On a personal level, while the religious instruction I was brought up in and which I studied formally in college and graduate school gave me consistent spiritual and ethical nourishment during my most formative years, the most singularly transformative moments of my life have all occurred in the presence of film and the arts. For example, The Tree of Life (2011) and the short film, Gratitude, opened me to the spectacular, chest-filling presence of God in our everyday experiences. Departures (2008) revealed the sacredness of life, by juxtaposing it with the beauty of ritual burial. And time after time, The Descendants (2011) moves me to contemplate life under the sun to find hope in the face of despair.
Art often creeps in around the edges of our rational defense. Fix your gaze on a painting, tune your ears to a new piece of music, or head to the nearest theater and you may find a new orientation towards life that you formerly thought untenable or perhaps were unable to perceive. We are rational creatures, but we are not solely rational. Anything that touches our emotions transforms and changes us. And even the "Aha!" moment of discovery that comes from a philosophical or mathematical discovery is only cemented into place by the emotional realization of delight. As formerly disparate pieces of reality are drawn together into a coherent shape in our minds, our natural tendency is to feel joy at the new sense of harmony, but this tends to happen without our being conscious of it.
In film, the soundtrack more than anything else is tasked with guiding our emotions. Yet soundtracks often escape our notice. As Krista Tippett points out, unless a score includes spectacular movements like the anxiety-inducing violins of Psycho, the average musical score blends into the background so well that you almost forget it's there. Yet, by speaking to the supra-rational part of our beings, soundtracks tell us how to feel, and therefore, what to think.
Santaolalla defines art (and film) as "organizing reality," rightly understanding that art is at the core of what it is to be human. This is an old idea, with roots the Judeo-Christian tradition. In the poem that begins the Hebrew Scriptures, humanity is tasked with "naming," giving order to the earth, at the first moment of consciousness. The power of film as art is that it offers filmmakers the chance to make sense of the world and continue this ancient ordering process. As we react as viewers to what we see and hear onscreen, we participate in this process by engaging the film with our own history of experiences and ideas to articulate new meaning for our own context as we grasp at understanding reality.
But this is only half the equation. Beyond what the filmmaker intends, and beyond what we bring with us into the darkened theater, inexplicably and unpredictably we encounter something beyond what exists on the screen. In the darkness of the theater we experience more than the sum total of what we and the filmmaker brought with us. This is the religious experience. In a prophetic move, the Transcendent breaks through our expectations and reveals itself, confronting us with wonder, longing, conviction, guidance.
In a culture where mainstream religion uses the vernacular of "having a relationship with God," but often means by it "adhering to our set of rules," film offers an honest vehicle for the Transcendent that cuts through traditional religious categories to offer life-giving transformative experiences to all. Seated among other seekers, those who have ears to hear and eyes to see will find more than they are looking for.
Sources and additional reading:
-Transcendental Style in Film, Paul Schrader.
-Reel Spirituality, Robert K. Johnston.
-Useless Beauty, Robert K. Johnston.
-Reframing Theology and Film, Robert K. Johnston.
-Artisan Soul, Erwin McManus
-Scoring Transcendence, Kutter Callaway.
-Krista Tippett's interview with Gustavo Santaolalla is available below, or you can download the entire On Being podcast on your mobile device. The insights he offers into the creative process make listening to the entire uncut interview worthwhile. Still, if time is limited, you'll also enjoy the produced version, which includes delightful and energetic samples of his original compositions.