20 October 2010
A Question of Belief?
Dual stars traverse the pre-dawn sky: jets south of Paris hung in a panorama tableaux, with faint traces of clouds and the towers of Notre Dame to the far right, only one tower lit from its base as a reminder of what? Something sustained for the tourists, a half-baked, low-budget theme park son et lumiere, where the noise of the traffic slowly rising from the highway along the Seine is momentarily overwhelmed by the rumble of the morning’s first Metro at 5:49 a.m.? Or is it a decision made by the Catholic Church to remind Paris of its eternal service to its faithful, and also to the non-believer? We are here, through the darkness…
Belief. Last night, I saw a highly acclaimed French film, Des hommes et des dieux (Of Men and their Gods), and it shook me. A group of monks make a decision that leads to their deaths. Is it martyrdom? Was their cause valid in proportion to their service? Would they have been better to have given up their post in a small Algerian village in the face of terrorism, to have returned to France and been posted elsewhere, where they could continue their lives of service rather than attempt to sustain their duty in a situation that was largely futile, and in the end, fatal? When does one take a stand? In then name of what? Belief? Solidarity? One’s collective mission?
But then these questions may be less important to the film and to the larger, more all-encompassing issue at hand--when one considers the bigger question or faces the bigger choice, the only choice: whether to believe. Perhaps belief is the one choice we make that is not inborn, that is truly “man-made”-- the choice to give our little lives meaning. The only thing we can be proud of and “stand for”. And yet the pride is tempered by the utter contradiction of sustaining that belief in a world wracked by absurd meaningless out of all proportion to a single existence.
Les Compagnons du Devoir. The simple daily duties of lives given in service and to sustain a community of belief. The realist of the bunch of priests was the mission’s doctor, who had the most contact with human suffering among the local villagers. His belief was the strongest. The leader of the monastery suffered from having been empowered to lead, a sense of responsibility for making choices that determined the safety of the lives around him, one who represented others. Ah, such a burden. And then the one priest who, despite his prayers and yearning for answers from God to convince him to believe, heard nothing, alone in his room, in his “dark night of the soul”… until he realized it was not about waiting for a voice of God, but rather for the moment he made the choice to believe. Another kind of burden. A crisis of faith.
It is rare that I sit in a movie (understanding but half of what is actually being said!) and find myself weeping, the tears burning down my face, like some sweet solace wrung from my heart—when I have been opened by art and allowed to ponder the mystery. Le mystère. Rarely have I been so touched by a contemporary rendering of the meaning of Christianity’s—or, for that matter, humanity’s-- “De Profundis”, its deepest confrontations with the mysteries of existence. The filmmaker I think was aware of this double mystery, or communion within a communion: of art’s place within the orbits or spheres of deep influence. In what was for me the most moving scene in the film, the doctor “offers” to his fellows a rare glass of wine at the Christmas supper (what turns out to be literally their last supper together) and then puts on a recording of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. As they are overwhelmed by the turbulent, swelling sound of the strings, brass, and timpani, they slowly bring the wine to their lips. On their tear-stained faces, we see that they are tasting the pleasures of the senses, of being given the gift of music that embodies all the emotion, passion, feeling, and drama of life. Something man-made, wrought by an artist who believed enough in his art to make his art—whether in service to that art, to himself, to his benefactors and audiences, the dancers, or to greater humanity. This scene depicts most exquisitely a beautiful communion with life: a brief reminder of the sweetness that gives their denial of that life meaning, gravity, and grace. Ah, there is much to be learned from this scene!
But then I think it is as much a matter of the very primal, basic response to fear-- fear of living or dying: that all one has in the face of such fear and the terror or numbness or desolation that can come with it IS belief. Our more highly evolved brains allow us that response, along with the ability to grasp, to understand, to strategize in the face of the unknowable, to construct a mystery. We form a relationship to that unknown through our ability to believe. Out of that belief, we create. AND out of that impulse to create, we believe. I do not know if the Catholic Church would be willing to go that far… I think that the film does, however, both in its scripting and by the fact of its existence as a work of film art. The acting is superb.
I'm in the process of making a screendance to Bach's Ich habe genug (It is Enough--or I Have Had Enough) and am about to attempt videotaping the last of the five movements in the white studio downstairs... at 8 a.m.! (It's the only time I can have in that space this week.) My idea is to have two personae, i.e. my less confined image dressed in white shirt and light pants, dancing in the wide-framed, open space with the instrumental sections, while my denim-clad, bare-chested image from the previous four movements dances in more confined close-up frames with the vocal part. But I must figure out how the two relate. Do I "plant" my denim image into the wide frame at each juncture along the way to provide for transitions? Coming soon! This, I think, will be the weekend's editing task--and perhaps the last larger-scale screendance before my partner John joins me here late next week.
While doing my ballet barre before filming this morning, I was thinking of the particular brand of martyrdom that is conditional upon an imperialist, colonizing force (France, The Catholic Church). These priests were as much victims of the efforts of France and the Church to assert dominion over Algeria as they were of a terrorist faction asserting its dominion in the chaotic aftermath of the French withdrawal from Algeria. We see it manifested over and over again in the Middle East.