>little boats & troubled dreams

>I am drawn to mystery.


Gerhard Richter Two Candles 1982 Oil on canvas
55 1/8″ x 55 1/8″ (140 x 140 cm) Private collection

I have often wondered what it is about films that I love so much, and what it is that draws me towards particular films. I believe that the kinds of films one seeks out and enjoys is directly related to why one watches films in the first place. In other words, for some watching films has everything to do with lighthearted, end-of-the-day escapism. For others it may be a kind of testosterone drug fix. And for others it might be some kind of romantic battery re-charging. And, of course, for most of us it is a combination of many reasons. But I have to say that over and over I find myself seeking certain kinds of films and certain kinds of films experiences. Much of the time these experiences, at least the ones that stay with me long after the immediate viewing is over, are what I might call earthily transcendent, or sublime. Another way of saying it might be the more one digs into the realities of life, death, love, and suffering, the more one keeps coming up against mystery. This mystery is not a Gnostic sort of knowledge only for a select few, only for those with the “secret knowledge,” rather the mystery is there for everyone to experience and contemplate; it is fundamentally human.

Some might say this mystery is the experience of getting a kind of translucent glimpse of the hand of God creating everything, including us, moment by moment. Others might say it is the place where the limits of reason and emotion converge at a kind of metaphysical precipice. Or it could be the place where one has the feeling of overshooting one’s rationality only to discover rationality is a bigger thing than one previously imagined. And maybe, finally, the goal is about arriving where one started and knowing that place as though for the first time.


What fascinates me is the ability of artforms, in particular cinema, but also poetry, photography, music, etc., to evoke mystery. Some examples for me include the painting by Gerhard Richter at the beginning of this post and the photograph below by Minor White. But there really are countless examples. Why is it that certain images can bring about deep, almost indescribable emotions from within my soul?
Minor White Pacific, Devil’s Slide, California 1947

In my opinion a great example of a film that does this for/to me is Tarkovsky’s Andrey Rublyov (1969). There are so many powerful images from that film, and so many moments that produce powerful feelings that I will just encourage watching or re-watching the film. This post is not a review of Rublyov. My point is to say that art works can evoke strong feelings of mystery that seem to point to more important aspects of human existence, but do so via a kind of internal mystery, a mystery inherent within art itself. Again, that mysteriousness one finds in certain films is one of the powerful cinematic draws for me.

I am troubled, I must say, at trying to explain this sense of mystery in art. I have come to believe, however, that maybe it arise from the tension between life and death, and the reality that life comes from death. In art we often refer to beauty. But what is beauty and does it have a place anymore in art? As a kind of doorway to an answer, I like this quote from an interview with Andrei Tarkovsky about his, as then yet to be made, film Andrey Rublyov:

I am not going to say anything directly about the bond between art and people, this is obvious in general and, I hope, it’s obvious in the screenplay. I would only like to examine the nature of beauty, make the viewer aware that beauty grows from tragedy, misfortune, like from a seed. My film certainly will not be a story about the beautiful and somewhat patriarchal Rus, my wish is to show how it was possible that the bright, astonishing art appeared as a “continuation” of the nightmares of slavery, ignorance, illiteracy. I’d like to find these mutual dependencies, to follow birth of this art and only under those circumstances I’d consider the film a success. (from Nostalghia.com)

Maybe it is only through suffering that mystery in or through art appears. I don’t know.
If I could point to an artwork that, at least for me, offers one of the best examples of the mystery of art, the feeling of mystery in the receiver of that art work, and also describes the feeling of overshooting one’s rationality or coming into contact with some kind of cosmic mystery, it would be from a tiny section from William Wordsworth’s great autobiographical poem, The Prelude. The first time I read this section I was floored. I continue to be floored each time I read it, but I also recognize that my response is a personal one. And so will be yours.

One summer evening (led by her) I found
A little boat tied to a willow tree
Within a rocky cave, its usual home.
Straight I unloosed her chain, and stepping in
Pushed from the shore. It was an act of stealth
And troubled pleasure, nor without the voice
Of mountain-echoes did my boat move on;
Leaving behind her still, on either side,
Small circles glittering idly in the moon,
Until they melted all into one track
Of sparkling light. But now, like one who rows,
Proud of his skill, to reach a chosen point
With an unswerving line, I fixed my view
Upon the summit of a craggy ridge,
The horizon’s utmost boundary; far above
Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky.
She was an elfin pinnace; lustily
I dipped my oars into the silent lake,
And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boat
Went heaving through the water like a swan;
When, from behind that craggy steep till then
The horizon’s bound, a huge peak, black and huge,
As if with voluntary power instinct,
Upreared its head. I struck and struck again,
And growing still in stature the grim shape
Towered up between me and the stars, and still,
For so it seemed, with purpose of its own
And measured motion like a living thing,
Strode after me. With trembling oars I turned,
And through the silent water stole my way
Back to the covert of the willow tree;
There in her mooring-place I left my bark,–
And through the meadows homeward went, in grave
And serious mood; but after I had seen
That spectacle, for many days, my brain
Worked with a dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being; o’er my thoughts
There hung a darkness, call it solitude
Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes
Remained, no pleasant images of trees,
Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;
But huge and mighty forms, that do not live
Like living men, moved slowly through the mind
By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.
from The Prelude
William Wordsworth
first published in 1850

I can think of no better way to express why it is I am drawn towards some kinds of films more than others, why it is I love the mystery of art, and why it is I come away from some films with the film still burning in my soul.

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9 Comments

Filed under aesthetics, Art and Faith, movies

9 responses to “>little boats & troubled dreams

  1. >This is just a brief passing comment which doesn’t really do justice to the depth that the subject warrants.For me, there’s no simple answer to what draws me time and time again into a darkened cinema. But over time, I have been able to ascertain that the primary passion is to do with a director’s ability to infuse his work with a sense of humanity. By immersing myself into a 90 minute fantasy, I am able to vicariously experience emotions and awareness that are not readily available during the mundane day-to-day of life.Most recently, Kieslowski has done it for me, at a season of his work at Melbourne Cinematheque (I subsequently went out and bought a heap of his work on DVD). In a lesser way, the about to be released Paris, je t’aime does it for me. The films of Alkinos Tsilimidos are also profound (and virtually unknown) and invoke a sense of humanity that moves me.I like coming out of a cinema and being emotionally moved to the extent that it affects me physically. Private Property and Poison Friends both screened at the recent Melbourne French Film Festival, and both these films had this effect on me. L’enfant, The King, there are so many others.Nice post, by the way. I’ve been thinking about writing one along similar lines. One day.

  2. >This is truly a deep subject, one more relevant to self-exploration rather than cinematic. And that’s one of the beauties of cinema and art in general – that it’s not purely “hobby-like” for once its “poison” is injected into you, there’s no going back or sidewards – there’s only going down and down, and down; deeper and deeper, and deeper. Even if you started immersing into cinema (respectively, literature, fine arts, music, etc) rather light-heartedly and by a temporary fascination, the process is bound to intensify. If you have taken cinema as an object that you could “satisfy” with in some way, it inevitably turns you into an object that is being rendered and transformed. That’s one of the primal reasons (probably) for my falling in love with cinema – its moral strength (Kieslowski is overcoming me once again these days as well), educational power even. Much of my understanding of life and attitude towards people, labour, determination has emerged out of cinema and literature; my emotional side I relate to music and fine arts. Then again, there’s the almost physical pain (an impression that turns into pain), which Paul spoke of, when watching a film that you feel immediately related to. Recently, I’ve been experienceing it over and over again with Clint Mansell’s soundtrack to “The Fountain” and Tanovic’s “L’enfer.” There’s a quote from the Medea monologue that doesn’t give me peace and that I find corresponds to Tarkovsky’s saying that beauty emerges from tragedy:”Tragedy highlights human vulnerability, whose suffering is provoked by a combination of human and divine acts. That is why tragedy is not possible in modern life. Our society has lost faith. We live in a world that has forgotten God. The best we can do is to live out a drama.”Words like that or images, or pieces of music, you feel are so beautiful, it starts to ache. Simultaneously, you know there’s more and more behind them, that the wound is deeper. And that keeps you going. To finish up, I’ve always felt towards cinema a sort of protective feeling. Like a motherly sense without pratically being a mother. :)I’ve always had the need to defend it in all its manifestations, which strengthens the love probably and doesn’t allow it to fade. But it’s not a question of femininity. I suppose, every cinephile has it. 🙂

  3. >Tucker- This is something of a dual post, just having watched “Children of Men” and so reacting to some of your comments there, as well as to your words in this post. Aside from the fascist themes, I found “Children” really struck me as a view into the psychological fallout of the absence of children. I don’t know if this was intentional, but I can’t help seeing a connection between the absence of children in the future world of Children and the pervading sense of apathy and nihilism that the characters experience. Maybe it’s simply my own experience, but it seems to me that children force us into hope and struggle for the possibility of a future full of meaning, of which they themselves are tangible emissaries. Art as well seems to function similarly. I cannot help but think of the journey that Andrei takes through his experiences of the Tatar invasions and the brutality of his own countrymen, his vow never to create again, only to find himself incapable not to create–the catalyst being a child who throws himself courageously into the act of creation. How can Andrei allow himself the luxury of nihilism any more? I was struck by this parallel, and by it reminded of why I love good cinema: good cinema offers me a puzzle embedded within moving beauty that, once unlocked, enriches my understanding of what it is to Be. That the puzzle takes effort, makes its rewards mine, and I am better for the struggle. And better for having a kid who keeps me down to earth. 🙂

  4. >Summer, thank you for your comments. I think they are very perceptive. I see in my own children a lot of my daily source of hope. Lack of hope is such a deeply, profoundly corroding experience. Working to avoid hopelessness was one of the things we had to do when facing into Coco’s suffering and death. By God’s grace we came through it with hope still in tack, not least of which because we still had/have Lily, and now Wilder. I fear that our society, with its growing unease about climate change, pollution, oil shortages, war, and with its tendency toward a vague pluralism where truth does not (cannot) exist, is feeling some hopelessness at the moment. For a long time there was a great amount of hope in progress, but that has also given us a lot of trouble as well. However, I still see a lot of hope in people here and there. I like the connection you made with Rublyev and Children of Men. The bell sequence in Rublyev still affects me as an amazingly profound exploration of the human heart and the courage of the artist. And, I suppose, we can see children as being like artistic creations in a way, like us, but different from us, created by us, but created by God as well (of course). The act of creation itself is an act of hope.

  5. >Paul, I meant to get back to you sooner. I’ve been kinda slow lately getting back to people with work, school, and new baby in the mix. Also, thanks for the comments. I know what you are saying. Years ago, when I was a kids, I saw Apocalypse Now at a dollar theater, probably in late 1979 or 1980. When I came out of the theater the world did not look the same. I mean this in a physical/emotional way. I was in a daze, literally stunned. I remember that as the first time that I really noticed how a film could floor me in a profound kind of way. I think I’ve been seeking that kind of impact ever since.

  6. >marina,Much of my understanding of life and attitude towards people, labour, determination has emerged out of cinema and literature; my emotional side I relate to music and fine arts.I hear ya.Tragedy highlights human vulnerability, whose suffering is provoked by a combination of human and divine acts. That is why tragedy is not possible in modern life. Our society has lost faith. We live in a world that has forgotten God. The best we can do is to live out a drama.That’s great quote. I just finished a paper on globalization in which I discussed pluralism (borrowing from Peter Berger) and its effects on the human psyche, especially in relationship to fear born out of hopelessness. I contend that people want hope, want something to latch onto, such that despair gets replaced by the next salvific offering – like an economic system (neoliberalism or Marxism) or a political system (like fascism).Also, I know that feeling on protecting cinema. In my past it has often been in relationship to my background in mainstream, evangelical (yeah even “fundamentalist”) Christianity. I have felt the need to protect cinema, which gets translated into protecting the sacred process of truth seeking, from narrow-mindedness, from knee-jerk reactions, and from bad theology. For me the cinema has always been about truth seeking, amongst other things.

  7. >Cineboy, drawing back to your post, the film that physically and psychologically did it the most for me was indeed a film of mystery, namely David Lynch’s Lost Highway, which remains for me my all-time favourite film.

  8. >Paul, Lost Highway is a great example for me too. That was not only a very freaky film, but there is a lot there to think about and a lot to haunt one for some time.

  9. >And as I say in my review of Lost Highway, even if one doesn’t understand it, one can enjoy the experience of not understanding it. I feel I have a pretty good handle on what the film is about, but it is so layered with things that have no obvious connection.

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