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Reel life

James Clarke

Can movies really move us to a better life outside the cinema? James Clarke scans his own celluloid epiphanies.


I've always had faith in film - that beyond entertainment, it will offer me deeper things too. As a boy anxiously finding a path through life, with my head like a tangled ball of string, I discovered that films helped me untangle the knots. Whether it was Raging Bull or Dumbo, Kes or Rebel Without A Cause, I found in big-screen narratives a powerful guide to the business of living and loving, fearing and hoping, leaving and staying, dreaming and simply getting on with the moment at hand.

I like the word movies. It's what they do, moving thought and feeling from one place to another, potentially transforming the landscape. To paraphrase the film director Martin Scorsese, films are a key to living. As a boy they connected me to the world and made me realise that what I thought and felt was what others did too. I can see the ten-year-old me walking along a south-west London street with my movie-loving 'avatar' plugged right into film after film and testing out my sensitivities to the world around me and to my own deepest self. As the US scholar Stanley Cavell writes: 'I understand it to be a natural vision of film that every motion and station, in particular every human posture and gesture, however glancing, has its poetry, or you may say its lucidity.'1

In effect, then, cinema was my second church. My mum, my dad, my brother and I went to Mass each weekend through the 1970s and 1980s, and I would later consider the priesthood. But in the visuals of film, I found an equivalent to the rich, abundant visual landscape of Catholicism. St Winifred's was on a thunderous main road in south Wimbledon and yet the moment you passed through the doors the world became peaceful and dark. You realised almost immediately that you were in a new reality where you were going to listen to stories being told, be enriched emotionally and intellectually, and in combination, spiritually. Just like the cinema, in other words. And the power of storytelling and a coherent plot, the resonances of themes and characters in a two-hour film was as telling of human experience to me as anything we heard from the priest or read in our Missals. Like a poem or a novel or a painting or a piece of music, film offered me consolations, clarifications and calls to action, to being sensitive to all that life has to offer the heart and the mind, the body and the soul.

When I was 13, and preparing for my confirmation at church, I learned that a sacrament is an outward sign of an inner grace. Succinct, powerful and understandable, existing as something of a metaphor, and hence a description of the transformative wonder that films and storytelling more generally can work on us. At that time, I so hated the hanging about in the schoolyard before the start of the school day that I used to escape it by going to Mass most mornings in the school chapel at Wimbledon College. But it was film that came to the rescue, in offering me an image of a character learning to survive in an adult world. His name was Elliot and he was about the same age as me.  He dressed more or less the same as I did and had the same fascination with outer space. Known as A Boy's Life and After School during its filming, the movie I eventually watched at the Wimbledon Odeon was ET: The Extra Terrestrial.


While it was a fantasy film, much about the film's emotional landscape seemed very real to me, with a spirituality that related as much to inner as outer space. Elliot was a better, braver version of me. He was a role model of the finest kind, with his leap of faith in choosing to protect the vulnerable alien and help him get home.

Of course, I also loved the bicycle escape and the image of the kids outwitting the adult authority figures, and for weeks afterwards my brother and friends would pedal to the end of our street and wish that our bikes would take to the sky lifting us free of the worries and needs of the day. The film also sowed in me a fascination with the stars. The opening image of a starry sky, and the camera's tilt down to the trees, was engrossing and transformed the ordinary into something 'more'. It's a movie effect as beautiful as Van Gogh's painting of night skies over Arles.

Another poignant sequence for me came as Elliot and ET lay on hospital beds next to each other, fighting for life in an improvised isolation ward. Here the faith element was at its strongest, with an added personal dimension for my family, as my birth and early days had been touch and go. What Spielberg dramatised and visualised for me was a sense of faith in higher powers. I already had this through church but it was ET which revealed it to me in film.

If ET buoyed me as I approached the storms of adolescence, The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) marked the way out into calmer waters. I remember wanting to see the film when I was 16, but then I saw the news coverage of the protests outside cinemas. When I eventually rented it three years later, I found the sense of emotional agitation - particularly in the scene in which Christ trashes the stalls of the temple traders - very moving in presenting a Christ who was as powerfully human as he was divine. For my money actor Willem Dafoe's declaration:  'It is accomplished' carries the perfect register of exhaustion and jubilation.

Scorsese's film dynamically adapted Kazantzakis's startling novel and visualised the physical torment that gave outward expression to a spiritual crisis. The Last Temptation succeeds I think in making a narrative about Christ's life democratic: it's not about the sensibility of the Biblical epic, instead owing more of a debt to Pasolini's Gospel According to St Matthew.  In time I would go on to watch and thrill at the films The Passion of Joan of Arc and Jesus of Montreal, films that made the sacramental and the divine immensely relevant and resonant. They transformed the big vistas of those biblical narratives into literal and metaphorical close-ups. They made them alive by reconfiguring them in a language I could connect with: rather like Jesus' project in relating the parables in his moment in time.

Storytelling is one of life's great gifts. And both as a boy growing up in South London, and subsequently in the struggles and dramas of adulthood, I've found that movies can create meaning, and provide a philosophical toolkit for life. Films help us understand the world and ourselves. Of course, you could argue that cinema-going offers only individual self-fulfilment, while church involves a more communal act of coming together, a more active response to the narratives of human struggle. But I would contend that both visual technology and social media are rapidly expanding our opportunities to call and respond in new and exciting ways. And while churches seem ever more marginalised, the narratives of cinema bring expression to the same challenges, tensions and opportunities - and help us to engage our faith with the world around us.

So, decades after my brief interest in joining the priesthood, here I am with a working life that combines teaching and writing about film. Superficially, they may seem a long way apart, but deep down there's a connection for me - like that strange call-and-response at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The practice of faith, the engagement with the ancient narratives, finds a resonant echo with my work of understanding how film can put into image and sound the challenges of being alive.

In truth, my two very different churches continue to nourish one another, just as technology resounds with the echoes of the past.

1  Stanley Cavell, Themes Out Of School: Effects and causes, The University of Chicago Press, 1988, p.14