Thursday, May 20, 2010

Experiencing Wonder in Storytelling and Cinema

(Part 5 in the series, Experiences of Mystery and Wonder)
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I think that the movie is the perfect medium for mythological messages. The medium is so plastic and pliable and magic things can happen. And then the combination, you know, of fantastic landscape and possible modes of action and voyaging that we can hardly conceive of in good solid terms ... That’s a mythological realm, and movies could handle this kind of thing.
               - Joseph Campbell, “The Wisdom of Joseph Campbell,” Mythic Dimensions (1997),
                 Tape 3, Side 1

One Saturday afternoon I went downtown to the public library to see what movie videos were available to check out. As I entered the large glass doors of the modern glass and steel facade of the new library building, I felt a little guilty about going there to find a movie instead of a book. Then it occurred to me that what I was doing was much more in line with what my ancient ancestors probably did. I was going to a public place to find a story, just as in the old days people gathered to hear stories from storytellers. Maybe they gathered in the village or around a fire. They would have heard stories of heroes and stories of where they came from. In those pre-literate days, they would have heard favorite legends that had been passed down through oral tradition.

The Earliest Stories

I can recall a story teller from my own pre-literate days. She was the Sunday School teacher for the pre-school class at Wedowee First Baptist Church. Back in the late 1950s there was not a lot of technology in churches. We may have had a flannel board, but that was the sort of gadgetry that was usually reserved for special occasions, like Vacation Bible School. Our teacher, when I was in the pre-school class, was an older grandmotherly type. On more than one occasion, which is probably why I remember this, she would tell us about how the world began. The only technology she had was plain white paper and an old shoe box full of broken crayons. When she got ready to tell us how the world began, she would hand us each a sheet of paper, then ask us to find a black crayon in the box of crayons. We kids would then go digging around looking for the right crayon.

“I found one,” someone would say.

“Here’s one,” someone else would chime in.

“Let me see that,” the teacher would examine the crayon. “No, I think that’s purple. I want you to find the blackest crayon you can see in that box.”

The when we all had our black crayons, she would instruct us to color our whole page black, until no more white could be seen from the paper. After allowing time for all the children to scribble on their paper, the teacher would say, “Now look at that paper – all you see is black. That is what it was like before God made the world. There were no trees, no birds, no people, no lakes – there was not even any light. Can you imagine no light at all? There was nothing anywhere before God made the world.”

Our preschool teacher was no childhood development expert or theologian, but she was able to lead a group of preschoolers who were incapable of abstract thought (according to the experts) to a sense of wonder about their world and their own existence - and a sense of awe at the possibility of nothingness. I know because I was one of those preschoolers.

The Cinematic Stories

We love stories – good story tellers can take us to that sense of wonder and mystery. In our day, the movie makers have stepped in with ever-increasing technological advancements to engage us in the art of storytelling. The cinematic experience can provide a rich medium for story telling which allows for a greater sense of wonder. The cinema combines drama, light, pictures and technical skill which, if the story is a good one, can heighten that sense of wonder.

The movie theater itself can help to set the stage, so to speak. It creates a space not unlike the cavernous cathedrals of a past era. As the lights go down and the screen comes up, our sense of anticipation increases. The theater also provides a communal setting for a shared experience. Even if we do not know anyone else in the audience, there is something about a public gathering that magnifies the significance of the cinematic encounter.

And then there are the stories: love stories, adventure, action, war stories and tales of suspense and horror. There is science fiction and fantasy which allow us to explore the boundaries of our imagination and frees us to think of new possibilities. What movies would you place on your top ten list? Ask yourself what it was about those films that made such an impact? Sometimes there is the social impact as in Norma Rae which illustrated the need to improve working conditions in textile mills, or Erin Brockovich which highlighted hazards of industrial waste and cover up. Then there are the tragic love stories seen in Romeo & Juliet and Titanic. Some seek out horror stories like Poltergeist and Halloween that make you glad to leave the theater for the light of day and the security of the real world. The Star Wars movies and the Star Trek series gave us action and adventure and allowed us to dream of other worlds. Who can forget the magic of E.T. or the joy of seeing the little guy empowered in The Karate Kid? Then sometimes you just need to laugh. A great comedy can cleanse the mind and body with laughter.

The cinema is one place where we are allowed to vicariously experience a wide range of emotions, and that is probably a healthy thing. Sometimes those vicarious emotions are important safety valves and sometimes they achieve that element of mystery and wonder. Technology can add to that sense of awe and wonder, as in 2001: A Space Odyssey or more recently in the 3D movie Avatar. Stories are important to us, and whatever medium is used for the telling, I suspect that we will continue to gravitate to those stories that bring meaning to our lives while conveying that sense of wonder.

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