Secular Film and the Sublime

Two films I saw this week have something to teach Christian artists about communicating the sublime. Neither was particularly deep, though one had pretensions in that direction. Both were about 40 minutes too long, the lack of character development eventually making me lose interest in pure visual sensation, but what a sensation it was.

Most relationship-driven movies I’ve seen are directed like large-screen television shows, while the action movies are like video games, with lots of “shock and awe” but little attention to beauty. Across the Universe, the Beatles musical directed by Julie Taymor, is one of the few that sensually savors the visual medium and delights in exploring its extreme capabilities. So much so, in fact, that I was seduced by the experience of the film, and only afterward felt slightly dirty upon realizing what a work of propaganda it was.

For one thing, drug use is shown in a wholly positive light. No one gets addicted, has a bad trip, or gets arrested. It is portrayed as a revolutionary act, seizing back the life force that the war-mongering government wants to crush, when in actuality it’s more likely to divert one’s energy from changing the world. Violence by the government is bad, but violence by student radicals only bothers the hero because it takes up too much of his girlfriend’s time. Inexplicably, despite undergoing arrest, deportation, PTSD, homophobia, and unresolved love triangles, all the characters are reunited unscathed at the end for a love-fest concert on the roof. I usually hate the Patrick Duffy Returns/”It was all a dream” ending gimmick because it betrays the audience’s emotional investment in the story, but for once, that would have felt more honest.

However, for its artistic technique alone, the film is worth admiring. In the most mind-blowing scene from “Across the Universe”, which I unfortunately couldn’t find on YouTube, our young artist-hero is cross that his girlfriend is spending all her time with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. To an ethereal rendition of “Strawberry Fields Forever”, he nails strawberries to a canvas in orderly yet grotesque rows, bleeding red paint, while in split-screen the girl sings along to the television set where her brother is slogging through the Vietnamese jungle. Does that sound ridiculous? On-screen, it was completely amazing; in words, it is too literal, like seeing how the magic trick is done. That’s what I mean about the power of the visual.

To get a taste of Taymor’s sinister, trippy, carnivalesque style, watch the YouTube clips of I Want You, a horror-satire scene where the heroine’s brother is drafted, and Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite, an LSD-fueled circus in the style of Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python animations (with a little bit of Bread and Puppet Theater thrown in).

It probably wasn’t Taymor’s intention, but this film convinced me not to take drugs. If I get this disoriented just watching other people take drugs, I can’t handle the real thing.

For a different type of wild ride, last night I saw Warren Miller’s Playground, a light-hearted, visually stunning tour of extreme winter sports around the world. Putting aside the slight absurdity of a rap soundtrack accompanying footage of rich, hunky white boys falling off very tall mountains, the film captured the skiers’ overflowing joy and playfulness, as well as the courage and spiritual peace they find in taking on some of the world’s most dangerous slopes.

Am I ungrateful to wish that all this beauty added up to something? Or unrealistic, to wish that so-called Christian films were willing to provide this much physical pleasure? I’m not talking about putting Jesus on a snowboard to attract the younger generation. (Though the footage of Chris Anthony sand-surfing with sheiks in Dubai gives you some idea of what this would look like.)

I just can’t help comparing these two films to the 2005 version of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” the movie all Christians were supposed to love. Tilda Swinton as the White Witch came closest to the sublime — that shock of alien, terrifying, untamed glory. Aslan was, well, a computer-generated lion. Fantastical events were shot in a literal style, as if there were no difference between fleeing from talking wolves and escaping the Nazis. I didn’t understand why the film didn’t satisfy me until I compared it to Taymor’s surrealism. Christians need to edge away from naturalism if we’re ever to give people a glimpse of the wild, inconceivable God.