My last post was about how disappointing moves about Jesus always are. Then it occurred to me that the only contemporary filmmakers I know who succeed in making decent moves about God are a couple of Jews, Joel and Ethan Cohen.
What, you may ask, do films like Fargo, Raising Arizona, or True Grit have to do with the divine?
Last night I was listening to the soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou with a freind (it is one of the greatest movie soundtracks ever) and we were surprised by the number of religious songs. They were songs of 1930’s Evangelicalism, and therefore foreign to me, with their almost Gnostic focus slipping the earthly coil and going to heaven. The religious music I am accustomed to is liturgical, and therefore concerned with public worship of God, not private concerns of individual salvation.
Faith of course is one of the themes of this film, with the scoffer Ulysses McGraw forced at the end to pray for his salvation.
I then thought of my least favorite Cohen film, Burn After Reading. I hated it when I watched it, a story of lust, greed, and massive stupidity, in which characters wreak havoc on each other for no particular reason. I hated the film, yet it stayed with me over the last few years.
I tried to express my feelings about the horrible movie to my friend:
“The characters are all caught up in the most narrow of calculations and pursuits, chasing appearance, sex, career, or money. They can only focus on what is right in front of their face and have no point of reference beyond it. They can’t put anything into perspective.
“So I guess it is a commentary on the human condition: the things that we see and that seem so immediate and important take up so much of our view, and yet there is this presence in our peripheral vision, beneath us and above us, that we really need to focus on, even if it impossible to see it squarely. It seems like only by abandoning the immediate and chasing that periphery, that horizon, that we truly find ourselves.”
“You mean God?” asked my freind.
“Er… yes” I said, “‘God’ is shorthand for all that.”