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Why I make movies


Motion pictures are at once the most popular, powerful and intimate of contemporary art forms. They’re popular, because millions of people watch them every day; powerful, because when a film works, the deepest levels of the viewer’s personality are impacted; intimate, because an effective film will reach deep inside its viewers, activating their archetypes, touching them where they live and affecting their most secret dreams and desires.

Most people go to the movies to be entertained. But I think they go for more than that, and I think, not infrequently, they get more than that.

But what? Can a film enrich its viewers while it entertains them? Can it give them some piece of the truth about what it means to be a human being, challenging them to take charge of their lives and use their freedom in a responsible way? Can it motivate them to reach out in respect and compassion to their brother and sister human beings?

Or to put the question in more personal terms, what kind of experience do I, as a Christian filmmaker, hope to elicit in my viewers and what kind of gift do I hope to leave with them? How do I want them to respond to what I have made? What do I want them to do?

First, I want them to identify with the camera, to go where it goes, to see what it sees. Physically, they will remain in the theater, but mentally and emotionally I hope they will be lifted out of themselves, leaving behind their own time and place, to enter the time and place of the camera. We call this excarnation.

Why should our viewers identify with the camera? Because they are fascinated by what it sees. Film combines the visual and the verbal, but the visual is certainly predominant. What our viewers see is more important than what they hear. That’s why we work so hard to find the most fascinating and significant images we can, images of emotional depth and texture, ones that can function symbolically and convey our overall vision of the human situation and the feeling tone and mood of our story.

When these images are arranged with rhythm, continuity and flow, their symbolic power is intensified and we have a uniquely powerful visual poem. We hope that it will reach inside our viewers to touch their hearts, stir their souls and impact their unconscious.

Total artistic communication

The best filmmaking aims at total artistic communication. It’s not just ego with ego or conscious mind with conscious mind or sense with sense, but rather the total human personalities of all the people involved in making the picture -- with their myriad dimensions, consciousness and unconsciousness, reason and emotion, imagination and memory, communicating with the total personality of our viewers, targeting in a special way their unconscious.

So often, in making the thousands of decisions involved in making a film, we can give no rational reason for choosing the way we do. We simply say, “It feels right to me.” Or, “It doesn’t feel right.” That’s our unconscious speaking. I have learned to trust that.

Because we use symbolic images, cinema has a unique capacity to express our unconscious depths and it has a unique capacity to activate, involve and move the unconscious depths of our viewers. When we succeed, depth speaks to depth, and the result is a profound experience.

Second, we want our viewers to identify emotionally, not just with the camera but with what the camera sees, especially with the people whose story we are trying to tell. Their actions on the screen and their interaction with each other are designed and photographed as to reveal their inner depths.

Film is a highly subjective medium. We hope our viewers will find themselves in this self-revelation and respond by identifying themselves with the characters in the film; to walk in their shoes, feel their pain, wrestle with their anxieties and make their adventures, struggles and joys their own, in a word, to become one with them. This is possible because on the level of the senses, conscious mind and ego, we are separate, but on the level of the unconscious, of the heart and soul, we tend toward oneness.

The viewer may identify with the lead character in the film, or, in an ensemble piece, the many different people who inhabit his unconscious may identify with the many different characters in the story as well. Tom Hanks’ patrol in Steven Speilberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” is an excellent example of this. The various characters are different in temperament, physical appearance and approach to life. This creates tension and conflict. Yet, despite colossal pressure, they balance each other off, stay in relationship and revolve around Hanks, eventually bonding on a deep level.

Finding something of ourselves

The picture works so well because we find something of ourselves in each of them and because their interaction with Hanks and with each other sets up a dialectic that releases great energy, which, in its turn, creates great cinematic excitement. The fact that while they are struggling with each other they are also torn between fear and bravery, cowardice and loyalty, creates a dialectic inside them that ratchets up the excitement.

Their interaction on the screen causes the corresponding people in our unconscious to interact, and the result is an intrapersonal experience. This is what Merleau Ponty had in mind when he said, “Let us say right off that film is not a sum total of images but a temporal gestalt.” The cinematic experience takes place within the psyche of the viewer, as the various layers of the human personality and various inhabitants of the viewer’s unconscious interact.

In “Forrest Gump,” the title character is uniquely yet universally human, and we easily identify with him because his soul is so very close to the surface. We can almost see ourselves mirrored in it. We are delighted to join him as he journeys through the last 40 years of American history. The picture works so well because we love Forrest and want to believe what his story tells us -- nice guys don’t always finish last, and the meek may yet inherit the earth.

In “Dead Man Walking,” the flawed saint in us identifies with the vulnerable Susan Sarandon character, and the lying and murderous demon in us identifies with the Sean Penn character. Each covets the soul of the other, and we get caught up in the struggle. It is an archetypal dialectic that throws off energy and makes the picture exciting.

Some people go to the movies to escape the chaos and tedium of their lives. Other people go not to escape their lives but to plunge into them and to discover in that experience life’s deeper meaning.

Like every other art form, cinema compresses human life and distills human experience so as to reveal its meaning. “If art were not more organized, more clear and more articulate than life,” George Linden says, “there would be no excuse for it. ... Motion pictures, like dreams or rainbows, are true myths that we tell ourselves so that we may try to come to grips with what life means in the living of it. Motion pictures, when understood, end in revelation.”

Matter, form and import

Theologian Paul Tillich said that every work of art is composed of matter, form and import. In the case of cinema, the matter is the what of the film -- that which is photographed, the people, locations, sets and props. The form is the how of the film, the way in which they are photographed. The import is the why of the film, the overall vision of the human situation that permeates the film, which the filmmakers desire to communicate to the audience through the film.

All films address the question: Is human life benevolent or cruel, meaningful or futile, a good or a bad deal? Great films probe the deeper reaches of the human situation in their search for a nuanced answer to this question. In the words of Gabriel Marcel, they “sound the depths,” and in those of George Linden, they “expose the emotional impact of things.” When they do, we have a myth.

A myth is a story, whether historical or fictional, that touches the unconscious depths and reveals something of life’s meaning to the viewer. Many contemporary films do just that. They reach and move the human unconscious. They are metaphysical in import. They say a lot about the meaning and purpose of human life.

Dreamworks’ “Prince of Egypt” effectively encapsulates one of the central historical myths of Western European civilization -- the exodus of the Jews from Egyptian slavery under the inspiration of God and the leadership of Moses. Its perspective is quite clear: God created his people for freedom and will intervene in their history to liberate them, if only they will collaborate with him.

Robert Benigni’s “Life is Beautiful” is another myth, a delightful fable that says so much about the sacredness of human life and the power of human love to transform even the most dehumanizing situations into occasions of joy.

Cinema, especially in mythic form, is concerned with the depth dimension of the human situation. It is concerned with ultimates, which most people call God. God is in us, closer to us than we are to ourselves. Yet God flows beyond us in every way.

This means that the human situation is theonomous. In its depths, it can be transparent to the God who lives there. This also means that any descent into the depths of the human can be an approach to God, that such a depth penetration of the human can occasion a revelation -- a gift of himself -- by God. In other words, beings can reveal Being, the human can manifest the divine, the depths of the world of humanity are a mirror in which the face of God is reflected.

Transcendent presence

The filmmakers who penetrate beneath the surface into the depths of their characters to capture their struggles, portray their pain and illumine their dilemmas will find themselves grappling with what the theologians would call a transcendent presence. If filmmakers succeed in communicating this experience to their viewers, I believe they can occasion a new type of epiphany and confect a new type of sacrament. (Perhaps sacramental would be a more accurate term.) Instead of bread and wine, oil and water, God will come to viewers through the celluloid the filmmaker produces.

Like the sacraments, there is an objective and a subjective side of God’s gift to us in the cinematic experience.

The objective side is the manifestation of God that takes place when the filmmaker is able to render transparent the conflicts, decisions, triumphs and failures of the characters in the story. In the particular situations of the characters in a film, the viewer is enabled to detect universal meaning. Beneath the superficial chaos and confusion of their lives, viewers can find intimations of order and purpose. In contingent form, they can discover traces of an Absolute Ground. In beings, they can pick up the vibrations of Being Itself.

Kryztof Kieslowski’s “Decalogue” is a profoundly moving example of this, not because he gives black and white applications of the Ten Commandments -- he doesn’t -- but because he draws his viewers into the world of morality and challenges them to use their freedom in an enlightened and responsible way.

The subjective side of God’s self-communication occurs in the viewer’s cinematic experience. This is because God not only permeates the world the director photographs but also the viewer’s depths when the viewer responds to what has been photographed. We have already seen that in our unconscious depths, we are not one person but many -- that, indeed, in microcosm, the whole human family dwells there; that in each of us there is a gangster and a saint, a man and a woman, a child and an old person; that everyone we have ever loved has taken up residence there. This is not to say that we are schizophrenic or suffer from multiple personality syndrome, but it is to say that the whole world lives within each of us.

The New Testament tells us God is present whenever human beings respect each other, listen to and share with one another; when, in short, they love and form authentic community with each other. “He who abides in love, abides in God and God in Him,” St. John tells us. And Jesus promises to be present whenever two or three are gathered together in his name. This is true in external society. But it is also true within each of us.

The Kingdom of God is between us. But it is also within us, present in the microcosm as well as the macrocosm, in intrapersonal relationships as well as in interpersonal ones. Whenever the various persons within each of us recognize and affirm each other; whenever honest dialogue takes place between them; whenever, in short, there is real love between them, God is present. God surfaces from the abyss. God is the source of the electricity that sings between our inner persons.

People in the unconscious

A profoundly moving film can launch this process by causing the various people who live in the viewer’s unconscious to surface into consciousness, identify with the characters on the screen and interact with one another as they do. When they do, a film can stimulate intrapsychic dialogue, facilitate intrapsychic reconciliation and foster intrapsychic community. In its turn, this can occasion a surfacing of God within us, whether we use God’s name or not.

“One True Thing,” starring Meryl Streep, is a good example of a film that can produce this kind of horizontal intrapsychic experience. We can find ourselves in each of the four main characters in its dysfunctional family. As they struggle to come together in the face of the mother’s terminal cancer, we hope the corresponding people in ourselves will be able to do the same.

The cinematic experience has a vertical as well as a horizontal dimension. Any time a film moves us profoundly, causing us to go deep into ourselves, it is helping us approach the God who is the Ground of our being.

By activating the feminine archetype within us, Ingmar Bergman’s “Virgin Spring” is a good example of a film that does this. So does Richard Attenborough’s “Gandhi,” but for a different reason. It activates the heroic archetype within us. So, too, does “A Man for All Seasons,” “Schindler’s List,” and, I like to think, “Romero” and “Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story.”

Films of this type can occasion a surfacing of God within us. They can set the stage for a meeting with God. They can be an experience of God.

I make movies to elicit these kinds of experiences in my viewers. I want to give them some insight into what it means to be human. I want to help the many persons inside them come together and form a genuine community. I want to help them grow and develop and become the integrated, fulfilled human beings God made them to be.

Most important of all, I want to help them experience the loving presence of God in themselves and in the people around them, a presence that propels them to the full flowering of their humanity. This is the gift I want to leave with my viewers.

This is why I make movies.

Paulist Fr. Ellwood Keiser is head of Paulist Productions in Pacific Palisades, Calif., and was the producer of “Romero” and “Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story.”

National Catholic Reporter, April 9, 1999