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2 Films That Thomas Merton and Flannery O'Connor Might Approve

InterstellarMichael Bay is off.

The filmmaker possesses a unique opportunity to challenge, provoke, educate, and enlighten. Through the visual arts, audiences plumb the depths and ranges of human emotion and experience. Questions of meaning and purpose, great heroism and deep flaws may all be explored through the cinematic lens. In other words, glorious as they may be, Michael Bay & Co. kinda missed the point.

Over Christmas break, I began reading Thomas Merton’s beautiful meditation on the spiritual life, No Man is an Island. He writes a powerful passage regarding the nobility of the arts, and their ability to edify the soul and reveal reality:

Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time. The mind that responds to the intellectual and spiritual values that lie hidden in a poem, a painting, or a piece of music, discovers a spiritual vitality that lifts it above itself, takes it out of itself, and makes it present to itself on a level of being that it did not know it could ever achieve.

Likewise, in a rather Aristotelian moment, Flannery O’Connor wrote of this great artistic capacity from the novelist’s perspective.

The artist penetrates the concrete world in order to find at its depths the image of its source, the image of ultimate reality ... if the novelist is doing what as an artist he is bound to do, he will inevitably suggest that image of ultimate reality as it can be glimpsed in some aspect of the human situation.

This is precisely the power contained within a good film. Explosions are great, popcorn entertainment is wonderful, but the soul ultimately desires inspiration, an encounter with something (or someone) meaningful. Like the man of Plato’s cave, the artist strips away the shadows and lower forms in order to encounter the transcendent and truly meaningful aspects of existence. Two films come to mind as particularly exemplary in this regard: Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar.

In his masterful 1946 film, Capra explores the question of human purpose through the experience of George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), in the backwater town of Bedford Falls. Quite sympathetic to the college student—ambitious, passionate, clueless about the future—Bailey slowly realizes the immense meaning within his unassuming life. To use Merton’s words, he becomes “alive enough to reality to see beauty all around.”  Or, as O’Connor would say, Bailey began “to intrude upon the timeless.”

In the same vein, Nolan’s Interstellar takes this search for meaning to the cosmos. Through brilliant cinematography and casting, Interstellar yearns for something tangibly moral as humanity slips into the void. With every reason to despair, to rage against the dying of the light, the film is sustained and nourished by a hope in the transcendence of love.

So, as our Christmas break winds down and the semester begins, take advantage of the rare downtime and, yes, watch a movie. It’s not always wasteful.

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