In preparation for an upcoming film producers’ program, I’ve got a laundry list of films to watch and books to read. One of those books, Ron Austin‘s In a New Light: Spirituality and the Media Arts, just happens to be one of the better reflections on the relationship between film and religion I’ve ever read.
Austin’s theoretical, religious, and spiritual reflections on the possibilities of film are borne out of decades of a life in “the business.” A student of no less than Charlie Chaplin and Jean Renoir, he has written for numerous television series from Charlie’s Angels to Matlock to Mission Impossible. He is a member of the Academy (the one that counts!) and has even been awarded a lifetime achievement award by the Writers Guild of America. When it comes to film, Austin clearly knows of what he speaks.
He has coupled this rich experience with deep theological and religious reflection. He approaches this work with both a strong commitment to his Christian faith and a genuine openness to insights from other traditions that both challenge and inspire his own. He has taken this radical openness and used it to fuel UNICA “a band of filmmakers working together to change the way films are made and seen based on a radical commitment to unity,” whose first film, Blue In Green, is an attempt to flesh this out.
Austin breaks down his short (90-odd pages) but insightful book into three sections: Spiritual Foundations, A Brief Spiritual History of Film, and Spiritual Frontiers. In the first section, he reflects on three common themes he detects across all major faith traditions: 1) being in the present moment; 2) affirming the mystery of the Other, and 3) transforming conflict. In each case, he considers the ways in which filmmakers are (or should be) best suited to truthfully address them through their work.
As a society, Austin argues, we are asleep, and pop culture products often help keep us that way. However, filmmakers have the ability to wake us up, to point us to our spiritual lethargy, and to envision a different way of being in the world. This requires the audience to be attentive to the filmmaker and the filmmaker to be attentive to the world around her. Austin writes, “far more than a lack of skill, the obstacle to good writing, directing, and acting is inattentiveness” (6).
In terms of remaining open to the mystery of the Other, Austin writes about the necessity of filmmakers being open to the “otherness” of their characters, to treat them with respect and not as disposable elements in the narrative. Unfortunately, the ways in which filmmakers depict conflict in their films often falls under the category of the latter. Therefore, Austin argues, the “moral obligation of the artist is to transform conflict in such a way that it forces us to delve into the fundamental sources of conflict and violence. […] Our objective, then, is not to resolve or avoid conflict, but to be able to truly and fully observe and probe it” (10). The sources of violence that filmmakers (and the rest of us) must overcome are “ignorance and error, the mirroring process, and perversity or malevolence” (11). This last source leads Austin to a reflection on the nature of evil and the role that scapegoating continues to play in our popular culture.
In the second part of the book, Ausint offers a brief spiritual history of film in which he devotes a couple of pages each to several filmmakers that, he argues, responded artistically (cinematically) to the times in which they lived with films that reveled in deep spiritual themes. He readily admits that his history is a Euro-American one as it includes the likes of Chaplin, Renoir, Dreyer, De Sica, Scorsese, Allen, and Kieslowski, to name a few. Here, Austin points to one or two key films from each directors oeuvre and highlights recurring spiritual/religious themes in their work. This entire section (like the book itself) left me longing for more.
In the third section, Austin turns his attention to the present moment and the near future. He writes, “We are engaged in a search for the primal springs of art and life itself” and argues that the call for transcendence can be answered (in part) by filmmakers and Christians and, perhaps, a combination of both (69). Christian artists should answer the despair of the world by creating a “culture of hope,” but, as prefaced in the first section, it cannot be one that ignores or downplays the suffering of others. He writes, “To create a complex, yet spontaneous audience response, akin to poetics, means finding significant moments of depth and insight more than forging a progressive narrative” (73).
Austin concludes his book with two important appendices, one of personal reflections on faith and the other about the creation of a cooperative film project, Blue In Green. Here, he calls for “creative kenosis,” the paradigm for which, Austin argues, is “Jesus, who ’emptied himself’ on the Cross to reveal the ultimate truth of God’s redemptive love. This is the model for our spiritual discipline, […] an imitation of Jesus’ self-emptying in the context of artistic creation” (81). In conclusion, Austin leaves readers with a spiritual filmography that will no doubt keep film lovers engaged for months.
In 2011, Austin was inducted into the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology’s College of Fellows. I took many film courses there under Professor Michael Morris. You can read Austin’s commencement address here and watch a video of one of his lectures here.