Christmas Movie Tradition Evokes The Sacred
Published: December 22, 2011
Christmas Day, according to both conventional wisdom and actual box office receipts at some of the nation’s busiest movie theatres, is the biggest day of the year for Hollywood films. For many people, and not just those who practice religions other than Christianity, going to the movies is as much a part of family Christmas tradition as midnight Mass, neighborhood caroling and fruitcake.
That the movies have become so entwined with the secular observance of the holidays makes perfect sense, especially here in the United States. Americans love a big show, a spectacle. We want to be entertained. We want to have fun. And for most casual movie-going Americans, that’s what a trip to the multiplex represents, especially on Christmas Day. In a season that has become much more related to participation rather than anticipation, the movies are like the star on the treetop of glitz, greed and commercialism.
I sound like Scrooge, I know, but I don’t mean to. What I want to suggest is that cinema is actually a wonderful way to celebrate the sacred. Indeed, in our contemporary culture, it may be one of the best ways to appreciate the spiritual, the transcendental and the religious.
My family doesn’t go to the movies on Christmas, but we do go to Mass. And when we attend Mass on Christmas Day, we hear these wonderful words from the Gospel of St. John: “The light shines in darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”
What a wonderful way to understand the act of seeing a film! St. John’s words have profound symbolic and literal implications for the cinema. When we go to the movies, we enter into the darkness, and we go into that darkness in communion with others. It is as exactly as the great Anglo-Catholic poet T.S. Eliot wrote in his masterful “Four Quartets”: “O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark … I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theatre, the lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed.”
Then, the projector illuminates the screen, and for a couple of hours, the anonymity of the audience disappears. We become one. We laugh together, we weep together, we applaud together in a span of time in which everything else in our individual lives disappears and yields to the images on screen. This is the great secret of the magic that is the American cinema; we gaze into a world that is at once completely like and unlike our own, and in visiting that world, we gain insight into the reality to which we must eventually return. Hollywood, so the cliché goes, is a dream factory. If so, then we must know—whether consciously or not—that dreams cannot be separated from collective, archetypal experience. My dream world, at the movies, is not so different from your dream world.
As the great critic Roger Ebert puts it, “We live in a box of space and time and movies are windows in its walls.” They represent our yearning to be as one, and they clarify as well that we are, in the end, not so separate from one another.
But the parallels between film and faith go further still. The great British director David Lean, who made such beloved epics as “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Dr. Zhivago” and “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” actually compared moviegoing to churchgoing. A Quaker, Lean imagined that the experience of entering a movie theater must be like that of going into a great cathedral, and that the light of the projector must be like sunlight coming through stained glass windows. I don’t think Lean’s vision of moviegoing is either naïve or innocent; I think it is how we ought to envision any encounter with any art form. It’s not accidental that Lean was one of the greatest editors in film history. He made a name for himself in the British film industry by piecing fragments into a coherent whole. What could be more similar to religious faith than that?
Ingmar Bergman grappled with questions of faith and meaning perhaps more than any other filmmaker who ever lived. The son of a Lutheran minister, Bergman intuitively recognized the similarities between cinema and the sacred from an early age. Consider the preface that Bergman wrote for the script of his first great international masterpiece, “The Seventh Seal,” easily one of the best movies ever made about the search for faith and meaning in an absurd world. “Regardless of my own beliefs and my own doubts,” writes Bergman, “it is my opinion that art lost its basic creative drive the moment it was separated from worship.”
Bergman goes on to lament the rise of the individual and the decline of the collective, or community, of artists that made possible the building of the great European cathedrals. He concludes by calling for a return to a communal sense of purpose by suggesting that filmmaking, the most collaborative of all the arts, should learn from the lesson of those builders.
“Thus,” Bergman says, “if I am asked what I would like the general purpose of my films to be, I would reply that I want to be one of the artists in the cathedral on the great plain. … I would play my part in the collective building of the cathedral.”
We are all accustomed to finding God in the movies through biblical epics, biographies of Jesus, and pious portrayals of religious figures, but discovering a deeper and more meaningful sense of mystery in film is more difficult to see.
Throughout this year, I’ve written about a number of Catholic films and Catholic filmmakers who knew how profoundly the cinema can incorporate and illuminate the spiritual. Capra, Hitchcock, Fellini, McCarey, and many others all knew what I hope you will come to know, and what I think as Catholics you already intuitively understand.
The Catholics who seek to find spiritual meaning at the movies must draw upon what is actually at the heart of our faith; they must appreciate the phenomenon of presence in absence. Sacramentally, we all understand that there is spiritual presence even when literally, as in the waters of baptism or the bread and wine at the Eucharist, it appears to be absent.
The Catholic who can transfer this understanding to an appreciation of the arts will soon see the ministerial, transcendental and spiritual possibilities implicit in the movies, even, and maybe especially, on Christmas Day.
This commentary is part of a continuing series of pieces by Dr. David A. King about the work and lives of 20th-century Catholic writers, filmmakers and artists. King is associate professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and an adjunct faculty member at Spring Hill College, where he teaches courses in Christianity and film and Flannery O’Connor. He is a parishioner at St. Joseph Church, Marietta, and is active in adult education at St. Joseph and at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.