vintage jesus – silent film

As you probably know, this year’s Academy Award nominations were announced this past Tuesday down in Beverly Hills. The list of nominated films and actors and directors and animators has been everywhere. On the newscasts, in the newspapers, and across the internet there has been response and reaction. Which film was overrated, which actor got snubbed, which Canadians are in the mix etc., etc.

One of the interesting things about this year’s nominations is the film that has received the second-greatest number of nominations. Coming in with 10 nominations, just behind Martin Scorsese’s film Hugo with 11, was a film that some of you have probably seen – it’s a film called ‘The Artist’. And of course what is interesting about ‘The Artist’ is the fact that it is a silent film.

Talk about a blast from the past. The very first films ever produced, back in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century – they were all silent films. As you may know, in these films there were sometimes written lines of dialogue projected on the scene, to help explain what was happening – and sometimes there was a live music performance while the silent film was screened. But the story was told without the benefit of an audio track of voices and daily sounds. The glory days of silent film were the 1920’s – most of the top-grossing silent films were produced in that decade. But it was in the early 30’s that it all came to an end – when ‘the talkies’ as they were called, started taking over. It was in the late 20’s and early 30’s that the technology was invented that allowed for the projection of images and sound at the same time. With the advent of the talkies, silent film’s days were over.

Well, not completely over. In the past 90 years there have been a few silent films produced here or there. Once in a while a filmmaker will mimic and try to exploit the possibilities inherent in the silent film genre. This year ‘The Artist’, which comes in for 10 Academy Award nominations, has done just that.

This morning we are staying with the Vintage theme – with that interest in the aesthetics and sensibilities and experiences of past decades. The 1920’s of course are right at the beginning of that vintage period – the 20’s are right at the beginning of that period from which posters and jewelry and clothing are given that label of desirability: “Ah, it’s Vintage.”

This week I had the chance to go and see ‘The Artist’.  Now I won’t go as far as to predict that it will win the Academy Award for best picture, but it is a very interesting and entertaining film. Reflecting on that film, it seems to me at least that one of the real strengths of the silent movie is the ability to cut out a lot of the clutter. So many of today’s films, like so much of today’s culture – are filled up with so much clutter. There are special effects and costumes and budgets that are beyond anything imagined just a few decades ago. Very often in today’s Hollywood movies, all of that clutter very quickly dwarfs the telling of the story itself. Of course there are lots of movies produced today, and many of them tell stories very well – but if there is a real strength to the silent movie it must be that capacity to cut out all of the clutter. Without all of the special effects, without all of the verbal clutter, the filmmaker has a chance to focus on the basics of the story – to focus on the basic human experiences, relationships, and emotions that are part of the story. That’s not to say that all silent films accomplished this – but it is at least a possibility that seems inherent in the silent film – cutting to the chase – getting to the basics of the narrative.

Now as we make the transition to the narrative of Jesus this morning – as we turn to explore what was typical or characteristic of Jesus – I’d like us to stop for a moment to watch a short clip from a silent film. It is a silent film from 1926 entitled Ménilmontant. It was produced in France by a well-known Russian film producer of that time named Dimitri Kirsanoff. Now I haven’t seen the whole film – and from what I have read of the descriptions it is a pretty dark film – I’m not sure it’s the kind of film I would want watch. But there is a remarkable scene from that movie I’d like to show this morning. And in this scene, a young woman who has suffered tremendously, who is in the midst of real grief – this young woman finds a moment of grace.  As we move into a look at the meaning of Jesus for us, we’re going to watch this clip together.

This little clip captures fairly powerfully how much can be communicated without words. This clip shows how much can pass between two people and how much can be communicated to an audience, without words – without so much clutter. Do we even need to say it: this clip captures her need, her grief, her gratitude. This clip captures his simplicity, his attentiveness, his refusal of self-congratulation, his capacity to share. Without words, without fuss or distraction, we are given a window onto a human narrative and encounter.

It seems to me that this clip can lead us meaningfully and appropriately into reflection on Jesus as he is given to us in the gospel narratives. In a way what the gospel writers have given to us may be compared to what we are given in this silent movie clip from 1926. What the gospel writers give us are a series of vignettes and stories that describe the life and person of Jesus as they knew and worshipped him. As we mentioned a couple of weeks ago, the gospel writers weren’t merely interested in the facts of Jesus life, but in presenting a portrait that is true to him as he was and also true to him as the risen and ascended Lord they have encountered. The vignettes that the gospel writers string together out of oral and written traditions around Jesus are simple, and unencumbered, and yet so full. Through those vignettes in the life of Jesus we are invited into his world – the world that he defines – the world that he creates – the world that he brings to our world.

In a way, that’s what a good film does, doesn’t it? A good film, whether a vintage silent film from the 1920’s or a film from this decade – a good film draws us for a moment into another world, into a narrative other than our own. A good film sets up an alternative world in an authentic way and draws us into it – and having done so it sends us back into our own world with new insight and vision. With a good film that is more than merely entertainment (and there are lots of good films that are sheer entertainment) – but with a good film that is more than mere entertainment, there is a kind of movement between our world and the world of the film – a movement out of which there comes the possibility for new understandings and even ways of living.

That kind of movement is what can happen as we engage with the narratives of Jesus. But at the same time we need to be clear that what the gospel writers want is not merely to draw us into the world of the text – they don’t want to draw us merely into a world they have created with stylus and parchment and imagination. Certainly that’s a part of what they want to do. Rather, what they want above all is to draw us into the real world of resurrection life in Christ.

We might think of all of this in terms of two worlds or kingdoms. There is our world:

our world of human relationships,

our world of business and enterprise,

our world of film and literature,

our world government and bureaucracy,

our world of farms and factories.

This world of ours is a good gift of God – and yet there are so many ways in which our world is marred – fundamentally broken. Who can deny the extent to which jealousy and anger and injustice and exploitation and violence mar our world? This world of ours is a broken world.

But what the gospel writers want us to see – what the earliest Christians want us to see – is the real world of Jesus Christ. There are, in some sense, two worlds or two kingdoms. There is our world, our kingdom, with all of its brokenness. But there is also the world, the kingdom of the risen Jesus.  What the gospel writers want us to see is that the real world of Jesus Christ – the kingdom of the risen Jesus – is breaking into our world and shaping our world and renewing our world. The invitation of the gospel is to a spirituality that puts us in touch with that coming world of Jesus – and to ways of life embody his world.

What does that world in competition with our world look like? What does that world invading our world look like? What does that coming kingdom of the risen Jesus look like? We look to the particular Jesus for an answer. We look to the gospel vignettes of Jesus for our answer.

Perhaps that silent film clip from 1926 surely captures something of the vintage Jesus – of the world he brings. A world of compassion. A world with no hint of self-congratulation. A world of graciousness and gratitude.

What other vignettes do we find in the gospels – Here are a few vignettes for us:

Vignette 1 comes from our New Testament reading for today: Jesus walks away from the crowds – he walks away from his disciples – he walks away from responsibilities and demands. He goes to a quiet, an isolated place. He kneels down. In one moment he bows his head and clutches his hands together at his chest. In another moment he lifts his face up to the sky and opens his arms wide. This is vintage Jesus. His face, his body, his posture, tell the story of encounter with God in prayer:

on his face, heaviness mingles with hallelujahs;

on his face, gratitude mingles with grief;

There is no deep participation in the real world of the risen Jesus – no authentic participation in his coming kingdom – without a spiritual life, a life of prayerful attentiveness, by which we are drawn into the presence of God.

A second vignette: A boat rocks heavily on the sea. There are waves crashing over the bow. Men with fear etched in their faces are bailing out the water with a few clay pots – bailing out the water with cupped hands shaking with desperation. A slumbering figure in the stern is awakened, and as he shakes the grogginess from his body, he looks around and takes it all in. As he looks at his disciples he does so with a mixture of sympathy and disappointment. He stands up and looks out across the wind-swept sea. With calm authority he issues a command to the seas. And suddenly all is still.

There is no deep participation in the real world of the risen Jesus – no authentic participation in his coming kingdom – without awareness of his singular power and grace – without awareness of his singular identity as the one through whom all things are made and remade.

A final vignette. Jesus is travelling through the countryside.  And as he travels in company with his disciples, he comes across a man who clearly suffers from a skin disease. The whole body language of this man speaks of his distance from human society – his banishment from society. He reaches out, cries out, to Jesus, all the while expressing his hesitation to draw near. Jesus reaches out his hand, and touches him. And in that moment the man’s isolation is broken – it is only a matter of moments before physical healing follows. Delight floods the man’s face – his isolation is broken. His healing is accomplished.

There is no deep participation in the real world of the risen Jesus – no authentic participation in his coming kingdom – without an active pursuit of the ways of his kingdom. His kingdom is not something that can be safely held at arms length. If the real world of the risen Jesus breaks into our world at all – it does so as we follow him in the strength of the Spirit.


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