Through a Lens Darkly
Searching Amidst the Bread and Circuses
As is often the case in discussions of this sort, the question of the artist's intent is an important one to consider. But if, as O'Connor suggests, an artist is pushing toward mystery by creating characters who are confronted by evil and by grace -- characters who "act on a trust beyond themselves" -- might that not bring about symbols and events present in a work regardless of artistic intentions?
Klaatu (in either version of The Day the Earth Stood Still) was almost certainly meant as a Messianic figure; resurrection is one of those "bright line" indicators that Christian audiences are habituated to recognizing. But seeing Bruce Wayne's willingness to accept the punishment of Two-Face's sins despite his own innocence as a type of Christ? That might well be an example of a symbol that receptive audience members recognize on their own, whether the creative team behind the film placed it there explicitly or not.
To look at another example, the creator of the Hellboy comics, Mike Mignola, is Catholic. And it is hard to imagine that the source material's richly Catholic symbolism is unintentional. But Guillermo del Toro, the film series' director, has made no secret of his contempt for organized religion. So where does that leave us with regard to the films' "intentions"?
And then, there are films like The Color of Paradise -- the story of an Iranian man's struggle with an almost unbearable cross that features a searingly beautiful moment of grace that is difficult to forget. The film's director, Iranian-born Majid Majidi, is a Muslim, and would almost certainly object to audiences reading a strictly Christian notion of divinity into his work. Yet the film is a wonder, and it would be a shame not to see its symbolism in all its glory, intended or not.
It is the intention of this column, "Through a Lens, Darkly," to search for, to recognize, and to appreciate these sorts of symbols and ideas, particularly as they appear in the mediums of film and television. And while it is sometimes difficult to look at the typical blockbuster offering as anything other than "sound and fury, signifying nothing," there is much to be said for finding that one charming, "lost" film among the Hollywood ninety-nine.
Fundamentally, as a serious filmmaker (or writer) tells a story that pushes "outward toward the limits of mystery," characters that "act on a trust beyond themselves" will follow close behind. And while we may be surprised to find the sun amidst the bread and circuses of the motion picture world, we should rejoice all the more at finding it there. As long as writers and filmmakers continue this push toward Mystery, we should all be excited -- because we know what (or Whom) they will find at the end of their search.
Joseph Susanka has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since his graduation from Thomas Aquinas College in 1999. He blogs at Crisis Magazine, where he also contributes feature articles on a variety of topics.