Looking back at Glen West 2011: Six movies in five days.

The theme of the 2011 Glen Workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico was “Acts of Attention: Art as Discovery.”

It lived up to the name.

For seven days, Gregory Wolfe and the Image team served up a feast of art, insight, exploration, discussion, and discoveries. I’ve attended Glen Workshops for seven years in a row, and while they have all had their exciting highlights, they’ve all had their challenges too. This program seemed to move effortlessly, each presentation, lecture, reading, and performance reinforcing the others.

And I had the honor of leading the film seminar for the second summer in a row.

In designing our week of movies and post-viewing discussions, I gave a lot of thought to the Image team’s description of the theme:

The theme for this year’s Glen Workshops, “Acts of Attention: Art as Discovery,” will provide a focal point for discussion. The poet Richard Wilbur once said, “The world’s fullness is not made but found.” Yet in a fast-paced culture, it is all too easy to miss the fullness and beauty that surround us, to be distracted by the virtual and instant. What happens to the soul when it is isolated from the world as it is? Can art, something that is “made,” refocus our attention on the mystery and complexity of reality? How can art itself be a loving act of attention, one that returns us to a fuller sense of the world we inhabit?

I chose films that are about our encounters with art, films that would ask us to pay close attention and discuss the many layers of meaning at work in each film’s subject, style, and structure.

First, we watched a little film by Radiolab called “Words.”

That tasty little video was our appetizer: a film that wakes you up as you watch it. First, it gets your attention with an intriguing array of short, lively clips. But then, it wakes you up even further when you realize the “catch,” the invisible thread that binds these images together.

That would be practice for watching our first full-length feature, a film by Errol Morris called Fast, Cheap and Out of Control.

We would return on Tuesday to discuss how the four interviews woven together in Morris’s film complement one another and bring to light common themes and contradictions. It’s a film about passion, vocation, obstructions, and our search for the purpose of life.

Exactly one year ago today, A.O. Scott posted some reflections on this film, which has become my all-time favorite documentary, and remains my favorite film of 1997.

This set us up for something even more challenging: Lars Von Trier’s study of the relationship between creativity and limitations, The Five Obstructions.

Von Trier’s “diabolical” game made us pay attention to how great art is made under pressure, and how the process of artmaking can be a wonderful form of therapy.

I followed this by showing a film on Wednesday in which pressure disrupts an artist’s work… or, perhaps, the pressure reveals that the artist is a fraud. My Kid Could Paint That inspired the week’s most intense discussions, and made us wish we had several days to examine it more closely and discuss all of the questions it raised about freedom, imagination, modern art, the media, and the relationship between art and money.

I’d written about this film for Image almost three years ago. And I’m still making new discoveries as I watch it.

Three documentaries had raised a lot of questions, so after a day off to explore Santa Fe and its surroundings, we reunited on Friday to watch a drama. I chose a drama – one of my favorite films of the past few years, Martin Provost’s movie Seraphine. This life story of a great artist got us thinking about how passion, inspiration, obstructions, and attention affected her work.

This glorious, overlooked movie seemed all the richer for the questions about artmaking that were already on our minds. In our subsequent discussion, we found connections between Seraphine and all of the films we’d seen previously.

On Saturday, we closed the week with two more movies: Agnes Varda’s documentary The Gleaners and I, which followed Seraphine perfectly. (Seraphine is, after all, a gleaner of the highest order.) It’s fascinating to see how Varda, in her whimsical and spontaneous style, weaves together an account of the history of gleaning with a description of an artist’s vocation. I love this film, and it was a joy to see how it took our previous explorations even farther.

Here’s a clip from the beginning:


Trailer provided by Video Detective

For dessert, we watched an animated film about inspiration, obstructions, attention, “gleaning,” and revelation:

I am so grateful for the fifteen people who brought their best “acts of attention” to these films, and who discussed them with respect, curiosity, good humor, and thoughtfulness. I’ve seen all of these movies many times, but their observations made each experience new and revealing.

I’m also grateful to the Image team for enriching the rest of our hours there, at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with so many opportunities to encounter great art and hear from great artists. The illustrator Barry Moser, the band Over the Rhine, the poets Robert Cording and Betsy Sholl, the visual artists Kim Alexander and Ginger Geyer, the fiction writer Melissa Pritchard, the spiritual writers Lauren Winner, the screenwriter Bradford Winters… all of them blessed us over the course of the week.

I’m also glad I had an opportunity to deliver my new address on the subject of Play, a talk called “We Are Also Five: How to Play Without Ceasing.” I was encouraged by the responses to it.

Some of you who are reading this missed The Glen Workshop this year. I hope you’ll come next year. It’s the richest, most rewarding week of my year, and I am already counting down the 51 weeks remaining until the next one. I’d love to see you there.

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