Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Power of Film

Some time back I posted on the ten most mind-altering books I've ever read. Of course this was a very strict sense of mind-altering that I meant this list to reflect. I was specifically talking about abstract concepts.

Naturally the list was not intended to imply any superiority of abstract intellectual concepts over the many other ways in which works of art and literature influence us. And I apologize if I gave that impression. I merely was speaking in a very narrow way about a particular kind of influence in a particular kind of book.

It would be a big subject to talk about the two main branches of the mind as Baba describes it. But here briefly is how I see it.

Rather than dividing the human soul into heart and mind, as some have in history, Baba speaks of two aspects of what he collectively calls mind. And these halves roughly correspond to what we colloquially speak of as the heart and mind. Or at least this is my understanding of Baba.

In his book God Speaks, Baba speaks of the analytic part of the mind, essentially what we think of as thought, and the sympathetic part, what we tend to call heart or feeling.

Books and literature naturally comprise works of both sorts, and some that combine them. There are entirely abstract books of philosophy, that deal in areas of the mind so verbal that they are not conducive even to visual analogies. They are purely conceptual. Even giving examples would turn into a difficult abstract subject, but such instances include topics such as time and space, consciousness, being, knowledge, etc. These are called discursive subjects. Even this discussion I am now having would rightly be called discursive. It is conveyed in words, and conveys abstract ideas, not sensations that move the heart aspect of the mind. Both are real aspects of the mental, both must be traversed, but of the two -- at least in the final stages of the spiritual path -- Baba tells us the area of feeling is higher.

The sensorial arts, arts we see and hear and touch and feel, these are in my view mostly directed at the sympathetic mind, the heart. They invoke feelings, and not always feelings that are easily put into words. Even when they can be expressed by words, it is the feeling that precedes the words and is never quite captured by words. The experience, direct and immediate, must be had and felt. There is no substitute.

Of course poetry is of this sort, as well as music, theatre, dance, painting, and so on. These arts do not convey abstract ideas, but feelings, and in some cases these feelings and their deeper root is analyzed, but that is another subject entirely we might call art criticism or art theory.

So now for film.

What is motion picture? For one it is a new art, as we all know. In fact the first public paid movie house, a nickelodeon, opened to the public on Broadway in 1894, the year of Baba's birth. People put nickels in a slot and peered into a hand-cranked device that showed a silent film composed of a single shot. The device they peered into was called a kinetoscope.

Film is also an amalgamation of all the arts into one, painting, photography, set and clothing design, hair, makeup, architecture, music, acting, dance, choreography, writing, composing, singing – and even new forms entirely unique to it such as the moving montage.

From the very beginning, films were of course an instant sensation. And this is the word I am driving at, for sensation is what films can bring to the human psyche like no other art ever invented. And through such powerful sensations, when the artist is gifted, the emotions (both high and low emotions) can be invoked and brought up in masses of people at a very fast rate.

Pickfair, home of Douglas Fairbanks and
Mary Pickford, Hollywood
And it is precisely this characteristic of film that gives it, above all arts, the "power" that Baba warned Hollywood, at a reception given for him at Pickfair in 1932, that they had in their grasp.
"I do not need to tell you, who are engaged in the production and distribution of moving pictures, what a power you hold in your hands [emphasis added]; nor do I doubt that you are fully alive to the responsibility which the wielding of that power involves. He who stimulates the imagination of the masses can move them in any direction he chooses, and there is no more powerful instrument for stimulating their imagination than the moving pictures. People go to the theatre to be entertained. If the play is strong, they come away transformed. They surrender their hearts and minds to the author, producer, director, stars, and they follow the example which they see portrayed before their eyes more than they themselves realize." 
(Awakener Magazine, 1968)
This is not the power of conceptual abstract ideas conveyed in the form of discursive books and lectures. It is the immediate influence of seeing and feeling, and having feelings awakened.

Part of what he is also saying, is that film can prepare the way for the message he has come to bring, by teaching man through example what is their true nature and potential, that they are spiritual and not merely material, and to inspire them toward internal improvement.

And thus what I personally look for in films that do this is not in their intellectual savvy or sophistication, their heady ideas rattled off in pretentious dialogues, which tend to do more to diffuse and oversimplify ideas due the the intrinsic inability of sound and picture to convey truly abstract ideas – it is in their ability to lift the heart and inspire.

To do this movies have to entertain, for it is only when one is engaged and forgets himself that one becomes unconsciously open to the positive or negative influence of a work of art.

Of course I don't need to say how much the double edged sword is ever present in film, for films of propaganda have been used to lower human standards of decency also, and even used to brainwash whole nations into accepting genocide.

And such propaganda is not limited to crude black and white documentaries of the 1940s, but is present today in theaters and popular television shows, filmed in all earnest faith by spiritually backward producers, writers, and actors – reaching out to the lowest common denominator of human ignorance to make a coin.

So what are my top films in this sense? I must be absolutely frank, and admit that I came out of an area of film that was so interested in esoteric concepts of art, so divorced from such concerns, that to hear my list of most influential films would only confuse someone. For it was the camera itself that interested me, and feelings that went beyond any description, that I would call transcendental in tone. They were films that I did not understand but felt, but felt in the realm of aesthetics the way a composer feels classical compositions. My personal favorite films would include very high the films of Wim Wenders, the ones few saw, such as Alice in the Cities, The State of Things, Lisbon Story, and The Soul of a Man, and Night on Earth by Jim Jarmusch.

Still from the 1974 Wim Wenders film Alice in den Städten
I also have the peculiar habit of loving high profile Hollywood films like Pirates of the Caribbean and War of the Worlds (the Spielberg version).

But on the level of spiritual films as I think Baba was describing, here would be some of the ones I would name.
  1. It Happened One Night by Frank Capra
  2. It's a Wonderful Life by Frank Capra
  3. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington by Frank Capra
  4. City Lights by Charlie Chaplin
  5. The Great Dictator by Charlie Chaplin
  6. Open City by Roberto Rossellini
  7. High Noon by Fred Zinnemann
  8. A Man for All Seasons by Fred Zinnemann
  9. On the Waterfront by Elia Kazan
  10. Casablanca by Michael Curtiz
  11. Life is Beautiful by Roberto Benigni
  12. Saving Private Ryan by Steven Spielberg
  13. Crash by Paul Haggis
  14. Good Night, and Good Luck by George Clooney
  15. Lord of the Rings Trilogy by Peter Jackson
These films attempt to inspire people to higher ideals, by showing ordinary human beings searching within themselves to find what the real meaning of life is, which includes sacrifice, strife, sadness, and overcoming lower temptations against tremendous odds. One could of course list countless others.

In a future post, I wish to talk about an entirely different aspect of film's power, and why I believe Baba emphasized it for conveying of his own ideas, during a certain period of his work in the 1930s, and what I feel is the true destiny of that still uncompleted project.

Post note 4-14-14:

The following is a second message to the film world Baba gave to film celebrities in Bombay in 1958.

For better or for worse, the world of motion pictures has grown extensively within the larger world of so-called realities. But the film world is not foreign to the "real" world — the two are affiliated so intimately that they can be seen essentially to be made of the same fabric. Everyone is, in a sense, an actor and the world has often been compared to the stage by poets and philosophers. In point of fact, much of what passes for "action" in modern life can be called little but "acting," and so the larger world has little ground to regard only the film world as being imitative.

In the film world, the actor has to think, feel and act according to the pattern held before him — to mirror, though temporarily, the personality of the character being portrayed by him. This can be said to be true to a considerable extent of those outside the world of motion pictures who struggle to follow the conventional pattern of living as they imagine it is expected of them, even if it cramps their inner individual expression. This is so not only figuratively but literally. While looking in the mirror, people often see themselves more through the eyes of others than through their own. The reflected image evokes in their minds the impression they will make on others and the expectations which others have of them — and the best that most can do is to try to look the part they play. Thus, the mirror literally and figuratively has become such a seemingly indispensable part of modern life that we might almost name this age a mirror-civilization.

When the actor plays the part of a king, he knows it to be an illusion and has, in a sense, an advantage over the king in the outer world who is not necessarily aware of any illusion. Both, however, are equally helpless in their failure to find the Real. No one condemns the actor who plays the part of an emperor or reformer as being a hypocrite, for although he appears to be what he is not, his honesty is taken for granted because his audience knows that he is acting a part. But there are many outside the world of stage and screen who, in actual life, do not appear what they really are. The former are on the screen of their creation; the latter are behind the screen of their creation.

There are specific claims and privileges as well as specific duties and potentialities that no actor can afford to ignore. An actor who may be technically faultless in his part is yet trivial and worthless if he tries to evade his inherent spiritual potential. The film world cannot escape its obligations to the larger world on which it makes so substantial an impression, and these obligations demand that its spiritual potential take precedence over the desire to make money. The cine-writers [screenwriters], the producers and the actors should realize their spiritual potential instead of looking at their art merely or mainly as a business. The more vividly they realize this, the more dignified and satisfactory will be the results of their efforts, and their inner account with themselves will be vastly gratifying even though the same might not be said of their account in the bank. If the film world cannot or will not give the greatest importance to this spiritual potential, it is a failure.

The ordinary man, whose urgent need is to relax from the stress of life, to lessen the sense of insecurity and try to fill the emptiness within (for which greed and war are mostly responsible) turns instinctively to the fleeting diversion of entertainment. And the film world affords this to a great extent. Therefore the film world, which still has one of the greatest scopes for influencing the lives of myriads, should ask itself whether it is utilizing its spiritual potential to the full so that man may be helped in his search for Truth, or whether it is merely pandering to his pleasure of the false; whether it is encouraging and inspiring youth to face the responsibilities of the world of tomorrow, or retarding youth's inner growth with an overdose of sex and violent crime films; and whether it is striving after wealth and fame at the cost of man's inherent thirst for the spiritual and uplifting.

The correct solution of every problem can come only from Indivisible Truth. There can be no factitious cleavage in the unity of life by magnifying the often fallacious distinctions between theory and practice, the artificial and the natural, the real and the false. The emphasis of every aspect of the One Indivisible Life must be on the underlying unity, not on apparent differences — and this applies with as much force to those in the film world as to those in the outer world.

The great initiator of the Truth of your being is divine love — love that burns the limiting self, that disarms all fears, that rises above temptations, that is deaf to the voices of lust and jealousy, that expresses the infinite spiritual potential. Those in the film world have also to play their part unreservedly in the divine game of life, aspiring to the highest within man. Then only can they find real beauty; and then only can they fully express it.

The spiritual potential of those in the film world, though in no way different from that of those outside it, must often be differently expressed. You can, even as an actor, experience and express divinity. In the world of the motion picture and by its means, you can learn and you can teach. But if you do not find love or happiness, truth or fulfillment in yourself, you cannot truly impart them to your audience. You cannot inspire unless you are yourself inspired, nor can you awaken love in insensitive souls without yourself being pierced by it.

The actor has to realize that real and living beauty is made manifest only by discovering and releasing the spiritual potential within himself. Artifice can, no doubt, do much to heighten the fresh and radiant beauty that is natural to youth. But this is artifice and not art, and such transient beauty is poles apart from real beauty. Without vision your art will be shallow; do not therefore hesitate to glean that vision from the Great Ones. This will give you a living inspiration, bringing fulfillment in your life.

So my message to the film world is: Do not play to the gallery or the salary, but play to the Infinite within. Live in the presence of God, even while acting your part, so that you can be true to yourself, to your partners and employers, and to the larger and One Indivisible Life of which you are each an inseparable part. If the world is a stage, God is the only producer, and you can never be anything but a trivial actor if you are not in unison with Him.

Lord Meher, 1986 print edition, p. 5380.

Update 8-28-14:

Clips for some of the ineffable films I mentioned above, and other similar works for me, can be seen at my later posts:

Ineffable #1 and Ineffable #2


  1. I wonder how you would rate "Kiss of the Spider Woman" as it seems to be dealing exactly with what you are expounding here.

  2. Kiss of the Spider Woman was on my mind when I wrote the list, but I stopped short of too many. I agree. A few I would have liked to have added, had the list been longer, would have been Kiss of the Spider Woman by Héctor Babenco, 3 Women by Robert Altman, Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Last Wave, Gallipoli, Witness, and The Year of Living Dangerously by Peter Weir.

    1. Enjoyed your list. It would be a good journey to compile a longer list..perhaps collectively. I would propose adding two films, "As It Is In Heaven" and "Latcho Drom". Also, I gather that Peter Weir knew of Beloved Baba in his formative years. I'll try and find out more.

  3. A friend sent me this quote, which I think says much of what I wanted to say but found hard to put into words. It applies to the aspect of film Baba did not mention.

    Artist's Mis-statement

    Artists' statements are an affliction of the age: artists of the Abstract Expressionists period were content to write vague generalizations about their work and no one thought less of them for doing so. In short, artists have succumbed to the plague of hyper-information: the mystery is off the rose. Today visual artists live in a time when their haptic sensibilities (guided by the fragile nature of neomorphic imaginings) are in danger of losing the significance of their silence. Artists need to be taken more seriously than words can express.

    The poetry of pictorial form is not a literary one, nor does it follow the emotional syntax of literature -- even poetry, but a visceral one that makes itself felt before the third person distortion of written language asserts its authority. A culture addicted to the authority of words alone cannot grasp the numinous vitality of visual art, a form of communication that existed well before words. Most visual artists transmute words by not using them. More, true artists understand the authority of spoken or written language but their creativity is in the realm of physical signs and symbols, color and forms, not the conceptual tradition of written expression. Literature is an a posteriori response to experience while visual art is an a priori view of the world. Further, words are not required to understand the noumenalistic nature of authentic art, be it visual or otherwise. In literature aesthetic gravitas is not in what is written but what is omitted and implied in the content and context of the narrative. Like music, visual art is a preverbal experience.

    As the reader can see I have reservations about artists' statements as a perquisite for being taken seriously. I have known artists who are clumsy with written text, for which I have the greatest respect. The western bias towards the authority of the word in the realm of visual art is pernicious and at best naïve. The ones that I have read veer either toward nebulous autobiography or tortured hyperbole, being a self-congratulatory cadenza of purple passages, dour minimalism or narcissctic gibberish.

    – Kevin Costello

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