The Year in Liturgical Cinema: Ordinary Time

Film will always have an escapist quality to it, but it can also emphasize the beauty and transcendence of the everyday.
The Year in Liturgical Cinema: Ordinary Time
Image: The Tree of Life

“The Liturgical Year in Cinema” is an ongoing series, a personal exploration of the thematic connections between the Christian calendar and films. Ordinary Time is the season of growth, vitality, and the normal practices of the Christian life.

Few films this summer provide us an image of the mundane. Instead, the current box office features superheroes and talking animal movies with a couple surrealist indie fare. Mostly escapist cinema, these titles offer us two hours in the dark to avoid the next horrific news story or onslaught of emails. The quick edits and constantly-moving camera attempt to hold our attention spans, often cramming half-a-dozen cuts in a 10-second time frame. A sentimental score carries our emotions on a journey to the bright and noisy images on the screen. In the midst of international and personal crises, we trust in the CGI-laden, 3D, IMAX, action-packed blockbuster to distract us.

Film will always have this escapist quality to it, but it can also emphasize the beauty and transcendence of ordinary life. Static shots of quotidian actions and objects and the minimization of soundtrack while emphasizing the noise of common life—a door opening, footsteps on pavement, birds or traffic in the background—are all employed to prepare the viewer for the remarkably cathartic moment where grace and the divine break through. Instead of sweeping melodrama or vivid surrealist imagery, the realization of the transcendent occurs as a response to the ordinary and every day, “a meticulous representation of the dull, banal commonplaces of everyday living,” writes screenwriter Paul Schrader, in Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer.

Here’s the catch: this sort of film is boring. In our culture of immediacy, the slow and steady pacing of directors like Yasujiro Ozu and Robert Bresson offers little stimuli for our minds. Both filmmakers employ static shots, deadpan performances, and silence, emphasizing image over plot. This style subverts audience expectations; we often anticipate sweeping soundtracks and empathetic performances, which both Ozu and Bresson resist. Thus, viewers may find their attention span waning throughout the film, even though the final scenes are often cathartic. But boredom is a current cultural anathema. You can entertain, scare, humor, or offend me. Please don’t bore me.

But in our desire to dispel cinematic boredom, we may end up missing out on films which may offer unique insights into the human condition and divine nature. Here’s New York Times critic Manohla Dargis’ defense of slow cinema:

Thinking is boring, of course (all that silence), which is why so many industrially made movies work so hard to entertain you. If you’re entertained, or so the logic seems to be, you won’t have the time and head space to think about how crummy, inane and familiar the movie looks, and how badly written, shoddily directed and indifferently acted it is. And so the images keep zipping, the sounds keep clanging and the actors keep shouting as if to reassure you that, yes, the money you spent for your ticket was well worth all this clamor, a din that started months, years, earlier when the entertainment companies first fired up the public-relations machine and the entertainment media chimed in to sell the buzz until it rang in your ears.

“Is boring bad? Is thinking?”

Fellow Times’ critic A.O. Scott goes further: “Why is it, though, that ‘serious’ is a bad word in cultural conversations, or at least in discussions of film? Why is thinking about a movie an activity to be avoided, and a movie that seems to require thinking a source of suspicion?”

Both suggest that boring may be in the eye of the beholder and argue that there should be room in the filmic diet for both fast-paced entertainment and slow-paced contemplation. They point to the work of Kelly Reichardt, Chantal Akerman, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Andrei Tarkovsky, Hou Hsaio-hsien, and Terrence Malick. Not all of these filmmakers utilize realism or follow the form of Ozu and Bresson’s “transcendental style,” but all emphasize the slow and meditative, giving space and time to focus on the image present before us.

These themes parallel the aesthetic of the liturgical season of Ordinary Time. Directly after the celebration of Pentecost, Ordinary Time falls in the summer and early autumn. (At least for us in the Northern Hemisphere.) Languid and warm, a season of holidays and vacations, time meanders and the weeks can blend together as unseen rhythms take hold of our minds and hearts. For those based on a school year calendar, come summertime, we can easily forget the day of the week. Sometimes it seems like the “exciting” moments in our liturgical calendar—Advent and Pentecost, Lent and Easter—are more significant, the most spiritual.

As a youth pastor, I’ve witnessed to idolize the “camp high,” where young people attempt to stretch a remarkable emotional experience out until the next trip, almost as a sort of spiritual junkie waiting for their next fix. But this spirituality deemphasizes the presence of God in everyday conversations and habits. It misses the significance of spiritual disciplines—prayer, solitude, silence, fasting—which can feel prosaic, but are vital practices in the Christian tradition. Cultivating these practices during Ordinary Time offers us a season intended for growth and maturation.

Let’s not misunderstand “ordinary” for “inert” or “banal.” Injustice, poverty, addiction, and loneliness characterize everyday life for many people, a reality most filmmakers recognize. Bresson’s A Man Escaped centers on a man trying to escape prison. Ozu’s Tokyo Story describes the generational divides between parents and their adult children. Malick’s The Tree of Life centers on the loss of a child; it’s a meditation and lament akin to the book of Job. Broken relationships, systems of oppression, disconnection, the apparent absence of God—these are all common themes in these films. If we engage these slower films as a spiritual discipline, viewing them may open our minds and hearts to empathize with those who are suffering, or to find healing and grace for our own personal pain. In a year where there seems to be an onslaught of horrors in the news and the subsequent vitriol in response to such news, watching these movies may feel like a balm.

Work, school, kids, marriage, eating, drinking, sleeping, walking, reading, writing, thinking, feeling, dreaming, worshiping—this is my every day. I had hoped to watch an Ozu film in preparation for writing this piece, but life interrupted. Every time I attempted to sit down to watch a film, my kids demanded that we ride bikes on the street or laugh at shadows dancing on the pavement. I didn’t feel comfortable staying curled up on my couch. I don’t want to miss a single ordinary, transcendent moment.

Joel Mayward is a pastor, writer, youth worker, and film critic living in Portland, OR. He is author of three books, including “Jesus Goes to the Movies: The Youth Ministry Film Guide.” You can find Joel’s writings on film and spirituality at www.cinemayward.com. Follow Joel on Twitter: @joelmayward.

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The Year in Liturgical Cinema: Ordinary Time