Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Support the Northwest Chicago Film Society

Relics are conducive to spirituality.  Physical artefacts from a different time and place provide intimations of a world beyond this one -- the possibility of the uncanny -- and this sense of the magical becomes a portal to religious or mystical understanding.  Important events imbue objects with a glow and a history -- nails from the true cross, a polyester scarf given by Mongolian monks, a sock worn by a saint,  a cardboard image blessed by the Pope -- that transcends their status as molecular and chemical compounds.

Religion and art lift us out of the ordinary into a world of possibility -- into an appreciation of the shimmering glorious tentativity of our fragile and beautiful lives. The best art, like the best religion, opens us up rather than shuts us down -- taking us from particularity to universality -- and bad art, just like bad religion, has the opposite effect. Handling a religious relic gives a believer "goosebumps" -- Otto's numinous experience of the Holy -- and goosebumps are equally implicated in aesthetic experiences.

Musicologically and narratologically, the establishment of an expectation, coupled with the introduction of a detail thwarting and fulfilling that expectation, reenacts the experience of the shimmering presence of the divine rising out of the muck of sublunary existence -- an abbreviated simulation of the psychological mechanism of a religious experience.  Paradoxically, with surprisingly few exceptions, religious art rarely has the compelling vitality that produces a religious experience.

A: When I go to the Orchestra, and hear the Greatest Symphony in the world, play the Greatest Music ever written, conducted by one of the Greatest musicians alive, sometimes -- for a few seconds -- I feel close to God.
B: Do you know what I do when I want to feel close to God?  I feel close to God.

Music, painting and theater may provide sustenance, but some of the most profound moments in my life happened at the movies, watching film run through a projector, with the 24 click-a-second whir being a constant mechanical reminder of the fabricated nature of the experience itself. The waves of the Orinoco River in Aguirre, windshield wipers accompanied by Bach in a Godard movie, the flashback of a boy walking down in the hall in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, the nap during the Turin Horse, the swirling fog at the dock in Red Desert, all have given me goosebumps and taken me to a place where I literally left myself behind, could almost feel myself transported from my body, basking for days in the memory of being filled with wonder and awe and love for the universe and everything in it.

A mystical experience begs for a mystical explanation.  What if the celluloid negative -- a physical object exposed to the physical presence of the physical actions it memorializes -- is imbued with magical, extradimensional traces of that action, passed on to the master print via physical contact with the negative?  What if this umbroken chain of physical contact -- Jimmy Stewart running up the real stairs in a real set recorded by a real camera on real film, becoming a real print that is then really projected onto a real screen -- is what makes projected movies so powerful?  And what if the digitization of motion picture images have drained them of their magical power?

Even without an elaborate quasi-mysterical interpretive framework, projected movies look better than digital ones.  And even if they look identical, they feel better. There is a uniqueness to projected cinema -- old color movies, whose colors vary greatly depending on the film stock and the lab, and which then age in unpredictable ways: a mechanically reproduced object becomes a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  Psychological studies show that the anticipation of enjoyment is more beneficial than the enjoyment itself -- an appointment to see a movie at a particular time transforms something as ubiquitous as moving images into an eagerly awaited rarity. And, finally, do not understimate the joy in surrendering your evening to the idiosyncratic programming tastes of a team of intelligent and careful curators.

In short: The Northwest Chicago Film Society is a civic treasure. Even if you don't go there for a religious experience, you will probably enjoy their movies.


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