Art as a Mirror: Enlightening evening at the Lightbox

When I was teaching ESL here in Toronto, one of my colleagues asked our group of staff to share with each other a novel that had changed their life.  To our surprise, one of the teachers dismissed the activity saying, “How can a novel change your life; it is just a story”.  Sometimes in spiritual groups I also hear people suggest that reading or watching fiction is a waste of time, or is somehow almost immoral.  To me this demonstrates a continuing misunderstanding and diminishing of the role of art and literature in our lives.  Does this have something to do with the idea that the stories are untrue?  In my view, stories are almost always a vehicle for messages about the mysteries and predicaments of life.  Rather than using a discursive, direct approach to sharing, the ‘fiction’ writer knowingly or unknowingly embeds these messages through themes, symbols and the experiences of the characters.  Reading, hearing or watching stories unfold gives us the opportunity to explore aspects of ourselves and of life that we may otherwise have glossed over.  Art, stories, films, like nature, can be as transformational as the experiencer is willing to allow them to be.  Some act like sledgehammers, radically shifting our understanding; some are subtle and penetrating.

Sunday night I went to the Lightbox, a film complex created for the Toronto Film Festival which is now showing their top 100 films.  My aunt, uncle and I chose to see a film of the French nouvelle vague by Agnes Varda called Cleo de 5 a 7.  The film started straight away from a black screen, and ended directly to black, really adding to the feeling of the film as a piece of art rather than a commodity.  The film, in black and white, starts out up close and personal in a very tight shot of the cards being turned over in a tarot reading.  Rather than typical narrative, the film proceeds as snapshots of Cleo’s life as it is lived, down to the few minutes at a time.  She relates her tarot reading to her assistant in a cafe; buys a hat and arranges to have it delivered; goes home and changes clothes to recline for a few minutes with a water bottle, before going out again to wander the streets of Paris.  As she considers her mortality, she happens past a few disturbing street performances; the faces she sees in the crowd are mostly elderly, and we have the impression they have weathered the challenges of the war etc.  After connecting with a friend between engagements, she is guided to go to a park where she meets a young soldier about to return to Algeria.  His remarks about the rhythms of the park’s visitors, the astrological season, and the flowering Polownia trees shift our perspective from the fragmented, seemingly meaningless barrage of sensations in an urban life to a savouring of the moment as it is.  As the soldier is about to ship off to an uncertain fate, and Cleo receives the news from her doctor that she is in for 2 months of radiation, the whirlwind of her day settles.  She expresses the feeling that they in fact have a lot of time to share, and that she has the impression of being suddenly happy in the moment.

Of course the final quarter of the film reminded me of yoga and the process of coming back to the moment through nature, through authentic connection and the utter dropping of pretense, in this case facilitated by an anonymous party’s expression of compassion and listening.  But the style of the film, the experiential nature of its telling through accompanying Cleo on her day’s journey, alerted me to my addiction to narrative, to the cohesive story as a medium for meaning.  Like ritual, the bald witnessing evoked by the form of the film was powerful and transmitted a very simple but salient message as if it were gleaned through lived experience.  This experience confirmed for me yet again that writing, reading, making and participating in art can be a form of spiritual practice.


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Julie Groulx
    Nov 25, 2010 @ 14:04:29

    Just as life acts as a mirror that informs us of our selves, our own form of artistic expression as well as that of others can be as well. Hmmm… you’re on to something and you’ve got me thinking. Thank you for sharing these insights. 🙂


  2. Chetana Panwar
    Nov 25, 2010 @ 16:03:48

    My aunt and uncle commented to me on this post, and I wanted to share their very insightful reflections:

    Wish we had seen your blog before we went to the movie!
    Carol has been thinking about it too. She suggests that the bed ( which was so wildly out of place in the ‘business office’ in which she changed into pajamas to meet with her business coleagues), and the kittens, were, in fact, a metaphor for the way women in general are forced to relate to reality. And that the close supervision she was under during the first part of the movie, was just an acknowledgment of the way we force women in general to shield themselves from reality. And that it was only when she broke away from the bedroom environment, kittens and forced supervision in which we had confined her (and all women) – that she found freedom, reality (the Algerian veteran) and finally happiness, security and freedom from fear (remember her comment at the beginning “I am always afraid” and her last words “I am no longer afraid!”).


  3. Quinn
    Jan 16, 2011 @ 00:32:47

    I am looking up that film right now!

    Art for me, and the act of creation itself, is most definitely a spiritual practice. I first discovered this in college as I was a theatre major. I was acting in a play about Shakers who were a religious group (much like Quakers) that felt God within them and shook. We had to learn about the experience and simulate the physicality on stage. Our coach taught us breathing exercises from yogic traditions, Sufis, and more. That was my first experience with such a thing, I learned so much about my body and the ideas of enthusiasm, or en theos, having the God within. That then led me to see acting itself as a spiritual practice of inhabiting my body and surrendering to the moment….which then led to yoga of course!

    Thanks again for sharing. Your writing is so eloquent!


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