The Act of Reading
Literature participates in both myth and ritual. As a message, worldview, implied metaphysic or ethic, literature can participate in the mythic as a form of "sacred communication." As a message to be imbibed, savored, understood, ingested, embraced and/or comprehended, literature requires discipline and ritual. It becomes a sacred act, at least when the literature is engaging, thought-provoking, life-altering, or simply entertaining. Entertainment is itself an act that propels towards transcendence. So-called "escape literature" tries to catapult us out of the ordinary hum-drum snares of everyday (or profane) existence into moments of sublime release. What are we escaping from in those moments? Answer: time and history. In those moments of supreme release we escape the historical vicissitudes of time-bounded ordinary business as usual, to approach the timeless. Archaic homo religiosus invented entertainment in rituals and festivals that in their most grandiose aspirations were precipitated by a return to the chaos that preceded the creation of the universe. (For more on this line of thinking visit a "Synopsis of the Sacred" on my Homepage.)
What About Going to the Movies?
Drama, like literature, arises from a religiously significant past and involves participation in myth, ritual, and symbol. Just as the literary antecedents and sources of contemporary narratives owe their origins to the sacred stories of archaic religious strata so too does drama owe its origins to the sacred rituals and religious performances of an almost forgotten era. Aristotle points out that the origins of Greek drama harked back to the religious rituals of the Orphic and Dionysian mysteries. These precipitators of drama used to gather at the mouths of caves to invoke the spirits of the departed ancestors. Aided by ritual masks, called personae, the participants were possessed of the characters they were enacting as they performed ritual dramas recounting their valued sacred traditions. Has much changed? Actors still are trying to "get into character," and instead of holding huge festivals at the mouths of caves, we have the Academy Awards with all its sacred rituals and sermons. I have long since maintained that Soap Operas are among the most religious shows on television. They require a loyalty among their audiences which borders on religious fanaticism. Their content is generally about bringing truth to light. There is a strong sense of ethics in the sub-text and an almost providential guidance in the inevitable and eventual resolution of obscure and cloudy issues. This is the rule in soap operas: there is no secret so dark and deep that it will not be brought to light; and, there is no one so evil or good that they cannot be pressed into the service of the secret or the truth it obscures. Sound familiar? Movies like "The Matrix," "Little Buddha," and "Jesus of Montreal" overtly dip into the deep-structure paradigms of both eastern and western religions. In fact, I like to refer to "The Matrix" as "the greatest story very stold," with its bold utilization of western apocalyptic/prophetic messianism and its delving into eastern metaphysical conceptions of reality.
So, How do you find meaning in the movies? Sara Anson Vaux wrote a book entitled Finding Meaning in the Movies in which she discerned several levels of interpretive categories that help reveal what a film is about (you can add these to everything else that has been stated thus far). Like all art forms, movies are about something. In other words, they are objects of and for interpretation and thus can yield meanings that are not far removed from religious or "value-laden" categories. Her categories include "authenticity", "alienation", "purity of heart", "vocation", "celebration", "healing", and "integrity". "Authenticity" has to do with issues of realizing one's own essential selfhood and not being captured in the mold which others would cast us into. "Alienation" is the experience of disharmony in nature and/or community, the sense that someone or something does not belong or has someway been pushed to the periphery. "Purity of heart" has to do with a way of being that is free from malice, ulterior motives, manipulation and truly seeks a positive outcome for others. "Vocation" has to do with finding one's proper calling in life, which is the ability to fulfil one's destiny and to rise to the occasion for which one is properly fit and perhaps absolutely necessary. "Celebration" is the experience, recognition, and rejoicing in gracious appreciation of the gifts life bestows upon us, often in difficult moments of hardship. "Healing" is the experience of renewed existence, restored life, and harmony out of the midst of suffering, despair, fragmentation and mental, physical, or communal infirmity. "Integrity" has to do with issues of ethics and being true to one's self and others