We watch movies for many reasons.
We watch to be entertained, to pass the time, to enter for a while into another reality that keeps us engaged. There are films that make us laugh, that help us see the absurdity of our lives. There are plenty of films that get us sexually and emotionally aroused. There are all those films that bring to a crescendo our lingering feelings of frustration and fear by blowing things up in an inferno of catharsis.
And then there is another kind of film altogether. I call it “translucent,” because it allows light to shine through.
This is the rare kind of cinema that shifts us into a more expansive state of consciousness. Going to the movies in this way is something akin to meditation, or sitting in the presence of the Dalai Lama or another great teacher.
These kinds of films are an acquired taste. They can seem boring, as if nothing special is happening. We nervously wait for someone to get shot, or for the car chase, or the explosions, or the wild, illicit sex. But life is mostly not like that, is it? How many murders have you witnessed (or performed)? How many car chases have you been in, how many massive explosions have rocked your boat? Cinema that transforms and acts as a catalyst for evolution moves at the pace of real life: step-by-step but reliable, subtle and real.
Unfortunately, there is an embarrassingly long list of films that have aimed to be this kind of cinema and failed. Movies that aim to transform can so easily become preachy; the characters become two-dimensional, so any real human interest becomes secondary to the agenda of hitting us over the head with a message.
My favorite example of successful “Translucent Cinema” is American Beauty, written by Alan Ball, and starring Kevin Spacey and Annette Benning. There’s something indescribable about that film that shifts us from the habitual, contracted consciousness of fear, desire and conformity into an expansive view: we can see the human game with clarity, compassion and freedom.
Remember the three and a half minutes we spent watching a plastic bag moving in the wind? That is what I am talking about: we are initiated into paying attention to life-as-it-is.
Recently I attended the world premiere of Milton’s Secret, based on a book by Eckhart Tolle, and directed by Barnett Bain. The story is about bullying among preteens at school, and how it can be overcome. It was beautifully filmed, entirely on handheld cameras with natural lighting. A sequence where the two young boys sneak into a boarded-up building, entirely lit by candlelight, to perform alchemical experiments was lovely. Donald Sutherland gives an extraordinary performance, unlike anything I can remember by him in recent years. Sometimes just with a look, or the most subtle of gestures he presents us with a character who is likable, and at the same time enigmatic and intriguing. There were also fabulous performances from several young actors. William Ainscough as Milton is a natural. Percy Hynes White as the school bully and Milton’s nemesis is spectacular. You can feel absolutely confident that we will see more from these young actors in the years to come.
So yes, I liked this film.
But what I took away above all was not just those things. Just like American Beauty, the film conveys a powerful transformative message and hits that sweet spot between preaching and timidly understating. While our minds are caught up in a compelling story, this kind of film subtly massages our hearts and leaves us more present, and with new insight we hardly noticed slipping in.
It’s hopelessly clichéd these days to say, once again, that the world is out of balance.
We all know, only too well. Terrorism, financial imbalance, climate change, political corruption—it’s in our face every day. Many movies today address these themes, but mostly through dramatically changing external things. The bad guys get chased at high speed, weaving in and out of traffic, and are finally sent to their deaths. The evil bankers are finally delivered into the hands of the FBI. The megalomaniac’s headquarters are blown up in the mother of all explosions, while our valiant heroes kiss on the beach at sunset.
Translucent cinema like Milton’s Secret, American Beauty, and many others show us where real change and evolution happens: within our own consciousness. We are invited to see the world through different eyes, instead of first trying to change the world itself. As a result, we are not just entertained: we are woken up.
Author: Arjuna Ardagh
Editor: Catherine Monkman