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Derek Best has contributed to several publications, including Macleans Magazine Canada, and Omni Magazine, USA. He is has also produced many documentary films for Television. For many years, he has been interested in A Course in Miracles, a metaphysical thought system, and maintains the official website for that organization. "ACIM", he says "is central to my personal way of seeing the world." This site is strictly personal however. Derek has an eclectic range of interests, and writes about them here as the mood strikes him.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

In like a lamb, out like a lion.

Still on the subject of film and its ability to move us. What makes a moment in a film or book, poem or song - into a great moment? Even the most "pop"-ular culture has its epiphanies. Some, like "I'll be back," may seem like just catch-phrases to be sure. But a catch-phrase only catches because it has an element of universal truth that makes it stick. On the surface, "I'll be back" seems neither true nor false: just boastful. However the "truth" of it lies not in the specific context in which it was uttered, but in the more general way it symbolizes the universal resilience of the human spirit. Extrapolating this larger meaning was the function of a generation of movie-goers. Now there is hardly a defeated sportsman or politician who does not mouth the words - to instant recognition.

Should we minimize its significance because it came wrapped in a package of popular entertainment? Best to remember that Shakespeare Chaucer, Dickens, even Mozart were once just “popular” entertainment. Everyday we are deluged with a chaotic shower of words and images: some random, some accidental, some carefully crafted. It does not seem to matter where they come from, or why. It does not matter if they are fact or fiction. What matters is what universal truth we can extract from them. "These are the times that try men's souls," "We have nothing to fear but fear itself," "We have nothing to offer but blood, sweat, toil, and tears," "The meek shall inherit the earth," "To be, or not to be?” even -- "May the force be with you." Who cannot feel some connection to a common humanity in ideas like these?

The problem is not really understanding the impact of such ideas, but understanding how they become heard in the first place above the daily random noise. Consider if "On the Waterfront" were a ninety minute documentary about fishing, with one lament by a fisherman in the middle about how "I coulda been a contender" because some big fish got away from him. Would it still be a part of the American lexicon? I submit that it would not, because with few exceptions, the packaging and the presentation of the ideas are as critically important as the ideas themselves.
In other words, if we hope to teach and inspire, we must accept that for most people, form plays a greater role than content. Is this not, after all, the world of forms? Style – if not more important than substance – is at least of equal importance when attempting to heal the mind. And what is art but style? And what is great art but great truth wrapped up in great style.
A catch phrase is really inspiration presented with the subtle sleight of hand of style. In my opinion, it only succeeds if it can be interpreted on more than one level. The lower level is consistent with the illusion or the plot or the story. In this context it can be accepted without objection because the ego’s guard is down (the willing suspension of disbelief) So “I’ll be back” is just Arnie being cool, and that’s funny! But “I’ll be back” as a universal declaration of human indomitability is more profound, more heavyweight, and more threatening because it requires more thought. Normally the ego, with its propensity to move rapidly from “suspicion to viciousness” would reject such an idea, tainted as it is with the scent of a power greater than itself But wrap it in science-fiction, or patriotism, or soap-opera, and it is allowed to enter. Once in the human psyche it can take root and flower.

We can see exactly the same pattern in “May the Force be with you.” In order for Lucas to succeed with “Star Wars” it had to communicate on more than one level. The ego can ignore comic-book and fairy-tale truisms as nothing but modern nursery-rhymes. The “Force” in question can be accepted without question if it is no more than ancient mythobabble. But once instilled in popular culture it becomes modern mythobabble, and that can be dangerous, for what is the whole illusion if not just a hugely complex and universally accepted myth? Counter-myths or “movements” represent a real threat to the ego.

So the artist, to be successful has to practice cunningness of style. Perhaps this is a more apt definition of the word “craft”. His craft is to package healing medicine in a sugar coating. Not until we have innocently swallowed it do we realize its greater powers. With "I coulda been a contender" suddenly we are not just listening to some washed-up boxer lamenting wasted opportunities, but to humankind itself – to the anguished cry of the collective human psyche – admitting to life’s ultimate lack of purpose.

In like a lamb, out like a lion” is how great ideas are conveyed. We cannot be force-fed, for we will spit them out. In Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” the line “Miles to go before I sleep” is just a folksy little estimate of time and distance. No problem. We can accept that, so into the mind it goes. But it is repeated – “Miles to go before I sleep” Now we are disconcerted. We cannot spit it out for we have already swallowed it. But the sugar coating is off and the true meaning is apparent. We are mortal, and the distance we all must traverse before the final sleep may be great, but it is finite, and we are all getting there. The end may be closer than we think.
Frost’s truth may not be the truth of course. Those of us who view all life as an illusion are perhaps less concerned about the end of illusion. But getting to that point is – to say the least – difficult. A Course in Miracles tries to give us a framework, but be that as it may, most artists struggle with the insoluble paradoxes of the grand illusion. However those struggles inspire us, making inspiration the function of the artist.

The highest purpose of art is to inspire. What else can you do? What else can you do for anyone but inspire them? - Bob Dylan.

In a sense, all successful healing must be presented as a double entendre. If you think about it, another word for this is parable. Jesus of Nazareth, if he existed, must have been master of this craft. All of his healing messages were sugar-coated. They were wrapped up as everyday messages about everyday folks and happenings: sons who ran away and came home, strangers helping injured strangers on the street, servants investing their masters’ money, and so on. According to the gospels, most people readily accepted these stories because of their simple-homely content and format. Only after did the more universal truths begin to thrive and grow from the deceptively simple seeds.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the cliche of the classic movie line provides life in American society. What would Americia be without catchy lines? Our four fathers built a nation on catch phrases. It is the zest and zeal of being able to sum up meanings in only a few words such as, "you had me from hello" that makes something so short and sweat become huge and flavorful! I believe we go through life searching for the perfect phrase to sum our own reasons for being. The question is what will be yours?

9:19 AM  
Anonymous marian said...

Style is a big concern for me. I feel like I have a bit to say, but I want it to be said it a way that makes it easy to hear. Makes it non-threatening to whatever extent that's possible. Lately I've been taking a few more risks and trying to be a bit more direct. But, you know, the medium is the message.

10:16 AM  

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