A Chance To Do My Very Best

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A Chance To Do My Very Best

I just hosted a podcast discussion at The Kindlings Muse with three film critics on the topic, “The best movies about God you’ve never seen.”

For you film lovers out there I’ll disclose the top three in no particular order: Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire, Krysztof Kieslowski’s The Decalogue (described by Stanley Kubrick as the only masterpiece he could name in his lifetime) and finally Babette’s Feast written by Karen Blixen (novel) and Gabriel Axel (screenplay).

Babette’s Feast is the story of a famous Parisian chef who flees the French civil war and lands incognito in a small seacoast village in Denmark. There she works for two spinsters, both devout daughters of a revered but joyless puritanical minister. After many years, Babette unexpectedly wins a lottery, and decides to create a masterful French dinner, which is so sumptuous it leaves all the legalistic guests fearing for their souls.

Among many themes developed in the film, is the role of the arts in enriching human life by helping us become more fully alive. Near the end of the film the narrator observes, “Throughout the world sounds one long cry from the heart of the artist. Give me the chance to do my very best.”

This phrase always catches me off guard because excellence is not really in vogue these days.

Great art takes time. Babette spent days preparing the meal and her timing was precise and measured. There was no room for error and no faster way to achieve the end result. We on the other hand live in an instant, get it done quickly society.

Ironically two of our four panelists on the show are on writing deadlines for books (true confession I am one of them). Deadlines are good and important, but when the work isn’t coming together the prudent path is to serve no book before it’s time; the most common approach however is to stop refining and improving the work so it can make the publishing cycle. My friend is in the final stages of editing and is allowed only to deal with punctuation and spelling. He is forbidden to rewrite any sections he finds sub par. Picture Michelangelo suspended upside down in the Sistine Chapel being told he needs to wrap it up and call it quits even though he isn’t satisfied with the angle of God’s finger reaching to touch man’s.

Great art is seldom motivated by money alone. Babette invested everything she won in the lottery in buying the ingredients of one feast for which she charged the guest nothing. While it is true most of the great artists were scrambling to stay alive and usually living on the edge of financial ruin, the best of their work was generally done out of a passion for excellence than simply for a paycheck. Today issues of marketability and money drive today’s artist, particularly in popular culture. Most true artists in contemporary film and music are constantly at odds with the business instincts of advisors who push them to compromise the artistic vision for a better bottom line. One of my friends, an award-winning composer, has been assigned a project for which she lacks passion and has been told to do the bare minimum to fulfill the contractual obligation. Nothing kills an artist’s spirit more than being told to do inferior work and put their name on it.

Great art usually makes demands on the audience. Babette brought out turtle soup to guests accustomed to bland potatoes and bread. Most didn’t want to try it. All the films our panelists chose are by foreign filmmakers and are subtitled. They are not “entertaining” in the normative use of the word in American culture. They are thoughtful, literate and at moments visually disturbing. Today’s typical audience simply isn’t up to it, accustomed as they are to fast-paced Hollywood blockbusters with minimal dialogue, maximum special effects and ease of access.

British artist Richard Hamilton, credited with creating the first work of pop art, was also the first to define its ethic: “mass-produced, low-cost, young, sexy, witty, transient, glamorous, gimmicky, expendable and popular.” An audience fed junk food is not ready for a rich feast.

The reason some of the best movies about God have never been seen is that we have lost our appetite for the sumptuous feast made possible by artists who are spiritually, intellectually and creatively precocious and who have been given a chance to do their very best.

Yours for the pursuit of God in the company of friends, Dick Staub.

PS. And remember, “these are the best of times and the worst of times, but they are the only times we have.” (For Now).

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    Posted in Staublog in October 27, 2009 by | No Comments »

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