I’m sure all artist types – be they brooding, tortured, or (like me) grouchy – have a few of these. There are some artists whose work you don’t just admire or enjoy, but actually changed the way you view the world, art, and its place in the world. When I was younger my favorite books were Moby Dick and Harriet the Spy, so I might be inclined to say Herman Melville and Louise Fitzhugh changed my life, but on the other hand their work reinforced my worldview more than challenged it.
The same could perhaps be said for certain filmmakers – Hitchcock, Tarantino, the Coen brothers – who styles and techniques I find myself compelled to imitate. I love their movies, and maybe it could be said that they made me realize what kind of films I want to make, but as spiritually enlightened as Vertigo, Pulp Fiction, or Fargo might be, I cannot say that they awakened in me a deeper understanding of the supernatural. Again, it is more that I find my own beliefs ratified and completed (in a poetic way) in their films than challenged and subtly reconfigured.
So I’ve chosen three. Three artists who changed my life. I realize as I write this that it just so happens that they represent music, literature, and film respectively, but I assure you this was not by design.
Lady Gaga erupted into popular music at a time when it was languishing in the doldrums of the new millennium. Think back to 2008. Was there anything interesting happening in pop music? I certainly didn’t think so at the time. For a good portion of my life I was a stick-in-the-mud. The music popular among my peers held no appeal to me whatsoever. Then along came Gaga!
I must admit I was skeptical. For some of my musician friends, it wasn’t until recently when she began singing jazz music with Tony Bennett or The Sound of Music at the Oscars that they finally admitted how truly talented she is. But when I first became intrigued by her in early 2010, I knew she was doing something nobody else was doing at the time. She was managing to make wildly popular, massed produced music while still maintaining a remarkable artistic vision.
Lady Gaga roused me from my sad stupor of show tunes and showed me the potential of mainstream music. Nowadays it is not so unusual for pop stars to have a significant amount of talent. I dare say this is all thanks to Lady Gaga. She took the mold of the early-2000s pop star, amended it, and then exploded it. I still marvel at the uniqueness of her work. She is one of the few musicians whose music videos are so intimately linked with the single that the song and the video seem to become one in the mind. So often music videos are just visual afterthoughts set to music, but Gaga’s increasingly epic videos are almost part of the song itself. Her oeuvre (can’t believe I’m using that word) is more of a mythology than just a list of songs.
Now I don’t endorse everything she’s ever done. Sometimes she pushes the limits of moral acceptability. And that song she released last summer, “Til it Happens to You”, was rubbish plain and simple. Sometimes the religious imagery in her videos and performances is troubling, but on the other hand, she is one of the few pop stars willing to touch spirituality with a ten-foot pole, and one of the even fewer who do it successfully. She is certainly no evangelist, but her work is steeped in Catholic religiosity to the point where she occasionally makes a profound theological insight. Her work is hardly Christ-centered, but definitely Christ-haunted.
No surprise here to anyone who follows me or who has simply glanced at the title of the blog. Flannery O’Connor wrote Southern Gothic fiction from the 1940s to her death from lupus in 1964. She has all the markings of a great saint and doctor of the Church. She was incredibly humble, but vastly intelligent in her own way. Through the vocation of her writing, she dedicated her whole life to bringing Christ to a people who had forgotten him. Her work reveals in a mysterious and poetical way, the drama of salvation – how God will chase you down and save you, even if at first you don’t want it. Her best work was done in the throws of a crippling illness which lasted some thirteen years. Wasting away at her farm in Milledgeville, Georgia, on and off crutches, aging prematurely, she saw suffering as especially redemptive.
Her best work was done in the throws of a crippling illness which lasted some thirteen years. Wasting away at her farm in Milledgeville, Georgia, on and off crutches, aging prematurely, she saw suffering as especially redemptive. No one is saved in her stories without some kind of violent intrusion of grace into their hypocritical, corrupt, or indifferent lives. Salvation was made possible by the violence inflicted at the crucifixion, and we humans had better be prepared to participate in it. This concept of redemptive suffering is so central to her work, that she named her second novel The Violent Bear it Away, quoting from an incredibly mysterious passage in Matthew. “The Kingdom of Heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.”
Flannery related this concept also to violence against the onslaught of post-Christian culture. “You must push as hard against the culture as it pushes against you.” She believed it was her calling to be counter-cultural, even when it mean challenging secularism, Jansenism, and sentimentality as they appeared in the Church. She was in many ways like the backwoods, hillbilly prophets of doom so common in her stories.
My debt to Flannery is very great. She is the epitome of what a Catholic dramatist should look like. I can mimic her style, and her theology is so ingrained in me that it has become the lens through which I view my work and indeed the world. I wish I had her humility and gift for self-deprecation. Her fingerprints are everywhere in the films I love, especially those of the Coen brothers. Fargo and A Serious Man might as well have been her third and fourth novels. Like Flannery, the Coens juxtapose humor and violence to shock the audience into a spiritual awakening to the invasive grace of God, to which so many of us are blind and deaf. Many accuse the Coens of nihilism, and so they accused Flannery, because of their seemingly flippant attitude toward human suffering and violence, but nothing could be further from the truth. When you realize that violence and suffering save us, these stories are no longer tragedies but comedies in the classic sense. At the end, everything is set right. Everything is as it should be.
Like Flannery, the Coens juxtapose humor and violence to shock the audience into a spiritual awakening to the invasive grace of God, to which so many of us are blind and deaf. Many accuse the Coens of nihilism, and so they accused Flannery, because of their seemingly flippant attitude toward human suffering and violence, but nothing could be further from the truth. When you realize that violence and suffering save us, these stories are no longer tragedies but comedies in the classic sense. At the end, everything is set right. Everything is as it should be. Flannery used to say, “In my stories, lots of people die, but nobody gets hurt.”
And speaking of spiritual awakenings:
David Lynch is the most recent to change how I see the world, particularly through his TV series Twin Peaks and its prequel film Fire Walk with Me. David Lynch is a surrealist. In his world, dream logic is true logic. Every detail is meaningful, but as a whole his films are meaningless. Twin Peaks was put together intuitively, with little regard for conventions of structure or genre. Before Twin Peaks, I was an intellectual. I used to love to think things out, and had little regard for more subtle ways of knowing. Lynch changed all that.
His films, especially Twin Peaks, are moody and atmospheric. He tells a story almost more by sensing his way through impressions, emotions, and uncanny connections than by thinking through the twists and turns of a plot. Twin Peaks is also thoroughly sacramental. The vast spirit world interacts with the physical world through physical signs. It travels through electricity. Its presence is announced by owls. The spirits live off of pain and suffering, represented by creamed corn. Other mundane objects have a mysterious connection to the supernatural also: spinning record players, fans, engine oil.
Twin Peaks taught me to see the physical as a conduit for God’s grace, not just through the Sacraments, but in less obvious ways. It made me more attentive to the supernatural around me. The veil should have been lifted when I converted to Catholicism, but I was too caught up in my head, in my need to figure things out and understand everything. Now I am more able to notice God speaking in small things, in ways to which I was once deaf.
This more intuitive approach to life has spread to my own work as well. I am much less interested in telling a story that is technically correct, but more in telling one that feels right – that seems to reveal some truth, even if I can’t quite put my finger on what it is. I am less likely to make plans or try to scheme my way through life. It seems to be working so far. My move toward Byzantine Christianity has also been part of this turn. In the East we have a saying, “philosophy does not save”. Sometimes it is better to just surrender to the whims of grace, and not try to figure so much out.