Steve gives us a typically insightful look at a filmmaker who really tries to take seriously–and conduct us into the minds of–pre-modern people who really and genuinely did not look at the world the way we do:
C.S. Lewis, in his preface to St. Athanasius’ On The Incarnation, wrote a brisk apologia for reading premodern authors, later published under the title “On the Reading of Old Books.” Lewis’s simple thesis is that we are all inescapably cultural products of a particular time and place, and reading old books broadens our horizons, liberating us from the myopia of our age.
There is no hint of a narrative of decline in Lewis’ argument: Future books would in principle be quite as broadening as old ones, he notes wryly, but “unfortunately we cannot get at them.” At the same time, his argument is both a repudiation of and a remedy for chronological snobbery. The tendency to condescend to past ages, as if our own moment were the most advanced product of a constant evolutionary cultural advancement, is best refuted by meeting our cultural elders as often as possible.
When it comes to movies, of course, the timeline of available material is sharply restricted: “Old movies” can mean movies only two or three decades old, and at most take us back only to the early 20th century, with fleeting glimpses of the late 19th. Movies, like books, can be set in any time period or cultural context—but most period films reveal much more about the times in which they were made than the times they are ostensibly about.
“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” L.P. Hartley famously quipped. Still, few films about the past give the viewer the feeling of visiting a foreign country—or of watching, so to speak, a foreign film. Instead, most period films fall into at least one of two opposite traps: Either they condescend to the past with triumphalistic chronological snobbery, or they project anachronistic, contemporary attitudes and ideas onto past eras, or both.
One who wishes to write effectively about the past—or to effectively depict the past in cinema—must begin, as Lewis counsels, by reading old books: not just one or two, but as many as possible. Few filmmakers have the inclination or the aptitude for that kind of rigorous research.
Which brings us to Robert Eggers.
Much more here, which you definitely should read.
As for me, I’m reading THE DISCARDED IMAGE by C.S. Lewis, which is a look at the medieval imaginative model of the universe. It’s actually a book that comes out of what he did for a living rather than his massive vocation as a lay evangelist and catechist, so it’s interesting to hear Lewis the scholar focusing on his field of expertise.
Anyway, one of the things he notes (in a tour de force of erudition, only some of which I think I understand) is that the paradox of reading medievals is that, while we care enormously about situating figures in the context of their historical period and the assumptions of their particular time, place, and culture (which is a huge part of what Lewis is doing in this book) medievals had no interest in this at all and cheerfully dressed everybody from the past in their own culture, clothing and assumptions and took for granted that, say, Julius Caesar, Arthur, or Achilles all thought about things pretty much exactly same as they did. There is a curious Medieval cast of mind which sees common humanity across all cultures and generations trumping all and the specificities of language, culture, religion, and philosophy as not that big a deal when it comes to penetrating the minds, hearts, and actions of people from long ago and far away.
It reminds me of a funny moment when Lewis’ friend Charles Williams was listening to his barber say that, “When I’m with my girl, she just makes me want to be the best man I can be.” Williams leapt from his chair, shook the man’s hand vigorously and said, “My good man, that is exactly the way Dante felt!” Williams, steeped in Dante, had the medieval outlook Dante had and saw no historical or cultural gulf at all between Dante and his barber.
Anyway, interesting book!