Today we left L.A. behind and drove 71 miles up Highway 101 with a single purpose: to see a famous old mission founded by the Franciscans back in 1786. Old Mission Santa Barbara is still a going concern. Monks study there, retreatants are put up, Mass is said in the church, and the grounds are maintained and art restored for tourists like us.
Our first stop on the self-guided tour of the monastery was the famous STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN. We ached to climb those timeworn stairs, but we hung back, daunted by the legend according to which those with stained souls would only find cactuses on every step. Somewhat shamefacedly we gave the Stairway the go-by and headed for the centuries old GRAVEYARD.
There, too, we met resistance. The SKULL-HAID DOOR challenges all comers with three riddles, one from each skull-haid. Answer correctly and you may pass safely through the portal. Answer wrong and you may still pass, but the skull-haids smirk and make you feel uncomfortable.
On the way out, as we wrapped up our self-guided tour and a visit to the (excellent) Gift Shop, we met BROTHER CAT who blessed us and let us rub his belly.
Ach du lieber! I’ve been Sundanced again! This is what I get for not reading movie reviews. They might have told me that Into Great Silence had been awarded the prestigious I Am Bored to Death by this Stilted Example of Why Films Should Not Be Made With Art Grants Money, But I Think Everyone Else Likes It So I’d Better Vote For It Too Award at the Sundance Film Festival. I could have avoided the thing instead of bailing after fifteen minutes.
Into Great Silence is a German documentary (its title in German is Zum Große Boomennichte) meant to immerse the sporting viewer in the life of Carthusian monks. They’ve taken vows of silence; also of immobility to judge by the portion I endured. The filmmakers, in empathy, took vows of non-focus.
The interminable opening shot was of a monk’s head. His eyes are closed, his head bent. The wide shot following reveals he’s kneeling on a prie dieu, deep in, well, prayer, I suppose. Yep, there his is: praying. He sure is silent! Quiet, too. And immobile. Quiet and immobile. And silent. Greatly silent. Hmm… He sure is praying a lot… Well, of course, he’s a monk. It’s his job in a way. Monks pray…I mean when they’re not chanting, of course. Gotta pray. Just look at him… Pray. Pray. Pray. WHOAH! A sudden return to the close-up of his head! Geez, you could have warned me, filmmakers! I almost had a heart attack!
If you’ve read anything about the monastic life — try Thomas Merton, for example — you have some idea of the intensity of that world; in the social complications of men managing life together, and in the internal struggles of the sprititual life. To reduce that to close-ups of a shaven head is like doing a documentary on a great author by showing a series of ten-minute close-ups of his face while he chews his pen and files his nails and stares out the window. It misses the action.
Well, don’t go by me. I ducked out. Into Big Stillness may be the finest movie ever made, but I’ve been out of school long enough to have completely shed that academically inculcated belief that putting up with dullness is a hallmark of intelligence. The theater is not a classroom. You can leave without penalty.