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Melbourne independent filmmakers

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Michael Lee

 

 

A Contemplation
of the Cross

The intentions of the filmmaker

by Michael Lee


This essay was written in 1989 and is published here for the first time.

A Contemplation of the Cross (1989, 27 mins)

My film A Contemplation of the Cross has as its theme the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. This historical event became a theme in Christian painting and sculpture in the third century when Constantine abolished crucifixion in the Roman Empire. Prior to that, when crucifixion was the common form of execution for the basest criminals, it seems that Christians were apparently too ashamed to depict their founder upon the cross.

Our primary source of information about this event is the New Testament, with its various narratives. These narratives, although formulated long after the event, were probably based on oral accounts by eye witnesses. The event itself is not extraordinary. Many thousands of crucifixions occurred in that period, and all through history we see that those who challenge the entrenched evils in the institutions of their society are usually got rid of in some similar way.

What makes Jesus' execution unique is that it was not the end of him. After his death and burial some people claimed they saw him again, spoke with him, ate with him and touched his body which, though mysteriously transformed, still bore the wounds of his crucifixion. Many people believed these witnesses and have continued to do so for the last 2000 years. This belief has transformed lives and cultures and has had a profound influence upon world history. In fact most people on earth number the passing years from the estimated date of Jesus' birth.

So this execution of an itinerant rabbi, in what was then a minor outpost of the Roman Empire, is full of mystery. His cruel torture and death was an apparent failure of his mission to preach the power of God's love and compassion for us, yet it was the beginning of a world transforming religion.

My work in the medium of motion pictures derives more from the art of painting than it does from either theatre or literature. In Contemplation of the Cross, I am not concerned with presenting a dramatic re-enactment of the crucifixion - the story is already well known - nor with giving a visual impression of what the event may have appeared like all those years ago. I am concerned with the inner meaning of the event. I am making an icon. Icons are highly stylised, they do not attempt to present an historically accurate picture, they are concerned with stimulating meditation upon a sacred mystery.

As I see it there seven sequences in the film, so I will go through them giving some account of what I was trying to illustrate in each one.

The opening sequence, in black and white, is of Jesus carrying the cross-beam to the site of his execution. Here I am trying to indicate that his fate is shared by us all, as we are all, in our own ways, moving towards death. He stumbles on amidst scenes of war and death; he falls onto the earth which contains the bones of dead ancestors. He is stripped and held down onto the cross.

The second sequence is in colour. Here I try to show the suffering that Jesus' body endured by intercutting images of hands and feet being nailed with actions his hands and feet may have performed during his life. Simple actions that we all perform - walking, washing, holding, breaking open fruit. Again I am indicating the common fate of human bodies - though they are marvellous and beautiful they end in death.

The sound track for this sequence is the ancient Gregorian chant "Kyrie Eleison". An English translation from the Greek is

Lord have mercy on us
Christ have mercy on us

It is a plea to God to free us from our sinfulness and mortality. It is a prayer to Christ asking forgiveness for killing him.

The third sequence returns to black and white images and continues with Jesus being nailed to the cross and then the cross raised. Superimposed over this are images of human strife, war and destruction. Here I am showing human sinfulness. The image of the crucified Jesus summarises, for me, what has been going on all through human history - human slaughter. It goes on from century to century and in apathy we consent to it. I use footage of the Nazi death camps and nuclear explosions because, for me, they illustrate most profoundly, the calculated effort of human will to pursue evil. Christians have accused Jews of killing Christ - in the Nazi death camps Christians killed Jews and at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the two major centres of Christianity in Japan, Christians killed Christians. Evil is within our human nature - we are all executioners and we are also all victims. The scenes of Christ crucified are intended to show the human condition and the impossibility of freeing ourselves from it. No human institution and no spiritual tradition has been able to eliminate human evil.

Yet in this evil act, the brutal murder of an innocent man, evil did not triumph. Contrary to all expectation, hope dawned in the hearts of his devastated disciples. A hope that our evil can be forgiven. This man we killed became the source of a hope which has been the foundation of many millions of lives ever since, a hope that death is not the end.

The music for this sequence is a setting of the old Latin prayer "Agnus Dei" by the Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly. An English translation of the text is

Lamb of God,
Who takes away the sins of the world,
Have mercy on us.

Then follows the fourth sequence where the dead Christ's side is pierced with a spear and blood and then water flow out from the wound. Here I have used coloured inks and painted the blood and water directly onto the film emulsion. Amidst the flow of blood emerge glimpses of images produced by Christian artists through the centuries. The major idea that I hope this sequence will communicate is that the shedding of Christ's blood, the pouring out of his life, gives life to the world. The blood and water flowing from the side of the crucified Jesus is a life-giving fountain. It is the source of all Christian art and music and literature through the centuries and more importantly it is the source of that hopeful trust in the mercy of God which has empowered so many people to perform acts of genuinely unselfish love. That such a brutal murder could bear such wonderful fruit is a mystery beyond human understanding. Job questioned God concerning the apparent injustice in the world - he did not get an explanation for an answer - but he ceased questioning and was satisfied, because he had an experience of the awesome power and mystery of God.

In the next sequence I try to give the audience an opportunity to contemplate the mystery of God - the transcendence of God. Here I use abstract geometrical patterns. This is a traditional means of bringing to mind God's transcendence. In Islam especially, where the iconoclastic tendency, deriving from the second of Moses' ten commandments, discouraged representational imagery, abstract decoration in mosques was intended to transport the viewer into an awareness of the wonder and otherness of God. In some traditions of Buddhism, yantras - abstract configurations - are used as objects of meditation.

The soundtrack for this sequence is the Latin hymn "Adoro Te Devote", attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas of the thirteenth century. Its basic theme is the transcendence of God. An English translation of the first verse by Gerard Manly Hopkins is

Godhead here in hiding, Whom I do adore
Masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more:
See, Lord, at Thy service low lies here a heart
Lost, all lost in wonder at the God Thou art.

Most of the abstract patterns I use are based upon an intersection of vertical and horizontal lines and so it is the cross which emerges again. Though the killing of Jesus on a wooden cross was an historical event, for Christians it is also an eternal event. It is a moment where time and eternity meet. The horizontal line which defines the bounds of our earthly existence is cut through by a vertical - a descent from above and an ascent from below. It is on the cross of Christ that the eternal God from above descends and, participating in our human life with its inevitable end - death - makes it possible for our human nature to ascend and participate in eternal life. The crucifixion is the centre-point of history and through it history is redeemed and the gateway to eternal life is opened.

In this sequence I exploit the unique quality of the motion picture medium to present to the eye 24 still pictures every second. Here the pictures are not related so as to produce the illusion of motion, but are arranged in various ways to produce the effect of a dynamic stillness.

I did not feel that it was appropriate to end on this transcendent note but felt that I had to bring the film back to earth. Transcendent visions may come - but they are momentary - and return us to the pain and strife of human existence which must be endured until death which is always with us - each moment of our lives we are dying. But, because of the cross, our response to suffering can be transformed. God came and suffered because of us and with us and is still suffering with us. We can see our suffering as a participation in Christ's suffering on the cross.

So in the next sequence, the sixth, I focus upon the principle means by which I, as a Christian of the Catholic tradition, acknowledge my desire to participate in the divine life of Christ, that is by eating the bread and drinking the wine in the rite of the Mass. This rite instituted by Jesus himself commemorates his death on the cross. By participating in the ritual I join with others who are following him in the hope of a resurrection like his after our death.

The image of a rock which becomes a loaf of bread indicates that in reality our bodies are sustained by the fruits of the earth. The earth is transformed into the wheat and grapes which we make into bread and wine that sustain us and give us life. As a Christian I believe it is God who gives me my life and sustains it every moment and so by eating the bread and drinking the wine in Holy Communion I acknowledge that life comes to me through Jesus Christ.

The music for this sequence is a setting, by the Melbourne composer, Roger Heaghney, of the following words

Jesus Christ we adore Thee
To Thee, O Christ, we give praise
By Thy cross, by Thy holy cross
You have redeemed the world.

The final sequence is an image of thousands of birds being released from cages and ascending into the sky to form a flock. This image, like others in the film, has the potential for multiple interpretations. Following is a translation of the words of the Gregorian chant which accompanies the final image.

Saving victim, opening wide heavens gate,
Wars and enemies press hard against us;
Give us strength, bring us help.
Everlasting praise be to the Lord, one and three.
May he give us everlasting life
In the land where dwells our Father. Amen.


Michael Lee, 1989 - 2003.
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Melbourne independent filmmakers is compiled by Bill Mousoulis