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Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater Headshot

What 'The Artist' Can Teach Us About Prayer

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Since "The Artist" recently won big at the Oscars, I have been intrigued by the notion of silent film. To be sure, I am no movie buff or even an appreciator of fine films, but trends interest me and how a movie with no words won the biggest awards in today's fast-paced, action-packed, short attention span society in which we live, caught my attention. So, when I saw a full length feature article on the history of silent films, precipitated by "The Artist," in a recent New Yorker magazine, I found myself reading it and learning a great deal. And as I read the article, the author, who actually didn't like "The Artist" whatsoever, got me thinking about the relationship between silent movies and something silent that Jews participate in on a weekly, if not daily, basis.

In his article, critic David Denby ("The Artists," New Yorker, Feb. 27, 2012), explains the beauty and magnificence of silent films in their heyday, 1912-1929, opening up a world of acting and onscreen presence that I had not really thought about before. He describes the emotion displayed on the faces of the actors, how a look or a glance, without any words, can tell us a story. That was the beauty of the silent films, says Denby, as he writes, "Silent film is another country. They speak another language there -- a language of gestures, stares, flapping mouths, halting or skittering walks, and sometimes movements and expressions of infinite intricacy and beauty. The language is all the more difficult to understand because most of us haven't seen silent movies as they were meant to be seen." He goes on to talk about the speed of the films in how they were shot versus how they were viewed. He says, "At the wrong speed, romance or drama may come off well enough in pensive moments, but then a character, reaching a decision, will suddenly race down the stairs like an excited spaniel. The mood is shattered." The post-production of the films ruined the very beauty they were seeking to communicate in their slower speed. And here is where I am going to make my leap. I think that we have something important to learn from the silent film genre about prayer and our connection to this often silent, personal, emotional and foreign idea.

Prayer is also from another time and place, like the silent film. Prayer comes from the world of our ancestors, who both had less information and knowledge of the universe than we have today, and more time to focus on the inner workings of the soul and spirit. Yet, prayer continues to speak to many of us today, as it has throughout the generations. Like the world of silent movies, which was overtaken by the innovation of sound and technology, prayer too has been overtaken by the need to either simplify, shorten, water down or almost eliminate in order to speak to today's Jewish, non-Orthodox community, especially here in America. The same techniques that I read about in regard to the beauty of the silent movie seemed to apply in many ways to the beauty and magic of prayer: nuance, slowing down to appreciate the depth, sharing emotions that are beyond words. This sentence in the article jumped out at me most, "The gestures of visual man [i.e., the film actor] are not intended to convey concepts which can be expressed in words, but such inner experiences, such non-rational emotions which would still remain unexpressed when everything that can be told has been told." I couldn't think of a better way to describe prayer and what we are trying to evoke when we come to bear our souls to God. In describing silent films, Denby says, "The ineffable has been reintroduced into art." I had not seen the word "ineffable" really used outside of a God-context before, and it deepened the sense of what he was trying to articulate about silent film. Prayer, in the same way, is all about trying to speak the deepest truths that we feel within ourselves, truths that often cannot be articulated in words. For ultimately, in bearing our souls to God, we are seeking to bear our souls to ourselves. As Rabbi Harold Schulweis says so beautifully in his book "For Those Who Can't Believe":

Where in all this am I, the petitioner? Turn the questions around. Do I hear my own prayers? Do I know what I want and whether what I want is worthy of being prayed for? Can I myself answer any part of my prayers? Am I moved by my prayers?

As I write this, I am sitting looking at the beautiful San Gabriel Mountains, green and lush, white clouds hovering over the peaks, sun glinting on the sides of the rolling hills. I am blessed to live where nature is so prominent, for the natural world is often a great source of connection to God, to the ineffable, in our daily lives. Yet, even when I lived in Manhattan, in the hustle and bustle of the busiest city in the world, I was able to find a similar connection, a connection to that which is bigger than myself, than which is unspoken yet always permeating around us. Prayer time, which we dedicate as Jews three times a day, is meant to help us cultivate this sense of awareness, this attachment both to the grand experience of the world in which we live, and the silent movie running inside our hearts and souls. We come to pray, either here in the synagogue or in our own spaces, in order to magnify that which is beyond words, in order to reach beyond what we see, hear and touch. Like the nuances of the silent film, which require patience, attention and imagination to understand and interpret, so too does prayer call us to slow down, listen, watch and wait. It is vitally important in our world today and it is why we are working so hard here to create an atmosphere and energy that hopefully is opening up the deeper recesses of our souls, at once with silence and song, with and without words, alone together.

The New Yorker article taught me about Lon Chaney, a star of the silent film world, whom I mostly only knew by name, as he is referenced in the song "Werewolves of London." Denby writes:

Lon Chaney was thrown into extremity from the beginning. His parents were both deaf; as a child, he learned to mime for them, to break through the enclosure of silence, and he exploited silence ever after. He became world-famous playing the malformed in such movies as "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1923) and "The Phantom of the Opera" (1925). Chaney was actually slender and graceful; perhaps he felt he understood the inner nobility of God's more unfortunate creatures. In "Phantom," the young opera singer pulls off his mask, revealing the withered skin, the stunted nose, and the agonized eyes -- still the most famous horror image in all cinema. Chaney opens his mouth in fury and dismay, and then, for the rest of the movie, alternates between menacing the girl and feeling the deepest shame. In recent decades, as horror has become bloody, grisly, and flamboyant, filmmakers have detached us from emotion; they've turned horror into sawed-limb, campy fun. But Chaney, by joining horror to suffering, made it an aspect of life; deformity was just another possibility of our physical nature. The absence of shrieks and clanking sound effects helps imprint the image of that face onto our souls.

I found this comparison to ring true for prayer as well. Like Chaney, King David in the Psalms was able to capture our deepest felt emotions and help us understand that they are all a part of life. Suffering and joy, pain and gladness, certainty and doubt, life and death: in prayer, as in life, they come together to speak the fullness of our experience. Prayer reminds us not to ignore, not to mask, not to shun the myriad emotional feelings we may have at any given moment. Like the silent movie, we too need the space, the patience and the resilience to feel deeply and listen for that which is often unspoken. Denby ends his article by saying, "When silent-movie acting is great, it risks everything." I couldn't think of a better way to describe prayer as well.