“God is in the details,” is probably the second most famous Ludwig Mies van der Rohe quote after “Less is more.” Both of those quotes are about architecture, Mies was one of the great modern architects, a master at making something simple, beautiful. The proportions and details in his buildings make them gorgeous when compared to the hundreds of clumsy imitations that they inspired.
The Seagram Building in New York is an excellent example. There are a number of buildings in New York, and any other city with sky scrapers, that look a bit like The Seagram. When you look, whether quickly or for a long time, you notice how light and delicate the building looks compared to many of its neighbors. This effect comes from the way the building meets the ground, the proportion of the windows, the small exterior I-beams that serve no structural purpose, but provide a small detail that breaks down the scale of th building and keeps the building from looking like a monolith.
Both quotes are also often generally true as well. God is in the details in life, and media, and art. There have been a few works of art that really capture the details of everyday life, the subtly beautiful things, the real magic of life. Surprisingly, television has become excellent at finding god in the details. Shows like The Office (the original BBC version), Freaks and Geeks (NBC), and Louie (FX) have successfully captured the funny and tragic (and funny/tragic) little moments of life, but in my opinion no show has painted the joys and tragedies of day to day life as well Friday Night Lights.
There are plenty of big dramatic moments in Friday Night Lights. (There is even an absurd storyline in the second season that almost ruins the show) It isn’t those big moments that make FNL so special, it’s the small routine moments that live around the drama. Heather Havrilesky described this aspect of the show in her The New York Times Magazine article comparing Friday Night Lights to Glee-
“The real message of “Friday Night Lights” is a message about the joy of little things: the awkward thrills of a first kiss; the strange blessing of an unexpected rainstorm on a lonely walk home from a rough football practice; the startling surge of nostalgia incited by the illumination of football-stadium lights just as the autumn sun is setting; the rush of gratitude, in an otherwise mundane moment, that comes from realizing that this (admittedly flawed) human being that you’re squabbling with intends to have your back for the rest of your life. If “Glee” is about expressing yourself, believing in yourself and loving yourself all the way to a moment of pure adrenaline-fueled glory, then “Friday Night Lights” is about breathing in and appreciating the small, somewhat-imperfect moments that make up an average life.
It’s not hard to see why “Glee” would be more popular right now, but its moment, like the moment of glory it celebrates, feels likely to come and go. Recognizing the impermanence of such moments, “Friday Night Lights” embraces the rough edges, the fumbling, the understated beauty and uncertainty of the everyday. It’s rare for a TV show to acknowledge that happiness is a fragile, transient thing. Although the tenure of “Friday Night Lights” may have proved just as fleeting, its exquisite snapshots of ordinary life won’t fade from our memories so quickly.”
Friday Night Lights’ magic comes from its style as much as its content. The acting style and camera work brings the viewer into the world in a way that makes it possible to notice and appreciate the details. It is VERY real. The Friday Night Lights cameras find the looks that characters share that say more than words ever could. The characters say as little as possible. There are no long chatty scenes, and the characters find ways to talk around things. The cameras watch from behind something or someone, or they are looking through something into the scene. When an character’s back is to a window their face isn’t lit. The houses aren’t too clean, but they aren’t too dirty, they are lived in by people. The camera might tilt down to see the Coach Taylor’s hands gesture as he gives a player advice. There are moments when you can see that a character doesn’t know what to do. They make silent decisions.
What is particularly compelling about the details of everyday life? For one thing it makes a TV show, or movie, or whatever, feel more real. I think another reason is that those details are the things that we remember the most, but don’t document, and are the most likely to die with us. They are the real treasured moments of life, but we treat them like junk. I don’t remember anything the funeral of my friend and nieghbor who died of leukemia when we were 12. I do remember that I beat him at Clue one of the last times I saw him. I remember making up a story the night that he died about us signaling each other with flashlights when after our parents made us go to bed. I forget my first kiss, but I remember an awkward first kiss with an ex because I fell in love with her later, but also because it was pitch black and I couldn’t see her at all. This is what was great about Friday Night Lights, and one of the things that is great about life.
A recent movie that did an excellent job of capturing “the details” was “Tree of Life”, by Terrence Malick. The Malick style is similar to the style of Friday Night Lights. It doesn’t show you something, it puts you there. The middle part of the film follows the young lives of three boys and their parents. They play in the yard, they swim, they eat dinner, they take bubble baths, they fight, they shine flashlights through their sheets, they grow up. There are dramatic moments, but little of that drama is expressed explicitly in dialogue. I saw Tree of Life twice in the theater. I went alone the first time, and with a friend the second, which was good because I cried the first time.
Tree of Life tells us explicitly that it is about the battle between “the two ways through this world” nature- hard, factual, and uncaring, and grace- human, emotional, and loving. A lot of the reviews of Tree of Life discussed the way the film compared the small and insignificant trials and dramas of regular life with massiveness of the universe. The universe- ancient, infinite, uncaring. The people- fragile and insignificant, sending prayers to a god that isn’t there. What are we compared to the universe? Nothing. Our concerns are nothing in “the grand scheme of things.” But significance and meaning are human concepts. There is no meaning in the universe, we make it. Nothing really has intrinsic value, we create value. A falling tree doesn’t make a sound if there is no one there to hear it, and broccolli isn’t green when the refridgerator door closes. We percieve these things. Sound and green happen in our minds. How fortunate are we to get to feel and live and experience? The odds against it are so great. Think of all the billions of years that led up to now. To me this is what Tree of Life is about. The little moments that brothers and families share. The things that shape us. The things nobody else knows. The things that we take to our grave because they never seemed that important, and what it feels like when the other person that remembers is gone. It’s about how lucky we are to get the chance to feel pleasure and be crushed by pain. It’s the battle between grace and nature that yeilds the magic of human experience. It’s us trying to carve grace out of the hard realities of physical life.
God is in the details. God is in accepting nature and struggling for grace. God is in the things that are the hardest and easiest to forget. God is in the ethereal, the most difficult moments to portray and capture. Friday Night Lights and Tree of Life are great because they do capture those moments. I know it sounds hyperbolic, but they find god.
Richard Dawkins was talking about his own death he said the following- “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born…. Certainly those unborn ghosts include poets greater than Keats, and scientests greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people …so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of those stupifying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.”
Dawkins again- “The word ‘mundane’ has come to mean ‘boring’ and ‘dull’, and it really shouldn’t – it should mean the opposite. Because it comes from the latin mundus, meaning ‘the world’. And the world is anything but dull: The world is wonderful. There’s real poetry in the real world. Science is the poetry of reality.”
Charles Darwin, from the last paragraph of Origin of the Species- “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”