In Praise of Film

film1.jpgOne problem with much of the Christian commentary on the arts is that it treats every medium essentially the same. Television, music, film, stage, the internet, literature, and illustrated novels are all treated vaguely as one giant neutral monolith by which culture influences weak Christians. The truth is that these mediums are drastically different in what their primary uses are, how they are received, the amount of influence they can have, and their conditioning effects on our culture.

In an effort to demonstrate this, as well as to make us more aware and intentional in the ways we consume and interact with pop culture as a whole, I am beginning a series on the benefits and dangers of various mediums.

This week, I begin by sharing some benefits of the medium of film.

Film Provides Common Ground
We live extremely individualistic lives. Private rather than public transportation is the norm. Communal living, even with close relatives, is seen as odd and even unacceptable. Recent developments have allowed us to have our news and entertainment tailor made for our tastes. With the variety of television channels, web sites and musical outlets, it’s rare to find any common ground with the average person these days.

However, for a number of reasons, blockbuster films have become cultural events. Even if someone hasn’t seen the number one film in the country, odds are they have some idea what it’s about. Best of all, usually these films give us opportunities to talk about big ideas. A quick look at last week’s top two movies – Juno and I Am Legend – demonstrates this truth adequately.

Film Provides Opportunities for Communal Experience
A few years ago, Hollywood panicked. With the rise of home theater systems, the increased ease of home movie rental, and the rising costs of movie tickets, theater ticket sales seemed to plummet. Many predicted that movie theaters as we know them would soon die away.

And yet, this year movie theaters recovered splendidly. Seemingly every other week another film had defied expectations and brought in more money than anyone expected. People may have been watching film at home, but that didn’t stop them from also watching in the theater. The reasons for this are many and varied, but it’s hard to deny the human being’s fundamental desire for community. As much as we hate that annoying couple that talks during the movie, the cell phones going off and the 14-year old theater hoppers, nonetheless we keep returning to one of the only remaining community experiences left.

Film Often Challenges Our Most Base Instincts
We go to movies with expectations. We want to laugh, cry, cheer for the good guy, or solve a mystery. Sometimes, though, we have expectations that are less than desirable. We want revenge. We want the married woman to leave her husband for the man she’s “meant” to be with. We want a typical, formulaic “happy” ending. But films, when used rightly, have the ability to draw attention to some of our worst tendencies as human beings. The Kingdom, though flawed, does an excellent job at catching us red-handed as we thirst for the blood of our enemies. We want to see them bleed, and not for justice sake, but because it makes us feel good. Juno challenges our desire to shirk responsibility and “be ourselves.” Once shows us the glorious happy ending that can result if we just forsake the self-centered “happy ending” we wrote ourselves.

Film Treats Life Meaningfully
We get our fair share of biopics and tales about people and situations already deemed “important,” in the movie theater, but some of the best and most loved stories in film are those that feature normal people. In a culture in which we idolize celebrity, film often embraces the regular guy or girl. Implicit in the film about a regular person is the idea that the story of the regular person is in fact worth telling.
Beyond that, life itself is given meaning in even the most pessimistic and nihilistic films. When we watch a film, every moment in that film has our undivided attention. We treat each moment as if it is crucial. Even when the character on-screen does not, the viewer redeems the time, and seeks out the ultimate meaning in every situation.
This may seem irrelevant to the Christian, but in fact it fulfills one of the greatest needs today: to instill in people a sense that every moment is crucial to the big picture and that life should be lived thoughtfully.

Film Provides a Rare Means of True Mainstream Art
The average American doesn’t seek out opportunities for artistic experience. Museums are not cultural staples, there are little to no artistic expectations for today’s popular music, and television is more about entertainment than excellence. Every weekend, however, scores of people make their way into theaters and partake in something which – in addition to being entertaining – was also often challenging, beautiful, and well-crafted. This is most likely the case because film takes such a long time to produce. Writers and directors know that they’re going to spend a significant fraction of their life on any one film, and the last thing many of them want to do is waste it on something like Norbit. Cynics might say that good art is rarely seen at film theaters, but when we compare film with the other popular mediums of the day, one can’t help but admit film’s artistic superiority.

All of these are benefits that can be missed or ignored by the thoughtless person or the skeptic. In order to reap these benefits, we must watch film with them in mind. As Christians, we musn’t go into a film waiting to be offended. Instead, we must treat film-going as we should any other part of life: making the most of the time, and watching to the glory of God.

Next week: The Dangers of Film

About Richard Clark

Richard H. Clark is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Christ and Pop Culture. He has a Master of Arts in Theology and the Arts from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He lives in Louisville, Ky. He is also the managing editor of Gamechurch and a freelance writer for Unwinnable, Paste, and other outlets.
E-mail: clarkrichardh [at] gmail [dot] com.
Twitter: @deadyetliving

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    I find myself in agreement that each medium of pop communication, each vessel for culture, has its own unique identity. And that not all media should be viewed in the same way. I agree that analysis of these qualities could be helpful.

    Still, when you say “cynics might say that good art is rarely seen at film theaters, but when we compare film with the other popular mediums of the day, one can’t help but admit film’s artistic superiority,” I can’t help but believe you got caught up in waxing eloquent or something.

    I mean, “artistic superiority”? Seems like a stretch to me.

    Look, I’m all about good film and praising it when it comes about, but I have a hard time seeing how one could categorize a good film (say, Citizen Kane) as superior to, say, good music or good literature or, well, even good art. How does one even begin to make such a decision? John Coltrane vs. James Cameron? Jim Jarmusch vs. Bill Sienkiewicz? The Coen Bros. vs. Harper Lee?

    Nah, I’m not buying it. So I guess I can help but admit film’s artistic superiority. So what exactly do you mean there?

  • Alan Noble

    I think Rich was saying that currently film is fairing better as an art form than say music, not that film as an art form is objectively better than other art forms.

    But I would still have to disagree with Rich. It seems to me that most films are pretty awful nowadays. There are still some gems (Juno, No Country), but most are superficial, commercial trash. When trailers play at the theater, I usually find myself wanting to scream “Don’t see that movie when it comes out! Stop supporting Hollywood garbage!” They made a Bratz movie for crying out loud!

    In Rich’s defense however, any attempt at deciding whether an art form is currently producing mostly good or mostly bad works is inherently difficult.

  • Alan Noble

    Oh and by the way. John Coltrane vs. James Cameron: John Coltrane for the win.

  • Rich Clark

    What I meant to convey was that when it comes to mainstream consumption, I feel much better about the sorts of films that become popular on a regular basis than I do when I look at many of the other mediums.

    I guess I feel like film as an art form works better in the context of this capitalist society, if that makes sense. Sorry I wasn’t more clear.

  • http://scottedwardschultz.blogspot.com/ Scott

    I think I see what Rich is saying.

    The popularity of film might be attributed to its unique incorporation of sight, sound, and story. A sculpture, a cd, and a book each (normally) embody only one of those aspects, whereas film engages its audience with each at once. This makes the medium more readily enjoyable to “the man on the street.”

    Of course, the accessibility of a medium should not be conflated with its general “superiority,” but it does indicate a certain edge the medium has over other media.

    Whereas music (for example) is normally vulgarized or cheapened in order to obtain massive success, films that actually challenge an audience or allow them to consider transcendent ideals which they might not otherwise consider seem to actually succeed on a more regular basis. This is not to say that film (or art in general) is necessarily supposed to be more than entertainment, but the filmmaker certainly has greater liberty in this realm than he might if he were, say, a novelist or a singer/songwriter. Not that a novelist or a songwriter can’t include transcendent ideals in his work, but doing so poses a greater threat to the massive success he might otherwise garner. Filmmaker’s can get away with this because the multi-faceted -ness of their medium holds the audience’s attention long enough to do things that, even if “the man on the street” fails to notice or care about, he will tolerate for the sake of the big explosion that follows.

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    @Rich:
    You may feel better about the films that become popular than you do about the product of other media (and I’m fine with you feeling that way), but I think it’ll be a hard sell for you to make that claim seem like it’s the way the general person feels. That’s what I gathered you to be saying with “One can’t help but admit…”

    I love the stuff that can be accomplished with film. Fantastic storytelling. An elevated visual aesthetic. Overwhelming emotion. And sometimes even a combination of these.

    But honestly, the good stuff is rarely popular. Maybe critically popular, but certainly not popular popular. What is popular is almost universally slight. Here’s the top 5 box office for last year.

    1 – Spider-Man 3
    2 – Shrek the Third
    3 – Transformers
    4 – Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
    5 – Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

    I mean, Spider-Man 3‘s message of Don’t Be Emo notwithstanding, there’s not a lot of artistic and/or worthwhile content in the pop-theater. Now in the out-of-the-way it’s a different story entirely. But then, that’s how it is with most media.

    You won’t often find the best music listening to KROQ. You won’t find the best books on the NY Times Bestseller List. And you won’t get the best comics from Marvel or DC.

    Actually, for my money the novel is the medium through which popularity and greatness most often collide. Sure, Sue Grafton books are popular, but Life of Pi was also a bestseller.

    @Scott:

    Whereas music (for example) is normally vulgarized or cheapened in order to obtain massive success, films that actually challenge an audience or allow them to consider transcendent ideals which they might not otherwise consider seem to actually succeed on a more regular basis.

    You know, I’m not actually sure that’s true. Thoughtful movies, it seems to me, can becomes moderately successful, but I think those successes aren’t the most common thing in the world. And it seems downright rare that a thoughtful film will become honestly popular.

    Again, I think thoughtful films become critically popular. Just not actually popular. Citizen Kane is wildly popular amongst critics, but is hundreds of films below, say, It’s a Wonderful Life for the average filmgoer.

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