One 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.
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