Motion Picture Messages

It’s easy to get caught up in the stimulation of the movies and forget that each film is saying something about the world we live in. It is a popular expression of our culture’s ideologies. As John M. Frame wisely writes, “It is simply false to claim that art has nothing to do with ‘messages.’ Indeed, we are living in a time in which the messages of art are becoming more and more explicit.”[1] Dr. Russ Moore, Vice President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, writes the following about the culture in general:

Christians should ask why culture resonates with the Superman mythology of a hero from beyond the stars who rescues humanity from itself. We should ask why country music singer Toby Keith sings about the unity-in-diversity he longs for in his song “I Love This Bar.” We should ask why, as the City Journal’s Harry Stein points out, trashy talk shows such as “The Jerry Spring Show” always end with a “moral lesson for the day,” despite the fact that the rest of the broadcast has dismissed the very idea of moral absolutes. Why do gangster-rap hip-hop artists sing so much about their rage against an absent father?[2]

All around us our culture is answering the basic questions of life, and they are offering to us a worldview. Movies are not exempt from this truth. For every film that we see there is a message being proclaimed. Some are very easy to discern while others are much more subtle, but nothing is neutral or “simply entertainment” in motion pictures. So how do Motion Pictures share their messages? I have listed here five particular ways that we would do well to note.

First, films convey a message through imagery. This is the point that Gene Edward Veith examines in his article “Message Movies.” Paraphrasing Thom Parham, Veith writes, “Films work metaphorically. Language can communicate with clear propositions, but film communicates instead with symbols.” Movies are a medium of visual stimulation, which explains why some poor stories can still do well in the box office. The imagery on the screen, the way that the plot plays out has as much to do with the message as anything else. Even something as basic as scenery can play a part in the delivering of a message. Let’s look at an example: the Academy Award winning Brokeback Mountain. Writing about the film’s projection of hatred for the Biblical family Dr. Mark Coppenger says:

Brokeback Mountain was billed a gay love story, but the movie was actually a hate story, dripping with contempt for conventional, moral life. Normally, these two utterly implausible homosexual cowboys were forced to suffer the squalor of bland or kitschy quarters, disappointing wives, creepy in-laws, wearisome children, thuggish bosses and dreary work back in town, but their spirits soared as they ascended the high country with rushing brooks, big skies, snow capped peaks, lush mountain meadows and crisp, clean air. Alas, after soulful hugs, etc., these Marlboro Men were forced to once again assume their places in the sad world of heterosexual marriage, gainful employment, and civic responsibility, a world disparaged by director Ang Lee.[3]

According to Coppenger the director of this controversial film uses beautiful scenes to express his own idea of the beauty and freedom of homosexuality. It is not the heterosexual scenes that are depicted with “rushing brooks, big skies, snow capped peaks,” etc. it is the homosexual scenes. Not all films convey their messages this way, but it is important to note that nothing is neutral, aesthetics included.

Secondly, films spread their messages by means of story. This of course is the most basic means of the message. It takes no effort to see how the storyline of a movie like Brokeback Mountain contains  a pro-homosexual message. But all movies, whether blatant or subtler, contain a message. So even the Dreamworks’ film Over the Hedge is a “genial poke at the conspicuous consumption habits of food and lawn-care obsessed suburbanites from the perspective of wide-eyed animals just trying to survive,”[4] writes Veith. The story is, of course, what all the imagery points to, what the dialogue explains, and what most clearly demonstrates the worldview of the film as a whole. Some will be harder to discern, such as Tim Burton’s Big Fish,[5] and others are obvious, like the environmentalist film Hoot. As Brian Godawa, a Hollywood screenwriter, testifies, “The story is where it all begins and ends. The lighting, cinematography, directing, acting, visual style…all are profoundly a part of the process, but they all serve the story- because the story is king.”[6] In many cases it might be appropriate to say, not that the story carries the message, but that the story is the message.

Thirdly, films spread their message through dialogue. This is another obvious one, but deserves to be mentioned. The subtlety of dialogue is such that one might never pick up on some of the messages conveyed in films. Few movie goers thought of Pantheism when they heard Mufassa tell the young Simba, “When we die, our bodies become the grass, and the antelope eat the grass. And so we are all connected; the great circle of life.” But likewise when Christians hear phrases like this one from “Kingdom of Heaven” they should shutter: There will be a day when you will wish that you did a little evil to serve a greater good.

Fourthly, films convey messages through their identification of heroes. This is an important point to mention as more and more stars of films are actually anti-heroes or vigilantes. This is most obvious from the recent 2006 film V for Vendetta. Speaking of the graphic novel turned movie Gene Veith writes:

In Alan Moore’s Graphic Novel, V for Vendetta, the Guy Fawkes- masked protagonist is introduced in a section titled, “The Villain.” In the big-screen adaptation of Mr. Moore’s work, no such moral ambiguity exists. Originally conceived as an extreme, anarchistic response to an extreme, fascist government in the near future, V for Vendetta has been translated, with a terrorist hero at its center, into a vicious, thinly veiled attack on American conservatives and Christians.[7]

Other films, however, have taken this same approach of glorifying evil in a less palpable manner. Take for example a number of comedies whose “heroes” have been pragmatists who engage in all sorts of crimes to “win the day.” Examples of these are Fun with Dick and Jane, where Dick and Jane Harper take to larceny and deception to win back the pensions of those put out of employment by a company’s crash. Or Runaway Jury, based on the John Grisham novel, in which the heroes blackmail a filthy jury consultant into early retirement. We must never suppose that the end justifies the means, as many of these characters put it themselves. A true hero sees no value in doing the wrong thing for the right reasons.

Finally, a movie may express a message through its overall composition. The entire layout of the movie, put together with its cinematography, music, acting, dialogue, etc., display an entire worldview. I mentioned how Disney’s The Lion King is a movie that revolves around the philosophy of Pantheism, but a close analysis of Star Wars reveals similar conclusions (though this film is more New Age). Take screenwriter Charlie Kauffman for example. Mr. Kauffman’s films are often expressions of his own nihilistic, or hopeless, faithless, and truthless, philosophy. His most popular film, Being John Malkovich is a visual scene of the cold hopeless doctrines of this philosophy, the dialogue reveals this hopelessness, and the storyline itself is, to quote the film, a “metaphysical can of worms.”

These are just a few ways that movies express their messages. The list could, of course, be expanded, but this is sufficient for us to be discerning as we go to the movies. The important thing to grasp here is that movies have messages. None are neutral or “just movies,” and as Christians seeking to take every thought captive we must thoughtfully engage every element of a film! So watch movies with an active mind, friends!


[1] John M. Frame, “Introduction.” Theology at the Movies. Available only online at www.frame-poythress.org/frame_books.htm

[2] Russ Moore, “Pop Christianity & Pop Culture on Mars Hill,” The Tie. Spring 2006. 74:1. 5.

[3] Mark T. Coppenger, “Love and Hate at the Movies.” The Tie. Spring 2006. 74:1. 12.

[4] Veith, “Creature Comfrots.” World Magazine. June 3, 2006. 21:22. 12.

[5] “Big Fish” is actually based on the novel by the same name by Daniel Wallace. It is hard to grasp, but when you do it is worth re-watching.

[6] Brian Godawa, Hollywood Worldviews. (Downers Grove: IVP, 2002). 10.

[7] Veith, “V for Vile.” World Magazine. April 1, 2006. 21:13. 10.

About Dave Dunham
  • Alan Noble

    That link to Frame’s website was very interesting. I just read through most of his online book, Theology at the Movies, in a few minutes. I would encourage everyone to read it. It’s short, but very stimulating. The actual movie reviews he gives are pretty bad though. And I’m a bit concerned that he’s too utilitarian in his approach, for example he seems to only be concerned about aesthetic excellence when it results in the greater “cultural impact” of a movie.

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    I really didn’t want to be nit-picky about this post, but reading some of those interpretations of particular films almost turned me post-structuralist. The admonition to pay heed to the message a film presents is healthy and wise, but a corollary admonition would be “Make sure the message you think you’re seeing is actually the message the film is proffering.”

    Many of those interpretations didn’t seem to fit the films they were describing. I have a hard time seeing V for Vendetta as being anything much like “a vicious, thinly veiled attack on American conservatives and Christians.” I think it would take some serious eisegesis to decide that was the film’s message. Another author clearly doesn’t understand Superman or the public reaction to him. Neither Lion King nor Star Wars seem to be particularly adept at forwarding the supposed message of pantheism (Star Wars hi-jacks some of the jargon, but doesn’t seriously forward the view as a believable ideology). And though I have yet to see it, I’m pretty skeptical that Brokeback Mountain‘s “a hate story, dripping with contempt for conventional, moral life” or that Ang Lee disparages “the sad world of heterosexual marriage, gainful employment, and civic responsibility” (one need only sample a cross-section of his films to see this is far from the case).

    This is not to say that I think that movies do not convey messages, but only that in many cases, the messages are camouflaged to the point that they do not make it from the screen to the viewer. Sometimes they are camouflaged by the story or the acting or the director’s vision (in the case of a screenwriter’s message) or even by the simple conflict of mixed messages. Or it may be that there wasn’t much of a message to begin with.

    In any case, the ability to misinterpret a film’s ostensible message is so great (as evidenced by many of those quoted above—or from their perspective, by my comments here disagreeing with their interpretation) that we probably don’t need to concern ourselves with our reaction to the actual message, received or not but with our reaction to the perceived message.

    For that guy who thinks V for Vendetta was a screed of some sort against conservatives and Christians, he should certainly be careful for how the movie (and whatever he believes the message to be) affects him. And those who think Vendetta was some covert discussion of consumerism and the rise of obesity in America, the film’s effect on such a viewer’s soul should be gauged and its positives and negatives weighed. It doesn’t matter that neither of those interpretations are adequate; what matters is that Christians should not be held captive by thoughts that could damage them.

    So messages, both real and imagined, should be dealt with appropriately.

    The Danes last blog post..20080612

  • http://www.benbartlett.blogspot.com Ben Bartlett

    David,

    Thanks for the article. This is a central argument for Christ and Pop Culture- that as Christians we need to recognize and work through the messages being portrayed in the popular culture, with movies as one of the chief conveyors.

    Dane,

    You really need to qualify your harsh judgements. You spend a lot of focus on criticising people’s evaluations of various movies, but offer none yourself. And you really offer no evidence to help us believe that your criticisms of those evaluations are correct- you just state it and leave it at that.

    Further, your admonition to, “Make sure the message you think you’re seeing is actually the message the film is proffering.” sure sounds to me like my argument that a director ought to seek to be faithful to the artistic point of the story’s original author… otherwise, isn’t he just missing the point in the same way you criticize?

    You seem to have no problem with a director taking C.S. Lewis’s book and remaking it wrongly, yet you have a problem with people criticizing a message that comes across very clearly in a movie (like the critique of conservative principles in Vendetta) if it isn’t what you think the director was trying to convey. Which will it be?

    A side criticism, too, would be that even if we were to agree on the importance of discerning the message a director was truly trying to convey, the fact is that most movie watchers aren’t that sophisticated- they tend to respond to the movie’s clearest and most basic messages. So what’s the value of never critiquing those messages, even if they aren’t what the director intended?

    Ben Bartletts last blog post..Fun notes and pictures.

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    @Ben – My apologies. It appears that I didn’t do a very good job of expressing myself—because what you interpreted me as saying doesn’t really match with what I thought I was saying. Which, of course, plays pretty well into my point. But more on that later.
    ___________________________

    Let’s start with my admonition to make certain the message one thinks is being seeing is actually the message proffered. This is really only an admonition for a particular kind of person in the midst of a paticular context. The admonition is intended for those who believe they have divined a film’s message and rail against or praise that message before an audience. Simply put, I believe those who criticize something ought to strive to criticize the thing rightly. To do otherwise is to argue against a strawman (to hop on the fallacy bandwagon that Ted started up last week).

    So really, this is unrelated to a director needing to remain faithful to the artistic vision of his source material. The only way it could relate is if the director said that he loved C.S. Lewis’ point that lions make good pets and companions for British schoolchildren and then made a film to promote Lewis’ vision of child/lion friendships (since in that case the director would be offering a false critique). The usual case of a director warping the source material to his own ends does not function as critique of the source material but simply as a director using available ideas to shape his own artistic creation.
    ___________________________

    I didn’t think that such a brisk place of verbal commerce as these comments was really the place to go into why I think there are better readings of the mentioned films. I mean, my comments are already pretty long. And my main point was that the messages of the mention works are not nearly so obvious as the collected authors seemed to think. Here’s a short version of my interpretations:

    The Lion King – Though I’m not even certain that this is the film’s message, I’d say a world-conscious utilitarianism is more the point of the excerpts people are focusing on than anything so wide-ranging as pantheism. The film wasn’t arguing for some sort of I am all/all is me view of the universe, but was rather arguing that we can take comfort in knowing that even our deaths and the deaths of loved ones serve the natural purpose of the earth machine. I don’t think this is necessarily a better message, but there is some truth to it.

    Superman – The story of Superman has never been about “a hero from beyond the stars who rescues humanity from itself.” While Superman is certain from beyond the stars, any heroism found in him is not born of his extraterrestrial nature but of his smalltown American upbringing. Further, Superman has never been noted for saving humanity from itself. Instead, he regularly protects the earth from extraterrestrial menace, occasionally taking time out to aid in the aversion of natural calamities. He is never portrayed to good images as having any ability to solve the human problem—any of the works that attempt to portray him this way are considered by the majority to be failures. And the further truth is that Superman doesn’t even resonate that well with people—and probably hasn’t since before the Vietnam War. (And these are far from unique insights that I mention here.)

    Brokeback mountain – The idea that Ang Lee disparages “the sad world of heterosexual marriage, gainful employment, and civic responsibility” is flatly implausible when one considers his other works. As mentioned, I haven’t yet seen Brokeback Mountain so I cannot speak to its particulars, but to make such a broad criticism of the director without consideration of plain evidence presented in films like Eat Drink Man Woman, Sense and Sensibility, Ride with the Devil, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and even The Ice Storm. I’m not certain what the message of Brokeback was, but I have a great deal of difficulty believe it to be something so far from what Lee represents in his other works.

    V for Vendetta – I saw this as more of a celebration of anachy/nihilism with the bad guy being the easy villain of fascism. I’m not sure how someone could honestly interpret the film as being a thinly-veiled assault on Christians. Which means that if such is the message of the film, the veil was much heavier than represented.
    ___________________________

    But the fact ot the matter is that it doesn’t matter for the individual whether the message they believe they are seeing is the true message or the imagined message. And I think this is where you were misreading me or I was misstating my position.

    Quite the opposite of saying that we should never critique film’s messages, I was agreeing with David that we should—but that it wasn’t necessarily the film’s actual message that we should be critiquing for ourselves, but the message we perceive to have been conveyed. I think this is far more important than critiquing the intended message. The thing is, there’s little use for presenting such a critique to an audience unless one knows that the audience perceived a similar message.

    Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:

    Let’s say that I watched The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and after having seen the film was struck by the idea that the film was really conveying the message that kids should hang out with lions. Now critiquing some message that I didn’t hear represented in the film won’t do me a lot of good, but critiquing the message I did hear could. So, I evaluate the message (that lions and kids should be pals) and find that it doesn’t really cohere to my view of the world and doesn’t give me cause to reevaluate my view of the world—and finally, I dismiss the movie’s message (the one I perceived) as being inane and I move on with my life.

    There’s certainly a place for me to reevaluate the film, to see if the message I perceived was the real one or not, but such an activity is secondary to what’s most immediately valuable.
    ___________________________

    Interestingly, I think the earlier dissonance between my prior comment and your interpretation of it illustrates my point well. You could not confront the meaning I intended (for you perceived a different meaning), so you rightly critiqued the message you imagined that I was proffering. This also illustrates how difficult it is to accurately gauge a film’s message—when you consider that there was misunderstanding of the message of a single author spelled out in words (by me in my comments), it doesn’t take much work to see how difficult it would be to correctly identify the real message of a work-by-committee portrayed through things like images, story, actors, music, and more (a la film).

    This also dovetails well with Ted Slater’s thing, as it helps illustrate that what he thinks is the obvious message of Sex and the City very well may not be the message perceived by other Christians int the SATC audience.

    The Danes last blog post..20080612

  • http://www.benbartlett.blogspot.com Ben Bartlett

    Dane,

    The clarification on criticizing what we DO see in movies was helpful, I appreciate that.

    You’re right, I mistook you to be saying that you cannot critique without knowing the director’s intended message, but you were saying that at all levels of reception (whether by an experienced critic or the layman who just sees what he sees) we should deal thoughtfully with the messages we think the movie is trying to tell.

    However, I do think there is a third category, aside from the director’s intended message and messages that aren’t there but are percieved by particular audiences- namely, messages that are not intended, but ARE inherent. In other words, I do think movies subconciously reflect the values and worldview of the person(s) who crafted them, and that we need to point those out and discuss them with clarity and discernment.

    For instance (though, like you, I have not seen Brokeback Mountain), you are likely right that Ang Lee did not mean Brokeback Mountain as a hate message against everyday life.

    However, by literally portraying a homosexual relationship as a beautiful “mountaintop” experience and the rest of life as being colorless in light of an opposed emotional desire, a value message is certainly being communicated. And when Vendetta highlights the horror of a lesbian being persecuted (which reflects what much of the public thinks about the Christian stance toward homosexuality), a message is being communicated. And when a book like “The Pillars of Earth” gives nearly every major accomplishment of value to practical atheists, a message is being communicated.

    It’s these messages that I think Christians must specially engage, even if they are not intended by the director. They may not be intended, but instead they are inherent assumptions involved in making an argument.

    My fear is that Christians have a very hard time fighting the arguments made by a secular and atheistic culture because they do not realize how much and how subtly they are infused by the baseline assumptions in the culture. If they accept (even if it slowly, over time, as the messages are repeated again and again) these underlying assumptions, they have little chance of withstanding the arguments that are built on those assumptions.

    That’s why it is so important to challenge the messages (inherent, unintended messages) sent out by movies. The danger isn’t that Christians will accept the arguments wholesale- it’s that they’ll accept just a little bit. And then a little bit more, in the next movie. And in the next. And in the TV show. And in the commercial. And in a college classroom.

    Ok, that’s a really long rant. My point, though, is that the basis for criticizing a movie isn’t merely its point, or what you think its point is… it’s also the baseline assumptions it makes, which need to be challenged so we are not worn down into accepting presuppositions that will build into faith-defying arguments far down the road.

    Ben Bartletts last blog post..Fun notes and pictures.

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    I completely agree about there being a third category. We talked about this at some length on the old DYL site, where I believe I called it something like subconscious intent or something. It’s like how we can accuse someone of sexism though they don’t believe they are sexist.

    The Danes last blog post..20080612

  • http://thewaterspout.wordpress.com Hooser

    You guys might want to interact with the new review of “The Dark Knight” up over at Rolling Stone. Looks like it will provoke quite a bit of discussion.

    Hoosers last blog post..Christopher Nolan Does it Again

  • http://www.christandpopculture.com/featured/podcast-22-pop-cultures-startling-lack-of-restraint-viol Richard Clark

    I started to read the review but got far enough and decided I wanted to see the movie first. But I’m positive we’ll deal with the film as soon as possible. Thanks for the heads up, Hooser.


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