RetroPost: Motion Picture Messages

RetroPost: Motion Picture Messages June 17, 2009

In RetroPost, we feature a post from at least one year ago (ancient in pop culture time). The posts are featured because they have some relevance to current happenings, because they are timeless in nature and speak to a relevant issue, or because we plan on providing a follow-up in an upcoming post.

This Week: The summer movie season is at full swing, and as innocent and innocuous as the various summer blockbusters may seem, they will teach us if we let them. Do we want to let them? Well, it depends.

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

[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.

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  • Again, these retro posts would be more interesting with the original comments attached. I mean, such a valuable interaction between Ben and I left on the cutting room floor. *tsk* I still think the above commentators quoted are yahoos for inadequately interpreting the above sources. And by inadequately, I mean wrongly. And by wrongly, I mean that I think they fell asleep while viewing and then had a tangentially related dream but that the dream was real and so critiqued the dream instead.

    The Danes last blog post..20090417.teaParty