[su_note note_color=”#d5d5d5″ text_color=”#91201f”]The following is a reprint from Volume 3, Issue 11 of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine: “Transformation Through Film.” You can subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and you’ll receive a host of other benefits as well.[/su_note]

Week after week in the summertime, hordes of people crowd into their local movie theaters to catch the latest blockbuster. Families gather in the living room to escape the blistering heat and watch their favorite movie. In the cold winter months, holiday films and Oscar contenders stand in the spotlight. Indeed, the year-round frequency with which the consuming of fictive narrative films occurs marks it as an important and powerful ritual—not some banal or insignificant activity to merely pass the time or escape from the world around us; for film is a remarkably influential medium.[1] It is admittedly easy to lose sight of this fact in the midst of our movie watching, in which it can become customary for Christians to think of films exclusively as prepackaged objects that contain redemptive themes for us to mine out and discover. C. S. Lewis, however, provides a helpful corrective to this tendency as he identifies the power of the arts much closer to home:

Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.[2]

Although Lewis is describing literature, his conclusions apply to the cinematic arts in a unique manner, as these too are powerful stories. The most immediate power of film rests, then, not in our ability to work on its meaning—our capacity to detachedly observe and critique while simultaneously resisting a film’s attempt to speak to our situation—but in its ability to work on us. Therefore, movie watching is a useful and edifying endeavor precisely because films operate in a way that both refreshes and equips us to confront reality. In other words, watching movies is not a quintessentially and fundamentally escapist endeavor. This claim, of course, raises the issue of how a regular intake of fictional films yields any discernible benefit in the Christian life. And while there are a number of ways to approach and answer that question, I contend that watching movies is a fundamentally transformative act that, by including us in the meaning-making process and causing us to identify with cinematic characters in a way that engages our affections, fosters in us an environment in which love of God and neighbor can flourish.

Watching movies has the power to connect us to others through our shared viewing and experience as well as through our awakened sense of empathy and interest in the plight of those around us.

As we sit in a crowded theater or our living rooms to watch a film, we engage in what is commonly called the willing suspension disbelief, wherein we allow ourselves to become immersed and integrated into the world of the film and participate in the meaning-making process. It is for good reason, therefore, that a group of individuals in a Cineplex is referred to as the audience, for the word in its Latin root means to give a hearing, to listen; it is active, attentive, and participatory. In some sense, then, every form of movie watching is interactive and not passive, just as a wide receiver in the game of football is integral to the pass play.

Additionally obscuring our understanding of movie watching as a distinctly active endeavor is a resurgent overemphasis on auteur theory, which tends to treat a filmic text as the complete and perfect embodiment of the director’s vision and has been a disservice insofar as it marginalizes the role of the audience in contributing to a film’s meaning. The fictive narrative film is not simply a director’s reliquary, perfectly encasing their neatly packaged worldview so that moviegoers can stand behind the white line and gaze detachedly from a safe distance; no, movie watching demands participation even as it asks you to sit and watch. Here it is again useful to consider the wide receiver in the game of football, who, though bearing a name that could imply passivity, is actively, dynamically running routes, shedding defenders in order to catch the ball and run with it. Similarly, meaning and discourse in cinema is not linear—with a single message moving from author, to text (film), to audience; instead meaning is made in the interactions that take place among text, audience, and author. Robert K. Johnston, in his book Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue, similarly notes “[t]here is a dialectic present between filmmakers’ intentions and viewers’ engagement, between viewers’ immediate stories and the story flashed before them on the screen.”[3] This interaction, confluence, dialogue, or discourse is precisely what allows for two people to see the same film and come away with two divergent interpretations, and it is what allows meaningful interactions about films to take place.

This theoretical and somewhat abstract discussion lays the foundation for understanding that film transforms us as we embrace our role in the meaning-making process. In light of the aforementioned scenario about two people interpreting the same film, for instance, consider the final scene in the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men (2007). Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) has been chasing the sociopathic killer Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) all across the West Texas countryside only to have him narrowly escape. In the film’s final moments, Bell sits with his wife in the kitchen and recounts two dreams he had the night before, the second of which is about Bell riding horseback through a canyon with his now-deceased father. Bell speaks of his father carrying fire in a horn and riding on ahead in the darkness, presumably waiting for Bell to arrive. The film ends, fading to black, as Bell says that he woke up.

It is entirely possible to come away from the film with a feeling of despair. The dreams may not mean anything in particular and thus reinforce a nihilistic reading of the film. On the other hand, one can read the light and fire in the dream as highly significant, indeed as a signifier of some vague form of metaphysical hope dimly seen and not yet fully grasped. Of course, there are a whole host of other possible interpretations, and the point of this exercise is not to arrive at the interpretation of No Country for Old Men but to show there is not a singular interpretation and that one’s reading of the film’s ending is dependent upon his or her understanding of a combination of the textual evidence, the author, and one’s own self.

This brief example highlights the capacity of film to engender interpretive disagreements, which is one of its greatest gifts and a key to its transforming us into more loving, charitable individuals. Returning to the previous example, imagine that you and a friend watch No Country for Old Men together; you interpret the ending in a more positive light, while your friend sees it as grim and dark. Instead of getting into a heated debate about who is right, perhaps the more Christ-honoring action is to try to understand why your friend reads the film this way. Fundamentally, filmic discourse, with its insistence on including us in the meaning-making process, serves up on a silver platter the opportunity to love our neighbors. It affords us the chance to learn more about friends, family, and acquaintances by encouraging emotional and intellectual responses; it provides an avenue for us to be charitable in disagreements, to show we value our friends’ opinions even if we may not arrive at the same conclusions. And of course, we have opportunities to show how the gospel of Christ, which noticeably includes sanctification, influences these interactions as we discuss the myriad of important issues raised in fiction films. Even as the medium allows us to participate in its narrative discourse by demanding that we enter into its fictional world, it transforms and equips us to serve God in our various vocations, and it creates in us an increased capacity for compassion. By asking us to emote, to delve into our lives, as well as our experiences, fears, and hopes, film pushes us closer to reality.

In addition to inviting us into its nuanced hermeneutic, watching films also encourages people to love their neighbors as it utilizes a collusion of content and form to establish audience identification with characters. Many notable authors have spoken to the power of a work of art to transform its audience as they identify with key characters: the fantasy author and filmmaker N. D. Wilson states that “[s]tories create empathetic and sympathetic bonds between readers and fictional characters;”[4] Northrop Frye, in his essay The Keys to Dreamland, suggests that characters in fictive narratives are capable of influencing our everyday decisions; and Lewis and Tolkien refuted those who chided readers of fiction, as did the affable Chesterton. Given that so many influential scholars clearly see fictional works as effecting affections, and that they said these things primarily about literature and not film, it is therefore appropriate to discuss how film works on volitional faculties in a manner that is unique and distinct among the various art forms.

One way that watching films establishes an identification with characters—which in turn transforms viewer affections—is through interaction with said characters throughout the course of a particular narrative arc. Main characters in fictional films have goals, and there are always obstacles hindering the protagonist from achieving those goals. Watching these characters and becoming acquainted with them, seeing how they respond to and—in all likelihood, overcome—difficulties naturally allows and encourages us to think about how we respond to similar threats or situations. When I watch the animated Disney film Tangled (2010), for example, and see Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) overwhelmed with joy when she finally leaves the tower in which she has spent her whole life, I feel for her and like her; I feel her joy. It is palpable. Then, later when she comically agonizes over both disobeying her mother by leaving and having a lot of fun doing it, I am essentially sharing in that dilemma, having already established an emotional connection with her character. In other words, films communicate through their narrative content; the stories themselves have imagination-shaping power.

However, films do not make you identify with the characters through disembodied content; they create these affections through their form. In other words, how a film says something is as important as what it says. A low angle shot carries with it a concomitant meaning; parallel editing is often the source of the angst we feel as a character races to diffuse a bomb. A film can tell us that Superman is a good and powerful character and show us that he can save people from a burning building, but it is only when the showing and telling is combined with the boisterous trumpets and strings of John Williams’s theme song that we truly feel Superman’s power. Notice that in this scenario, both the film’s content (what it is saying) and its formal properties (how it is saying it) are equally important. Any tendency of favoring one over the other is problematic. This is especially true for many Christians who seem to have a predilection for content at form’s expense. Perhaps a small example will illustrate some of the problems with an unbalanced, dualistic approach to the filmic medium.

Many Christians argue the Christian movies released in recent years are the apotheosis of what film can do to bring glory to God and help people love their neighbor. The problem with such an argument is that while these faith-based films can (but do not always) proffer some sort of admirable message or theme, they are often equally known for their formal sloppiness. Their low-quality look and feel and sub-par acting, as well as their dogged-but-often-muddled commitment to conventional editing patterns, undercuts any positive message they might contain, for it suggests the way something is communicated is not important as long as the message is correct. Such an approach is flawed at its core precisely because the medium is dependent upon content and form working in harmony to arrive at the same goal. On yet another level, this cinematic dualism runs contrary to what Christians know about how God creates and communicates with His creatures—and by extension, how we are to act as sub-creators and communicators. God created the entire universe, and He created it very good and very beautiful because He is the essence of beauty. God gave the Scriptures to humanity; and He gave us history, poetry, letters, apocalyptic literature, and songs. The form in which these books are given to us is vital to their message—and the same is especially true with film. In fact, this blind spot—the elevation of content and the marginalization of form—is perhaps indicative of a blind spot in evangelicalism wherein humans are seen and treated as purely intellectual, cognitive beings and not imaginative, emotional, and corporeal (more on this later).[5] If God is concerned with both truth and beauty (and He is), and if indeed the Christ took on flesh (He did), then Christian filmmakers and faith-based films should bear this out by creating films that show truth to be beautiful as much as they tell of its greatness.

Summarily, then, this combination of content and form is what makes it possible to weep with characters who weep, mourn with those who mourn, and rejoice with the rejoicing; for it brings us outside of our own circumstances and experiences so we can look at them with fresh eyes. When we watch films, in other words, we are temporarily displaced from our own reality in order to participate in another world, which itself bears resemblance to our life—no matter how imaginative and fanciful, and in turn we are better equipped to confront reality at the end of the film. And this occurs as the film’s form and content create, remove, and shift our affections and engage our imagination. In so doing, it transforms us, changing our affections and way of thinking. Aki Kaurismäki’s The Match Factory Girl (1990), for instance, is heart-wrenching and makes me keenly aware of my apathy and general indifference toward the poor and despised because it both shows me the plight of Iiris (Kati Outinen) and makes me feel her anguish through camerawork that is, ironically, almost unbearably unsympathetic and detached.

Stories within film have the power to renew, repair, and replenish; they awaken and stir affections as they delight, thrill, make sad and glad, frighten, and comfort. Films invite us into other worlds and by so doing, compel us to plumb the depths of our mind, will, and emotions, as well as those of others.

Finally, an awareness of how the form and content of films work together to create identification with characters is formative in an understanding of how the medium helps us love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt. 22:39). This form/content duality is a reminder that in order to truly love our neighbors, we must care for them as individuals, body and soul. Proclaiming our blessing on their lives or proclaiming their need for repentance and faith is of little avail if we stand at a distance while they suffer through trial after trial (James 2:15–16). When films establish a bond between the audience and fictional characters, it should remind us that people are not gospel fodder. Yes, they need the gospel more than anything else, but they also need to see that they are not your project, but that you are interested in them—their cares, likes, dislikes . . . in short, their life. For God created us body (form) and soul (content) and cares for both.

Watching movies has the power to connect us to others through our shared viewing and experience as well as through our awakened sense of empathy and interest in the plight of those around us. Stories within film have the power to renew, repair, and replenish; they awaken and stir affections as they delight, thrill, make sad and glad, frighten, and comfort. Films invite us into other worlds and by so doing, compel us to plumb the depths of our mind, will, and emotions, as well as those of others. Moreover, the filmic medium’s amalgamation of content and form actively reminds us of God’s creative activity and His own personal, active care for humanity in a way that demolishes the dualism and intellectual elitism to which we are so prone. At the most fundamental level, films illuminate and shine a light into our hearts, forcing us to confront our lives that, as C. S. Lewis notes, are so easily prone to apathy and listlessness rather than the love of God and neighbor to which we are called. May all our watching, therefore, wrest us from idleness and equip us to live lives “worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Philip. 1:27).

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out his graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.

__________

  1.  Although I argue that watching movies is not a characteristically escapist activity, I do not deny it can be (and is) used as such by many people. Furthermore, the reality that film is entertaining and entertainment does not have bearing on its transformative qualities.
  2.  I was unable to locate the original source of this quote. However, it can be found here: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/c/cslewis115363.html
  3.  Johnston, 117.
  4.  Wilson, N. D., “Catechisms for the Imagination.” http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/catechisms-imagination/
  5.  I am drawing from the language James K. A. Smith uses in his book Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, Baker, 2009. See p. 32.