film1.jpgThe medium of film is considered to be one of the most helpful in terms of thought-provoking, entertaining, and challenging art. I explored and defended this claim in my last blog. But film is not immune from causing both the consumer and film-maker to lean towards certain unfortunate mistakes and problematic decisions. Here’s a few things to be wary of when we check out the latest blockbuster or award-winning film.

(Of course, film isn’t all bad. If you haven’t yet, check out Part 1: In Praise of Film)

Film can use sentimentalism to mislead.
Most film-makers have a clear picture of what most of us want from a movie. One thing they know without question is that we want a happy ending. And in many cases, they give it to us whether or not it makes any sense. Unfortunately, some of the most memorable film moments are actually just sentimental fabrications (a recent example being the unfortunate final scene of Juno). Even fiction can be truthful, but it ceases to be so when it assures us that everything will be okay simply because someone has finally come around, a couple is in love again, a sick mother is made well, etc. If we’re moved by emotional growth, physical healing, or social justice, and assured (explicitly or implicitly) that the characters will live “happily ever after” we have been hoodwinked and misled. This is not just an intellectual problem, but a spiritual one that denies human depravity and the results of the fall.

Film can discourage critical thinking
Film is often referred to a “ride,” evoking the common idea that one should approach a film passively, keeping all extremities outside of the vehicle, and being content to simply watch the sights fly by. Peter Travers gives the following advice to those who see the award-winning, There Will be Blood: “sit back and let it engulf you.” This is bad advice. The Christian is charged in 1 Peter 5:8 to “be sober-minded; be watchful.” This command applies in the theater just as it applies to the rest of life. Whenever we find ourselves watching a blockbuster action film or a romantic chick-flick, we must resist the desire to blindly follow the film wherever it leads and instead have a conversation with that film. We should let the film speak to us, but we should speak to the film as well.

Film offers no opportunities for discussion
“No Talking.” It’s the supreme rule of the theater. At no point during the film can we carry on a conversation with our neighbor about its’ primary assumptions (unless you’re one of those annoying couples who ends up behind my wife and I every other week; in that case, just rent a DVD and go home), and this poses a problem. Christianity is a religion that emphasizes community and relationships that encourage and challenge one another, but film has the opportunity to discourage this. We’ve all seen a film with a friend come out of it feeling strongly one way or another, only to realize that our friend feels otherwise. What follows is usually a lengthy conversation in which we attempt to explain our perspective. The problem is, it takes a long time to backtrack and reexamine each shot, plot twist, and monologue and as a result our conversations are strongly hindered.

Film can tempt us to sin without warning
These days, film is known for pushing the envelope, particularly in the areas of violence and nudity. These and other vices can become traps for those of us who don’t go into a film prepared and on guard. A Christian has plenty of resources at their disposal to help them decide if a film can cause them to be in danger of sin. He ought to seek to know his weak areas and avoid a film when he fears those weaknesses may be exploited.

Film often leaves us trapped in a giant waste of time.
Fifteen minutes into Epic Movie, I knew I had made a mistake. Yet, for some reason, I stayed and placed myself at the mercy of some of the worst screenwriters and directors in Hollywood. At one point, I saw a boom microphone in the shot. At several points I groaned at obvious jokes. Mostly I just thought of everything else I would rather be doing.
This is the risk inherent in seeing a film. Whenever we walk into the theater, we risk spending a significant amount of time wishing we hadn’t come in the first place. Fortunately, we have been given many resources to help us guard against this possibility. Look for possible stumbling blocks at the bottom of a film review at Christianity Today’s website, or the more specific and meticulous Kids In Mind. Also, if a film is scoring somewhere between 0 and 20 over at Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes, it’s probably a better idea to do something else.


  1. Great points. If anyone hasn’t read the first post, make sure to back and do so to get the balanced view of film that Rich is arguing for here.

    I remember listening to a podcasted class which had Jerram Barrs talking about the life of Francis Schaeffer. The question was raised about whether or not Schaeffer watched all the movies he wrote about, since some of them contained a lot of graphic sex and/or other objectionable material. Barrs explained that Schaeffer strove to understand and learn about the important films of his time, but some he chose not to watch simply because they would have been a stumbling block for him.

    The films he did watch he always tried to discuss with others. It was his view that if you watch a film and don’t discuss it then the ideas of the film will often go unchallenged in your mind. I think that’s great advice.

    If we want to be soberminded (I know I want to), then discussion is one solution.

  2. Rich, two things:

    1) Do you really think sentimentalism is a problem? It seems tyrannical to demand film to present the world as it is—since film is largely a medium for fantasy.

    I suppose I could see it being a problem is people mistook film for reality, but the medium seems almost formally fantastic (to the point where even documentaries are largely fantasy as well). Someone would have to be dumb (or maybe a teenager) to think that movies offer any piece of a slice of reality. But I suppose that gets into your second point.

    2) I really do like absorbing myself into a film. I like letting its life and values and hopes, dreams, and horrors wash over me. I like to get as close to a pure experience of a film as I can. And then I think about it afterward.

    Thinking critically about film is, well, critical to proper enjoyment of the medium, but for myself, thinking about the film during its presentation is destruction of the experience. In fact, it’s the mark of a bad film if I find myself considering the voice of the author while engaged with the film. If a film is particularly difficult and simple reflection after the fact is not enough, then I’ll watch it a second time, using the second experience to foster my thoughts. But I always try to make the first experience as pure as possible.

    p.s. I have a friend who likes to speak to the film. I don’t watch movies with her anymore. To annoying.

  3. The Dane-

    If you are watching a film and uncritically taking in the experience, and then something deeply offends you, what do you do?

  4. @Alan – If I am offended while watching a film, I am offended.

    For me, that is part of the experience and does not take me out of it. I don’t think there is anything wrong with being offended, so I don’t worry about it. I am constantly offended by the choices of characters in films just as I am in real life.

  5. The Dane:

    1) No one’s saying people go to movies and view them as something real. However, most people go to films with the expectations that they’re going to watch a hypothetical film based on real principles. When these principles are subverted without the viewer noticing, we have a problem. That’s the “Happily ever after” I’m talking about. That’s the sort of thing that makes little girls think they’re princesses, older women wish their husband was more romantic, and men want a hotter, more subservient wife, among other things.

    2) Whether you like it or not is not the issue. Plus, I think it’s possible to enjoy a movie while not letting it engulf me. I enjoy discussing movies and find that it helps me to understand and appreciate a film more.

    Also, uhm, obviously I wasn’t condoning talking back to a film during the film. That’s stupid.

  6. @Rich – Heh, I knew you weren’t talking about literally talking at the film. That was me being silly.

    re 1) I still don’t quite agree. I don’t think it’s the sappy, happily ever after that is the problem. I enjoy indulging in the fantasies that films present, but I am not overtaken or affected negatively by either the happy ending or by the endlessly depressing stuff that came out of the ’70s era of film. I think the problem is less related to the content of whichever film is in question but has more to do with your second point, the one about give film its due consideration.

    The only reason people get screwed up in their thinking because of these quote-unquote subverted principles is directly tied to the fact that they give little thought to the nature of what they consume. So I’m disagreeing with you here, but not really.

    p.s. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with older women wanting their husbands to be more romantic. Odds are: their husbands should be more romantic. This reminds me of that silly article by Ochuk way back when that ranted about chick-flicks.

    re 2) When I say I like it, I’m saying that I don’t see it as being problematic. We may be talking past each other here as we haven’t established any common context for what terms like “engulf” mean.

  7. Film can use sentimentalism to mislead.
    i certainly do agree with this point in that films are fabrications of scenarios. however, these fabrications are what people seek in this world. what they look for in a movie is unfortunately not truth but an artificial reality. this is the way most people approach a story, they already have a particular ending in mind and sometimes giving the audience what they want is what exactly fueling the movie business. after all, much function of movies in American culture is to entertain.

    Film can discourage critical thinking.
    i can certainly see how letting a film absorb you could be a problem, however that is exactly the power of the medium. it absorbs its audiences to address a point. the problem is not how to watch the movie, but its messages.

    Film often leaves us trapped in a giant waste of time.
    i couldn’t agree more. this is however, a problem of how the society works. there are many people with different tastes. i have come to know many who enjoyed Epic Movie. in a broader scheme, it is perhaps a subculture that is the product of main stream U.S cinema. a more recent example of Meet the Spartans address this point quite nicely. it is perhaps the worst yet most brilliant movie ever made, in the sense that few guys got together and realized that no matter how “bad” a movie is academically, it is Hollywood and it will generate income. i guess there are just too many kids out in the theaters today.

  8. @John – Why do you think that it is unfortunate that people do not look for “truth” in movies but instead seek to indulge in an artificial reality? I only ask because this doesn’t seem a bad thing to me.

  9. The Dane- i suppose in order to answer this question i have to first establish my view on “truth.” as i have mentioned before, people already have a idea of how they wish the movie to end. most of us have believed in fairy tales at some point and it is not surprising that the movie industry takes advantage of that. they give us what we wish to see. i believe “truth” in a movie or in anything else for that matter commands facts that are not fabrications of media. (Movies like The Kingdom [2007] though mingled with history certainly doesn’t count)There is really nothing wrong with movies being fictitious, because after all it is the whole point of entertainment. however my concerns is that when the desire to find comfort behind all the fabrications overshadows our search for real news. This is exactly why movies like Supersize Me or Ferinheight 911 or Sicko instantly attracted a large following because it is refreshing. one could always question the real evidence behind those documentaries, but they are a step closer to get the public to think critically about what they see. I believe the importance of cinema as art forms and pure entertainment, but it is also important to have a message and truth behind some of them. right now the two sides are way out of balance.

    on a side note, i don’t know if you watch the TV series Lost, but just thought i’d mention it because it is a fine example of how brilliant writers could dictated, predict, and manipulate our way of thinking. After all that’s how they manage to surprise us, and tell us what to think about what we see. i guess this is where artificial reality comes in because we look through a silver screen and see them as part of our real world.

  10. Rich Clark:

    It is definitly true that many people are made to see the life a certain way due to the movies they have watched, we are after all a product of our upbring and cultural backgrounds. However i argue that there is something innate about what we wish to see and what we choose to believe. The fairy tale endings are not a recent product but merely a tool forged by Disney and rest of the capitalistic machinery to generate revenue. I certainly don’t want to say “we can’t help it” but then again, it’s been so long part of Western culture that it is unavoidable

  11. @John – I think you may be asking cinema to be something that it is not meant to be. That you mention our search for real news in conjunction with the theater is interesting. As well your mention of three documentaries as examples of what we need more of.

    It seems that you are saying that movies should be less fictional and more documentary. You’re certainly allowed your taste of course, but this might be kind of like wishing that more music was audiobook-style reading of poetry; it might be nice but then it wouldn’t be music.

    The whole point of movies is for a director to present a story from a very particular perspective and affect an audience in a particular way – and any presentation of a particular perspective is a presentation of an alternative to reality. A movie is considered successful when it accomplishes this goal and less so when an audience feels thing very differently from what the director intended.

    Additionally, I don’t think the “faerie-tale ending” is quite as ubiquitous as you represent. Cinema history is marked with many great films whose finale is very much different than that of the hero riding off into the sunset with his best lady. The Forties, Fifties, and Seventies in particular were marked by an abundance of down endings (and the Eighties, Nineties, and Aughts have all had a good share of these as well). Further, just a quick look at my Top 100 film list puts forty-one of those in the happy-ending category (though very few could be considered “faerie-tale endings” as most are at least a bit bittersweet). The others are either all down endings or things pan out to neutral ground.

    One thing is for certain though: each and every one of these films presents an alternative perception of reality (even and especially the documentaries). It is, as they say, the nature of the beast.

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