How much of our view of "the good life" comes from the films we watch?
"Cinema is the ultimate pervert art. It doesn't give you what you desire—it tells you how to desire." —Slavoj Žižek
In his latest book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr argues that the Internet is changing our brains. While most people are arguing about the content of the internet, Carr writes, very few are considering the effects that the medium, the carrier of the content, is having on its users. Carr goes on to explore how the internet seems to promote and habituate a short attention span.
With access to the glut of information available through the internet, we now think in spurts and searches, status updates and tweets. Carr uses some of the latest brain research to show how the biology of our brain is actually responding to the actions we take, and not only changing our worldview, but also changing how we think through our worldview. Carr does not conclude his book by condemning the internet as a technology that damages and manipulates, or as an evil that should be eradicated; rather he states simply that humans have the advantage of being reflective beings. We can study our own thought processes and we can then see that who we are as human beings is tied up in the tools and technologies that we create.
Like Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman before him, Carr puts forth an epistemological argument. In the sixties, McLuhan's famous aphorism, the "medium is the message," helped move the conversation from content to the means in which content is communicated. Postman, in his analysis of television, argued that we are in danger of "amusing ourselves to death." We do this, says Postman, by exchanging our linguistic capacity for visual capacity. This exchange has changed our political discourse into sound bites rather than polemical dialogue. Postman concluded that if we continue on this trajectory, we are in danger of losing our democracy and sliding into a Huxleyian world where we will be fascinated by ever-changing, but meaningless, sounds and images.
It would be naïve to dismiss the insights of these scholars as alarmist. As Carr explains, the way media affects our thinking is particularly sensed by those who have experienced the transition from older media to newer forms. A little reflection on our use of media can go a long way toward understanding not only who we are as human beings but also who we are becoming.
James K.A. Smith, in his book, Desiring the Kingdom, makes a similar argument by explaining how our habits and practices in everyday life are transformed over time into rituals and liturgies that fundamentally shape our worldview. Smith explores the liturgies of sports, malls, and educational institutions to show how our behaviour has as much influence on shaping our hearts' desires as our desires have on our behaviour, if not more. For example, we might assume that we live in a consumerist culture because our worldview has shifted as our need and desire for things has increased. But another possible explanation is that we have learned, practiced, and been socialized into habits of consumption at the expense of alternative habits like repairing what we own and finding contentment where we are. This shift requires a different way of thinking, one that starts at the level of everyday practices and moves toward abstract theory, which is a reversal of our tendency to assume that thinking comes before acting.
Recently, I have been thinking about this shift as it might apply to my interests and passions in film. We tend primarily toward discerning and discussing the content of film; rarely do we think about what habits or practices it might lead us to. We focus on the story, the technical aspects, and the meaning and enjoyment we get from the experience. I do love sitting back as the lights dim and the film begins. Well, to be more precise, I mostly love it. Lately, I have seen a string of films that have left me feeling uneasy and I have started to wonder why this is. I'm beginning to think that this feeling goes deeper than just a narrative that I can't get into. I'm beginning to think that these films are shaping my worldview in a way that makes me uncomfortable. I wonder if Žižek is right. Does cinema really tell us how to desire? Are films starting to affect me more deeply, not only helping me form my worldview, but also shaping my heart's desires?
The shaping effect of film on our lives is seen most clearly in films aimed at a teenage audience. Communications professor and pop culture analyst William Romanowski argues that a majority of teenagers learn their values from peers and the popular culture that they experience with friends. As schools segregate teenagers from the community of mature, and hopefully wiser, adults, it is only natural that rather than get embarrassed by asking their parents about sex, they joke about it instead and get "informed" from the plethora of films that are easily accessible to them. From an adult perspective, it is difficult to determine whether these films have successfully connected with their audiences because they seem to portray what it actually looks and feels like to be a teenager, or because they are attractive as visions of what teenagers desire their lives to be. From my own experience, I think the latter is more common. The visions cast in these films shape the desires of the audiences not only by defining what is normal and normative, but also, on a more superficial level, by defining what is in or out of fashion and what is cool or uncool.
Selling audiences short
I recently saw two films that got me thinking more deeply about the effects of film. The first, Valentine's Day, is easily recognized as a Hollywood money grab. Released on the February 14 weekend, it drips with trite questions about love and romance and includes diverse love stories about the young and old, gay and straight, white, black, and brown. Of course, everyone is fabulously wealthy, so their only concern in life is making that perfect intimate connection. The film also showcases a large number of up-and-coming and seasoned stars: Taylor Swift, Taylor Lautner, Patrick Dempsey, Bradley Cooper, Jessica Biel, Jessica Alba, Anne Hathaway, Ashton Kutcher, Jamie Foxx and Julia Roberts. So, what is this film about?
Most viewers would agree that the plot of the film is highly unrealistic. And yet the typical audience member walks out of the theatre feeling good because love has won again. It's only a film after all. But looking closer, on the level of desire, what does this film say? Yes, the film is about the human longing and need for love and intimacy, but I think the film also shapes its audiences' desires and ultimately sells humans short. Valentine's Day tells people that their desire for love and intimacy is merely a game. Here love is not an emotion, a way of knowing with the heart; rather, it is a strategy for self-preservation and the expansion of one's sense of dignity, and it is simply pleasure-seeking. In the end, I think this film and others like it can do harm to audiences by distorting and distracting from real human desires. In reflecting on the film, I felt sadness. I did not want to enter into the world of the film. It turns out real life, even with its heartbreak, is a more authentic, hopeful and joyous place.
Recently I asked a student about her favourite film. "Oh, The Blind Side. Have you seen the film? I want to be her. You know, Sandra Bullock's character." She blurted out all in one breath.
"Wow, this is a film that really moves people," I thought.
As I thought about this student's response, I became worried. The Blind Side is based on a book by Michael Lewis. It recounts the true story of Michael Oher's rise from poverty to the NFL, and his adoption by Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy. The film focuses on the Tuohy family (with Bullock playing Leigh Anne) and the risk they take by inviting a homeless African-American teenager to live in their white upper-class suburban home. Witnessing an inspiring story like this, how could I have been worried?
Again, I wondered not about the content so much as the form of the narrative and how it might shape its audiences' desires. While the film does acknowledge the reality of racial injustice, I think it falls short by presenting an over simplistic solution to a much longer history of race relations in the U.S. I think the film actually hinders its viewers' ability to respond. Films that deal with large societal problems can often fall into this trap. On the one hand, they are able to provide a temporary sense of human goodness, but often the desire is not to see wrongs righted, as much as to be praised for doing an extraordinary act. When the audience returns to their everyday life, their ordinary choices seem trivial, and this can quickly lead to apathy, cynicism, and despair. The Blind Side feels that way to me: I can get caught up in the magnitude of the story for a brief moment, but as I step back and reflect, I realize that the film leaves me feeling paralyzed. I wonder if I would be better off if I hadn't seen the film.
Behind your eyes
And that's the paradox, isn't it? If we could merely focus on the content of film, we would be able to simply judge films on the worldview that they portray. Since films shape how we live in the world, it becomes hard to figure out screening desires where we draw the line between right desires and the distorted illusions of our human condition. I think drawing the line requires a more reflective approach. As consumers of film, we are also participants in the creation of culture as we respond to what we have witnessed. The narratives we see and listen to implicate us. In this context, I wonder, how can we view films responsibly?
Walker Percy explores responsible viewing in his first novel, The Moviegoer. The main character, a young man named Binx Bolling, reflects on "a phenomenon of movie going which I have called certification. Nowadays when a person lives somewhere, in a neighbourhood, the place is not certified for him. More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness which is inside him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighbourhood. But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighbourhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere." Percy explores the idea that life is experienced more and more through shared images, and reality is filtered through the media that we consume. As a result, understanding our role in the world becomes confusing. Films become more than narratives we are to think about; they become stories through which we experience, or long to experience, life.
This is the power of film. I am not saying that filmmakers as a group have some malicious plan to manipulate our minds. But films are made with intention; films are rarely made as a random activity (especially films that attempt to appeal to a broad audience and are given a large budget). The reason to make films is to communicate something, to express one's feelings, to cast a vision of how the filmmaker imagines, experiences, and sees the world. Films have a real effect on the audience and often they call to us for a response. As responsible viewers, I think we are not only called to become conscious of the worldview a film portrays— that is, the truth it communicates—but also to look deeper into how it affects us, how it starts to shape our actions, our experiences, our habits, and our lives.
So, are there any good examples of films that can shape us into better people, helping us be more human? I think there are many (see my other Comment articles). The recent popularity of the films Avatar and Up in the Air is due in part to their ability to show the audience what longings for spiritual and relational connection might look like. They reveal the sacrifices that need to be built into our habits and practices in order for us to truly desire a reality beyond materialism. Similarly, the films Stranger Than Fiction and Sunshine Cleaning provide us with stories of people who are trying to understand their lives, driven to search for a coherent, meaningful narrative to help them make sense of their experience. The characters are driven to search for a coherent narrative that will help them make sense of their experience. These films encourage their audiences to consider the narratives that they are living in and the story that they are communicating to the people around them.
Another classic example is Babette's Feast, a great film that communicates the value of a healthy expression of desire. In this Danish film, a small town learns that food can bring pleasure, and sharing it together in community can be an act of love. The film shows its audience that stoicism and rigidity is not the natural state of our emotions, but that humans have desires and it is healthy and beautiful to express joy, pleasure, and gratitude through them.
In our discerning and reflective stance toward film we should avoid quick analysis. Often the cursory rating systems we use— such as the Motion Picture Association of America or the generic references to language, sexuality and violence—are not enough to help us in our viewing habits. Even reducing films to simply good or bad experiences or summing them up with worldview jargon to make a tidy moral or aesthetic point can be dangerous. We miss out on a fuller understanding of how films affect our habits, actions and experiences, and miss opportunities to understand our humanity better.
By acknowledging that films can shape our desires, we open ourselves to a deeper experience of film and a more thoughtful engagement and response to the images we encounter. In this way, viewing films can be a starting point in becoming who we want to be—people who strive for truth, create and cultivate beauty, and work for love, justice, peace, and reconciliation in our world.