In search of good film: nine signposts
We are lonesome animals. We spend all of our life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say—and to feel—"Yes, that is the way it is, or at least that is the way I feel it. You're not as alone as you thought."
—John Steinbeck, In Awe of Words
Movies are the stories of a postmodern generation.
—Denis Haack, Ransom Fellowship
A friend and I were waiting in line at the theatre. And we kept waiting. Mind you, this was not a long line. There was only one gentleman between us and the woman selling the tickets. We were in conversation and barely noticed that the line was not moving. That was until the man in front of us turned around and asked: "What movie are you planning on seeing?" We gave him a little synopsis about what we knew about the film we were there to see. Upon further inquiry we found out that we were a part of a weekly ritual for this man who would show up at the same time every week to this particular local theatre regardless of what was playing and decide, right in front of the ticket booth, what film might be worth his eight dollars.
This seemingly random conversation got me thinking about what goes into our decisions to see a film, be it at the theatre or in the comfort of our own homes. Are we thoughtful about these choices? Should we be? How might we go about this? I believe that it is worth reflecting on, but instead of setting down some hard and fast rules about what makes certain films worth watching, I want to set up some signposts that might be helpful for individual and communal decisions toward viewing and engaging films.
1. Films are not books
As with books, films tell stories. Films sometimes use extensive voice-over to allow the author or narrator to tell the audience something. There are books that have been adapted to film. But after this the similarities diminish. Some of the differences are easy: films average about two hours in length, show the story visually, depend mostly on dialogue and action to move the plot along, and use actor's facial expressions to show emotions and thoughts. But the significant difference is the way in which films engage our imaginations. Writers use words artfully and poetically not only to tell the story, but also set the context and allow the reader to enter a different world. But filmmakers must offer a visual look into the story that allows the audience to suspend disbelief for a time to enter into the story. Films show the story. One does not read the film. One critically views a film and starts the interpretive process with the uniqueness of this medium in mind. Films have a team of storytellers. In film it is important to pay attention to the actors and actresses as the primary storytellers, but the director, the writer, and those working on the technical aspects like light, sound (the music and score can be an invaluable part of this), set design, and graphics have a role in telling the story. It is not enough to have a good story. Good film needs good storytellers. Saying something like, "The book was better!" is not to make a critique, but to miss the point.
2. Viewing, not watching
While films are not books, viewing a film is not a passive activity. Instead, it is participating in a different medium in its own distinct way. Films allow us to be voyeurs, to watch uninvolved in the comedy and tragedy of the characters on the screen, and to go home after escaping our routines and problems, if only for a time. But a better use of film is to think of the audience as viewers. To be a viewer is to take up the vocation of an engaged audience member: to ask questions, to discuss the implications of the story, and to discern the good and the bad that the film offers. It is work we often avoid. It is challenging. Others seem to do it better. Initially we will need to be guided by wise mentors in discernment, but at some point we must make the choice for ourselves to stop watching, and become viewers of film.
3. "Everything is permissible"—but not everything is beneficial. "Everything is permissible"—but not everything is constructive. —1 Corinthians 10:23 (NIV)
Paul was not talking about film here, but it's useful as we consider how to engage film. Like the man in line ahead of me at the theatre, how do we decide what to see? Discernment is more complex than the simple dualism of saying a film is all good or all bad. Paul is talking about the exercise of Christian liberty when we are in a non-Christian context (eating meat set aside for the worship of idols). Knowing what is beneficial and constructive involves knowing ourselves, our community, and our culture. What weaknesses and obstacles might we encounter in film that we might better avoid than test our ability to engage it? There are viewers who are sensitive to violence, sexuality, or language, and we should respect our own and others' limitations (for me, war movies are especially hard to watch). We should let our community help decide what we should see. And while the Motion Picture Association of America rating system has its flaws, it may be helpful by listing objectionable things we will see in a particular film.
It might seem as if only films that portray hope, ideal love, and happiness would be beneficial and constructive. So, what are we to do with films that show us human brokenness? We often confuse benefit and constructiveness with a shallow kind of joy. Hard films can also tell the truth. Sometimes that is why they are hard to watch. We need to be alert to our tendency for cynicism and numbness toward our own brokenness, but this does not mean that we should avoid films that seem to be more about our brokenness than about human redemption.
4. Where's the moral in the story?
In his book, The Three, the One, and the Many (Cambridge University Press, 1993), Colin Gunton writes about the connection between art and its role toward portraying good and evil:
For aesthetics, the chief question concerns in what sense art may be conceived to embody being, meaning and truth. Defenders of the autonomy of art argue rightly that it should not be compelled to serve some extraneous moral, and certainly not political, end; its task is to serve reality as it distinctly perceives it. But that raises the question of reality . . . To suppose that meaninglessness, the evil and the discordant are the essentially real is to serve a Manichean vision, which holds that reality is irredeemable. To suppose otherwise, however, is to be involved in the question of whether art should incorporate some kind of redemptive vision, as for most of history it has done. It is therefore inextricably involved with the question of moral good, which does not mean that it must be didactically moral, but rather must in some way or other come to an understanding of its relation to human moral reality (175-176).
Often we ask about the moral of a story, looking for a quick aphorism or proverb to sum up the lesson that might be gleaned from the story. Aesop's fables can be good, but often this is too pragmatic and simplistic as an approach to film which is a storied art that is more complex. Good stories often navigate between perceiving reality as being irredeemable and preaching a simple moral lesson. Gunton makes the important point that art needs to place itself in a moral universe. It is the complexity of this moral universe that gives good stories excitement, adventure, and ultimately a view of how reality is and should be. Instead of looking for a simple story of redemption or an ironic and cynical "take" on the inevitability of evil and the tragic nature of life, and we should take up Gunton's question as to whether or not it helps us understand the question of reality and what moral action looks like. Good films tell stories that are set in a morally complex world, providing us with insight into our own and others' behavior and actions.
5. Toward responsible action
All stories invite a response from the viewer. A comedy misses its mark if the audience is not laughing. It is a rare and unimaginative story that does not argue for a particular response from the audience. Part of the discernment process is to ask questions about what response the story may be aiming at, and to be in dialogue about what response you and others had while viewing the film. There are plenty of formulaic films whose only required response is laughter for a couple of hours, to excite one's sentiments and nostalgia, or move the audience to tears. But good films provide a space of play for the consequences of human behavior. In other words, they point out the good and bad ways we live in the world, leading the audience to better understand their own stories and the decisions they make in life. The characters of film can become mentors or foils to our own lives. If the film is truthful, it will show the consequences of actions and shed light on our own responsible action in the world and the consequences of doing good and bad.
6. Imagination: our minds at play
Responding to film requires that viewers use their imaginations. Metaphor is especially important here. Most films use imagery and metaphor to relate the story on screen to the audience. With our imaginations we can see how these metaphors and images extend into our own world. By using our imaginations, we can better understand what we long for. We can imagine ourselves and the world differently. We play with the stories and ideas to understand how we might act and imaginatively change what we believe and how we act. To approach film imaginatively is to allow film to change our ways of seeing things, to gain new insight, and to equip ourselves to transform the world.
7. The Human Condition
Writing about teaching stories, Walker Percy says, "Bad books always lie. They lie most of all about the human condition" (Signposts in a Strange Land. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1991). Percy argues that good stories illuminate the human condition for us, while bad stories deceive us about who we really are. So, what exactly is this human condition? In its most basic sense it is the capacities of human beings that make us distinctly human—that defines our identity, beliefs, and behaviors. The obvious distinction is that we have physical bodies that look and behave in certain ways. Communication is fundamental to our being human, as is using language and speech to communicate with and relate to one another. We all go through the cycle of birth, life, and death. Humans possess imagination that bestows the ability to act and to change ourselves and the world through imaginative action. Being human also means realizing that humans are broken and not always acting in ways that help humans flourish, instead of choosing to "give up on" our humanity. Humans ask questions. We are curious: Why are things the way they are? What does existence mean? How do we know anything at all? And that's only the beginning!
Good stories illuminate what it means to be human: our brokenness—yes, but also our imagination, hope, love, and grace. Good films have characters that help us understand ourselves and our place in the world. I think this is often why we like films about superheroes. The heroes are both like us and different from us. They give us a glimpse of what makes us human, and the dreams and desires we have about the world put to rights.
8. Community and context
The preceding signposts point out ways of thinking about film and stories. It is also important to remember the community and context that we view a film in. Some of the films we love most are those that we watch at a moment where the connection between the story and our own lives is significant. Or maybe the people we viewed it with and the discussion we had about it made the film more illuminating than if we had just watched unreflectively. It is our memory and relationships that often determine our judgment of a film. While this should not be the only method, understanding the context and the community that we are in helps us understand ourselves, our strengths and weakness, and what we love. When it comes to great movies we tend to think of films that explore universal themes that transcend time and place. But sometimes a good film does the opposite, going deeply into a particular time and place and lingers with us in memory. In the context of good conversation, we might also change our minds about a film, seeing something we did not see before, or thinking of the story in a new way. Pick your film friends carefully and remember that the setting and your own mood also plays a part in viewing film.
9. Have fun and delight in creativity
Sometimes a Will Ferrell movie is just a Will Ferrell movie. If all of these signposts find you thinking that engaging film is going to take an advanced degree, I have not forgotten that watching films can be entertaining and fun. Comedies are easy to have fun with, but serious films can also be enjoyable. If we do not enjoy the challenge of discerning the themes and the drama of the human condition, maybe we should find an activity that we do enjoy. Oftentimes we can feel that thinking about film ruins it, making it unnecessarily serious. But I have found that thinking thoughtfully about film can be fun. It allows the viewer to participate in the work of art, delighting in the creativity of the story and the storytellers.
Testing the Theory
You can tell a lot about a culture from its stories. Our culture tells a lot of its stories through films. As with Denis Haack, whom I quoted above, I think movies are the predominant way that our culture tells stories; about ourselves and our desires and longings. John Steinbeck highlights the power of stories to connect us to others: they help us see that "we are not as alone as we thought." We live in a morally complex world with others and in order to be truly human we must act and imagine ways for us to flourish in this community in which we take an active part.
I hope these signposts can be a helpful ways to start or enhance your own engagement with film. Use these signposts to watch good films, support good storytellers, and engage others in conversations. Ask someone what film they have seen recently and what she thought about it. Build or find a community with whom to watch and discern film. Take up the responsibility, but don't forget to have fun!
Now that some signposts are "up," what sort of films might be worth seeing?
The American Film Institute lists the 100 greatest films of all time, including Citizen Kane (#1), Casablanca (#2), The Godfather (#3), and Lawrence of Arabia (#5). I point to some of the great storytellers.
- The late Swedish film writer and director Ingmar Bergman, whose ability to capture human psychology through dialogue and the camera is amazing (The Seventh Seal, his faith trilogy: Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence, and his intensely interpersonal Persona, Scenes from a Marriage, and Autumn Sonata).
- American director, Alfred Hitchcock is a master at telling fun, suspenseful, and thoughtful stories. My favorites are Rope, Vertigo, The Birds, Rear Window, and I Confess.
- Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski and his writing collaborator Krzysztof Piesiewicz's three colors trilogy: Blue, White, and Red, and his The Decalogue (ten vignettes, one for each commandment) are well worth exploring.
- Woody Allen also has some great philosophical, yet humorous films in The Purple Rose of Cairo and Love and Death, and he explores relationships in Husbands and Wives, Manhattan, and Crimes and Misdemeanors.
- The Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel have a growing collection of great films (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Fargo, Raising Arizona, and more).
- Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Guillerma Arriaga have perfected postmodern storytelling showing the connections between people through overlapping vignettes (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel, and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada).
Paris, Texas—From director Wim Wenders comes a heartbreaking story of a man trying to find redemption from a very broken past.
Magnolia—P.T. Anderson finds away to connect a smorgasbord of vignettes to the regrets of our lives.
Wit—A poignant film about the difficult relationship between the life of the mind and the life of the body.
The Matrix—Changed how all action movies are made and asks the question: How do we know what is real?
The Wizard of Oz—A culturally influential film with a deep metaphor.
House of Sand and Fog—This film shows the importance of grace and forgiveness in our relationships to the other.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy—An imaginative story about one's role in the cosmic struggle between good and evil.
The Apartment—Becoming "a mensch" (a true human being) is tough work.
Blade Runner—This futuristic film asks: How do we define what is human?
The Truman Show—In a world with a cacophony of voices, how do we find the one true voice?
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—Can you erase love like information on a computer hard drive?
Crash—A film about the problem of race and how it drives the conflict in our relationships.
City Lights—A great love story involving mistaken identity—one of Charlie Chaplin's best works.
Fight Club—A deep psychological look at coping with life in the 21st century.
Love Actually—A romantic comedy about love . . . actually.
V for Vendetta—How do we stand up for our political beliefs? Is violence ever justified if we are pursuing true justice?
Dogma and Thank You for Smoking—Great satires that reveal the hypocrisy that can describe us.
Princess Mononoke—One of Japan's best anime films (with well made English dubbing): a great story of humans' stewardly role on the earth.
Batman Begins and Superman Returns—These superheroes point out the reality of fear and the longing for redemption in the human condition.
To find more great films, visit my film index at www.filmindex.blogspot.com.