Watching a movie may seem like a simple thing to do. But for those whose goal is to “bring every thought captive to Christ,” that watching will be different, and not simple at all. One experienced movie watcher suggests some guidelines.
I think I was fifteen. I remember moving a 12-inch black and white portable TV into my bedroom one night and setting my alarm for 3 a.m. to watch West Side Story on the late, late show. There in the eerie, blue glow I sat transfixed. A few years later, in a university auditorium I watched Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho for the first time–finally, a bigger screen and more of the same wonder. On both occasions, it wasn’t simply the story but the telling that grabbed me: the script, the choreography, the camera movement, the editing, the angles–the film itself. I knew that, somehow, this kind of storytelling was different and I wanted to learn the language. Okay, I admit it. I didn’t grow up reading the Narnia Chronicles or even L.M. Montgomery, or any of that other formative fiction over which everyone waxes so fondly. Nope. I was weaned on the channel 29 Saturday afternoon Creature Feature. Deep in my bones, I’m a viewer–movies, videos and, yes, even television–and I don’t think I’m alone.
Learning a new language
To a large extent, North American culture communicates visually but in many cases, as viewers, we’re only partially literate. We don’t often know how to talk about film on its own terms. In youth or campus work, movies are often used as filler-entertainment or as vehicles for discussing issues, and while these uses are completely valid (hey, in a 30-hour famine, sometimes you need a little Indiana Jones in your back pocket!), I think we lose part of the tale by ignoring the telling. Films can entertain us, numb us, excite, inspire, shock and even haunt us. So can literature. So can music or theatre or painting or dance. But Picasso tells a story differently than Duke Ellington does. Similarly, film communicates in a way that differs from all of these other, older art forms while also drawing upon elements of each. Whether we are Sunday matinee junkies, diehard channel-surfers or video novices who can hardly figure out how to turn on the VCR let alone program it, we need to view films (and other visual media) actively, rather than passively. By honing a few critical skills, we can learn to watch with our eyes open.
Watching a movie is a multi-sensory experience, and as such, film engages our imaginations and emotions on a number of levels. The story is told, seen, heard, felt–even tasted or smelled, depending on the popcorn. For this reason, films can affect us deeply–both positively and negatively–and it is important to understand what we as viewers bring to the experience. For example, film requires us to process a great deal of information at once (sensory, cognitive and symbolic, for example) and different viewers have different “thresholds” or levels and intensities of information that they can process without feeling overloaded. Think of the first movie you ever saw in a theatre. Depending on when or where you were born, that film might have been, say, Mary Poppins or Star Wars. Both films require the viewer (in this case, our generic 8-year-old) to process information, but the character and intensity of that information in these films are vastly different (compare Mary Poppins’ umbrella to the Millennium Falcon). A child who begins his or her movie-watching career with Star Wars simply begins the journey with a higher (but not better or worse) threshold.
As viewers (and as Christians), it is helpful to understand, respect, and in some cases, question our own thresholds. When it comes to certain kinds of information (images of violence, for example) some of us may have seen too much; our thresholds may be too high. In other cases, we may need to take a calculated risk and watch something which will challenge our assumptions. Self-awareness and dialogue are crucial to active viewing. Rather than blindly watching anything and everything (or in the reverse, turn our backs on the whole medium), a critical awareness of our own assumptions, expectations, tastes and thresholds can help us begin to view films more intentionally.
It is also helpful to remember that films are constructed by people: writers, set-designers, cinematographers, editors, actors, key grips, directors, producers, distributors and so on. All these people make decisions about how the story will be told. As an active audience, we should feel free to agree or disagree with these decisions. In determining the value or success of a film, we need to take both the “story”–the ideas, assumptions, ideologies and so on.– and the “telling” into account.
The art and the message
When it was released in 1994, The Crow quickly became a cult favourite among high-school and university-aged audiences. Visually, the film is quite fascinating but in the end, the entire story is fuelled by an unquestioned vengeance; the hero spends the whole film tracking down his killers and doing them in. So is it a good film? In many ways, yes. Technically, the “art” or production values, such as sets, lighting, costuming and makeup, are really compelling (okay, at points the script is a little dumb…) but the “message” of the film–that good guys still have the right to slaughter bad guys–is pretty ugly.
Conversely, there are some very well-intentioned films out there (many of which might be available at your local Christian bookstore) that may have really good messages, but are embarrassingly bad art. Just because Bob sincerely loves God doesn’t mean he knows how to run a camera or write a script. Considering a film in terms of both “art” and “message” can be a helpful start in gaining a critical perspective. (Bear in mind, however, that these “good/bad” “art/message” distinctions are overly blunt. It doesn’t really work to separate “art” or production values from “message” quite so neatly, since the two aspects really are interdependent. Lousy communication will muck up any message, no matter how good it is, and even the greatest “art” isn’t so great if all it communicates is a merely trite or even poisonous message. Still, these distinctions do provide a starting point for dialogue, and that’s what we’re after.)
When looking at the “message” of the film, think about the issues/questions that the film raises about life/reality/human relationships and so on, and then evaluate how it chooses to deal with or respond to those issues/questions. By doing so, you may find astonishing nuggets of truth, truth that resonates with truth revealed in scripture and in Christ, nestled in some highly unlikely, even unpalatable places, while also recognizing some very cunning and attractive deceptions.
The point of this whole exercise is not to become film critics. Rather, it is to become more active and informed participants in our culture. Film both reflects and shapes our world; it is a currency by which meanings, values and mythologies are traded. If we are to live and speak meaningfully in these times, then we had best learn the language.