Tag Archives: Movies

Beautiful Beast

Like most kids in America I grew up with some form of Disney. We couldn’t afford to see many movies, but those we could often originated from the acknowledged master of childhood viewing. When I became a parent I naturally turned to Disney as one of the components of constructing a happy environment for my own child. Who doesn’t want better for their children then they had themselves? This was, however, in the days of VHS tapes. Disney frustrated more than one attempt to see a movie that was currently “locked in the vault”—a marketing tool used to glut the already overflowing coffers on demand. The heart wants what the heart wants, as the saying goes, and you knew that if you didn’t purchase the movie when it was available you might never see it again. Regardless, Disney does produce memorable work.

One movie that we missed until the vault unlocked was the animated Beauty and the Beast. We didn’t want to send the message that girls should be the captives of men, but Belle is a strong character, and we eventually realized that withholding much of childhood culture would isolate our daughter from what everyone else knew. Old habits die hard, as Disney knows. Our daughter is now grown, but a new Beauty and the Beast is in theaters and what was once vault material has softened into nostalgia. Recently I’ve begun to notice differences between original films and remakes when it comes to religion. In the new Beauty and the Beast there are only a couple of such instances, but they did make me wonder. In the opening sequence, as Belle is returning her book to Père Robert, a large crucifix stands in the background. Indeed, the camera keeps Belle off-center so as to make the cross obvious in the scene. Clergy and books make sense, and, of course, Belle offers to sacrifice herself for her father—a biblical trope.

When Gaston riles up the angry villagers, Père Robert is once more shown, objecting to the growing violence. Then, unexpectedly, as the castle transforms at the end, a gold finial of Michael the archangel slaying the dragon appears atop one of the towers. Again the symbolism is clear as the beast has allowed Gaston to escape, but the 45-inspired antagonist, unwilling to let grudges go, shoots the beast anyway. As the movie opens the famous Disney castle shows itself topped with that same finial. Is there a deeper message here? It’s just a children’s movie after all. Yet Père Robert is black and there are two interracial couples in the film. We should be, if I’m viewing this correctly, entering into a more tolerant and accepting world. Prejudice has no place in fantasy. Or reality. There are dragons to be slain here. If there is a deeper conscience at play it’s likely only to be found locked away in a vault.

Seeing Belief

Although most of us can recognize it on sight, we have a difficult time defining religion. In the early parts of Film as Religion: Myths, Morals, and Rituals, John C. Lyden discusses this lack of definition and offers some broad categorizations since his thesis depends upon it. How can one assert that film may be understood as religion if religion isn’t identified? Lyden makes clear that this book won’t be about an ideological or theological interpretation of film. It’s more about popular culture and how elements of that culture, such as cinema, may be religion. This leads to the discussion of the topics of his subtitle: myths, rituals, and morals. These all share some conceptual territory with movies, therefore understanding them is important.

To me the most interesting part of the book is the consideration of genres (westerns, gangster movies, melodramas, romantic comedies, children’s movies, science fiction, thrillers and horror) as exemplars of various aspects of this religion. Each genre includes the discussion of a feature film, and some even have two. Of course, Lyden’s book is a few years old now and other studies have shed further light on both how religion and film interact and also on the interpretation of various genres of movie. The hope of the book—that it may be the start of a new kind of discussion about religion—has to some extent been realized, although the analysis has taken off in several directions at once. There can be no doubt that cinema taps deep spiritual needs in a way not unlike a religious ceremony.

It seems that society has come to distrust the usual purveyors of religion. Dishonesty almost as deep as that of the government has been found in it and the responses are remarkably similar—cover-ups and denials and many species of prevarication. Cinema seems downright credible in comparison. What you see is what you see. The big difference between movies and religion, however, is that we’re only too glad to acknowledge the human sources of celluloid. Many religions, especially in the monotheistic tradition, rely on direct divine revelation as their origin. Lyden isn’t suggesting that film substitutes for religion in that way, but on a more practical level it may. It meets our needs. We trust we’ll get what the poster and trailers promise us. We sit reverently in the dark awaiting illumination. And yes, there’s an exchange of money involved for any kind of worship involves an offering. No religion’s free of cost.

Reel Salvation

salvationcinemaSalvation is a fraught concept. It’s one of those topics that’s been commandeered by the evangelical camp so that mainstreamers are afraid to touch it, as if it’s catching. The thing is, Christianity is built around the idea that people require saving. The question is how you go about getting “saved.” Some insist it’s being “born again,” while others take a more gradual, one might dare say “evolutionary,” approach. Either way the end result in the same—being rescued from that which threatens you. Like many people, I watch movies. Sometimes I do so with manic intensity, not really knowing why I do it. My personal rationalization is escapism. Living in a world of harsh realities such as Trump (and even before there were sources of great anxiety) one needs an escape hatch. You might say I’m seeking salvation through film.

Crystal Downing suggests I may not be alone in this. Salvation from Cinema: The Medium is the Message is a book that explores the salvific function of movies. These are not just Christian or Bible movies she’s talking about. Indeed, she spends some time wrestling with that preposition “from” in the title. Is cinema something from which one might be saved, or by which one might find salvation? The latter is her focus and she sharpens it by looking at theories which might make it happen. The stories, the stars, and even nudity are put forward as ways the silver screen has been thought to bring salvation to viewers. She also includes a very interesting discussion of breaking the fourth wall. This technique brings the contents directly to the viewer. The second half of her book is more theoretically dense, engaging with modern theorists about what salvation from cinema might mean. Her selection of films to discuss is wide and intriguing.

There can be little question that cinema has a deeper significance than it’s usually supposed. Part of the reason is, as Downing discusses, the easy marriage of capitalism and celluloid in the United States. Movies make money. To counter this she also discusses foreign and art house films as well. There can be little question that those who stand in the queue are seeking something. While cheaper than many diversions, going to the movies does involve a small investment and as capitalists we expect a return on that. So it is that we sit in the dark and allow others to guide us toward the light. That’s as fine a metaphor for salvation as any that the preacher might proffer.

Equal Frights

Ghostbusters_2016_film_poster

Working in Midtown Manhattan, it’s rare for a week to go by without passing through a street that’s set up for a film or television shoot. New York isn’t the largest city in the world, nor does it have the tallest buildings, but it is a city instantly recognizable at a glance. It is also a haunted city. The original Ghostbusters was a New York movie, but the reboot may be even more so (although largely shot in Boston). I’m having difficulty remembering the last time I enjoyed a movie so much. I laughed until the tears came, and the theme of spirits loose in the city appealed to that part of me that loves the strange and unusual. With several nods to the original, and cameos from the surviving cast, this is a child of love that outshines its parent. It’s almost as if it makes the original even better than it was to begin with. This is a movie with a mission.

Clearly one of the factors in making the film so good was the fact that women were the leads. They show at once the empathetic, and funny, intelligent, and challenging—roles that women routinely both possess and face. The characters have trouble being taken seriously by the males around them, yet they are fully as qualified as and indeed, know more than the establishment. Discouraged and downtrodden, they press on, saving New York City. This may be the first time women have been envisioned is such a salvific role. They are scientists, scorned for their brains and for their gender, and yet they overcome.

Sure, there’s fantasy involved here, but fantasy with a message. I applaud this movie that not only entertains, but also makes profound statements at the same time. It gives a rare glimpse of what the world would be like if men were treated with the demeaning outlooks that they already frequently give to women. It is a feminist movie, but not an angry one. I left the theater genuinely elated. Of course, I loved the first Ghostbusters, despite all the cigarettes and sausages. Still, those who made the movie had the grace to bless this new venture that takes viewers into a world where we rely on women to solve the problem. Once it’s solved, however, they are shoved into the background so that the powers that be can take the credit. It is a movie for our times. I would’ve gone to see it for the ghosts alone. I came out, however, knowing that I had seen something not only enjoyable, but which might, if taken seriously, begin to change attitudes and prejudices which haunt us to this day.

Powerful Movies

PowerOfMoviesOur friends were shocked. I don’t even remember the title of the movie, but they couldn’t believe we had gone to see it. Not because of the content of the film, but because it had been shown on a Sunday morning. Why hadn’t we been in church? This was back in Edinburgh when we had very little money—wait, we still have very little money. This was back in Edinburgh, and we had won free tickets to an early screening of a new movie. The showtime was on Sunday morning. So in our own version of weak-willed athletes from Chariots of Fire, we’d skipped church to go see the movie. I don’t remember the title and I remember very little of the film. It had something to do with Richard Wagner and a conductor. An art film. We didn’t really feel too guilty missing church to go, since at the time, it seemed like a rare opportunity and the movie was, in some sense, religious. Or at least mythological.

Movies have a way of really influencing people. Thus it has been since the invention of the art form. We’ve all had the experience, I suppose, of a movie hitting us with a profound impact. It never really occurred to me to ask why. That is, until I read Colin McGinn’s The Power of Movies: How Screen and Mind Interact. I’d always thought that movies were simply a successful form of entertainment, and scholars seldom take entertainment seriously. As McGinn makes clear, there’s a lot more than casual watching going on when we slip into the theater. As a philosopher, McGinn is duty-bound to look beyond the obvious. Time after time in this profound little book I found myself pausing to consider the implications of what he says. Ultimately, he suggests that movies access the same areas of the brain that dreams do, not only giving them dreamlike qualities, but also making films emotional experiences like dreams.

At one point, McGinn draws explicit connections between going to church and going to a movie. Beyond the superficial aspects of a darkened building with a performance meant to impact a person, there are clear parallels between going to the theater and going to church. Both can be transformative experiences. The Power of Movies is a powerful little book. As much as we like to think that we have custody of our minds, the realm beneath the surface—that which gives us dreams and syncs with movies—has more influence on us than we’d generally like to admit. More and more, scholars are beginning to realize that films do have a profound impact on viewers. This is not just entertainment. It may not be worship, but after reading McGinn I think it might not be too far from it. The mind able to dream, after all, is a mind that’s truly free.

The Film’s the Thing

BibleFilmIn the context of teaching, I often described how movies portrayed the Bible. There is an aspect of this that may go overlooked since the Bible is, in the nicest possible way, inert. That is, the Bible frequently functions as a character in movies. In a minor, or supporting role perhaps, but clearly it has an impact on what the other characters do or say. The story wouldn’t be the same without it. So it was that I finally got around to reading The Bible in Film—The Bible and Film, edited by J. Cheryl Exum. This is a collection of 11 academic essays about the Bible in various cinematic guises. A number of the essays focused on Jesus, being the most obvious biblical character to star in movies; he had another one this past summer. The collection, however, is wide-ranging in its biblical characters.

More interesting to me, and this is just a personal preference, is the way that the Bible shows up in movies. Those who decry the study of sacred writ seem to be in denial concerning just how deeply embedded in our national psyche the Good Book is. As the various contributors to this volume show, the Bible appears in ways both subtle and overt in many films. Like it or not, the stories represented in the Bible are classics, and many film-makers find a rich source of material here (when they’re not busy making sequels). The Bible is, to a large extent, who we are.

That’s not to deny a religious pluralism to the United States. We are diverse and that is one of our strongest assets. Still, even though our founders were primarily deists, and not evangelical Christians, their culture was pervaded by the Bible. A large difference between then and now is that, although they weren’t “Bible believers” our founders knew their Bible. In a sense that is almost incomprehensible today, they realized that you don’t have to believe it to see its value. The Bible does have some good things to say. Even now when I get overwhelmed, I can still find some balancing sanity in parts of Sacred Writ. It’s not all about killing your enemies or keeping women silent in the churches. It is a very human document. That’s why, in my humble opinion, we keep coming back, as a society, to the Bible. Anything that is so momentous is bound to find its way into our movies and our other art forms. How we take that is, of course, a matter of personal taste.

Flood of Fancy

Years ago I was approached to write a book about Noah. There was still some hope at that time that I might find a university job and that my words would have more credibility than just any old internet hack. At the time I’d read just about every book about Noah that had been written—and there weren’t that many. Biblical scholars, beyond tying the story to its obvious Mesopotamian sources, have long relegated the tale to the nursery school of biblical drama. Sure, it’s a great story, but what serious scholar takes an interest in a great story? Well, I outlived my academic job and it looks like Noah is going to have the last laugh. We’re told that the Pope has been tweeted about the movie by Russell Crowe and that several Islamic nations have already banned it. According to Today Darren Aronofsky, the director, is more interested in getting non-believers into the theater than trying to please the faithful. Well, let’s face it. A movie based strictly on the Bible would have to be pretty preachy.

The bigger draw seems to be this: our society is simultaneously deemed secular and religious. Americans go to church. They also respond to surveys that they believe in God, the Devil, Heaven, and Hell. They also act as if none of this were true. Business practices tend to be anything but caring, and we show no concerted effort to make sure basic healthcare is offered to all our citizens, let alone the millions who are daily suffering and dying elsewhere in the world. We don’t want to reduce our emissions as a real flood—a literal flood—is on the rise on a global scale. Maybe we’re waiting for a biblical-scale miracle to save us. Noah’s face stares out at you all across Midtown. Judgment is upon us.

NoahMovie

Action films draw male viewers. Religious movies draw females. Aronofsky and Crowe have the winning combination. No gender-bias for a secular-religious nation that has enough loose change to spend a weekend at the movies. The biggest complaint is that it isn’t the Bible. I have to admit I’m kind of enjoying the hype, despite the fact that I never received the chance to write that Noah book that was next on my agenda. If I had, now it might have enjoyed the sales that Irving Finkel’s The Ark Before Noah—scheduled for release three days before the movie—surely will. Timing has never been my strong suit. Of course, money can be its own sort of flood, and many more drown in it than in the literal waters of a secular-religious society. According to Genesis a raven was released to fly about looking for land. The Crowe might have been a better choice since movies, as we all know, improve upon the book.