Poppins Fresh

The holiday season often means doing things out of the ordinary.  Despite writing books that deal with movies, I can’t afford to see them in theaters often, but we went as a family to see Mary Poppins Returns.  A few things about that: I grew up never having seen Mary Poppins (I first encountered it in college).  The new movie is neither a remake nor a sequel proper.  It follows the same basic pattern as the original but with new songs and animations, and all of it based on a somewhat darker premise—the death of the mother (which allows Jane and Michael, as adults to both be back in their childhood home) has led to financial straights that threaten to leave the Banks family homeless.  The bank has turned cruelly capitalistic and wants as many foreclosures as possible.  Sinister stuff.

The reason I mention the movie here, however, is a premise that it shares with Hook: children can see things that adults can’t.  Or more precisely, that adults learn not to see.  Some investigators of unusual phenomena suggest that as we grow we’re taught not to believe what we see if it’s impossible.  I’m in no position to assess the validity of such an assertion, being an adult, but it does give me pause for wonder.  We regularly shut out the vast majority of stimuli we experience; our brains are not capable of taking in every little detail all the time.  Instead, we’ve evolved to pay attention to that which is threatening or rewarding to our survival, and we tend to ignore many of the mundane feelings, sights, sounds, and smells that are constantly around us.  Perhaps we do shut out what we’re taught is impossible.  Mary Poppins Returns says it outright. 

In many ways this is behind the materialism we’re spoon-fed daily.  The only reality, we’re told, is that which can be measured and quantified with scientific instruments.  Any apparent reality beyond that is simply illusion.  We all know, however, that our experience of life doesn’t feel that way at all.  There seems to be no counter-argument, however, since we have no empirical evidence to offer.  Experience, we’re told, is unreliable.  Perhaps we’re not too old to learn a few things from the movies.  Mary Poppins Returns won’t likely become the cultural sensation that its forebear was, nevertheless it contains a message that may be worth preserving.  Childhood may hold the keys to understanding reality.

The Cult of Relaxation

Relaxation comes with a price.  As with most people who work hard, I find taking more than a day or two off work tricky.  It’s not that I want to go to work, but that I feel the need to keep improving my mind.  I read quite a bit on holidays, and, being of the opinion that movies are the modern mythology, I like to watch what I can.  Last night I saw a film I’m too embarrassed to name, but which was so utterly awful that I can’t get it out of my head.  Call it an experiment in relaxation.  Or call it madness.  Either way, I came to realize just how much impact a movie might have without really containing anything to give back.  This particular film is often listed as a cult classic.

I’ll confess right now that I loved Attack of the Killer Tomatoes the first time I saw it.  (This is not last night’s feature.)  It is a bad movie—so bad that it’s good.  My professional reputation may suffer for it, but I have to admit to having watched it multiple times over the years.  I’d heard that last night’s film was like that.  So bad that it’s good.  And that made me ponder the blurring of these categories.  Without a universal deity to declare the terms, good and bad are matters of consensus.  No quantitative means exists for making, a movie for example, good or bad, beyond the human judgment of viewers.  We tend to listen to critics, who experience more cinema than the rest of us can afford, but I’m sure we all have our secret likes that don’t match the decrees of the experts.

Films that flaunt convention so radically, and which gather disciples, are, as I mentioned, called “cult classics.”  This is the language of religion.  Although religionists have moved away from the use of the word, cult implies irrational intensity of devotion toward that which is clearly, in the eyes of the majority, bad.  Again we come to the question of who defines value.  For most of human history it has simply been majority opinion.  Cults, however, give meaning to those who “get it.”  Cult classics have faithful followers.  In the line of duty some months back I watched Exorcist II: The Heretic.  I later found out that it also frequently makes the list of all-time worst movies, despite starring Linda Blair, James Earl Jones, Paul Henreid, and Richard Burton.  It’s a cult classic.  The unnamed film from last night has no known stars.  Hideous acting.  Ludicrous writing.  I watched it to relax.  Now I wonder if I’ve joined a cult, or if I just need a vacation.

V November

“Remember, remember the fifth of November,” begins the parable V for Vendetta before opening on a government not unlike our own.  Fascist, built on hatred, an angry white man speaks for the few who worship nothing but power and call it God.  Tomorrow is election day, and V can also stand for Vote.  Two years ago our nation awoke in shock.  Since that day we’ve seen hate crimes transform from illegal to commendable as Neo-Nazis are described as very fine people and those who actually do the labor for the nation have been disenfranchised so the uber-wealthy can have tax cuts.  Violence isn’t the answer, but voting can be.  As soon as the GOP sensed it might lose, it began voter suppression measures.  They have never watched V.

The hope for any democracy rests in the volition to vote.  We have to be willing to inconvenience ourselves to get to the polling station tomorrow for an outcome that will decide the fate of this nation.  We’ve had “fake news” spewn out at every fact that is distasteful.  Open, bald-faced lies backed up by sycophantic adoration of a non-charismatic hater—well, have you watched V for Vendetta?  Graphic novels, it turns out, can indeed be prophetic.  And since there are other nations out there that look to emulate the land of Amerigo Vespucci’s legacy.  We have forgotten what it was like to be a colony.  Instead we prefer following blind leaders—those who can’t understand that hateful words lead to hateful deeds.  Those who can’t understand that a terrorist can be an elected official.

I’m describing V for Vendetta, of course.  The coincidence of the Roman numeral five and the word “Vote,” however, hasn’t been lost on me.  I’ve talked to those displeased with the results of election day two years ago who hadn’t gone to vote.  What we see as V designs his intricate plan is that the will of the people still matters.  But for your will to be known, you must use your voice; you must vote.  Or be victims of our own system.  We’ve had two years to see what damage can be done—a constitution treated as a napkin and due process subverted in order to ensure ill-gotten gain.  Vivid colors have been used to stain this canvas.  We don’t often receive a chance to correct imbalances but there’s a lot at stake this time.  If you doubt me, at least watch V for Vendetta and remember that parables are, by definition, true.

Credulity

So I went to see The Incredibles 2. Like the first movie, it deals with the complexities of family life amid the feelings of inadequacy when people are kept from their full potential. The idea of humans being enslaved by their screens seemed real enough. If you’ve ever tried to walk through Manhattan in a hurry you know that one of the clearest dangers is the pedestrian staring at his or her phone. People used to come to New York to see the scenery. Now you can get the full experience all online. There’s little doubt that we do need to be saved from our screens. Meet virtual reality. After only one encounter you can drop the “virtual.” Ironically, we were all sitting in a theater looking at a great big screen.

What was even more interesting was the fact that the film began with an apology for taking so long to make a sequel. An actual apology. As if no movie ever could, or should stand on its own. It’s common knowledge that sequels seldom live up to the originals. Interestingly, the villain in the movie states that people will always choose convenience over quality. That much is certain, and in an ironic way it applies to the film in which it’s uttered. I don’t believe in the crisis for creativity. It’s still out there. Original ideas are endemic to human nature. Ideas that bring in lots of money are more rare, and so we rely on the sequel. Sure things.

Publishers play this same game. Books that are completely new ideas frequently find their way from editors’ slush piles to their rejection piles. Publishers want something similar to what they’ve done before. Even better, something similar to something that sold well last time. The odds, in a capitalistic society, are stacked against creativity. It’s money that’s important, not originality. Yes, there have been books written extolling the wonders—virtues even—of originality. Such books are more easily published if they’re written by somebody already famous. So here was the dilemma in the theater: enjoy the movie or accept the message of the movie? The rare days I’m away from the screen, I’m old enough to admit, I don’t really crave it. When I come back in the door, however, the first thing I do is login to see if I’ve missed anything. Screens can lead to a strange uniformity. As long as we’re willing to pay for it, nobody will complain.

Watching Research

Now that Holy Horror’s been announced, I’m at work on my next book based on horror movies. Although some people might question the aesthetic of the horror genre, these films are sometimes remarkably intelligent and can indeed be good cinema. Having spent the better part of last weekend watching multiple flicks, however, I’ve come to realize that watching films for research is quite different than viewing them for fun. We all know the feeling of going to the theater to be exposed to the mythology of the present day; movies are the new mythology and are a common source of meaning and hope for individuals in a post-religion era. We go for the spectacle and the story. We leave, if the movie is good, with a renewed sense of purpose, or in a thoughtful state. That’s what mythology does.

In writing up my analyses of many films, I’ve noticed how little the detail is generally acknowledged in many synopses. They can make a flick seem banal. I’ve even had very intelligent people ask me why I think watching movies should be considered intellectual exercises. One reason for this, at least in my experience, is how often people rely on what they see in movies to inform them of important things. Historical events, for example. For the average person, an historical recreation on celluloid can provide recall better than a detail from some 400-page tome on the topic. Human beings are visually oriented by nature and evolution. It takes us years to learn how to read, and if we don’t keep up with the practice our ability to comprehend advanced writing atrophies. It’s easier to watch a film.

No doubt movie scripts are available for purchase. To get the message of a film, however, you need to watch. Immerse yourself in a kind of flickering light baptism. Research watching, however, involves multiple viewings. Taking notes. Watching again to make sure you got that detail correct. Some may doubt that this is an intellectual exercise at all. Still, one of the concerns that some scholars feel is that we’ve lost touch with what hoi polloi believe. People have turned to mythology from the beginning of time in the quest for meaning. Science tells us how the world works, but not why. For such questions we need our mythologies, ancient and modern. Since Nightmares with the Bible focuses on demons, I’ve had to construct a cinematic demonology that’s quite different from those of the Middle Ages. It requires, after all, a modern research method for a modern mythology. And movie watching. Lots of movie watching.

Movie Meaning

Theology has never been my thing. Now, those who don’t parse things too finely may find that an odd statement. “This blog almost always addresses religion,” they may say, “how can you say theology’s not your thing?” Perhaps for the layperson “theology” means anything having to do with religion. In the biz it has a more specific meaning. Theology is tied to a faith system. It tries to explain, rationally, what that belief system entails. Religious studies is more about studying what religion is and how it works. It was this fine distinction that put me off from reading Screening the Afterlife: Theology, Eschatology and Film. Christopher Deacy treats the subject theologically and, depending on the theologian, that can mean a lot of effort for little result. I was, however, pleased about a number of things in Deacy’s book. He doesn’t shy away from horror, for one. And he takes cinema seriously.

The idea behind the book is straightforward—theology and movies should be in dialogue about the afterlife. At a number of points Deacy makes it clear that films reach a wider audience than theology books. Again, those of us in the biz know that to be very true. If people watch movies they begin to accept what those movies tell them as true. For those of one of the established faith systems, if things haven’t altered all the much since I was young, discussing the religious meaning of a secular film is always interesting. (Some of my friends drew the line, however, when I found Elijah parallels in a film where a bread machine went out of control, but that’s a story for another time.) People take movies seriously. During economically depressed times, movies thrive. We need to pay attention to them.

The problem with theology is, no matter how open it may be, there’s always some element of rightness involved—this perspective is right and that one wrong. It can hardly be any other way. To open the door too widely is to invite yourself to exit. Deacy selects films he finds theologically meaningful when addressing (mostly) Christian views of the afterlife. I’m guessing—and it’s only a guess—that many people get their information from popular media and theologians are completely off the screen. That doesn’t mean theology has no place, but it does mean that its place is in the hands of other scholars rather than those who just want to sit around and talk about the film they saw last night. Both may be profound, but one is more clearly enjoyable than the other.

Wonders and Signs

Raised by a woman who would be perhaps classified as a “single mother” these days—she was technically married except for a very brief time just before my step-father came along—I have always had great appreciation for the power of women. She didn’t have super-powers, but she raised three young boys largely single-handedly without the help a young woman has a right to expect. Wonder Woman, when I saw her on television, struck me as a very different kind of female. Strong, yes, but clearly there for men to look at. But then again, I didn’t have the benefit of Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman. I left the theater speechless. Apart from a few sniffles my wife didn’t have much to say until about an hour later. It’s that kind of movie.

I’ve seen many superhero movies. In fact, heroes are almost custom-made for the big screen. Comic books are basically storyboards already, and the colors and action are the very definition of spectacle. Wonder Woman, however, complicates the tale of the hero fighting for justice and truth. She fights instead for peace and love. Never supposing she’s anything but capable of defeating the evils of war, she doesn’t take orders from men. She actually shames an elderly, heavyset general for not being on the field of battle where, he acknowledges, others will die for the cause of the armistice. It’s a world inverted. Yes, the men are drawn to Diana, and can’t help but be awed by her. They don’t control her, however. She’s the first out of the trenches and she requires no man’s help when combatting the enemy.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the movie is the respect it to shows to women. Only one nude body appears in the film, and it’s male. I suspect I wasn’t the only man present made uncomfortable by the curious female gaze and the assessing questions of the goddess. Women are made to sit through countless movies as the subject of the male gaze. The embarrassment here is a reminder that making women sexual objects is the normal expectation. What if the roles were reversed? When Wonder Woman fights she is largely defensive. Men want to destroy her. She responds by declaring love will overcome war and owning her role as the “God-killer.” This is a movie with substantial subtext. It challenges the paradigm of men’s rule as wise and beneficial. A god may have to die, but the world is a better place for it. We could use some inversion about now.

Viewing Religion

Scholars employed by the academy sometimes fall under its privileged bubble. In that rarified space, the classics, the Bible, and even serious contemporary literature can be parsed and prodded until it’s no longer recognized and everyone thinks it’s normal. Out on the streets (for some of us taste the outer darkness) people have a difficult time with such minute attention to detail. People like movies. They’re visual, colorful, and they meet deep human needs. Scholars were slow to take cinema seriously, though. It was one of those passing things. Ephemeral. Shadows flickering on a screen. Never mind that the budget for a single Hollywood blockbuster could finance an entire humanities department for years. This is a strange dynamic when you stop to think about it.

S. Brent Plate, in his book Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-creation of the World, addresses in a very intelligent way, how film is like religion. Of course, religion is often on the university chopping block these days, so it is perhaps no surprise that among the first academics to pay serious attention to movies in their discipline were religion scholars. What is truly surprising is the depth of that connection between movies and belief. For such a brief book, Plate dives deep and quickly. In a society that seems to have outlived its need for structured religion, movies have managed to hold on through recessions and depressions and terrorist attacks. Indeed, they often provide meaning during those very times. They have a ritual form that meets the kinds of needs religion has traditionally filled. Movies are well worth the time we spend getting to know them.

Sometimes, under the barrage of rhetoric that says all answers are physical, we forget that humans are meaning-seeking creatures. If there’s no purpose to life, our wellbeing suffers. Nobody looking at modern civilization objectively would say that we’re an overwhelmingly happy bunch. One way to understand the popularity of movies is to see them as venues of finding meaning. For 90 minutes to 2 hours we’re shown some version of modern mythology (at least in some cases) that serves many of the same functions as a sermon or scripture. Although Plate hyphenates the word, it is worth pondering that this is for more than mere recreation. The Sabbath idea always involved more than just a day off work. Movies offer us a way toward meaning. So naturally, the academy tends to ignore them. There are, it seems, more important things to do.

Filling the Frame

Those who study the Bible have to reckon with the fact that someone else probably said it first. This is one of the inherent liabilities of studying something a couple thousand years old. Still, scholars have to keep their jobs, and so they come up with new ways of looking at something ancient. One of my favorite new methods is the use of movies to understand the Good Book. Clearly nobody in ancient times had any ideas about films, let alone stills, but still, they liked to tell stories. They have that in common with modern cinema. Although I’m naturally distrustful of collections of essays—there are so many of them and they are all of mixed quality—I decided to read Close Encounters between Bible and Film: An Interdisciplinary Engagement, edited by Laura Copier and Caroline Vander Stichele. I have to admit that I picked it up with some trepidation, but I was pleasantly surprised in the end.

Like all edited volumes, Close Encounters is uneven. Nevertheless, a fair number of the essays are well done and insightful. The others may be insightful too, but my exile from academe has led to a drop in tolerance for method-heavy essays. They make me think the Bible should mean nothing to anyone but experts, which, if true, is a sad state of affairs for a world that depends on it for salvation. But I digress. The fact is movies quite often draw on similar collections of brain cells as do sacred texts. That’s interesting. Not only that, but flicks show just how deeply embedded the Bible is in western consciousness.

Having read many books on cinema and the Bible, I was pleased at how well this one seemed to flow. At times it’s as if that authors are struggling to find some common ground, but the realization that both sacred text and cinema are part of the cultural sphere suggests that the connections are there. More than that, they suggest that the Bible might still retain some relevance for modern people after all. Hollywood hasn’t lost sight of Holy Writ either. Just a few years back three major biblical epics came out in one season. For me this makes it clear that the stories of antiquity still speak to modern people. They have to be gussied up with CGI and big-name actors, but the underlying tales go back to a day before lights and camera were necessary for action. And we might learn something while our intention is simply to be entertained.

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.