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What Do We Want from Movies? What Do We Need?

In the film reviews I have written in recent weeks, like this one on The Kids Are All Right or this one on The King’s Speech, I have been inspired by, if not exactly modeling, some of the recent editorials in Traces as well as the flyers that have been written by Chris Basich with the help of others in Communion and Liberation. In New York last weekend, Chris spoke of these flyers and of the reasons behind them, which amount to judging current events from the perspective of what we are learning in School of Community. . . .

In attempting to judge movies, it occurs to me to ask just what we can ask of them. The answer with the lowest common denominator is, of course, entertainment, as in the contemptible TV “news” program “Entertainment Tonight” or as in “the entertainment,” the eponymous video in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, a video so mesmerizing that it causes catatonia and, because the viewer has no desire to move away from it, eventually death. Surely we can ask more of movies than this? And can we do so without moralizing, without the knee-jerk application of ratings for sex, violence, and language?

In my trolling of the Web, I have come across an interesting blog that I will follow from now on, from the Brehm Center at Fuller Theological Seminary. (Here, for one example, is their list of best and most over-rated films of 2010.) One of the writers on that blog, Elijah Davidson, has a post today over at Patheos today that is worth a special look, if only for the question it asks, “Can a film be just?” Davidson offers some pretty interesting examples of “just films,” including Paris, Texas, “socially conscious documentaries,” and just about anything from Pixar.

Of Paris, Texas, the 1984 film by Wim Wenders about a man trying to figure out why his family fell apart, Davidson writes:

It is a film that embraces people in their brokenness, that accepts the unexplainable in life, and that holds up the all-healing power of covenantal love. Paris, Texas is a beautiful film because it is so just.

Can a film be just? This is not my question precisely, “covenental love” is not from my lexicon, and I’m not even sure Davidson sticks to his theme properly in this short post. But it is a thought-starter.

What should we be looking for in today’s films? Beauty? Justice? How about truth?

How do we judge a film today? And isn’t it our responsibility to do so?

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About Webster Bull

Webster Bull is a writer and publisher living in Beverly, Massachusetts, north of Boston. His latest book is "Something in the Ether: A Bicentennial History of Massachusetts General Hospital, 1811-2011," to be published in April 2011. You can follow Webster on Facebook.
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  1. Not to overstate the obvious but first and fore most movies are not real… they are illusion. And even if the spellbinding cinematic tools of illusion are used to make a point about reality it is impossible to verify… it is easy to present just about anything in a film as compelling and convincing. And in fact a film is more effective if it presupposes our prejudices and builds on them.

    I am realizing I would have never said this before as up till recently; but I don’t think we can learn anything from movies. If they are not just escapist entertainment the very best they can do is offer an hypothesis. Reality is far more interesting.

  2. While I take your point, Vincent, movies are an integral part of our culture today, and I think that as free reasoning people, Catholic or not, we need to engage with them, because our friends do, our children do, our coworkers do, and they influence us (unconsciously) if we don’t face them (consciously).

    Furthermore, some “illusions” have had a decisive influence on my life. Three examples: A Man for All Seasons (pretty much planted the seed), Out of Africa (an extraordinary expression of desire, based on a novel by the great Isak Dinesen), and Meetings with Remarkable Men (about the Russian philosopher Georges Gurdjieff, whom I studied for many years before becoming a Catholic).

    There is a famous scene in Notre Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo, a character points to a printing press (new at the time) and then at the Cathedral spire out the window, and says “This will kill that.” Meaning, the printed word will kill the cathedral (the word in stone). Well, movies are killing books now, let’s face it, so we should engage with movies.

  3. Of course, the object determines the method, so movies (novels, albums, etc) must be judged in the context of contemporary culture, the genre, and the vision which the movie aspires to. I am not so much concerned with the opinions of the film makers and the characters as I am with the seriousness of their grappling with the human heart.

    This seriousness does not exclude the great comic tradition. One of my pet peeves is that the priest who used to review films at the USCCB gave Nacho Libre a rating of O – Morally Offensive. I can see why the priest would have been offended by the film, because it parodied movies like A Nun’s Story. These films informed the affectivity of a generation of priests and religious with false dichotomies of contemplation and action, and it is this framework of hubris which is punctured by Nacho Libre. But Nacho Libre had its own story to tell, a story of desire and sacrifice and love. While many Catholic reviewers turn their noses up at slapstick and body humor, I appreciate the inclusion of the disgusting alongside the sublime. So, I enjoyed Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Fielding’s Tom Jones, John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces, Nacho Libre, Click (with Adam Sandler), and Franzen’s Freedom).

  4. Fred, good points, I go with you all the way . . . to Franzen’s Freedom. I am 62 percent of the way through the novel (according to the meter on my Kindle) and if I had to write the review now, it would begin, “What a piece of #$*&!” Hopefully, the remaining 38 percent will temper my judgment.

    And to end on a good note, I would add the French film “The Mad Adventures of ‘Rabbi’ Jacob” to your list of comedy. It ends in a synagogue, then in a public square, where a Catholic, a Jew, and a Muslim laugh and embrace.

  5. Well, Webster I must confess (again) that I’m a cultural liberal in many ways. I listen to Morning Edition and All Things Considered during my commute, and Prairie Home Companion on my way to School of Community. My Masters in English at Fordham included deconstructionism, neofreudianism, and versions of Marxist theory. NPR is one way that I’ve tried to keep myself musically hip (a phenomenon ridiculed in Freedom).

    At any rate, here’s what I posted at Amy Welborn’s blog:

    “I listened to Freedom on audiobook (it was a bit odd to listen to the character, Richard, complaining about how pop music has been reduced to chicklits by the iPod). I appreciated the reader’s distinctive voice for Patty’s prose. Patty’s memoir reminded me strongly of something that Joseph Conrad would do, and although I love Lord Jim, I often have difficulty noticing when one narrator shifts to another. I did appreciate the different points of view of Patty and Walter: Patty, self conscious and growing in self awareness and discrection; Walter obsessed with intensely researched details and statistics.

    As for the irony regarding overpopulation, there is a bit around Walter, but the big picture is an ultimate contradiction which is irreconcilable for Franzen (and frankly for any of us according to our own resources). In this, it reminds me of the Odyssey, in which emnity is overcome by amnesia: with Franzen being less jarring than Homer.”

  6. I’m not accusing anyone of cultural liberalism, believe me. Ever heard of glass houses and stone throwers? My beef with Freedom (now 66 percent read) is that it proposes “the novel as reality TV.” Why would I want to sit in front of the tube (or my Kindle) all day and night watching people with the moral discernment of terrorists ruin their lives, one by one? I am waiting for a director to walk onto the set and tell the MTV cast something notable, or for one ray of sunshine to break into this unending storm of self-deception and depression. Funny? Not to me. The guy is a brilliant wordsmith, I admit, but let’s put craft to the service of art, how about?

  7. Reading Freedom made me confess to myself my own cultural liberalism. I had forgotten about it for awhile. As for the discernment of the characters it’s really not far from those of family, coworkers, and the news (or tabloids). I laugh because I see myself in those scathing lines, which are also heartbreaking.

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