Movies, culture and faith

January 3rd, 2018

The endurance of film

When the curtain goes up on the Golden Globe Awards, the glitz and glamour on display will be in stark contrast to the grim realities swirling in the background. People magazine reports that some female presenters and nominees will be wearing all-black outfits to protest the climate of sexual harassment in Hollywood. Economically, declining movie attendance, particularly by millennials, has executives worried about the future of the motion picture industry. Even the awards themselves, sponsored by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, are under a cloud of allegations regarding corrupt voting practices. (According to The New York Times, the group settled out of court a 2011 lawsuit alleging “payola and kickbacks.”)

Nevertheless, the lights will be bright and the stars will be out for this unofficial beginning of Hollywood’s awards season. Movies remain a vibrant part of our culture. Whether we head to the multiplex or, as more of us are in the habit of doing, stream films to our TVs and mobile devices, we like movies, as evidenced by the film industry’s projection of 35.3 billion dollars in revenue by 2019.

The films we watch, and the films we celebrate by presenting awards like the Golden Globes, tell us something about who we are as a culture. Even more, the images and ideas found in these movies intersect with our faith in a number of interesting ways.

Learning from the best drama nominees

Despite their financial dominance and cultural ubiquity, there are no superhero movies among the 10 nominated films up for best motion picture at the Golden Globes. (Unlike the more prestigious Academy Awards, which will be held on March 4, the Golden Globes nominate five movies for best drama and an additional five for best musical or comedy.) The nominees this year are heavy on character studies and stories of people caught up in larger systems.

Director Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is the “biggest” film in the drama category, bringing an epic scope to a true story about the evacuation of British forces from a French beach in the face of the Nazi invasion. The movie collapses and expands time to weave together three stories that emphasize the human experience of being caught up in what appears to be a hopeless situation. The story, which focuses in part on the heroics of a fleet of civilian boats, is a celebration of what ordinary people can do when they band together and put their instincts to help above their fears.

In its own way, Steven Spielberg’s The Post is also a tale of people rising above their fears to pursue their ideals. In this movie, also based on a true story, journalists, editors and the publisher of The Washington Post must decide, in the face of threatened imprisonment and financial ruin, whether to print documents that expose a cover-up at the heart of the government. The movie asks the question, What are our responsibilities when our leaders are misleading us?

Other nominees for best drama include Call Me by Your Name, the coming-of-age story of a teenager living in Italy; The Shape of Water, the metaphorical story of a monster who is both threatened and protected by humans; and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, the emotionally raw tale of a woman seeking justice for her murdered daughter.

Learning from musicals and comedies

Only one honest-to-goodness musical appears among the nominees for best musical or comedy. The Greatest Showman celebrates the life of P. T. Barnum and rise of show business to a national scale. Other nominees include I, Tonya, a film based on the story of scandal-plagued figure skater Tonya Harding; and The Disaster Artist, a movie about the man who made what some describe as the worst movie ever. The stories in these latter two films focus on people who evince a certain kind of resilience despite being plagued by their own limitations.

The most interesting movie in this category may be the horror film Get Out, which uses the unique nature of its genre to address real racial anxieties in the United States. Directed and written by Jordan Peele, an African-American artist known best for his sketch comedy, Get Out details the visit of a young black man to the childhood home of his white girlfriend to meet her parents for the first time. The movie plays on the idea that places idealized as safe by many white people hold unexpected threats for minorities.

The final nominee in this category depicts the close but often volatile relationship between a mother and her teenage daughter. Lady Bird has been acclaimed for its warmth and depictions of economic struggle in 21st-century America as well as for the acting performance of Saoirse Ronan, who plays the title character.

The nominees in this category represent a grab bag of styles, but many of them share an interest in characters who seek to elevate their lives through either performance or celebrity. Though that celebrity often has a shadow side, the films seem to approve of their persistence in pursuit of their dreams.

What makes a movie good?

What makes a good movie? What makes a film award-worthy? Is it just a simple matter of telling a story well, or is there more to it? Do we know it when we see it?

Personally, I think a movie is good when I’m no longer aware of the acting or the craft of filmmaking and lose myself completely in the story. Critics often talk about good movies as having depth. Film critic A. O. Scott told GQ, “I still am intrigued by works of art that . . . present a kind of surface that might be simple and clear, and yet somehow imply a whole lot more going on under the surface.”

Manohla Dargis, Scott’s film critic colleague at The New York Times, says the focus on films as a business has taken attention away from the ways movies can show us the world through new eyes. “One of the problems with film criticism is that we rarely talk about art anymore — we obsess about the grosses, we gossip about the ‘industry,’ we talk about this week’s new movie in relation to last week’s new movie. We have, in other words, let the movie business set the agenda for how we look at and write about film.”

Awards shows, ironically, may play a role in stripping movies of their uniqueness. By recognizing only a certain style of movie as “Oscar-worthy,” they encourage the development of films designed for studio prestige instead of a pursuit for truth and beauty. In the online magazine Concrete, author Sophie Bunce decried the “Oscar bait” effect, saying, “The problem with Oscar bait isn’t that the films aren’t good. They often are. It’s that they are just one type of film.”

Movies and faith

Throughout history, Christians have often had a contentious relationship with the visual arts. Some traditions within Christianity have seen the injunction against idols in Exodus 20:4 as a prohibition against a vast array of artistic depictions. Running alongside these tendencies is the rich and contrasting tradition of Christian art that extends to the present day. “Christian theology is rich and creative and full of imagination . . . that’s broad enough to take up residence among all kinds of human cultures,” writes Alissa Wilkinson, former film critic at Christianity Today. “It contains within itself the idea that art exists as a good unto itself, not just a utilitarian vehicle for messages.”

Wilkinson finds an affirmation for moviemakers, especially those inspired by faith, in the idea that humans are created in God’s image. “It is a basic article of Christian belief that all people bear God’s image. We are to exercise the same boundless imagination and creativity that [God] does.”

Is it possible that when the lights go down and the curtains part to reveal that silver screen, we’re being offered that same invitation? When a film reveals dimensions of the world we hadn’t imagined, perhaps it’s inviting us to participate in both the ongoing work of creation and the ongoing work of God.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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