I love movies. I always have. They are my guilty pleasure. I’m not the kind of fan who follows the daily minutiae of the lives of the glitzy and famous, those details that fuel the entertainment news industry and glorify the search for earthly wealth and glory.
I just love walking through those dim multiplex halls into a darkened theater with a huge silver screen, sinking into a plush seat with my popcorn, waiting for the screen to flash brilliantly to life and the sound to boom, and falling into the fictional worlds that represent the combined visions and efforts of writers, producers, directors, actors, actresses and their huge crews of supporting artists, artisans and technicians.
Generally, I’m pretty selective about what I go to see, but this year, for the first time in my life, I decided to try to see all of the films nominated as “Best Picture,” by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences prior to the time when the industry heaps worship and praise upon itself at their annual awards ceremony.
What I saw were stories that depicted a lot of violence and immorality; gruesome stories about the horrors of poverty, prostitution, imprisonment, political turmoil and war, torture and the death of innocents; dramas surrounding the personal violence of aggression and death within families, assassination and slavery; stories with some scenes so horrible that I walked out in the middle of one film.
It was all enough to make me wonder whether we, as Christians, should eschew going to movies at all. But, in the end, I think not. Here is why.
Thinking about movies as pictorial representations of tales reminded me of the stained-glass windows in the great European cathedrals of the Middle Ages. OK, maybe that’s an odd connection, a bit of a stretch, but those windows were, after all, intended to provide moral instruction to the illiterate masses — religious lessons taught through pictures of stories from the Bible or lives of the saints for people who couldn’t read.
They used bright sunlight and jewel-toned colored glass and paint and were created by the best art and science talents of the time. It worked for me. So, I began to think more about that parallel and about the moral lessons in movies, and I decided to look for one in each of this year’s nine nominees.
I had seen “Les Miserables” first, the musical version of Victor Hugo’s great novel. The lessons are clear in that one. The cruelly imprisoned protagonist is given a second chance by a priest who forgives him for having stolen the church’s silver. The lesson: Redemption can save more lives than just your own and have far-reaching impact.
After that, I saw, “Django Unchained,” a dark comedy/Western with such hideously violent scenes that I walked out about half-way through the film. In spite of the author/director’s fascination with everything disgusting, I still believe there is a simple lesson in this film: Racism and human trafficking are both exceedingly bad and have terrible consequences.
“Lincoln,” the story of the fight to pass the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery, shows some devastating scenes of the countless dead on Civil War battlefields and conveys a sense of the tremendous opposition and obstacles the president had to overcome. This story teaches that doing the right thing can be very, very difficult, sometimes even fatal.
In “The Life of Pi,” the unspeakable violence behind the plot is not actually depicted on screen and only referred to at the very end of the movie. Rather, we see only the young protagonist’s emotional and spiritual growth in this visually beautiful, if fantastical, story of loss, guilt and the challenge of survival at sea against all odds. It teaches that miracles can happen, and that even if they don’t, with a strong faith in God, it still might be possible to find a way to bear the unbearable.
“Silver Linings Playbook” relates a tale of infidelity, promiscuousness, a tragic accident and personal violence which when combined leave two young people struggling to survive the impact and recover. The lesson is clear in the title, the lesson that our mothers taught us about the possibility of good behind the bad: Every cloud has a silver lining.
The most difficult scenes to watch in “Argo,” the story of the rescue of six Americans trapped in Iran by mob violence in response to our policies, are not the ones created for the screen, but rather the clips taken from news reports at the time. It is a lesson in how even a bad plan can work if you believe in it and believe in yourself. There is also an encouraging corollary lesson for us writers related in the screenplay within the screenplay: Even a bad script might sell to the right buyer.
In “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” natural disaster, fatal illness, loss of home, culture, country and family leave a frightened child needing to grow up fast. The lesson: Sooner or later, most of us have to face our fears and learn to move on. In this case, sooner.
“Zero Dark Thirty” became a highly controversial film, because of its depiction and implicit sanction of torture. It is, however, also a story about a woman pursuing a goal. The final scene provides the lesson: Long-term dedication to your work might get the job done, but it won’t necessarily make you happy.
The French-language film “Amour” garnered some of the industry’s greatest accolades including the Palme d’Or, but there was a problem. I couldn’t find it. It was not showing anywhere locally. It was not available at Blockbuster, Netflix or Amazon. It was not even available through our local academic library, which can usually locate and provide just about anything. It was only showing 100 miles away across the border in Canada. I thought perhaps the lesson was that love can be very hard to find. Finally it has showed up nearby this week and I’m going to see it tonight. Judging from the reviews and descriptions, I expect it will be difficult to watch, but that it will teach that love can, in fact, be everything that First Corinthians tells us it is.
I’m off to the movies now, and looking forward to what I’ll see and what I’ll learn; to see the manipulation of light and motion illuminated with incredible candle power, spangling with brilliant colors, depicting a narrative that might be difficult to watch but perhaps cathartic; to settle into my seat with my popcorn and my anticipation, and to learn a lesson, maybe a moral lesson because God really is everywhere. Even behind the scenes at the movies.
Helen Isolde Thomas is a member of St. Timothy Lutheran Church, Geneseo, N.Y.