Comment Magazine has an article which offers nine “signposts” for watching movies. I’ll distill the list, but please read the article for a full explanation of each point. For those who might wonder if “thinking” will ruin your movie experience, this list is not for you, though I would hope we can in this way use it to be accountable for our short time on earth.
1. Films are not books
Some of the differences are easy: films average about two hours in length, show the story visually, depend mostly on dialogue and action to move the plot along, and use actor’s facial expressions to show emotions and thoughts.
2. Viewing, not watching
While films are not books, viewing a film is not a passive activity. Instead, it is participating in a different medium in its own distinct way. Films allow us to be voyeurs, to watch uninvolved in the comedy and tragedy of the characters on the screen, and to go home after escaping our routines and problems, if only for a time.
3. “Everything is permissible”but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible”but not everything is constructive. 1 Corinthians 10:23 (NIV)
Knowing what is beneficial and constructive involves knowing ourselves, our community, and our culture. What weaknesses and obstacles might we encounter in film that we might better avoid than test our ability to engage it? There are viewers who are sensitive to violence, sexuality, or language, and we should respect our own and others’ limitations (for me, war movies are especially hard to watch).
4. Where’s the moral in the story?
Gunton makes the important point that art needs to place itself in a moral universe. It is the complexity of this moral universe that gives good stories excitement, adventure, and ultimately a view of how reality is and should be. Instead of looking for a simple story of redemption or an ironic and cynical “take” on the inevitability of evil and the tragic nature of life, and we should take up Gunton’s question as to whether or not it helps us understand the question of reality and what moral action looks like.
5. Toward responsible action
But good films provide a space of play for the consequences of human behavior. In other words, they point out the good and bad ways we live in the world, leading the audience to better understand their own stories and the decisions they make in life. The characters of film can become mentors or foils to our own lives. If the film is truthful, it will show the consequences of actions and shed light on our own responsible action in the world and the consequences of doing good and bad.
6. Imagination: our minds at play
We can imagine ourselves and the world differently. We play with the stories and ideas to understand how we might act and imaginatively change what we believe and how we act. To approach film imaginatively is to allow film to change our ways of seeing things, to gain new insight, and to equip ourselves to transform the world.
7. The Human Condition
Good stories illuminate what it means to be human: our brokennessyes, but also our imagination, hope, love, and grace. Good films have characters that help us understand ourselves and our place in the world. I think this is often why we like films about superheroes. The heroes are both like us and different from us. They give us a glimpse of what makes us human, and the dreams and desires we have about the world put to rights.
8. Community and context
The preceding signposts point out ways of thinking about film and stories. It is also important to remember the community and context that we view a film in. Some of the films we love most are those that we watch at a moment where the connection between the story and our own lives is significant. Or maybe the people we viewed it with and the discussion we had about it made the film more illuminating than if we had just watched unreflectively. Pick your film friends carefully and remember that the setting and your own mood also plays a part in viewing film.
9. Have fun and delight in creativity
Sometimes a Will Ferrell movie is just a Will Ferrell movie. If all of these signposts find you thinking that engaging film is going to take an advanced degree, I have not forgotten that watching films can be entertaining and fun. Comedies are easy to have fun with, but serious films can also be enjoyable. If we do not enjoy the challenge of discerning the themes and the drama of the human condition, maybe we should find an activity that we do enjoy. Oftentimes we can feel that thinking about film ruins it, making it unnecessarily serious. But I have found that thinking thoughtfully about film can be fun. It allows the viewer to participate in the work of art, delighting in the creativity of the story and the storytellers.