The following is a thesis paper for my final project of a Cinema Aesthetics class at Regent University. WARNING: Some film clips contain brief strong language or strong violence. WARNING: Some plot details and spoilers of recent movies are included. The presentation itself, including clips from various films, can be viewed at the following link: http://prezi.com/2di27txcun53/films-and-the-big-questions/
While a film’s primary purpose must be to entertain its audience, the most effective films can provoke profound thought and conversation on life’s most meaningful questions. Questions like “Why were we made?” and “What is truth?” are often left with the walls of a church or university Philosophy classroom, but films are a unique and important means for the artistic filmmaker to communicate timeless themes. As an art form, movies have been and continue to be rooted to philosophical and religious ideas that every human ponders.
The primary purpose for a film must always be that is entertaining as an art form, for this is the reason that an audience frequents the movie theater. However, the artist or the filmmaker, has a unique opportunity to encourage meaningful thought and discussion about fundamental questions, because the storm of the film puts these questions in a scenario with characters and circumstances that dramatize and realize the issue.
In this way, a film can potentially demonstrate how certain ideas play out as well as be more effective than a classroom setting within the walls of a church or university. “When a learner has an emotional reaction to new stimuli, lessons presented by that stimuli get remembered better over time” (Eifler). In fact, George Miller, a movie producer, even said, “The cinema storytellers have now become the new priests” (Jonston). Martin Scorsese echoed this sentiment when he said, “I can see great similarities between a church and a movie house” (Jonston).
“How were we made?”
Regardless of the content of a movie, audience members are prone to reflect on it after a viewing. “Movies, like life itself, are first experienced and then reflected on” (Jonston). For example, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus poses questions on the origins of man and his purpose. These questions represent the primary motivations for the characters as they travel across the galaxy to search out a solar system they believe to be the home of alien life. The primary characters, an atheist scientist and a Christian scientist, are both determined to discover the truth of who created humans and for what purpose were they created. Later, a character calls the quest “a search to answer the most meaningful questions ever asked by man.”
The very climax of the movie is an attempt to get these questions answered. Although the conclusion to the movie seems to resonate with Agnostic sentiments, the film effectively explores the basics of these questions. In one scene between the two scientists, the atheist suggests that the Christian give up her faith in God since they had discovered proof of an alien species seeding life on Earth; rightfully, the Christian scientist points out that the alien species must have had a maker themselves, and the atheist concedes the point.
The audience’s post-viewing reflection upon Prometheus will undoubtedly include musings upon these questions. Ridley Scott himself said, “I’m really intrigued by those eternal questions of creation and belief and faith. I don’t care who you are, it’s what we all think about. It’s in the back of all our minds.” Above all else, the film promotes the conscious search for answers, presumably so that individuals can know what they believe and why. The very last line of the movie comes from the heroine when she says, “I’m still searching.” This is a very human sentiment that speaks to a person’s basic need to know one’s purpose.
“Is my reality real?”
As stated earlier, a film is unique in its ability to bring life to theological, philosophical, and academic issues involving truth and worldview. “Film and religion are deeply related activities in our contemporary culture. Both attempt to re-create the world and thereby offer us new ways of seeing, sensing, and experiencing life itself” (Plate). In fact, the film Inception takes this concept of re-creation quite literally, wherein characters are actually creating a dream world that leads characters to question “What is real?” In the dream world, Mal, who is a projection of Dom Cobb’s mind, asks Dom, “What if I’m what’s real? You keep telling yourself what you know. But what do you believe? What do you feel?” Cobb’s answer continues this line of thought in which he explains his plot to give her the idea that “her world isn’t real.”
I believe that Inception is encouraging the audience to question what they believe, even to examine the difference between “knowledge” and “belief” in one’s own life. Indeed, the very last shot of the movie on the spinning top invites the question: “Is it real?” Dom Cobb believes he is with his children, but are they just projections in his own mind? Writer and director Christopher Nolan seems to be establishing that truth and reality do matter to people, and that it is important to question what we believe and “know.”
Writing with the assumption that Nolan was influenced by British philosopher Bernard Williams, Hibbs asserts, “Arguing that truth has an intrinsic value, and not merely an instrumental value, Bernard Williams writes that ‘If we lose a sense of the value of truth, we will certainly lose something, and we may very well lose everything.’” These ideas are in striking opposition to the rise of Postmodern relativism, which argues that there is no real truth outside of one’s own mind.
Dom Cobb was not merely interested in being happy, for he could have been happy within the construct of a dream in which he was with projections of his dead wife and absent children. Instead, he is obsessed with getting back to his children in the real world, or at least what he believes to be the real world. “Artists attempt to portray ‘a touch of eternity’ that communicates potent truths about their subjects, and even to evoke certain feelings and responses in the viewer” (Eifler, Gordon). Clearly, Nolan is tackling the human struggle with reality, belief, and truth in a very powerful way, and thus encouraging meaningful thought.
“Is there absolute truth?”
In fact, Nolan had already toyed with these ideas in his first Hollywood film Memento. That film featured another unreliable protagonist was confident of certain “facts.” As another character says to Leonard, “You lie to yourself to be happy. We all do it.” Again, Nolan is very clearly questioning beliefs that make us happy and encouraging people to acknowledge a truth outside of one’s own mind. In Leonard’s final monologue, he declares, “I have to believe in a world outside of my own mind… Is the world still there when I close my eyes? Is it still there? Yeah. We all need mirrors to remind ourselves of who we are. I’m no different.”
I believe Nolan is making the argument that just because we close our eyes does not mean the world is blanketed in darkness; there is a reality outside of our own perspective. According to Nolan, our understanding may not necessarily correlate with truth and reality. In a sense, we are each of us our own unreliable protagonist, and that in and of itself is a reason to give the viewer pause. “Nolan’s films dramatize the conflicts between wish fulfillment and truthfulness, and illustrate the cost of conflating fantasy with reality” (Hibbs).
Christopher Nolan asserts that, “When it’s well done, a film noir or a psychological thriller speaks to things inside you very clearly. It speaks to your own fears, your own neuroses. It speaks to your way of looking at the world.” Therefore, I believe that Nolan is very conscious that he is probing at the viewer’s worldview and inner thoughts. He does not seem so interested at conveying a particular message, only to encourage the viewer to think and come to his or her own conclusion.
“Is there a spiritual realm?”
Again, a film’s “explication can be sheer joy, in addition to giving theological insight, intellectual illumination, and dramatic engagement” (Kozlovic). When a film can draw a connection between its entertainment value and its “illumination,” I believed it has achieved the ultimate. Although not as well-received critically as the other films mentioned, The Exorcism of Emily Rose has been received positively by audiences as one of the most effective exorcism horror movies ever. This film raises the question: “Is the spiritual realm real?” This question carries with it a host of other questions, including the existence of demons, angels, the Devil, and God. Interestingly enough, Emily Rose makes this issue very much the subject of the court case that drives its narrative.
Out of the court case testimony comes the horrific scenes that feature a demon-possessed Emily Rose. An Agnostic lawyer defends the Catholic priest charged with negligence in Emily’s death, while a Protestant Christian is charged with convicting the priest, arguing that Emily’s condition was physical. The Christian lawyer therefore takes the atheistic stance, therefore embodying his role as a hypocritical lawyer, while the Agnostic lawyer is forced to confront what she really believes about the spiritual.
This contrast in views, one arguing for the possibility of the spiritual, and the other for the naturalistic or so-called scientific, is an excellent example of Didacticism. In his book Story, Robert McKee encourages the screenwriter to present both sides of his or argument, making the theme that much more powerful. The Exorcism of Emily Rose puts the existence of God and demons on trial, ultimately encouraging the viewer to ponder and discuss the reality of the supernatural, bringing the issue to life, and injecting real-world arguments.
“The communal viewing of a film in a darkened theatre and the lively discussion it inspires have become a more vital site of spiritual exploration and reflection that the mainstream church service… No longer is it simply a time of leisure or escapism. Rather it has become a time of rest, centering, Sabbath and sacrament” (Kozlovic). Clearly, films are capable of provoking meaningful discussion.
“Am I good or evil?”
One could even argue that films can lead to spiritual epiphanies. “Since feature films are significant cultural bearers of social, moral and political values, watching them can be a valid form of religious practice” (Kozlovic). In David Fincher’s Se7en, the theme of human depravity is on full display. Though the theme is spoken in monologue by the villain, the movie’s tone, plot, and climax seem to resonate, to a limited degree, with his logic.
Indeed, the depravity of man is a fundamental idea in Judeo-Christian theology. Time after time, Scripture asserts that man is desperately wicked and has no hope apart from a Savior. Se7en offers no salvation, however it does seem to acknowledge that perhaps we are not all good. Perhaps we really are all selfish at our core, and if our intentions are selfish, is there any redemption for us? “In any film that seeks to connect with its viewers with regard to the human condition…theological criticism is both appropriate and even necessary” (Jonston). Se7en certainly provokes thought on the human condition.
“Can I be redeemed?”
The movie Gran Torino is very much about a man who is consumed with guilt, pride, and prejudice. Walt seems to believe that there is no real hope for him, no redemption to be had. However, in the last act, he confesses his sins to the priest, except of course for the fact that he had killed an unarmed man in Vietnam. While saying a Hail Mary to atone for his sins, he redeems himself by sacrificing himself for the sake of the new friends he has made. Director Clint Eastwood intends there to be no doubt about this moment, with Walt falling in the form of a crucified Christ.
“Walt’s behavior underscores the claim that the most morally ugly figures can be redeemed. This is also the meaning behind the tension between Walt’s bigotry and his sacrifice. Even the most wretched individual, ugly in word and ugly in deed, is capable of reaching redemption. It is an important and innovative Christian argument that the lowliest man is capable of tragedy” (Ward). Eastwood seems to be saying that man can indeed be redeemed of his crimes, and the audience is left with hope that the death of another can act as salvation for another.
Clearly, theological and philosophical questions belong in the movie theater, but the film must first be entertaining and high quality, otherwise the message will be cheapened. The film must be worthy of the meaningful issues that it seeks to elevate. Braveheart screenwriter Randal Wallace said, “I want to walk out of a theater and think, Because of what I just experienced, my life will never be the same. I think everyone wants that.”
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