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An article about movies, in two parts…

The creative gifts of the writers, directors, actors and producers can reveal great truths. But they also subtly encourage us to focus on ourselves, writes James East

Part one: I just love watching movies

MovieI have a large collection of blurays and DVDs that my wife considers an embarrassing feature of our lounge.  The embarrassment isn’t caused by the subject matter of the films – there’s nothing there I wouldn’t happily watch with friends from church – it’s more an issue of quantity. She tried and failed to tastefully hide them in a chest of drawers – to her horror, the sheer number thwarted her efforts. Her next tactic was to suggest she sell all but my favourite titles.  My response was probably a little over the top: I told her, not while there’s breath in my body; I told her she’d have to pry them from my cold lifeless fingers.

You see, it’s a collection. Each film is chosen. The films didn’t randomly appear.

I can’t, in good conscience, say that I condone all of the sentiments or the moralities of the films. But, at the very least, they can be part of a modern minister’s means of imbibing a little of the culture in which he or she lives. In addition, my student days have made me watch films in a way that gives them another purpose. Let me explain a little more…

As an undergraduate, I studied Shakespeare. I also had the dubious pleasure of studying lots of other gory Elizabethan and Jacobean dramas.  The titles were a warning as to the visceral or shocking contents of the play itself: ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore, The Broken Heart, The Malcontent, and my personal favourite, The Revenger’s Tragedy. These plays followed a simple pattern: terrible things happen to an innocent person; the innocent person is revenged in some way (usually, spectacularly violently); the play concludes with everyone dying.

After seeing a number of these, you ask the question, why would anyone want to sit and watch them? One answer is this: they give you an opportunity to put yourself in the shoes of the hero and explore the thrilling extremes of human experience from the safety of a theatre seat.

The great Biblical commentator William Barclay had this exact experience while watching Shakespeare’s King Lear. When the poor old Duke of Gloucester has his eyes pulled out and crushed on the floor, a noble, unnamed character intercedes. He kills the perpetrator of the crime and gets killed for his trouble. In moments, everyone’s dead, dying or blinded (very much in keeping with the genre!) Anyhow, Barclay loved it. He used it to illustrate a profound Biblical point. The extreme situation the play created allowed Barclay a moment of clarity. A specific, noble trait was revealed to him, maybe even in him. This trait had gone unnoticed in his normal humdrum life. The horrors of the play helped him uncover it.

Back to my several hundred movies. My hope has always been that the creative gifts of the writers, directors, actors and producers will reveal truths and challenging things to me.

Part two: maybe I should be careful?

To enjoy a movie, you must relate to a character or characters, at least a little. To make this easier, writers usually make the main character enigmatic in some way. And therein lies a problem.

The problem is not in the ‘enigmatic nature’ of the main character, but in the fact that there is such a thing as a ‘main character’!  A main character means, by necessity, that there are numerous ‘minor characters’. Minor characters are the ones who die easily and aren’t missed; the ones who are unlucky in love; the one’s whose lives are little more than plot details, supporting the hero; the ones who sleep with James Bond and end up balancing expensive whisky on their head during a shooting competition; the ones who refuse to open their parachute until the last second and get sucked into the Romulan laser drill, just so Jim Kirk can save the day.

I’ve been so drawn into empathising with the heroes, I’ve often failed to notice the unreal and worrying hierarchy that many films create. The microcosmic universe of the movie revolves around the lead, the star, the hero.  Minor characters are disposable and less important.

In the real universe – in God’s universe – things revolve around God.

In the real universe – in God’s universe – there are no minor characters.

Perhaps, the worrying truth about many films is this: they pander to our weaknesses. We are fundamentally selfish and films subtly encourage us to focus on ourselves, as we focus on the hero. To cope with the world, we often harden our hearts towards those around us – films, with their armies of minor characters, encourage us to do that, too.

Jesus’ teachings encourage us to exercise the more selfless and loving parts of our minds. We’re encouraged to put ourselves a little lower down the pecking order and to put God at the top. Rather than those around us supporting our lead, we should seek ways to support theirs. It’s all somewhat contrary to the common movie ethic.

Friends, please don’t let me put you off enjoying a good movie!  But, try a little experiment the next time you’re watching a DVD. Midway through, press the pause button and imagine a full, complex and vibrant life for a minor character: the childhood, the parents, the first and last romance, the fears, the friends, the good and the bad, the weakness and the sweetness.

In so doing, make them more than a minor and give them something the writers, producers and directors don’t: a little love. It could become good practice for the real world.

The Revd James East is joint minister of Norwich Central Baptist Church

James East, 23/10/2013
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