Sunday, May 10, 2009

Cinematic Hermeneutics - Part I

Can one objectively determine 'the worldview' of a film? Two people watching the same film may 'objectively' come to differing conclusions. Who is right? Who is wrong? Or can one glean their own message from the film regardless of the filmmaker's intentions? Much like the study of Scripture, without an inductive method of study, we bring our own lenses to the interpretation of the text/celluloid before us and there are as many methods of film analysis as their are for textual analysis.

And, to further complicate things, film is a team effort. If you seek the worldview of the film (and assuming it can be known), who do you determine as the communicator of that film's worldview? The Director? The Writer? The Editor? ...Who?

Christians notably have a 'personal relationship' with the Author of Scripture, but it is unlikely that any given movie attendant personally knows the creator of the film they have gone to see. So, is it possible to know the worldview of a movie, strictly from the content of the movie? If someone gleans a different view than the filmmaker's intended message, does the film's value as 'good or bad' change with the 'eye of the beholder'?

Robert K. Johnston refers to five methods of film analysis in his book, Reel Spirituality. These methods are: Avoidance, Caution, Dialogue, Appropriation and Divine Encounter. Avoidance is that individual who throws the baby out with the bath water and abstains from film altogether. Brian Godawa, screenwriter and author of Hollywood Worldviews, refers to this as the 'Cultural Anorexic'. They can't see any good within culture, and therefore starve themselves of the benefits that they could receive from interacting with culture.

Caution is the method used by those who see some benefit to film or culture, but remain a bit distant so that they can avoid being effected by the negative aspects of interacting with film. These are the people who will follow the MPAA ratings with a close eye and only wade their toes in to the water of the pool.

Dialogue is the method used by those who wish to do a little swimming in the pool and they will openly talk about the benefits and consequences of living the thesis of a film's story. Often times, they will reconstruct a synthesis from opposing positions, basing it in harmony with Scripture, but still seeking an actual thesis from the film.

Appropriation and Divine Encounter are a bit more interesting and not as widely used as the first three. Appropriation starts with the film, letting it speak on its own terms, but then attempting to fit the film to one's theology. Divine Encounter is the opposite -- beginning with a preset theology and trying to fit it in to the context of the film, regardless of the film's 'message'.

Depending on one's choice for breaking down the structure of a film, the conclusions drawn from those methods will look very different and all five have Scriptural merit. But the question still remains, how does one know they've reached the message of the filmmakers? Is that viewpoint even possible to discover and should it be the one we seek?

This blog post runs alongside the content on pages 9-30 from Douglas M. Beaumont's new book, The Message Behind the Movie. Mr. Beaumont expounds on the foreword by Barbara Nicolosi, that films are important and we can neither avoid the whole medium or embrace everything without question.

I think the majority of Christians have embraced the method of avoidance to an extreme. But, those who move away from avoidance, because they have learned the value of deconstructing a film, have also gone to the extreme of caution. They suck the life -- the mystery and awe -- out of the journey taken, by not allowing the movie to sit in the driver's seat. It can be beneficial to simply 'enjoy the ride'; to see where the story goes before assuming the destination or trying to control the direction the story must take.

Mr. Beaumont states on p29:
There is often a fine line between the good a film contains and the objectionable elements one must endure to get to it.
But, it is also a fine line to walk out of a movie, TV program (or whatever), and end up 'wrong' about the conclusion because of assuming the entire thesis before it is given. It'd be like reading the Gospels through the Crucifixion and stopping before realizing the Resurrection.

Oft times, for a movie to show a positive conclusion effectively, as it is a visual medium, it must contrast that ending with horrid, sickening images to illicit appreciation and understanding for the value of why one should live out the story's proposition. This can be demonstrated by a character that you think is 'the voice of truth', but find out later, the character's dialog and actions were really the opposite of what the film valued as the means for how one ought to live.

Entire plot points could be missed because of the assumption a character is being 'truthful' (when they aren't) or that the film has placed a character as the protagonist (when they are an antagonist in disguise). Story tellers will sometimes mislead the 'story recipient' by pretending to go one direction when actually, they are going in a completely different direction... all to keep you guessing. This can be made even more confusing by a character acting as a part-time protagonist and as a part-time antagonist (or the story could shake things up even more, by ignoring any sense of chronological order).

These terms will be discussed in future postings, but to use another spiritual analogy - How can one see that they need Salvation, if they don't know from what they need saving (or why)? Yes, Beaumont is correct. It is a fine line (and a tough one) to walk, but I do not think our problem is too much acceptance of culture, but too much avoidance and not enough understanding of things like metaphor, literary devices, or even the nature of film, as a medium.

We Christians have ignored film for so long that we don't know what the conversation is about or how to interact with those who hold a different viewpoint. We've listened only to ourselves, and everything we've done is for others just like us. We have not kept up with the advances made within the industry -- ever since we pulled out in 1968 and the MPAA flowed in to fill that gap. We need to study culture and film, and we need to cover a lot of ground as we have 40+ years of catching up to do.

I look forward to reading more of The Message Behind the Movie and I invite you to discuss and study this book along with me. The next post will cover Chapter Two (p30-37), "How A Story is Told vs. What A Story Tells."

To follow along, get your copy of The Message Behind the Movie through the CFS store, for only $10.19

Thank you,
Eric Bumpus

Next Entry: Have You 'Read' Any Good Films Lately? - Part II

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