Tuesday, June 16, 2009

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

Many Christians, mostly Protestants, gravitate towards the written word... in part, because they have grasped the medium of books and language, since these forms of communication have been around for a few centuries. The Bible is referred to as 'God's Word', and John 1:1 states, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

But it's not that the Protestant Tradition is pro-word, but anti-image. Protestant Reformers are infamous as Iconoclasts - meaning they despised and even destroyed icons, statues, etc. This vandalism was done in the name of idol worship, but more has been destroyed over the years than a few relics. The Theology behind Word vs. Image has created a void within Art where Christians used to hold prominent status. An understanding of the Christian's role in Art, as God intended, has been greatly diminished.

But it all makes sense, right? Because the Bible uses the word, 'Word', to express its literary points; and because it is God's spoken 'Word' to man (as indirect communication), we're to be 'people of the word' and not 'people of the video', right? We're to 'preach the word' to those who've never heard about 'the word' (and no, it's not the 'word' about a certain avian variety either... although, the message that 'the bird is the word' has had more effective proselytizing than most sermons... and not because of 'hardened hearts', but because of effective communication delivery.)

But looking back to John 1:1, what did 'the Word' do? It became flesh and dwelt among us. (Note: Tactile imagery is used here as a literal statement (Christ) and as a literary device (poetic writing).) 'Those who have ears, let them hear' and 'those who have eyes, let them see.'; spiritual nourishment is garnered by using all of the senses, including touch and experience (John 20:24-30). A balance of mind and emotion (Matthew 22:37; Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27) can refuel the soul for worshiping Christ: the 'fleshy, metaphorical, and literal Word'.

Chapter Two in The Message Behind the Movie by Douglas Beaumont discusses how one can 'read' a movie and explains that a story's message is only half of the equation surrounding the effectiveness of a story. How a story is told can effect the success or failure in reaching an audience just as much as the story itself.

In the case of movies and TV, stories are told visually. There are pros and cons to the visual representation in movies and TV (see my blog post: Alas, Poor TV, We Hardly Know Ye), but the stories of these different media hold the most impact when they include as little speech or dialog as possible. This doesn't mean, however, that those stories are meant to be absorbed, just by passively receiving 24-30 still images per second. Even paintings get more respect with deeper reflection.

The reason films like Left Behind (2001) and Fireproof (2008) only hold appeal to churches and other Christians (who agree with the film's messages) is because the focus swings to the opposite direction than that of a film that holds true to its own structure. This is, once again, because of the affinity to the 'word'. These movies are made as if the audience is reading a novel or 'hearing the Bible on celluloid'.

It's argued that Catholics make better movies than Protestants because their Theology allows them to explore imagery (moving or still), while Protestants want to make sure you understand every comma, period, and word brought from the page to the screen. Filmmaker Mikel Wisler, in his most recent blog post, "Christian Cinema - An Adventure in Missing the Point", writes:
This is where I have seen so many Christian films fail. They do not provide the audience with an opportunity to discover anything for themselves. There is little or no room for this. The film is too busy blindly telling the audience what to think. Maybe if Christian filmmakers became less consumed with trying to make a point, and more consumed with making excellent films as an act of worship, more films made by Christians would have more of an impact on secular audiences by providing a common meeting ground of appreciation for the cinematic medium. -- http://mikelwisler.blogspot.com/
I could see many taking this to mean that a film having a religious message or theme must be a bad thing, right? No, not at all. Beaumont asks at the end of the chapter, in the Reflection Questions (p37):
Does the inclusion of a religious message in a film make it propaganda?
I refer back to the title of this chapter for that answer:
How A Story is Told vs. What A Story Tells
It's not the message itself, that makes a film propaganda. Propaganda is coming up with a message first (religious, environmentalist, etc.) and then, forcing a story to develop around that message for the explicit purpose of persuading an audience to its viewpoint.

It's important to note, that propaganda isn't inherently bad either. There is a time and a place for everything (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8). Documentaries have formed many times as propaganda and have made a positive impact. But, while a religious message isn't a default consignment as propaganda; and while propaganda isn't an automatic dismissal for having value, it can easily occur if the filmmaker's intent is to push the message before content.

Besides, these are not the types of stories that most will remember favorably anyway (unless they agree with the Thesis and advocate that story's purpose). When most people point out their favorite film or scene, it will likely be something that 'preaches' visually, if at all; and it will likely be an example that demonstrates instead of 'talks'.

Finally, it will probably be an example that only raised more questions in the viewers mind, than it did to help answer questions. For Christians that want everything spelled out and want to be 'ever vigilant' in evangelizing -- they will be very frustrated by this process. Film stands in stark contrast to the core presuppositions of their worldview, as it seeks to "discover truth" and not always "preach truth". Throwing King Story off his throne to crown Message as the new King... well, on that day of coronation, bad things will happen in the Kingdom of Film.

Ultimately, education of film structure will not change how those Christians will write stories or make films. A change in theological perspective will be the only solution (such as the focus on the flesh in John 1). This will be difficult as it requires the changing of core beliefs that they've embedded in to their filmmaking practices. (NOTE: By beliefs, I'm not referring here to core doctrinal beliefs, such as sin, salvation, or even evangelism; but I am referring to the core beliefs in how things like evangelism are applied in action or doctrines, such as the theological focus on Word vs. Image, the worldview of Evangelicalism, Apologetics, etc.)

Beaumont challenges his readers to not only know the methods of storytelling that filmmakers use, but also sets up practical strategies for communicating topical beliefs without falling in to the trap of propaganda. He explains why propaganda, as a story method, only appeals to those who agree with the message pushed upon them.

Words and language have their own rules of grammar. Film has its own grammar as well. If Christians who lean towards 'word', to the exclusion of 'image', can learn to master the 'language of film' (like they have with the written word) -- richer and deeper discussions could take place in culture that will provide great rewards for everyone.

In the next blog entry, I will cover Chapter Three in Douglas Beaumont's book, The Message Behind the Movie (p39-47), entitled "Story: Structure, Sights, and Sounds". I will cover terminology, story structure (format), and story elements (on script and screen).

Next Entry: An (Epic) Tale of Two Epochs: Adventures in Storytelling
Previous Entry: Cinematic Hermeneutics

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