We all watch movies, otherwise I wouldn’t have written this nor would you be reading it, but why do we watch movies? Only after answering this question, at least in a vague way, can we begin to discern which movies are worth watching, which are only going to waste our time.
Great movies are not only entertainment, they are art, and all good art must assist in the perfection of our moral life. How do movies do this?
It is a mistake to believe that they must portray only good men, only virtuous ends, or must have unambiguously upright messages. Some films are not forcefully giving us answers, they are asking us a question (Silence); some watch as a man falls and falls further into sin (The Godfather); some are simply revealing the pain of those in pain, nothing more (Oslo, August 31st). What is important in film is the emotional impact, how we engage emotionally, but the realm of the emotions is a dangerous place.
A movie’s ability to powerfully combine every other visual and audible art can strongly influence us, often subtly. John Wayne’s films and The Batman Trilogy can, without attention to the motions of our hearts and the unique circumstances of the films (such as the lawlessness of The West), slowly form an inappropriate attachment to vigilante justice. Without proper reflection it is possible to have our morals undermined by movies, and as film operates on our imaginations without being filtered through our intellects, we must have some care to choose moral films, and to note to ourselves the imperfections of imperfect films. Film can be thought of as vicarious experience, to be carefully accepted, and sometimes mulled over afterwards.
We can participate emotionally in one another’s lives in two ways; there is a too often ignored distinction between empathy (feeling for) and sympathy (feeling with), and which of these a movie evokes in a scene can determine its moral implications. It is possible, though rare, that a scene naturally charged with sexual tension does not arouse a man so that although the character is desiring something reprehensible, we are not (as in Susanne Bier’s Brothers). On the other hand, a scene of something ordinary, like a girl walking out of the ocean, can be a overt occasion of sin (Just Go with It). So, there are times when empathy is emotionally perfecting where sympathy would be reprehensible.
In short, we watch movies to empathize with those in situations we may never encounter ourselves, and if encountered, may still not understand. How often are we brought up short by an icy reply to a friendly comment? My pride is often insulted by those around me, who, I’m sure, are sorry to have lashed out but are unable to express their sorrow because of the wounds they have received. We all wound each other: if we are called to find rest in God and only God, then every encounter with another which does not reflect Christ’s love is sure to wound us in some way, as we are guilty of wounding those we encounter. We must understand our imperfections and those of those around us, and our human frailty and the love of God in our lives (which, in fact, is our lives) is the subject away from which good art, and hence good film, cannot deviate. We need great minds to aid us in our understanding and love of each other, and so we turn to the great movies which God has bless us with.
Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton