We do well to view movies more critically, but not forget to have fun.

by Bruce Soderholm

A harried private detective lounges behind his desk in the sweltering heat. A knock on the door. As it swings open, the camera tracks up from stiletto heels and fishnet stockings to a casual hand holding a cigarette that haloes the air around a drop-dead gorgeous platinum blonde. She’s trouble and everyone knows it—the femme fatale.

This stock character is a staple of film noir, and for some, perhaps, a symbol of the medium of film itself. Alluring. Seductive. Visually overwhelming. Yet is such a comparison fair? Depending on your upbringing and outlook, you might think movies are a timewaster at best, or for an older generation raised in the conservative evangelical tradition, a short cut on the road to perdition.

There is no disputing that film is an incredibly powerful medium. In terms of a sensory experience, it’s hard to top. The deep rumbles and high-pitched cadences of surround-sound engage our hearing, while the peripheral darkness contrasts the vivid colour and hypnotic movement filling our whole field of vision.

It’s in view of the power of film, that we must take care to guard ourselves against its excesses. Pornography and erotica are the most obvious examples, but there are other extremes. Genres such as horror and extreme action can also sponsor unhealthy and unbalanced attractions.

Know your limit

As adults we can make use of the same plentiful information we use to filter our children’s viewing choices to become more discerning viewers. And in so doing, we have to take ownership of our content choices as well as to recognize our own weaknesses. Know your limits, and stick within them.

Bruxy Cavey, lead teaching pastor of The Meeting House in Oakville, Ontario, points out that some men can see nudity in a film (e.g. a skinny-dipping scene) and not be sexually titillated. Other men, who are prone to sexualize nudity, would do well to avoid that same film if it might stimulate their thought-life in an unhealthy way.

Between Motion Picture Association rating systems, film reviews and content guides, there’s no reason to be ignorant about any film you might wish to see. In the end, let your faith-informed conscience be your guide.

If you find yourself in a theatre where the on-screen content assaults your standards, have the courage to walk out. I’ve only walked out of a theatre on a few occasions, but there are no regrets about the times I did.

In today’s culture there is little to distinguish the movie-watching habits of those who call themselves Christians from those who don’t.

What should be of concern to people of faith is not the fact that they’re part of a very large worldwide audience, but rather the increasingly uncritical way in which they consume movies. Many will put more thought into which snack they’ll sneak into the theatre than with the content of what they’ll feed their imaginations for a two-hour period.

What to avoid

We’d all do well to become more critical viewers.

It’s tempting to solve the uncritical viewer problem by simply creating a list of things to avoid (e.g. profanity, sexuality, etc.) when choosing a film. Two problems emerge with this. First, if zero tolerance is the standard, you’ll have very few films to consider from the last four decades; but, more importantly, the reality of context makes such criteria difficult to be applied equally.

[The Ocar-winning] The King’s Speech [is]a film I’d recommend to anyone. In some jurisdictions, it received a “restricted rating” for its use of strong language.

In the context of the film, the expletives in question emerge briefly in a speech therapy session in a somewhat comic moment. It’s an inoffensive scene by almost any standard you could imagine. People might still choose to be offended, but blanket prohibitions are seldom useful with respect to culture and the arts.

What to look for

The most important aspect of any movie you’d consider watching is whether or not it represents truth. And while truth is an animal that’s difficult to track at times, in the context of Christian faith, its whereabouts can ultimately be traced.

It’s worth noting that the truth in question here has nothing to do with the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. Truth is the standard by which all things are judged, made incarnate in Christ, and revealed as God’s standard in Scripture.

Showing truth in film isn’t about trying to be morally prescriptive, but rather it’s about showing the world and human beings as they truly are. It’s also about demonstrating that actions have consequences in a moral universe.

By way of illustration, many romantic comedies these days make light of adultery. It’s Complicated (2009), a film about a divorced couple romantically re-connecting despite new marital commitments, is an example of this as it consistently underplays the consequences of infidelity.

In contrast, I recall an edgy Quebecois film (The Decline of the American Empire, 1986) that features an easygoing philandering husband who jokes about his conquests with his buddies. However, at the moment when his wife discovers his indiscretions and betrayals, the viewer gets to see up close just how devastated and wounded she is.

Truth is infinitely better served by the latter portrayal than the former. The same principle applies to the depiction of violence in film. Violence is a reality in our fallen world, but the rationale for its portrayal matters greatly.

Brian Walsh, an academic and author who is currently heading up a theology and film course at Trinity College at the University of Toronto, says, “Violence should be disturbing to viewers, as it is in the opening D-Day sequences of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) or in his epic, Schindler’s List (1993).

“It is when violence becomes cartoonlike and gratuitous, as it inevitably does in any number of revenge-based movies (e.g. Payback, the Rambo franchise, etc.), that we should be most concerned. Such depictions ultimately desensitize us to the real consequences of violence and subtly, or not-so-subtly, suggest that violence is an effective problem solver.”

Healthy stretching

John Franklin, who heads up Imago, a Canadian Christian arts organization, suggests that another consideration in choosing a film is to ask whether or not it will stretch us: Will it bring us face to face with hard questions?

If we become complacent in our Christian worldview, the equivalent of armchair quarterbacks who are capable of second-guessing everything that happens on the field, we become like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day who thought they had God all figured out.

It was a screening of Hotel Rwanda (2004) and its depiction of the Rwandan genocide that made me question whether or not I had embraced willful ignorance of the suffering in this world that often occurs on such a massive scale.

The best movies are rooted in good stories. It’s easy to forget, sometimes, the power of story in an age where high-profile film effects such as car chases, pyrotechnics and computer-generated special effects get so much attention.

We are hardwired, however, to connect to stories with all their characters, conflicts and resolutions. We identify with screen characters and enter vicariously into their lives sharing their hopes, dreams and, ultimately, their disappointments as well.

It’s no coincidence that Christian faith is not an abstract intellectual concept, but something that is rooted in the ultimate story—our creation, fall and redemption by the hand of God, and that God’s story is given to us as narrative in the Bible.

Serious stuff, all in all. But let’s not forget, after all this discussion, that movies are still supposed to be fun. They’re intended to be entertaining, and are, in many cases, a social event. So inform yourself, and take your better half to the chick flick, or rent a movie with subtitles.

You’ll expand your borders and learn something about yourself in the process. Happy viewing.

Bruce Soderholm is a freelance writer, film critic and educator who makes his home in southern Ontario.