From Fluff to Stuff: Giving Weight to Summer Popcorn Films
- Friday, June 17, 2005
Summer is coming early this year to the cinema. People, trying to escape the heat (and their problems) will be heading to the theaters in droves. Mega-blockbusters such as "Star Wars: Episode Three: Revenge of the Sith", "War of the Worlds", and "Fantastic Four" will be raking in the receipts. The first two of these films will certainly mix some weighty philosophical and existential moments among the mayhem. But historically summer is the time for "popcorn films" – heavy on the horror or laughs, light on the brain. At least, that is what we have been told. Critics routinely bash such summer fare as "mindless entertainment" – but they could not be further from the truth. Whether the genre is comedy or horror, there is still plenty of moral philosophy to go around in the summer cinema.
Comedy and the Morality of Laughter
Gerald Mast, in his book, "The Comic Mind," argues that even the lightest, most brainless comedy you can see in a summer theater still makes important moral arguments. These films fall into one of two categories: movies that show the antics of a character who dismisses moral conventions and is made to pay for it (and who is ultimately redeemed), or films that show that flaunting morality is better than upholding it.
Jim Carrey has starred in a number of films that fall into the first category. In "Liar, Liar" he plays an unscrupulous attorney, Fletcher Reede. His son makes a magical birthday wish that makes him incapable of lying for 24 hours. During the course of the film we watch as Fletcher learns the importance of telling the truth. "Bruce Almighty" has Carrey playing a self-centered reporter who is granted God's powers – and he ultimately learns to see life from God's perspective. While few of these kind of films will ever win Academy consideration, they do have a clear moral bent.
The second kind of comedy, the kind that flaunts morality, is just as common. It seems as if nearly every summer theaters exhibit some version of "American Pie," an "irreverent" offering from "National Lampoon," or some other teen party film. These comedies routinely earn critics' scorn and great box office numbers: "American Pie 2" racked up over $145 million in domestic ticket sales. If you assume average ticket prices of $8, over 18 million people went to see this film. The purpose of these movies is to glorify immorality – to make it look "cool" to be ungodly. Parents are in short supply – and if they are present, they are either objects of ridicule or authority figures to avoid. It's easy to argue that such films merely mirror a cultural reality – kids just want to have "fun" – but the problem runs deeper. Young movie stars are role models because they define what is cool. I recently heard a home-schooled teenage girl at an activity ask a young college-aged male if he was single. When he said he was, she responded with Paris Hilton's signature phrase "that's hot." We need to be careful what we laugh at – people are more easily persuaded when they are having a good time. Movies that flaunt morality demonstrate and reinforce bad behavior, making repentance more difficult. They cannot be ignored; they require confrontation.
A third kind of humor is not covered quite so neatly in Mast's description – existential humor. "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" opened in early May. The humor is silly – a kind of science-fiction meets Monty Python. The space travelers are smacked in the face by living flyswatters every time they have a thought. Whenever they engage their spaceship's motive drive they are turned into a host of improbable objects. The most threatening weapon of torture wielded by the leader of a vast alien bureaucratic empire is the oral recitation of poetry. You get the idea. But buried in this nut fest are a number of important philosophical questions such as who created the world? And what is the meaning of life? (The answers are aliens and 42.) People can walk out of the cinema either laughing at the improbability of ever gaining answers to any of these questions, or thoughtfully pondering them. Christians can, and should, mine films such as these for opportunities to talk seriously about their content (once the laughs die down).
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