From Fluff to Stuff: Giving Weight to Summer Popcorn Films
- 2005 17 Jun
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).
Horror: Making Evil Attractive
Horror films have undergone an important transformation. There was a time in which becoming the monster was bad, something to be avoided if possible. Over the last 20 years or so, pulp horror films have reversed that trend. Francis Ford Coppola's version of the Dracula story (inappropriately titled "Bram Stoker's Dracula" – it bears little semblance to the book) has Mina begging the Count for his bite to take her "away from all this death." In "Wolf," Dr. Alezais asks Will Randall (Jack Nicholson) to turn him into a "demon wolf" so that he, too, can experience "power without guilt." "Underworld" (a sequel is in the works) posits a culture that glamorizes the fashion and power of vampires and extols the virtues of the downtrodden werewolves. "Interview with the Vampire," told from the vampire Louis' point of view, is a cautionary tale – and yet at the end the reporter interviewing Louis wants to be turned into one of the undead.
Sometimes evil isn't portrayed as alluring. But when evil is ugly, it is often also omnipotent. It wasn't too long ago that clergy were powerful allies against demonic forces. However, this spring's remake of "The Amityville Horror" has the priest run away, terrified in the face of supernatural evil. The remake of "House of Wax" debuted last month. Instead of having the horror dispatched at the end of the film, I predict that some way will be found for the evil to endure. There's nothing like a teen horror franchise to boost company receipts. So the lights will go down, the body count will rise, and the teens in the theater scream with delight. The conclusions they will draw is that good is boring, but evil is cool.
What to Do?
Some might argue that it is not the intention of directors to undermine the morality or spirituality of their viewers. That may be true. The directors may have never given the issue any serious thought. The question Christians must ask is not what the director intended, but what the impact of the film on the viewer might be, and, since people are seeing these films, is there any way to redeem the experience?
One way to unmask the messages in fluffy films is to adopt a critical eye. One of the reasons MovieMinistry provides free discussion cards for blockbuster films is to lead conversations away from merely commenting on a well-done scene, and toward talk about moral and spiritual themes. Opportunities to chat about morality or the spiritual in a non-threatening way do not happen very often in our materialist culture – but movies can open people up. What begins as a discussion of the film can turn to a discussion of ourselves and our relationship to God.
Mast is correct in his analysis of comedy films, but he doesn't go far enough. Films may indeed make moral claims, but they make spiritual claims as well. Investigating these claims in conversation can create opportunities for the Gospel and begin to change the way people view their experience at the cinema.
Marc T. Newman, PhD (email@example.com) is the president of MovieMinistry.com – an organization that provides sermon and teaching illustrations from popular film, and helps the Church use movies to reach out to others and connect with people.
© 2005 AgapePress. All rights reserved. Used with permission.