Short Essay on Films
By Charles R Geter, June 6, 2008
I must admit that when I find a good movie, I enjoy it. But during this time in which we live, finding a film that is acceptable for Catholics (or others with Judeo-Christian values) has become difficult. The most obvious problem is that Hollywood has its own ideas about right and wrong, and often those very ideas are upside-down. The strange thing about movies is that they have a compound effect on the audience, and this effect can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on the movie. In this short essay, I will attempt to describe the basic components of film, and present an accurate method for judging movies.
Movies are works of art. However, they are unique in the kind of medium they use. In music, sound is the medium; in painting, the canvas is the medium, but in cinematography, the actors, real people, are the medium! Movies have several purposes, all with different levels of importance. The obvious goal of many movies is to entertain. Entertainment is good, but not the highest goal. Most movies don't rely on entertainment by itself, and if they do, the movie is usually a failure. There are many comedies that are spoofs of better movies, and most of them fail because their ultimate aim is too low. Napoleon Dynamite is an example of a movie that is really meant solely for entertainment; although it has an original story, it's sole goal is to make you laugh, and there is no depth to what it is trying to say. Another example is Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. It's a fun movie, but its ultimate message is "It's fun to be a Disney-fied pirate". In the best movies, the entertainment is a means to an end. If a movie's sole object is to entertain, it probably will be enjoyable to a degree, but there will not be much lasting value to it. Basically, entertainment is the frosting on the cake; without it the movie could be bland, but if icing is all there is, there isn't any substance.
However, most movies have another purpose than simply to entertain. The second goal of movies is to instruct. This is where we get into the meat of the film's composition. I'm not referring to the Aesop's Fables method of instruction. In most movies, there is no character who explains the moral at the end of the story. Instruction is what the overall plot of the movie, taken in context, teaches the audience. Depending on the intent of the filmmakers, the moral (or amoral) instruction of the film may be hidden so as not to appear obvious to the audience. For instance, an example of a movie that teaches the audience is Mel Gibson's Braveheart. The story basically transmits the message that there really are things that are worth fighting for, such as freedom from tyranny. Yet, at the same time, the movie at one point teaches that adultery (in the protagonist's specific situation) is acceptable. And, on another note, the "good guy" murders at least one person in revenge for past betrayal. So the overall story may teach something that is good in itself, but there may be smaller lessons that ultimately teach a moral falsehood. A movie may also teach something that is true, but it may focus on the evil without showing anyone good who may be a worthy example. Such movies are problematic because they make evil look stronger than good, and that is a moral falsehood. Of course in this life evil seems very powerful, but to believe that evil is more powerful than good ultimately leads to loss of hope. Because evil deeds are punished in the next life, and good rewarded, a movie, even a tragedy, must have some "good guy". The Horror genre is a good example of this, because, even though the villains are not supposed to be looked on as good, there is something depraved about getting thrills from watching the disgusting violence or ugliness that is the norm in the Horror genre. Then there are some movies that try to teach you what a war feels like. Saving Private Ryan teaches that war is particularly horrible, and yet that some people in war are brave enough to face the terror of it. This is one of those movies that isn't meant to be entertaining; it's meant to show war in as realistic a manner as possible, leaving nothing to the imagination. I still have not come to a conclusion as to whether graphically violent war movies like Saving Private Ryan are morally acceptable, or whether the damage they cause is stronger than any good that may come out of watching them.
The third thing that movies can do is edify. This is by far the scarcest attribute of movies today. Edification (moral or spiritual enlightenment) comes out of movies that deal with Christianity, either in the life of Christ, or the life of some Saint. Most movies that strive to do this have monetary difficulties, because Hollywood is not particularly interested in making edifying films. Unfortunately, films that don't have lots of money behind them may have poorer quality, and often this may hurt the film's ability to edify. Of course, a movie may still be good while limited to a low budget, but it is difficult, because the exterior goodness of the movie quality is often what draws the audience. However, when the director has good tools at his disposal, he can make a movie that is so tremendously edifying that it can blow you away. An example of this is Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. Because he had talented people working on the movie, and he had tight control over every aspect of the film, watching the movie feels like praying the Stations of the Cross. There is one difference, though, of which we must be careful. With a movie, all you need to do is watch, but with a Holy Hour, you really have to make the interior effort to pray to Jesus, and listen to Him. Movies like The Passion still is an example of using cinematography for the noblest and highest of causes; to bring others closer to God.
There are other movies that are not specifically Christian, but may still edify through the relation of some element of the plot to a truth in Christianity. Some good examples are The Lord of the Rings films; they are not specifically Christian, and yet they do edify at their best moments, where they really teach truths that correspond to much in Christianity. This, of course, is because Tolkien was a practicing Catholic, so his faith permeates even his fictional stories. No one character actually represents Our Lord in the story, but He can be seen in various characters. In fact, this is particularly realistic, because all of the Saints were imitating Christ, and so each one of us, when we follow Him like the Saints did, can represent His glory in our own little way, like a small mirror reflecting the Sun.
So these three things, entertainment, instruction, and edification, are the important parts of the film. Most movies use at least the first two with varying percentages of entertainment and instruction. Very few get as far as edification. The most aesthetically pleasing part of a film (and this may vary a little with taste) is how the movie is edited, with coloring style, and computer effects (or lack thereof), the script, and the acting. The element that many movie reviewers pay the most attention to is the execution of the idea; that is, "How well is the movie made? Is the acting, script writing, and editing done well?" Most film reviews only are dealing with the most superficial aspects. Analogically, imagine a material excellence of a film to be a window, and the message of the movie to be the outdoors outside the window. If your window is dirty, the beauty of the park outside will be obscured. In the same way, movies that have an edifying message to impart may not succeed because the cinematography, acting, or script might be lacking. What if your window is squeaky clean, but outside the window is some back alley where the drains flow through? In the same way, no matter how technically and materially "good" a movie may be, if it shows something evil or ugly, it is dangerous (and foolish) to expose yourself to it. Secular movie reviewers are very concerned about the cleanness of the glass pane, but few of them care what is on the other side of the window. They think a lot about talent and quality, but little or nothing about morals.
The final issue I would discuss is what the Movie Rating System deals with: content shown on the screen. This is one of those things that often may wreck otherwise good movies in our day. A film may be entertaining and teach a morally sound message, but they may show immoral things that can desensitize the audience. Examples of this are when a movie shows the villain doing very graphically violent deeds, or impure deeds. The movie does portray the actions as evil, but showing such things to people is definitely risky. Impure deeds in a film are never excusable, while violence may be excused at times, like in The Passion of the Christ, which is an extremely violent film, but ultimately good (the violence is not an end in itself).
So, to wrap this up, I would give this advice to all prospective movie-goers who desire to become holy: 1.Make sure the movie has an ultimately good and true message. 2. The movie shouldn't have graphic content that could turn you away from God. 3. The morals in the movie must agree with Catholic morality. Hopefully the Catholic movie-goer would find this information useful, because there really is good out there, it's just hard to find!