September 20, 2005

Beyond EntertainmentHow Hollywood Educates the Masses

When our girls, Michelle and Kim, were in high school, we would occasionally watch a movie together on Saturday night. Afterwards, I'd initiate a discussion on the message of the movie. The girls would say, "Oh, Dad, do we have to talk about it. That ruins it!" My response was, "Girls, if the screenwriter, director and producer are simply out to entertain you, then you can sit back, relax and allow your emotions to be moved. However, if they are also out to educate you, than we have to engage our minds in the process."

And as it turns out, Hollywood screenwriters, directors, and producers are out to educate us. How do I know that? They tell us!

For example, George Lucas clearly understands his role as a film writer and director as he revealed in an interview: "I've always tried to be aware of what I say in my films because all of us who make motion pictures are teachers . . . teachers with very loud voices."[1]

Or take David Franzoni, the main writer and producer of both Gladiator, as well as King Arthur. He said in an interview, "That's the whole point of writing to me: to change the world through your art." What is Franzoni's vision for the world? He goes on to explain that Gladiator " . . . is about a hero who has morality, but that morality is a secular morality that transcends conventional religious morality . . . "[2] According to Franzoni, Christian morality is out, "secular" morality is in, meaning a morality that is not derived from the God of the Bible. And the theme of both films made this clear.

As it turns out, these men know exactly what they are doing. They are in the education business! Now, obviously, as artists and craftsmen, they also are concerned with their medium of expression ó film ó and they take great strides to present their ideas in an entertaining way; otherwise, no one would pay to see what they have produced. Thus, while money is the bottom line when it comes to major motion pictures, it's not the only line, and we must not forget the central place of the worldview message that is the basis for the story being presented. Filmmakers are first and foremost storytellers.

Worldview Thinking Begins With God

To drive home the point that watching movies is a worldview matter, take one more example. By writing and directing The Matrix trilogy, Larry and Andy Wachowski captured the imagination of this generation. In a 1999 Time magazine interview, the brothers reveal why they write stories for film:

We're interested in mythology, theology, and to a certain extent, higher level mathematics. All the ways human beings try to answer bigger questions, as well as The Big Question . . . If you are going to do epic stories you should concern yourself with those issues. People might not understand all the allusions in the movie, but they understand the important ideas. We wanted to make people think, engage their minds a bit.[3]

The Wachowski brothers want people to think about "the big question," which is which is the foundational worldview question, "What about God?" This is the starting point for everyone's worldview, and how that question is answered has implications for every other area of life.

To see how this works, consider how the question of God is central to The Truman Show, the 1998 hit comedy directed by Peter Weir and starring Jim Carey and Ed Harris. Truman, played by Carey, is a man who has lived his entire life confined within an enormous Hollywood studio, never realizing his every move was seen live by millions of television viewers around the world, 24/7. Everyone in his life is an actor, playing the part of wife, neighbors, and friends, yet Truman was playing himself. Talk about the ultimate reality show! But Truman begins to suspect all is not as it appears on his soundstage world, and he determines to walk off the set.

In the final scene, Truman makes his way in a boat to the edge of the "ocean" and locates a set of stairs leading to an exit door.[4] As Truman opens the door, the voice of the show's director, Christof (Ed Harris), comes booming down from the clouds. Being startled at this strange event, Truman asks three questions. The first is, "Who are you?" The clear implication is, "Who are you . . . God?" How do we know this is the message? In addition to the visual clue of the camera angle pointing up into the clouds, the viewer is led to conclude Truman is referring to God by the way Christof answers, "I'm the creator (and he pauses for a half-second for emphasis before continuing) of a television show that gives happiness and meaning to millions." There is no getting around it, this scene leads the audience to understand that Christof is playing "God" in the life of Truman.

Truman next asks, "Then who am I?" (the question of psychology). After pondering Christof's response, Truman inquires, "Was nothing real?" (a key philosophical question). As it turns out, everyone on the planet is interested in the answers to Truman's questions. That's because these questions are foundational to understanding the meaning of life. Added to these central questions are (at least) seven others that, taken together, form the majority of one's total world and life view. These questions divide among ten major disciplines of study. Here is a list of the ten disciplines and key question(s) associated with each one:

  1. Theology: Is God real and what is God like?
  2. Philosophy: What is the nature of reality and how do we know what is true?
  3. Biology: What is the origin of life?
  4. Psychology: What is the nature of man?
  5. Ethics: What is morally right and wrong?
  6. Sociology: How should society be structured?
  7. Law: How should we maintain justice?
  8. Politics: How should government should be structured?
  9. Economics: How should we steward the resources that God has given us?
  10. History: What can we learn from the past and where is history headed?

As the Wachowski brothers affirm, if these are the issues that give life meaning, then any good story will revolve around one or more of them. In order to understand today's generation and effectively communicate to their spiritual needs, the discerning disciple of Jesus Christ will consider the answers provided in the story as it is presented on the silver screen.

Resources for Further Study

Footnotes
  1. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/database/lucas_g.html.
  2. Quoted in John Soriano, "WGA.ORG's Exclusive Interview with David Franzoni," WGA, http://www.wga.org/craft/interviews/franzoni2001.html.
  3. "Popular Metaphysics," by Richard Corliss, Time (April 19, 1999).
  4. By the way, here's the world's shortest lesson in Film Appreciation 101 at no extra charge. Everything in a movie is done for a certain effect. For example, at the end of this scene, when Truman opens the exit door we see only darkness on the other side. This was done on purpose. Think about it for a minute. The screenwriter could have written this scene any way he wanted to. On the other side of the door, there could be bright sunshine, tall trees, green grass, chirping birds, guys going by on skate boards! Instead, the doorway was dark. What does darkness represent? While darkness can symbolize several things, such as evil (the bad guys wear black hats!), in this scene it signifies the unknown. Since Truman has never experienced the "real" world, the screenwriter visually reinforces this idea by having him step into darkness. Every detail of the movie is significant: what is said and how it is said, the camera angle, the set design, the choice of color used for the set and costumes, the lighting, even what's on the other side of a doorway. Therefore, the discerning viewer must pay close attention to the details to understand the message of the movie.

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