How Not to Watch a Film Like a Twelve-Year-Old PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Douglas Jones   
Thursday, 15 October 2009 21:18

20-1_film02Don’t get me wrong—some of my favorite people are twelve-year-olds. I appreciate their zeal for bike riding, their devotion to pizza, and their keen insights about fairness. I even confess to having been a twelve-year-old for a short period of time. But their taste in film can be a bit, let’s say, tiresome.

Now I’m not a perfectionist. There is a time for silliness; there is a time for stupid movies. But sometimes we should want more than twelve-year-old satisfaction. Life is more. Trinitarian life is even more than that.

The problem with twelve-year olds—let’s admit it—is that, well, they’re a bit self-focused. No matter how good their upbringing, they’re only interested in their own interests. They’re not really interested in other people as people. To a twelve-year old, other people tend to be obstacles to get around. Other people supply things, provide boundaries, or give rides, but they’re just tools, not ends.

The best films and plays, though, are about enjoying other people, even living through other people. You have to enjoy seeing how people overcome life’s challenges in a million different ways to enjoy film.

Film aside, novels, short stories, and poetry all tend to focus on people, too. Each has its own glory, its own way of do­ing it. They’re each trying to do what every art aims to do, namely, to capture the big story in a bit of matter in order to move human bodies. That’s one way of characterizing this strange effort we call the arts. Whether music, sculpture, poetry, or painting, each aims to capture the meaning of life in a chunk of matter. Sculpture can do this in stone, music in organized pitches, poetry in the fewest black marks on a page, and painting by juxtaposing shapes of color. Plays and film capture it in bits of human action and dialogue. And they all want to end up moving a human body to laugh, cry, rage, rejoice, or be satisfied and make an audi­ence say, “Yes, that’s it; that captures the big story of life in a surprising way.”

At least, that’s an answer we could give to a group visiting us from southern Neptune, if they asked why we some­times stare at moving pictures on a big white wall or why we follow lines of black marks for pages and pages. “We forget the big picture all the time,” we could say. “All is vanity and grasping for the wind.” We get tied up in knots about unim­portant, petty things. These stories and music and paintings remind us in bodily form that “nothing is better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and that his soul should enjoy good in his labor.” These art projects are a ritual we use to help remind our bodies what’s important—grace, mercy, truth, people, guilt, betrayal, beauty, ugliness, Christ on His throne. Worship does this most importantly, in a special revelation manner, but the arts are a ritual of natural revelation, the way God reveals Himself indirectly through icebergs, cactus, thin wings, and monkey butts.

People, People, People

For Christians, for Trinitarians, the core of our big story is personality, persons in communion, Father-Son-Holy Spirit. There is nothing more profound than Triune life, and Triune life is all about Persons in relation, Persons in loyalty and love and tension, striving and sacrificing for goals. “Not My will but Yours.” For anyone, the highest or deepest part of life is the most interesting. For us, the high­est and deepest is personality. People. People. People. In a Trinitarian universe people should arrest our attention far more than anything else, far more than formulas, abstrac­ tions, physical implosions, bricks through windows, and the fading of summer. People. Those other things can be fun and interesting, but they can’t or shouldn’t be ultimately satisfying to us. Ultimacy in a Trinitarian universe always comes back to persons in communion. Nothing should be more intriguing. Us—“things which angels desire to look into.” We are films for angels. Even God Himself is in­trigued with persons. “You…set your heart on him….What is man…that you should visit him every morning, and test him every moment?”

20-1_film03God and angels are intrigued with the actions and character of per­sons, but twelve-year olds? Not so much. They’re like little unitarians roaming the earth, concerned with just one person, focused on their own individuality and goals and power. And the truth is, it’s not just twelve-year olds.

To be fair to twelve-year olds, most males of any age have very little interest in other people. There, I said it. We’re all practical unitarians, walking about trying to get around other people. We live most of our lives like twelve-year olds, and the women around us stand about confused. Men are allegedly busy. Fiction and poetry? Plays and film? Those are for people with too much free time. Such men have no practice in studying people or interpret­ing human interaction. They have no practice in empathy, the key to Christian living. They disdain fiction and then wonder why their marriages fall apart, why they have no friends. Of course, some “men” go the other direction and only have TV friends and video-game comrades, for hours and hours. That’s just a rival brand of unitarianism, only more pathetic.

Avoiding People

Like twelve-year olds, then, if we enjoy stories at all, we prefer plot-heavy stories, stories not so interested in character and other people (somewhat like Aristotle, that ancient unitarian). We want spectacle and car chases. And those have their place. I love a good chase. If not plot stories, then we like idea stories, some abstract truth forced through actors’ mouths like they were robots. Not real characters. Ideas to satisfy some intellectual needs, not ideas incarnated through real people. Ideas and Spectacle. That’s what we closet unitarians like. We also like intel­lectual puzzles over people, hence, the detective mystery. Of course, there’s a place for mysteries, but they tend just to be a cheat. They seem to be confessions that the writer couldn’t show anything interesting about people so we get diverted to solve some murder puzzle. You could get the same entertainment if you omitted just about every person in the story. People tend to be obstacles in these sorts of stories. An audience could just as easily sort through the courtroom evidence for fun, without the artifice of the story slowly sneaking us bits of evidence. But TV is full of these intellectual puzzle shows—courtrooms, hospitals, crime scenes, and more, because it’s easier to make puzzles than reveal character. I’d rather read a book on logic puzzles or watch NBC Dateline than pretend we have a real story at work. Detective mysteries surely have their place in the hall of entertainment, but these shouldn’t be deeply satisfying for us (a few do inter­esting character work). But overall, they’re not really about people. Plots. Spectacles. Puzzles.

Films and stories, however, are rituals at heart. They follow a specific pattern, a nice liturgy. And if a liturgy over and over avoids people for plots-only and ideas and puzzles, then we’re not truly enjoying a Trinitarian universe. For us, personality in action is the center of life. “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.”

Stuck in Pleasure

A twelve-year-old vision of film not only minimizes other people, it also stays in one place, demanding its personal pleasures be satisfied. The twelve-year old wants to be given happiness, wants excitement that pleases. And that’s fine for a twelve-year old. It’s understandable. I might be a bit weirded-out if they wanted anything else. But in an adult, just demanding pleasure from an artwork seems odd. Life isn’t like that. Art that just gives pleasure lies about a Trinitarian universe. In an adult, this sounds a bit like Paul’s warning against itching ears. We listen only to what satisfies our easy desires. We don’t want painful truth. Solomon saw beyond this sort of pleasure obsession.

“Better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting….sorrow is better than laughter, for by a sad countenance the heart is made better.” Pleasure doesn’t teach as well as sorrow. Mourning somehow shows us the deeper things. Setting aside pleasure viewing can open the bigger story for us. Again, that doesn’t mean we should only watch grim tragedies. There’s a time to laugh. But we’ll certainly miss the deeper satisfactions of life if we live only for our pleasure, if we choose films and plays and novels that only please us, if we watch films that only give us what we want. We should learn to see the glory in other people’s interests. Men should see the glory in women’s films, and women in men’s.

20-1_film04To put it differently, entering a good story is primarily about learning to love some ugly person. That’s the gospel isn’t it? “Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sin­ners, Christ died for us.” God shows His love by loving the ungodly. The ungodly. The unlovable. Those full of sin. Those we don’t really want to look at. Well-made character films offer us this angle. The story starts with someone with a huge flaw, some crazy obsession, some debilitat­ing sin. We don’t like them. We wouldn’t want them as a friend. If we knew them in our day-to-day lives, we’d probably not go near them. A good film shows us how to love the unlovely, how to want to side with the ungodly. In short, insightful character films can try to show us people the way God might see them.

Admittedly, those are very strange words. We don’t pick a film for those reasons. Christians generally want to see nice people doing nice things with pretty clothes. There’s a place for that. But it can’t deeply satisfy. We should also be able to say, let’s get a film that persuades us to like some wretch of a human. That’s what most stories aim to do. Now, I’m not saying that we should call evil, good and good, evil. Plenty of films sin in that way. They want us to sympathize with an unrepentant adulterer or cheer for an unrepentant assassin. I’m not advocating that. We should be able to do what the gospel does, though: love a gross sinner on the road to change. That’s hard enough. Love covers a multitude of sins. A film can exercise us to weigh people more subtly, the way Christ Himself does. Films can also reveal the hidden pet­tinesses that drag us all down. Some stories don’t invite us to love a sinner but instead to understand how they destroy themselves. Christians have to understand many paths of sinners. But it’s not all about fulfilling my personal interests and pleasures.

The apostle Paul provides the necessary frame for this sort of film watching, this sort of appreciation of people:

And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Good character films “take pleasure” in “infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake.” That’s what we need to look for in a film if we’re not stuck at age twelve. Films are natural revelation sermons via human action, with little or no narrator, just like the life of faith.

Triune Personality and Style

But we still have to judge righteously, as Christ says. Even if we’re interested in people because of the Trinity, even if we love sinners as God does, we have only taken baby steps. If the arts capture the big picture in matter, then, of course, persons and personality will be central in a Trinitarian world. But it doesn’t stop there. The Triune Persons are not generic, they’re not just any old bland personalities. Father, Son, and Spirit reveal a unique style. And it’s this unique style we need to find incarnated in any work of art if we’re to be deeply satisfied. But that takes care and discernment—not something twelve-year olds care much about.

And yet discerning Trinitarian style is an easy yoke, too. It’s what life is all about. We’re surrounded in Trinitarian style. Think of style as that personal fingerprint that dis­tinguishes one person from every other person, one artist from every other artist. It’s what makes Bach always sound different from Vivaldi and Handel. It distinguishes Tolstoy from Dostoevsky, Hemingway from Faulkner. You from everyone around you. And the Father, Son, and Spirit from Zeus, Nammu, Baal, Allah, Karma, Natural Law, and the American Civic god. It’s that uniqueness of Trinitarian style we want to see captured in a story. Christians are sometimes satisfied just to find some hint of sacrifice and redemption in a story, or even some specific symbolism of the cross. That’s nice but very superficial. Symbolism-hunting can be a cheap way to avoid persons again. From the writer’s side, inserting symbolism is pretty easy and not always very profound.

Spotting Trinitarian style is much more satisfying. We learn Trinitarian style from Scripture and natural revelation. In Scripture, we find Triune glory, Triune uniqueness in expres­sions like we saw above: “My strength is made perfect in weakness.” You can spend a lifetime figuring that one out and trying to trace its permutations. It’s rich, and some stories show it while some deny it. Those that show it image the Trinity better. Or similarly, we find Triune style in biblical phrases like, “how long will you love simplicity?” “He who sits in the heavens shall laugh,” “Go eat your bread with joy,” “I have seen servants on horses,” “money answers every­thing,” “childhood and youth are vanity,” “Do not be overly righteous,” “the first shall be last,” “this is My body,” “you are not under law but under grace,” “from glory to glory,” “God deprived the ostrich of wisdom,” “have you clothed the horse’s neck with thunder?” “He is not ashamed to call them brethren,” “behold I make all things new,” and many more riches.

Natural revelation reveals Triune style more indirectly. We see a gray mountain or an ocean or the interior of a plant, and they don’t come with labels. They don’t have big ban­ners pasted on them that say “The persons who made this are majestic and surprising.” No. We have to infer that from God’s works of arts. We have to infer divine style via the hints and indirectness of nature. Natural revelation shows us that Triune style overflows, wastes, and loves detail. Some of God’s best handiwork is hidden in ocean depths we’ll never see. God reveals His comic style in walruses and orangutans, his ugly style in hyenas and eels, his elegant style in hawks and horses. “Can you hunt prey for the lion? Or satisfy the appetite of young lions….Who provides food for the raven?” Triune style loves and shouts out to us through all these. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork. Day unto day utters speech.” Speech, and yet it doesn’t speak like special revelation. Pines and palms speak without words, without labels. We have to work to understand Triune personality. We have to infer and inter­pret and conclude. We don’t get a narrator explaining most of God’s revelation. Just hints, and we’re expected to gird up our imaginations.

But we do know that He is the epitome of interesting person­ality. In fact, we might define interesting as the Trinity, because reading off Triune life from nature we have to conclude that Father, Son, and Spirit are surprising, unique, tense, paradoxi­cal, unified, different, communal, precise, hilarious, frighten­ing, and “ugly.” And it’s the (somehow) simultaneous com­bination of all of these that captures Christian divine style. That’s what we look for in ourselves, in others, and in films. That is the image of God in man.

Notice also that pursuing Trinitarian personality reveals other cheap moves in contemporary cinema. It not only reveals the thinness of mere spectacle, easy plots, and intellectual-puzzle movies; Trinitarian style reveals that public, explicit nudity in a film is really an imaginative failure. We should see explicit sexuality as a filmmaker’s confession of story botch. For some reason, the filmmaker/writer can’t convince us with character, so he or she just gives up and shows us someone’s private parts to fill the personality gap. They can’t convince our imaginations, so they make up for it by appealing to our loins. The art has failed, so fill in with drugs and a pacifier.

Obviously, then, most stories can never achieve Trinitarian heights. Most stories, especially secular stories, are satisfied to be one-dimensional. But the search for profound and satisfy­ing character stories is part of the fun. It shouldn’t be so hard to capture Trinitarian style, but it is. Does the film show us interesting (i.e., Trinitarian-style) people? Does it reveal them in a Trinitarian universe overcoming ugliness and flaws, rising and transforming through the vanity of life?

Triune vs. Mardukian Style

Films naturally focus on action, people striving and reaching goals through doing things. Triune personality reveals itself primarily through action, too: “Remember His marvelous works which He has done, His wonders . . . He sent darkness . . .He gave them hail for rain. . . .He struck their vines also, and their fig trees . . . He opened the rock, and water gushed out . . . He brought out His people with joy.” “God was manifested in the flesh, Justified in the Spirit . . . Received up in glory.”

But action works in different ways in different theologies. Not all action expresses a Christian universe. Some action shows us the dark heart of other gods. Watching a film like a Trinitarian means delighting in a Triune way of acting and overcoming. Some films overcome in Triune ways and some don’t. What’s the difference?

20-1_film05Twelve-year-olds are particularly drawn to Mardukian action and solutions. What is that? Well, sons, especially, tend to believe that almost every problem can be solved by beating and wrestling; they’re thick enough to think that domination actually works, especially over younger brothers. They live in a Mardukian universe. Consider the story of the Babylonian god, Marduk. In one telling of the Babylonian creation account, Enuma Elis, we find Father and Mother gods, Apsu and Tiamat, parenting lesser gods, but they are unruly kids with plenty of infighting. Dad plans to kill some of his children and grandchildren, and this doesn’t go over well with the kids, so Dad ends up dead in return. After more infighting, the kids are at odds with Mom Tiamat, too. The lesser gods, the kids, finally select Marduk, a great grandchild and mighty god, to take on Mom, the goddess of salt water. And it’s through this battle that we get the creation of the earth: “After subdu­ing the rest of [Tiamat’s] host, he [Marduk] took his club and split Tiamat’s water-laden body in half like a clam shell. Half he put in the sky and made the heavens, and he posted guards there to make sure that Tiamat’s salt waters could not escape. Across the heavens he made stations in the stars for the gods, and he made the moon and set it forth on its schedule across the heavens. From the other half of Tiamat’s body he made the land, which he placed over Apsu’s fresh waters, which now arise in wells and springs. From her eyes he made flow the Ti­gris and Euphrates. Across this land he made the grains and herbs, the pastures and fields, the rains and the seeds, the cows and ewes, and the forests and the orchards.” In short, Marduk cuts up his greatish grandmother in an act of war violence and uses her torn body to create the earth. A bit grim, to say the least.

What we get, though, is a cosmos where violence is natural, a universe interwoven with acts of bloodshed. Violence permeates the created order. Violence frames reality. Vio­lence is the norm.

In that sort of Babylonian universe, it’s no surprise then that violence is a good solution to problems. If violence is built into creation, then we naturally use violence to return things to normal. We overcome obstacles and resolve an­tagonisms by conforming to the natural law of violence…if Mardukianism is true.

Most action films are Mardukian rituals – Alien, Star Wars, The Matrix, Gladiator, Terminators, James Bonds, The Incredibles, Braveheart (ooh, ouch), Die Hards, Kill Bills. In such films, we usually have a protagonist at odds with some flat, wholly evil villain. The protagonist gets smacked around at first and fails at several attempts to overcome the evil one, but in the end the protagonist fulfills Babylonian ritual by overcoming the enemy by acts of greater violence. The protagonist generally gets the girl. Everyone is happy. The world resolves itself in high Babylonian style. Twelve-year-olds express their glee. Christians clap and note the faint gospel symbolism in the final act.

How did this happen? How have Christians become so eas­ily satisfied by a Babylonian universe? Our creation account certainly doesn’t frame the universe in violence. Before and after creation, God is love—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in harmony, in loyalty, with no infighting or conspira­cies. From this Sabbath, God speaks the created order into existence. It is an act of love, of overflowing grace. Creation is an artwork. God judges it to be very good. It is not an act of violence or derived from violence. Violence there is unnatural, contrary to divine life. Problems are not successfully resolved by violence. Violence works contrary to Trinitarian life; it is alien to the relations of Father, Son, and Spirit. They live and move in grace; they are grace.

In a Trinitarian world, violence doesn’t truly resolve things. Even in Old Covenant immaturity (Gal. 3:24) where violence seems to have a larger place than in the New, we find the Lord repeat­edly denouncing violence: “The Lord tests the righteous, but the wicked and the one who loves violence His soul hates” (Ps. 11:5); “Wisdom is better than weapons of war” (Eccl. 9:18). “Violence covers them like a garment” (Ps. 73:6). “The mouth of the righ­teous is a well of life, but violence covers the mouth of the wicked” (Prov. 10:11). “But God said to me [David], ‘You shall not build a house for My name, because you have been a man of war and have shed blood’” (1 Chron. 28:3).

Then, of course, when redemptive history rises into its ma­turity, Christ presents a new world where violence loses its glamour. It’s interesting that we find the greater presumption against violence at that point in history where the Son and the Spirit reveal themselves in the fullness of Trinitarian life. “‘My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight’” (John 18:36). “But I tell you not to resist an evil person” (Matt. 5:39). “He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you” (Matt. 20:25). “Do not return evil for evil” (Rom. 12:17; 1 Pet. 3:9; 1 Thess. 5:15). “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty” (2 Cor. 10:3–4).

That’s life in a Trinitarian universe. The greater the revelation of Trinitarian life, the further we move from violence. That’s not pacifism, since pacifism is absolutistic and has no sense of development. In a very important sense, God is the king of violence, and He reserves violence for Himself, largely for­bidding it to the people of His new kingdom (Rom. 12:19).

In short, we don’t live in a Mardukian cosmos and shouldn’t be satisfied by Mardukian solutions. Again, no perfectionism. That doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy a Bruce Willis movie. I can and do. But I can’t find them deeply satisfying. I enjoy them at a distance, watching like a twelve-year-old. I can enjoy them like God enjoyed King David. David is a man after God’s own heart, and we can see some good in his violence, but in the end God doesn’t let him build the Temple. I can enjoy Babylonian films because they don’t threaten the gospel; Christ has triumphed over His enemies. I can enjoy Mar­dukian resolutions they way I might enjoy Homer—at arm’s length. They are not the story of my people, the Church, but I can see how those alien stories sometimes work well. Again, they are no threat to Christ since they’re conquered. Babylonianism is just quaint now, not deep, not satisfying. Violent solutions don’t really work or last in a Trinitarian universe. We get a great picture of this in Tolkien’s work, a work rich in character. There, violence plays a part, but in the end, violence is failing and the good are being overwhelmed in their desperate attempt at violence. What really counts is the triumph of divine weakness. Violence distracts the enemy from the mountain, where a hobbit finally drops the ring into the mountain furnace. That’s how a Christian universe oper­ates. “My strength is made perfect in weakness.”

To really enjoy the best films/plays, you have to be fascinated with people, fascinated with human life, how communities of persons work and fail, how we conflict and reconcile, how we’re unique and the same, how we change, mature, and grow. Twelve-year-olds have to grow into that.

Now, of course, I’ve reflected on what it takes to appreciate and identify a good film, and I’ve done it in a priori fashion, without examining any positive recommendations. Life is mean like that sometimes. I have plenty of wonderful char­acter films I’d like to recommend and that would be easy (certainly The Queen [2006], The Dresser [1983], A Soldier’s Story [1984] rank very high), but I’m afraid that feels a bit like cheating. It seems too direct and flat. Rather un-Trini­tarian. I’d rather wave and wish you well on your own film journey. And don’t forget, sometimes, to just watch films like a twelve-year old.

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Last Updated on Thursday, 29 October 2009 13:37