Christians at the Megaplex


Abstract:

The prayer of Christ recorded in John 17 requested that his disciples be kept in the world, though not of it. This verse has been endlessly debated through the years as the Church has sought to understand its mission and its place within the larger society she finds herself. In the (post)modern American context much of this discussion has centered upon the use of the mass media: movies and films in particular. Through observation, conversation, and a battery of questions this study sought to understand the attitudes, hopes, and fears surrounding the experience of this visual media.

Key Terms:

Bisociation: An assertion or realization drawn from two seemingly disparate sources.

Cinema / Theater: A place of moviegoing or that aspect of it which is geared towards the aesthetic experience (cinema) as opposed to the entertainment experience (theater).

Closed / Open: Scale categories existing in a continuum between belief that in no interaction with the other, and belief in interaction with the other, when the other is defined as information inputs through sense experience.

Discourse (Discoursive): A structural form or way of thinking which undergirds a society and directs the discussion and views of that society.

Film / Movie: In popular usage these terms are virtually synonymous; however, in academic and film-hobby literature a distinction is often made between a piece which was made only for entertainment (movie), and that of a piece made with the purpose of both entertaining and providing narrative instruction of some kind (film).

Moviegoing: The expression of attending an actual theater for viewing a movie as opposed to viewership via another method such as online, home, and mobile media player.

Referential / Rhetorical: Scale categories existing in a continuum between belief in correspondence of thing named to reality, and belief that thing named exists as a fictional construct.

Chapter One: Just Why Are We Here?

“If my life was cinematic / With a soundtrack so dramatic / You’d be the hero and You would save me / And it would have the sweetest ending

I want to live in such a way / That when I’m gone my friends would say/ That if my life was turned to film / I’d be standing on a mountain shouting victory in the end/ But in my heart I know it’s only true / If I’m supporting actor and the Oscar goes to You”

— Cool Hand Luke, “Cinematic.”

Americans have long seem to love going out to “a show” as it was called in the Hollywood heyday of the 1950s. Across all American social spectrums, racial boundaries, and age gaps they come to the local movie theater. In 2007 1,395,534,356 tickets were sold at the average price of $6.88 per ticket (US Movie Market Summary, 2007). With America’s projected 2007 population of 301,621,157 that comes to almost five tickets per American (American Fact Finder).  Scholars across the field would agree that this industry represents a dynamic player on the social consciousness of the nation. Andrew Tudor in his book on influence argues that:

going to the movies… is part of a person’s social interaction. It offers him experience he enjoys, hates, learns from and believes. In a very real sense he can interact with the characters of a fictional film. He certainly identifies with them and uses them to project his emotions, needs, and pleasures (74).

Many of the respondents quoted in Tom Stempel’s collection of oral histories would agree wholeheartedly. One such respondent, Peggy Dilley, recalled that after viewing she “become the characters… I dress like them, try them on for size and then discard them” (Stempel, 202). In the cinema the audience is offered a chance to try on and experience varied realities, then discard them with their buckets of popcorn as they leave the door.

Movies then would seem to be a defining feature of American life, a feature of life which this author has found both intensely moving and frightening. This paper has found its genesis in this fascination and horror. A couple of recent experiences have, however, sparked an even more intense quest for answers to these questions. First, there has been an on-going debate between the author and another writer of a blog (see appendix one). The initial debate grew out of a discussion of the merits of the Oscar-nominated movie Little Miss Sunshine. The moderator of the Heal the Land with Spiritual Warfare site had linked to an essay accusing the director of that film with creating a movie fit only for pedophiles and weirdoes. This author attempted to argue that though the center piece of the plot did involve a disgusting display, that display was meant not for titillation, but to create discomfort and dissonance in the audience. This cognitive dissonance then forced the audience to deal with the crass and disgusting ways in which things are sexualized in modern culture. The moderator did not see it that way. Vulgarity is as vulgarity does, he argued (fairly convincing I might add).

The second and defining moment for the creation of this project came over the author’s Spring Break. I was picking up some hours at a local movie theater and was standing alone in the Box Office as a long slow night wound down when I began to hear the voice of a young man spewing profanities. Due to the design of the box office I could only see what was in front of me, but soon he came into view, holding his cell phone like a walkie-talkie as he yelled with all the force his lithe frame could muster profanities into the phone. “Why is he here,” I asked myself, “Why can’t he just go home? Why come here and force me to listen to his vulgarity?” Then it hit me, these are great questions: research questions even. Why does this diminutive verbal assassin attend, and why does my seemingly moral but a little angry-at-world fundamentalist pen pal stay away? This paper will seek to examine these fascinating questions. Why do audiences continue to show up en masse to the latest Tom Hanks fare? What do they get for their troubles and last do they ever question and think through habits and experiences?

Chapter Two: Just What Have All the Smart People to Say?

As interesting as this aspect of the moviegoing experience can be, it has become infinitely more profound when one starts to considers what alienation the experience represents. The movie going represents a truly cross-cultural experience for many in America. Most of the movies shown in the hallowed halls of the local cinemaplex were made by a specific class of people segmented in a specific place and time. This relatively small slice of America produced and still produces fare which is consumed by the Northern gentleman, the Midwestern housewife, and the Southern Baptist. OK maybe not for all Southern Baptists, but for some at least. This experience has beckoned and continues to call to the immigrant come to American shores, and the expatriate on foreign soil.

Viewership Discussed: A Social Activity

For some this has remained a peripheral experience. This has existed be one social activity among others. For others, Robert Allen wrote that, “The movies may have been part of the routines of social life but it seldom registered enough even to warrant reflection” (Allen, 60). The American moviegoing experience become a part of the collected memory of America and a valid “fabric of daily life” (Allen, 59). In fact Annette Kuhn in a study quoted by Allen found that most participants in her study remembered with great clarity and detail the local movie theaters of their childhood. They quoted the varied ticket prices of the cinemas near and far to them. They recalled which theater was used for social coupling and the necking involved in said coupling. They waxed on about the décor, the sounds, the smells, and what shops stood nearby ready to dispose of whatever monies were left from the afternoon’s slog through a double feature and the needed bucket of popcorn (Allen, 59).

Cinema as Social Symbol. For many varied reasons the theater has stood as an important and symbolic action since its beginning. In its inception Kevin Corbet argues that the movie represented a threat to the Victorian sensibility because it threatened to disintegrate the home / work split and its inherent male / female sphere distinction which marked much of life in the nineteenth century.[1] The cinema was also a threat to the cultural hegemony of that day’s America. The placement of the theater in the city metropolis amongst its throngs of lower class peasants and immigrants threatened to break the class distinctions wrought by the industrial age. As if that was not enough the theater threatened to disrupt the well-placed rules of courtship and dating by offering a prime escape for many a well-meaning couple from the watchful vigilant eyes of their seemingly omnipresent chaperone. As the theater progressed and the marvel of electricity filled the previously dark night with luminous transcendence, the theater offered both an escape from the rigors of the sixteen-hour workday as well as a primary means of entertainment. In the ability to provide a chance at a nightlife and a glance at the new star culture emanating from Hollywood, the patrons of theater were offered a chance to express a newfound sense of individuality (Corbett, 19-25).

Cinema as Social Location. The theater sustained a unique and interesting place in the history of both small and large town America. This was an influence that spread farther than the prominent metro-centric nature of discourse on Hollywood cinema. True Hollywood has always been seen as a primary economic value in its metropolitan elite. Allen argued that the Variety of the 1930s favored talk of metropolites, deluxers, big keys over talk of the hicks, dime houses, and silo belt (Allen, 65). In Allen’s study of the influence and place of cinema in the South, particularly North Carolina, theaters served as a part of the community standing beside the town bank, hotel, post office and other places as a social center forming civic life (66). Space was rented out to all civic minded groups need in a larger room for more important building. This had the tendency to normalize moviegoing for the Southerner worried about any pernicious effects of this new media. After all “if one could sing the Messiah, hear an evangelical sermon or attend a charity benefit in a theater, then perhaps other actions in the same place were not too profane” (Allen, 67).

Viewership Discussed: Disinterested Observers or Active Participants?

The theatergoing experience remains a cross-culturally alien experience in another way, the passivity and anonymity of the moviegoer. There was a relatively new but ultimately important note about the relationship between theater and audience. Allen quoted Sandy Flitterman-Lewis and her work on the same topic. She is quoted in this same context noticing that “films are seen in large, silent, darkened theaters where intense light beams are projected from behind toward luminous surfaces in front” (Allen, 52).This was dramatically different from say reading a novel or even watching television in the comfort of one’s home. Allen wrote that of the effect of television as “fragmented, dispersed and varied… the darkness is dissolved and the anonymity is removed” (Allen, 52). That was of course granted that said homeowner likes to keep the lights on for his or her favorite homebound entertainments. This prominent motif of darkness, passivity, and anonymity worked itself out in multiple ways. This passivity was and remains perhaps the kernel of understanding of why so many of Stempel’s respondents could remember in grand detail the theater, or the stars, but flinched in pain when trying to recall the actual movies which they seen.

The Active Participant. Here there has been a great debate as to just how much ‘work’ audiences perform in their moviegoing and media intake. In his study on the viewership of Dallas in both the U.S. and Australia, Elihu Katz argued that his viewers did some work. His ideas can be summarized in the following chart ( Found and discussed in pp. 16-19):

Chart 2.1

Referential                 Rhetorical

Closed Real (Traditional)        Ideological

Open Ludic                           Constructional

In Kurts’s argument and study, the dance between audience and media was seen on two axes. In the top or first sense there was the discussion of whether the audience sees the film or media in terms of projecting reality or as projecting some fiction. On the second axis was the determination to remain closed or open to the ideas and images being presented. He believed and argued that the dominant form of response was found in the ‘real’ position. Most of his viewers he argued remained in the camp which saw the media as somewhat reflecting reality, yet, remained closed to the ideas presented. His Australians believed that J.R. Ewing represented a possible representative of a Texan, yet, were not ready to live large and dream of being shot. There were, however, many in the audience who entered into a greater internal debate with the show. These are represented in the other categories which we will not discuss in depth.[2]

The Passive Observer. Robert Kubey begged to differ. He saw Katz’s work as all well and good, but thought that it all may be rhetorical boilerplate. He defined Katz’s view of work as viewers actually taking the time to “decode” and “interpret” what they saw. Kubey was not as sanguine about the abilities and tendencies of the viewing public (188). He argued for a “passive spillover effect,” that is that viewers often report feeling more passive after viewing media than they do after attending and participating in other activities. In this type of passive use of the media the viewer can come to see the media as at best a way of structuring their free time, and at worst a way of self-medicating. In this use of media for self-medication there are the inherent risks of substance abuse. In his study Kubey listed the DSM definition of substance abuse.[3] As this author has sometimes been accused of being a TV or movie addict, I was none too thrilled with reading the DSM list and the application of this list to the habits. The one-named author Aristides did not help matters as he defined the movie addict as “people who feel a deep if not well-defined longing to be somewhat passive; to be romantic, a bit dreamy perhaps, with an ample capacity for fantasy…. Movies make up a disproportionate share of their experience and nothing is quite so real to them as an event or relationship that has an analogue in a movie” (Aristides, 156). I’m not sure but I think Aristides just called me and Peggy Dilley out.

Towards a Synthesis. In his groundbreaking work Christian Metz was seen by many as being at the forefront of a new ‘a-ha’ moment in understanding film. In his study Allen quoted Metz as stating that “the institution of cinema requires a silent motionless spectator, a vacant spectator… a spectator at once alienated and happy” (Allen, 51). This was more inline with Kubey than with Katz. Yet there was still some reaction occurring, even if passive reaction.

There are many scholars who have tried to catalog such interactions such as Joanne Cantor who has provided documentation for a theory upon which I have long expounded: that people from my generation, due to Misters King and Spielberg, have a nervous detachment and concern when in the presence of clowns. But that is not all. Due to the aforementioned Mister Spielberg we have trouble swimming in the ocean, and thanks to Mister Craven we have a finely tuned fear of sleep. The catalog which Cantor cycled through might also include a heightened fear of the woods, thanks to the brains behind The Blair Witch Project . Between 1997 and 2000 Cantor received and read more than 500 papers from her students detailing an experience (either by them or a friend) of being frightened or scared by some experience viewing the media. Ninety-one percent of her students described such a reaction coming from viewing a film or movie. Forty-six percent of these students claimed that the experience altered their bedtime habits during the week after viewership. Additionally 75 percent reported induced anxiety within real life situations ‘similar’ to the events depicted within the movie, and one-third of her students reported that this anxiety could possibly be experienced if placed in a similar experience at that time. These experiences then do not cease once one regains the sanity of distance. Cantor reflected that “even though we know that that specific killer never lived and that those murders never took place, the story vividly reminds us of real threats that… do exist” (Cantor, 209).

The Cinema stood and continues to act as an intriguing and interesting fixture in an American life. On the one hand has stood simply as a place which offers a place for society to gather and some socialization to occur (a place for entertainment and nothing more). On the other hand the ubiquity of the media and profound worries about this presence has led many to understand if and when the media may be influencing as it entertains. For this reason this study was designed to discern if there was critical mass to the arguments in play.

Chapter Three: To Whom Should We Go?

All of the thinking in the previous chapter brings us back to the questions germane to this paper and study. In the first line of thinking we must ask questions such as: how do the real people who populate our churches and cinemas see their experiences? Do they consider themselves simply observers or participants? Along the other vein we must ask if their perceptions are valid, that is actually lived out. In order to find answers to these questions and more, this study sought to do three things: to discuss habits and opinions among moviegoers seeking to find to what extent the experience was active; to provide some space for reflection asking how much critical skills came into play; and to observe moviegoers at the cinema asking how they lived out to the experience of moviegoing.

A Life Together: The VCD Focus Group

For this study a look at the beliefs and actions of a group of individuals involved in a Carol Stream-located Vineyard Christian Fellowship provides the discussion narrative. This body of churches coalesced in the 1980s as six or eight Californian churches joined together in an attempt to bridge the gap between the Evangelical and Charismatic communities. This group of churches sought to marry the Evangelical concern for a biblically-based morality with a desire to allow the Holy Spirit to live, and move and have its way amongst their lives and services. All of this meant that each of the members of the group brought a more-or-less similar set of assumptions to the table in our discussion. Each of these people had sought, and was continuing to discern the appropriate ways to combine a more conservatively Bible-based morality, with an appreciation of the Spirit’s ongoing work in the life of the world in order to maintain a culturally current and culturally relevant faith. These assumptions would create a group of people committed both to the traditional orthodoxy of Christianity, and the values of their American home. In this way this group represented a cross-section of a people trying to interact and maintain just such a discussion.

The Discussion.

Of all the work which went into this paper, this group had the most tenuous and inauspicious of beginnings. First, the Friday picked for the event turned into one of those Chicago winter days. I awoke to several inches of snow on the ground, and more coming down every minute. By mid-afternoon when I attempted to leave my apartment to pick up some supplies for the event, I found myself and others slipping and sliding all over the city of Wheaton. This was on top of concerns arising from the previous night’s call informing me that the pastor of the church attended by my participants had unexpectedly resigned that day. Members of the church now had more important concerns than whether or not moviegoing posed any threat. Worries that no one would come quickly moved from the back of my mind to the forefront; worries not calmed until the first participant arrived, stomped snow from off their boots, and shivered as they entered the warmth of my apartment.

If it was cold outside, that chill did not affect the warmth of discussion. The night was lively and boisterous. On the transcript of the meeting, 22 incidents of group laughter are recorded. Warm kidding of others experiences and mock horror at likes and dislikes filled the air. This was a close-knit group finding itself drawn together by this discussion. That being said, there was both agreement and disagreement expressed not only on the level of opinion, but of experience and influence as well.

The Participants.

This was a relatively mixed group. The group of ten participants included five men, two children, and three women. The group reflected the ethnic make-up of the surrounding county as it was made up of eight white Chicagoans, an African-American female, and one male born and raised in Scotland.

A Critic’s Eye View: Brett McCracken Interview

In a recent article found in Relevant Magazine, Brett McCracken argued that in today’s society there is a great need for people who act as post-filters. A post-filter was defined as someone who goes out into the world and collects the bad material and then compiles it for access by others. This role of the post-filter was argued to be an important work of the culturally savy. As a film critic, McCracken wrote that “I’d much rather be a cultural advisor (helping like-minded friends and acquaintances…) than a high-minded gatekeeper (where elitist opinions are imposed on the masses). There are unlimited tastes and opinions out there, and any claim of greatness of anything is absurd…. In Cyberspace there are Yes Men for everything. The critc’s job is to be the Yes Man for the best” (McCracken, Revelent, 42). As every group needs a Yes Man, McCraken was sought to be one for this group.

The Participant.

As an alum of Wheaton College and a current contributor to the Carol Stream based publication Christianity Today (CT), Brett McCracken has had to deal head-on with many of the concerns and questions presented by this paper: first as a Christian attempting to live out his faith, and second as a professional writer covering the media. Through his work on his website, his studies as a graduate student, and his work with CT, McCracken represents someone who has grappled with the impact of movies and moviegoing both in his own life, and the lives of countless readers. For this project his opinion was sought as both that of the media professional and ‘thinking’ Christian.

The Evaluation.

In addition to the desire to provide a chance for dialogue amidst a group of lay people attempting to maintain balance, this study sought also to look into the views and habits of those being paid and / or feeling called to discuss film on a vocational level. Would more exposure and the need for exercising critical disciplines in viewership impact that person’s attitudes and insights? Were there any differences in viewpoint between the lay observer and paid professional? For these reasons and more this study sought out and asked a professional critic the same questions as had been asked of the focus group in order to validate and compare to the observations of that group. The interview that followed was a fascinating time in which the critic was asked to respond to the same questions as the group, as well as provide his take on some of the answers of the group itself.

A Lost Weekend: Onsite Observations

The last portion of this study was designed to take into account the expressed views of both the focus group and critical interview, and attend several movie showings to observe the real world practices of movie attendance. Care was sought to analyze the patterns of behavior observed and compare it with the expressed attitudes of the previous interviews.

An Overview of the Randall 16

The Randall 16 movie theater is located in a business district in Batavia , Ill. The theater is just off a major intersection between a four-lane North-South highway, and a two-lane East-West highway. There are three or four separate strip malls within a block of the intersection containing such shops as Old Navy, and Target. The theater itself sat as a stand-alone complex amongst all the malls and restaurants.  There are the 16 screens plus an IMAX theater on location.

The Lobby and Its Denizens. On this particular Friday night I arrived in a quarter-full parking lot around 5:45 pm. The air was cold with that prominent Chicago wind occasionally blowing, as I sat in my car another customer approached the car beside me stomping his feet as his companion entered the driver side, he murmured, “hurry up, it’s cold.” All that being said the sun was shining bright in the sky illuminating and warming the lobby through the picture windows running across the front between two sets of doors. A single cashier glared into the sun and asked for my preference and money.

After paying my money I sat down on a bench running across the window, and waited for my movie. To my left sat a couple and to my right sat a group of high school age boys. As time passed more cashiers joined the game, and the lobby began to fill up with groups of students. Later one girl (presumably a college student) would turn to her friends and sniff, “I forget this was where all the junior high kids hung out.” The audience was not as young as she implied, twenty-something couples and families dotted the crowd. Despite some difference in age, the audience was remarkably homogenous in race (white), and economic group (upper middle class). The outfit of choice seemed to be jeans and North Face jacket or fleece.

I soon learned that one way to spot the regulars was from the plastic buckets they carried. It seems that as an incentive for return visitors one can purchase said bucket for about $10, and receive free refills for a couple of months afterwards. Otherwise it was several dollars too much for single paper containers of the buttery favorite of moviegoers everywhere. Another way in which the theater is connecting with the public seems to be as a multi-use facility. In fact a local church uses several of the theaters for their services on Sunday mornings.

The Movie. After spending roughly one and a half hours in the lobby, we approached the concessions counter, stood in a line five deep at each register and Norm, who came with me, ordered the all important popcorn and soft drink. We then walked into a three-quarters full auditorium which would fill up as we waited the previews. Roughly 15 minutes of previews would unspool before our movie, Stop-Loss would come on. There was a little conversation during these, but mostly dried up throughout the film. Towards the end of the film we did have an ever present cell phone ring, and to the dismay of many in the audience, the owner pulled it out, and said, “Hello, yeah I’m at a movie,” before holding a several minute conversation.

The film itself is an interesting case. The Kimberly Pierce directed film was another Iraq War flick. This film in particular followed a group of returning vets, who are called back to duty. The film had moments of levity and provoked out-loud laughter on a couple of occasions, although it was a nervous laughter. The film for the most part was slow and thoughtful eliciting tears from the woman to my right at one particularly ‘moving’ point.

Afterwards. The reported financial struggles of the film did not register on this night, at least while in the full auditorium, but as the somber audience moved out into the light of the hallway one person was heard remarking, “I told you we should have seen 21.” This would be an on-going problem for the ill-marketed film. In fact the marketing proved so bad that one of the actors launched his own commercial for the film. Norm did not like it, and apparently neither did much of the audience here or elsewhere.

An Overview of Hollywood Blvd

On Saturday evening around 5:30 I pulled into the back entrance of a strip mall in Woodsridge, Ill. I had missed the turnoff, I believe to faulty wording on the theater’s street sign, but Nathan who was with me implied I was just not paying close enough attention to detail (a mistake hopefully not repeated in this paper). This theater is set in the crook of a strip mall along 75th Street. To be honest I was excited to visit the theater because it reminded me of an old theater in Homewood, Ala. that I never got to visit as a child because they served beer. Alas, upon reaching drinking age the theater had closed. Now was my chance, as this theater also served beer, and kept a well-stocked bar on the right side of the lobby. Here the wheat and germ brew has replaced popcorn as the must have concession item.

The Lobby and Its Denizens. After procuring two tickets to see 21, we sat in several movie style seats occupying the far wall of the lobby. The deal with this theater was that each auditorium doubles as theater and restaurant. The auditoriums are filled all at once, and orders are taken before the previews start. Therefore everyone cued up in the lobby and waited their turn. No one seemed disturbed to wait in the every thickening crowd. Groups of people gathered together, beer in hand, to discuss the week gone by and other interesting tidbits. The crowd here was decidedly more mixed in race but also seemed to be decidedly middle class in make-up. Here baseball jerseys and ball caps complemented leather jackets and jeans (the White Sox seemed the most represented ball club, sorry Cubbie fans).

The Movie. At 6:40 Nathan and I shared a fourtop with a married couple (she was in her last trimester of a pregnancy), and exchanged some conversation about children. Soon our waiter approached and took our orders. I debated between ‘The Sandwich called Wanda’ (fish of course), and ‘The Deliverance’ (a blackened chicken sandwich). As I ordered ‘The Deliverance’ and Nathan joked about my needing it because of the spicy Cajun seasoning and pepperjack cheese, the previews began. The talking continued, as did the ordering. As the movie started our food arrived, and I finished my beverage switching to a glass of water (I was driving). Laughter and buzzing conversation percolated the air throughout the movie. It was not at all distracting and very enjoyable. As the lights came back up, happy folk filled the hallway.

Afterwards. Our previous night’s critic had been right. The movie was a fun-filled Hollywood romp, and it was easy to see how the film would go on to dominate the box office for March. The hallways were filled with people waiting for others, but as it was somewhat crowded most exited quickly.

Chapter Four: What Would the Moviegoers Say?

A review and analysis of the events observed and recorded from this paper will now be split into three different categories for analysis. First we will look at the relational and social aspects of the movies. It will be argued that the American cinema has provided the nation with a vocabulary from which they can make sense of their experiences and relate those experiences to others. It will be argued that the shared emotional experiences of cinema act as a glue to cement one’s relational standing in a community of people. Second we will look at the hopes and dreams that cinema can inspire in its viewers. Last, we will look at some the fears about cinema and the very real concerns that audience members brought into the experience.

Social Aspects of Cinema

It was entirely unplanned occurrence but every person who attended the focus group fell into the category of users of modern cinema. Despite efforts to recruit several people who claimed not to go the movies into the group, everyone there had a great familiarity with the cinema. Nevertheless the participants of the group, and Brett each vocalized and showed how cinema had worked as a social medium in their lives.

A Lingua Franca.

One member of the focus group quickly took the task of ‘class clown’ upon himself and throughout the interview would throw out witty comments. On several occasions he quoted lines from movies others in the group were talking about. I watched and waited for him to stumble upon an obscure reference which would not connect with his audience. On almost every occasion the line or oblique comment was met with knowing laughter. For our little group anyway, film lines represented a vocabulary by which the various members could relate. In fact the night was marked with this relational banter going on between the participants as the topic of movies became a conversational runway by which they might discuss their lives. There was so much laughter, that at times the voice of person speaking became muddled on the audio tape. Here is perhaps my favorite exchange (which occurred between one of the married men and a single woman from the group) in which we were discussing the aspect of combining trips:

Catrina: Yes, usually eating and then a movie.

Nathan: I think that is more of a woman thing. I never do that.

Catrina: What? It’s called a date, you know. You take your wife to a movie and then you go to dinner. You’re ten years into your marriage and you still need a little courtship.

Nathan: Well, we’ve done that, but I mean were talking about going out to dinner and then going to a movie or going shopping.

Catrina: Either one. You know.

A Social Connection Piece.

Scanning over the transcript one finds again and again that various members of the group are connecting on an emotional level both with themselves as they tell their stories of movie experiences, and with each other as they listened to the other’s accounts. In this way the experience of cinema has provided a way for people from different backgrounds to share their ‘similar’ and ‘dissimilar’ pasts.

Connecting By a Shared Experience. Here is an account of the group discussing the movie The Notebook:

Nathan: If you ever want to feel like your emotional guts are being ripped out of you, just watch The Notebook.

Catrina: [gasping] oooohhhhhh! Yeah. No. No. I own it but I only watched it like three times. I could not handle it.

Linda: I just was thinking about that movie.

Catrina: I love The Notebook.

Nathan: It’s an incredible movie but….

Catrina: …. It rips your guts out.

Linda: That’s what I was thinking about when you were talking.

Nathan: It just makes you hurt. I mean it makes you feel for anyone who would have to go through sometime even mildly in the same league. The dementia. The alzheimers.

Catrina: My grandfather actually, that is another reason that movie hurts for me, he did what that man did. He lived with my grandmother at the nursing home until she died and she had dementia. It was just so, so amazing to see that kind of love between two people because he was perfectly healthy, but he never complained. I related to it so much.

Linda: That came out about the time my dad was in a nursing home. That was why it touched me so. My grandmother was his primary caretaker for him. She was just, and he had in-‘n’-out dementia, It was a beautiful thing.

There are perhaps other reasons to explain the relational dimension of the evening. This was a group of people from a small, tight-knit community who spend a lot of time together. More importantly the group just experienced a heart-wrenching week as the pastor of their church had resigned. Even as people entered and leaved showing the strain of the past week, they became enlivened and joyful even in discussing the worst aspects of cinema.

This fact seems to confirm the suspicion that movies really can draw people together. In the same way that the movie I viewed at Randall 16 has enabled me to have several discussions about the Iraq War seen that night, movies can and have provided a shorthand by which we can share experiences with one another.

Connecting Through the Shared Experience. Brett McCracken would agree with this assessment of the cinema’s relational nature. McCracken draws this comparison between the experience of ‘going to the movies’ and staying home to watch something on TV:

“In terms of audience I think that type of movie rubs off on people. I have been in audiences where people cried and totally engrossed or scared and this is a communal activity. And that is an important thing about cinema as opposed to TV. Whereas TV is an individual act, the cinema is where you are watching something together: having this emotionally heightened experience with other people. That is an important part.”

For McCracken, even as a reviewer, the experience of watching a film in the midst of others, even those one may not know, can heighten and improve the experience. McCracken also related the story of a trip gone bad; in which he and several friends attended The Hours, only to have at least one of the group horrified that anyone could like the experience. Regardless of whether the movie was liked or not, it is important to note as McCracken did that the movie “had a nihilistic world view that we were debating for hours and hours into that night after seeing.” The movie became a referendum on worldview and provided an opportunity for discussion and disagreement. Both of which are important to growing any relationship between friends.

This idea seems to fit many of my own experiences with cinema. More than once I have watched a movie with others and felt it was the best thing ever only to be very disappointed when viewing the movie alone in my own home. The Edge with Alec Baldwin and Sean Connery being a perfect example. It was great at midnight at the dollar theater with a group of over-caffeinated friends, but has only stunk upon repeated viewings.

Connecting in a Shared Social Location. The first 15 minutes sitting in the lobby of the Randall 16 confirmed this relational aspect. During this time I had four high school age guys sitting to my left. They were chattering and every so often they would repeat the same cuss word with varying degrees of emphasis on it. It was not long before I was able to break the code for this communication. The longer and more emphatic the rendering of this profanity became the better looking the female who had just walked by was judged as being. After several long minutes of this rating, one of the guys looked over to the others and remarked, “You know we really need to get a hobby.” The other without ever breaking his glaze at one particularly sculpted specimen remarked, “No, dude, this hobby is just fine.”

A simple counting of the people observed in the trips to the Randall 16 and Hollywood Blvd seem to buttress this idea. In an hour watching the lobby at the Randall 16, we counted as 75 groups of people came to the counter. In addition to this we counted that eight different families came walking up to the ticket counter. In this time we only saw five or six individuals walk in, buy tickets, and proceed alone into the theater. At Hollywood Blvd the numbers were a little more even, but still weighted to groups of people. We counted 26 individuals, 19 families, and almost 90 groups come through the lobby in the time we spent observing. As mentioned there were more individuals; however, I believe that the difference can be attributed to the fact that Hollywood Blvd acts as a diner and theater and so might be more comforting for an individual to attend.

Another important factor playing into this less-than-rigorous tally was that we were there on a Friday and Saturday night which are prime nights for social outing. A visit during a weekday may reveal more individuals looking to blow a few hours in between responsibilities; that question is definitely something worth exploring. Regardless the cinema experience at least from the vantage point of the observation included in this project argued for the cinema as a haven of social interaction, as well as a way of cementing friendships.

Draws to the  Cinema

In discussing experiences of feeling fear at the cinema, McCracken stated that the experience of watching a good horror or thriller “affects you in the moment, for sure, it affects you almost metaphysically. I can remember shaking or my palms sweating… that is a positive experience I enjoy.” It is not a feeling shared by all. One participant of the focus group relayed his experience watching the movie Arachnophobia. “There was one particular scene where spiders came down off the ceiling and it mirrored an experience that I had had as a child. It left me shaking so bad that I could not drive, which was very aggravating to the cute, young lady I went with because we had to sit there for two hours before I could drive home.” Hollywood can often make good on its promise to thrill and chill. Sometimes even too well.

‘To Escape My Kids.’ One respondent in the focus group responded to the question why do you attend movies by emphatically stating that he did so “to get away from my kids.” McCracken answered the same question by stating that “You go to a certain type of movie to laugh, to certain type to cry, a certain type to be thrilled or to be terrified. I think movies serve as an emotional fulfillment that people seek that they are not getting in other ways. And they seek the impact of these emotional experiences without the baggage that comes with it in real life.” The movie experience enabled the audience to escape from the humdrum of their daily routines or simply just their kids. It was a way to do so without negative consequences. In the focus group one such member observed that he did not want to go to a movie that was too realistic for this very reason. This statement led to following exchange:

John: I will pick based on humor level or action level. And well if it’s too realistic to life I will not go see it, because to me I want to get away from some of the realities of life. For example the Vietnam war movies, what do you call them, Full Metal Jacket, no too realistic. It happened, I don’t want to live through it.

Casey: Really, I mean if you, like, see a movie that’s basically like real life then I mean, you could just watch that yourself.

Nathan: You could just go to Vietnam.

Casey: That’s what I mean.

LaShawn: Or just go to Iraq.

Casey: Or go to Japan or something. I mean [rather than] watch some Japanese flick.

The movies provided for this members of the audience a chance to get away from the pressures and stresses of daily life.

‘That Was so Inspiring to Me.’ In what would then seem a contradiction, every member of the group could go on to answer a question about inspiration in cinema in glowing terms. McCracken stated that while he had never “gone out and joined some movement to change…. I think the way I approach certain issues probably has a lot to do with the movies I have seen.” In answer to a previous question he argued that “every movie sort of affect you long-term just like any book or other accumulated cultural experience. We are the sum of our influences and experiences, so in that way, every film I have seen has subtly affected me.”

Members of the focus group felt much the same. One participant described the impact of the movie Afterlife in this way:

I did change a viewpoint after I saw Afterlife. This started me getting into Japanese things, because now I am a huge Anime fan. At the time I was not interested in Japanese culture per se. I just liked anime because it was. One day I went to the Music Box downtown and they were playing Afterlife and I decided to go in and take a look at it. The way it was shot and the way the people talked really struck me. This was the first movie that I saw that you know was a different culture and that opened up a whole new culture. That was when I started learning about the Asian culture and getting into it. I think it affects me today. I am learning Japanese so that I can better understand anime. It has been really fruitful.

Others in the group felt similarly inspired. One member of the group discussed how the movie Freedom Writers inspired her:

it just kinda confirmed for me, being in the field that I am in-teaching, that one person, one teacher, even though she was not from the same background as those kids or knew anything about what they had experienced in their lives, she really made a huge impact. Not only on them personally, but on their learning. It confirmed for me that it was something that can be done. You can reach even the kids that seem unreachable in the classroom. They don’t want to be there. They don’t want to learn anything. They don’t want to be there because their personal life is so more serious. So, that was inspiring to me.

In both these incidents the movie experience performed a task McCracken referred to as having a movie “call you out.” This appeared to happen regardless of prior knowledge of the movie. In the first incident, the knowledge exchanged is of an a posteri nature. The participant had no prior experience with the film, yet felt inspired to get to know more about the movie’s world after the viewing. In the second experience the participant arrived at an intense connection which benefited from an a priori connection to the film.

Concerns for  Cinema

This ability of cinema to resonate with a priori knowledge was widely believed. However the ability of Hollywood to work in an a posteri fashion has been up for debate. In fact one of the most frustrating aspects of the project had been trying to tease out any impact of Hollywood on the participants. Though widely able to talk about how Hollywood might correspond to their beliefs, most of the people involved balked at describing how Hollywood might have impacted them in other areas.

Concerns over Influence

Despite the ability or willingness to put one’s finger on the superficial changes wrought by experience with the cinema, almost everyone expressed reservations about Hollywood’s relation to society. One participant responded to a question about this relationship by worrying that:

Well, you look at all the talk shows that are out there. What are those shows called about the A-list celebrities? There is so much focus on them and the magazines that are about them. “oh so-and-so is pregnant and so-and-so is married…” Its like “so what?” We are so influenced by them that people want to look them and act like them. Studies have been like TV wasn’t there and then gets introduced and next thing you know then these women and the then the number of these anorexic, both men and women, goes up. So I think Hollywood has a huge influence.

McCracken, himself, expressed it in a little more nuanced way by stating that:

Just the fact that Hollywood is so condensed and is such a small amount of people but a media that is so proliferated and is over the world: I think that just that fact of a small number of people influencing the large number of media consumers, just that fact alone means that Hollywood as a locus of power has a lot of influence on people and their opinions and understandings of the world. And also I think that the fact that so many people who consume media or go to these movies have not had these experiences and have not seen these places that are on screen (they have no context or any sort of reference for the things they are seeing on a wall).

However one viewed the actions of Hollywood in terms of individual life, every participant believed that Hollywood can and does present a social influence. To be fair each also emphasized that in some ways Hollywood was just as impacted. One such respondent stated that while he believes Hollywood stood as an influencer he could also believe “that society really influences it [Hollywood], because most of the movies that are out there that really get a chance to be written came out of a book that was already a best seller, or people have already grabbed the story or concept. And Hollywood is going to, like someone said, produce what sells.”

Concerns Over Content and Appropriateness.

No where are the reservations more felt than in the experience of violence and sex in the movies. Everyone in the group agreed that Hollywood often used violence and sex in ways that degraded its participants and observers. Sometimes they felt the incident was designed simply to shock and wake up any sleepy patrons. One participant voiced his concern by expressing his disgust when “at a director that is just going out of his way to be glory.” At its worst, though, McCracken stated that the use of such tools was done so as to ensure larger audiences. He stated that “It’s a very easy to get an audience if you can advertise such-and-such actress is in a sex scene or whatever.”

That is not to say, as one participant did, that this was a group of people stuck in some 1950s conservatism. All who participated in this project expressed beliefs, though often very nuanced, that there were ways to address the topics in less degrading ways. One of the best discussions is found in the following exchange between several group participants about the use of sex in cinema:

LaShawn: I was trying to think if there ever was a movie that I saw. I’ve read books; there were a couple of books where the sex scenes were of a redemptive quality and I do not think these books could ever be made into movies. They were fantasy.

Me: How could sex be redemptive? [some tittering laughter]

Norm [laughing]: I don’t know there was those kind of movies….

LaShawn: There’s a series of books I read called the Ishmael (sp?) Chronicles that tells the story about a woman and her bodyguard. They wind up traveling to rescue a prince who has been captured by an incredibly masochistic dude, somewhere in another country. She feels that she is able to get this guy, this kid, out because she is a courtesan and is used to these sorts of things. She and the bodyguard are in love with one another. And the bodyguard would say that because I love I will follow you outside this country. They do and face all sorts of horrible, horrible, horrible things that happen to them. But they finally come out and at the end, she is trying to get over that, and the bodyguard comes up and starts making love to her. And after all they have been through there is a redemptive quality to it. It says all this happened to you, but I still love you, let me heal you. And that was the most powerful scene. I was like, ‘Wow, that is how I really cool.’

Nathan: Here’s the question then, if that was made into a movie would that have to be a graphic lovemaking scene?

LaShawn: I think that after considering what happened, it is pretty necessary. I think, because it shows (I do not know fore sure, I am not a movie scriptwriter, I am simply a writer), but I think there is a time where sex could be [redemptive], if done be done rightly.

In this concern for sex and violence, it is important to note that there was much disagreement on the particulars of the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ uses. In addition to the above discussion, the movies of Mel Gibson factored heavily. Both his Oscar-nominated Braveheart, and the evangelically-loved The Passion of the Christ came in for much debate as to the levels of violence and sensuality shown. The only violent movie which seemed to get a widely accepted pass was Steven Speilberg’s Oscar nominated Saving Private Ryan, a movie which set off a national debate about appropriateness when one of the networks announced it would be showing it uncut several years ago.

Chapter Five: What Does It All Mean?

In the theaters, you might see barbarians, dirty savages, chauffeurs and valets, that look like you. Never stop wanting to be the hero, even as the background music sends you home. If you hum the tunes often enough you might be able to change your face.

-Prabhakar Kudva, “How to Watch a Movie.”

Why would we choose to scare ourselves away from such enjoyments as clowns, lake-front camps, and such as can be found in the Cantor story mentioned earlier? Or why would participants in the survey repeatedly mention ‘negative’ markers for movies; yet, continue to watch them over and again as one participant reported during with the movie Sideways? The passivity and activity of this emotional subtext to the cinema is explored in some detail in the work of Luminet et al in “Social Sharing of Emotion.” In three different variations these researchers demonstrated that those people who have strong emotional reactions are more likely to seek out social interaction and are more prone to discuss how both the content of the experience and how that made them feel. Amongst the participants of this study there was revealed a strong sense of this sharing. The need and desire to share in emotions may represent the reasons for the cinema’s ubiquity in America. It is hoped that this study provides some new insights into the power and need for this sharing.

In his book The Death of Christian Britain, Callum Brown talks about how in a society there are always certain forms which give structure to the ways society talks. Brown, somewhat persuasively argues that Christendom in Britain remained dominant until the 1960s when quite literally sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll abolished the last vestiges of the Church’s monopolistic control of the British world. The sexual and cultural revolution of the 1960s provided these women an escape from the church. Brown quotes Jean-Francois Lyotard who stated that, “the narrative fuction [presumably of Christianity] is losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goals” (Brown, 176). Meanwhile, Brown writes that “the pop record [whose rise he argued was ‘signified’ by the release of ‘Love Me Do’], the pop magazine, radical fashion (including the mini-skirt), pop art and recreational drug-use combined to create an integrated cultural system which swept the young people of Britain” (Brown, 178). In this sense we have attempted to show how the cinema is becoming more and more a discursive form in the American experience. In this sense the cinema seems to show itself as discourse in two ways: as a bisociation and as a prophet.

Discussing Cinema: Bisociative Discourse.

A bisociation (see definition pg 1) works as a fairly good example of what goes on in cinema. Going back to the beginning of the paper then let us return to the ideas of passive spillover and active decoding. A repeated question from both the focus group and interview asked ‘if the person had ever been influenced by Hollywood to influence a change in appearance or habit.’ Silence met the question in both cases. Nervously one of the group participants slyly dodged the question by saying, “Would you admit it if you did?” This was perhaps the most honest answer to the question. Yet sitting in the lobby of both theaters one is confronted by people strolling in dressed in fashions made famous by Hollywood. From the lady standing in front of me in the line for concessions at Randall 16, whose outfit was a dead ringer for Julia Robert’s look in Pretty Woman, to the scores of young fashionably dressed ‘emo’ kids pouring the doors behind us, each of whom could stand in as extras in the next MTV movie, the impact of Hollywood on fashion would seem to be oblivious. No one wants to admit that they have been influenced by someone or something else. Or perhaps this is in fact a perfect example of passive spillover? McCraken’s interview would support this finding as he stated that he was sure that he had been influenced but could not verbalize how.

In his work on influence, Andrew Tudor states that most often the communication relationship has been described as such (24):

Chart 5.1

Communicator Medium                                           Receiver

Tudor, himself, was skeptical about the simplicity of this design. This study hopefully has helped paint how this might be a tad too simplistic. A fuller and more detailed discussion of the relationship may be shown as such (chart modified from Tudor chart 2.2 on 25):

Chart 5.2

 

In this chart we see the complicated interplay of the communicator, the receiver, and the medium. In this diagram there is blackflow of ideas and thoughts from both personal and social sources. This matches what we found from our sources. For example one of our participants stated that “movies come from people who are a part of a society.” Another added that “they [movies] are based on what is going on around us whether it be war or health care or whatever it is.” McCracken added that “I think that of the films that I love, they do reflect my experience and that is why I love them. Hollywood as a whole- well, 80 percent of what Hollywood puts out does not reflect who I am or my value systems or my worldview.” In the experience of the movie a wide range of attributes, opinions, and realities are butting heads, and it is often from that tension that new insights and ideas might come into being. Sometimes this is a visible change, that can be perceptible to the holder, but I would argue that this study shows that more often it is not so visible and immediate but is as McCracken states the cause of an “accumulated cultural experience.”

Discussing Cinema: Prophetic Discourse

In his defense of cinema as a needed artform Anthony Schillachi agrees. He is not so convincing as when he writes that:

“in reality, the medium so shapes and transforms the content that the latter is transformed and radically altered…. It is the role of film art to prevent our thinking that nothing has changed. The sign of this change is the new kind of cinema which is appearing on our motion picture screens” (13).

The ability of entertainment to reach past the defenses of its crowd and teach something in the process has long been known. In this section, we will look at some theoretical and theological ramifications of the cinema. Many have attributed this style to that Christ, our Lord. What were the parables; if not a rhetorical time bomb designed to strike past the defenses and teach profound messages, many have asked.  The early church practice of interpretative analogy practiced by Origen and others spoke to their answer to this question. As one of my old Samford professors has long argued, I have come to believe that the parables acted (and act now) as little time bombs which sneak in past the defenses and explode when one is least expecting it.

Movies can and do act in this same capacity. Schillachi described this as the role of the prophet. Both McCracken and my focus group agreed with this very important theme. One respondent stated that “I think of prophecy as revelation. God reveals, in an inner expression, manifests himself in our midst through the artist’s expression.” In this way the movie can come alongside the viewer and led them into a fuller and richer understanding of God, themselves, or others. In this way the cinema can stand in partnership with and not in opposition to the local church building as a place of instruction and learning.

Not only can cinema be crafted to show opposition to society, it can also be used in opposition to society. A depiction of the complex interplay between can be seen in the work of John Fisk and Robert Dawson which might attempt an answer. As Cantor described the way in which the media can cause conscious and unconscious changes in behavior, Fisk and Dawson seek to show how such viewership can reflect the active and passive feelings and needs within us. First one must define some terms, Fisk and Dawson want to describe the process they term ‘audiencing’ meaning the way in which audience selections work to produce meanings and pleasures (297). In their study they spent time in a homeless shelter and on the streets with the men from this shelter. For the men one of the favorite pastimes was of course watching movies. Overwhelmingly these men seemed to prefer the hard-R violent fare of Die Hard, Robocop, and other ‘80s action popcorn flicks. Yet these men did not watch the film either as intended by the directors, or by the same measure as most of the expected audience. In fact these men sided with the terrorists of Die Hard against the evil corporation  and then sided with the film’s lone protagonist against these same group (and only as an individual). When John McClain switches to working with the police, the men lost interest, and when McClain worked to save his wife they turned it off. Fisk and Dawson point to another study as revealing similar unintended viewings. They quote the study of Hodge and Tripp (1986) which observed that when aboriginals viewed Westerns, finding that they took great pleasure in the triumphs of the Indians (Fisk and Dawson, 304). They find an unexpected similarity in a perplexed comment by the shelter manager that the Native American inhabitants would often put in a Western watch the first act in which the Indians are triumphant in battle, and promptly turn the video off missing the second act where the cowboys raise up from the dust victorious (Fisk and Dawson, 304). Fisk and Dawson reflect on their study noting that these men’s “taste for symbolic violence was significantly associated with their resentment toward and alienation from the society that systematically denied them access” (303).

Discussing Cinema: Questions and Answers

The concern and desire to find redemption and redemptive moments in cinema was a pronounced theme of the discussions. In expressing her disapproval of the movie Requiem for a Dream, one participant remarked that “There was no redemption. It just kept getting more and more depressing, and when you thought it couldn’t get anymore depressing it does.” What looked good and seemed promising in the heady days of post-Vatican II Notre Dame, and seems important to scholars such as Callum Brown [4] does not sit so well with Thomas Kennedy. Kennedy wants to agree, he really does. He fought for free speech while an undergraduate and yet cannot help but feel victim of a bait and switch as a parent. In his tremendously powerful and moving eulogy for lost innocence, he works himself into an outrage over the emotional subtext of that cultural icon Lolita and the more current run of films known as ‘torture porn.’  He moans, “viewing just the few scenes shown… had done some damage to my soul which… still exists. Those scenes had created in me a place of ugliness beyond hope, a kind of wound that will always be there and begins to bleed again whenever their reflections find their way back into my consciousness.” Moving along he asks an important series of questions about film:

“Why do we salute its ‘greatness?’ Why? Are we simply caught up in a time that worships ugliness, where delight is a film hero shoving an enormous pistol in someone’s face, where we root for the evil genius cannibal? Do we suddenly see virtue in savagery?…. Perhaps it is less important to resolve the question of Lolita then…to examine more exactingly who we are and why we choose to embrace certain artifacts…. We must be free to explore our minds and hearts. But first we must also be critical. In a world where sexual instincts are being beaten lifeless by an almost constant onslaught of commercial images, we must be critical” (9).

In this sense the concerns of the focus group, McCracken, and others read about stood as a testament to a long standing concern that Hollywood acted not so much as the salt of earth preserving the good of society, but as a salt which was drawing as the good just as salt can draw out the water in a product. In his influential book titled Hollywood Versus America, Micheal Medved launches just such an argument. The argument was also used in my online discussion with Heal the Land. This stands as an important insight that cannot be blandly passed over.

If the response and relationship between movies and the audience as complicated as here argued, then we should not blithely enter into it. Let us continue to ask these questions and not shrink from the answers. It is hoped that this paper has revealed that some of public at least those represented in this study hold a two-pronged relationship with the mass media, specifically that of the movies. There is give-and-take, influence given and inspiration received. It may not always be with the best formulations of academic speak, but there is real dialogue occurring as the public enters and exits the theater. There is dialogue and discussion that occurs well after the experience which acts as a social lubricant and glue. For these reasons and more we can give thanks for cinema, even as we worry about the content of its productions, and the scope of influence it may or may not hold over us.

Post-Script: Project Limitations and the Need for Further Findings

In this profound merger of “race, space, and place” to quote Allen’s work, America found a prominent social symbol. Yet as has been argued within the academic disciplines which care about such things, very little is actually known about how this audience “position themselves before the screen” (Katz, 9). Hopefully this paper represents then an attempt to further the dialogue and continue to much needed discussion of the place of the cinema and movie-going in the life of the American public. This paper has sought to add to the discussion in two ways: first, it has attempted to isolate and discern some of the hopes and fears, particularly those of the Christian audience; and second it has attempted to observe and record some of the lived-out relationships with the cinema.

The second of these has been done at several times and in several places and while it may illuminate the Chicagoland moviegoing experience, it may or may not be transferable to other cities and other states. Some of the experiences may represent universal human emotions and ideals, but any such unequivocal announcement of them would seem shallow. Repeated trips in varied places and locales seem necessary for further study. Comparison of locales across the country may yield interesting similarities and divergences. Some discussion with the moviegoers would also enlighten the discussion. In that sense this paper hopefully followed the model of others, and can be seen as a paper that can be easily duplicated in the future.

The first has, of course, become much more fashionable in the past several decades. As evangelicals have sought to emerge from their turn of the twentieth century hibernation and have sought rapprochement with their society, there have been many more attempts at presenting a theology of the cinema. Yet hardly anyone has really sought to provide overviews of the on-the-ground, lived-out theologies of the regular, every-other-week church attendee.

A particular fault of this paper and many like it is the lack of dissenting voices. Everyone interviewed and observed for this paper had one common preconception. They believed that it was OK to attend and view the show. They were concerned about the dangers of the cinema, but they kept coming back. One of the most interesting aspects of the discussion for this author was that all the participants detailed strong reactions particular movies and experiences. Yet despite the sometime horrifying intensity of experience they returned. Members of certain communities might liken this to a certain biblical verse talking about dogs returning to their vomit. Members of these communities need to be heard as well. This author believes that their choice to opt out of the cinema is far from being an uninformed and irrational dogmatism. They are doing so for good reasons, and have real fears that perhaps get lost in our attempts to be culturally current. More work can be and should be done here.

If Callum Brown is correct in the thesis discussed in the conclusion then there is much to discuss in terms of America. How has America weathered this sea-change, and what is the American church doing to avoid (if not already in the same boat) as its British brothers. How to triumph over the negative markers of cinema? How to affect the positive markers? These are questions which need answers (if they exist). There is still room to examine the intricacies of cinema’s relationship with the intellectual and spiritual lives of the millions of church members in America and the rest of the world. How should the Christian think about the image of a child stripping at a pageant as seen in Little Miss Sunshine? This is a research question that may still need some answers.

 


[1] In fact Callum Brown in his much discussed historical work The Death of Christian Britain argues persuasively that this very disintegration sounds as the dominant cause in the mortality of Christendom in Britain. He argues that contrary to secularization theory Christendom in Britain remained the dominant British discourse until the 1960s when elements of popular culture women a place outside of the British church. In this disapora of females from the church, Christendom in Britain died. For fuller argument see Callum Brown, The Death of Christian Britain, (London: Routledge, 2001).

[2] I do see much to commend in Katz’s categories. To show how helpful the categories could be here are my picks for representing these strategies for media viewership. An excellent example of a Closed and Referential reaction to film can be found in the short review TBN’s Ray Comfort wrote of the movie Little Miss Sunshine entitled “Good News for Pedophiles” available online at http://www.livingwaters.com/articles_ray_archive/articles_ray_06-12-11_pedophile.html. A hopefully equally superb response by this writer in the Open and Rhetorical stance and the converstion which developed from it can be found at http://healtheland.wordpress.com/2007/03/15/good-news-for-pedophiles/. An excellent example which I think fits the closed and rhetorical stance can be found in the archive of the journal First Things at http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=3815. A similarly outstanding open and referential stance can be seen in the work of Carol Iannone available in the same archive at http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=3821.

[3] List can be found on pg 190 of Kubey’s article. Sketched here briefly: 1) use of more than first intended; 2) unable to control overuse; 3) willingness to give up important activities to use; 4) heavy use with problems occurring from use or exacerbated by use; and 5) symptoms of withdrawal when go without.

[4] See previous footnote on the thesis of Callum Brown.

Appendix One: The Correspondence that Started It All

(Here is the opening exchange between myself and Healtheland)

 

My Post from 16 March 2007. As it always is, context is important. The movie you mentioned was Little Miss Sunshine. It was about a little girl in a success-focused family who tries out for a little beauty pageant. The movie is a satire designed to show how obsessed Americans and American culture is with success.

The family in the movie is a messed-up family. The father is a washed-up author and public speaker on the verge of bankrupty even though he has been touring the country with a self-help book on success. The mother is worn-out and tired. The brother (uncle) is struggling with homosexuality and his sliding status as a professor. He once was the top scholar in his field, but has not published anything recently and his chief rival has. The grandfather is struggling with his retirment, boredom, and a general feeling of uselessness. He has picked up a drug habit to pass away the time. The son has taken a vow of silence until he passed an important test, and while the watcher can appreciate his single-minded focus. It is obvious that this devotion is miss-placed and obsessive. The daughter participating in the pagent seems to be the one with the most going for her. To state the obvious this is a family in need of something to live for. This is a family experiencing a need for something to go right. This is a family very much like ones that I know (both inside and outside the church). The actual message of the movie is that all these hurt people cannot accomplish much apart from one another, but when they come together they find some solace and some comfort. They decide that they do not need success as the world calls it, but do need each other. The family makes this realization as they watch the phoniness and weirdness that is the Little Miss Sunshine pageant. The final scene in which the daughter does a mock striptease is meant to be awkward and is meant to cause the type of reaction. The underlying message is that what the daughter is doing is actually what the other contestants are doing. That is “whoring” herself for love and attention.

In this sense the picture of a beauty contestant stripping is a parable meant to spark disgust and reveal the hidden darkness of man’s heart. In this attempt I can appreciate what the director is attempting to do. I may not agree with all of his beliefs and onions. I may not approve of his cinematic choices, but to paint him as an out an out-and-out pervert. A pervert would make this movie for pleasure. This movie has been made as a statement against the pedophilia that would turn our children is hyper-sexualized objects of beauty. In a sense this type of movie is really just a souped up version of the “very-special” episodes that used to run on Growing Pains. When Kirk pretended to struggle with drugs, or Tracy or Jeremy with other issues. You guys were not advocating drug-use, or anything like that. In fact by showing the absurdity of such issues, they were actually attacking them. It is the same here.

You and a lot of your audience may be sick of those of us in the Christian world that turns a blind eye to some of Hollywood’s excess. However we also get tired of listening to our brothers and sisters that react within first truly listening to their opponents. For one thing many of the opponents those like you oppose are not so much the enemy as you think. Before you begin to think I am some heretic, let me assure you I am no more heretical than you. I believe in God and the grace imparted to us by the death of his Son on the cross. I believe in the Holy Spirit and His work in our lives to lead us into all truth. There are times for us to take on our culture and stand for truth.

I and others like me prefer to seek out where the Spirit is moving in the lives of people around me and encourage their growth in those areas. It is easy to attack someone for doing drugs, having sex outside of marriage, or cussing. It is far more difficult to stand in relationship with them, and encourage them to change. If one looks at the life of Christ you can see how Christ, himself, practiced this principle. Read the Gospels and you will see that His criticism and disdain was actually reserved to those “religious” people who talked a big game, but did not live it. Yet when he was around the sinner you do not hear him bemoaning sin, and calling sinners names. When the woman taken in adultery was brought before Him he simply said “go and sin no more.” He went to Zaccheaus’ house. He ate with the taxpayers. He danced. He drank. He lived and loved those far from Him. Yes he addressed sin, but he did it in love. He did as He called them to take their talents and use it for God. Paul is another example. When he stood up at the Aeropagus, he did not tell those there that their gods were weak and useless. He simply discussed the greatness of our God. One of our Church Fathers once remained his folk that all truth is God’s truth. I and many like me propose a Christianity that looks for the truths, graces, and workings of God in the lives of those around us; and then seek to encourage, support, and buttress those acts. Our hope is that as we hold up the truths we find, we will be able to bring the Truth into sharper focus, and so work in conjunction with our Father in leading them to Him. It is for that reason that I can applaud someone Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris for exposing a weakness in our culture, while at the same time continuing to stand for the Truth of the Gospel.

Healtheland’s Response from 16 March 2007. First off, I did not write the article; it was written by the evangelist Ray Comfort. Second, Yeshua HaMashiach did tell the woman caught in the act of adultery to sin no more, right? Which means that He called her sin SIN. If you want to support a SINNER, then the first thing that you need to do is to tell them that they are SINNING and they need to stop. Once they agree that they are SINNING and THAT THEY NEED TO STOP, THEN YOU HELP THEM. Now I guess there are some Christians who condemn people. As a general rule, I do not condemn people, I condemn their BEHAVIOR. I only condemn PEOPLE when they reject what the Bible says and claim that SIN is not SIN, and try to encourage other people in following their sin.

Now, I have not seen this movie, and will never see it. But based on what you have described to me of it, then it appears that you have fallen for Hollywood’s oldest trick. They take behavior that is sinful, and they contrive all of this emotional heartrending manipulation to justify sin. Now if you are exposed to this long enough, then you will A) become desensitized to it and B) take on their value system.

I mean, take “Cider House Rules.” A black woman gets impregnated by her father; that makes abortion OK. Take “Million Dollar Baby”, which depicts a woman’s life as so painful as to make suicide OK. The same with “Brokeback Mountain” and homosexuality. Don’t you realize that Hollywood has been doing stuff like this since “Birth Of A Nation”, which exploited white feelings about blacks to justify the Klu Klux Klan?

You say that you are a Christian, well then you need to consider Isaiah 5:20 – “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” The only good is God and that which comes out of it. Evil cannot produce good fruit, and nothing redeeming can come out of trash. You can take trash and wash it, paint it, arrange it in pretty shapes, but it is still trash.

The solution to this family’s plight was clear: TURN TO GOD! Washed up author and public speaker father, quit touring the nation promoting some New Age self – help book and start spreading the gospel. Worn out wife, ask God to renew your strength like the eagle(Psalm 103:5)! Brother/uncle, seek spiritual deliverance so those demons of lust, unnatural affection, jealousy, and homosexuality are cast out of you, and realize that if you honor God with your life and career, there will be no failure in serving Him! Grandfather, dedicate yourself to serving THE LORD and making sure that your granddaughter hears about God from YOU even if she doesn’t from her parents! Son, instead of taking a vow of silence, PRAY! Pray for God’s supernatural assistance in passing the test, and then speak the word of faith that it is done so that you can bring glory to His Name with your testimony!

And yes, this family needs something to live for. What they need to live for is GOD. They don’t need to go “whoring” for God’s love, they just need to ask Him for it! Now you know perfectly well that even if Hollywood had made a movie that depicts the problems of a family in dire straits being solved by their turning to God, it wouldn’t have gotten all that critical acclaim and it certainly wouldn’t have been shown on that airplane!

You say that you know people like this? Well then tell them that their only hope is Yeshua HaMashiach! They aren’t going to get that message from “worldly parables” whose message is that “hey, we may be screwed up, but those beauty pageant kids are REALLY screwed up!”, so they are going to have to get it from YOU! Please, stop thinking that you are ever going to get anything from the world but worldliness, or anything from sin but sin. Look, Christians are not hiding from problems. You have Christians feeding the homeless, providing shelters for battered women, running prison ministries, having hotlines for women who are considering murdering their babies, providing counseling for people who have been raped and molested, running hospices for AIDS patients, etc. Those people do not need sin – glorifying garbage like Little Miss Sunshine to help the hurting people in our culture, and neither do you.

“It is for that reason that I can applaud someone Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris for exposing a weakness in our culture”
I recommend the movie “The Timechanger” (http://www.timechangermovie.com) for you on this general point. I also want to tell you about the great soul singer from the 1970s, D. J. Rogers (http://www.rhapsody.com/djrogers). In his song “You Are My Joy”, he said that he felt that if he was going to sing about the problem, then it was his obligation to sing about the solution. Well, despite seeking a career in secular music, D.J. Rogers is a committed Christian, and his solution is the only real one: Yeshua HaMashiach! So, I will not applaud Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris for “exposing a problem” if they were derelict in their duty of telling people the answer. And this is even more so the case since Faris and Dayton failed to tell the truth about this fact: that the very reason why there are weaknesses in our culture is because Adam fell and sin came into the world, and that far more people could overcome both the weaknesses in the culture AND their own sin nature were they to give their lives to Yeshua HaMashiach. If you are going to talk about a problem without giving the solution, then all you are doing is EXPLOITING it, which is what Faris and Dayton did. They made things WORSE, not better. DJ Rogers gave people the solution, inspired them to seek God, and thereby made things better. If you are looking for someone in the secular sphere to “reveal truth”, then it is with people like that, not people who withhold from God His glory and praise.

Appendix Two: The Questions Asked

(Here are the questions in the interviews)

1. State your name for the record, give us your favorite movie, and favorite thing about going to the movies?

2. How has your movie habits changed (not changed) over time?

3. Have you ever changed something about yourself (appearance, habit) after seeing a movie?

4. Have you ever been inspired by a movie to take a stand for something or change a belief?

5. Do you combine trips? Eat shop etc.

6. Do other film-goers impact your experience? How?

7. Have you ever been frightened by a movie experience? How did the experience affect you? Have any of your habits changed since?

8. For what purpose(s) do you go to the movies? Entertainment, Escape, Social Interaction?

9. How does the moviegoing experience differ from watching TV? Reading a book?

10. What feelings, moods, activities do you associate with moviegoing?

11. Have you ever felt that a movie was written about you? For you?

12. How do you pick a movie to attend? Do you prefer character / story / star / genre?

13. Have you ever felt like a movie confirmed a deeply held belief of yours? How? Why?

14. Has viewing a movie with someone ever impacted your relationship? Strengthen? Weaken?

15. How would you define a successful movie?

16. How often do you talk about a movie with others?

17. How well does Hollywood reflect your life? Or does it not?

18. Which statement do you think is more true- Hollywood influences society? Society influences Hollywood?

19. Have you ever watched a movie then wished you hadn’t? Why?

20. Have you ever felt like watching a movie affected your relationship with God? Damaged your soul? Why?

21. Would you say that all violence (sex) is the same? Are their good ways and bad ways to show violence (sex)?

22. Do you feel that some people should not watch movies with certain content? What kind? What people?

23. Have you ever felt a profound emotion while viewing a film? Been experienced by the depth of it? How did the people you were with handle the situation?

24. There is a truism that says Liberals are less sensitive to sex in movies and Conservatives less sensitive to violence. Do you think this is true? Why? Why not?

25. There is an interesting statement… “Art is a prophet.” What do you think this means? Would you say that it is?

Appendix Three: Films For Further Research and Discussion

(Exercise caution in viewing- check online at IMDB to see if the movie is appropriate for you)

Movies About Truth, Reality, and Stories:

All I Want. 2002.

Bowfinger. 1999,

Flags of Our Fathers. 2006.

Melinda and Melinda. 2004.

Memento. 2000.

Network. 1976.

Nurse Betty. 2003.

Pan’s Labyrinth. 2006.

Shattered Glass. 2003.

Soapdish. 1991.

Stranger than Fiction. 2006.

Storytelling. 2001.

Thank You for Smoking. 2005.

Truman Show. 1998.

The Usual Suspects. 1995.

Movies with Glimpses of Christianity:

40 Days and 40 Nights. 2002.

Chariots of Fire. 1981.

The Christmas Box (TV). 1995.

Dead Man Walking. 1995.

Goya’s Ghosts. 2006

Kingdom of Heaven. 2005.

The Last Sin-Eater. 2007.

O’ Brother Where Art Thou. 2000.

Saved. 2004.

Signs. 2002.

Sleepers. 1996.

Stolen Summer. 2002.

A Walk to Remember. 2002.

Where the Heart Is.  2000.

Movies about Life, Death, and Love:

25th Hour, 2002.

Amelie. 2001.

Angel-A. 2005.

Beautiful Girls. 1996.

Big Fish. 2003.

Breaking Away. 1979.

Do the Right Thing.1989.

Donnie Darko. 2001.

Evening. 2007.

Field of Dreams.1989.

Friday Night Lights. 2004.

Garden State. 2004

Groundhog Day. 1993.

How to Deal. 2003.

In Her Shoes. 2005.

Juno. 2007.

Life. 1999.

Love Actually. 2003.

Run Lola Run. 1998.

Paris, je t’aime. 2006.

The Shape of Things. 2003.

Six Degrees of Separation. 1993.

A Streetcar Named Desire. 1951.

A Very Long Engagement. 2004.

TV Series Dealing with Issues of Truth and Hollywood (Warning HBO Series included):

30 Rock.  NBC. 2007-

Entourage. HBO. 2004-

Mad Men. AMC. 2007-

Unscripted. HBO. 2005.

Appendix Four: A Call to Action

Places to Go for Information and Action

To Learn More:

http://www.adherents.com/lit/index.html Not necessarily film but an interesting look at the place of religion in modern literature.

http://www.adherents.com/movies Here is Adherent.Com’s link to religion and the movies.

http://www.christiananswers.net/spotlight/news News on Christian Film.

http://www.christianitytoday.com/movies CT does a really good job of discussing religion and Hollywood.

http://www.uwosh.edu/filmandhistory Online Site for the Journal of Film and History.

http://www.unomaha.edu/jrf/ Online Site and Archive for the Journal of Religion and Film.

To Do Something:

http://www.christianactors.org A Site for and about Christians doing their thing in Hollywood.

http://imdb.com Each movie listing contains parental guidance notations as well as lists of content.

http://www.hollywoodprayernetwork.org/new/welcome A Site and organization dedicated to bringing renewal to Hollywood from the inside. Go here to sign up to pray for movers and shakers in Hollywood or to become a prayer partner with Christian in the industry.

 

My Website: www.unsanitaryjesus.wordpress.com

Discussion and more. Plus a complete transcript of the focus group discussion.

 

Brett McCracken’s website: http://stillsearching.wordpress.com

Reviews galore.

 

Bibliography

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