How to Watch a Movie for All Its Worth

As Dave preached on Sunday, watching movies should not be merely about entertainment. Knowing we are made in the image of God, knowing creativity and art are part of his design for our lives, knowing the power that art and story have in the human heart should shape the way we watch movies. Especially for Christians viewing films should be an exercise in spiritual discernment, not unthinking and unfiltered intake.

Thus, in preparation for the True/False Festival this weekend, I submit to you 5 questions to ask and answer in order to watch any movie for all it’s worth:

1. What was done well in this film?

What are things that we can celebrate, whether we agree with the overall message of the film or not? What were the best aspects of this film? Great acting? The soundtrack? Excellent technical artistic skill displayed – lighting, cinematography, editing, etc?

One important thing we can do to watch a movie for all it is worth is to withhold our critique until after we have let the piece of art ‘have its voice.’ Art is not just a message. It is that, all art tells a story, but art is also an outpouring of the creative impulse God has ingrained into humanity. Do you see the artiness of art? Or, when you watch a film, do you reduce it to its most basic propositional statement? Learning to see and enjoy the artistic dimensions of movies (before we ask too many other questions) gives us a glimpse into the way God intentionally designed all of us. He is creative. Therefore, we should celebrate creativity for its own sake.

2. What is ‘the main problem with the world’ in the film and what is its proposed solution or answer?

Every movie is telling a story about being saved from something to something. When you watch a movie, can you identify what the main problem within the world of that film is? Identifying the problem helps know where to look for the answer the film also puts forth.

Take the film Pleasantville as an example. The main problem within the world of that film is that the 50’s era culture is too constraining and formulaic. There is no freedom of expression or individualism, women’s rights are suppressed, life is boring. The answer, then, that the town and culture need is to be freed from their slavery – to be shown what it is like to be creative, individualistic, impulsive. This is originally and uniquely portrayed in the contrast between black and white and color. As individuals are freed from their slavery of conformity, they become full of color – literally. This freedom is often achieved through sexual promiscuity, but for different characters it takes on different forms. The film shows a town being saved from one thing, to another. All films do the same thing, though tell a different story of salvation. Do you see them?

3. Which character do you most connect with (and which you least identify with)?

The character that a filmmaker wants you to identify with is often the character that embodies the ideals, beliefs, or message of the film (and visa versa).

Remember the 2 main male characters in the blockbuster Titanic? Jack was a carefree artist representing bohemian ethics – love, freedom, and beauty. Cal, on the other hand, represented old money, tradition, and religion. Which character, and by extension, which set of ideals is the film advocating?

4. How does the form of the film match the content of the film?

Another window into the message of a film – what is really going on beneath the surface – can be how the filmmakers make use of more technical aspects of filmmaking: musical score, scene sequence, editing, lighting, etc.

Two quick examples spring to mind:

Momento, starring Guy Pierce, is a story about a man who looses his memory and tries to piece together the murder of his wife. The film has a heavily postmodern message – we must create meaning for ourselves by piecing together our experiences one moment at a time – the truth is, essentially, what we make it. This message is mirrored beautifully by the way the film was cut and edited together. Instead of a sequential order of events, the film “plays backwards,” revealing what happens at the end of the story at the very beginning of the movie. Each new scene takes us a little closer to how the story started. Both the form and the content highlight that our lives are simply a collection of snippets of experiences and that it is our responsibility to make meaning of them create our own purpose. They match perfectly.

No Country for Old Men is a bleak film with a bleak theme. The Coen brothers told a story of meaninglessness and random violence that shows a world where ethics are a myth and morality does not exist. This content is matched perfectly with the bleak musical score (which really is the entire lack of a musical score) and the bleak Texas landscape they used as a backdrop for the story. Again, the content and form are intertwined beautifully.

5. Where does the worldview of the film share common ground with the Christian worldview? Where does it diverge?

Amazingly, no film will ever be made that shares 0% of the Biblical view of the world. As Francis Schaeffer said, “All truth is God’s truth.” Therefore, a film tapping into any amount of truth at all shares important ground with the Christian worldview. Being able to identify the truth that a film shares with Christianity is a great skill to have. Equally important, however, is being able to discern exactly where a film diverges from the Christian worldview.

A film like Gladiator might share important ground with Christianity in that the main motivating force in the character’s life is the existence of the afterlife – the fact that heaven exists and is more real, more important than this world. However, at the same time it shares that idea with the Bible, it also gets important things wrong – issues about how we get to heaven, what God is like, etc. Seeing both are important.

As you have your fill of films this weekend, or as you enjoy movies throughout the rest of the year, keep in mind that movies are an especially important voice in the conversation of our culture. Being able to ‘read’ them well is crucial to having your own voice in that conversation. I hope these questions will be a helpful resource.

If you would like a more extensive list of great questions to ask as you watch films, check out A Matrix for Film Analysis, a collection of questions from William Romanowski’s book, Eyes Wide Open.

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