Dismantling Our Perceptions: The Power of Film
An Unlikely Protagonist
More Persuasive than Propaganda
Film, like literature, has the truly amazing potential to carry people to new places of thought and experience that they would never go otherwise. Unlike political propaganda, persuasive speeches, and even the most cogent arguments in favor of a certain position, film has the ability to help people reach a conclusion based on a story that they wouldn’t have otherwise. In a voluntary study of different issues like the death penalty, euthanasia, abortion and other tricky issues, a circle of some of my friends and some of my acquaintances met once a week to try to determine where we stood on these issues and if there was any moral ground to take on such issues in the summer before we would enter college. It was perhaps the greatest group I’ve ever had the privilege to be in. No one shoved their predigested answer down on our throats or told us the right way to think on such matters. No teacher told us we were restricted from thinking such a way because that wasn’t acceptable. We were free in a way that I had imagined college would be like.
In the week that we were studying the death penalty, I presented clips of the film the Life of David Gale along with a documentary on the death penalty in Texas, found in the special features of the film. The film, already a very powerful story, was one I would recommend to every customer back when I worked in a video store. Consequently, it was the kind of film that, while having a definite bias on the death penalty, presented some pretty cogent arguments to support its stance. After showing the clips to this group, I still remember my shock when many of the people who were formerly undecided about what stance to take on the death penalty immediately adopted the stance portrayed by the story. I don’t think any articles we read had the kind of power that film did in swaying people’s decisions. Yet that’s the kind of power stories have.
In my own experience of film and its power to sway opinions, I still remember how the film La Milpa caused me to almost reconsider my stance on abortion. I had argued with various groups of people and friends on this stance countless times, listened to the way my argument was torn apart while tearing apart the other argument, and been presented with many facts to the contrary. Yet none of these experiences ever caused me to shift my thoughts in the way La Milpa did. The film somehow had the power to make me consider the other side of an argument in the way that had never been presented to me before. I came very close to shifting that day.
One of the films that I am still quite grateful for is Contact. Watching it as a kid, I remember feeling annoyed with the people who didn’t want protagonist Jodie Foster’s character to be the ambassador to the newly discovered extraterrestrials because she was an atheist. As most of the country believed in God, it was argued that her character was decidedly not the best representation for the American people. Now in film, being drawn into this protagonist, I couldn’t help thinking that it was rather silly of the American people in the film to cut her out like that. She had so much heart and so many of the right reasons for being the chosen one.
Sadly, having just watched one of my favorite directors and writers relay a story in which he finally felt accepted as a nonbeliever by President Barack Obama’s inclusion of nonbelievers in an address, I realized again the downside to the religious rights’ emphatic insistence on hearkening back to America’s “Christian” ancestry (ironic because many of the founding fathers were deists). As Joss Whedon pointed out, talking the right brand of religion is something important in terms of politics. Having seen the way George W. Bush galvanized the religious right to vote for him by tossing in keynote issues like abortion and same-sex marriage in the 2004 election, I already knew how politicians could twist the religious right straight into their hand.
This part of Whedon’s statement didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me was Whedon’s acknowledgment of the disenfranchisement of nonbelievers. What? Aren’t atheists generally regarded as vaunted intellects incapable of believing in God because of the higher mental processes? Don’t they have the clout of minds like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking in their camp? Isn’t their main flaw culturally the damnable, smarmy pride that is attached to the image? Given a pick between being labeled as intellectually deficient (as most believers are by the media) and a vaunted, arrogant intellect, which is better? Yet for some reason, politics continues to hold onto religion while disenfranchising people culturally known for thinking? Anyone see the need to watch Contact?
Of course, while I genuinely admire Joss Whedon’s depiction of characters (he’s noted for his strong female characters especially), what I’m especially fond of is the way he doesn’t rely on the keynote flat, stereotypical, judgmental Christian that is often depicted in the media. Having just started watching Firefly, I’m loving the realism Whedon, a humanist, brings to his religious character. For once, he’s a character that isn’t an obvious hypocrite but someone who is genuinely struggling to live as he believes (and not always knowing what that means). In the pilot episode, there is even the kind of meta-commentary to the audience on the incorrect action of making assumptions about a religious character as seen in the captain’s behavior toward the “Shepherd.”
Having just seen the witty film Easy A, I realized just how tired I am of seeing Christians depicted as flat, judgmental, hypocritical beings with no intelligence. Yes, there are undeniable problems associated with Christianity, but that’s not the only story associated with Christianity. Tolkien, consequently, was a devout Catholic who helped convert his friend C.S. Lewis to the faith. And it is impossible to escape the way Tolkien’s faith inspired him and his work. While many talk of Lewis and his conversion along with the loss of his wife and how that impacted his faith, Tolkien’s story is also worth telling. For it was a kind priest that assisted his mother following the death of his father.
That same priest took care of Tolkien and his brother when they were left an orphan. Tolkien’s respect for this priest was such that he willingly agreed to stop seeing the love of his life until he was of age because that’s what the priest thought was best. And there are certainly shadows in the story, but it’s a deeper story of faith than the kind that graces film. Yet Hollywood never tells stories like these. M. Night Shyamalan and his depiction of spirituality is perhaps the least removed from the trite shot of assuming again that Christianity is limited to unintelligent hypocrites. Frankly, that story is hackneyed, weak and so very, very boring. And it’s boring in the way that atheists are confined to an aloof intellectualism cinematically. What? Atheists can’t be portrayed as not giving a hack for Dawkins or preferring Renaissance Art? But that might require too much imagination from Hollywood.
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Joss's Video: An Amazing Speech
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