The Empathy Machine
There was another version of this article that actually went on quite a bit of a rant, but I had to scrap it. I scrapped it not just for you, my reader, but also for myself, as I was writing more out of impassioned irritation than I was to make a coherent article about my relationship with film, as I had originally set out to do. I think this is a bit more focused, and a bit more biographical than that lecture, which I am honestly glad I had second thoughts about – and I do mean lecture as in “scold,” not “educational speech.” Part of what I almost lost sight of was an expression of my love for the medium of film, which, let’s face it, is the main topic of this blog is, after all!
I do love film, though. I even admittedly sometimes love watching bad films, when the mood strikes, despite the fact that I usually end up griping about how awful they are by the time the credits begin – oftentimes earlier. I guess I’m a part time hate-watcher. That being said, however, I am admittedly an amateur when it comes to film appreciation. I’m rarely driven by more than gut instinct when it comes to analyzing the individual parts of a film, so I’m often left feeling quite inadequate to judge things like the composition of shots, the quality of the score, and the inventiveness of certain other techniques unless they really stand out to me. And, honestly, so long as those elements are either so well done that they either don’t call attention to themselves or are so transcendently novel that I can’t help but notice, I’m largely okay with that. For me, film has always been more than just the sum of its parts and more about what it’s actually saying on behalf of the artists involved and the subject it’s covering. (And, sometimes, films are mostly just entertaining, and that’s honestly okay, too!)
My relationship with film began early on, as you can imagine. My first VHS cassettes were Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and The Little Mermaid, while the first films I saw in theatres were Batman Returns and Home Alone 2. Film criticism was even introduced to me fairly early on, as I’d often read the annual Leonard Maltin film book from front to back as if it were a novel, reading about films I’d only heard of because of my friends and films I knew I wasn’t ever going to see in my lifetime because it sounded like it had too much sex, and my parents would never allow me to see something like that! (I don’t recall any of those movies now, but I’m sure I ended up seeing quite a few of them once I came of age, anyway.) I would occasionally spot Siskel & Ebert At the Movies and put a strange sort of stock into the trailers that would declare that those two gave a particular film “Two Thumbs Up!” or, if only one of them approved, a slightly more disappointing “Thumbs Up!” I also watched the Oscar telecasts on a regular basis, often with my mom, though I did watch them on my own for the first time the year that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon won “Best Foreign Language Feature,” also the first foreign language feature to be nominated for the “Best Picture” category. However, despite all this, I didn’t ever get into film seriously until a certain high school class started relating them to me on terms a lot deeper than, “Does this movie have too many swears in it?”
I took this class in high school that was basically an introduction in how to engage popular culture as a Christian responsibly (I went to a private school, if you couldn’t tell). Most Christians have a reputation for wanting to bowdlerize and censor works they don’t feel are in line with their beliefs or even outright rejecting films on the basis of the films not “glorifying God” because of the content they presented. Not so with this course, though. While the stuff we watched wasn’t particularly hardcore or anything – a little Seinfeld and The Simpsons, blockbuster musicals Chicago and Moulin Rouge!, indie films Rushmore and The Spanish Prisoner, and, for my final project, my friends and I were even able to bring in some video games to show how the medium was evolving from rudimentary goal to full-fledged showcases for artistic expression of certain themes. (This subject also allowed for me to show off every console I ever owned to my classmates, including my prized NES that my grandpa passed down to me after he said that he was getting too old for it.)
The thing is, though, this class wasn’t an immediate eye-opener for me. In fact, I was often downright stubborn, insisting that the movie Rushmore, for instance, was a morally bankrupt film that rewarded its protagonist for his awful behavior by giving him an ultimately happy ending. That’s the kind of person I was back then, you see. Characters who were bad must ultimately pay the price (as with the ultimate fate of Moulin Rouge!’s lead) or, barring that, be portrayed in the worst possible light as a symbol of the continuing decay of society (as with the two lead women in Chicago, for instance). Rushmore, to me, didn’t properly punish Max for his awful deeds, even if he did try to make it up to his friends in the end.
I’m no longer like that, of course, though I am still pretty embarrassed of the attitude I had all those years ago (approximately 11 years, as of this writing). However, I still consider myself a Christian to this day – a stronger one, in fact – and one who can appreciate the irony in a Christian school allowing for a course like this to be taught on their campus without much of a peep from parents thinking it was a blasphemy while one of its students (who took the course for an easy A, I might add) feeling the need to call out a movie for being morally bankrupt. As my teacher emphasized at the time, in a strained analogy that I can no longer really contextualize to make you understand about how this grotesque expression came about, you really do have to dig into all the crap in life to find the delicious cherries. Lesson learned.
By my senior year, it did all begin to click, however, and I began to see art in a new light, particularly film, which has since overtaken video games as my primary artistic sustenance. Hollywood Video’s MVP program was a godsend for me, and later on, as I moved out of the house and went off to college, I discovered, I’m ashamed to say, more illicit means of obtaining films that I otherwise could not afford to rent, though I did attempt to take advantage of the nearby Hollywood Video and the rental kiosk that showed up on campus. I took a few courses throughout college, too, which reinforced my belief in the power of film and art in general, though they weren’t exactly my main focus. By the time I graduated from college, though, I had become, by some accounts, “obsessed” with movies, and my graduation gift to myself was a subscription to Netflix, which I have not only held on to since as my primary means of getting movies (I even kept both services when DVD delivery was split from streaming), but have also supplemented with Hulu and Amazon Prime and often even Redbox, when I’m not going to the theatre.
Throughout it all, I have maintained my faith, but this appreciation for film has often clashed with those who think like I used to in high school, covering their eyes, ears, and mouths, apparently out of fear of violating Philippians 4:8:
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. [New International Version]
For the longest time, I admittedly also struggled with refuting this mentality, though I knew something was off in my own understanding of this verse’s meaning, particularly whether it’s really meant to say that Christians should be like those three monkeys and just avoid seeing, hearing about, and speaking about evil things.
In time, I realized that the problem I have with interpreting this verse in such a way is that it isolates it from the rest of the “book” (really a letter from Paul to the church in Philippi), completely taking it out of context as a result and misappropriating it in the minds of Christians. This isn’t a verse calling for us to ignore things that aren’t positive – it’s calling for us to be reminded of what is ultimately good. This is completely different from remaining ignorant, however, as I do believe that we are able to and even called to perceive everything in our own lives and, most importantly, the lives of others with this belief in mind. And if Christians are called to believe that we are all imperfect and sinful, then we must also include ourselves in that, remain authentic, and have humility. You cannot love or understand others without listening to them.
Oftentimes, we call someone’s life story their “testimony.” A testimony, in a Christian sense, is usually seen as a statement of how a person came to become a Christian, but testimonies can also just be a statement of someone’s personal perspective on something based on their life experiences. Art, I believe, is a personal testimony of one’s perspective as told through a creative medium. The Bible itself, even non-Christians would be willing to admit, is a work of art made up of a wide range of works from various authors. There are genres used within the Bible to convey ideas, poetry chief among them, but even Jesus used parables that, though they did not actually take place in reality, they were no less true in their message. In the same way, I do believe that films and other artistic mediums are a testimony to the beliefs of the artists behind them.
I am sorry to say, however, that the mentality of “focusing on what is good” has often caused Christians to shun works that express a testimony that may not necessarily be pleasant to hear. Many more of them may even do so because they are too much of a challenge or might even address or present certain temptations for them. I am all for personal discernment, of course, and if someone so chooses to abstain from those things for personal reasons like that, I’m not going to protest that. However, when they take it so far as to make their own personal struggles and apply them to everyone else, that is when I begin to take issue.
A friend of mine while back told me a story about how he and his friends were watching the movie Django Unchained. For those of you who do not know, this is an admittedly over-the-top, often comedic and exaggeratedly violent revenge story about a former slave partnering with a German immigrant and attempting to free his wife from her cruel slave owner. It is unapologetically a Quentin Tarantino movie, which means it also does not shy away from presenting some ugly things, even in light of all the film homages and humorous banter. One such scene involves a woman being placed in a “hot box” – an underground pit with a door where disobedient slaves are sent to be punished, roasting in the heat of the sun completely naked. Again, Tarantino does not shy away from the full horror of this, including the humiliation of the stripped woman, but never does he fetishize this act of cruelty. However, upon seeing the naked body of a woman on screen, one of the guys in the group shot up from the couch and ejected the movie and declaring that they would no longer be watching the movie due to the nudity, completely misunderstanding the horrific context of it. I can’t imagine what he would think of the movie Schindler’s List.
This might sound like an extreme example, but it’s really not when you consider that there have been entire industries set up just to ensure that the delicate eyes and ears of dear sweet Christian people will never have to be subjected to “objectively objectionable” material ever again, with some of them (CleanFlicks, was a big one) feeling they were justified in skirting copyright law to create edited versions of movies that they would then sell so that people can have the peace of mind that they won’t be subjected to a few uses of the word “damn” and the sight of a bare nipple, no matter the context. ClearPlay, a far more technologically advanced and legal service, even provides its consumers with a means of editing their movies on the fly with special Blu-Ray players and filters that trigger censorship features at certain points in the movie to make them more “family-friendly” – even films that kids probably shouldn’t be watching in the first place but which pretty much depend upon the censored material to make sense – recent additions being American Sniper (which is violent to the point where they acknowledge that their cuts will make scenes very jumpy) and The Boy Next Door (to which they not only edit out the sex scenes but also a freaking crucial [though badly acted] attempted rape scene).
To me, it’s ridiculous to even want to watch these films if you’re going to take out crucial parts of a film just for your own sensitivity. Quite honestly, that shows to me that there is a lack of maturity when it comes to engaging in culture. Many films that are denounced for depicting “evil” aren’t even condoning those actions themselves, and yet, all the time, there are people who cry foul and say the films are “glorifying” the subject matter. I believe this stems from the idea that movies are “just entertainment.” However, as I said before, art is a creative means of expressing a perspective, and, the way I see it, that makes them like a testimony, or even one part of a dialogue, on the part of the artists involved. They can be gateways into understanding a certain perspective that, though we may not understand them now or even ever come to agree with them, we might come to a better understanding of the perspective just by hearing them out.
So, why then, do so many Christians, who purport to be strong in their beliefs, still go on the defensive when they find those beliefs challenged by a different and possibly even hostile perspective? We weren’t called to ridicule, silence, or hate those we disagree with. We were called to have grace on those who do us wrong (because we often do wrong to others, too), have humility (we are often – way too often – prideful in our faith), and love for those who come against us (as we would want them to be towards us). You don’t do those things by shunning them. Art is often a fantastic way of summarizing beliefs and the logic behind them. Film may not be your chosen medium for this, and that’s fine. Read a book by an atheist author then. Listen to some “secular” music, perhaps even with one of those scary “Parental Advisory” warnings on them. Film is my primary medium just because that’s what I appreciate most – I’ve always been one to learn better visually, and I also like the various elements that come together to make up cinema, including the performances and, yes, even the effects. Whatever it is you choose, though, treat it as an opportunity to see what someone outside yourself and your inner circle are saying through their God-given talents (because that’s what they are), and let them shine a light on people you might know or might come to know who share the same or even a similar perspective. And if they happen to still be different, then at least you’ve started the conversation and have a chance to have your preconceived notions changed, too.
I can honestly say that, even when I encounter a film that doesn’t convince me of its perspectives and might even possibly make me outright mad about something, I do still feel as though I have been enlightened by the experience. I’m secure enough in my faith that I will not feel the need to abandon it just because a movie has challenged me to step out of my comfort zone and into the shoes of even some terrible people and maybe even come to empathize with them. I sincerely believe it is our responsibility to take all the crap that we see in this world, dig through it, pick out all those delicious cherries that my high school teacher spoke so enthusiastically about, and, to take the disgusting analogy further, store them away for a time when we might use them to make something delicious! Or, to put it another, more palatable way, we need to see them as “empathy machines,” as Irish film critic Mark Cousins describes them in the documentary series The Story of Film: An Odyssey.
I happen to find that much “Christian” art is shallow, embarrassingly composed, and even downright disgusting in its attitude about dissenting perspectives. I’m sorry, but God’s Not Dead is a repulsive film that self-righteously punishes its non-Christian proxies and, through the depictions, reinforces a false belief that they’re all arrogant and abusive assholes who are just mad at a God they know exists but who they are rebelling against because they can’t have their way. (No, I also don’t think “swearing” is a sin, either. It’s just impolite by man’s standards, so… nyeh.) I’ve actually coined some terms for this type of thing that some might find a bit vulgar, but … whatever:
spiritual pornography: any self-righteous and self-gratifying material that feeds one’s desire to be confirmed as morally correct in their religious views and faith, usually by portraying an those with an opposing view as being unquestionably wrong and often deserving of ridicule and/or punishment within the narrative by those who agree with the one viewing the material
– see also: spiritual masturbation
The main reason why I felt the need to write this is because I’m quite tired of the culture wars that are often led by fellow Christians who are way more concerned about telling the world what it is that they believe is right, what others are doing wrong (often to the detriment of this country), and calling people sinners than they are about showing actual love towards those people – and, no, I don’t think being loving towards people who you disagree with means showing them “tough love” by focusing on hating the sin as a means of expressing your love for the sinner, usually by holding people at a distance until they are ready to reconcile their beliefs with your own. And yet I also feel the pressure on myself, too, because I despise movies that are largely embraced by my community, and yet I am afraid to discuss some of the films I mostly watch in secret that those people might call me out on for even considering them. That makes me feel a bit like a hypocrite, to be honest. I thought about discussing the films in the past by having a “theme month” wherein I would have discussed “controversial” films. I tested out a few times on lighter subjects, like “Girly Movie Month,” “Guy Movie Month,” and “’90s Nostalgia Month,” but I was both a bit of a coward to actually go forward with that idea because I, too, was weak to defend myself in the face of some family and friends who would have seen those reviews shared on my personal Facebook wall. I imagined the horror on their faces when they saw that I watched such films as Brokeback Mountain, Mysterious Skin, The Woodsman, Blue is the Warmest Color, or Nymphomaniac (both volumes!).
I basically don’t want to do that anymore, though. I’m not saying that I want to be your pastor or anything, nor would I consider myself a “religious leader,” as that term is more commonly perceived, but I am tired of being in the shadows about these things, so, instead of doing a mere theme month, I’m posting this as a declaration that I will do my best to not shy away from discussing such films more publically, rather than just with close friends or hidden inside, say, a Year in Review. I’ll still do sillier movies, of course – I still enjoy a lighthearted comedy and blockbuster, after all, and, honestly, there are times when I’m just too tired from my non-blogging duties and other such fun stuff to review the heavier films. However, when I do watch these movies in my spare time, I’m determined to address them more often here than I have in the past. I am determined to challenge myself as well as others. Perhaps I’m overblowing how many people actually pay attention to my reviews in the first place, but I know that I do get a lot of flak in person from those who dislike it when I rail against people like Kirk Cameron or even the “Christian entertainment” industry in general. Some have gone so far as to question my own integrity as a Christian for doing so, as if my disowning of Cameron is tantamount to renouncing my faith! Talk about your idolatry issues! (And it’s not even that I don’t like all Christian-themed art – it’s that I really, sincerely so loathe the very low standards that are commonly accepted just because it says “Jesus” a lot in a non-blasphemous way!) I know that I’m reaching some of you, though, as the treacly yet unsympathetic Christian-produced film Johnny is, bizarrely, one of the most commented-upon and also contested reviews on this blog. So… I guess that counts for something?