What makes our culture tick? What is happening in our present cultural moment? In the last part of our series on Why We Watch Films, author Dan Brendsel explains how we become aware of the reigning assumptions, values, habits of thoughts sensibilities, idols and stories in the current moment of our society's collective consciousness.
When it is evening, you say, “It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.”
And in the morning, “There will be a storm today, for the sky is red and threatening.” Do you know how to discern the appearance of the sky, but cannot discern the signs of the times?
Jesus expected Israel in his day to be able to read “the signs of the times,” the meaning of the “the times.” He held them accountable for having a finger on the pulse of their age, for being able to discern in some small but truthful ways what God was up to in their society and how he was being received or opposed or ignored or denied or unwittingly affirmed therein.
By extrapolation we can apply the general point to us today, which is just one reason (among several) for why I think cultural exegesis is a really important skill and habit to develop. Films are significant cultural artifacts which give us a great opportunity to exegete or interpret or better understand the dominant culture. This is so for a number of reasons.
Movies and movie-related realities and effects (talk about movies, celebrities that they showcase, merchandise and advertising that is tied to them) are ubiquitous. Movie-related realities are in many respects the air we breathe and the language we speak. They are a chief element of our cultural atmosphere, and, if we seek to engage them in an understanding way, we may begin to better understand the culture in which we live.
Movies are important for discerning the meaning of contemporary culture, second, because they are a chief influencer of the culture in which we live. Hollywood and the entertainment industry and the artists who labor in them are crucial, gate-keeping figures and institutions in contemporary culture.
The cinematic works and images and messages produced by them are a major guide and shaper of our culture’s imagination and sensibilities and values and worship. (The cultural influence of movies is, I think, less than it was even ten or fifteen years ago, and certainly much less than thirty years ago, in part because of the proliferation of on-demand entertainment and the growth of higher quality television productions. But the influence of movies is still great and overlaps increasingly with the influence of television, as well as with several other spheres of popular culture [e.g., music, sports].)
Third, movies can help us understand our present cultural moment inasmuch as they reflect what our culture values, the sensibilities that reign in our day and place, and perhaps most importantly, the stories which we delight in and imagine ourselves to be a part of.
Movies are a mirror reflecting what we as a society care about, what makes sense to us, what we are interested in, what we trust in and yearn for, our reigning narratives.
Movies about Hollywood are popular and appealing to us (e.g., La La Land; Hugo) because Hollywood and the celebrity life are what our culture collectively values. Celebrity life makes sense to us. Aspiration to celebrity life (or aspiring to reflect celebrity life) is what makes our culture tick. Differently, the prevalence of films about the exploits of journalists (e.g., All the President’s Men; Good Night, and Good Luck; Spotlight) manifests, among other things, a widespread suspicion of those in authority (which heroic journalists expose), and a shared conviction that being “well-in-formed” is the greatest of virtues and powers.
And movies are nothing if they are not narratives—narratives of the oppressed minority (e.g., Moonlight; 12 Years a Slave; X-Men; Crash), of the crimes of pharmaceutical companies (e.g., Dallas Buyers Club; Rise of the Planet of the Apes; The Constant Gardener), of sweet revenge and possessing an awe-inspiring skillset that can accomplish it (“I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. If you are looking for ransom I can tell you I don’t have money, but what I do have are a very particular set of skills ...”).
These are narratives we love, because these are narratives we believe ourselves to be in or want ourselves to be in. These are the stories that we believe tell us how things are and how things should be, what “the good life” is and looks like and how we can attain it.
Sometimes these stories are at great odds with the truest of stories which is Holy Scripture (I might suggest that almost every example in the paragraph above stands in some significant tension with the biblical plot line), and this can be so even though a film never depicts any overt “sin” or uses foul language.
Sometimes cinematic stories echo or parallel or seek to interpret (in better and worse ways) the story which the Bible tells. And sometimes they offer helpful windows into sub-narratives that might have an appropriate place within the master storyline of Scripture. But whatever the case, films by virtue of their character as narratives re-pay careful attention.
“It is in a culture’s stories, that we have access to what is in their hearts and imaginations—to their hopes and fears, values and dreams. And especially for the postmodern generation, their stories, the ones they engage repeatedly and discuss endlessly, are found in movies.”
If we seek to know and speak with understanding into our culture, we can find great help in attending to the stories our culture tells in film.
We trust that you have enjoyed the insights in this six-part series. Please share them in the comment section below.