The fact is, I’m quite happy in a movie, even a bad movie. Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer night one met a lonely girl in Central Park and achieved with her a sweet and natural relationship, as they say in books. I, too, once met a girl in Central Park, but it is not much to remember. What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man.
I’m Bobby Maddex, and that was Walker Percy writing in the voice of Binx Bolling, the protagonist of his novel, The Moviegoer, but it could serve as a description of me. Like Binx, I can’t remember a single childhood birthday party, but I do recall precisely what I was doing at age five when I first saw Lon Chaney as the Phantom of the Opera, helping my mother fold laundry in our basement, and the circumstances surrounding the first film I ever saw in a theater. It was a yellowed screening of Snow White, and I saw it alone with my grandmother, age six, in a decrepit theater within eyeshot of downtown Springfield, Ohio, which, if I recall correctly, was also in need of some serious renovation. My very first memory was movie-related. I must have been three or four when I snuck out of bed and peered into my living room, catching just a glimpse of the film that my parents were watching on TV. All I remember is that a girl—she looked to be a teenager—was screaming horribly, having looked down into the telephone handset she was holding and finding a blinking eyeball staring back at her. I have no idea what that movie was, and I searched far and wide once I was older, but I’m pretty sure it explains my lifelong aversion for any sort of prolonged phone conversation.
I saw a restored print of Taxi Driver on my 26th birthday in an enormous cathedral-style theater in Washington, D.C. It was a matinee, and my wife and I were the only ones there. We spoke in whispers anyway. In 1994, I saw three films—Pulp Fiction, Natural-Born Killers, and Ed Wood—in as many nights, to combat a bout of loneliness resulting from a recent move I had made from all of my friends and family. Two years later and over the course of three nights, I went to see Roger Ebert do a frame-by-frame analysis of Raging Bull. On the third night, the film’s editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, showed up to help Ebert out. It was glorious.
I am one of the few people to have seen Bottle Rocket in the theater. I once sat next to Rip Torn at a screening of Death of a Chinese Bookie. In college, I went to see a restored print of It’s a Wonderful Life, and when I exited the theater, the first snow of the year was falling. The first movie I ever saw in Dolby Digital Surround Sound was Apocalypse Now. The helicopter blades sounded like grenade blasts, and the grenade blasts sounded like nuclear detonations. I met Eva-Marie Saint at a screening of North by Northwest at the Virginia Film Festival. I extended my hand, but she didn’t take it. Not long after that, I finagled press passes to the Chicago Film Festival and watched three films a day for two solid weeks.
These are the experiences that have stuck with me, the ones that are most clear in my mind. I can’t remember my own cell phone number, and get lost outside of a ten-mile radius of my home, but name me a cast, quote me a line, show me a still photograph, and nine times out of ten, I’ll be able to come up with the title of a film. I’ve been reviewing movies now in one form or another for going on 15 years. During the first six of them, I watched everything. I’m talking Roger Corman B-movies, Bollywood musicals, obscure animé productions, silents, and even experimental movies such as Andy Warhol’s Sleep, an aptly titled five-hour film comprised solely of a man snoozing in bed, and Un Chien Andalou, Luis Buñuel’s surrealist fantasy that begins with a man slicing his own eye with a straight razor. Indeed, much to my shame, though I hope not to my damnation, there was not a movie that I wouldn’t watch. That is, of course, until I converted to Orthodoxy.
As a Protestant, I was able to conjure up a justification for seeing anything that I wanted to see, despite the Puritanical roots of Protestantism that for so long, at least within the fundamentalist tradition of which I was a part, frowned on movie-going, though I have heard that this has changed. You know, film was art or it was vaguely redemptive or one of its actors was a rumored Christian or it revealed something important about the culture, and so on. I can’t blame Protestantism itself for my attitude in this regard. No one told me to think this way. It’s just that I personally didn’t see the harm in subjecting myself to any image short of a pornographic one.
From the moment I began exploring Orthodoxy, however, my perspective on movies began to change. This can be directly attributed to the highly visual nature of the Orthodox Church. I am thinking especially of the iconography, which eventually proved so nourishing to me, so nurturing and instructive, that I realized just how powerful images actually are. If they could help sustain me spiritually like these icons did, then they could likewise work to destroy my spirit. Thus, the time I had spent devouring film was not just wasted; it was also stolen away from more noble and edifying pursuits, and to the detriment of my soul. As a priest put the matter to me shortly after my conversion, “Each moment you spent gazing at a film could have been spent among the saints of the Church.”
I still watch and review movies, but I am much more discerning these days. I don’t see every film that comes down the pike, and I try not to experience the movies that I do watch in an idle fashion. Instead, I endeavor to pick those that have the greatest potential to teach something that resonates with eternity, and then I labor to wring their lessons from them. I often get burned, and more so now than ever before. Today’s filmmakers are increasingly steeped in nihilism, and their movies, however promising in subject matter, tend to lack the meanest scrap of significance. But then a film comes along that hits upon a truth of the most profound sort, and I gasp in sudden recognition of ultimate reality. The glass that I had been seeing through only darkly yields abruptly to a pinprick of light, and I catch a glimpse of what lies beyond this world and my own earthly cares. Such movies almost compensate for the slop through which one must slog to get to them—almost. More on this later.
It’s at this point that the non-movie-goer and the anti-movie-goer will ask, “Why even bother?” That’s a good question, and one that a monk on Mount Athos would no doubt answer far differently than I would. Of course, one might ask the same thing of readers of novels or viewers of paintings. Why subject yourself to any secular vision of the world? There are actually two parts to this inquiry: Why watch movies? and Why expose yourself to art originating outside of the Church? I have an answer for each, though I certainly can’t take credit for either of them.
My answer to the first question—Why watch movies?—comes from my friend, the Hollywood screenwriter and committed Catholic, Barbara Nicolosi. She approaches the matter from the standpoint of story. “A story is a journey,” she told me this past fall, “and it will become an experience for the reader or the viewer if it’s done well.” You attain wisdom by going through life experiences, right? You get your head knocked in and you say, “Okay, I’m never going to do that again.” The only problem is that there are just too many things that we need to learn. Wisdom is the sum of way too many experiences, and we just can’t fit them all into our lives. Well, a good story allows us to acquire the experiences that life does not.
Let’s stop there for a moment. One value of stories, if well-told, is that they teach their lessons without exacting from you the price for such that living does. They have the capacity to help keep you from sin by allowing you to vicariously experience sin’s consequences. For example, you might choose to avoid entertaining the moral relativism that plagues Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment because of the madness that results from it, not to mention the crime of murder and the torment proceeding from that. In reading the novel, you temporarily take on Raskolnikov’s sins as your own and hopefully learn from them, but you don’t actually sin yourself, and you may even decrease the number of sins that you commit throughout your lifetime by heeding the wisdom acquired from good stories.
The opposite is true, as well. Sticking with Dostoevsky for a second, you can achieve the spiritual breakthrough at which Alyosha arrives at the end of The Brothers Karamazov without likewise enduring, at least in your real life, the doubts and misgivings leading up to it. In this case, the journey will have afforded you positive wisdom in the form of a deep spiritual insight, as opposed to negative wisdom in the form of merely knowing what sort of ideas, actions, or behaviors to avoid.
Next week, I’ll address what sorts of stories best lend themselves to such productive journeys, but suffice it to say for now that one reason to accede to the power of fictional narratives—and a good one, in my opinion—is that they can contribute in the ways I’ve just described to the process of salvation. “What are the active ingredients in a story that work to involve us?” I asked Nicolosi. Here’s how she answered.
Effective stories get to you so much that you have visceral, emotional, and physical responses to them. If it’s a drama, you start to cry. If it’s a comedy, you start to laugh. If it’s a thriller, you feel goosebumps. And if it’s a fantasy, you feel a sense of awe. The physical response means that you have entered into the story as if it’s a real thing that is happening to you, and now you acquire wisdom from having traveled on that journey.
This sounds right to me, I must say, and I believe it holds true of any expertly wrought story, whether a parable, a fable, a novel, or an epic poem. But how much more true it is of a cinematic story. As Nicolosi has explained elsewhere, movies are comprised of four different artistic disciplines: writing, acting, photography, and musical scoring. It is almost a completely immersive medium, and as technology progresses so will our sensory involvement in the moviegoing experience. The movie theater, which a 1930s film critic once dubbed “the church of the masses,” has taken a page out of our own liturgical handbook, surrounding us with sights and sounds, and perhaps someday smells and textures as well. Indeed, film is what Marshall McLuhan calls “a hot medium.” It demands our cooperation and is all the more entrancing as a result.
I don’t know whether this is true of digital screenings, but in traditional film projections, there is a nanoinstant of utter blackness for every nanoinstant of light. Studies have shown that our brains use this time to contemplate the images that we see, drawing us even further into the movie narrative. In short, the storytelling that takes place at your local multiplex, if properly employed, can result in the dissemination of some serious wisdom.
So that’s why I think it’s important to watch movies, and wouldn’t it be nice if Hollywood were full of talented Christian filmmakers who pumped out ribbon upon ribbon of celluloid imprinted with goodness and truth and deep spiritual observations? Unfortunately, this is not the situation at all. Pound for pound, Hollywood may be the most irreligious place on the planet, save the occasional Kabbalah devotee or adherent of Scientology, which brings us back to our second question. Why pay any attention whatsoever to what these decidedly secular artists have to say? We’ll tackle that one next week. See you then.