Thoughtful: A Film’s Heart
When film plays a part in us getting better, our time in the theater is more than simply a two hour escape for pure pleasure. Or, actually, there’s a better way to say it: With , we enjoy movies just as much and more, but in a different way. We’re involved in what’s happening on screen, and at the same time we aim to let the movies help us become better people by changing us from the inside out. Inside out change begins deep down, in the heart, where we are who we really are. Film helps us change deep down by helping us learn to see and feel what’s really Good and True and Beautiful. We know that we’re getting better as our love for and relationships with others grow and flourish — and that includes all others, not just a select few that we like to be around. It’s about how a film helps us see what a beautiful world is really like and then letting that Beauty infect our hearts and imaginations.
If the movie’s a light-hearted farcical comedy, perhaps the Beauty we catch is about joy and fun in the craziness of life. If it’s a serious drama, perhaps we come away driven from deep down to restore a broken relationship. A science fiction thriller might help us to see ways that we put too much (or too little) faith in technology. But whatever type of film, whether it shows a realistic or fantastical slice of life, and whether it portrays the reality of Beauty or the reality of ugliness, good films have lots to give to move us toward seeing life more clearly and loving more deeply. We still look for a good time at the theater, but looking for a bigger life becomes a big part of enjoying a film. Some films may move us directly, while with others we may not quite “get it” until we spend time reflecting on, even studying the film.
There are two parts to this “getting better” with film. It’s a habit that we develop, not a checklist or set of rules that we follow. First, when we’re watching a film, we aim to put aside our preconceived notions, reserve judgment, get ourselves out of the way, and do our best to receive and hear what the film itself is doing. Only after we’ve really listened to the film do we move on to exploring to find the heart of the film, and then feeling and figuring what we might take away from the film.
How to receive and hear what a film is doing
Some films hit us straightaway: We see it, we like what we see, and it sticks with us, drawing us toward better things. But it’s not like that with other films: Maybe it’s a story we didn’t connect with, a character we didn’t like, content we thought was out of place, or a plot twist that didn’t really work. Our attention goes to what we didn’t like in the film, and it distracts us from whatever good the film may have been doing. In other words, we don’t give the film a chance to take us to some new place beyond our own preferences and prejudices. While it’s true that some films really don’t take us to any useful new place, many will — and if we stop to listen, opening ourselves to where the film wants to take us, we’re more likely to come away better for it.
To open and receive a film:
- Receive a film before judging its content. To hear what a film is asking of us, we lay aside our expectations and prejudices, enter the film’s world, and aim to see from the film’s perspective how both ugly and clean content relate to the film’s exploration of life. Only then can we begin to fairly discern the appropriateness a film’s content. Maybe the film shows us something ugly to help us more clearly see it as ugly — or even to help us catch ourselves liking something ugly, so that we might be prompted to change. Withholding judgment (at first) keeps us open for the film to take us some place new and show us something about life and about ourselves.
- Take the film on its own terms — release, and go where the film takes you. To receive before judging, enter the world of the film; let its operating principles take over. In both the broad overview and in the details, observe what the film is focusing on. How is it asking you to suspend disbelief or go with the flow of shortcuts it may take? Let the film present an unusual or strange situation — let it go beyond the normal to ask “What if?” and give us a perspective from the outside looking in. Judging the film will come later, but at first, if we don’t understand where it’s going, it’s better to remain confused, saying, “I don’t know what the film was trying to do” rather than to judge the film based on our own prejudices and expectations.
- Stay in the story; stay in the film. A film tells one story, not all stories for all people. There is a huge variety of people in the world, and one film cannot portray them all. There are average people; there are very strange people. There are people with unique skills; there are stereotypical people. A film might portray a ditzy woman, or jerk of a guy, or a crazed military officer, or whatever — don’t assume the film is saying that all such people are like that. Perhaps the film is trying to catch us in our own stereotyped attitudes. Treat the characters as individuals, not archetypes, and connect with how these particular people live out these particular situations. On the other hand, some films intend to deal in archetypes, but we should look for evidence in the film that this is intended and to what degree.
- Go beyond face value — context can change anything. If there’s something ugly on the surface of a film, don’t assume that it represents the heart of the film. It’s the context of and relationships between the elements in the film that point to the heart of the film. Juxtapositions are more important than isolated content. Objectionable surface elements may be simply presenting the details of reality as it truly is. Even if negative aspects are overdone in the film, 1) calling this out is less important than getting to the real heart of the film, 2) negative things may be intentionally overdone to break through our shells and help us feel the pain of ugly things, and 3) good and reasonable people may disagree about whether the film went too far and so, in love, we can offer the filmmakers a bit of grace and forbearance.
- Don’t expect a single film to bear the full weight of all truth. We can offer grace and forbearance even if we think a film left something out, seemed skewed, or had an incomplete “message.” Listen first for what the film is doing, not for what it’s not doing. If some key truth seems missing from a film, we can hold this merely as an observation for potential later consideration. Later we might assess what the film may have left out in relation to what the film itself is doing. It will be a credit to the film if we can say, “It presented something true, insofar as it goes, and there are other true things that we should consider along with it.”
- Observe and feel how it all adds up. Approach the film first with your heart and, having entered the film’s world, aim to connect with the core emotions of the film. Notice how you feel at various points in the film (which is different than how you feel about the film). Observe before judging; approach the film holistically. If some things don’t seem to fit, try viewing them from various points of view. How do characters or actions or juxtapositions in the film contribute to or contrast with the film’s core emotions? Put together the whole and feel where the heart of the film seems to be — and it may be a multifaceted heart: the film may be doing multiple things at the same time. Even if some films descend to emotional manipulation it’s not a reason to avoid them, it’s merely a reason to be wiser in how we engage with film. Emotions are the source of deep down change that truly makes us better, and they are the primary mode in which the best films operate.
How to feel and figure what to take away from a film
If we’ve listened well to a film, we’re ready to move on to feeling and figuring what to take away from it. We are fallible people, so this is an imperfect process. Our emotions tell us how we align with what the film portrays. That doesn’t say whether our emotions are admirable or not (e.g., we might laugh at something that really isn’t funny), but it might point us toward things to think about. Thinking about it is good, but really, we can’t fully trust our own thoughts, either. So, to help guide our thoughts and emotions, we’ll look for something outside ourselves, and higher, to bounce them off of, whether it’s the Tanakh, the Bible, the Qu’ran, the Upanishads, the minimal guidance of The Humanist Manifesto / Amsterdam Declaration, or something else. When we mix together a film and a higher source, it can go two ways: The higher source can help us to get a better perspective on the film, but also the film can give us perspectives that refine and correct our understanding of the higher source. And both can mold us toward what’s good, true, and Beautiful.
To take in what a film has for us:
- Be charitable toward the film. Everyone’s a critic — it’s easy to find something wrong — so, it’s better to start by assuming that there is something for us in the film, if we can only look closely enough to find it. This is not to say we should avoid critical evaluation of a film, but critical evaluation is a poor path to the heart — our hearts can be reached even if the quality of a film is not the best. If something doesn’t work in the plot, or in an actor’s stiffness, or in the pacing of the film, or something else, look past it to the heart of the film. If the film dwells on ugliness, remember that the good in a film may come in reverse, as it were, and pause to ask what the film is doing. Being charitable toward a film is, in essence, being charitable toward the filmmakers, as if they were neighbors of ours — because they are neighbors of ours.
- Listen to the little things and the small voice. A film that deeply explores complex questions is, well, complex to engage with. The film may not give us clear, direct statements of where its heart is. We have to listen very carefully to little details and nuances in the film. Likely enough, good will be hidden inside ugliness — and ugliness will be hidden inside good. The little things are often the clues that guide us — both little things we see in the film and the little nagging questions that stick in our hearts and minds. A film may present itself as a conundrum, a mystery, a paradox that we’re not really sure how to unravel. It is often a small key that unlocks a big paradox. In minor themes and minor characters, in subplots and details in sets and scene backgrounds, we may find small things that put large aspects of the film into perspective. As we slow down and reflect on small things, aiming to take in the whole film, rather than only the main parts, we give the small voice inside us a chance to strengthen feelings and thoughts that lead us toward betterness.
- Slow down and ask questions about the film. First impressions are tricky, especially with film. We are too often quick to jump to conclusions. Even if our off-handed judgments are ultimately proven correct, quick conclusions cheat us out of the added richness and depth that comes with time spent wrestling with a film. By asking questions about the film, perhaps even ones that seem to have obvious answers, we give more opportunity to see connections and perspectives that we may otherwise miss. In charity, ask questions aimed to bring out the good in the film. When something doesn’t seem to work, ask what point of view would make it work, then try that out for a while. In the end, the answers to charitable questions may still expose weaknesses in the film, and we should be honest about such weaknesses — but honest and loving at the same time, just as we would be toward a newfound friend. In relation to something your higher source says, ask how the film shows in concrete terms what it does and doesn’t looks like in real life.
- Reach for the film’s Goodness, Truth, and Beauty. Questions are important, yet we must take care so that rational analysis doesn’t derail us from the deeper influence a film can have: the emotional impact when our hearts connect with how the film speaks Goodness, Truth, and Beauty (and their opposites). We want our hearts to “get it” as to why something was good (or not). We want our hearts to feel more deeply the beauty (or ugliness) in the characters’ hearts and choices and actions. Maybe it’s a turn of heart, a point of learning, that allowed a husband to (or prevented him from) loving his wife in a Beautiful way. Maybe it’s a visceral insight as to how a violent scene showed a loving or non-loving action. Beyond talking about it, we want more: We want the answers to resonate in our hearts. We want to experience in film the forks in the road that take the characters down paths toward Beauty or paths toward ugliness so that we might better recognize similar forks in our own paths.
- Ask: “Where am I in this?” The real point of is not to critique the film but instead to critique ourselves. Having explored how the film deals with Goodness, Truth, and Beauty and how it fits with a higher source, we can personalize and drive home the film’s influence in our lives by asking where we are in relation to all this. Maybe we find characters that we want to be like. Maybe we find a bit of ourselves in characters we don’t like, and we need to not be like that anymore. It is hard to lean into the pain of discovering our ugly sides, but that’s what it takes to get better. What do we take away from the film?
- Take in Beauty — turn from ugliness. All this is not about theoretical head-based analysis: The real payoff comes when we open our hearts enough to be moved and changed. Receive into your heart the Beauty of laughter and love and kindness and grace. Let them infuse and mold and change your heart. Keep them as memories to draw you toward Beauty in your daily thoughts and actions. By contrast, let ugliness reverse-mold your heart, as it were, like the way you would run from a skunk. Let yourself be repulsed by meanness, impatience, pride, self-centeredness, and all other manner of ugliness. We don’t want to wallow in ugliness in the name of “entertainment,” nor do we need a film to show us ugliness just to be reminded that it exists, what we do need is to better understand the roots of ugliness, pull them from the soil of our hearts, and let it transform us deep down to make us better.