The buttery smell of fresh popcorn drifts through the darkened auditorium. The eager crowd endures the seemingly endless canned music, followed by advertisements and previews of coming attractions. Finally, the MGM lion roars, and the film’s opening score booms over the DHS sounds system. For the next hour and a half, the crowd’s mundane, day-to-day existence will be suspended, or as Percy would put it, "Lost in the Cosmos." They will be transported to a land where emotions rule. Whether these emotions turn out to be hysterical laughter, heart-pounding fear, or dreamy romanticism, movies provide a natural opiate which transcends whatever form individual reality may take.
Reflecting on the role of movies in my own "personal reality" throughout the years is something that, in all honesty, I have never done before. Movies were always something that I took for granted as something fun to do on a Friday night. However, as I began to put some serious thought into it, the picture became more clear. Why are we drawn to certain films but not to others? Why do we remember lines and scenes from certain movies for years, even for a lifetime? By reflecting on various movies I have seen in my childhood, teenage years, young adulthood, and in my current life as a "non-traditional" college student, this paper gave me a good opportunity for introspective reminiscence on how the stories on the big screen have contributed, albeit subtly at times, to how both I and people in general view the world.
There are some who downplay the role that movies, as well as art and media in general, can have on the human psyche. When a child is injured imitating a pro wrestling move, when a teenager cites violent rock or rap music lyrics as an inspiration for a crime, or when a person harms a celebrity in a fit of obsessive rage, critics (which are often part of the media outlets which profit from these products) will brush off such claims as being alarmist propaganda. However, when the outcome is positive, such as a charity rock concert or a movie which raises consciousness of a social issue or problem, these same people will praise the entertainment media as if they were some sort of new messiah. For better or worse, our entertainment does effect how we see the world, as well as how we will live in it..
In my own life, the first movie I remember becoming enamored with was the first Star Wars film, which came out when I was ten years old. Although I was among the last person at my school to actually see the movie, I was wrapped up in the Star Wars subculture from day one. My next door neighbor and I spent countless hours trading cards and comic books, and discussing our plans for doing our own sequel! (Of course, I was drafted to play Darth Vader!)
In hindsight, I realize that Star Wars was really an amazing accomplishment. Although the special effects were very cutting edge for their time, the movie was, at its heart, a simple good vs. evil adventure, with much the same appeal as Marshall Dillon going after the bad guys in Gunsmoke. However, the larger than life scale on which the story was told put an old theme in a totally new light. The subsequent sale of action figures, light sabers and board games illustrated exactly how much people, especially children, did identify with this movie. Every ten year old boy was Luke Skywalker! The bigger kid that picked on him was Darth Vader! This fits right in with Percy’s analogy of looking for a "new self" to replace the old one with which you have become dissatisfied.
Moving into my adolescent years, movies became a more prominent part of my life. Growing up in a small town (Rogersville, Tennessee), the old Roxy Theater was pretty much the center of social activity for the teenage crowd. Tuesday nights were dollar night, and since I only lived about three blocks away from the theater, I would walk there every Tuesday and see whatever happened to be playing.
One of the movies I saw during that time was Rocky 3. Although most of the Rocky movies were encumbered by horrible acting, corny dialogue, and ridiculously predictable storylines, I must admit that this particular movie was very inspiring to me. On the surface, Rocky Balboa seems an unlikely character for me to identify with. He is from the streets of Philadelphia, I am from rural Tennessee. He is a championship boxer, I am not even remotely athletic. However, this film deals with themes that I can appreciate even more now that I am a little older. Rocky is riding high until he begins to rest on his laurels, which ultimately costs him his championship. In Percy terminology, he "reenters the orbit" and when he does, he hits hard. Ironically, it turns out to be Rocky’s former rival, former champion Apollo Creed, who comes to his aide. Apollo trains Rocky physically, as well as emotionally. When Rocky woefully declares "I don’t want it no more," it is Apollo’s friendship and occasional "tough love" which helps him carry on and eventually, regain the title.
This story was reawakened in my memory several years ago when I was having some very painful marital difficulties (which eventually led to divorce). During these times, an old friend of mine named Mike was always there with good advice and an encouraging word. As I tried to find adequate words to express my appreciation to him, I told him "You’ve been to me what Apollo was to Rocky." I’m not sure whether or not he knew exactly what I was talking about, but he knew it was meant to be complementary!
For me, I have to say that the "aesthetic" meaning of movies began to take a down turn as I became an adult. Movies became more something I just did for fun than anything else. However, although it may seem like a paradox, I did begin to pay more attention to the social message in movies. An obvious example would be Schindler’s List, which told the horrors of the Holocaust in a way few had ever imagined it. John Grisham’s A Time To Kill was a powerful commentary on the flaws of the legal system. Even the Jurassic Park series offered sobering warnings against the dangers of tampering with areas best left alone.
A more recent example would be White Man’s Burden, a movie we watched in my sociology class last fall. The story painted an interesting portrait of a society in which traditional racial roles are reversed, with the majority population being black, and whites being the persecuted minority. The film was intentionally disturbing, aiming to get the audience to put themselves in "the other guys shoes." Although the movie was set in a large, metropolitan city, movies like this are possibly even more telling here in the south, where the shameful heritage of racism is perhaps more obvious than anywhere in the U.S.
Which brings me to our movie from last week’s class session, American History X. Although I was personally put off by certain elements in the film, I do see it as one of the more important films in recent years on the subject of racism. It shows how the seeds of prejudice are passed down through generations, as well as by peers. It also shows how legitimate concerns over issues such as welfare and immigration can become destructive if they are not kept in proper perspective. The teacher in my aforementioned sociology class referred to himself as a "recovering racist." By this he meant that, in his opinion, we all have subtle racist feelings buried in our subconscious minds, and overcoming them is a daily process, much like overcoming alcohol or drug addiction. Films such as this one take a very "in your face" approach and force the viewer to do some serious soul searching. When confronted with the kind of cold realities that this film presents, emotions can be stirred that we didn’t realize were there. To a degree, I see the wisdom in my teacher’s observations, although when you see the paths where these type of feelings ultimately lead, "day to day" recovery is not enough. You want them rooted out of you once and for all. Kudos to Tony Kaye for helping us to get real with ourselves!
Another of our class films that I particularly appreciated was Requiem for a Dream. Although I can honestly say that drugs were never much of a temptation to me, watching the kind of living hell that Harry and the other characters went through made me thankful that my 35 years have been spent clean and sober. In my younger days I was a big fan of both Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison. Because of their substance abuse, neither Hendrix nor Morrison lived to see their thirtieth birthday. It now sobers me to realize that I have outlived both of them by nearly ten years so far. .
Having known a number of schizophrenics over the past few years, I also enjoyed both Shine and A Beautiful Mind. Both of these fine films offered educational and sympathetic portrayals of these often misunderstood people. These films were good companions to Otto Wahl’s book Media Madness, which we read earlier in the session. It is human nature to fear and ostracize that which we do not understand. No where is this more evident than how we treat those who suffer from physical or mental handicaps.Wahl’s book pointed out a number of things which I had never thought of, such as how movies and other media, albeit subtly, do ingrain negative stereotypes in our minds. Films such as these offer a great deal in raising the consciousness of the public on these matters
Since the time of Thomas Edison, the enduring popularity of movies vividly shows us the power of parable and allegory. Jesus often used parables to illustrate the points He wanted to make. Pivotal communicators of modern times, such as Martin Luther King and Ronald Reagan, often relied on stories to drive home their messages. Movies work in a similar way. For example, how many of us "working class" types were elated to see one of us, Rocky Balboa, become the world champion? How many of us have helped Captain Kirk save the universe? How many women cried (and how many men cheered!) when Leonardo DiCaprio’s character drowned in Titanic?
Seeing films in this light helps us to see the validity in Percy’s concern over self help books. If we approach them in the proper manner, movies can be some of the best pop psychology on the market! However, precaution must be taken in realizing that while movies can mirror reality, they are not reality in themselves. Obsession with entertainment can lead to a number of personal and social problems. For example, the previously mentioned Star Wars obsession of my childhood resulted in me neglecting my school work, which subsequently affected my grades. We hear stories quite regularly of "football widows," wives who are neglected due to their husband’s affinity for sports. I think this was the "reentry" concern expressed by Percy, as well as in our class discussions. Movies, as well as vacations and other fun activities give you a temporary "high" which sometimes gives our systems a shock when we "reenter" the real world. Nonetheless, as Coles emphasizes, life is richer and more meaningful because of the power of stories. May we continue to grow and improve as people because of the lessons they teach us.