One of the things people say to movie reviewers over and over again is “It’s just a movie.” I admit that sometimes when people talk about movies, I have the same feeling. After some reflection, I realized why people use movies to talk about so many different social issues. Movies, just like art, books and music, are experiences we can have together, even if we are physically apart. It is only our personal filters that make each movie resonate or fall flat in each one of us. We can all go and see the same movie and each have a different reaction. This shared experience is essentially the crux of why we talk about movies to try to figure out social issues.
The most recent example of cinema highlighting differences and examining emotions on what would seem like unrelated but exceptionally important topics is the movie “300.” Many people saw “300” as a strictly historical piece, beautifully shot and having no other purpose than to give the viewer an opportunity to escape the world for a couple of hours. The antithesis of the escapist opinion are the people who felt the movie was racist propaganda. The themes of the movie being Greece (white, westerners) fighting the Persians (dark skinned, middle easterners) as free men against a tyrant, should resonate with people who have been told they are fighting Middle Eastern oppressors as freedom fighters and liberators. The only difference between these two experiences is the filters they walk into the movie having. The “300” experience opened the door for dialogue on racism, validity of war, the idea of liberation, racial portrayals, and the ideas of freedom.
“The Passion of the Christ” stirred strong emotions amongst Protestants, Catholics, and Jews There wasn’t a specific version of the movie made for each group. The content was the same for everyone but the message rang differently to each effected group. Some Jews saw a negative portrayal of their ancestors. To many Jews, “The Passion of the Christ” was downright racist. Some Protestants were angry that there was no portrayal of the resurrection. Many Catholics saw a powerful movie about the most important part of the Jesus story and praised it for its portrayal of Jesus’ suffering. How could a movie range the spectrum of social and historical interpretation? The movie didn’t range the spectrum, the people watching the movie did. Through the experience they shared with each other, they could have a starting point for conversations that may previously have been based on indescribable feelings or historical feuding. The “Passion of the Christ” gave each side examples, a place to point fingers and form arguments.
When I was in college, I took a history of film class which showed the 1967 cinematic classic “Bonnie and Clyde.” Even though the teacher had warned us about the ending, we all sat in shocked amazement, stunned and bewildered. We all experienced the death of these two characters. Together we had gotten to know Bonnie and Clyde and for all their faults, we admired their willingness to stick it to the man. We all lurched back in horror when police officers opened fire with Tommy guns into their car. We all agreed it was a good movie but most of us wondered why the director decided to go with such a graphic and overwhelming ending. When the teacher told us the historical context, it opened a new discussion. Made during the height of the opposition of the Vietnam War, many people who watch the movie now and at the time saw this movie as an endorsement of the protestors and anti-war sentiment. As soon as my teacher gave us the insight to look at the movie though the filters of the time, my opinion of the movie changed. The movie didn’t add any content, the writers didn’t throw in a different scene, the way I looked at the movie changed with one small bit of context.
There are so few experiences in life we can share together as outsiders; experiences in which the facts of the story can’t be altered by our memory. It never happens in real life that there is documentation to review if necessary. I will no longer turn in shame when I have a social comment about movies. I won’t worry that people think I’m over analyzing or (as one commenter put it) am anal about the content in movies. There is a richness in being able to have a common experience and hear the reasons why someone, be it rich or poor, young or old, crotchety or friendly, feel something different or in common when you see a movie. The movie isn’t the enrichment. Seeing a person through their opinion is nourishment.