Everyone interprets movies from a vantage point, whether we acknowledge it or not. Mine is simple: the purpose of art is to help us live better. The delight in cinema is that the experience of watching is like dreaming, and so the images on screen mingle easily with the projections in our own minds. If, as great spiritual teachings say, we suffer not because of what happens to us, but because of the thoughts we have about what’s happening to us, then the reverse can also be true. We can experience joy based on how we think about the things that happen to us. Cinema can fund our happiness by nurturing new ways to think about things. For me, the greatest films are the ones that contributed to renewing my thinking, or even changing its direction. Sometimes this is a matter of practical education (because movies grant us access to places we could never physically visit – including the past), but in experiencing any art, always the possibility exists of being affected, provoked, inspired, challenged, wounded, or ultimately transformed.
The Oscars are a strange thing – sometimes apparently not much more than the rich and famous rewarding themselves for being rich and famous, but there’s always a bit of magic wafting through the air, transcending the more superficial conversation about winners, losers, and fashion choosers. The films that meant the most to me last year are mostly ignored in the nominations (Interstellar changed my perception of time, and even how love works; Calvary offered a courageous vision of what it means to be a spiritual leader; and Love is Strange brought dignity to people who have been marginalized by social prejudice). But the films nominated this year for Best Picture do paint their own picture of the lights and shadows present on the surface of the cultural moment we inhabit.
American Sniper is both a troubling sketch of the wounds of war, at least in the lives of ‘our’ soldiers. It ignores any context for war, denies any complex truths about why we fight, and dehumanizes people whose recent suffering at the hands of their own leaders and our invasion is too monumental to describe. Its treatment of PTSD in veterans may prove valuable, but it’s blind to its own potential to nurture the soil from which more vengeance might grow.
The antidote to American Sniper could not have come at a better time – for Selma doesn’t just challenge the myth that killing works, but offers a credible vision of how social change happens through human beings courageously acting for the common good. These actions work best when the common good is understood to include the good of even your enemy. Martin Luther King knew, and led a movement built on the foundation that the humanity of the oppressor must be given the chance to find itself. Selma respects – and challenges – the humanity of the audience by portraying Dr. King as a real person, with flaws and hopes and the ability (and necessity) to make decisions, just like each of us.
Something similar is at work in The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything, both of which consider the journeys taken by men whose personal decisions changed the world. Alan Turing’s code breaking genius may have shortened the Second World War by two years, and Stephen Hawking’s insights about the nature of the universe grant untold possibilities in human discovery. Both men are presented as marginalized – Turing’s sexuality leading to terrible persecution, Hawking’s physical condition requiring immense courage and discipline to transcend. Neither are particularly innovative films, but they do seek to respect the whole lives of real people, and the lives of those affected by them. I’m glad about that.
A much more ambitious way of respecting the life of a person manifests itself in Boyhood, shot over twelve years, and serving as a collage of that period in the life of a child. It’s remarkable enough to witness the briefly glimpsed goodbye to a best friend whom our hero will never see again, the rites of passage most of us experience, both unpleasant (hassle from other kids) and welcome (the first stirrings of falling in love). What’s been downplayed or missed in most of the talk about Boyhood is that it illuminates a reminder of our cultural history – the music we listened to, the way our houses looked, the rapid transformation of how we communicate, and, not least the way Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette’s faces have changed since a decade ago. So have ours, of course, and perhaps the greatest gift of Boyhood is the comforting way it reminds us who we are, and that there’s nothing we have already faced that we couldn’t handle.
The leads in Whiplash aren’t handling things very well, and the film they inhabit puts us all through the wringer. This story of a jazz drumming student and his tyrannical teacher is a technical tour-de-force, edited to within an inch of its life and with acting to match. But it can only be a guilty pleasure, because it ultimately endorses the idea that talent can be brought to life by abusive behavior. Challenges are vital in every hero’s – or heroine’s journey. Bullying is not.
Which brings us to my two favorite Best Picture nominees – Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel – each of which invites us to consider our own lives as journeys in which we may never know what’s really happening. Budapest manages to be both delightful and morose, as we mourn the losses of life, while celebrating its high points. If one of the keys to reducing violence is to help those who have been hurt through healthy grief and lament, then The Grand Budapest Hotel has more treasures for a world in pain than seen at first glance.
And Birdman’s extraordinary craft – a floating camera, the impression of being filmed in one take, performances that feel so energized that they might jump off the screen – marries a spiritual question: What does it mean to make an honorable life, and how can we integrate the elements that war within us? We suffer, not because of what happens to us, but because of how we think about what happens to us. How we think about cinema, and any art, will decide the place it occupies in the story we tell. That story will shape our lives. And while they may be fun or irritating, or both, the Oscars aren’t the supreme arbiter of what makes a good story, the kind of story that gives life – you are.
Gareth Higgins curates www.soultelegram.com, a newsletter of the best spirituality writing on the web, and www.moviesandmeaning.com, a film festival that aims to change our lives for the better. The festival – happening this May – is a place for more conversation like this. He’d love to see you there.