While I was getting my haircut last week, the barber discovered that I had a strong affinity for movies. This led to her statement, “I understand that it’s nice to escape from the world while you’re watching a movie.” I simply nodded my head, but inside I recoiled. Is that really how she feels about movies? And is there any truth in that statement for how I feel about movies? Needless to say, I have been thinking this over ever since.
I’m sure there are people out there who watch most movies just to be entertained and swept off to a new life and environment. Just look at the success of Avatar. The main attraction wasn’t the characters or an emotionally engaging story, but the film’s ability to convince you that Pandora exists and you are a resident. That was the selling point of the movie. Many millions of people bought it.
There is a level of truth to the desire for escapism when anyone watches a film. We like to experience new places, people, and events. But is that the driving force behind my own love for the cinema? I don’t believe that it is.
A good film makes you forget that you’re watching it. I often catch myself getting lost once a film has encouraged my engagement with its characters and plot. This is the magic of movies. They sweep you off to a place you’ve never been. Yes, but what happens once you’re there? Do you simply absorb pleasure from various types of sensory stimulation? Do you think to yourself, this is nice, but it has nothing to do with my real life? I can say with great certainty, I don’t. The value of a good movie isn’t just found in its ability to temporarily suspend our belief, it is also found in its implications for our real lives.
Consider the film, It’s a Wonderful Life. It does a wonderful job of convincing us that Bedford Falls, NY is a real place, and that George Bailey exists. The characters act like normal people (Mr. Potter may be a little more blatantly evil than a real person) and the events of the film make sense in context. We are even willing to accept that an angel intervenes in George’s affairs in order to save his life.
It is very satisfying to watch George find peace and redemption. But what is it about this film that really impacts so many viewers? I believe it is its simple, true, and profound message about life. Every life has a purpose, and every person has the ability to influence others and the world in positive ways beyond their understanding. The film causes us to consider this for ourselves. Do we truly believe this for our own lives? What amazing implications if this film is speaking the truth.
When we watch a character suffer, we have the opportunity to relate, and even draw strength. Remember Samwise Gamgee’s speech in The Two Towers film?
Frodo: I can’t do this Sam
Sam: I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come and when the sun shines it’ll shine out the clearer. Those are the stories that stayed with you, that meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think Mr. Frodo, I do understand, I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances a turnin’ back only they didn’t. They kept going, because they were holding onto somethin’.
Frodo: What are we holding onto Sam?
Sam: (Picks Frodo up by the arm) That there’s some good in this world and it’s worth fighting for.
When we relate to characters, even fictional ones, we see ourselves in them. We wonder, could I have the same courage and strength? Could I endure so much hardship? Even though they’re not real, they have a real impact on our lives.
Movies (books too, and even video games. All stories) entertain. Movies allow us to escape this world for a time. But movies also teach us about the world, and ourselves. A good movie has vast implications for our lives and the world.
So don’t go on about pure escapism!