Finding Meaning in the Dark: Why it’s hardly ever, “Just a movie” | Street Jazz

Finding Meaning in the Dark: Why it’s hardly ever, “Just a movie”



I wrote this some years ago for Dotty Oliver of the Arkansas Free Press (formerly the Little Rock Free Press), inspired by way too many folks looking down their noses at people talking about film, and dismissing them - and their knowledge - with the haughty words: “It’s only a movie.”

Ignorance being nine-tenths of any discussion, maybe they could be right, up to a very tiny point - usually found at the top of their heads. But for those who have paid attention to film, it is just as much an art form, and has touched as many lives, as any other medium.

I am grateful to those who took the time and gave me their views for this article.

Finding Meaning in the Dark:
Why it’s hardly ever, “Just a movie”

Films that have a social conscience have really helped shape my understanding and empathy of others. Of note would be films like "Salt of the Earth," about the plight of Mexican American miners in the 50's who were made to live in shacks without indoor plumbing or electricity whereas their white counterparts a few miles away had all amenities. I loved Seven Years in Tibet and The Last Samurai because it deepened cultural understanding of the Tibetans and Japanese respectively. - Cat Donnelly, Northwest Arkansas free-lance writer

Like most people, I think I grew up thinking that movies were just something you watched on TV. You thumbed through TV Guide, found something interesting, grabbed a Coke, and settled in for some mindless entertainment. Like what I was putting in my stomach, movies were just junk food for the mind.

You weren’t going to find the “meaning of life” in movies, after all. That’s what books were for.

But one day, when I was in high school, that changed for me. I was watching an old Gregory Peck (and it was old even at the time I saw it in 1972) film, Gentlemen’s Agreement, which was about a reporter researching anti-Semitism in the United States after World War II. Much to his shock, he discovered that bigotry was alive and well.

In order to research his story, Peck - and his family - pretend to be Jewish, and let the chips fall where they may. Sad to say, a lot of people’s true colors began to show. After the story has been filed, and they resume their “normal” life, the boy comes home from school, crying; the other kids in school had been taunting him because he was Jewish.

“It’s all right,” his mother soothed him,” you’re not really Jewish.” Readers should understand that I am paraphrasing here - I haven’t seen the movie for a long time.

Peck charges into the kitchen, and takes hold of his son. “There’s nothing wrong being Jewish!” he barks.

For me, it was like walking down a hallway that was no longer familiar. Suddenly a new door had opened, even if only a little. And it was marked, “Yes, films can have meaning.”

And when I went back to school and related my Saul on the Road to the Damascus Film Festival moment to some of my friends, some of them told me similar stories. Suddenly, movies weren’t just something to watch until you were too tired to go to bed.

It’s not that uncommon an experience, evidently.

C.F. Roberts, Fayetteville writer and producer of the Community Access Television program Abbey of the Lemur, says, “ Between my teens and my twenties I made a transition from seeing film as a vehicle for escapism to seeing it as a vehicle for confrontation. A lot of films that helped me make that transformation in seeing were anti-war films like Apocalypse Now and Catch-22 and Science Fiction films like A Boy and his Dog and Brazil.

“What could be said with film became more interesting to me than forgetting about my work day or my school day.”

Back in what we like to call the Olden Days, there were usually only a handful of channels to choose from. NBC, ABC, and CBS were pretty much it. You didn’t have the option of running down to the local Hastings and renting a movie you might have missed last year when it was released.

You either saw it at the theaters or waited till it came out on TV, chopped up to make room for commercials. And, of course, no profanity or nudity were allowed on TV -even in movies.

We were a simple but happy people, working hard in the day and watching our censored movies at night.

For some, the first realization that not all films are created equal comes in film class. Raymond Burks, who created the popular soap opera Bring Down the Moon, - shown on C.A.T. and YouTube, says, “The moment I realized films were special was when I took a class about films under M. Keith Booker at U of A. It wasn't really until then that I realized how well respected films were. From the breathtaking, film-noir style of movies like Double Indemnity to the random, weird, pro-commercialization, pro-motion picture message of Pulp Fiction."

Burks, who is now an intern on the CBS soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful, makes a clear distinction between “film” and “movies” by saying that his favorite movie would be Mommie Dearest, while his favorite film would probably be Pulp Fiction.

When I watched Gentlemen’s Agreement we were stationed in Germany, so the only thing we had to watch was the American Forces Network. I’m not knocking it, but often our Friday or Saturday night movie was a Hallmark Hall of Fame production or something decades old.

Still, it was a good introduction to older movies. Sometimes when I talk to younger people, it seems like their idea of an “old movie” is the first Star Wars movie.

And then sometimes you meet somebody - often times a younger person - whose parents have not treated the TV in the house as just a another video game or electronic babysitter. Along with the latest Disney cartoon features, wise parents have shared their favorite movies with the kids.

All right, I know - a lot of the time the parents literally forced the kids to watch their favorite movies. But sometimes, some common ground was formed.

After my epiphany, I began to read movie reviewers, to see what they had to say about the films I was watching, and the older films I had been missing. TV Guide - back when it still ran articles that were semi-literate (yes, it was long time ago) featured the reviews of Judith Crist.

And at Penn State one of the essays we were assigned to read was a wonderful review of The Cowboys, by Pauline Kael, in which she wrote that Roscoe Lee Browne had out-acted John Wayne right off the screen. I soon realized that while the woods are full of movie reviewers, there are some truly great ones who truly love film, and know an awful lot about it.

Not only that, but suddenly some of the best writers in the world seemed to be film reviewers.

Heather Drain, who has reviewed many horror films for online publications - and written about the film Caligula for Arkansas Free Press - says that outside of family and her immediate surroundings, film has had the biggest impact on her life.

“Some of the first books I ever read were film books that my mother had laying around. Storytelling is something I've always had a love for and is something I personally do as a career. Music is my muse and I'm a naturally visual person, so it was a no-brainer that film would and still captivates me in every way. Movies, when done right, are the culmination of various art forms, uniting to make one amazing singular one.”

If I had to make a choice tomorrow, if the cable company were to come to my house and tell me I could only have one movie channel - one! - among HBO, Showtime, The Movie Channel, Sundance, and all the rest, I would choose Turner Classic Movies.

Not only does TCM show films from the silent era to the avant garde, from film noir to science fiction, but it just seems like a channel devoted to people who honestly like movies, brought to us by people who actually like movies.

And unlike its third-rate cousin, American Movie Classics, TCM doesn’t butcher the films it offers up to the audience; there are no commercial breaks, and no censorship.

I have been a lover of film since I was a little kid, going to the movies with my Dad. He would sit though all of the credits, down to the drivers and caterers. It must have had a big influence on me, now that I am in the credits. Maybe seeing how many people work on a film gave me hope. Often, I am just after the caterers, so I guess it's appropriate.

To be honest, I can't remember the first movie I saw, but one that has stuck with me for years is Koyannisquatsi - a Hopi word for "Crazy Life." It tells a powerful story of modern life and our impact on the planet with amazing cinematography, editing, and music.” - Kris Carson, Visual Effects Artist- Stranger than Fiction, The Number 23, Hairspray - currently working on Deathrace.

I always hate going to movies and listening to people around me nattering away. On the other hand, when my wife and I watch a movie, there is steady stream of chatter between us, ala Mystery Science Theater 3000.

The idea that a family might gather around a TV to watch a movie in silence seems a little creepy to me. Do these zombies have no thoughts to share?

I like the idea of family and friends exchanging thoughts and even bad jokes about the movie while it is playing.

Speaking of family viewing, when it comes to movies, I’ve always been kind of glad that my wife and I have no kids. Maybe it’s just sort of selfish, but it comes down to this:

We can watch “family” movies if we want to - and often do - but we don’t have to limit our viewing only to such fare. We don’t have to “block” channels on our cable, and don’t have to wait until the kids go to bed before we watch stuff that only adults will intellectually and emotionally understand and appreciate.

My wife and I really don’t go “out to the movies” anymore; we have our 52 inch screen, so why should we put up with other folks nattering away, over-priced snacks and the sticky feel of wet Coke under our feet?

Besides, you can pause DVDs - something movie projectionists are loathe to do, and you can’t just return from a trip to the theater restroom and ask in a loud voice, “So what just happened?”

When people do answer, it’s usually not the answer you’d hoped for.

Writer Rachel Caine says that 1977 was the year that she first saw film in a completely new way. That year, both Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind exploded - in a very real sense - on the American scene. She says, “They literally made the world disappear for me.”

But the experience didn’t stop there for the author of such works as The Weather Warden: Chill Factor, The Dead >Girls Dance and Athena Force: Line of Sight. She says:

The next was probably Raiders of the Lost Ark, which cemented my fate as a film junkie. From there, I spiraled out to all kinds of film — even early silent film, early serials, foreign films, films of all kinds — and I'm still avidly watching, appreciating, and collecting. If I hadn't encountered those films, I might still have been a writer, but I'll bet I would have been a very different writer indeed. Probably a very boring one.

I watched Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey something like 14 times when I was a teenager. It was a revelation of something that was already inside me. Having grown up going to a religious private school, and having rejected the concept that there was an old guy with a beard watching us all from a cloud, 2001 helped me reach my vision out into the universe. - David Diamond, Theatre for Living: The art and science of community-based dialogue.

Though Caine and Diamond are very different sorts of writers, their stories are very similar. For many of us, film provided the spark that ignited the flame that would inform the rest of our lives. Maybe, in a way, for some of us movies do provide a glimpse into the “meaning of life” after all? Maybe, like Gentlemen’s Agreement, they show us a world that exists that shouldn’t, and we are forced to wonder why?

For Fayetteville Alderman Nancy Allen, the film Imitation of Life provided some of these questions. Dealing with the attempts of a young woman to “pass for white,” it had quite an impact on the young Allen when she first watched it.

In the end, I remember her following her mother's casket, weeping and filled with regret. I thought a lot about this movie and did not understand why it was better to be one race than another and why the white woman was rich and the African-American had to live with her and clean her house to get along. I didn't understand why the child would have shame. All these years later, I still have no answers to those questions.

My all-time favorite movie is To Kill a Mockingbird. The reasons why are pretty self-explanatory. It was a film that was as good as the book.”

It’s always with some trepidation that those who love a great book go to see the film version. Sadly, films like To Kill a Mockingbird are more the exception than the rule. Who can forget the shambles that was made of David Brin’s classic SF novel, The Postman?

We trust film makers; when we sit in a theater or in the privacy our home to watch a film we want to be enthralled, not insulted. We want to be transported, not kicked in the butt.

As Fayetteville free-lance writer DeLani Bartlette says, movie makers are the storytellers of the modern age.

The first movie that really affected me was The Handmaid's Tale, a film adaptation of the Margaret Atwood novel. I saw it when I was pregnant, and it scared the shit out of me. It was a dystopian vision of America ruled by misogynist, racist Bible-thumping autocrats. The scene where the women were herded into cattle trucks was too visceral - it made me literally sick to my stomach.

Other films that affected Bartlette deeply were Thelma and Louise and Sling Blade, because they were not just variations on a theme - as most movies are - but original stories, told from unique perspectives.

Waldemar Krahl, an art therapist living in Germany, recalls the first films he saw presented in the local theater, such The Jungle Book, which ran for about 16 weeks. His family got their first black and white television set in 1961, and like most young people, Krahl grew up watching shows like Bonanza and SF series Raumschiff Orion (Starship Orion).

But beyond the entertainment series, he discovered documentary films on television about World War II.

Because of the documentary character of those WW II films, like showing the reality of concentration camps, the inhuman Nazi dictatorship or the bombardment and destruction of German and English cities, I was convinced that the horrors of war would be something of the past and that our modern times wouldn't allow anybody sensible to develop such war atrocities ever again. “Those films have had a very strong influence on my belief in peace and respect for human life and nature.

Artistically, French movies of the 1950s and 1960s have influenced the development of his consciousness. “In some movies by Francois Truffaut I specially enjoyed the extravagant moment of sadness and silence of people walking along a lonely wet street (it just had rained) at dawn after a night of tensions, tough drinking, parties, misunderstanding. Everything seemed to be clear and clean, washed away by the short summer rain, the air fresh, the day virgin, a new beginning of life, of everything.”

Krahl speaks highly of the film, Stalker, made by Andrej Tarkovsky. In fact, Ingmar Bergman himself said of Tarkovsky, “Tarkovsky: "Tarkovsky is the most important to me, because he has found a language which corresponds to the art of film: life as a dream."

Whether we sit in the darkened theater, or in the comfort of our home, we watch those dreams unfold, and sometimes we are haunted by what we have seen. Sometimes we are inspired to become artists ourselves, or to light the torch for others.

Often we are forced to face questions that we might have never known existed, and pursue the answers, or to create a world in which people won’t have to face the same questions.

We could stay away from those movies, I suppose, and just watch “mindless entertainment.” After all, Sturgeon’s Law says that 90 percent of everything is crap. We could happily stay away from all the other stuff and watch films we don’t have to think about.

Ah - but that remaining ten percent. That’s where the adventure lies.

Richard S. Drake is the author of a science fiction novel, Freedom Run, and Ozark Mosaic: Adventures in Arkansas Alternative Journalism, 1990-2002.

Arkansas Free Press - March 2008

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