Our kids are at summer camp this week which means that for the past four nights my wife and I have had been faced with the glorious burden of determining what to do with a free evening. It has not been a particularly onerous burden. Casual nights out, leisurely walks, eating supper whenever we want, sleeping in a bit longer than usual, not having to clean up the house nearly as often—it’s been lovely. Of course we miss the kids terribly and can’t wait for them to come home and all that, but still. It’s been great.
Being sans children has also afforded us the opportunity to go out to a few movies. Going out to the movies isn’t something I have done very frequently over the last few years. Many of my evenings are tied up with meetings or kids’ activities, and when they aren’t, a quiet evening at home seems like about the best thing imaginable. So usually, I have very little idea of what is even playing. I can’t even remember the last non-kids’ movie I saw in theatres prior to this week.
But this week we’ve had nothing but time! So, off to the theatres. We saw The Bourne Legacy one night, and then The Avengers a few nights ago. I really enjoyed the first one, but by about halfway through the second I was starting to get a bit bored, I confess. There’s only so much one can take of cars exploding, glass shattering, buildings being decimated, muscles flexing, fists and legs punching and kicking, and arrows, bullets, and cheesy one-liners flying. After a while, it all starts to look and sound the same. Humanity/the world is in grave peril due to the imminent threat presented by terrorists, aliens, genetically-modified soldiers, etc… But—fear not!—there are beautiful, muscular people/superheroes whose fists and legs and guns and brains and motorcycles and assorted otherworldly powers are about to step in and save the day once the requisite number of explosions and chase scenes have taken place, and once the most beautiful and muscular of these heroes has had the obligatory spectacularly-choreographed epic fight-scene with the equally muscular/beautiful/otherworldly “main bad guy.”
As I was walking out of the theatre into a late summer evening a few nights ago, and I was watching the throngs of fellow movie-pilgrims emerging from what I must assume were equally amazing experiences, I wondered: why do we go to the movies? A bit of a stupid question, perhaps, but stupid questions (and the subsequent ramblings they provoke) occur to me all the time. That’s why I have a blog.
Of course, the most obvious reason we go to the movies is to be entertained. We want to see cool stuff that we will never see in our ordinary, pedestrian lives which contain altogether too few explosions or car chases or superheroes or wild nights of responsibility-free passion with impossibly beautiful people. And the moviemakers spare no expense in making sure that we will see plenty of cool stuff. It truly is astonishing what can be created/simulated on a screen these days. We go to the movies because we want to escape. And what better place to escape but into all of these wonderful stories and lives whose chief attribute is often simply that they are not ours?
But I suspect there is more to the story. I wonder, in particular, if in a post-Christian culture that has mostly walked away from church, going to the movies functions something like going to a house of worship for many. There are many parallels, it seems to me. We go to the movies again and again to have a story of the triumph of good over evil narrated to us. The good guys always win, after all. The world is always saved. Few of us, it seems, believe that we are a part of any real meta-story that is good and hopeful, but the need to be a part of such a story must be fed somehow. So we go to the movies.
We also go to the movies to rehearse our conviction that love really does conquer all (no matter how inadequately this “love” might be understood and presented on the big screen). Romantic comedies all offer some variation of boy/girl overcoming some obstacle in order to find his/her “true love”—this glorious state of being that is out there waiting for all of us, if only we can find it and eliminate all of the other things/people who stand between us and its realization. Love, love, love. We so desperately want/need this and we are drawn, like a moth to a flame, to stories of love however confusedly and impossibly their version of love is presented to us on the screen.
We also go to the movies to worship. We bow down to the beautiful, muscular people who repeatedly save our world and find love in the process, we read and agonize over the minutiae of their lives in the pre-movie magazines (bulletins?). We admire their bodies, we pine for their houses and their cars and their trips, we look with longing at their beautiful children, we grant interest to their opinions that is enormously disproportionate to their suitability to offer them. We offer them our devotion and our time. We want to imitate our gods. We covet their lives.
And, of course we give. Oh, do we give! Millions and millions of our hard-earned, increasingly precarious dollars are devoted to supporting and sustaining these houses of worship. In what rational culture would an average actor or athlete command a salary that vastly exceeds that of national leaders or doctors or educators or… pick your useful vocation? If how we spend our money reveals what matters to us, it is clear that there are few things more important to us than that we are entertained. Our tithes and offerings are dutifully collected and promptly poured back into big companies who pay big money to get the beautiful, muscular people to lend their beautiful, muscular bodies to yet more stories of love and good triumphing over evil for our next worship experience.
A bit of a strained analogy? Perhaps. But there are just enough parallels to be mildly unsettling—at least for me. At any rate, the kids are back from camp tomorrow, so I don’t anticipate going out to worship at the movies again for a while.
I am well aware that the chief lesson to be learned from my movie-going experience this week might just be that I might need to watch better, more nuanced movies that actually make some attempt to reflect the complexity and beauty of the human condition. To which my response is… Um, well, yeah.