Truth in movies

Philippians 4:8 says this:

Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.

Note what the verse does not say. It does not say we are to avoid anything that is false or dishonorable or whatever else is the opposite of the verse. It doesn’t talk at all about whether we are supposed to avoid bad influences. What it says is that we are supposed to focus on the good influences.

We live in a world in which most things both good and bad at the same time. In our world, every movie, every book, every song, is a mixture of truth and error, a potential influence both for good and for evil. Paul does not say, “Avoid all the evil”, but he does say, “Whatever you may encounter, notice and focus on the good.”

When it comes to movies, the same verse applies. We are not commanded in this verse to avoid every movie with error in it, but to sift what we see so that we can focus on the good. There certainly are movies we should avoid, but that’s not the meaning of this particular verse.

All this was already said by my daughter Hannah here. She is starting a blog series on movies and Philippians 4:8, and invited her readers to talk about movies and truth first. Since I’m one of those readers, here is what I have to say.

Hannah also already looked up the Greek word for truth in Philippians 4:8 and found three different definitions: a) reports the facts, b) authentic, and, from a very literal translation of the Greek word, c) unconcealing. She focused on authentic. I am going to focus on unconcealing.

A lot of people only care about the report-the-facts aspect. If something is true, it means what it says is a fact, and if not, not. Most movies are fictional, though, so what does it mean for a made-up story to be true? To answer that, I want to turn (just for a moment, I promise!) to philosophy.

In the 20th century, philosophy split into two branches. One was analytic philosophy, which predominates in the US and in Britain, and focuses on accurately defining all our terms and concepts so that we can analyze them as precisely as possible. The other branch was Continental philosophy, which predominates on the European continent – for example, in France and Germany. It focuses on understanding the things that we can’t define – either because they are just not the kind of things that can be captured by language, or perhaps because we are prevented by our own personal cultural and linguistic framework from thinking about them clearly.

Analytic philosophers seem to want to be scientists. Continental philosophers seem to want to be poets.

Heidegger, one of the most famous Continental philosophers, noticed that “truth” in the Greek was literally “unconcealing”, and used that notion of truth extensively. The problem with truth, he assumed, is not that we can’t find, but that we hide it from ourselves, even when – or especially when – we analyze it. With each step we take into more precise definitions, we further cut ourselves off from the thing we were actually trying to talk about.

For Heidegger, one of the best ways to see truth was art. Art has a way of pointing us that which we have been busily concealing from ourselves. The truth of an artwork is the unconcealing that happens when it sneaks around behind our intellectual fences and shows us not just as another fact to believe, but a whole new way of thinking and seeing everything.

Art, said Heidegger, clears a space for truth.

With regard to movies, I take this to mean the following: a movie introduces us to a new way of thinking about the world, a new way of seeing it, which raises possibilities for us that we would not have thought of on our own. Movies don’t do this by telling us what to think, but by letting us experience something. They put us inside a story. They put us in a relationship with the characters. That’s why Hannah says that she can vicariously live someone else’s life in a movie.

Because they draw us into an experience instead of just telling us about an idea, they can introduce things into our minds without having to put them into words. We have been changed afterwards, but it make take us some time to say exactly how.

Sometimes, once we have had the experience we can put it into words. Unlike Heidegger, I think there can be a great value to articulating what we think we know. The point is that, before the movie, there are concepts we could not have thought of. There are distinctions we would never have made. There are nuances we would never have cared about. And, therefore, there were truths that were inaccessible to us. After we have absorbed what the movie had for us, we can see more. A few of those things we can even put into words.

The truth of the movie is not a set of facts, but it is a new way of seeing that makes us more alert to all sort of facts we had been missing.

So … examples.

Remains of the Day: Lots of people make movies (and speeches) about the need to take a risk, and not let life slip away from them, but most of them make no impact on me because I am not sure they know what they are talking about. This movie, though, which is about two very proper English servants who fall in love but never get together because of their emotional reserve, really stuck with me. I saw, in a way I’d never realized before, how one’s caution about relationships can simultaneously be generous to others and imprisoning for oneself. It showed very precisely how that can happen.

Another Emma Thompson movie with a somewhat different insight about emotional reserve and propriety is Sense and Sensibility.

What was true about these movies? Not the facts, and not the moral of either story, but rather the experience each offered, an experience which not only tells the truth but makes it possible for it to be seen.

Rocky: This movie tells the truth about courage in an ordinary life by an ordinary guy. Even if I can’t say what courage means, I can think of Rocky and think, “That. Courage looks like that.”

All The President’s Men: Some movies, like this one, are clearly fact-based, but that doesn’t make them truer in the important sense. Personally, I dislike most pictures based on true events, because I don’t trust them. Even if the movie gets all the facts right, I’m always worried that they’ve interpreted them wrong. Whatever it was like to really live through the events, I’m sure it was different from the way the movie showed it.

So when I say this movie is true, I don’t just mean that the things it talks about actually happened. I don’t mean that it accurately reports the way that the Woodward and Bernstein felt. I mean that the movie used their story to communicate a specific way of thinking about Watergate, and journalism, and government. I think the fact that Nixon really did all that stuff is important for the success of the story, but the way in which the story unconceals isn’t found in the events it recounts but in the way it interprets those events through the eyes of the main characters.

Mr. Holland’s Opus: I don’t know whether to consider this a positive or a negative example. When I first saw it, I reacted very negatively, because I thought it was telling a falsehood. As I saw it, the story purports to be about a man who loves music, and wants to bring beautiful music into the world. Failing that, he wants to share the love of music with his students, so they can experience the beauty of it for themselves. At the end of the story, he is told that everything is all right because he was kind to his students as he went through his life, and although they still don’t share his love of music or see its beauty, they felt better about his being there for them. I thought of it as saying that there is no real point to beauty, no value in trying to point people to something beyond their own lives, just moments of superficial friendliness. That’s all we can hope to be.

You can see why I didn’t like it!

I thought the “truth” it was teaching was false, through and through.

Later, people convinced me I should interpret the story differently. I should see it as about a man who wanted to show people the beauty in music, and set his heart on it, but by his own choices, made consistently throughout his life, kept choosing to sacrifice that goal in order to show love to the people around him. At the end of the story, he is shown that the reason he valued the music was because of how it could be a blessing to people, and that his love for people was deeper and more important to him than the music. He realizes that he has not lost out. He lets go of his self-pity and embraces the fact that there is beauty that he has shown to others in all the small acts of kindness throughout his career.

If that’s true, then there is some important truth in the movie after all. But personally, I still think it told the story wrong. I think the first interpretation is partly there in the movie too. I like it now, but only because I think both interpretations are there. After all Philippians says “whatever is true”, so if there is some truth there I can rejoice in that even if I reject the falsehood at the same time.

Another negative example: Chinatown.
The truth I think it tells is that there is no truth that we can find. There is not even any provisional truth we can try to live up to. If we simply try our best and do what we can, we are just as likely to ruin peoples’ lives as to help them. It is a very bleak movie.

I think there is some value in understanding what is like to face that bleakness, but fundamentally I think it’s telling a lie about life.

Somewhere out there, there is probably someone who loves Chinatown and was profoundly moved by it. Maybe after talking to them about it, I would be able to appreciate its message, because through their experience of it I’d be able to find whatever is true in it.

Another example: A good friend of mine has a similarly negative reaction to American Beauty.

A final point: what is the Scriptural meaning of “true”? Is it report-the-facts, authentic, or unconcealing? I think that it is not really any of them, but a fourth which is related to the other three. It seems to me that “truth” in the Bible is personal truth, connected to a relationship of trustworthiness and reliability. Truth, in other words, is closely related to being honest and loyal.

Furthermore, truth in the Bible also connotes the really Real, that which lies behind the transient illusions of our life on earth. Jesus is the true vine, as opposed to the mere physical vines we see in the world.

Both meanings come together when we are told that Jesus is “the way and the truth and the life”. We can rely on Him because he is the ultimate reality and because he is faithful and loyal toward us.

 

So “whatever is true” may mean that whatever we encounter, we should try to see the reality of Jesus hidden behind it. We should look for signs of Him in the movies.

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