I once had a student ask me “Why are training videos so terrible?” And it was an intriguing question because I’ve had a number of jobs, seen several training videos, and never thought “That wasn’t awful.” A search on YouTube did nothing to change my mind.
The short answer to the question, I believe, is that every element in their production is suffocated by “The Message.” At the end of the day, the important thing is not that the employee was entertained or see the great plain of human potential open before them, but that he fully understands that he should not take money out of the cash register, or that she knows the proper way to disinfect a conveyer belt or that coworkers know protocol for announcing an office relationship. Anything that gets in the way of this message theoretically increases the probability that an employee will steal, improperly disinfect, or engage in illicit, covert office romance. Therefore, anything that dilutes the message must be cut.
And I think this is probably fine for the medium of the training video.
But what about films? Shouldn’t they communicate good messages?
The issue is that I believe many of the greatest films don’t have “a message.” Certainly they have a point of view, but in many of the movies I love, the point of view is aimed at a question.
Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” is a film I think about often (and already wrote about here). It’s the story of two 17th Century Jesuit Priests who smuggle themselves into Japan to preach the Gospel. What they find is that the Christians in Japan are brutally persecuted. The priests are caught and expect the same or worse, but instead discover the Japanese won’t touch them. In fact, the protagonist finds he is treated like royalty—with the exception that he is forced to watch the peasants who ascribe to the faith he preaches suffer until he, the priest, recants. And so the priest is forced to consider “Is the preservation of mortal life more valuable than preaching what I believe to be true with all my heart and in fact the key to eternal life? And if I don’t preach, will those I have preached to hold fast to the faith? And if I recant and stop their suffering, will they even still hold fast? Am I causing the suffering? Would Christ approve of my decision? Why won’t HE just give me an answer?” By the end of the film we don’t have much in the way of answers. Martin Scorsese has said he believes in the Gospel and that the ending of the film is hopeful. But it’s not easy and if I were forced to identify what it was saying, I would list off questions.
Film, done honestly, allows it’s characters to live and breath and move in ways that might not cleanly support a moral system. But by allowing them this freedom, we gain insight into what makes us human which in turn allows us to test and better understand our moral systems (and so much more!).
I’m going to risk offending here, but I believe all of this directly relates to faith based movies as a genre. In the days when movie theaters were open, I liked to go to the theater and try to identify the faith based films by the first 30 seconds of the trailer. It was always easy because “The Message” was basically announced from the very beginning and hammered home throughout the 2-3 minute runtime. When you get to see the actual film, you discover that the message is no more nuanced.
In fairness, I’ve heard that the Kendrick Brothers, for example, do not consider themselves to be filmmakers, but preachers who use film. And so why would I hold them to any other standard?
For me, it’s just such a violation of the power of film.
Roger Ebert wrote that film is “a machine that generates empathy.” In no other art form are you so literally forced to see the world as another sees it. Unless you turn from the screen, you are seeing a story from the angle the storyteller wants you to, in the timing the storyteller wants you to, focusing on the subjects that the storyteller wants you to. Why would we use this power to point the camera at 2 dimensional characters who have no life outside of driving home one very specific moral idea? Why use a feature length film to do what 2 sentences could do more clearly?
I guess it can be entertaining… But it also just becomes another sort of training video, though instead of making cheese burgers, it’s instructing you how to be a good Christian.
But what if, instead, we point the camera at our best attempt to capture human beings and the struggles they have with the wild complexity of this fallen world–particularly as they try and follow their moral compasses, to do what is good, to pursue “the good life”? I think this is what the Bible does (and as an aside, I’d point out that the “heroes” of our faith fall short of the clear demands of God’s law far more often than the heroes of faith-based cinema).
Can we talk about Abraham being asked to sacrifice Isaac? I get the parallel with God the Father and Jesus, but we can’t just leap over the fact that God adopts the voice of Moloch and demands Abraham murder Isaac for no discernible reason outside a test of faith. Truly, I believe in the goodness of God, but I have questions, and I defy anyone to give me a simple explanation for what’s going on here. To simply jump to “God will provide” and not to sit in the middle of these questions that certainly Abraham wrestled with is going to short-change us a lot of what the Biblical narrative has to offer.
Christ uses narrative to speak of himself in scriptures, and when does the parable not end with something like “The disciples didn’t understand what he was talking about.” (Luke 9:45, Luke 2:50, John 10:6, Luke 18:34, John 20:9) Was Jesus a bad communicator? Should he have cleaned up his story to make the message clear?
Let me be clear– none of this is an argument for lack of clarity as a mark of greatness. And then to return to an earlier distinction– I think great film does have a point of view, which requires solid beliefs about reality and people. But I believe rather than forcing characters to jump through hoops to prove a moral conclusion, the film allows them to work through human problems in messy ways that might not leave a clear answer at the end, but if it’s honest and we wrestle with it, will actually illuminate the moral obligations and challenges in our own life.
If we are trying to prove a point, or convey a message, through film, it’s as if we were forging a path through a jungle and focusing exclusively on our destination and the path to it. If someone comes behind and is either not interested in the destination or is starting from a different place, what good or even interest is it to them? Like the training video, if the viewer isn’t trying to learn to use the deep fryer or even trying to work at McDonald’s why bother with it?
On the other hand, creating a character and sending them off in pursuit of a question is like tracking a wild creature through the jungle. We don’t know where they’ll go, and it will be messy and we’ll probably get hurt, but we’ll discover so much along the way. We’ll cross dozens of well worn paths. And we may actually still end up where we wanted to go in scenario one. But the thing is, we’ve been led by a desire for discovery. We haven’t forced the journey. Because we’re willing to earn some scars, we’ll discover realities and beauty far outside our comfort zone. And because of the paths crossed, we will find many other sojourners to invite on our journey through this great “empathy machine”. What a powerful place to start loving our neighbor.
One more clarification–I do not mean that the work in pursuit of the question is not focused, or refined. Take “Jurassic Park” as an example. Whether it’s Steven Spielberg or Michael Crichton asking the question, I feel the film is exploring man’s relationship to nature, particularly in his role as “Scientist.” And from the opening shot we see man literally facing off with nature.
How man should respond to nature is carried throughout the film. The Lawyer, the Park Creator, the Paleontologist, the Saboteur, and the Chaotician all provide perspectives on how man ought or ought not to respect nature. And certainly there are lessons to be drawn from what we watch, but because the film maintains integrity in the questions it asks, it allows us to enter in and explore the question from where we are and to see the many sides of the question.
The film then is sort of a recounting of Spielberg’s or Crichton’s quest to answer the question.
(We might be tempted to think that Ian Malcolm’s famous line “Life, uh, finds a way” is actually the message of the movie, but the whole premise of the film is that the dinosaurs did not, uh, find a way and needed to be resurrected from extinction.)
I recall the writer Jeffrey Overstreet saying something to the effect that his favorite works of art are the ones in which it feels like the creator was just about to discover something. And I like that because the posture that allows the creator to discover something is Humility. And isn’t that what’s lacking in so many “message-driven” films (secular or sacred)? I’m not saying they should be uncertain, compromise truth, or any such thing. But the creators should recognize the limits of their perspective. We are not God and his truth is certainly bigger than our understanding. To uncover the scope of its reality, we will have to trek from home though uncomfortable territory. This requires asking questions we don’t know the answer to, and using the means available to us to pursue those answers.
In several lectures, Marilynne Robinson has discussed how literature ( and she would categorize film as a subheading under “Literature” ) can allow us to expand the scope of our experience. Honest reading (and viewing) of Honest writing allows us to compound our experience with the lived and interpreted experience of others. We can see the world so much more broadly. And in turn, to love so much more broadly.
I don’t expect a Wendy’s rap video could effectively do as much.