It's Oscar weekend, and movies are on the mind. Why are they such a big deal in our culture? Why has this medium become such a fixture of pop culture, academic study, and creative pursuit? I recently wrote some thoughts for Relevant magazine on these questions--trying to articulate my theories for why cinema has a peculiarly spiritual hold our culture. The following is a brief excerpt:
We all agree movies allow us to escape—and there’s value in that—but it’s more than simple escapism. Movies take us to places we’ve never been and inside the skin of people quite different from ourselves. They offer us a window onto the wider world, broadening our perspective and opening our eyes to new wonders.
This “window” idea figures into the very form of cinema itself. One of my favorite film theorists, André Bazin, often compared the cinematic “shot” to a framed window that hints at a vast reality just outside of view. While other theorists saw the framed shot as something that restricts or limits what can be seen (i.e., what is inside the shot), Bazin theorized that the film image—through its suggestion of off-screen space—was about being “part of something prolonged indefinitely into the universe.” Siegfried Kracauer, another of my favorite film theorists, agreed that the film image was by nature indeterminant, ambiguous and open-ended—a fragment of reality suggesting endlessness.
The idea brings to mind what C.S. Lewis said about art functioning as a “window” onto worlds unseen. As humans, he writes in An Experiment in Criticism, we “seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. Each of us by nature sees the whole world from one point of view with a perspective and a selectiveness peculiar to himself. ... We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own. ... We demand windows.”
But cinema is more than just a window. It’s also a magnifying glass. It focuses our attention on everyday reality in a way that makes us see everyday reality for what it really is: magnificence and curiosity. Protestant theologian Paul Tillich once said that “in the proximate, the daily, the apparently small, there is hidden in truth the metaphysical; the here-and-now is the place where meaning is disclosed, where our existence must find interpretation, if it can find an interpretation at all.”