I love movies.
Other than God and my spouse, I don’t believe there is anything I love nearly as much as movies.
My parents raised me on a cinematic diet of Rodgers and Hammerstein and movies in space, namely Star Wars. Musicals and science fiction aren’t all that different, really. Most musicals use realistic settings, characters, and plot lines to tell a human story but introduce the concept of song and dance to highly fantasize the experience. Science fiction is generally set in the real world but introduces fictional technology and concepts (robots, spaceships, alien species, different planets, time travel) that, again, turn the experience into fantasy.
Growing up in a poor, rural family, I really needed the safety of movies to escape to “a galaxy far, far away.”
Friday Movie Night was my favorite thing in the world. Mom and dad would order a large sheet pizza from the hole-in-the-wall pizza joint in Bath, NY and then drop by the movie store (remember those??) to pick up two to four VHS tapes. My three siblings, my parents, and I would cover the living room floor in blankets and pillows, eat pizza, drink root beer, and watch movies until we fell asleep.
I lived for Friday nights! In fact, if we had misbehaved during the week, my parents were smart enough to threaten us with early bed on a Friday instead of movie night. We would straighten up our act right quick! I remember missing the Friday movie night debut of Oliver! on VHS. I was devastated.
I am now a spiritual counselor and teacher working in addiction recovery with a solid Masters of Divinity degree under my belt. I am also a writer, writing about movies and television for a couple of local Twin Cities publications. It may seem like a strange combination of lifestyles but Friday movie nights, even more so than the Christian Scriptures, became my primary religious texts.
Friday movie nights had been moving along at their normal, riveting pace, when one night occurring during my ninth year of movie nights, my mom rented a VHS copy of 2001: a space odyssey. Mom and I had become obsessed with movies like the original Star Wars trilogy and The Dark Crystal, all epic, visually stunning creations set in another world. Like most boys my age, I had a deep obsession with Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon spaceship and had collected multiple Star Wars action figures and vehicles. When my mom showed me the front jacket of the 2001 VHS, I saw an image of a spaceship, and that was enough for me.
A significant shift happened in me the night I watched 2001 with my mom. I remember feeling a sense of excitement and awe when I watched family movie night staples like The Sound of Music, The Empire Strikes Back, or The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. When I watched Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: a space odyssey, I sat in my pajamas cross-legged on the living room floor.I was captivated.
HAL 9000 was very real to me.
The seamless meld of music and motion, spaceships slowly pirouetting in the black of space, lifted my heart to my throat.
Something in the narrative, the mystery of the plot, the fusion of humanity with the stars, confused me.
That confusion filled me with unspeakable joy and reverence.
To sum it up: While watching 2001: a space odyssey at the age of nine, I had what the theologians call an experience of “the numinous” or, in layman’s terms, my first “religious experience.” I had this same experience again in high school when I saw Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. In college, it was Richard Linklater’s Waking Life and David Fincher’s Fight Club, and in my seminary years it was Tom Ford’s A Single Man, Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, and Steve Jacobs’s Disgrace.
Just in the past couple of years I have seen David Lowery’s A Ghost Story, Robert Eggers’s The VVitch, and Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, all three films that made me feel utterly transported while at the same time tapping into something of the Divine dwelling within me. Terrence Malick’s films do this for me as well as the films of Paul Thomas Anderson and Jane Campion. For those who love films beyond the mundanity of a personal hobby, you know that simply watching a film for the sake of entertainment is just not enough. There is something transcendent that can happen when we watch movies.So, why is it that I keep collecting films and have shelves full of them in my living room at home if only a handful of them provide me with meaningful spiritual experiences? I guess I still love Friday movie nights!I suppose I’m still searching for the next film that will move me deeply and give me that sense that I am in the presence of the “numinous.” No matter how hard I work to find other “hobbies” and make other “life goals,” I can’t escape the abiding feeling that movies are somehow vital.
I heard the stories about Jesus in the four Gospels in the Christian Scriptures, but I could not shake the feeling that somehow I had actually encountered him in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. Willem Dafoe might be another white American male playing Jesus, a brown Palestinian rabbi, but, he captures the humanity of Jesus in a way that the pulpit-pounding preachers of my childhood did not.In Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, a tragedy occurs that causes an entire family system to unravel. Inspired by the Divine riddle of The Book of Job from the Hebrew Bible, Malick presents the tragedy as if it has long-lasting cosmic impact. Something was being established “before the foundation of the world.” Malick, a devout Episcopalian philosopher, is content not having the answers. The God of my youth was described as someone who offered “answers” to all of life’s problems. What happened to embracing a sense of mystery?
As I watch Stanley Donen’s Singin’ in the Rain , I am reminded that we were created to dance and sing away our troubles. At the end of the day, is it enough to just “Make ’Em Laugh?” It could be. As Alice Walker says, “Hard times require furious dancing.”
Babette’s Feast teaches me that food brings strangers together, and not just the eating of the food, the work of crafting the food as well.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy teaches me that “all we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
Then there’s the endless list of animated movies: Pixar’s Toy Story and Up teach me that I am enough, just as I am.
Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, My Neighbor Totoro, and Spirited Away all teach me that the Earth is a friend, and it needs gentle care taking. It has a heart and spirit all its own. Also, could Totoro be a fuzzy incarnation of the Divine? I am still curious about this one.Disney’s Zootopia and Robin Hood teach me that all that has been broken by systems of oppression shall be made right.
Moana teaches me that when you’re trying to figure out who you are on the winding adventure of life, big risks can be worth taking.
Richard Linklater’s Waking Life teaches me that “living the questions” (Rilke) is the best, and most compassionate, way to live.
I could go on.
If movies can instill in us a sense of life, freedom, and spiritual grounding that transforms our lives and offers healing for ourselves and the world around us, are they not holy in some way?
Although I am a life-long student of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, and I am an ordained chaplain, my initial Divine Scriptures were movies. Holy liturgy was Friday Movie Night.
I am still looking for the next religious experience that draws me closer to God. So, I’ll keep watching movies. We will see what happens.
To be continued…