Bad Movies and Bad Religion

Over Christmas break, my brother, father, and I went to see “Creed”. My brother, who recently has picked up an interest in boxing, was thrilled to see the film. But I — for reasons somewhere between snobbery and suspicion of films involving Sylvester Stallone — was hesitant. My father wanted me to go, though. It may take some suspension of disbelief, he said, but it will be fun. I went. It was fun. And it turned out the film involved very little suspension of disbelief. Without some of the wilder improbabilities of the previous Rocky films, and with enough playful jabs at the melodrama of those films, “Creed” worked. All of us enjoyed it. 

There are films, though, that work only if you suspend disbelief. Take Pixar’s films, for example. Nearly all of their films are fantastic, in both senses of the word. Each is premised on taking a childhood fantasy seriously — What if our toys came alive when we weren’t around? What if there really are monsters in our closets? — and the result is usually, well, fantastic. Each film asks us to accept the initial premise in order for the world they create to work. And work they do: Pixar’s writers ensure that all the eventualities of their premise work themselves out, in comic and dramatic fashion.

There are other films, though, that only function if an initial suspension of disbelief is prolonged throughout the film. Unlike “Toy Story” or “Monsters Inc.” these films only work if their plot points aren’t examined too closely. “High School Musical” comes to mind. During my own high school career it was all the rage. It featured a dashing cast, catchy songs, and a vision of high school that transcended the banality of the one we went to every day. It was fun. But even in high school, I could see that once you began reflecting on the film, instead of being absorbed in it, the movie fell apart. The plot is predictable, the dialogue clichéd, and the premise absurd. 

Of course, there’s a place for watching movies with one’s critical faculties in abeyance. They can deliver us — temporarily — from our world and into one in which evil is routed and true love rewarded. Sports movies, romances, and action flicks give us a chance to escape. But the pleasures of these films tend to dissipate after a few viewings. It becomes difficult to suppress the feeling that something crudely transactional is taking place, as if happiness can only be purchased at the cost of reflection. 

The job of a critic, writes A.O. Scott, a film critic with the New York Times, is “to refuse to look at anything simply as what it is, to insist on subjecting it to intellectual scrutiny.” This is not, he adds elsewhere, “in order to ruin everyone else’s fun” by pooh-poohing films that are plebeian, but in order to respect the fact that we, as humans, are both emotive and intellective creatures (to borrow from Alyssa Wilkinson’s wonderful review of A.O. Scott’s new book Better Living Through Criticism). Good films bear a little scrutiny. Rather than taking away from the pleasures of film, criticism can provide more enduring pleasures. 

Now, I rarely go to the movies. My income and location in Chicago don’t encourage it. But I do go to church. An aside from a recent lecture by Rowan Williams got me thinking that a similar dynamic is at work in religious experience. He says, “In being invited to confess Christ as divine and human we are not being invited to suspend our intellectual faculties and accept a contradiction, in the good cause of obedient piety. We are being invited to do some hard work.” Faith, in other words, shouldn’t ask us to stop thinking (as if willful ignorance could constitute obedience to God) but to begin thinking inside the realm entered through faith. 

Just as bad movies demand that we suspend our critical faculties in order to enjoy them, bad religion requires something similar of us — that we don’t ask questions, don’t examine the words we confess, don’t have doubts — since that will ruin the experience. And it really will: anyone who has sung some of less artful contemporary Christian worship songs knows that they fall apart under a little inspection. Bad religion fears reflection, since a little critical distance can see cliché, cheap sentimentalism, and predictability for what they are. Like a movie that tries to orchestrate our emotional response, bad religion leaves us feeling like we’ve been manipulated. 

But if poorly made films and poorly done liturgy ask that we leave our intellects at the door, good art and the best of the Christian tradition invite our intellects inside, to explore the world made possible by trust. Let me illustrate with an example. Terence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” is an extraordinarily ambitious film. During its 138 minutes of run time, the camera roams from the creation of the universe, to dinosaurs doing battle, to a group of small boys frolicking in the wake of a truck spraying pesticides. Unlike most films, “The Tree of Life”, does not tell a protaganist’s story, but the whole narrative of life itself. Where most films are driven by dialogue, “The Tree of Life” is impelled by the force of its images. For many, it was a frustrating film: critics lamented the hubris of trying to tell a story about all of life; viewers found it boring. They weren’t willing to accept Malick’s premise and so they didn’t trust the film. Others, like A.O. Scott, did trust the film. And because of that trust they were able to appreciate the beauty of the strange world that Malick renders. Scott writes that the film “stak[es] out well-traveled territory and excavat[es] primal, eternal meanings.” “The Tree of Life,” he says, “ponders some of the hardest and most persistent questions, the kind that leave adults speechless when children ask them.” 

Like “The Tree of Life,” Christianity requires trust. We can’t enter without some faith in the story it tells. But once we cross the threshold we are rewarded by the world we are given. We begin to see the beautiful coherence of this world and the rewards that come from trying to understand it. Those who make a habit of thinking about God can understand the extraordinary architecture of the world of God, just as a film critic can find rich themes in details the casual viewer would miss. 

And yet, there comes a time when even the critic is at a loss for words, if only temporarily. That moment came for me when the credits of “The Tree of Life” rolled. I stayed in my seat. Someone began to applaud to my left, but I was silent. I didn’t know what to say or do. What had I just seen? I knew I would need to watch the film again to know. Pure worship of God does something like that. It presents us with a bewildering excess of meaning, before which we can only fall silent.