In the first chapter of his book Film as Religion: Myths, Morals, and Rituals, John C. Lyden describes the various aspects of Clifford Geertz’s definition of religion, in order to set up the ways that film functions in a “religious” way. One aspect of that is that religions provide models of reality and models for reality. In other words, religions show us two things: “the way the world is believed to be and the way it is believed the world ought to be” (Film as Religion, 22).
Whether or not one agrees with the approach of generalizing religion so that a definition can include all religions, this aspect of religion applies to the way Christians view the world in light of the revelation of Jesus. In the light of Jesus, we see both how the world really is (e.g., the Light has come into the world and people loved the darkness rather than the light) and how it ought to be (in Christ, who is the Image of God, in whom all people were created and are re-created).
To think about this with respect to film is an interesting experiment. Again, whether or not one wants to describe this function of film as “religious,” it is clear that films do attempt to do this. They both try to show us how the world is and they try to show us how the world ought to be. The most obvious example of films that do the former, at least in my recent viewing, is in the films of Michael Haneke.
His films, among other things, expose the nihilistic and violent impulses in an age without God, or even without any set and agreed-upon moral standard (it is arguable in my mind whether the latter can exist without the former). They further show us the way we consume violence as if it were so much entertainment, which we can then leave behind as easily as we leave behind the weather report—because instances of violence have as much significance for us as the weather, being one item in a run-down of the “news.”
We could also mention nearly any post-apocalyptic movie, any war movie, or any movie dealing with various conspiracies. Whether or not they are realistic, they describe or depict either how things are in the world, or the threat of how things could be if we don’t act, or change our current practices or ways of thinking. Considering how the world is, the examples could be easily multiplied. In fact, the vast majority of films probably fit in this category.
But what about films that show the world the way it ought to be? This category is much smaller. In fact, whenever characters in movies try to establish some idealistic form of life, dramatic requirements of action and tension mean that those ideals or utopias collapse or are ruined precisely by the humans who seek a particular vision of the good life. But sometimes movies try to show the “ought” by its reverse. Off the top of my head, Avatar and The Lorax show some version of an ideal world by showing their worlds’ ruination by human beings. But in the end, isn’t that just another version of saying the world would be great if it weren’t for all the humans (though there is always one “good” human who fights against the “bad” humans)? At its extreme, it becomes an actual call for the extinction of humans, so that the planet can flourish.
I have just begun to think about this distinction, so I have no doubt that there are movies that fit the second category, and work as a sort of call to or vision of an ideal world, or what the world would look like if we all, for example, “just loved each other.” In some ways, romantic comedies with happy endings serve this function on the small scale of our own romantic relationships. On the other hand, probably the closest we can get to what the world should be is moving incrementally closer: when people show glimpses of loving one another like Jesus does, or forgiving one another, or reconciling.
What movies have you seen that show us how the world ought to look, or give us a picture of the “not yet,” however that might be defined?