(Originally published by CatholicExchange.com April 2, 2002)
Why are good stories and movies so popular?
The last two years (2000-2001) saw movie box office revenues soar. Even in times of tragedy, movies are in style. The events of 9/11 suggested that all businesses, even the film industry, would suffer. Not so. While there was a slump after 9/11, the film business has never been stronger. Why is that?
Seeing What God Sees
Good stories and movies are popular because they give us a vision of our divine destiny. Because we are made in God's image we have a natural curiosity to experience God's attributes. Unlike any other media, movies allow us to see what normally only God sees in five extraordinary ways.
1. Good stories and movies give us a sense of God's infinite knowledge. THE PERFECT STORM taught us about the rigors of commercial fishing, THE GREEN MILE enlightened us to the horror of death row, and AMADEUS revealed the politics of culture in 18th century Vienna. While it is true that movies rarely get all the facts right, they still tell us more than we could know otherwise. Filmmakers are able to condense into two hours what one person could never absorb in a lifetime. In a movie we are treated to a glimpse of infinite knowledge presented as a unified whole in a manner we could never conceive on our own. In this way, movies give us a preview of our destiny to know as God knows.
Inside the Heart
2. Good stories and movies reveal to us what is morally true. DIE HARD is about a vacationing New York cop who battles a team of terrorist-thieves in an L.A. office building on Christmas Eve. But what the movie is really about is how true love of a man for his wife, regardless of the obstacles, trials, and terrors, dies hard. That is DIE HARD's moral premise. Research indicates that the greater the validity, or truth, of the moral premise, the greater the movie's popularity. That is because what is right and wrong in God's mind is written on our hearts; and when our hearts resonate with the truth on the big screen, our word of mouth promotion generates big audiences.
3. Good stories and movies allow us to know what is in a person's heart. In a novel the author often writes with an omniscient voice telling us what is motivating a character to do good or evil. In a movie, this is replaced with images of characters in private moments or voice-overs of their thoughts. In WHAT WOMEN WANT, the audience, along with womanizer Nick Marhsall (Mel Gibson), hears the brutally honest thoughts on the hearts of the women in his life. The filmmakers also let us know Nick's heart with the same technique. Movies can, therefore, reveal the good and evil at the core of a person's heart and we see them as God does.
4. Good stories and movies allow us to be omnipresent. In JOAN OF ARC (Duguay, 1999) the filmmakers cut between five different story lines hundreds of miles apart. Skillfully we are treated to the convergence of the mystical Joan, her peasant parents, the scheming king, a vengeful bishop, and land-hungry dukes. We are like supernatural voyeurs watching displaced storylines being woven together into a tapestry of intrigue and Providence. We feel privileged — even superior — as we witness the desperate struggling, the naive decisions, and the malice aforethought. We see everything, everywhere, as it happens, just like God does.
5. Good stories and movies give us a sense of eternity. In eternity God perceives time in multiple dimensions, just as we see pieces on a game board. As we can see length, height and depth, so eternity perceives the past, present and future. Movies access the times and events of eternity with flashbacks and flash-forwards. In AMISTAD, during the courtroom scenes, flashbacks are used with staggering clarity to reveal the atrocities that were inflicted upon the slaves months earlier. To people in the courtroom the scene was described with words in the past tense. But to us the scenes were shockingly real and very much part of the present. Thus, movies give us a sense of how God perceives eternity.
Stories and movies, then, are entertainment on a cosmic scale. We can sense what it is like to have all knowledge, our souls can resonate with moral truth, we can clearly understand a person's heart, we can at once witness events in different places, and we can experience the past and the future as if it was now. Just as contemplative mystics seek dark corners in which to encounter God's presence, so moviegoers seek dark theaters in which to encounter God's attributes and sample their divine destiny. That is why movies are so popular.