Saturday, January 17, 2015

What I Learned At the Movies

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, March 23, 2003

It’s a strange world, Hollywood—and not just because of the people who live there, and not just because it’s in California. It’s a very strange world, the one that movies create in our minds—a world we might like to see in our everyday lives, if we could write the screenplays of our lives. Certainly, movies can give us a somewhat skewed view of existence.
Here are some of the things we might have learned at the movies:
We’ve learned that large, loft-style apartments in New York City are well within the range of most people, whether they’re employed or not.
We’ve learned that at least one of a pair of every set of identical twins is born evil.
We’ve learned that if you’re ever called upon to defuse a bomb, don’t worry about which wire to cut, because you’ll always choose the right one—and that furthermore, all bombs are conveniently fitted with electronic timing devices with large red readouts which let you know exactly when they’re going to go off.
We’ve learned from movies that most laptop computers are powerful enough to override the communications system of any invading alien society, and that it never matters if you’re heavily outnumbered in a fight involving martial arts: your enemies will always wait patiently to attack you one by one, dancing around in a threatening manner, until you have knocked out their predecessors.
We also know from movies that rather than wasting bullets, megalomaniacs prefer to kill their archenemies using complicated machinery involving fuses, pulley systems, deadly gases, lasers, and man-eating sharks, which will always allow captives at least 20 minutes to escape.
From the movies, we learn that when you turn out the light to go to bed, everything in your bedroom will still be visible, just slightly bluish. We also know that all beds have special L-shaped cover sheets that reach to the armpit level on a woman but only to the waist level of the man lying beside her. Furthermore, we’ve learned (and listen up here girls) that if staying in a haunted house, women should always investigate any strange noises in their most revealing negligees.
We know from the movies that all grocery shopping bags contain at least one stick of French bread, and that the Eiffel tower is visible from every apartment window in Paris, and that if you ever need to pay for a taxi ride, don’t worry about looking in your wallet, because you’ll automatically pull out the exact, correct change anyway.
We know from the movies that if there’s a large plate glass window, someone will be thrown through it before too long. If there’s a news bulletin on the television or radio, it will pertain to you, right then and there, in that very moment. If you’re in a movie, and in a battle, and you make the mistake of showing someone the picture of your sweetheart back home—watch out, because your minutes are numbered.
Finally, if you’re in a wartime setting, and you need to impersonate a German officer, there’s no need to bother to learn the German language: faking a German accent will work just fine. (This also works with Russian officers, as well, because we all know that, in the movies, or at least in Hollywood, everyone speaks English anyway!
And, oh yes—remember, when you’re driving down the road—even if it’s a perfectly straight road—that you need to turn the steering wheel vigorously from left to right every few moments-- because, after all, that’s Hollywood!
Of course, we can’t insist on 100% veracity from films, and there is such a thing as “cinematic license” (as well as an over reliance on cinematic clichés). One shouldn’t study for the “History” section of the MCAS tests by watching too many movies, either. Hollywood is full of mangled history, from the convoluted conspiracy theories of Oliver Stone’s JFK to the syrupy romance of Pearl Harbor (complete with John Voight as Franklin Roosevelt, rising from his wheel chair at a Cabinet meeting in order to inspire the nation to take up arms against the Japanese; I mean, Roosevelt was great—but there are limits.) I believe I mentioned the historical inaccuracies of this year’s Gangs of New York a couple of weeks ago. But these pale compared to those of the movie Gladiator from a few years back (in my opinion, probably the most mediocre film ever to win the “Best Picture” Oscar). Gladiator had Russell Crowe and his cohorts managing, somehow, to restore the Roman Republic, following the death of the evil emperor, Commodus—killed in a gladiators’ duel in the Coliseum, no less. These are nice sentiments, perhaps, and they make for a great ending for the film. But unfortunately, none of these things ever happened. The Roman Republic was never restored, and the Roman Empire still had lots of years left in it after Commodus died.
Perhaps filmmakers don’t always follow the most stringent standards of historical verification. Maybe they ask us to suspend belief and look the other way more times than we realize. But we love them anyway. Movies can be an important aspect of our psychological and, I would add, spiritual, makeup. They hold influence over us, deep inside; they help to shape the way we see the world, and the ways we think.
Just like our primal ancestors, who gathered around the camp fire and listened to mythical stories of far off times and places, so we, generation after generation, go to the movies in order to be transported to a more transcendent realm. It’s interesting to note that movie projectors were originally known as “magic lanterns”. Our movies, too, illuminate our modern myths—and I’m using the word “myth” here in its positive sense—as a “story to live by”. Movies (as well as plays and television programs as well, of course) “play an important role by encoding solutions to life’s problems”, as Bernard Brandon Scott has written. They help us sort out who we are—what the world around us is like—and how we are called upon to behave in given situations. Movies provide role models (good ones and bad ones) of what it means to be human. One of the religious truths we affirm as Unitarian Universalists is that “revelation is not sealed”. The voice of the Holy speaks to us in our own time, through our own culture, as much as through any ancient scripture, whether tradition has deemed it “sacred” or not. There are important things, then, that we really can learn at the movies.
I’ve always loved going to the movies, and as I prepared for this sermon, I was struck by how many deep grooves of remembrance have been carved into my mind by times spent in movie theaters. I can remembergoing to the movies an awful lot as a child, and then as a teenager. Woonsocket, that working class city in which I grew up, once boasted six movie theaters along its Main Street. Even when I was a child, in the 1960s, there were still three that remained. When the Bijoux closed sometime around 1961, only two remained, the Stadium and the Park. It was in one or the other of these that I spent (what seems now like) just about every Saturday afternoon for God knows how many years.
Ask me what movies I saw, and I can remember very, very few of them now. (Thirteen Ghosts was one—in 3D, no less, with those strange googly glasses. Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds was another; it scared the heck out of me for weeks and weeks afterward. I seem to remember a couple of Three Stooges flicks, maybe a John Wayne western or two. That’s about it, as far as particular films go.
But there was something about the ritual of going to the movies that became an important part of who I was (and who I became, I suppose). It was about being part of a community (especially when movie theaters were located on the main streets of communities, and not off in outskirts or in the suburbs. (That’s why I think we’re still so fortunate to have a movie theater in Stoughton Square; right across the street from our church.) My brothers and I used to walk to the movies every week—about a mile or so—over the gray and dusty streets of the city, across the Blackstone River, down past the railroad trestle. We’d walk past the familiar sites of the world we knew all so well, and then into one of those almost magical palaces of entertainment, where there were fountains carved into the walls, and gilt-edged decorations along the balustrade, and murals painted on the walls, and a chandelier hanging from the ceiling. (All this for a quarter or fifty cents, too!)
Going to the movies was a way of transcending the rather mundane reality of life in those sometimes drab, sometimes boring circumstances which Woonsocket presented. It engaged my imagination; it gave me a sense of something more and something deeper in life—a sense that I, too, could “follow that dream just like those guys did way up on that screen”.
Going to the movies was about joining with others in a common endeavor—just like church, it seemed to me even back then (but a whole lot more fun and more interesting). Everybody from school was there (it seemed) and we found our friends, and sat with them (preferably in the balcony), and we traded news of the week—and we heckled other kids from other schools we didn’t lik. We luxuriated in being free, if only for a couple of hours, of adult guidance and supervision (except for the all-seeing usher who would shine his flashlight in our faces if we got too rowdy).
There were others kinds of bonding that the movies fostered, as well. When I was about eight or nine, I can remember going with my brother, John, in his brand new 1962 Ford Falcon, to see The Sword in the Stone, a Disney cartoon about King Arthur. Before the movie, we ate lunch at Carol’s Hamburgers, where you could get a hamburger, fries, and a milk shake for forty-nine cents. I have eaten many finer meals since, and have seen many more exotic sites, but that outing is one I’ll always remember.
I can remember sitting in the Stadium Theater with my entire family—all five of us—my mother, my father, my two brothers, and myself-- sometime around 1960, watching the film Spartacus starring Kurt Douglas. I remember all of us sitting there in tears, as the leader of the great slave rebellion in ancient Rome caught a glimpse of his new born child, just before he lapsed into death on a cross., as a traitor to Rome. And I learned something in that moment about the bond of family, and about how being a family (even an imperfect, not always functional one) means being able to laugh and cry together.
I remember going with my father to see Taras Bulba, starring Yul Brenner as the great Cossack leader from the steppes of the Ukraine—and feeling the pride later that this was the stock from which we two, father and son, had come.
And I can remember, when I was about thirteen and had developed this extreme fascination with the work of Truman Capote, conning my mother into taking me to see In Cold Blood, because I couldn’t get in by myself because it had an R-rating. I can remember thinking, even then, what love this must be—how precious I must be to her—that she would, very simply, give up her time, and go to a movie in which she had absolutely no interest—just because I wanted to go. In the years since, when I have been called upon by my own children to meet one of their little needs or wants, I remember my mother and In Cold Blood, and as often as not, I’ll go along.
Elizabeth and I, on our first date in 1976, went to see Barry Lyndon—about which, I must admit, I remember next to nothing. Sometimes, the particular film doesn’t matter. Just being there is what’s important.
Different movies affect each of us differently, of course. Some of us might love particular films, which will leave others of us totally cold and confused. I remember having a conversation a couple of weeks ago with someone at coffee hour, right here in this church, about the film The Piano, which came out a few years ago. It was about a woman who became a mail order bride, and was sent to live with this simply awful man in Australia. It was her piano playing that kept her alive, the film told us. It was supposed to be a real artsy movie, and this woman said to me that she had simply loved it. I had found it bizarre—just hideous—and had no idea what it was supposed to be about. Same thing happened with Moulin Rouge last year, which a lot of people loved. I couldn’t figure what the heck was going on., and it quite literally gave me a headache.
Similarly, when I finally sat down with my family not too long to watch Doctor Zhivago, a film I really like (my second favorite film of all time, actually), they found it boring and laughingly predictable, and even made fun of “Laura’s Theme” every time it swelled from the speakers.
Likewise, when Noah and I break into spasms of laughter remembering this bit of deliciously irreverent dialogue from South Park, the movie, many people (including my spouse) will stare at us in disbelief, convinced that we have finally lost it.
You see. it’s just different for each of us and as the French would say (strange how some of us, at least, have suddenly developed this [no doubt temporary] affection for the French)—“Vive le difference!”. Our tastes in movies differ as widely as do our tastes in books or music or poetry. Just as one religion—or one political creed—or one sexual orientation—doesn’t fit all, so we don’t see the world of cinema from the same angle, either. What’s important is that we maintain our integrity, and see this world with our own eyes, and like what we like (and not what some outside “authority” or “expert” tells us we “should” like). What’s equally important, too, is that we maintain a profound sense of mutual respect for those who see things differently than we do.
So, we might learn some crazy things from the movies. Like that once it’s applied, lipstick will never rub off, even while scuba diving, And that if you decide to start dancing on the street, everyone you meet will know all the steps. (If you decide to start singing, everyone will know all the lyrics, too.)
But we learn so many other important lessons about life as well. Another thing I did when preparing for this sermon was actually to sit down and list my “top ten favorite movies of all time”. I tried, too, to discern what lessons these films taught me. The results were interesting-- and a little surprising, even to me (and I thought I knew myself pretty well).
Number ten on my list was American Beauty, a film from a couple of years ago which starred Kevin Spacey and won the Academy Award for Best Picture of the Year. American Beauty is both a tragedy and a comedy, really—as our own lives so often are. It reminds me not to squander my life, but to live each day to its full—and never to neglect reaching out to others, especially to those closest to us.
Next on the list was the first episode of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Fellowship of the Rings. I did a whole sermon on Tolkien not too far back, so you might have some idea of why I found this film so powerful. It’s about playing our part in the epic dramas of our times, and about the transcendent power of friendship, and about doing the best we can to remain loyal to our calling in life.
Number eight is Tootsie starring Dustin Hoffman-- not so much about discovering the feminine side of ourselves, I think, as it is about empathy and learning what it means to walk a mile is a different pair of moccasins.
Next, I’d put What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, a film from the early 1990s, starring Johnny Depp—one of the most underrated films of all time, in my opinion; underrated and largely unnoticed, just like its main protagonist. It’s about all those overlooked, unremarkable, but truly heroic people we see all around us, all the time.
Then, I’d put E.T., because it taught me the value of friends—and it reminds me of the deep yearning we all have for home.
Fifth, I’d say, is West Side Story (another choice that gets my wife scratching her head). I love the music of West Side Story, which I think is the greatest American musical of all time. I think, somehow, that Leonard Bernstein’s score points to the music and lyricism that underlies the lives of us all. It’s also a vibrant film about life in the city (and I love cities). It was years ahead of its time in exploring racism and prejudice, and it illustrates the futility of violence, and reminds us always that “there’s a place for us” who yearn for a better way.
Fourth, I think, is a tie—two films sharing one spot: two great films about the Holocaust, Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List and, from this year, Roman Polanski’s The Pianist. Both are terrifyingly painful depictions of this darkest chapter in the history of modern times. Both also show that the human spirit is stronger than any force that can be mustered against it.
Third is Gandhi, a film which made the epic life of this great man of peace come alive. More than ever, we need to watch Gandhi now. We need to listen to Gandhi now, and heed his words and his example.
Then, first and second, almost anti-climatically, I’d put Doctor Zhivago (as I said earlier) and [drum roll] Gone With the Wind. Two rather predictable, mainstream choices, you might think for someone as “profound” and “enlightened” as I am (ha!). Some of you are, no doubt, surprised I didn’t choose something weirder and more esoteric (“Frankly, I am tempted to say, I don’t give a damn…” but I won’t.)
For the longest time, I couldn’t figure out why these, of all films, would be my favorite movies. Now, after thinking about it a little more deeply, I think I know. Frankly, I think it says more about me and my personal history than about the particular films I’ve chosen. I think I’ve chosen these two—one from the blazing heat of the Deep South, the other from the severe, deep winter of Russian history—because of the way they resonate and reflect my own heritage, and my own life story. Gone With the Wind is my tribute to my Southern mother, and the important influence she has been over me. Doctor Zhivago, I believe, represents my father, and his influence still coursing through my veins.
Gone With the Wind and Doctor Zhivago represent my own heritage, written in great big (twenty foot tall) capital letters. That is why they speak to me.
This is what I would like all of you to do, sometime soon, when you have the chance: Make up your own “top ten” list—those films that have touched you the most, that have spoken to you most clearly. For in so doing, I think you’ll come to know yourselves better than you now do. And in coming to know ourselves, we unleash a holy gift of great magnificence, indeed.
That is why movies speak to all of us:
Because they touch us in our deepest places.
Because they remind us of the magnificent strands of being—all so very different—from which our souls are woven.
Because they remind us of the great human story we share.
Because they remind us of what it means to be alive.

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