Confessions of a Moviegoer

By Chatman, Delle | U.S. Catholic, March 2001 | Go to article overview

Confessions of a Moviegoer


Chatman, Delle, U.S. Catholic


Spiritual lessons at the cineplex

For one Catholic screenwriter, Matthew 10:27 could describe a life of finding meaning at the movies: "What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light."

For four decades now, movies have been lifting me to heaven's door and dragging me through the gates of hell.

I hesitate to admit this, but for me going to see a movie feels a lot like going to church. In grateful deference to all the priests who pour their hearts into their homilies on Sunday morning, often the matinee I've seen on Friday has already upstaged their word-bound efforts to bring some new light of truth into my life.

Films have taught me much of what I know about heroism and cowardice, love and hate, good and evil. Their sound tracks are the sacred music of my Monday-through-Saturday life. For most people films are merely diversions, but for 40 years of my life they have been an invaluable source of consolation and exhilaration, coming in a close third place behind the Eucharist and family life.

In my everyday world it is often a scene, a moment, or an image from a film that walks with me, haunting or helping me through another day's struggle.

Powerful movies like The Shawshank Redemption or Life Is Beautiful can lift my vision beyond the unjust challenges of life onto a higher plane--where love is still possible, where courage wins the day, where humans save each other with acts of self-sacrifice. Profound films like Field of Dreams or It's a Wonderful Life can dislodge a depression, sending me back out into the cold, cruel world ready to fight my personal battles, refreshed and encouraged. Even a so-so film like Joe Versus the Volcano can wrap an inept production around a valuable idea, worthy of contemplation.

The lights of the theater dim, and immediately my spirit rises to meet that narrow beam of light overhead that spreads dazzling images out before me like a double-dog-dare invitation to try flying without a plane.

I feel a little guilty when avid book readers talk of being transported by words on a page. Deep down, I feel it is possibly more mature and certainly more intellectual to find one's solace in the solitary absorption of carefully wrought prose or poetry.

And yet I treasure the experience of leaving the cocoon of my home, driving to a public place, sitting in the midst of strangers, and trusting in civilization enough to allow the room to grow pitch dark. I revel in our willingness to become one and surrender control to the mysterious currents of a river of sounds, words, and images.

School of the scary

Long before child development experts warned parents of the danger of exposing young children to violent media, my parents gave in to a 5-year-old's pleas to stay up late on Friday night like my big brother and watch television with the adults. So, before I could even wrap my mouth around the word Frankenstein, I soaked in the monster's horrific story on the little screen. My mouth hung open watching that grotesque, stitched-together face, the mob of villagers with their torches, the fire that was intended to destroy the evil but somehow seemed to amplify it.

Yes, I ran behind my father's big easy chair and yelled, "Change the channel, change the channel," but I kept peeking out from my foxhole and kicked up a fuss if they threatened to send me to bed.

I was mesmerized. I watched Lon Chaney grow hair on his face and long fangs whenever the moon turned full. I saw the nice-enough Dr. Jekyll turn into murderous Mr. Hyde. I watched the dead rise and walk the earth again, sometimes as skeletons, sometimes as zombies, and once as a blind, stomping creature wrapped in what seemed like dirty bandages and called by a name that sounded like "mommy."

Like my daughter and her 5-year-old peers, most children of my generation have been entertained by Disney. But my young and tender psyche was not saved from Frankenstein's horrors by Mr.

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