Magazine article The Christian Century

Film Talk: An Approach to Moviegoing

Magazine article The Christian Century

Film Talk: An Approach to Moviegoing

Article excerpt

IN GIVING an account of ancient Greek drama, philosopher Martha Nussbaum points out that drama for the Greeks served a purpose that went beyond mere entertainment. "To attend a tragic drama was not to go to a distraction or a fantasy, in the course of which one suspended one's anxious practical questions. It was instead to engage in a communal process of inquiry, reflection, and feeling with respect to important civic and personal ends." Theater provided a way to explore a central question: How should human beings live?

To respond to [the performance of a

tragedy] was to acknowledge and participate

in a way of life--a way of life . . . How

that prominently included reflection

and public debate about ethical and

civic matters . . . To respond well to a

tragic performance involved both feeling

and critical reflection; and these

were closely finked with one another.

Film can serve a similar purpose. In its often nuanced exploration of emotions, and in its representation of behavior and social class, films implicitly if not explicitly address the question of how human beings should live.

Someone will object that the Greek tragedies, because they depict epic heroic struggle, are far more worthy of thoughtful analysis than are popular films. We have that impression, I believe, primarily because Greek tragedies have been treated with seriousness not only by their society of origin but also by a long line of respected intellectuals, reaching into our own time. But if the narrative content of a Greek tragedy were summarized as if it were a film plot, it might be difficult to see its profundity. Medea, for example, is the story of a woman who loses her husband to a younger woman ar;d in vengeance kills her children; in the end, a chariot swoops down out of the sky and carries her away. If our attention were solely on the "action" in Greek tragic drama, the play could be reduced to such a description.

On the other hand, if popular films were understood as responses to the question, How should we live?, we might notice that they propose diverse answers--some highly dubious and others rather profound--to that important question. is not the behavior glamorized by a film (implicitly) proposed as a partial answer? Greek audiences may have recognized more, communally and consistently than do late 20th-century moviegoers that the serious question of how one should live lies beneath the surface of drama. But popular films--from Witness to Alien 3--can certainly be seen in addressing that question in myriad ways.

Nussbaum also suggests that Greek spectators attended a public drama expecting to identify and discuss its proposal about "how we should live." Similarly, for many filmgoers one of the, most prominent pleasures of moviegoing is that of thinking and talking about the film they have seen. If theater was not entertainment for ancient Greeks, neither is film "pure"--that is to say, mindless--entertainment for many Americans.

Nussbaum's description of Greek audiences helps us imagine 20th-century spectators who want to think deeply and talk intensely about a popular film. But spectators who enjoy serious discussions of films are among the few who do not merely take in but also critically evaluate a film's depiction of life. One can choose whether to accept, reject or adopt in part a film's proposed values only when the question of how to live is consciously brought to watching and thinking about a film. Failing that, image is simply heaped upon image, proposal upon proposal, without clarification of the potential choices of "how we should live.

OF COURSE, there are also enormous differences between fifth-century B.C.E. Greek audiences and 20th-century Americans, two of which are instructive. First, an important aspect of Greek tragedy was its setting, Ancient theater took place during a solemn civic/religious festival, whose trappings made spectators conscious that the values of the community were being examined and communicated. …

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