“So we are conditioning our society all the time and we should take responsibility for that.”
I remember when I first began thinking about movies and their messages. Sort of a shock, really. Having grown up imagining it all a more innocent affair, my Disney films-become John Wayne epics-become James Bond adventures, the idea that someone was skillfully trying to persuade me of a viewpoint– “of what is acceptable in life and what is not” — seemed almost heretical.
But then I began to see that we all see out of our hearts; that at our best we cannot do other than that. It is what Dooyeweerd described as our “pre-theoretic commitments.” Before we even begin theorizing about anything—God, heaven, hell, human nature, history –we have already committed ourselves. In the words of Polanyi, the viewer is always viewing. And so the story-teller is always telling a story.
This morning I had a fascinating note from a friend in London, Steve Turner, who has spent his life in the arts: a wonderfully gifted poet himself, he has also written about musicians of all shapes and sizes. (Even in the local Barnes and Noble yesterday, I saw his “The Beatles: A Hard Day’s Write” for sale—and bought two copies! “The stories behind every song,” it comes with this recommendation from Bono, “I’m a huge fan…. It’s an inspiring and humbling book.”) Steve passed on these words from Bill Nicholson, the screenwriter for films like “Gladiator” and “Les Miserables.”
“I am here to tell you we write story and that’s important because stories matter like hell.
“Screenwriting matters like hell. Why? Because stories form our culture. I profoundly believe that. The storytelling impulse is built into us and it’s the way we explain and describe our entire lives, all the time.
“Think back to Victorian times. Imagine all those strange stories in which the gentleman always behaved like a gentleman and wouldn’t kick a man when he’s down. Where you play up and you play the game, all these bizarre codes that were built into how you ought to behave in Victorian times.
“We look back at that and at the books that peddled that and we think that’s so preachy, that’s so propagandist. We are doing exactly the same thing today. Every time we write a story we are in fact creating a moral structure and that moral structure is influencing the people who see that film.
“And they add up, all these films, to a sense of what is acceptable in life and what is not. So we have an enormous power, particularly the movies that are widely seen. You may think if they’re pure entertainment there is no moral message in it, but that is not true.
“Imagine every film you ever saw exalted people with guns and said: ‘The people with guns win because they’ve got guns, and everybody who hasn’t got a gun is a pathetic loser.’ We would develop as a society – perhaps we are developing as a society – where people want guns in order not to be losers.
“In fact, that’s not what the movies say. They nearly always show that the person who has right on their side has the ‘best gun’ if you like. I know that is a bit pathetic, but there is a moral story operating there. So we are conditioning our society all the time and we should take responsibility for that.”
It is rare to have someone in his position with his gifts be so honest about the meaning of movies. Of course he is right, and of course it is true. Story-tellers are always telling a story, because all of us have pre-theoretic commitments that shape what we see and what we think it all means. It cannot be otherwise.