Thursday, March 31, 2011

Magnolia : A Case Study - Part 2

So why do so many Christians have problems with films like Magnolia? There is a very difficult concept in the Bible, one that requires the active participation of each believer. It is not easy to understand. You won’t find the direct wording anywhere in the Bible. But the concept is nevertheless interwoven throughout. The idea is that as believers in Christ we are to live in the world but not be of the world. What does that mean?

To have a proper relationship with Magnolia requires an understanding of the Scriptures. I John 2:15 and 16 states, “Stop loving this evil world and all that it offers you, for when you love the world, you show that you do not have the love of the Father in you. For the world offers only the lust for physical pleasure, the lust for everything we see, and pride in our possessions. These are not from the Father. They are from this evil world.”

In John 17:11 Jesus says, “Now I am departing the world. I am leaving them behind and coming to you.” Verse 16 says, “They are not part of this world any more than I am. Verse 18 says, “As you sent me into the world, I am sending them into the world.”

Most Christian struggle with these verses. Most of us want a clear definition of what is acceptable and what is not. But you will not find that in the Bible. We can interpret these scriptures however we like. Some of us have concluded that everything in the world is evil, including movies like Magnolia, while others have completely ignored the intent of the writer (the Holy Spirit). How could the world be evil if God created it? Did he not create it for our enjoyment? Magnolia is a great case study because it gets to the heart of the issue. As a Christian, how do I live my life?

What is I John referring to? I don’t believe this is talking about a physical state, such as a physical world. But I think it has more to do with a spiritual condition. How can a beautiful sunrise or a walk in the park be evil? Jesus certainly seemed to embrace life and often did the things that most people engage in. The real issue is when we put anything above and before God. I John is referring to this spiritual condition. It’s at that point when it becomes evil because we put it before God. It’s what we want to do versus our willingness to submit to the will of God. In other words, it’s idolatry. By applying this standard, it means that everything in the physical world has the ability to be good or evil. Remember, Jesus left us in the world for a reason, and that’s to fulfill the Great Commission. We can’t do that unless we embrace and love life, which means we have to love the world, not hate it. If we are not capable of reflecting this, do you think nonbelievers want what we have?

The reality is there are no easy answers. Being in the world but not of the world requires you and I to see everything through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Sure, we know that murder and adultery are evil. But the everyday aspects of life are a whole different matter. That’s why Magnolia gives us so many problems. Where does this fit in with being in the world but not of the world? If Magnolia can be used to draw us to the truth, then it fits in with the proper order of things.

The only way we can make sense of the scriptures and how to live our lives as Christians is to put God first in all things.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Magnolia, A Case Study - Part 1

A few nights ago, I finished teaching a class on Faith, Media and Culture. One of the things I talked about is how we experience God at the movies. Can he use films to speak to us, especially mainstream movies that may contain content that some Christians could find troubling? I used Magnolia, a 1999 film, as my case study. Sure, I could have picked a movie that would have been less controversial, but Magnolia presents no easy answers. Most Christians found it difficult getting past the first 20 minutes, but if you stay with the movie long enough, you will realize that there is a profound truth that’s being presented about the human condition and the need for forgiveness.

In fact, the central theme of the movie is that there is no past wrongdoing that cannot be undone and forgiven. Magnolia did exactly what I wanted it to do. It started a discussion and a dialogue with the class, which is exactly what any good movie should do. We had a lively debate. Most of the people in the class could see the merits of why Magnolia could have such an impact on people searching for answers. Others were still doubtful about whether or not they could view such material.

One member of my class asked me if I was endorsing the idea of nonbelievers or Christians watching Magnolia and why I would recommend it. I made it clear that I think that this is between you and the Holy Spirit, and that it could be appropriate for believers as well as nonbelievers.

I think there are three reasons why I recommend Magnolia and other films that are similar. I was interested in this film because I had read many articles about how it had impacted both Christians and nonbelievers. It made me wonder, “Is God at work here?”

When you read comments such as—it touched me greatly; this film heals; the film explores ways in which we hurt each other and the need for forgiveness—it’s obviously going to get our attention. Magnolia helps us to see a bigger picture. If God can be at work in a mainstream, Hollywood film, a place in which we do not think he could possibly be at work, then that means he could be at work in anything, anywhere. If we embrace this concept, that means God does not fit neatly into our perspective of how we think God operates. We serve a big God.

My second reason for seeing the movie is that I believe it can help us grow as believers. In this film, we see the fallen nature of the human condition in its full ugliness. I know it makes me more determined to fulfill the Great Commission and build the Kingdom of God. Films like Magnolia also remind us that we are all fallen sinners and only by the grace of God do we have any hope for a future. For Christians, it brings us back to a reality that sin is real.

And, finally, Magnolia helps us to relate to the lost. We can better understand their situation and what they’re facing. After watching Magnolia, it’s hard to remain judgmental or to condemn people for their actions. We want to offer them hope and forgiveness. The real beauty of Magnolia is that it offers us an opportunity to dialogue with people who are asking legitimate questions.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Tom Shadyac: Is Having It All Really What Life is All About?

If anybody has ever lived the American Dream, it would be Tom Shadyac. He has lived the lifestyle of the rich and famous. Shadyac is the director behind some of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters, including Ace Ventura, Bruce Almighty and The Nutty Professor.

Can you imagine having the money to buy anything you wanted, being able to go anywhere you wanted on a private jet, or to live in a 17,000 square foot mansion in Pasadena? Well, that’s exactly how Tom Shadyac has lived his life.

Most of us can only dream of such a life—to be famous and rich beyond our imagination. But is it all what it seems to be? After a horrific bike accident, which led to a serious concussion, Shadyac started to ask some questions. Is all of this stuff really important? What are we living for? Shadyac isn’t that different from most of us. It seems that our culture is teaching us that having more is better and that the meaning of life is found through the things we own. Shadyac began to wonder why we accept the life culture presents to us as the one we should be striving for.

Shadyac decided to drop out of the Hollywood scene and stop making commercial movies. He sold his 17,000 square foot home in Pasadena and moved into a trailer park in North Malibu. Since then he has been giving away most of his money.

His self-described spiritual journey caused him to re-evaluate his career has led him to produce a new documentary, I AM. He hopes this project will help him to understand what is wrong with our world as well as what is right. I AM features many great minds who talk about society’s big and complicated issues. Shadyac feels the film presents an opportunity to explore why today’s culture is so obsessed with competition rather then cooperation and why people are more aggressive rather than compassionate.

I’m sure some people may accuse Shadyac of being the typical liberal, Hollywood jerk who is only interested in telling all of us how we should live our lives. But I think he is sincere and actually makes a good point. After all, he did have everything you and I could ever want. Apparently, that did not bring fulfillment or happiness.

Let’s face it. We live in a society where our media continually tells us we deserve to have everything we want. The American Dream, for the most part, is nothing more than the pursuit of more stuff. As we fill up our attics and our garages, we have to build bigger houses to hold it all. But where does all of this lead us? Tom Shadyac is looking for answers. And that’s a good start. I don’t know where his faith is, but I think he is asking all of the right questions.

It’s refreshing to see someone willing to take a look at our society and not just accept things as they are. Is it possible that God has a more fulfilling life for us than the one most of us live?

I AM was released in February 2011. It’s definitely worth a look.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Mistrust and Redemption in Hollywood - part 4

In Acts Chapter 17, Paul went to speak to the counsel of philosophers in Athens. He said in verses 22 and 23, “People of Athens, I can see you are very religious in all things. As I was going through your city, I saw the objects you worship. I found an altar that had these words written on it: TO A GOD WHO IS NOT KNOWN. You worship a god that you don’t know, and this is the God I am telling you about.” In verses 27 and 28, Paul says, “God wanted them to look for him and perhaps search all around for him, though he is not far from any of us. By his power we live and move and exist. Some of your own poets have said: ‘For we are his children’. NCV Paul went on and continued to preach the Gospel of a resurrected Savior. At the conclusion of their discussion, some laughed at his assertion that a dead man can be resurrected, and others wanted to continue the discussion, while some actually joined him and became believers.

Paul is offering us a model for how we can have a dialogue with Hollywood. Paul did not go to Athens to condemn the counsel of philosophers. Paul’s purpose was to have a dialogue. What can we learn from Paul’s teaching? First, it serves nobody’s interest to condemn Hollywood, no matter what we think they have done or what they actually have done. Second, Paul traveled to Athens. Third, he started a dialogue with the counsel by saying, “Men of Athens, I notice you are very religious.” He acknowledged their unknown god. Fourth, he found common ground by stating that their unknown god was Paul’s God, the one true God, creator of heaven and earth. He quoted one of Athen’s poets, “we are his offspring”, and agreed that what they had written was true. Finally, Paul preached the Gospel. He pointed out that they had failed to acknowledge the unknown god as the one true God because they were continuing to worship idols, which were false gods.

It would be easy to overlook these verses as another Bible story. They offer profound implications on how we should interact with the entertainment and media industry. As with Athens, God is actively at work in Hollywood. All God requires is for the Body of Christ to be active participants. The men of Athens responded to Paul’s teaching. God’s presence was already working in the lives of the members of the counsel of philosophers. All that was needed was for someone to go to them and start a discussion. God’s plan has not changed nor has his strategy. Paul offers us a model that still works. He acknowledged their truths and their untruths and used both to fulfill God’s will. Just like Athens, God is at work in the lives of those in Hollywood. They are creating art that reflects both truth and untruth. God’s heart is to use both to fulfill his will and draw men to him.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Mistrust and Redemption in Hollywood - part 3

Nobody in 1967 could possibly have imagined the impact this new rating system would have on the American film industry. Within the first year, Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch and The Graduate shocked the Church. Filmmakers now had the liberty to create films without any restrictions, and they didn’t waste any time. The Wild Bunch contained violence that was unimaginable to the American audience. It depicted violence that was realistic and graphic, unlike most of Hollywood’s war movies from the 1940s and 1950s. Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate offered a new level of sexuality that had been never portrayed on the motion picture scene.

By 1969, shock had turned to outrage when Midnight Cowboy became the first X-rated movie to win Best Picture at the Oscars. This is the type of move Hollywood would have never made before the rating system. The story is about Joe Buck and Ratso, who are living on the fringe of society. Joe moves from Texas to New York City to make money as a male gigolo. Ratso is a third-rate con artist living by his wits to survive on the gritty streets of New York City. Midnight Cowboy is a journey into the dark side of human existence.

Without a production code in place, filmmakers had an opportunity to hit back at the Church. What serves as a basis for Joe Buck’s dysfunctional behavior is his relationship with the Church. He had been to church and had been baptized as a boy but had only frightening memories of the experience. As a result, he equates religion with disappointment. Midnight Cowboy does not offer a positive view of Christianity to say the least. Some people might argue that we brought this on ourselves.

Overnight everything changed in Hollywood. Christians were outraged. They felt betrayed. Over the next few years, Christians would begin a long process of withdrawing from the industry. Hollywood would be branded as the enemy. We would discourage our young people from seeking careers as filmmakers and media makers. Soon boycotts and protests would become the norm. And Hollywood, without a production code, would begin to portray Christians as idiots, fanatics, and hypocrites. As a result of our withdrawal, we have allowed Hollywood to become a dark place. That’s our fault, not theirs. We are responding out of our emotions not out of our theology, which states that we must love everyone and that we are called to reach the world, including Hollywood.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Mistrust and Redemption in Hollywood - part 2

The Code contained 12 principles that guided the production of filmmaking. The first principle set the tone for all twelve commandments. “No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence, the sympathy of the audience shall never be thrown to the side of wrongdoing, evil or sin.” The eighth commandment is also noteworthy because it says, “No film or episode may throw ridicule on any religious faith.”

Hollywood had capitulated for its own survival and accepted a form of censorship. You can only imagine how they must have felt. For the most part, the films that Hollywood produced in the 1920s and early 1930s contained virtually no nudity, violence, sexuality or graphic violence. What were they being punished for? Perhaps the lifestyles of a few directors and actors created a backlash against Hollywood. Can you imagine if Hollywood told the Church what they could preach and proclaim in their pulpits? Do you think we would protest? Consider it an injustice? Whether we like to admit it or not, the Body of Christ imposed censorship and control on Hollywood.

In other words, we denied their First Amendment Rights of free speech, and we have paid a price. It’s no wonder that many in Hollywood still resent Christian influence in the industry. The Eighth Commandment made it impossible for filmmakers to ever question the action of a Christian or criticize the Church. We often see that the movies from the 1930s to the 1950s contain  many references to God and embrace the very principles of Christianity more than they do today. You can make a case that some of this is present because God is at work in film, and there were far more Christians working in the industry. We must face the fact that Hollywood had no choice but to reflect this in their films because the Eighth Commandment required them to do so.

What resulted is what many call the Golden Age of Hollywood. We have to ask the question whether this is because of the Hays Code or in spite of it. God has always been at work in Hollywood. His Spirit has been present from the very beginning. With a code or without a code, God will fulfill his plan. I’m convinced that the Code was more of a hindrance because God always chooses free will. God wants to speak to filmmakers and will reveal his truth. He does not need a production code to do that.

By the 1960s, the Code was running into problems. It was becoming more difficult to enforce because Hollywood’s traditional studio model was failing. In other words, the business model was no longer working. Hollywood could no longer control production costs. Their monopoly of production, distribution and exhibition had been broken up by the Federal government. Profits were dwindling as television was cutting into Hollywood’s audience. Along with social change that was occurring in American culture in the 1960s, the Code’s days were numbered. Both the Protestant and Catholic church realized they no longer wanted to support the financial responsibilities that were required to enforce and manage their respective presence in Hollywood.

By the mid-1960s, everybody was looking for a way out. The solution was a new rating system administrated by the Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA). Movies would now be rated according to their content and restrictions would be implemented by age group. For example, R-rated movies would be restricted to anyone under the age of 17. It seemed to be a workable solution for all parties.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Mistrust and Redemption in Hollywood - part 1

In 1922, a bestselling book, The Sins of Hollywood, was one of the first books that branded Hollywood as a source of moral degradation in America. The book viewed Hollywood as the devil’s incubator. In the 1920s, the anti-Hollywood sentiment was fueled primarily not by the content of the films but by the actions and lifestyles of the filmmakers, producers and actors. Scandalous behavior of film stars like Fatty Arbuckle and Mary Pickford fueled the Church’s resentment against the entertainment industry. By the late 1920s, the church was threatening to shut Hollywood down. And during that era, the Church had the power to do that. With strong political connections, they could make Hollywood walk the plank. Hollywood was still in the process of developing a business model that would guarantee profitability. The last thing they needed was a long and protracted war with the protestant and Catholic Church.

Faced with the growing threat of government censorship and the ongoing pressure of church leaders, the motion picture industry realized they would have no choice but to agree to a self-censorship program. In fact, since the early 1920s, the industry already had a loosely-rendered list of 13 prohibitions that included nudity, crime, gambling, and illicit love.

In 1930, Martin Quigley and Daniel Lord both from the Catholic church developed the moral guidelines for filmmakers, which would become known as the Hollywood Production Code. Part of the code governed depictions of sexuality and crime. Films would be required to affirm religion and promote patriotism. By 1933, the code became a reality when the Catholic League of Decency threatened a new economic boycott unless the code was rigorously enforced. In fact, in Philadelphia alone attendance in theaters fell by 40% when Catholics called for God, the Pope, the bishops and the priests to a united, vigorous campaign for the purification of the cinema, which had become a deadly menace to morals.

Hollywood hired Will Hays, the former National Chairman of the Republican Party, who also was a Presbyterian elder, to oversee the enforcement of the Production Code. The Production Code became known as the Hays Code when Joseph Brene, a Roman Catholic newspaper man with deep ties to the Catholic church, was hired as the new Production Code administrator. Now both the Protestant church and Catholic church had direct and indirect influence and control of every film Hollywood would produce from the 1930s through the 1960s.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Big Love—an Honest Discussion of Faith?

Big Love was one of my favorite shows on television. It aired for five seasons on HBO. It came to an end this past Sunday. Like all finales, there is always a sense of loss, especially if you’ve invested five years with the characters. You hate to see it end.

No finale can tie up all the lose ends or answer all the questions that fans may have. I’m sure many people still have problems with Lost, Seinfeld, or The Sopranos. But if feels like the producers of Big Love did find a balance in providing a satisfactory conclusion. In case you’re not familiar with Big Love or have not seen the finale, I will not spoil it for you. The previous four seasons are available on DVD if you are interested in catching up on the series.

If you know something about Big Love and have not been a fan, you’re probably wondering why an evangelical Christian such as myself would find this program interesting and worthy of my time. Why did I love this show so much? What drew me in? Was there a message in Big Love? Oh yes, I do realize that the creators and writers, Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer, are both gay and married to each other.

First of all, I think as Christians there is something that we can learn from Big Love. But before I get into that, let me tell you a little something about the show. Big Love is primarily about a polygamous family. Bill Paxton plays Bill Henrickson, who is the patriarch of the family. He lives in the suburban community of Sandy near Salt Lake City, Utah. Hendrickson is a prominent businessman who owns a chain of home improvement stores. He is not open about his polygamous lifestyle and attempts to hide it from the community. His three wives are played by Jeanne Tripplehorn as Barbara, Chloe Sevigny as Nicolette Grant, and Jennifer Goodwin as Margine Heffman.

Each wife, along with their children, have separate houses built next to each other. You can only imagine the complications and problems that arise with such an arrangement. Making matters worse, Hendrickson has an ongoing feud with Roman Grant, who is played by Harry Dean Stanton, a self-proclaimed prophet of Juniper Creek, the same compound that Hendrickson was thrown out of as a teenager.

Juniper Creek is a sore spot for the Church of Latter Day Saints and the Mormon Church. This provides a significant conflict for the Henricksons as well as the political backdrop that Big Love plays out on. Of course, you can imagine that over five years there are multiple plot lines that take place. One thing that defined the show was Bill’s desire to lead his family according to his heavenly Father’s plans. He was the shows protagonist (hero) in every possible form. He tried so desperately in his own mind to do the right thing—to be the best husband and the best father possible. But what I believe makes Big Love special is that it portrays an honest and forthright discussion and dialogue on matters of faith and family. This is extremely unusual for any weekly television show whether on broadcast or cable television.

You are probably thinking that Big Love would be nothing more than a sex romp or just a punch line for some form of sick humor. But you would be totally wrong. Faith drives these characters. The decisions they make are based on their desire to please God, or as they say—Heavenly Father. They believe in plural marriage and The Principle because they believe it is ordained of God. It is their key to enter into the Celestial Kingdom as a family for eternity.

Whether you agree with what they believe or not, you cannot escape the fact that faith matters to the characters in Big Love. I realize that the writers both being openly homosexual could be making a case for redefining the concept of what a family is. I’m certainly not sure what their original intent was. But I think they have been fair with the material and not heavy-handed.

However, somewhere along the way in the development of Big Love, something happened. This show started to be about something. I can’t prove it, but I have to believe that God was at work on the set and the writing rooms of Big Love. I certainly don’t endorse the concept of plural marriage or for that matter the teachings of The Church of Latter Day Saints. But Big Love did challenge me. If only, as Christians, we could be this committed to our faith and live our lives in such a way that is pleasing to God. Could we put our convictions into practice as the characters did in Big Love?

I suppose that’s why I like this show so much because it challenged me, and I could see the characters struggling just as I do to find a balance in how I can apply my faith now in a real tangible form. I’m not sure that’s what the writers intended, but somehow that’s where they took the show. Ultimately, the show was about family and the bonds that cannot be broken.

Bottom Line.

I know you may still have some reservations; however, I highly recommend the show. You might be pleasantly surprised to find the possibility that God could be at work in this television series called Big Love. After all, isn’t that what God is really about—Big Love

Monday, March 21, 2011

Even Angels Will Fall

Whatever happened to the good ole days of advertising? You remember when they talked about the quality of the product or its value. Those were the days. There was a time when you sold bread, you talked about why your brand was superior. Right? Wonder Bread was better because of its texture. It was enriched with vitamins. And it stayed fresher longer, thus giving the consumer more value.

But these days, advertisers are selling more than a product. They seem to be interested in selling you a lifestyle. Use our product, and we will make you the person you want to be. You can be sexier or more successful.

This past weekend, I saw a very disturbing advertisement. Hey, I realize sex has been used for years to sell everything from cars to clothes. But Lynx Excite goes beyond the accepted parameters of good taste. If you haven’t seen the spot, let me set it up for you. Their new commercial is titled, “Even Angels Will Fall”. It’s a big-budget affair and looks like it’s straight out of Hollywood. As I said, it has a theatrical feel and presence that pulls you in with stirring music and drama.

It starts out with objects dropping from the sky. We soon realize that these are heavenly creatures. In fact they are female angels—quite attractive and oozing sex appeal. They approach a young man who is the center of their attraction, and he’s wearing Lynx Excite, a man’s fragrance. With suggestive body language and eye movements, they cast their halos down to the ground where they explode in pieces. Essentially, they denounce their obedience to God only to lust for the young man.

The message couldn’t be any clearer. In fact, let me be blunt and spell it out for you. Wearing Lynx Excite will cause even heavenly angels to fall. So if that’s possible, you can only imagine what kind of impact it would have on moral women. In other words, if you’re looking to score (and I’m talking in sexual terms) Lynx Excite promises to deliver the goods.

This ad is appearing on network television. It is not on late-night television but is playing during prime time programming. What does this say to kids and teens? Is this the message we should be sending? It certainly is an offense to Christians. I don’t want to sound preachy. I really don’t. But this is inappropriate. Why do we have to stoop to such measures to sell a product?

I believe they have crossed a line. If you agree, let your voice be heard. Call the network and complain. Don’t buy the product. Send a clear message. Some things are worth fighting for. I realize this spot doesn’t have nudity or bad language, but the message it’s communicating is frankly many times worse. Let’s not let this just slip by as the same ole same ole. Take a stand today. If we don’t let our voices be heard, what will they do next?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Cracking the Hardest Nut

Any independent filmmaker will tell you that producing your movie is only half the battle. The real war starts after you pack up the camera. Sure, it’s been an accomplishment shooting your movie. But now what?

The hard battle is finding a distributor whether that’s theatrically or straight to DVD. You want to find an audience. It’s a real disappointment after the fundraising and your hard work to finish your movie to realize that only you and your friends will get to see it. But the fact is, that’s a reality for many low-budget filmmakers.

In August of 2010, several of my closest friends, whom I worked with over the years, shot a full-length feature film. At the time of production, they had no distributor. I have good news for you. Today I can report that Hitting the Nuts will be available for sale on April 15, 2011.

The producers have launched a new website,, where you can pre-order the DVD. You can also see an extended trailer and other related information about the movie. Hats off to all of their hard work and effort in making this a reality.

Isaac Stambaugh deserves an enormous amount of credit. He served as First Assistant Director and Production Manager for Hitting the Nuts. The truth is, it’s usually somebody behind the scenes that makes things work. He squeezed every dollar out of the budget to make this movie appear to be a much larger production. Also, special recognition to Mark Denney for his outstanding cinematography, which helped to elevate the overall production. I certainly don’t want to forget Bekka Prewitt, who served as the Second Assistant Director. She kept the set orderly and on schedule.

Hitting the Nuts has done extremely well in the film festival circuit. It won the Best Feature at the 2011 Derby City Film Festival and won the Audience Choice for Best Feature Film at the 2010 Cincinnati International Film Festival. If you enjoy comedy, especially improv and mocumentories, you should check this film out.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Genres - Why does this movie look so familiar ?

Hollywood loves familiarity. That’s why so many movies seem like something we have seen before. In reality, they follow a predictable format and pattern, such as genre and the rules that apply to the genre. For example, romantic comedies have followed the same pattern for years. Boy meets girl and through some misunderstanding girl dislikes boy. Boy begins to grow on girl. Boy does something wrong which causes girl to reject boy. Boy finally wins girl by revealing his true nature.

In horror films it goes something like this. We start with four characters usually in their late teens or early twenties. One good girl and one bad girl; one good boy and, one bad boy. Most of the time, the bad girl and bad boy have some type of romantic relationship. Our characters are on some type of trip to a faraway location. Along the way, they receive two warnings or foreshadowing of events to follow. The first usually involves a stop at a gas station or restaurant, where the locals know that these characters are doomed, but they fail to pick up the signals. The second warning usually comes with a closed road or some other unforeseen event. As they continue on, they will lose contact with the outside world. Now there is no escape from their fate. Eventually they run into a pack of crazy, insane killers. Each character is picked off one by one until the final climax, where one or two of our heroes survive the final confrontation. That happens after we think the final killer is dead only to discover he or she has survived to possibly threaten us in a future sequel.

You have been introduced to genre rules. Movies are grouped into genres such as comedy, science fiction, western, romantic comedy, action/adventure, suspense thrillers, horror, crime drama, urban, and fantasy. These are just a few. And under each genre, there are sub-genres such as buddy movies, road films, film noir, etc.

Now it’s easy to understand why so many of the movies we see feel familiar. When Hollywood executives have a hit, they want to repeat it. If you bought a movie ticket to see Knowing, a movie about the end of the world, why not offer you a similar film like 2012? All we have to do is to change the characters, the setting and the situation, but the format is the same. Once you understand the format, you can unlock all the movies that have ever been produced.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Critical Viewing Cues

Critical viewing cues are the building blocks that filmmakers use to elicit an emotional response from the viewing audience. Media creation, in all of its forms, is by nature a manipulative process. Filmmakers understand this principle. Every element that is in a television program, a movie or any form of media is put there by design and has a purpose. Media is built just as a building or highway might be constructed. Building materials may include music, lighting, sound, set design, camera movement, etc.

Not only is there a physical process of construction but also a complex, psychological process of meaning and values. What is constructed by a few people can become normalized with the rest of society. We often take this for granted, and it usually goes unquestioned. Often we don’t get to see what words, pictures or arrangements that were rejected during the building process. We see only what the media maker wants us to see. Critical viewing cues vary in nature according to the type of media created.

In film, for example, close-ups of a character are used for emotional impact. They are good for suspense and provide easy access to the mind. High-angle shots looking down on a character usually mean the person is submissive, important or powerless. Low-angle shots suggest a character is powerful and commanding. Dutch-angle shots are camera angles not parallel to the horizon. They suggest mayhem or that the character has some type of psychological disorder. A mirror or reflection shot on a reflective surface suggests deep thoughts or the concept of looking into one’s self.

Colors can convey emotions. Sky blue can represent thoughts that are peaceful and calm. It can suggest honesty, good will and wisdom. Green can suggest eternity, jealousy, money, growth, rebirth or creativity. Silver can be seen as cold, alien, and futuristic. Red can represent anger, debt, warning, violence or sex. Lighting is used to create mood. Comedies are often well lit with bright colors to encourage a sense of happiness and humor. In suspense thrillers, it is just the opposite. They are dark and mysterious. The color palette is intentionally toned down.

Lighting is used to create shadows on the characters’ faces, which creates tension and anxiety. If you want to create a sense of tension, your sound design could emphasize a busy signal from a telephone, a fire truck, construction sounds such as jackhammers or a dog barking. On the other hand, if you are looking to create a peaceful mood, you would emphasize birds singing, a heartbeat, or crickets. Sound design is one of the most important parts in creating an emotional response in films. Sound coming from an old car radio can create a nostalgic emotion or mood. A sound coming from a loudspeaker can suggest a voice of authority. A walkman or headphones suggest a feeling of being enclosed and out of tune with the rest of the world.

Another way to convey meaning is through metaphors and symbolism. Filmmakers use animals, plants, weather, objects, occupations, numbers and places to communicate emotions to viewers. An owl can suggest wisdom, occult powers, death, or a supernatural protector. Sunflowers can be used to convey a sense of the sacred or attractiveness. Lightning can suggest that unexpected changes are coming. Coins can suggest wealth. The sun can suggest creative energy. Even a geographical direction like the South can evoke an emotional response of earthly passion or sensuality. A gate can suggest new beginnings or a change in state. A lawyer can suggest a server of justice or a person with shark-like instincts. The number seven is used to represent the mystical or spiritual. It is used for good luck. The number 6 is for structure, balance and order.

A river can represent a place to cross over for change. The top of a hill can create the emotion of getting perspective or achievement. A foggy pier suggests mystery, uncertainty and that things are not what they seem. An island can suggest isolation and loneliness. Critical viewing cues are exactly what they suggest. They cue our conscious and subconscious mind to respond with a certain emotion. In other words, the scary music suggests something bad is going to happen, so we become tense and frightened. A filmmaker may use a long lens to compress the background so the subject appears to have no space or is trapped. Therefore, we feel just as trapped as the character we are watching in the movie. These are just a few of the many techniques that media makers use with their films, television programs and other forms of media.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Rant—The Media Virus

I have a love and passion for hiking and the outdoors. I especially enjoy climbing mountains. I’ve climbed to the top of Mt. Whitney, Mt. Princeton, Mt. Harvard, Telescope Peak, Mt. Charleston, and Swift Current Mountain, just to name a few.

Now my rant is not about hiking or mountain climbing in general. It's about a funny phenomena I have noticed  lately. Today a number of people seem to be more concerned about getting to the top than enjoying the experience along the way. Sure, I’m like any climber. I want to get to the mountain peak. But the real experience is the journey. Stopping to enjoy the view and listening to the wind blowing in the trees is just as enjoyable as the thrill of getting to the top.

But these day, it seems we are so goal-oriented that we forget to stop and enjoy the world around us. Have we become that results-driven that we can no longer just savor the experience of living? As the old saying goes, you have to stop and smell the roses.

Of course, not all hikers fall into this category. But it is an alarming trend. Here’s something that really absolutely takes the cake. At the top of the mountain you can usually find a connection from some faraway tower. Now, I often see people who, once reaching the peak, pull out their cell phones, I-phones, or other mobile media devices. Sure, you might want to call a friend and tell them you made it to the top safely. But these days I actually hear people doing business—calling the office, checking e-mail. Can you believe that? I just can’t explain it.

Maybe it’s just some form of media virus—the absolute need to be connected at all times. If there’s a place to drop off the planet and enjoy life, wouldn’t you think it would be on the top of a 14,000 foot mountain? Do we have to be in constant contact with the world?

Last summer, I hiked to Delicate Arch in Arches National Park in Utah. Amazingly, I watched some guy spend 30 minutes talking quite loudly on his cell phone making one deal after another. Why bother going to one of the world’s most beautiful places merely to make a call.

So my rant is how do we unplug, slow down and pay attention to the important things and start to enjoy life? Is it possible to leave our cell phones, our computers, and I-Pads at home for once and spend a little time connecting with the things that really matter? As I said, my fear is that we’ve all been infected with this media virus. Perhaps we can work on trying to find a cure.

Friday, March 11, 2011

What are Images?

Images are pictures. However, in our culture, pictures have become tools used to elicit specific and planned emotional reactions in the people who see them. Images are created to give us pleasure when we watch them. They are also created to make us feel anxious. Images work best when they are vivid and emotionally saturated. For example, the American flag depicts very powerful emotions. The flag works as an image because it suggests a long list of stories and myths that are buried inside of us. Picture images that evoke deep memories can be very powerful and also very spiritual. By calling up these deep emotions and memories, today’s image makers are using images to take on new meaning and have created new myths that are shrouded, often deliberately, by those deeper memories.

The New Myths

Traditionally, a myth has been defined as a story or idea that helps to explain customs of a people group or society in general. Myths are the motivating stories or ideas that help to define cultural practices. Often they motivate daily behavior.

The key to recognizing new myths of today’s modern media culture is to think of them as ideas that emerge from long exposure to certain patterns of images. These myths are unconvincing unless you think of them as emerging from a huge array of images, which come from many sources, including advertising, entertainment and news.

Today’s images must be read on two levels in order to understand how new myths are created in our society. Myths are generally something that is not completely true but are accepted by society as truth. For example: your body is not good enough; the good life consists of buying possessions which cost lots of money; and happiness, satisfaction and sex appeal are readily available at the next consumer purchase.

First, we have an immediate emotional response wherein we recognize, for example, the image of a flag, a cross, a sunset, or a house, which leads us to react in a way that taps into our inner emotions, past stories and experiences.

Second, we view that image within the context of hundreds of other similar images. By doing this, the new myth that the image is communicating is clearly seen. Otherwise, it cannot stand apart because it would be obscured by powerful stories and the emotional connections that are used to sell the image.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Dreamers dream. Filmmakers make movies.

This past summer, I worked on an incredible project. My friend, Isaac Stambaugh, who is the video coordinator at the Vineyard Community Church in Springdale produced, directed and wrote a full-length motion picture. Sure, a lot of people make movies. But Isaac accomplished the impossible. He shot his movie with a budget under $2,500.

I’m sure you’re thinking “that’s impossible”. Well if you have the determination and the drive, anything can be accomplished. I was there, and I saw it firsthand. I know many people who dream about making movies. And that’s exactly the problem, they only dream about it. Isaac is a filmmaker. He looked at what resources he had available and created a story that was manageable within his budget.

To be honest with you, when Isaac told me he was going to make a movie and shoot it in eight days on his vacation time, I thought he was crazy. He proved me wrong. In fact, his film, Community Spirit, has the potential to actually connect with audiences. So, if he can do it, can you? Is it possible? Absolutely!

You are probably asking yourself, “How did he do it for so little money”? First, the days were long. I mean long—16 to 18 hour days. That meant he shot an average of 12 pages per day, plus both the crew and cast volunteered their time. Also, friends provided the equipment at no cost.

First rule of thumb to being a low-budget or no-budget filmmaker is make friends. Here’s an interview clip of Isaac as he provides more details and insight into the world of independent filmmaking.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Media Mindfulness

I discovered the concept of media mindfulness in a book written by Gretchen Hailer called Believing in a Media Culture. Mindfulness sounds like a complex process but is simply a matter of taking the time or slowing down and paying attention. The process starts when we are aware of ourselves and what we believe. We must also be aware of our environment and our interaction with that environment. By doing so, we can unlock and understand how media functions, what messages they are communicating, and why they are being sent. These are the building blocks of media mindfulness.

For example, I love to climb mountains. My destination is the top. But if I don’t take time along the way to enjoy the experience, I miss the entire reason for getting to the top. It’s the journey not the destination that’s important. Mindfulness means that you take time to watch the passing clouds or listen to the wind blowing in the trees. The experience provides the framework for meaning.

Media mindfulness challenges us to watch movies, television, or any other form of media in a different light. We now become active participants. Our goal is not to get to the end of the story but to see how the story unfolds and to look at everything with fresh eyes. We examine each element to discover what point of view might be present. Why is a character a certain age, gender or race? What lifestyles are being promoted or dismissed? What was the reason for the story to be based in an urban setting instead of a rural setting? Why is one character affluent and one character poor? What perspectives were left out of the story? By close examination, we can begin to discover patterns and meaning that exist in our media.

Media mindfulness requires us to have a proper response to the message the media is trying to communicate to us. We must process what we see and hear by our value system and respond by either accepting or rejecting the message. Without practicing media mindfulness, we can watch a television program or a movie without any feeling or response to what is going on and not remember a single thing at the end. However, everything we have seen and heard has been stored on a subconscious level. That’s how media can affect us either positively or negatively when we do not practice media mindfulness. What is lacking is our attention to the present reality we live in.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Enlightened Values

How does the media communicate values? Is it possible to really understand the intent or motive of the filmmaker? What do we need to do in order to understand the impact media has on our behavior and attitudes? Without a personal value system, it is impossible to evaluate media. As a result, we are a reflection of what we see and hear in the media. Media messages become nothing more than images and sounds. We are like sponges, absorbing everything we see and hear without the ability to understand its meaning and purpose.

What is required is an inner vision. Mathew 6:22-23 states, “Your eye is a lamp that provides light for your body. When your eye is good, your whole body is filled with light. But when your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. And if the light you think you have is full of darkness, how deep that darkness is. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness." NLT Jesus uses the metaphors of the eye and the lamp to convey the significance of the proper ordering of values in life. Biblical values will help us to develop a discriminating inner vision.

What are values? They are qualities or principles thought to be intrinsically worthwhile or desirable by individuals or society as a whole. We cherish them and hold them in high esteem. We work to attain them. They give direction to our lives. What kind of values do the media promote? And what kind of values are found in the Gospel? The media and the Gospel offer values that are in stark contrast to each other. For example, immediacy vs. patience, youth vs. dignity to all, newness vs. tradition, bigness vs. smallness, wealth vs. poverty of spirit, success vs. fruitfulness, glamour vs. ordinariness, consumerism vs. conservation, disposability vs. cherishability, ability to conquer nature vs. respect for nature, complexity vs. simplicity and constant activity vs. contemplation. As you can see, there are two different value systems at work. Which one you choose will define how you see the world.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Should You Come Out of the Closet?

What if you are a Christian who works in the entertainment industry, Hollywood or elsewhere? How open should you be about your faith? Do you call a press conference and announce to the world that you are a believer. Should you give interviews? Or should you start a blog or a website? Just how vocal should you be? I think it’s a question that a lot of believers who work in the entertainment and media business struggle with. I’ve talked to a number of them. Some of them are concerned that it could hurt their career. Others are concerned about their ability to be effective in ministry.

It’s a valid point. If you go on record and announce to the world that you are trying to save people for Christ or proclaim yourself a media missionary, it could have negative repercussions. You could be seen as another nut case, a crazy evangelical pushing your beliefs on people who don’t want to hear it. In other words, all of your hard efforts to gain trust, build relationships and develop friendships could fall apart.

The very people you are trying to reach, your peers who work in the industry, could misread your intentions. So maybe it’s better to fly under the radar screen and stay in the closet. It could be your best bet to remain effective in ministry by quietly and effectively proclaiming the love of Christ through your actions and deeds.

But remaining in the closet has another downside, one that I think that many Christians who work in media and entertainment haven’t recognized. To effectively reach Hollywood and the entertainment industry and to build the case that indeed Hollywood is a valid mission field requires the help and the support of the Body of Christ. We need the local church actively involved in this effort. But how are they going to see this as a mission field if they don’t know what’s actually happening on the ground floor? If they don’t hear the stories and the testimonies of Christian filmmakers and media makers living missional lifestyles, then how will they be motivated to embrace Hollywood as a mission field?

I can’t count the times that missionaries have spoken at churches that I have attended over the years with their stories of what God is doing in their lives and in the lives of the people they are trying to reach. It is inspiring to see their dedication and commitment to fulfill the Great Commission. For years, foreign missionaries have made a connection with the local church. By doing so we all have come to realize that we are in this together. The support of the local church is crucial in the work of foreign missions. But who’s telling the stories of the triumphs taking place in the mission field that we call Hollywood and the entertainment industry? If most Christian are reluctant to talk about what they are doing, how will the local church ever be inspired and motivated to help support missions efforts in Hollywood?

Yes, there are a few voices out there. Karen Covell from the Hollywood prayer network has been speaking on these matters for years. But it’s going to take more people to reach the Body of Christ and the local church. Without the local church actively involved through prayer, resources and finances, we will never effectively reach the entertainment industry for Christ. It will take a team effort. So the question remains. How do we balance the need for confidentiality for Christians who work in media and entertainment to be effective in their ministries while, at the same time, having the ability to tell our stories to the local church? It’s a perplexing problem.

As I said, the local church needs to be educated and aware of what is actually happening in Hollywood. I’m not sure there’s an easy answer, but I know we have to find one. There must be some way that both of these goals can occur at the same time without hurting one or the other. I’m sure most Christian who are serious about their faith want to speak out. But, more importantly, they want to be effective in making a difference. Somewhere today on the back lots, the editing rooms, the production sets, and the studio offices in Hollywood the love of Christ is being played out and demonstrated in the lives of believers who work in this business. Let’s work together to find a way to tell those stories while allowing media missionaries to remain effective in their ministry.