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July 1, 2016

July 2016
Ryan Pemberton

  Summer is now upon us, and with it comes a season of film: a time in which massive-budget films attract moviegoers out of the heat and into the dim, coolness of the nearest theatre. Also, it’s a time when New College Berkeley hosts its annual Summer Film Series and the opportunity to view and discuss four thought-provoking films in community at First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley each Friday in August. In this season of summer blockbusters and New College’s film series, it’s worth reflecting on the why of our love for film.

  There are, in my mind, two major reasons to watch a film. Many times we go to the movies as a way of escaping reality. To be distracted from the painful edge of our present problems, even if just for 120 minutes, is worth a $12 entrance fee. The sweet, salty crunch of kettle corn, the oversized carbonated soda, a blindingly dark theatre, and the ear-cracking sound of pounding fists all add up to create the kind of cathartic release so many of us seek in the midst of this election cycle, yet another mass shooting, refugees in search of safety, or countless other tragedies. As complex, confusing, and challenging as our present reality is, it is little wonder that films created as escapism are so popular.

  But we also watch films to give us deeper insights into our shared experience of reality. The first, escapism; the second, what we might call entrancism: an invitation to go deeper into this thing called existence (because, as Marilyn Robinson writes in Lila, we had to call it something).

  But why, in the midst of so much pain, confusion, and challenges, would anyone choose to watch a film that reflects back to us the difficulties of our present experience? The response is, I think, twofold.

  One purpose of film, as all art, is to remind us that we are not alone. By reflecting back to me the wreckage left by infidelity, the devastation of drug abuse, the embarrassment of poverty, or the seemingly inescapable circuit of generational sin, film reminds me that at least one other person knows what it is like to be me, knows of the pain that I cannot speak for fear of judgment or greater isolation. The most important films, in my mind, do just this: they point an unflinching lens at our deepest wounds and, in so doing, put an arm on our shoulder and say, “You are human. You are alive. You are not alone.”

  But there is another purpose for watching this second type of film. After reflecting back to us the most honest look at a particularly difficult experience—rape, drug abuse, grief—film has the opportunity to encourage us that these bitter words do not have the last word, but only the penultimate word, the next-to-the-last word as Frederick Buechner once put it. The most powerful films do not merely take an unflinching look at the most painful bits of our shared humanity, they go on to offer hope. Not, of course, cheap, sentimental hope—which tastes just as sweet as the kettle corn and carbonated soda accompanying so many films, but ultimately offers little lasting nourishment—but true hope. Hope that is as tenuous as it is tangible. Hope that cannot be shouted from the rooftops, but must be whispered. Hope that demands to be told slant, as Emily Dickinson once described the act of truth telling.

  For this year’s New College Berkeley Film Series, I have the pleasure of introducing the Terrence Malick film Tree of Life (2011) on August 12—one of my favorites. Nonlinear in its presentation, flittering from this character’s memories to that character’s present experience, ToL deals with many important themes: loss of innocence, father-son angst, the way of grace and the way of nature. But perhaps most intimately the film concerns the twin themes of loss and grief. In ToL, Malick offers an unflinching look at the tenuous nature of faith in the midst of losing a loved one—“Where were You?” the narrator asks at one point in the film. “You let a boy die. You let anything happen. Why should I be good? When You aren’t.”—while ending on a note of mysterious, though undeniable, hope.

  It is, it could be argued, only when one has looked full on at the harsh, painful reality of our shared experience that one can begin to speak honestly of real hope. For me, that is precisely what the best films do. It is what ToL does. And it is most certainly what the cross continues to do.


Ryan Pemberton is Minister for University Engagement at First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, as well as the author of Called: My Journey to C. S. Lewis’s House and Back Again (Leafwood Publishers, 2015), a memoir on calling.


Posted on July 1, 2016 at 1:32 PM

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