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Making light of popular film?

Monday, September 18, 2006

The past two issues of Chimes have contained articles questioning the value of film and popular culture.  In “Remembering September 11” (9/8/06), Michael Lynn Hannink responds to the showing of the film United 93, suggesting that “to turn [September 11] into a big screen production for us to watch with a bucket of popcorn in our laps is more than disturbing…like we’re turning the pain of others into our evening entertainment.”  One week later, Bethany Duemler published an article (“Art battles pop culture” 9/15/06), using the concurrent activities of a Pirates of the Caribbean film showing and the presentation of Juliet, a one-woman play about communist prison camps, as a means of exploring an apparent conflict between theatre and film.  Duemler states that while “Pirates of the Caribbean was created to provide viewers with the thrill and enjoyment of watching an action movie…[Juliet] needs no cultural discerners to create meaning as it will foster deep thinking without external aid.”

I affirm both of these writers for asking critical questions about how Calvin students spend their leisure time.  Hannink rightly questions the tension between a commercial effort and a memorial of a tragic event, something students who attended the showing of United 93 were also encouraged to do.  Duemler recognizes the unique value of live performance, a value the Student Activities Office promotes by encouraging students to experience live concert performances in addition to listening to music in solitude.

However, there are common threads in the arguments of these two articles that need to be addressed, particularly relating to the value of film and the tendency to elevate “high” art while denigrating “low” art, or popular culture.  In terms of artistic value, the play Juliet may indeed have been more significant and a better choice for some students on Saturday evening. That said, it is possible to affirm the value of both Juliet and Pirates of the Caribbean for Calvin students without belittling either.

An approach to art that assumes a high/low culture dualism, making high art good and low art (popular culture) bad, encourages people to be flippantly dismissive about popular culture and carelessly accepting of so-called high art.  To imply that a popular film does not require discernment is dangerous.  All films, no matter how popular or “entertaining”, are packed with meaning and therefore in need of a discerning approach—that is, detecting meanings and sorting them out.  Duemler’s assertion that discerning viewers “create meaning” is a common misconception regarding discernment.  Discernment involves identifying the meaning that is embedded in the text of the art and we do well, at both summer blockbusters and intimate plays, to be aware of what the creators are attempting to communicate.  Even art that naturally “fosters deep thinking” requires discernment and the creators of Juliet would welcome “external aid” for encouraging critical thought about the work.

Both Hannink and Duemler allude to a scorn for popular film as mere “entertainment”.  Entertainment is neither the sole purpose of film, nor is it an invalid objective.  Films rightfully entertain to varying degrees, but they also create space for shared suffering, education, conversation and transformation, depending on the subject matter and the intent of the creators.  Film is one valid art form for negotiating our feelings following the events of September 11.  Film also provides a means of engaging ideas in community.

Calvin College embodies the belief that all things matter to Christ and His Kingdom, including popular culture, and therefore all things ought to matter to Christians.  Whether a particular student is called on a Saturday evening to be a part of a packed house in the Fine Arts Center or an intimate group in the Gezon Auditorium, each one has a responsibility to affirm the light of redemption and condemn the darkness of ruination.