Postmodern Movies II: The Good, the Bad, and the Relative, Part II
by Brian Godawa
SCP Newsletter, SUMMER 1999, Volume 23:4

 

 

Leaping with the Heart

Postmodern movies push the notion that in order to find truth, one must stop trying to use reason and rationality and simply follow one's inner whims, especially the heart. While this is the third point, it is in some ways the most important one because it shows up in many movies both mainstream and independent. In effect, it is the most widespread idea of all in postmodern films.

Don't follow your head, follow your heart. Don't do "your duty" follow your heart. Don't think, listen to your feelings. Listen to your heart. This "leap of faith" concept is so pervasive that I challenge the reader to keep your ears open for phrases like the ones above and you'll be amazed how often they show up in movies. Meet Joe Black, Jefferson in Paris, Zorro, Tarzan, The Phantom Menace and Hercules are just a few examples that carry this concept from the very lips and actions of their characters.

The worldwide megablockbuster to end all blockbusters, Titanic is a gigantic expression of this rejection of social norms in favor of personal intuition and guidance. Cameron jams his postmodern romance into a "pre-modern" social setting. Historical revisionism is at work. Rose is oppressed by a controlling fiancé, the stereotypical spin of a Patriarchal society where, God forbid, men are the spiritual heads of their families. But as all postmoderns waggingly agree, male headship leads only to oppression and violence. Rose's redemption is found in rejecting her perceived obligations to her social norms and choosing her own future by following her feelings. It is not without irony that this postmodern feminist tale of liberation should take place on the "unsinkable" Titanic, the highest achievement of man's "unsinkable" rationality and order.

To be sure, no one could disagree that the violent fiancé is an undesirable mate and Rose ought not marry him. But love in this story is not the rational choice to submit one's self to another trustworthy person. Rather it is the irrational resignation to one's intuitive feelings that guide the heros. Jack has Rose stand at the front of the ship and close her eyes and release her grip to "feel" the freedom of letting go. When they dance, he tells her, "Just move with me. Don't think." Follow her heart.

When Rose disagrees with Cal over a Picasso painting (another precursor to postmodernism with his cubist deconstructionist perspectivalism), she tells him "there's truth without logic." When Rose first talks with Jack about her dreams, she wishes she could just "chuck it all and become an artist... poor but free." Or maybe "a dancer like Isadora Duncan... a wild pagan spirit."

She envies "Wandering Jack" because he lives the free-spirited life, poor, but fun, moment by moment, experience by Existential experience. His buddies fret over his impossible desire for the aristocratic Rose. "He's not being logical," says one. "Amore is'a not logical," replies the other. Indeed he is not. This "king of the world" is the incarnation of the Existential man. And when he is implicated in stealing Cal's huge diamond, Rose chooses to believe Jack against all lines of evidence. She listens to her heart. At the end of the story, she says that Jack saved her in every way that a person can be saved. Something I thought God was supposed to do.

It is not by coincidence that the jewel that drives much of the story is called, "The Heart of the Ocean." When Rose stands on the Carpathia at the end she tells the treasure hunter, "You look for treasures in the wrong places, Mr. Lovett. Only life is priceless, and making each day count." True enough. Very true. But then she casts off the huge diamond into the water, an expression of her ultimate love for Jack. A diamond that could feed an entire third world nation, and she throws it away out of her "love" for an individual. This is precisely the selfish consequences of living by one's feelings instead of obligations. True compassion is sacrificed at the alter of autonomy and following one's heart.

Unstrung Heroes, a film by writer Richard LaGravenese, is the story of Steven, a boy with a scientific atheist father (John Turturro) who thinks nothing is broken that science can't fix," and "science is earth's salvation." But this man of utter godless reason must learn that science can't fix the death of his beloved wife and so he is left without salvation. Meanwhile, Steven gets to know his two crazy (quite literally) and paranoid religious uncles, Danny and Arthur. Their tolerable insanity that actually leads the child to an individual freedom is a metaphor for the irrationality of religion that cannot be explained by reason. It simply exists beyond rationality and gives us meaning, something science cannot do. At one point, the dying mother scolds the atheist father by telling him, "Maybe there is a God, or maybe some of us want to believe there is." Sincerity of belief is important, not actual reality. Emotional commitment over rational discourse. The heart over the head. Unfortunately, the problem with making sincerity the standard of truth and meaning is that it can't differentiate between true and false beliefs. The sincere Hitler is equal to the sincere Mother Teresa. As soon as one makes a distinction that some kinds of sincerity are wrong, then sincerity is no longer a guide for truth, that standard of right and wrong is the guide.

Following one's heart instead of the head is a common idea in most Romance movies. It is often the pairing of a rigid, rules-oriented orderly person with an unpredictable free-spirited partner, "unencumbered" by traditional morality that breeds the ground for dramatic conflict and humor. Some of the more notorious examples of this irresponsible wildness as a door to freedom and happiness are Forces of Nature, Don Juan DeMarco, Romancing the Stone, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Bridges of Madison County, Legends of the Fall, Tin Cup, What About Bob?, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, and Box Of Moonlight.

But is this so bad? Isn't it true that we need to live life a little? Seize the day, stop and smell the roses? Should we not stop reducing life to it's constituent scientific parts? Recognize that autonomous reason does not answer the ultimate questions of life? Only a fool would say no. And that's the good side of these films. They raise the issues and provide some truth about the absurdity of modern man's logical and scientific hubris. Pride before a fall.

The biblical answer to this Existential dilemma between faith and reason is found in recognizing that the God who said, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart," and "This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far away from me. " (Matthew 15:8) is the same God who also said, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your mind" (Matthew 22:37) and "Come, let us reason together," (Isaiah 1:18).

So God does require that we not reduce our personal relationship with Him to mere intellectual or mental facts about His nature or Word. But with the same ultimacy, He requires that personal relationship with Truth (Jesus) does in fact include doctrinal propositional understanding (1 Corinthians 15:1-11; 1 John 2:22-24). And the way to personal transformation (liberation) according to the Apostle Paul is through the renewal of the mind (Romans 12:1-2) not the heart. The heart follows the mind.

In the same way that the Rationalist errs in his worship of Reason over person, so the Existential rejection of propositional truth is a half-truth that ultimately results in an entire falsehood. Without a doctrinal, or propositional standard, we have no way to adjudicate between true and false personal encounters.

If we were to have an encounter with an angel of light who tells us a different gospel than the Apostle Paul's, we are to reject that personal vision as a profound spiritual deception. Why? Because all experience should be judged by our minds through rational discernment of the propositional doctrine in the Bible (2 Corinthians 11:1-14; 1 John 4:2-3). The heart should submit to the head and both should submit to the Word.

A wonderful movie that presents an antidote to the Romantic obsession with the heart is Sense and Sensibility. In the 18th century world of novelist Jane Austen, the word "sense" was a reference to the mannerly restraint of the mind, while "sensibility" meant the passions. This dichotomy is played out in the two lead characters, Elinor, played by Emma Thompson and Marianne, played by Kate Winslet. Elinor, the mature restrained one (Sense), does not reveal her feelings too readily. She is thoughtful and slow to speak, but quick to listen. Her love for respectable young Edward is repressed because of his engagement to another woman and the potential for scandal. She refuses to let her passions interfere and breakup someone else's heart. So she patiently waits for another good man to come along. And there aren't many.

Meanwhile, young and vivacious Marianne is a Romantic (Sensibility). She chides Elinor for her propriety, "Always prudence, honor and duty. Elinor, where is your heart?" Marianne is in love with the idea of love, imbibing in the passionate romantic fury of dashing young Willoughby. Handsome, exciting, adventurous ­ and a fraud. Because of her slavery to her passions, Marianne fails to see this deception in Willoughby's treasure-seeking manipulation, until it is too late and he dumps her, leaving her heartbroken and lost. She never sees the steady and true love of the dedicated, yet unflattering Colonel Brandon until she realizes that true love must have commitment based on endurance and character, not mercurial feelings and emotions.

And Elinor receives her love in Edward after a long painful loneliness when it turns out that his engagement is broken. Their love for one another is finally expressed and Elinor breaks out into the most powerful display of weeping in the film. A heart properly held in-check by the head. In both cases, the highest goal of true and abiding love is only found in the restraint and subjugation of the emotions by the mind.

 

A Lesson from Grandfather

As mentioned in Part I, one of the grandfathers of Existentialism is Søren Kierkegaard. This 19th century melancholic Danish philosopher is the famous origin of the concept of the "leap of faith." This leap is necessary because according to Kierkegaard, reason and rationality simply cannot be employed to find the true meaning to life in the universe. Rationality only goes so far but not far enough. The value of life must be found in what is irrational or undiscoverable by reason. You can't prove or disprove God and meaning in life because such things are contradictory to the rational mind, they are "beyond proof" and can only be understood by an irrational commitment of faith against the evidence. This arbitrary commitment of will is called, "fideism" and marks the dominant religious worldview of today.

Kierkegaard believed that man has three stages or spheres of existence, the Aesthetic, the Ethical and the Religious. The Aesthetic stage is the most base and consists of man in bondage to his passions. He is egocentric, lives for the gratification of his pleasures. He seeks the fulfillment of his senses as his means of significance. But eventually, he can never get enough and is driven to despair (angst). At this point, he takes a leap to the next phase, the Ethical.

In the Ethical, man seeks discipline and order as a means of salvation. He commits to rules, obeys duty because he thinks that by order and moral obligation he may attain to the meaning he seeks. But the stress of this impossibility again leads him to despair, and to make another leap into the final stage, the Religious.

In this final Religious leap is where man realizes full maturity and dependence upon his Creator through absolute purity of devotion. This dedication to "one thing," as Kierkegaard put it, is marked by the suspension of the ethical by behavior that is normally condemned by society or even the conscience as immoral. But only by ignoring the mind and acting anyway can a person achieve the salvation he seeks.

Kierkegaard used the example of God asking Abraham to kill his own son, Isaac, as the ultimate situation of the Religious Man, a man suspending his personal morals and understanding in order to find his God.

Several movies of recent years are almost textbook examples of Kierkegaard. City Slickers, Groundhog Day, Joe Versus the Volcano, Unstrung Heros, and Box of Moonlight are just a few. In City Slickers, three friends are trapped in the Aesthetic stage by their yearly pursuit of adrenaline highs at Bull Runs, scuba diving, Baseball Fantasy Camp and target parachute jumping. Phil (Daniel Stern) engages in adultery because of his frigid domineering wife, the youth and sex obsessed Ed (Bruno Kirby) is on a perpetual quest for younger women to bag and Mitch (Billy Crystal) reaches a mid-life crisis, wondering, "When is it ever going to be enough?" Phil and Ed are in the Aesthetic stage while Mitch is an Ethical man, always doing the right thing, the moral thing (ie: not sleeping around), but still lacking that meaning in life as death looms on his horizon.

Mitch decides to go on a cattle drive with the other two in order to "find his smile." When he does, he meets Curly (Jack Palance) the tough mysterious cowboy with enigmatic wisdom. Mitch asks Curly what he thinks the secret to life is and Curly raises his index finger and answers, "One thing [sound familiar?]." "Stick to it, and the rest of life don't mean a thing." When Mitch asks what the one thing is, Curly says, "That's what you've got to figure out."

After the long cattle drive, it finally hits Mitch that they were seeking the wrong thing all along. By trying to find out what the "one thing" is, they missed the understanding that it isn't one thing that we need, it's commitment to any one thing. It is single-minded devotion that satisfies the heart, not some external thing. This is Kierkegaardian commitment of the will ­ without God of course.

In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray plays a cynical weather reporter who gets stuck in living the same incredibly boring day over and over again in the worst nightmare hick town with the worst hick people he can imagine. As Sartre said, "Hell is other people. " This is an analogy for many who feel as if every day of their life is the same boring experience where nothing really matters. When he realizes this curse, he reacts by going through the three stages.

First, since the end of every day reverts to the day before--the same day recycling--he decides to imbibe in selfish things since he won't have to suffer consequences. He stuffs himself with unhealthy food, seduces as many women as he can, robs a Brinks car, same day after same day. This is the Aesthetic stage of complete abandonment to the flesh. The world is my playground. But this also becomes boring for him, and he is led to despair (angst) and starts killing himself in different ways, only to wake up again alive, as he was the day before.

Then he enters the Ethical stage, by deciding to use his knowledge of events to do the moral thing, to help people. Every day, he saves the same kid from falling out of a tree, the same man from choking on food in a restaurant. But this Messiah complex also leads to despair.

It is not until he decides to personally and selflessly love a woman (Andie McDowell) that he finds redemption. At first, he uses his accumulative knowledge of her interests as a means of wooing her into bed, but then realizes that his existence is not for himself, but for selfless devotion to another. The Religious stage, again, without God, but the same kind of commitment.

In John Patrick Shanley's Joe Versus the Volcano, Joe, played by Tom Hanks, escapes his humdrum existence and certain death at an alienating life-sucking job, by going to a remote island and casting himself into a volcano. The story of a man who finds his identity by taking a "leap of faith." As his companion, Patricia, played by Meg Ryan tells him, "We'll jump and we'll see what happens. That's life."

Unfortunately, this fideist leap of irrationality has become a common definition of spiritual faith. But nothing could be further from the truth. Kierkegaard's example of Abraham has helped to Christianize this deception, but faith, according to the Bible, is not blind.

The God of Abraham who asked him to sacrifice his son was not speaking from a vacuum of irrational absurdity. Abraham had a history of God's faithfulness as a reference point. He saw God's reality all around him loud and clear. For Abraham to obey God's historically unique command to kill his son is not a justification for anyone to violate God's commands in the name of enlightenment. It is simply an example of trusting a trustworthy God when He speaks.

But even so, the Lawgiver by definition is not subject to the Law He gives as if the Law was higher than Him (Psalm 115:3). He is the law. And He has the right to command anyone He wants to be the historically unique instrument of His will (Joshua 6; Romans 9:18-21). Hastily generalizing that unique interaction into a universal principle is the height of irresponsibility. Abraham could faithfully obey the words of the Lawgiver, not because of a "teleological suspension of the ethical," but because he submitted his reason to the God who makes reason possible.

 

Concluding Scientific Postscript

Shortly after writing the first draft of this article, several movies were released that heralded a new postmodern direction in Sci-Fi. The Matrix, The 13th Floor and eXistenZ all broke the Terminator/Blade Runner motif that has dominated the Sci-Fi scene for years. With the dawning of a new millennium of virtual reality in computers has come a new vision of humanity and its future. And that new vision is postmodern through and through. What these movies do is establish a virtual reality made through computers that is so real, the characters do not know the difference between the virtual world and their real world. This inability to distinguish illusion from reality is one of the philosophical corollaries to the postmodern notion that there is no "text," no ultimate underlying reality. If we have no absolutes, no external reference point or standard by which we discern truth from error, if all we have is our own contextual and cultural prejudices by which we deconstruct the world around us, then in fact we exist in a continuum of infinite "realities," all relative to the individual and their interpretation. So much for objective truth.

In eXistenZ, (the German word for existence used by the existential philosopher Heidegger as the "being thereness" of man) the heros play a deadly virtual reality game, only to discover at the end that the reality they thought was the real world was simply a continuation of the virtual world they were coming from. A character asks the last line of the film, "Are we still in the game?" and we fade to black. We cannot know illusion from reality.

In The 13th Floor, the protagonist, who thought he was the first to create a virtual world with virtual characters who evolve in their independence (a highly advanced version of the computer game, Sim City), comes to realize that he himself is a virtual reality character created by someone else's computer who has simply become self-aware.

This postmodern neo-evolutionary idea of consciousness emerging out of natural processes is called "self-organization" and "emergent properties." It represents the latest attempt in atheistic naturalistic science to eradicate transcendental spirit and truth by reducing them to physical properties. What was once recognized as the foolishness of "spontaneous generation" years ago in biology has resurfaced in a new incarnation of absurdity as "self-organization." But absurdity is exactly the virtual world playground of the postmodern. Because in a universe of absurdity, ultimate moral responsibility is eradicated. The true agenda of the postmodern man.

Ironically enough, in The 13th Floor, the protagonist and his love interest end up in a "heaven" at the end of the movie, a happy futuristic paradise with a perpetually shining sun on an endless seashore. The "scientific" vision ends up being expressed in religious terms, because no matter how much man tries to avoid the spiritual, he necessarily is a spiritual being with a religious impulse and the need for spiritual redemption (The movie Contact is also guilty of this religious transformation of Science into "Scientism").

The Matrix could very well be the next Blade Runner or Terminator in terms of its breakthrough originality and pace-setting for Sci-Fi films of the new millennium. It's hero, Neo, who keeps his secret computer disk in a book chapter on Nihilism (Nietzsche?), soon discovers that what we all think is the real world is actually a virtual world created by computers who have conquered and subjugated the human race into energy sources to run the computers. We are literally having the life sucked out of us and have been given the illusion of "the matrix" so that we do not wake up to our slavery.

Neo is played by Keanou Reeves in this sci-fi film, a hero who must battle a total dictatorship of machines. There are dark trench coat scenes of virtual shooting range intensity. Critics have noted that such scenes hit the screens a month or so before the Colombine High School tragedy (that seemed so imitative of this film.).

This neo-Platonic film mixes Christian metaphors with Greek Platonism to illustrate the idealist notion that redemption or enlightenment is found in our "waking up" from our ignorance. What we think is the real world we live in is merely a dream state that blinds us to the true unlimited potential of humanity. Like the prisoners in Plato's cave, we only see projected shadows of reality dancing on the wall like a dream, but if someone breaks free and leaves the cave to see the "real" world, not only would he not be believed by those still in the cave, but he could never go back.

The characters in The Matrix, have Greek mythological or Christian names, starting with Neo, the Savior-Hero of the film. Morpheus (the god of the dream world in Greek myth) is led by the Oracle (a female prophet in Greek mythology) to be a John the Baptist preparing the way with Trinity (the female presence) for the hero, Neo ("New" in Greek) to be "the One," the messiah who leads us into this self-knowledge. Morpheus is called a father to them in the story, making it Father (Morpheus), Son (Neo) and Holy Spirit (Trinity). They all want to go to Zion, the city of refuge for other enlightened souls, and the metaphor for God's eternal Kingdom in Scripture. Neo has a "new birth" when he is enlightened as he wakes up in a fetal like pod of goo. Much like Christianity, the new birth is not a waking up to a detached bliss, but an enlightenment to the horrible bondage that everyone is in. In many ways, the real world of enlightenment is harsher, uglier and not as "fun." But it is true reality, which is always better than blindness even if it is painful.

And that is an interesting idea. Though the film mixes Eastern concepts of physical reality being a projection of the mind and other such gobbledygook, the story still necessitates a real world that opposes the illusion. A real world that is not a creation of the mind, that is bound by harsh reality, in contradiction to the hero's last statement about humanity's "unbounded future." In this sense, The Matrix's syncretism of Christianity with Greek and Eastern religions fails. It fails because one cannot mix oil and water. One cannot mix exclusive truth and relative perceptions. One cannot mix reality and illusion.

 

Conclusion: Qoheleth Speaks

So what is the point of this excursion into philosophic cinema? To develop the discernment necessary for spiritual maturity. By understanding the nature of storytelling as an attempt to communicate worldviews and values, not merely entertainment, and by having a basic grasp of philosophies of history, the viewer becomes better able to objectively evaluate what is being consumed and avoid the mindless suspension of disbelief that marks undisciplined media consumption.

The book of Hebrews talks of such maturity when it says, "But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil" (Hebrews 5:14).

To be sure, this is not to suggest that all movie makers form a conspiracy of philosophers. Not all filmmakers are as self-consciously postmodern as a Woody Allen. But they are certainly expressing their beliefs, whether echoing the Exitentialists Sartre, Camus, Nietzsche or more recent hybrids of relativism or Eastern mysticism.

The reason Postmodernism is so powerful is because it builds upon premises that secular society has accepted as true. It makes the inescapable conclusion that life is absurd from the modern premise that there is no God.

If there is no God, then there is no ultimate meaning to the universe. If there is no ultimate meaning to the universe, then we are truly alone, condemned to our own barren choices while forced to create our own meaning. God and all forms of external rules like morality are simply oppressive forms of control.

The book of Ecclesiastes addresses the postmodern man who faces the angst of a world without meaning. The Preacher, Qoheleth, agrees with the Existentialist, "Vanity of vanities! Behold, all is vanity and striving after wind (Ecclesiastes 1:2,14)." He tries to seek wisdom, but this leads to despair. "For there is no lasting remembrance of the wise man as with the fool, inasmuch as in the coming days all will be forgotten (2:16)." He experiments with the hedonistic pleasure-seeking of the Aesthetic man, but concludes again that "all was vanity and striving after wind and there was no profit under the sun (2:11)." He even embraces absurdity, madness and folly, but yet again, a crisis encounter with death fills him with angst--horror and fear--for "the wise man's eyes are in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I know that one fate befalls them both (2:14)."

Yet, in this Existential despair, the difference between the Preacher and the Postmodern is the difference between redemption and resignation. The difference between heaven and hell. The Postmodern concludes that in a godless universe, all of man's dreams and words are empty and we must therefore experience life because it's all we've got. Create ourselves. Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.

But the Preacher concludes that we must return to the God we have ignored and only then can experiencing life be made meaningful again. "For who can eat and who can have enjoyment without Him? (2:25) For in may dreams and in many words there is emptiness. Rather, fear God (5:7). This is not a leap into the dark of an irrational void, it is a reasonable return to the God we knowingly rejected (Romans 1:18-23).

The conclusion in the ancient book of Ecclesiastes, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgement, everything which is hidden, whether good or evil. (12:12-14)." And that just about says it all.

Brian Godawa--apart from being SCP's design director--Brian Godawa is a screenwriter living in Southern California. He has a degree in the fine arts with a background in advertising and marketing. For an extended version of this article as well as others on philosophy and movies, check out his web page at: http://home.earthlink.net/~godawa/




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