Movies, Meaning Making, and Shared Memory

In the first part of this two part series, Elijah Davidson explained his experience with the short film Thief and how it calls the world to a better kind of forgiveness. In this second part, he examines just how a movie works with its audience to make meaning and suggests the potential movies and filmmakers have for engendering grace and forgiveness in their audiences and the world.

Cinematic Stories

Now, we have explored the effect Thief has on its audience (or at least on me), but let’s now peel back this top layer of emotional experience with a movie and investigate how a movie involves its audience and the potential a movie has for reordering the world.

First of all, movies are stories, and “the story arts,” as Robert McKee states in his book Story, “have become humanity’s primary source of inspiration, as it seeks to order chaos and gain insight into life.” Movies, in particular, appeal to people with a power that seems to transcend all other forms of art. They are the story form humanity most often chooses to entertain. This can be seen from a purely monetary standpoint. The top 50 highest grossing movies of all time have each made at least $650 million, according to Box Office Mojo. By contrast, only the top two highest grossing Broadway shows of all time, The Phantom of the Opera and The Lion King, have made more than $500 million. The Harry Potter franchise, which includes the best selling book series of all time, is estimated to be worth $15 billion dollars, but over half of that, $7.7 billion, is from the movies based on the books. We have a great “appetite for [stories],” and particularly, it seems, for movies, and this appetite “is a reflection of the profound human need to grasp the pattern of living, not merely as an intellectual exercise, but within a very personal, emotional experience” (McKee).

Some might argue that our hunger for movies reflects not our longing for meaning, but our tendency to escape the stresses of human life. Granted, the drive to the theater might be a drive to abdicate our responsibilities in favor of a more emotionally satisfying and meaningful world, but even so, we ought not denigrate this drive as the desire is still for meaning, and that desire is apparently being satisfied at the movies. We don’t go to the movies to escape the need for meaning, just as we don’t go to a restaurant to escape the need for food. We movie-watch to be filled with meaning. Even movies deemed “pure entertainment” entertain because they immerse their audience “in the ceremony of story to an intellectually and emotionally satisfying end… Story isn’t a flight from reality but a vehicle that carries us on our search for reality, our best effort to make sense of the anarchy of existence” (McKee).

How then, do movies accomplish this feat of meaning-impartation? Why are movies more broadly successful than other story-centric art forms in helping us “make sense of the anarchy of existence?” Is there commonality in the meaning-making method of both movies and human cognitive processes that make movies particularly palatable to the human psyche?

Stories create meaning through engaging what Robert McKee terms “aesthetic emotion,” which is our ability to create meaning and emotion simultaneously in the process of engaging with art. In real life, we experience a thing and then after experiencing it, process it and apply meaning. In a story, we experience a thing and are told what it means at the same instant.

Using the world of Thief as an example, in real life, were I to find myself suddenly sitting across from Saddam Hussein, the emotions of confusion, fear, anger, excitement, curiosity, vengefulness, and love would flood my person all at once. I would react mostly out of intuition and habit, and only after the fact would I be able to reflect on the encounter and derive any meaning from the experience. In Thief, I am provided with the experience of sitting across from Saddam and the meaning of that encounter all at once. In real life, only in hindsight would I be aware of the potential of that encounter for character growth. In watching the film, I am aware of what’s at stake in the moment of the encounter. As McKee states, “In life, experiences become meaningful with reflection in time. In art, they are meaningful now, at the instant they happen.”

Cinematic Memories

The process of attaching meaning to events in human life happens reflectively, in time, in memory. We remember and ruminate on past events, discern meaning in them, and alter our lives accordingly. Movies then operate just like our mnemonic processes, though they hasten that meaning-making to our present experience. They are reflective, not descriptive. Movies are memories.

The very nature and form of movies exemplifies this similarity. Both memories and movies are unbound by time – we flit back and forth through a linear narrative making connections that contribute to a larger whole in both. This is why we are able to follow a movie like Thief, which begins in 2003, jumps back to 1959, and then back to 2003 to end. I do the same thing when I remember hearing of Saddam’s conviction in 2006, connecting it to my mother’s convalescence during the Gulf War in 1990, and then finally to my experience of watching Thief in 2012.

Memories and movies also impart importance to details that go overlooked in daily life – the farmer in Thief has a knife at hand with which to potentially kill Saddam because the farmer happened to have slaughtered a goat that morning, and my gas-guzzling truck makes me complicit in the conflict and execution of Saddam Hussein. And memories are of experiences in the past, and movies, no matter in what time period they are set, by virtue of having been visually recorded, are events that have already happened. Every movie happened “a long time ago,” regardless of the nearness or farness of its geographic and temporal galaxies.

Finally, movies, like memories, are not even necessarily narrative. They don’t have to tell a complete story to be meaningful. They can be impressionistic and suggestive and still carry great emotional weight while transcending strict logic, like Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey or Malick’s The Tree of Life, becoming more like our subconscious cognitive processes. Once again, movies essentially are memories.

The Power of Shared Memories

More important, however, than the fact that movies mimic our mnemonic processes, is a movie’s ability to become a kind of shared memory between audience members, and shared memories have the potential to generate solidarity among people. Movies encourage us to vicariously attach to their characters. As Jon Boorstin writes, movie allow their audience to “feel what the actor feels” and judge that feeling for ourselves. However, everyone watching the film is feeling that same emotion. The audience is united in that experience. The audience remembers/watches together.

This makes movies potentially profoundly transformative, because shared memory is integral in our fight against injustice, oppression, and suffering in the world. “We must recall past wrongs,” Volf states in his tome on memory and forgiveness, The End of Memory, “in order to struggle against present ones.” Movies, given their resemblance to memory and communal nature (not to mention their global popularity), are potentially more powerful than even direct, person to person accounts of victims’ stories in garnering empathy and solidarity.

However, just because movies, as shared memories, have the potential to create solidarity, doesn’t mean they actually will. Volf continues in his examination of the power of shared memories to consider the impact of another’s suffering on someone who has also suffered:

Why expect those who are nursing their own wounds and mending their own shattered lives to minister to the needs of others? There are good reasons for them to do so, but these reasons do not stem from memory itself, but rather from a broader set of convictions about the nature of reality and our responsibilities in it… [Memories] can engender empathy and mitigate oppression, but they can also lead to indifference and even trigger renewed violence – hardly means for salvation. To be a means of salvation, memories themselves must be redeemed.

His concern is just and worth consideration. Individuals’ personal stories do interact with others’ stories, coloring our experience of the others’ experience. Thief particularly moved me precisely because of my personal history of being mindful of Saddam Hussein. My worry for the safety of my convalesced mother and unborn sister when I was seven was connected to my first cognitive experience of war and labeling of an “enemy.” Had it not been for the “broader set of convictions about the nature of reality and [my] responsibilities in it” imparted to me via my Christian faith, I could easily have reacted with joy upon hearing of Saddam’s conviction and execution instead of grief.

However, the stories I grew up learning about Jesus, and the principles I gleaned from Christ’s example about loving my enemies prepared me to adopt a more merciful posture toward Saddam Hussein. The stories, or memories, about Christ that have been passed down to me are, in my life, the redeemed memories that Volf notes we need, and the effect of these redeemed memories worked as he anticipates, to engender solidarity in me with even my enemy.

Manipulated Memories

Filmmakers then, as Julian Higgins exemplifies with Thief, have the particular power to present these redeemed memories to the public.  Movies, unlike actual memories, are manipulable. Movies are crafted memories, and filmmakers have the ability, and, I would suggest, the responsibility, to craft memories that better order the chaos of the world.

Briefly, let’s compare Thief with Inglourious Basterds, another film explicitly about killing a communally accepted tyrant. In Thief, as previously noted, the audience is encouraged to desire the protagonist to extend mercy toward his enemy. Thief is explicit that one’s moral quality is determined by one’s actions. In Inglourious Basterds, the killing of Hitler is morally obtuse. The moral atmosphere of the movie is ambiguous, and the heroes and villains are similarly comic and tragic, vengeful and merciful. While I do not mean to criticize Inglourious Basterds for being differently aimed than Thief (I actually view Inglourious Basterds as the modern cinematic equivalent of the book of Esther), I do mean to highlight Thief as a films which pushes its audience toward a more peaceful and loving way of life.

This strikes at the heart of the potential power of movies. We go to the movies to find meaning, and movies, more than any other art form, are able to provide meaning in ways that resonate most closely with our own innate meaning-making processes. Movies operate as shared memories between fimmakers and audiences, and between even audience members only, and therefore have the ability to shape their audiences in profound ways. Filmmakers have a responsibility to craft compelling and redeemed movie memories, to entertain us justly. Filmgoers have a responsibility to seriously engage with the movie memories they are entertaining.

Only at the movies can we trade laser fire with Greedo or witness the birth of the universe. Only at the movies can we share a table with a despot and grant him clemency. Hopefully, if we can understand the need to be merciful at the movies – in our shared, cinematic memories – perhaps we can begin to be merciful in the real world.