To Stingo: The Spiritual Impact of Film

One of my fondest memories (and current favorite activities) is watching movies with my dad. Film as an art form shaped him as a person from the time he saw Ben-Hur in theatres when he was eight, and about the time I turned fourteen, he started showing me the catalogue of movies that had influenced him in life. On the weekends and whenever I was home sick, he went to the video store (remember those?) and brought home something for us to watch and evaluate together. It was one of the most artistically formative experiences I had prior to starting college, but it also taught me a great deal about myself, and, though I wouldn’t realize it for many years, about God and the way He relates to me as both a writer and His child.

In high school, I had to write a paper for my acting class where I watched a movie from a prescribed list and wrote a critique and analysis of its characters and their portrayals. I let my dad pick the movie, and we watched Sophie’s Choice. I remember being unhinged by that film in a way that was both painful and beautiful. In particular, it is impossible for me even sixteen years later to watch the scene where Nathan, played masterfully by Kevin Kline in his first movie role ever, toasts the young writer Stingo’s future success as a novelist by climbing onto the Brooklyn Bridge and throwing a glass of champagne into the river as his shout of “To Stingo!” echoes across the empty roadway. Watching that movie as a junior in high school who had pretty much settled on majoring in creative writing in college, I felt like in some weird way, Nathan was speaking out of his fictional realm directly to me.

(UPDATE: I just linked the video of this incredible scene from YouTube and cried. Again. Thanks Kevin Kline #imnotcryingyourecrying)

I probably watched a hundred movies with my dad from junior high to the end of high school. They all left their impact, but one in particular has stuck with me more than any other: The Shawshank Redemption. I know. It’s kind of cliché. Everyone has a Shawshank story. However, the mark that movie has left on my life is indelible. I first saw it in eighth grade in my parents’ basement and remember my initial intrigue, the shock I felt at the reveal of the movie’s now iconic plot twist, and how the ending, to use modern day parlance, gave me all the feels. Forgive the melodrama, but I knew that my artistic life would never been the same. As a writer, it made me aware of all the shapes a story can take, how it can plant the ending in plain sight while nonetheless leaving readers stunned by its ultimate reveal.

On a more personal level, Andy Dufresne became a kind of patron saint for me in high school, when I struggled with bullying, depression, and a general feeling of being trapped, of not belonging. When I researched colleges, poured myself into schoolwork, and prepared for graduation, I was, in my mind, digging an escape tunnel. Watching the movie was therapeutic for me because I identified with Andy on such a profound level. There’s little similarity between a convict doing two life sentences and a high school junior on the surface, but we were both stuck, both bullied, both misunderstood. We both wanted out in the worst way, and despite the drastic difference in circumstances, Andy helped me make sense of everything and believe that there was hope (remember, it’s a good thing, and no good thing ever dies). Today, my dad and I have watched the movie a combined total of probably 200 times, and last year, we celebrated our fanship with the film by visiting the Mansfield State Prison, just an hour or so from my hometown of Kent, where the movie was filmed.

Speaking of the stuff I went through in high school, right now, my film fixation is Lady Bird. I bonded with this movie on a very intense level when I saw it in theatres last month, mostly because Lady Bird graduates from high school the same year I did (2003). The movie hit home in numerous ways, from the general experience of being on the verge of adulthood following September 11 to parents who don’t seem to understand your goals to conflicts with your best friend to that feeling of being oppressed by an educational system that you always seem to be on the outskirts of. I was in tears when it ended, not because of any pain of reliving these things, but because it was a joyful thing that someone had captured something I could so strongly identify with. In a strange way, it made me feel loved, like the director, Greta Gerwig, had made it especially for me.

Films exist on two levels. The first is the intent of the filmmaker, the story she wants to tell. The second is the level at which the viewer experiences the story – the way we see ourselves in the narrative and join forces with characters we see as mirror images of us. It is an intensely comforting thing to see our reality in someone else’s fiction.

I once had a fellow Christian tell me I watch too many movies and that I need to live in the real world where God is. I argue that if fiction is done right, nothing gets more real, and to claim that God isn’t in art is to show a lack of knowledge of who He is and what He is capable of in His knowledge of us. In my first entry, I established that because we are created beings, we can’t help but make creations ourselves, regardless of if we believe in Christ as Savior or not. If this is true, God can use our art – all art – to influence, comfort, and entertain, to enable us to bring Him greater glory through our experience of it. While I understand the argument that Christians shouldn’t fill their minds with escapist entertainment, as a writer, I don’t feel this is my motivation in watching movies. I watch movies to better understand storytelling, to perfect my art form and learn more about it. But I also watch movies to better understand my own life experience, and even to better understand God.

But you have the Bible, some might say. Can’t you see yourself in that? My question is why it has to be an either/or proposition. God of course speaks to us through His Word; however, He can also use anything He wants to do so. I can’t even begin to count all the times I have been encouraged, comforted, and affirmed by movies or any kind of storytelling. God knows each of us intimately, and He knows our languages. I believe He knows that stories are my language. When I see or read a story that profoundly affects me, He uses that to not only impact me personally, but to enable me to better use my creative gifts to bless others. Storytelling is an intimate part of my relationship with God. He not only shows me what to create, but also gives me the influences and models I need in order to do it.

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