Updated: Apr 19
Life is exhausting and complicated and at times quite overwhelming. I think most people can relate to those feelings at some point or another even as many of us also recognize that we're not living in the middle of a war zone or in other extreme circumstances as far too many people are forced to in our world. Our circumstances may vary widely, but as someone who grew up in a third world country and now lives in the Unites States, I feel like much of what I've observed in life is that it's easy to want to coast through life because, frankly, life demands a lot from us. Who has time to get hung up on meaning of life questions when there are all the other stresses to be dealt with?
And yet, at some point, I think we all discover that without deeper purpose that inform our mundane daily lives, our quest to survive and thrive, our drive to connect relationally with people around us, eventually, it can get pretty hard to feel motivated to care about much. I suspect that this is where a lot of life crisis moments come from in affluent cultures like ours in America. While our lives are, by any global standards, quite comfortable, many people within American society eventually discover that our jobs and our money and our things don't actually provide life with lasting meaning and purpose.
Escapism as a Gift
It's tempting to try to silence that kind of existential angst with entertainment. I totally get this. Last summer, when we discovered a leaky pipe in my house that had caused a lot of unseen damage and our "lovely" insurance company said it was not something they had to fix, I spent months working to rebuild our house since we couldn't afford to hire professionals. I won't name who our fine insurance company is (soon to be "was"), but let's just say they took the liberty of not helping us and it was not mutually appreciated. I had a lot of help from friend and family without which I could not have made it. Still, it was the worst summer of my life and I often found myself working alone putting up drywall, tiling, laying laminate floor, painting rooms, and more. Much of this I learned to do thanks to tutorials on YouTube. While I worked I survived by vanishing into the Harry Potter audiobooks.
There are seasons and moments where engaging in some much-needed escapism is just what's needed. I've addressed the role of escapism in the past as we use stories to help us better understand ourselves. But there are far more times when continued engagement with life's biggest and deepest and toughest questions should be something we invest in thoughtfully. Even my escapism of letting my mind go off to visit Hogwarts while I cut tile or drove in drywall screws was ultimately informed by just how much I needed to revisit the story of a grand struggle between good and evil and how transformative and, yes, magical things like love and friendship really are.
I believe in the amazing power of stories to help us explore life's biggest questions. In fact, stories often times are the only means we can even begin to wrap our heads around big existential, ethical, and spiritual questions. Stories help us better understand ourselves and are essential to our survival. Only when such enormous and, at times, abstract ideas are placed within the concrete context of characters and stories are we able to begin to make sense of them.
"A culture cannot evolve without honest, powerful storytelling," writes Robert McKee in his book, Story, which for all intents and purposes is the cornerstone of Hollywood screenwriting. He goes on a few pages later to claim the following:
"The writer shapes story around a perception of what's worth living for, what's worth dying for, what's foolish to pursue, the meaning of justice, truth--the essential values. ... First we [screenwriters] must dig deeply into life to uncover new insights, new refinements of value and meaning, then create a story vehicle that expresses our interpretation to an increasingly agnostic world. No small task."
The act of telling a story is one of creating a reflection of reality in some way that helps the audience better understand the world outside the theater walls ... when done well. As I've argued in the past, books and movies can present a microcosm of our world, giving us something which we can deal with more readily as we try to make sense of life.
Only a Movie
This is why I am embarking on a new journey to explore meaning (and have some fun doing so) through watching and discussing new movies with a couple of close friends in the new YouTube series being produced and distributed by Stories by the River. The series is called Only a Movie and will feature me, Trevor Duke, and Penny Crosby as we discuss our reactions to new movies and whether they succeed or fail at helping audiences engage meaningful ideas. It should be lots of fun, probably hilarious at points (knowing us), and hopefully, it will help interested viewers engage more thoughtfully with movies.
Why are we doing this now? Recently, I retired The River Film Forum. It was a monthly event we'd been doing for seven years where we would watch a movie a The River South Center and host a discussion about the themes and questions brought up by the story. The River Film Forum was wonderful, but it was time to something new that can reach a broader audience. That's how we came up with the concept for Only a Movie.
But why should we care about engaging thoughtfully with movies, you might be asking. If what I've shared above isn't enough already, I'd love to share one more quote. This one is from poet laureate Carl Sandburg.
"I meet people occasionally who think motion pictures, the product Hollywood makes, is merely entertainment, has nothing to do with education. That's one of the darndest fool fallacies that is current ... Anything that brings you to tears by way of drama does something to the deepest roots of our personality. All movies, good or bad, are educational and Hollywood is the foremost educational institution on earth. What, Hollywood more important than Harvard? The answer is not as clean as Harvard, but nevertheless father reaching."
Pretty big claim, huh? But if McKee is right about cultures only being able to evolve when thoughtful and powerful stories are part of society, then I think Sandburg is spot on.
Finally, in case you find yourself wondering if there's anything of meaning being made these days worth talking about, I'd like to encourage you to watch this wonderful video essay by the YouTube channel, Lessons from the Screenplay. In this video, you'll learn how the movie Arrival helps us examine the human condition.
Coming in June
I hope you'll subscribe to the Stories by the River YouTube channel where each month a new episode of Only a Movie will be released. We will start in June with our discussion of the much-anticipated Wonder Woman movie. We're looking forward to seeing the film and engaging in this discussion.
In the meantime, what movies coming out this summer are you excited about? What do you want us to discuss on Only a Movie? Comment and let me know. I will sharing all such comments with the team behind Only a Movie as we gear up to explore current cinematic storytelling and what such stories have to offer engaged and purposeful viewers.
If you'd like to keep up with news about Only a Movie and hear in advance what movies we'll be discussing, I encourage you to sign up for my mailing list.