Many critics look at a movie's entertainment values: Does it provide a few laughs, good adrenaline-pumping action, and an escape from the humdrum world? Or they comment on its production qualities: How good is the acting, the directing, the screenplay? Other reviewers concentrate on the film as an art form: How does it compare with other examples in its genre?
These approaches to movies, while they may be helpful in some cases, are basically adversarial. They assume that people enter a theater demanding that the film prove itself to them. They wait in the dark for the filmmakers to do all the work.
When we decided to spend a large portion of our time going to movies and writing about them, we also chose to make a spiritual practice of befriending films. We think of this approach to films as an aspect of the practice of hospitality, which has roots in all the spiritual traditions. Today we only review films that we like; we don't waste our time — or yours — putting down a disappointing picture. That's why we're "recommenders" (a title we prefer over "critic").
We see several hundred movies every year, and we've learned that movies have a way of becoming what you intend them to be. If you think a movie is going to be funny, you will notice the funny parts. If you go looking for truth and meaning, you will notice the parts that perform that role. Wear "spiritual glasses" to the theater, and you will often be surprised by grace.
Some movies are close encounters with the stories of our lives. They help us identify the many voices inside us and delve deeply into our feelings, desires, and passions. Some are rendezvous with the shadow sides of life. They encourage us to exercise our values and to take stock of our commitments. They show us how others have dealt with change and loss, success and failure, suffering and death. They open a window into the profound mysteries of life and love, good and evil. Many reveal signs of God's presence in daily life.
When we attend (a good word, meaning to be present, to heed, to pay attention to) a film, we go with open minds and receptive hearts. We remind ourselves to be hospitable to the movie, approaching it without expectations, just as we would a person we were meeting for the first time. Here are some other ways you can make going to movies a spiritual practice.
1. Be prepared.
The magic moment when the lights go down is a sacred interlude. It's a signal to shift gears and be ready to give your full attention to what is about to appear on the screen. Feel the link to those who made the film, all the other people who have sat in the dark and waited for it to begin, and those with you today. Breathe in, breathe out. Call in wisdom.
2. Remember your intention to be hospitable.
Leave behind the cold, ungenerous judge inside you who demands his or her money's worth. Consciously vow to be an active, alert, sensitive, and responsive filmgoer. The more you put yourself into the experience, the more you'll get back.
3. Connect with the characters.
Step into the story and see yourself in one or more of the characters. Which ones are most like you? Which ones can be teachers for you, showing you how to live a richer and fuller life? Immerse yourself in their experiences. Square off with the character who is most unlike you, who is the "other." Embrace that character and see what you can learn from him or her. Be on the lookout for moral mentors who confirm your most esteemed values and visions. Notice how they handle setbacks, disappointments, and defeats.
4. Pay attention to your reactions.
Every so often, return your attention to your breath. Be alert to how your senses are exercised by the story. Monitor your physical and emotional responses to what is happening on the screen. See what energizes or depletes you. Never squelch your honest emotions, especially tears of joy or sadness. These can be cathartic and healing moments for you.
5. Consider the significance of what you are seeing.
Ponder the developments of the story, especially those that "speak to your condition," to use a Quaker term. Think of the film itself as a spiritual teacher and yourself as a willing student. Look for new insights and symbolic meanings.
6. Look for the bigger picture.
Discern and explore the mythical overtones of drama that transcend the confines of our personal worlds and introduce us to the universality of human experience. Think of the film as a passport that gives you access to other cultures. Celebrate stories that take you to new places and break down the walls that all too often separate us from other peoples.
7. Bring the whole family.
When you are watching a movie, there are a lot of people there with you, especially those who live in you, such as family, friends, teachers, lovers, enemies. Think about how they might regard this movie. Be attentive to both the masculine and the feminine energies in the characters. Listen to what the drama says to your inner child and your wild one.
8. Leave some things alone.
Let the mystic inside you honor the inexplicable and mysterious aspects of the film. Not everything that can be felt can be explained. Cherish those movies that take you beyond the Doubting Thomas inside who only believes what he can see.
9. Watch for epiphanies.
Always be prepared for a sudden or surprising aha! experience that washes over you like a gift from God. Give thanks for these grace moments.
10. Don't turn away from the shadow.
It's okay not to look at the screen during scenes of excessive violence or human degradation, but never reject a film solely on the basis of its exploration of human darkness or the abyss. Often such encounters give us a glimpse of the capacity for spiritual transformation.
11. Be courteous and grateful.
Do not talk during the show. Respect the filmmakers by staying to see all their names in the closing credits. As you leave the theater, say a word of gratitude to those whose creativity and commitment have gone into bringing this story to you.
12. Let the movie simmer.
Don't dilute or trivialize your movie experience with a quick or glib assessment. Spend some quality time recalling what you have seen and felt. Let your reactions settle for at least a day. Then write or talk about the movie's spiritual significance to you.
Starting a Film Discussion Group
When we watch movies as a spiritual practice, we consider the visions on the screen in light of our own experiences and understanding of the world. We name what we know and what we can be. A good next step is to share these revelations with others through a film discussion group. We call these groups Values & Visions Circles, and we have information on starting one.