Book Review 

Finding Meaning at the Movies
Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999

by Sara Anson Vaux

Reviewed by Elyse Sara

Finding Meaning at the Movies
Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999

by Sara Anson Vaux

Reviewed by Elyse Sara

[1] In her book Finding Meaning at the Movies, Sara Anson Vaux aims to increase movie viewers' appreciation for religious references in film. She explores the various means through which filmmakers communicate Judeo-Christian ideas, such as symbolism, metaphor and visual design. In connecting these methods to several genres, Vaux indicates how one can find religious meaning in fi1ms, even in those that appear to be secular.

[2] Finding Meaning at the Movies is divided into three parts: Home, The Journey and Healing. These sections are then further broken down into Home, Authenticity, Alienation, Vocation, Integrity, Purity of Heart, Celebration and Healing: A Film Diary. In each category, Vaux narrows her focus by introducing religious themes in relation to specific films, for which she includes a plot summary, her reflections on religious meanings within the film and provides questions for the reader.

Home

[3] In the first chapter, Vaux discusses Cynthia Scott's Strangers in Good Company. The author summarizes the "semi-documentary" as a story about eight stranded women -seven of them elderly- whose bus breaks down while they search for one of the character's childhood home. In the Reflection section, Vaux highlights several cinematic elements that differentiate this from a Hollywood blockbuster, such as the unusual narrative voice, visual and editing. She also writes that in contrast to the "common convention of movie storytelling ...the women in Strangers are usually shown in the same frame, in conversation but not in competition" (31).

[4] It is not until the final page of this chapter that Vaux directly mentions the film's use of home, when she suggests that in this film home represents the women's "new birth" of courage and honesty. The author describes the comfort of this new beginning as a "place" for the "women (to) find themselves" (34). As Vaux continues to further dissect the symbolism, she suggests that the characters' renewed ability to love and respect others is a shift toward "home as the kingdom of God -time out of time. For as Jesus says in Luke 17:21, 'In fact, the kingdom of God is among you'" (34,35). Directly after this brief mention of religion, the Reflections section ends and seven questions for the reader follow. Only two of these directly address religion, and none of them refer to "home" or a "new birth." Instead, most focus on the effects of such cinematic elements as silence and symbolism.

Authenticity

[5] Before discussing any films in this section, Vaux defines authenticity as she later uses it to describe Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers and Mike Leigh's Secrets & Lies. She writes, " 'I do not know who I am' is the first step to authenticity. Not fabricated images, but real persons in touch with truth and linked with one another" (41). While one might doubt the accuracy of her definition, it helps the reader to better understand her forthcoming claims.

[6] In discussing Cries and Whispers as a story about a nurse (Anna) and three sisters (Agnes, Karin and Maria) who attempt to reconcile with each other in the face of suffering and materialism, Vaux notes three instances when authenticity is present: When a pastor gives a sermon at Agnes' funera1, when Karin and Maria almost reconcile, and when Anna reads Agnes' diary (44). Elaborating, Vaux looks at how these sequences demonstrate the characters' struggles to better know themselves. For instance, during the sermon, Vaux explains that the pastor expresses minimal pain for the loss of Agnes. Consequently, this motivates Karin and Maria, who also tend to not express concern for others, to doubt their sincerity and recognize their sins. Vaux notes similar results of the other two moments and states that the net effect of authenticity in Cries and Whispers is not to:

"resolve conflicts or heal broken selves within the story world of the film itself, but to stimulate the viewer, who has the benefit of entering the consciousness of each of the four central characters. That is, we die with Agnes; we doubt with her pastor; and we return to life to challenge Maria's and Karin's " inauthentic love. We suffer Agnes' excruciating (cross-bearing) physical pain and her struggle to interpret her suffering within a benevolent worldview" (45).

[7] This possibility for the viewers to connect with the characters while they connect with each other i1luminates the double effect of authenticity that the story encourages - one within the plot and one within the viewer's notion of his or her self. In effect, Vaux portrays Cries and Whispers as a socially significant work and a powerful demonstration of authenticity.

[8] Next Vaux turns to Secrets & Lies, a fi1m that centers on Hortense, a young working-class black woman who discovers that not only is her biological mother a white woman but that she also has half-sisters. As Hortense learns more about her "new" family, she challenges herself to understand and maintain her individuality amid racial, class and gender pressures. Vaux focuses on the multiple barriers that Hortense must overcome to gain se1f-knowledge. Noting the shift in camera positioning during a dinner when Cynthia announces to the extended family that Hortense is her daughter, Vaux writes: "How is this announcement treated? No long shots...as we had earlier...but close-ups of faces, one after the other, revealing first mystification, then horror, then embarrassment" (53). By exemplifying how the cinematography emphasizes the characters' awareness of self, Vaux justifies her claim that authenticity is a prominent theme in this film.

[9] While the author thoroughly discusses the relevance of authenticity within the story, she does not sufficiently connect it to the fi1m's religious meaning. Aside from several references to the Gospels, which focus on such universal issues as a "hunger and search for righteousness" (43) and "show(ing) your love not by words, but by acts" (42), Vaux does not suggest how these values relate to authenticity or reflect the characters' choices.

Alienation

[11] Reflecting on the meaning of alienation in film, Vaux broadly defines it as sin, suffering and disassociation. In this chapter, she explores science fiction films, stating this genre displays an understanding for alienation issues and "attempt(s) to deal with them inventively and responsibly" (62). Referring to the Star Trek series, Solaris, Blade Runner and Contact, the author focuses on the plot similarities among all four films, explaining that in a basic science fiction film protagonist(s), surrounded by immortality, struggle(s) to resist the temptation to sin and eventually triumph(s) over evil.

[12] This section contains more insights into the religious relevance of alienation. For example, when discussing Star Trek's exploration of a utopian world in the face of evi1, Vaux notes that the film alludes to Biblical themes, such as vengeance and self-sacrifice (67). Similarly, when she examines "the darkness and desolation of Blade Runner's world..." she finds that "the horror is increased as the number of religious references multiplies in the film... (76). One can conclude from this observation, therefore, that this part of Blade Runner associates a1ienation to Biblical morals. Though Vaux effectively illustrates how science fiction films use religion to critique issues concerning alienation, she does not offer her own insights about the film's messages.

Vocation

[13] Vocation, "the calling of the person in responsible community" as Vaux defines it, is the focus of the subsequent chapter, which examines Diary of a Country Priest and Wall Street (99). While the protagonists in both films struggle to maintain honorable morals while performing their careers, Vaux distinguishes the films by the respective main characters' relationship with God. The priest in Diary of a Country Priest doubts his professional sincerity and questions God's power. As the story concludes, however, Vaux observes that the priest's confidence in his vocation is reaffirmed, as his friend "reveals to him the sanctity of vocation...one is composed of rich, earthly elements: even the priest's own doubts" (93). In this case, the priest learns how to practice his vocation without marginalizing his devotion to God.

[14] In contrast to Diary of a Country Priest, at the end of Wall Street the protagonist Bud Fox symbolically shuns religion by rejecting his mentor, Gekko, the metaphorical messiah who teaches Bud how to be a dishonest stock broker and aims to "save ...(him) by the power of greed" (98). By scorning Gekko, Bud chooses vocational ethics over religious devotion to die "messiah." Once again, Vaux ends her interpretation here, rather than develop her analysis by, for example, considering why and how the social contexts in which each fi1m was created prompted the filmmakers to approach the subject of God

Integrity

[15] In her discussion of integrity, Vaux turns to the Western even though she believes this genre portrays integrity as a "particularly elusive and chameleonic concept" (104). The decision to ambiguously deal with integrity mirrors Vaux's commentary on The Searchers. As she gives an account of the fi1m's plot, she does not directly mention director John Ford's use of integrity in representing two of the main characters, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) and Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter). Though she suggests that Ethan's character portrays a Western hero who uses his power for evil, Vaux does not relate her understanding of evil to that of integrity or lack thereof.

[16] The author maintains this ambiguous writing style as she analyzes Unforgiven, which she describes as a post-modern pastiche that, while paying homage to films such as Shone and High Noon, questions many of the values found in the classic Westerns. Unlike these classics, Unforgiven's conclusion can be interpreted in various extremes. After comparing and contrasting the film from its earlier inspirations for seven pages, Vaux ends this chapter with a paragraph of Biblical allusions, such as "Thou Shalt Not Kill" and the importance of redemption by love, without indicating their relevance to Westerns or integrity (118). Similarly, Vaux describes Lone Star's plot in detail, but does not directly address how the film relates to religion until the question section, when she considers that: "In all parts of the movie' s story, 'codes,' whether written or understood, are examined. This includes what is known in the Christian Scriptures as the Ten Commandments...Does being a person of integrity require that you keep all the Commandments." (124). While this mention of religious significance does not appear until the end of the chapter, it nevertheless includes insightful observations and a provocative question.

Purity of Heart

[17] Before Vaux critiques specific films in this chapter, she defines purity of heart as a trait that "means being completely turned toward God" (133). However, when distilling the religious meaning from her chosen films -Forrest Gump, La Strada and Sling Blade -she strays from this definition. Instead she focuses on the protagonists' foolishness and simplicity. For example, in her discussion of Forrest Gump she suggests that because Forrest has a mental handicap, the extent to which he triumphs is comparable to that of the classic American Hero, such as James Bond or Indiana Jones. Vaux then points to more philosophical issues pertaining to the fool as she interprets the role of Gelsomina, the fool in La Strada. Focusing on the woman's love of childlike games and her comedic personality, Vaux later poses the age-old question of why bad things happen to good people as they do to Gelsomina. In doing this, Vaux alludes to an enduring theological debate, but does not directly explain the character's relationship to God.

[18] The fool in Sling Blade is slightly different than those in the previous films. This plot centers on Karl, a man who was sent to jail at 12 years old for killing his mother and her lover. Karl's foolishness rests on his inability to make moral decisions, which becomes less of an obstacle for the character as the story progresses. Vaux notes that this film "centers on the moral life - how it is discovered; how it is lived" and even connects this morality to religion when she recounts the film's conclusion, during which Karl gives A Christmas Carol, a "story of redemption for the most unlikely of persons," to his friend (147). While not explicitly referring to her definition of purity of heart in any of these films, Vaux indirectly alludes to it in her analysis of Sling Blade.

Celebration

[19] In this chapter's introduction, Vaux explains that festivity, an attribute of celebration, "connects the celebrants with the Creator who is the source of both life and love; evil must be recognized and confronted and the goodness of life affirmed" (151). By offering this explanation, she immediately narrows the universal understanding of celebration to religious terms, while keeping it broad enough to apply to a wide range of films. Consequently, Vaux effectively prepares the reader for her analysis of religious themes in Babette's Feast, Daughters of the Dust and Ulee's Gold.

[20] Focusing on the delight of the dinner guests in Babette's Feast, Vaux points out several religious metaphors, such as sacrifice, symbolized by the money, time and effort Babette contributes to the meal; and "inclusion of the shamed," represented by the presence of village outcasts and immoral individuals at the feast (156). In effect, Vaux argues that the religiosity of the feast promotes its success. Unlike the allusions to primarily Biblical values in Babette's Feast, Vaux observes that Ulee's Gold focuses more on secular values, such as unconditional love, forgiveness and courage. The author believes that the celebration in this film revolves around the obstacles that Ulee and his family overcome. She notes that the characters fully celebrate their success during a specific instance - a family picnic. This notion that a meal promotes or is a result of celebration, shared by all the films in this chapter, refers to the basic Judeo-Christian praise of God for giving his people "every herb that yields seed, which is on the face of all the earth, and every tree whose fruit yields seed..." and said in Genesis 29: "...to you it shall be for food.

Healing: A Film Diary

[21] In the final chapter, Vaux focuses on The English Patient, summarizing this film more than she has any previous one. In addition to the standard sections of Plot, Reflections and Questions, the author has added Infractions and Redemption. Other than just recount the film's story, Vaux also comments on the religiously significant aspects, such as the process of healing, a recurring theme in the film. Vaux explains that by attending to the man's wounds the nurse Hana strengthens the man's connection to God. Vaux also finds a similarity between the events preceding and following Count Almasy's death and those surrounding Jesus'. Vaux states that: "Almasy is known, loved and forgiven, an extreme case, like the thief on the cross. He dies in God's body, not his own, in a time that has been transformed into God's redeeming time" (187).

Analysis

[22] Though some interesting ideas are raised in each chapter, many of the elements in Finding Meaning in Movies are not successful. For example, it demonstrates an appreciation for the interpretive value of cinema but it only accounts for the messages Vaux has found. It does not, as the back cover says, show "how to look for messages of value and meaning...of a film." The book is excellent reading material, however, for those interested in a psychological study of how a viewer reads a film. Those who want to improve his or her analytical thought-processes must search elsewhere.

[23] The book's structure illuminates Vaux's ability to interpret a fi1m, piece by piece. However, her expertise in the fields of film and religion alone is not sufficient to claim that her choices of categories are the most relevant. Why not include a category about love or jealousy? The Bible directly mentions these and they can be found in many films. What is so significant about vocation that it should take precedence over family? Vaux fails to answer such questions.

[24] The book also fails because of Vaux's strong subjectivity. She expresses her opinion that any good value, such as forgiveness or love, is religious by its very nature, which is not necessarily the case. Because she fails to recognize that goodness can result from motivators other than religion, she does not invite those who doubt to be among the book's readers. In effect, those who wish to question authority, such as Vaux's, do not have sufficient support to do so in this book. Furthermore it is unfortunate that skeptics must rely on the author's understanding of the film plots, because if the reader has not previously seen the film, he or she must trust Vaux to have provided an accurate summary of it. Finding Meaning would be more interactive if the author had insisted the readers view all the films before proceeding.

[25] The diversity of choices that Vaux includes shows her ability to critique films while being sensitive to people's differences. Rather than select only art films, which many people associate with spiritual themes and complicated messages, or mainstream films, which people often regard solely as entertainment mediums, Vaux uses both narrative forms to demonstrate that religious ideas do not discriminate. For example, to discuss cinematic use of alienation, she looks at cult favorite Star Trek and the lesser-known Solaris.

[26] Successes such as this diverse film selection are rare in comparison to the book's many failures. Though Vaux recognizes values apparent in various fi1ms, she does not offer much insight into the implications or effects of such representations. Finding Meaning identifies truths but does not dare to suggest how these can improve society. Consequently, Vaux offers a mere collection of thoughts, rather than motivation to discuss how the treatment of religion in film can promote tolerance of religious pluralism.

Works Cited

Vaux, Sara Anson. Finding Meaning in Movie. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999.


FILM CREDITS

Babette's Feast Blade Runner A Christmas Carol
Contact Cries and Whispers Daughters of the Dust
Diary of a Country Priest The English Patient Forrest Gump
High Noon La Strada Lone Star
The Searchers Secrets & Lies Shane
Sling Blade Solaris Star Trek
Strangers in Good Company Ulee's Gold Unforgiven
Wall Street

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