The [Secular] Theology of Screenwriting

Screenwriter Scott Myers (originally trained in religious studies) takes a theological (but secular and not religiously affiliated) perspective on common story elements of Sin, Conversion, Predestination, Salvation, Doubt, Guilt, Forgiveness, Incarnation and Hell in these 9 posts from Go Into The Story .

Part 1: Sin

This week, I thought it would be interesting to explore five theological themes that appear in movies over and over again.

Let me be clear, when I say theological, I mean it – in this context – in a secular way. How does that make sense?

The word “theology” is a combination of two Greek words: “theos” which means God and “logos” which means word. So theology is words about God. What if for this series we think of God as a metaphor for an explanation for the big questions of life? Thus theology as words about the meaning of life. Broadly speaking that is one dynamic movies hit on consistently, characters forced to confront their values, behaviors, and world views related to who they are and how they should act.

In this respect, movies and theology wade in very much the same thematic waters. As Andrew Stanton noted aboutLawrence of Arabia in this TED Talk, how the central theme of that story is the question asked of the Protagonist “who are you,” that issue exists at the core of perhaps every movie, an existential exploration of a character or characters’ self-identity. So, too, with theology.

Also movies tend to be about characters at critical junctures in their lives, facing a journey from the Old World into a New World where through a series of challenges and lessons they undergo a significant metamorphosis. Sounds an awful lot like a conversion experience to me.

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Part 2: Conversion

In theological terms conversion refers to a turning away from an unregenerate lifestyle and toward one of godliness. When a person has a conversion experience, that marks a spiritual shift from sinfulness to righteousness.

A Biblical example is the Apostle Paul who “intensely… persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it” [Galatians 1:13], but then on the road to Damascus, described in the Acts of the Apostles [Chapter 9], Paul was blinded by a supernatural light, literally knocked off his horse, and subsequently became a follower who preached the Gospel especially to the Gentiles. Here is Caravaggio’s depiction of Paul’s conversion experience:

Conversion can also mean a “change of attitude, emotion, or viewpoint,” and that speaks to a dynamic common to most every movie: A Protagonist going through a metamorphosis or transformation.

In real life, change can take place in many ways, often over the course of years. Obviously movies don’t have the benefit of that much time, a character generally going through a substantive metamorphosis in two hours or less of screen time. They may not be knocked off a horse and changed within a few days time… or sometimes they can. But it is interesting to think of a Protagonist’s transformation – in such a compressed time – as being something like a conversion.

Conversion from what to what? Whereas a traditional understanding of conversion involves a person committing him/herself to God, an act of putting one’s faith in something outside their Self, more frequently in movies metamorphosis involves a character getting in touch with something of their Core Essence — God within, if you will — then embracing that as the basis of their change.

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Part 3: Predestination

The concept predestination [literally "to predetermine, decide beforehand"] has its roots in an understanding that God is all powerful and all knowing, and therefore must preordain certain events to happen. The logical extreme espoused by certain groups extends to individuals, God determining who will be saved and who will not.

Setting aside the merits of this attitude and looking at the concept metaphorically in relation to story, and in particular screenplays, there is an interesting idea at work here, one I have proposed several times on this blog.

Noted analytical psychologist Carl Jung asserted:

“The psychological rule says that when an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside, as fate. That is to say, when the individual remains divided and does not become conscious of his inner contradictions, the world must perforce act out the conflict.”

If we apply this idea to stories, what we may say is a Protagonist is tasked with getting in touch with and embracing all aspects of his/her psyche. If they don’t, the story universe itself forces them to.

In other words, the story you write about your Protagonist is in some ways predestined, the specific combination of the character’s psyche and life circumstances creating a synergy between how they have been living and who they are supposed to be in relation to the story universe which creates events that compel the character to move from Disunity to Unity.

In Aliens, Ripley was predestined to confront the aliens again to deal with her trauma and intersect with Newt to experience the meaningfulness of being a mother, an opportunity she had lost in the first chapter of her life saga.

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Part 4: Salvation

Depending upon which sidewalk proselytizers you happen by, salvation can mean many things. Receiving enlightenment. Deliverance from Evil. Or accepting a religious figure as your personal savior.

No matter what the specific iteration, they all share one common idea: For an individual to  achieve salvation, they have to get right with God.

Yet there are two seemingly contradictory dynamics at work with the concept of salvation.

The root of the word is the Latin salvare which literally means “to save.” So in this sense, it is not about being saved, but saving someone or something else.

Then there is this per the words of one of my favorite theologians Frederick Buechner who talks about salvation in his book “Wishful Thinking”:

“You give up your old self-seeking self for somebody you love and thereby become yourself at last… You do not love God so that, tit for tat, he will then save you. To love God is to be saved. To love anybody is a significant step along the way. You do not love God and live for him so you will go to Heaven. Whichever side of the grace you happen to be talking about, to love God and live for him is Heaven. It is a gift, not an achievement.”

Thus on the one hand, salvation is directed toward saving someone else. On the other hand, it is a gift, not an achievement.

Strip away the God-talk and what do we have in terms of screenwriting?

Regarding the first meaning of the word, there have been tons of movies in which one character takes on saving someone or something else [literally or symbolically] such as The Lord of the Rings, True Grit, Star Wars, Seven Samurai, The Matrix, Casablanca, Aliens, Léon: The Professional, WALL-E, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Princess Bride, The Exorcist, and Saving Private Ryan.

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Part 5: Doubt

These theological posts have been fascinating and provide an opportunity to discuss one of the most profound religious films I’ve seen in years, “A Serious Man,” and address one theological issue you didn’t bring up: Doubt.

The problem with storytelling is that it is inherently God-affirming. A story is constructed by an all-knowing writer, who predetermines the fate of the characters. There’s an assumption that everything happens for a reason, and that ultimately there is meaning to be drawn from the actions of the characters. This meaning is usually derived from the conclusion of the story; when the character is either heroic, redeemed, destroyed, or banished by their actions. This is the reason the Bible and other religious texts are full of stories. Stories imply there is a higher power that will judge you and determine your fate – the storyteller is God. It makes us judge real life in the same way – a series of actions and consequences that must therefore have some meaning because then it becomes a story.

“A Serious Man” features a character that questions his belief in God, but the question is never answered because none of the multiple storylines in “A Serious Man” have a resolve. From the opening scene to the act-of-God conclusion, everything is left hanging in a way that evades didactic finality. The movie refuses to give meaning to Larry Gopnik’s life and expresses doubt and uncertainty in the most profound way.

Of course, constructing a story that refuses to give conclusion has its own meaning – that the real truth or meaning is unknowable, and unknowable is also God-affirming, because God is unknowable. Many might argue the final shot is conclusive, because it brings God into the story. Without a solid conclusion, I remain in doubt.

It’s unlikely that any form of storytelling can be entirely secular. The whole purpose of telling a story is to give order to the world, and any imposed order implies a higher power. Some might say that man gives order to the world, but you could counter that man merely discovers the order in the world.

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Part 6: Guilt

Technically speaking from a theological perspective, guilt is being responsible for wrongdoing. It exists as a state, a consequence of having broken some sort of religious law. It is both a legal condition and an emotionally based one.

In his book “Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC,” Frederick Buechner describes guilt this way:

The danger of our guilt, both personal and collective, is less that we won’t take it to heart than that we’ll take it to heart overmuch and let it fester there in ways that we ourselves often fail to recognize. We condemn in others the wrong we don’t want to face in ourselves. We grow vindictive against the right for showing up our wrong as wrong. The sense of our own inner brokenness estranges us from the very ones who could help patch us together again. We steer clear of setting things right with the people we have wronged since their mere presence is a thorn in our flesh. Our desire to be clobbered for our guilt and thus rid of it tempts us to do things we will be clobbered for. The dismal variations are endless. More often than not, guilt is not merely the consequence of wrongdoing but the extension of it.

We do not have to get too metaphorical with this concept to see its relevance in terms of movies. Characters screw up. Or they have screwed up [in backstory]. That becomes a key to their state of Disunity, necessitating them to deal with the cause of their guilt. Movies like The Shawshank Redemption, The Verdict, and Inception to name but a few traffic in this arena.

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 Part 7: Forgiveness

There is Sin. There is Guilt. But there is also Forgiveness. This idea is right there in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”

In Matthew 18:20-22, there is this exchange: “Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.’”

Whatever one may think of Jesus, there is a powerful insight in these words. As theologian Frederick Buechner writes in his book “Wishful Thinking”:

When somebody you’ve wronged forgives you, you’re spared the dull and self-diminishing corrosion of bitterness and wounded pride.

When you forgive somebody who has wronged you, you’re spared the dismal corrosion of bitterness and wounded pride.

For both parties, forgiveness means the freedom again to be at peace inside their own skins and to be glad in each other’s presence.

I can think of no greater illustration of this in movies than the relationship of Forrest to Lieutenant Dan in Forrest Gump.

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Part 8: Incarnation

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” That verse from the Gospel of John [1:14] speaks to the essence of this concept.

Considered metaphorically in terms of movies, sometimes there are super-human entities who appear in the human realm such as God (Oh, God!, Bruce AlmightyDogma) or a negative presence including demons (Paranormal Activity) and Satan (The Exorcist).

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Part 9: Hell

In actuality, Hell has a few meanings in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Whether the Greek or the Hebraic term She’ol, both refer to an abode for the dead. Then there are Biblical verses such as Matthew 25:41 which says, “Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels.” We can extrapolate metaphorical meaning from both of those as it relates to screenwriting.

What if we think of Act Two as Hell?

Consider the broad contours of The Hero’s Journey. Three movements: Separation. Initiation. Return.

The Hero begins in the Old World what screenwriters may think of as the character’s life leading up to FADE IN. The Hero has cobbled together an existence, a combination of beliefs and behaviors, coping skills and defense mechanisms. Whatever one can say about them, psychologically or even spiritually, they are making do, but living aninauthentic life, a state of Disunity because there is a fundamental disconnect between how they are approaching their existence and their Core Essence.

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3 Interviews with Legendary Cinematographer Roger Deakins

Roger Deakins‘ career spans back to the seventies and his work with the Coen Brothers and Sam Mendes have made him legendary. Some of his films include, 1984, Barton Fink, The Shawshank Redemption, Fargo, Kundun, O Brother Where Art Thou, A Beautiful Mind, Doubt, and the upcoming 007 movie Skyfall. Here are three interviews – after shooting The Man Who Wasn’t There, after shooting  True Grit, and working on Skyfall.

View the Playlist on YouTube

After Porn Ends: Documentary (Trailer)

They hailed from the rural South, steel towns, and the San Fernando Valley. As teenagers, and young adults, none of them thought that porn was in their future. They were artists, baseball players, child prodigies, and even Ivy Leaguers. Now, after their lives in porn; they’re TV stars, bounty hunters, writers, and social activists. What happened in between? And now that they’ve moved on, can they really live a normal life after porn?

After Porn Ends is available on iTunes

10 Silliest Frankenstein Spoofs

You could say that Frankenstein was the original zombie. He was the original reanimated dead before zombies tacked on other social significance and became a way to show off prosthetic gore. Here are 10 of the weirder mutations of Frankenstein’s monster.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein helped to launch the entire genre of science fiction, and shaped our dialogue about the ethics of science and artificial life. But it’s also created a pop culture explosion that’s lasted over a century, and continues full-tilt today. Franken-culture is here to stay, and it often gets mighty ridiculous.

To celebrate Friday’s release of Frankenweenie, here are the 10 silliest Frankenstein spoofs of all time. In no particular order. Runners up include the classic cartoons Frankenstein Jr. and the Impossibles, and The Groovy Goolies. Plus, arguably, the Reanimator films. And there’s a Frankenstein monster spoof in Hotel Transylvania.

1) Frankenhooker
Frank Hennenlotter’s bizarre horror comedy may be the most messed-up Frankenstein story of them all. Jeffrey Franken’s beautiful fiancee gets chopped up by a lawnmower, but he’s able to preserve her head. Getting inspiration from unusual sources (including drilling holes in his own head) Dr. Franken builds her a new body — only to find that she’s not the same as she used to be. Creepy and incredibly messed up. | Read the Full Article

The Cineped: Full 360° Rotatable Slider

Shane Hurlbut looks at the Cinepad Quatro – a 360° rotatable slider that can support up to 95lbs.

As a cinematographer, movement is an integral part of conveying your creative vision and the storytelling process. Whether subtle or dramatic, it’s another tool in your box of creative options.

The Elite Team and I have recently been testing a revolutionary kind of camera slider for slight camera movement: the Cineped with Quatro camera support. The Cineped is a full 360° rotatable slider with a carrying capacity of 95 lbs that can mount Mitchell or ball mount tripod heads on top of it. It is sturdy, versatile, and portable and can be mounted on top of a set of Mitchell sticks, on aFisher dolly, or on the Quatro 4 legged camera support system. We have been testing the Cineped with the Quatro support. Even with a large camera system, it produced smooth movement.

Something that I have incorporated on my last few features is to use the slider on the dolly at all times. It gives you this wonderful movement within moves and more of a liquid camera feel than a locked in dolly in or dolly out. The other option that the Quatro does on the dolly or on the Cineped is to increase freedom on over the shoulder shots. The ability to slide over when the actor or actress leans in or back allows you to keep a consistent OTS. For me, this is huge because you are using a tool to gain a better performance and not have to go another take because of the actor blocking a crucial line of dialogue.

Shane Hurlbut | Read the Full Article

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