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My Three Favorite Movies for Saving the World

The story is told that a celebrity was asked to name her favorite language. She replied, “It depends. For romance I prefer French, for poetry Italian, for business English, and for secrecy I speak Swedish, since so few people understand it outside of Scandinavia.”

I have to give a similar reply when people ask me about my favorite film. If they mean the film that uplifts me most, I give one answer; if they mean one of the most creative films likely to inspire young film-makers, I give another reply; and if they mean a movie which is great for the whole family or the whole world, I might give yet another answer.

So in the context of this blog about media that matter, I have to give yet other answers. My favorite movie about changing the world is different than my favorite film about changing myself or about saving the planet or creating world peace. Alas, there are so many inventive films about important themes that it is hard to name just ten or twenty.

But let me make the attempt by introducing three films not yet discussed in this Media That Matter blog, three films which address primal spirituality goals in three different ways. And three films which I would definitely call my favorites in this context.

The first film is a European comedy by Philipe de Broca called King of Hearts (1967), starring Alan Bates and Genevieve Bujold. To my view, this film best addresses the absurd human condition and why it needs to change. The other two films, The Shift (2009) a feature film with Wayne Dyer and Portia de Rossi, best illustrates how change is made at an inner level while An Inconvenient Truth (with Al Gore by Davis Guggenheim) best articulates what we can do in an outer way to restore our planet.

Although The Shift is the most overtly spiritual, all three contribute to an understanding of both the degeneration of humanity and to the regeneration which is so necessary. I am not claiming they are the absolute best–after all, I’ve devoted over 30 blogs to many other titles of “media that matter.”  I’m simply saying that of all the “change the world” or “change yourself” films, these three are my personal favorites and I hope you will screen them if they seem up your alley.

Here’s why…

King of Hearts is a hilarious comedy, love story, and satire all in one which also makes you think. Although some have dubbed it an anti-war film, I think a more positive way to say it is pro-peace. And yet, this feature is much larger in scope than just war and peace. DeBroca’s masterpiece is also about the relationship between sanity and insanity and whether we have let the inmates run the asylum worldwide. A current look inside the White House, Kremlin, and other political pinnacles reveals that this topic is quite relevant.

Using a lovable array of caricatures mixed with more realistic characters, King of Hearts charms you into an innocent state while asking what has happened to human identity and civilization, and it does so in a way that does not preach or teach. It is one of those few films I had to screen more than once to discover all that I was missing the first time. Since it is a 60’s film, it’s probably best found in Netflix type outlets or possibly at your local library.

Once we screen King of Hearts, we’ll have a fresh x-ray best revealing the broken parts of humanity, such that we can move on to the remedy and the treatment. To me, the remedy comes in two parts: First, personal awakening and change and second, personal and collective action in the service of planet earth. In simpler words, one might say the remedy comes through inner change followed by outer change.

While there are many great, often short, films focusing upon many spiritual practices, communities, and teachings, The Shift starring Wayne Dyer, is to my view the most heart-opening feature length drama that reveals how inner shift happens. Although Dyer plays himself in the narrative, other well-known actors like Portia de Rossi, depict fictional people at various stages of (im)maturity who grow throughout the film.

An interesting subplot in The Shift depicts a media crew who come to make a film about Dyer. Over time their values are questioned and indeed they are transformed by the end of the film. So this is a film about a film and about Dyer reflecting upon Dyer. But we come to see in a gentle way that The Shift is also an audience-reflecting-upon-audience film and by the end we discover that the film is actually about us. It asks us if a shift is needed in our own lives and reveals the way to change without didacticism.

An Inconvenient Truth seems like the best known of these films since it won an Academy Award and because Al Gore’s climate change campaign is highly publicized. But I’m not sure the film’s inner meaning is truly known. To many it seems like a how-to film about saving the planet and in so much as that is true, I stand at the end of a very long line of people who commend Gore’s action plan. In that regard, one of the best parts of the film is the very long list of actions that each of us can take to bless and restore spaceship earth.

Moreover, unlike many environmental documentaries which dwell upon the problem, Gore models an aspect of the solution by his own walking-the-talk and provides innumerable practical actions one may take to make a difference. Indeed, he has devoted the recent decades of his life to creating a transformational movement worldwide devoted to sustainability.

But I think the film is about something far deeper which the critics seem to have missed. In one scene Gore opens up about the loss of his older sister, Nancy, whom he greatly loved. Although Gore’s father made his living from selling tobacco, Nancy’s death from cancer led Gore’s family to halt their entire business by no longer growing tobacco despite the risk and the loss of income. They chose other income products after Nancy’s passing.

In essence, Gore shows that all the outer actions in the world–from recycling to protests–will have no true impact unless individuals first have a change of heart which is then revealed in substantial action. While Gore articulates the importance of outer action, he models and points to the importance of inner change of heart which will then motivate outer change of behavior. An Inconvenient Truth is about far more than just climate change.

I doubt that anyone has watched these three films back-to-back-to-back because each is so different and aimed at different audiences. And yet if all three were shown worldwide on three consecutive nights, I’m betting important world discussion and change would follow.

Ethics Goes to the Movies

Theater, Hollywood, and prime-time television have long been obsessed with dramatic ethical dilemmas which hook audiences. From the earliest known and best loved theater, engaging characters have been obsessed with questions such as “to be or not to be?”, “to marry for love or for honor?”, and whether “to do the right thing but for the wrong reason?”

One can find films and TV shows about almost every branch of ethics such as business (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Arbitrage), medicine (Patch Adams and Ben Casey), sports (Any Given Sunday and Concussion), and journalism (Absence of Malice and The Post). Indeed I am aware of ethics professors who have identified over two hundred films which focus upon moral dilemmas.

But which ones show us the virtuous way out of ethical dilemmas? What movies would you want your children to see to find their role models or what might be called their “ethics exemplars?” To my view, there are several biopics and documentaries which have captured people of great character at their most vexing moments as they faced seemingly “no-win” moral quandaries. It seems an important part of our indigenous spirituality to face intense ethical challenges with integrity so I’d like to cite a few films which point toward a moral north star in case you missed them.

These are just a few of the ethics “classics” in which a leader’s integrity was tested and a history-changing decision was made under great pressure:

1) Madiba: The five part made-for-TV biopic about Nelson Mandela.

2) Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce’s quest to end the slave trade in Europe.

3) He Named Me Malala: The story of the brave girl who faced the Taliban and won the Nobel Peace Prize.

4) Gandhi: Attenborough’s Academy Award winning tribute to the Mahatma.

5) Queen Esther: Far Away and Long Ago: The teen queen whose decision prevented genocide.

6) John Adams (the HBO version): Adams’ vexing dilemma which brought peace despite enormous public pressure for war.

7) Good Night and Good Luck: Edward R. Murrow’s TV showdown with

Senator McCarthy.

8) Invictus: Mandela’s famous rugby event fraught with racial tension.

9) Brother Outsider: biopic documentary about civil rights leader Bayard Rustin.

10) The Letters: Mother Teresa’s work and world based upon her private letters.

There are many other important books, film, and TV programs about taxing ethical decisions including perhaps the most difficult of all time–President Harry Truman’s decision about whether to drop a nuclear bomb and thus open Pandora’s Box for humanity. People of all races, professions, ages, and faiths have faced life-and-death decisions which make for high drama and often for good box office. War films, westerns, melodramas, biopics, courtroom dramas, and even comedies are often based upon a “lesser of two evils” or “greater of two goods” plot in which the audience is held in suspense until an agonizing decision becomes history.

It is important to note that the ethical choices which become immortalized in books and movies such as those listed above help us to see our own lives. We all face ethical challenges—whether to put our parents in nursing homes; whether to enlist in the military; how to vote on controversial issues; whether and when to report relatives and friends who are breaking the law; whether to use guns; at what age to condone sex, drinking, and full freedom by our children; whether to end the life of a parent on life support; how to report taxes; whether to support our children if they avoid the draft; whether to take a stand in office politics; whether to oppose or support capital punishment—the list seems endless.

Because ethical decisions are ubiquitous, media which champion people of integrity and the tough decisions they made are helpful in showing the way through to victory in times of darkness. Indeed the most recent movie about Churchill was entitled Darkest Hour and it makes him the poster child for perseverance, as does the even more recent film Unbroken which focuses upon a war hero who would not bend despite sustained enemy torture.

Ultimately, the camera-in-our-heads must turn toward us. Although some of us may never face life-and-death decisions, we nevertheless are constantly faced with moments where we must choose between being self-serving and being of service to others. We also encounter many moments behind closed doors in which we might behave differently if we knew we were being observed. And we all face decisions which have benign or malignant consequences for the others in our lives who breathe our “second-hand smoke” so to speak.

So when ethics goes to the movies I don’t perceive such film as just entertainment. We are shown potential role models and exemplars whom we can emulate or ignore. And we may also choose to recommend such films to our children, our classes if we are teachers, our friends, relatives, congregations, employees, colleagues, and, if we write blogs such as this one, to our readers.

Media of Awakening

Although films and TV programs are often divided into the well-known genres of comedy, drama, horror, action, etc., I have long been interested in renaming some genres with more pro-social spiritual terms such as the “victory” (see blog posted on June 22, 2016) and “awakening.” What makes the “awakening” genre unique is that throughout the plot, at least one character is rising to a higher awareness in consciousness and then acting upon that new vision. He or she, in effect, “awakens” to a higher truth and then life changes.

In one sense routine films and programs showing mini-awakenings are a dime a dozen: Hollywood characters who learn from their mistakes, who figure out how to sustain relationships, who heal life-long wounds with their parents, and who mature with age are commonplace in mainstream media. And there are also many characters who deliberately go on a pilgrimage or quest to heighten their self-realization and find peace of mind. These include trips to India (think Eat, Pray, Love), to Mecca (think Malcolm X), to Thoreau’s famous pond (think Walden), and most recently to Cape Cod (Year by the Sea).

In the latest feature, Karen Allen (yes, the same Karen Allen from Raiders of the Lost Ark thirty-seven years ago!) becomes an empty nester mom who needs some down time to find herself after her husband sells their home and her son is married. Her “mecca” is a small home on an island off Cape Cod and her unintended “gurus” are the eccentric mix of local characters who help her awaken to a sense of self-reliance and transcendence.

When she arrives in her new home, Joan (Allen), has no sense of her next steps and describes herself as “a boat adrift at sea with nothing to steady me.” But each natural venue and villager she befriends seems to teach her something; like the fisherman who, when asked if he is lonely all those long days at sea, replies, “no, the real loneliness is not knowing who you are.” Joan is forced to contemplate this homespun wisdom because her own awakening is in fact to her own latent identity. Once she can hear herself think, listen to the rhythms of nature, and surrender to a higher order, she begins to act like a new person.

Once this recovery of her original childlike identity becomes seminal to her experience, everything morphs for Joan–her self-confidence, her ability to help others, and her awkward, distant relationship with her husband. We discover that, although she is not fully awakened at the end of the film, she has awakened to the process of awakening itself. Thus she is posed to make future breakthroughs and to know a full life.

In her own words she learns to “welcome vulnerability” and to “ride the tide.” Ultimately, when her best friend, another Joan named Joan Ericson, is staring at a tombstone, Ericson sums it up for Joan by noting that on tombstones there is a dash between the date of birth and the date of death. “It’s what you do with the dash that matters.”

In one sense, Year by the Sea is the director’s love letter to Cape Cod, emphasizing the beatific seascapes and local color of Eastern Massachusetts. In another sense the script is about a character’s elevation in consciousness through a season of deliberate meditation like that of Thoreau at Walden. But as with Thoreau, Joan realizes that she was not trying to escape so much as seeking to discover. In her words “I was not running away from something but rather running to something.”

So it is with awakening. We are not so much fleeing the nightmares and illusions embedded within sleep as emerging into the light of a fresh day. Awakening means discovering a new order and genuine identity.

We are not so much running away from the false as running toward the true. And it does not take a year by the sea to awaken, it only takes a consistent passion for the reclaiming of one’s primal spirituality.

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