Over the holidays, my wife and I saw two movies, both on the recommendations of trusted friends: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows and Hugo.
I was, pre-children, a pretty hard-core film buff. One week in college I cut an entire week of classes for a science fiction film festival, something like 17 films in one week. How I avoided becoming a film major is still something of a mystery to me. Post-children, movies are a rare treat, especially ones that don’t involve talking animals or treacle-heavy plots.
I was looking forward to Sherlock Holmes because I love the character and I think Robert Downey Jr. is one of the great actors of our age. The film was more like a video game than a movie, with undeveloped characters and a plot of little consequence to the movie itself. The theater, moreover, was filthy and the previews were jaw-droppingly offensive; the screen that proclaimed that the following preview had been rated for all audiences was embarrassingly inaccurate. When I left the theater, I had been entertained somewhat but was less than satisfied. At least I wasn’t mad or felt cheated, which has been my sense at the end of way too many movies over the past few years. What passes for good in Hollywood these days is ennui and nihilism, neither of which is an emotion worthy of the magic of the silver screen.
Hugo, on the other hand, was more of an accidental pleasure. The weather turned on a planned outdoor activity and we didn’t want something too vapid so we gave Hugo a chance. None of us had seen commercials for it that made us want to go. My twins are 13 and pretty sophisticated at this point. The theater was, again, filthy and smelly, but when the film started, we were pulled into a completely different world. I have no idea how to describe Hugo apart from saying that it is deliberately paced, carefully developed, and incredibly beautiful: a pristine piece of art. It was, at every turn, the Anti-Sherlock Holmes. The spiritual truths were salient, the acting (especially the two child leads) was a wonder, and the aesthetic marvels of the film are manifold. It is, in many ways, a film about how our world has lost the wonder that allows art to transform and inform our lives. It shames the ugliness of our world by reminding us that there is something magical possible in those darkened rooms that provide us with dreams, ideals, and friends who remain with us for lifetimes.
Let me put it this way: Sherlock Holmes was a bit like heading out to a fancy restaurant and ordering the fanciest entrée on the menu, which was served with a side order of sparklers and an extravagant floor show. The food, though, was bland, canned stuff, with the experience designed to obscure that fact. At the end of the evening, you talk about the experience, not the food. Hugo, though, was a serving of my mom’s spaghetti: comforting, filling, and eminently satisfying, just the kind of experience that sustains one through times of loneliness or sadness.
My college’s theater showed art films on Sunday nights for free. The price was right and I discovered a world from the early 20th century that dazzled me. During the times in my life when I have struggled spiritually and emotionally, film (like literature) has been one of the tools that God used to teach me, to humble me, and to repair me (one of the themes of Hugo). I have to admit that there were times during the movie when I teared up at the beauty that resonated with the film dreams of my youth. My children’s lives were edified by the experience as well and we talked long and deeply about the spiritual truths of calling and purpose that are foremost in the film, as well about the longing for Family and Father that the film portrays.
Ticket sales for movies in 2011 were the lowest in sixteen years, and I was hardly surprised by such news. Indeed, John Nolte recently posted a marvelous piece on how Hollywood can win back its place in society that is dead smack on. I hope that the Christian artisans who are out there can be at the forefront of this revival that can be a spiritual without being vapid. More films like Hugo would be a start.