Interview: Moviewise — Movies to Teach Morality and Character
Posted on February 24, 2014 at 3:44 pm
The anonymous creator of the Moviewise website was kind enough to agree to an interview about movies and the lessons they teach.
How did the moviewise website get started? How long have you been doing it?
I started the moviewise site in December 2012, and began writing content for Yahoo! Voices in March 2013. Both are the result of wanting to promote well-crafted, professionally distributed movies that incorporate “Life Lessons,” that is, they contain messages or insights about life that are useful. I know very deeply and personally how much media can influence our beliefs, our biases, and our behaviors. Usually when people acknowledge this, they focus on the negative aspects of movies, particularly violence, where the research clearly shows a correlation between observing media violence and increased aggression in both adults and children. But the inverse is also true. Media can also have positive effects on behavior by showing prosocial content. I want to support and encourage films that are thoughtful and meaningful because of the very real positive impact that they can have on audiences.
We all learn by modeling, and movies are essentially dramatic, full blown examples of behaviors that we give our undivided attention to for large spans of time. They are teaching us something, and sometimes those lessons are needed, they are profound, they are important, and they are helpful. I want to catalogue these types of movies objectively, by quoting a particular movie scene that directly illustrates the Life Lesson, such that each movie reflects the filmmaker’s and/or the larger society’s social mores, thus creating a kind of anthropological data set. In essence, the moviewise site contains my research notes, and the articles on Yahoo! are my interpretations of the data I’ve collected.
Can Hollywood do a better job of addressing moral issues?
I don’t see Hollywood as a monolith. In fact, I don’t even see Hollywood as a monopoly, controlling everything we see.
I think there is a lot of diversity and a wide range of voices within the Hollywood system. Sure, there is an imbalance, an overrepresentation of some and underrepresentation of others, but all kinds of movies get made, by all kinds of people. And now with the infrastructure available for independent filmmakers, the emergence of foreign films, and the funding possibilities of crowdsourcing, it seems that anyone who really wants to make a film can do so.
The result is that thousands of films are made that explicitly tackle moral issues: effects of war, degradation of the environment, exploitation of others, abuse of animals, malfeasance by government leaders and corporations, and on and on. The truth is that moral issues provide a lot of inspiration to filmmakers because they have all the elements of a good story: a well defined conflict with clear characters in a specific setting.
The challenge for audiences is finding the films that speak to them in particular, and this is where film critics can have a role. My site, for example, is an attempt to highlight the messages in movies, which are not always about moral issues, but nevertheless reveal a particular perspective. I hope that finding the core, the central premise of a movie, will allow people to make informed decisions about what movies they choose to watch.
Do all movies have a moral lesson?
No, not all movies have moral lessons. In the process of becoming a film critic, I have found that movies fall into one of two categories: “movies as entertainment” or “movies as art.” The distinction between the two lies in whether there is a message integrated in the film. Movies that are diversions, that primarily function to amuse or to thrill, are in the “entertainment” category. Most slapsticks, horror films, and special effects movies fall in this category. They do not have a substantive message. On the other hand, movies that make audiences feel and think, that continue to stimulate them after the movie has ended, that inspire conversation about ideas, are in the “art” category. All the movies on moviewise are in this latter category.
This is not to say that the “entertainment” category is bad. There is nothing wrong with wanting to watch a movie just to have a little fun and feel some excitement. I do not think that all movies need to have a message or a Life Lesson. In fact, it is important to have variety and to have movies that function in different ways. I personally value the films that seem to be revealing the beliefs and consciousness of the filmmaker more than the films that are devoid of that connection. But I enjoy many different kinds of films.
These are my favorite films by category, so far:
Animated Film: Kung Fu Panda (2008)
Comedy: Moonstruck (1987)
Documentary: Happy (2011)
Drama: Dead Poets Society (1989)
Fantasy: The Princess Bride (1987)
Sci-fi: Back to the Future (1985)
If I had to choose a single movie, however, it would be Back to the Future (1985). It is such a well crafted movie, with so many wonderful elements all coming together in a very precise and logical order to create an enthralling and exciting experience. Every scene is necessary, each seamlessly furthering the story, increasing the tension, leading to ever more interesting twists. The attention to detail in this movie is masterful. It deserves to be high on the American Film Institute list of the 100 best American movies. Sadly, it is not listed at all, while a much more inferior film, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), is ranked #24.
Back to the Future was nominated for an Academy Award for best writing, best sound, best music, and it won for best effects. It was nominated for a Golden Globe for best motion picture, best performance by an actor, best screenplay and best song. Although the movie is almost 30 years old, the look and feel of the movie, the dialogue, and the settings do not feel dated. The story it timeless. It is rated 8.5/10 on IMDB, and 96% for critics, 94% for audience on Rotten Tomatoes. Whereas E.T. is 7.9 /10 on IMDB, and 98% for critics, 71% for audience on Rotten Tomatoes.
Back to the Future also has had a cultural impact. In 1986 President Ronald Reagan referred to the movie in his State of the Union address: “Never has there been a more exciting time to be alive, a time of rousing wonder and heroic achievement. As they said in the film Back to the Future, ‘Where we’re going, we don’t need roads’.” It is in the U.S. National Film Registry, selected by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” And it had an effect on popularizing skateboarding. Thus it meets and exceeds the criteria for inclusion on the AFT’s 100 best films.
The Life Lesson of Back to the Future is: Learn to persevere – if you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.
This message resonates in a number of characters and scenes in the movie:
Marty’s father, George McFly, in the altered, more successful future where he becomes a writer, pulls out his just published novel and tells Marty, “Like I’ve always told you: You put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.”
The African-American cafe worker, Goldie Wilson, in 1955 proclaims, “Look at me. You think I’m gonna spend the rest of my life in this slop house? No, Sir! I’m gonna make something of myself. I’m going to night school. And one day, I’m going to be somebody.” And Marty, coming from the future, 1985, responds “That’s right. He’s gonna be mayor!”
Doc also accomplishes something after putting his mind to it: inventing the time machine. In the process exclaiming, “It works! It works! I finally invent something that works!” And of course his heroic efforts on top of the clock tower during a lightning storm demonstrate this Life Lesson in full dramatic effect. You see the face of determination, of steely resolve, of trying and trying after hitting multiple obstacles and finally reaching the goal.
And of course, Marty learns this Life Lesson when he succeeds in getting back to the future by confronting all his fears, all his anxieties, and overcoming them all.
To me Back to the Future is a truly great film: It is expertly crafted, has a wonderful, dynamic story, beautiful music, is skillfully acted, and has a well integrated, substantive message. I love this movie!
How do you pick the movies you cover?
All the movies on moviewise come from Netflix. I have to watch the movies at home, and not in a theater, because I need to transcribe the scenes, which means a lot of rewinding and pausing. I have 500 movies in my queue and those movies got there through a variety of means: going through lists of best films from different sites, watching interesting trailers, finding award winners, and getting personal recommendations. About 85% of the movies I watch get onto moviewise. Above all, the movies I select have to be good, well-made films. The movies that get rejected, about 15%, either have a significant failure in some aspect of the craft: writing, editing, acting; or didn’t have anything to say as far as I could perceive; or were not enjoyable to watch.
What is the best way for families to start discussions about the lessons in movies?
I think it is extremely important to be cognizant of the messages in films, and to question and recognize the assumptions and biases that they show, while you are watching them. Being able to watch a movie at home and share the experience with other family members means that you can have a running commentary with each other, pause the movie to ask questions, and be actively participating rather than passively watching.
One example that comes to mind involves Toy Story 3 (2010) where Ken, Barbie’s romantic interest, is called a “girl’s toy” as an insult. Within the movie, this is understood to be a slight: It is said during an argument as an attack, and Ken is defensive about it. But what does this imply? Are girls’ toys inferior, or are girls inferior, or both? Why should being called a girl’s toy be an insult? When that line was spoken everyone in the room was struck by it because we’ve previously discussed negative portrayals of women and girls in movies.
But if you haven’t been made aware of sexism in movies, then scenes like this become part of the norms that we learn and internalize, thus perpetuating these attitudes. It is a quick little scene, but the message is extremely damaging and negative. It strongly implies that what girls like is inferior to what boys like, and by extension that girls are inferior to boys. Something like that needs to be confronted in the home, a voice has to say: I don’t agree with that assumption. It is unfair to say that something is bad simply because girls like it. It should be an honor to be a girl’s toy, in the same way that Woody and Buzz are honored to be Andy’s (a boy) toys. Ken should have said, “I am proud to be a girl’s toy because the power of a girl’s imagination is so wonderful and full of joy” rather than being ashamed to be associated with girls. But more importantly, this shouldn’t have been lobbed as an insult. It shouldn’t be insulting to be a girl’s toy.
So one small scene can generate a lot of discussion, which I think provides a powerful bonding and learning experience for all. In an ideal situation, watching movies would be interactive, allowing people to share their reactions and insights. But if this is not possible to do as a group, because of people’s schedules, or divergent interests or capacities, there are many forums and blogs where people love to discuss movies. I think that is another viable way to engage and to become aware of all kinds of issues and points of view, which I think is beneficial for the individual and for society.
And there are in fact actual therapeutic benefits to sharing a movie with someone else. A recent study from the University of Rochester, for example, found that watching and discussing movies about relationships lowered divorce rates as much as intensive counseling programs did. So I would very much encourage families to use movies as launchpads for discussion and to mediate the messages that are transmitted. I think that this is an effective and fun way to learn more about each other and to spend quality time with one another.
Do you have a suggestion for a good movie about integrity? About justice? About compassion?
Yes. Below are three entries from the moviewise site:
Almost Famous (2000) is a semi-autobiographical drama written and directed by Cameron Crowe about William Miller, a fifteen-year-old writer for Rolling Stone magazine whose first assignment is to tour with a tumultuous rock band, Stillwater, while needing to call home to check-in with his mother, Elaine Miller (Frances McDormand), and getting advice from a cantankerous music critic, Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
Life Lesson: Be yourself, always.
Lester Bangs: “Oh, man. So you made friends with them? See, friendship is the booze they feed you. They want you to get drunk on feeling like you belong.”
William: “Well, it was fun.”
Lester Bangs: “Because they make you feel cool. And hey, I met you. You are not cool.”
William: “I know. Even when I thought I was, I knew I wasn’t. I’m glad you were home.”
Lester Bangs: “I’m always home. I’m uncool.”
William: “Me too.”
Lester Bangs: “You’re doing great, man. The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool. Listen, my advice to you, and I know you think these guys are your friends, if you want to be a true friend to them, be honest and unmerciful.”
Yentl (1983) is a drama based on the story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, co-written and directed by Barbra Streisand about Yentl (Barbra Streisand), a Polish woman who disguises herself as a man in order to continue her education at a yeshiva when her father, Rebbe Mendel (Nehemiah Persoff), who taught her in secrecy, dies – leaving her an orphan.
Life Lesson: Don’t let others stop you from pursuing knowledge.
Yentl: “Why is it that every book I buy, every bookseller who comes has the same old argument?”
Rebbe Mendel: “You know why.”
Yentl: “I envy them.”
Rebbe Mendel: “The booksellers?”
Yentl: “No, not the booksellers. The students, talking about life, the mysteries of the universe. And I’m learning how to tell a herring from a carp.”
Rebbe Mendel: “Yentl, for the thousandth time, men and women have different obligations.”
Yentl: “Have different obligations, I know, but –”
Rebbe Mendel: “And don’t ask why… Go on. Get the books. Get the books.”
Yentl: “Thank you, Papa.”
Rebbe Mendel: “Thank you, Papa. Thank you, Papa. The shutters darling.”
Yentl: “The shutters. If we don’t have to hide my studying from God, then why from the neighbors?”
Rebbe Mendel: “Why? Because I trust God will understand. I’m not so sure about the neighbors.”
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) is a fantasy directed by Peter Jackson based on the book by J.R.R. Tolkien about an unlikely hero, a young Hobbit named Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), who sets out on a quest along with eight companions, including the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), to destroy a ring that can give its owner the power to enslave the world.
Life Lesson: Be compassionate — show mercy — towards those who offend you.
Frodo: “There’s something down there.”
Gandalf: “It’s Gollum.”
Gandalf: “He’s been following us for three days. He hates and loves the ring as he hates and loves himself. He will never be rid of his need for it.”
Frodo: “It’s a pity Bilbo didn’t kill him when he had the chance.”
Gandalf: “Pity? It was pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand. Many that live deserve death. Some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be eager to deal out death and judgement. Even the very wise cannot see all ends.”
What is the first movie you ever wrote about for moviewise?
The first movie review, published on December 19, 2012, was for a documentary about ballet students training and competing for the Youth America Grand Prix, called First Position (2011). I chose that movie for a number of reasons: 1) it was relatively new at the time 2) I wanted to start with a documentary because this is the category I struggle most to fill 3) I love classical ballet as an art form; it is exquisitely beautiful. The combination of wonderful music, story, and impressive skill that comes together in a ballet performance leaves me awe struck. Structurally, ballets are also similar to films. There are dramas: Giselle, Romeo and Juliet; comedies: Coppelia, Don Quixote; fantasies: Swan Lake, The Nutcracker; fairy tales: Cinderella, Sleeping beauty. So I see a connection between these two art forms. 4) I greatly admire dancers and musicians. They bring beauty into the world, and they do it by honing their craft to reach amazing levels. So I thought it would be fitting to start the site with a movie that has as it’s Life Lesson: “To become the best, push yourself harder than the rest.” The Movie Scene illustrates this by quoting one of the competitors, an eleven year old boy named Aran Bell, who demonstrates a foot strengthening exercise by saying, “You’re supposed to do it as much as possible, and then do five more after you absolutely can’t do it anymore … Youth America grand Prix is coming up and I’ve been training really hard for it. Hopefully it will pay off. It feels good to be worked that hard and to be in that sort of mindset, and then have everything hurting when you come home.” He goes on to win “Best Overall Performance.” I find this story and the documentary very motivating. I’m inspired by people who are so driven, and that makes me want to share their stories with others. This is why First Position became the first movie on moviewise.
Do you have a go-to “feel good” movie?
My go-to “feel good” movie is actually a Pixar short, only about 5 minutes long, called Boundin’ (2003). When I was going through a really stressful time in my life, I would watch that movie every night before going to bed, and it would make me smile and feel better. It is a story about a lamb whose beautiful coat is suddenly shorn, leaving him naked and exposed to ridicule, until a Jackalope comes along and teaches him to look at his situation differently. It then becomes a story about resiliency, about taking the bumps and bruises that come with life, but finding ways to still have joy. I think I have internalized this story, and whenever I feel down I remember the line, “You still got a body, good legs and fine feet. Get your head in the right place and hey, you’re complete!” I appreciate that the movie acknowledges that it’s normal to have ups and downs, and that it’s ok because you can get through the rough patches and be happy again. I think that many people hide when they are feeling down, since it is seen as a sign of weakness, and I think that isolates them and makes them feel worse. So in a way this movie removes some of the stigma about showing vulnerability in public, by basically saying “so what?” Yes, something bad happened to you; yes, you were embarrassed; yes, it’s hard, but these things don’t have to define you and they don’t have to take away your happiness. The movie shows us a more positive reaction to disappointment than being miserable: bound and rebound, get up and continue doing what you love.