Films serve a number of purposes in our society. Mostly, they tell stories, entertain audiences, and help us imagine the world in new and creative ways. The creators and distributors of films also contribute to our economy. But an often-overlooked purpose of film is that it should serve the common good. As a form of mass communication, it connects and draws our society together into important dialogues and decision-making practices. This influence that film has on the broader culture cannot be overlooked, and ignoring it is unwise. By taking a discerning approach, we will be better equipped to see how films serve—and work against —the common good.
Conversations about our relationships to each other, issues of justice in our society, and how our identity is set in the context of community are a few narrative components, which can help us understand film and its relationship to the common good. Let’s take a look at a number of popular films that came out in the last year and uncover how they attempt to address the common good.
One of the most noticeable themes in films is that of romance and relationships. The films Bridesmaids and Crazy, Stupid, Love attempt to get at this complexity. Bridesmaids tells the story of two 30-something, single women who have tried and failed at too many relationships. The film is mostly a gross-out comedy, but underlying the crassness is a story of loneliness. It is about the longing we all have to be in relationships with others where we aren’t exploited as expendable objects, relationships where we can be fully ourselves and loved as we are. Crazy, Stupid, Love gets at this, too. The divorce of a long married couple (Steve Carell and Julianne Moore) forces the whole family to rethink the how and why of romantic relationships. Even though society often tells us that shallow relationships are all that is possible, we still desire deep, meaningful relationships. While neither of these films has a happy ending, these characters realize a more robust view of relationships and romance is possible and begin to pursue it.
Another common movie theme is how our society understands and confronts injustice. In considering the common good, a society’s success lies in its ability to right injustices and to restore peace and order. This past summer’s blockbuster Captain America: The First Avenger and the more recently released, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, attempt to provide a vision of justice in the interest of the common good. Captain America is the story of Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) who desperately wants to join the war effort against the Nazi’s. His short and puny stature keeps him from being accepted, until he is recruited for an experimental program that transforms him into a super-soldier. Typically when WWII is selected as the historical setting for a film, the director’s aim is to suggest a care and concern for the common good; for example, asking the question, “Is war sometimes necessary to restrain evil?” Rather then ask a larger question, Captain America falters in focusing on the personal passion and vengeance that Rogers acts on with his new physique.
Similarly, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo uses her technological skills to exact revenge for past sexual abuses. Society should play a role in righting this injustice; but when it fails, it doesn’t mean that vigilantism is the right alternative. In fact, it hinders society’s ability to respond in an appropriate way. This story missed the opportunity to show true justice and leaves the characters and the audience longing for something more real.
Both of these films ignite our anger against injustice and appeal to our longing for justice. Ultimately, however, both fail to show what justice really does look like. Vengeance becomes a personal and emotional response that seems to not affect the greater good or create a more just society.
This struggle to understand the common good in films also comes in the American narrative of the rigid, self-sufficient individual who doesn’t need to help anyone else. The films Hanna and Limitless are strong examples of this narrative. Both films focus on the search for one’s identity. Rather than seeking identity in relationship, the main characters head out alone. In the case of Hanna (played by Saoirse Ronan), she uses her killer instinct to eliminate most everyone who can help her understand who she is. In Limitless, Eddie Morra (played by Bradley Cooper) discovers the drug NZT that enables him to think more clearly, allowing him to transform from a writer with looming creative blocks into a gifted Wall Street broker seemingly overnight. Rather than drawing on help from his relationships with his friends, he single handedly (and against all odds) survives multiple attempts on his life, becomes a millionaire, and frees himself from the negative effects of NZT to become a permanent super human with unparalleled power. The message of the film seems to be that only you can take care of yourself: no one else can and no one else will. In these films, the common good is an illusion that takes away from individual success.
Are there alternatives to these blurry visions of the common good in recent films? Two come to mind: Hugo, and Midnight in Paris.
Hugo is Martin Scorcese’s first film directed for children. The story is a mystery set in a Paris train station in the early part of the 20th century. Orphaned Hugo Cabret (played by Asa Butterfield) maintains the station’s clocks and is a curious boy who loves to create and fix machines. In trying to fix a broken automaton that his father has left him, he meets Isabelle (played by Chloe Moretz) and her Godfather, George Méliès (played by Ben Kingsley). As the mystery unfolds, the audience learns the origins of the automaton through a creative telling of the history of film in France. Méliès is soon revealed to be a very influential filmmaker. In telling this history, Hugo makes an exceptional argument that films are created to stimulate the imagination, to make dreams come to life. If film is art it must serve the common good through envisioning a creative world that challenges our assumptions and allows us to act in more imaginative ways than what is mediocre and the status quo.This film ends with Méliès being honored for his contribution to cinema and a renewed love for his work.
Midnight in Paris is an imaginative and funny film set in present day Paris. The focus is on an American screenwriter, Gil (Owen Wilson), who travels to Paris with his fiancé, Inez (Rachel McAdams). Gil gets lost in the city, both literally and figuratively, trying to understand the history of art and the inspiration many artists have found in Paris. One of the key lines comes when Gil says:
You know, I sometimes think, how is anyone ever gonna come up with a book, or a painting, or a symphony, or a sculpture that can compete with a great city. You can’t. Because you look around and every street, every boulevard, is its own special art form and when you think that in the cold, violent, meaningless universe that Paris exists, these lights, I mean come on, there’s nothing happening on Jupiter or Neptune, but from way out in space you can see these lights, the cafés, people drinking and singing. For all we know, Paris is the hottest spot in the universe.
It is this idea, that a city, a community of people living together, might just be the best kind of art. It is an embodied form of art, one that humans are constantly creating and living daily, not an artifact stored away in a building or a commodity bought at an auction. The whole film is a great witness to how we can come to understand the common good. Inez went to Paris for her own enjoyment, but Gil saw more deeply that the city and the culture are, in themselves, a work of art that allows us to participate in its creation. Rarely do we think of our everyday experience as the process of creating a piece of art, our common life together.
The next time you view a film, see if you can pick up on that story’s conception of the common good and how the film speaks to the social, political and economic elements of our society. Does the film show you an imaginative and redemptive vision of how we seek the good in our common life together?