Tuesday, January 15, 2008


About eighteen of us at my church, a majority under the age of sixteen, joined together last Sunday night (1/13) to watch the story of William Wilberforce’s struggle to end the English slave trade as portrayed in the film Amazing Grace. Initially, the screen image was pretty dark until Dave jiggled the cable to the projection unit and then there was light. Popcorn was passed and spilled. We laughed together. Some grew misty eyed. All applauded at the film’s end.
And I sit here pondering, “Why do I enjoy watching movies with others more than watching movies alone?”
Because in ways, viewing movies should be a solitary experience; ideally there shouldn’t be discussion during a film or interaction that takes focus off the screen (exceptions to this policy to be mentioned later). So why is moviegoing a social experience? And another question: will movie “going” survive the home theater?
As home screens get bigger and more highly defined, and sound systems get louder and crisper, and Blockbuster and Netflix bring movies straight to the home via mail or downloading, one wonders why anyone would “go” to the movies anymore. (There was an excellent Goofy cartoon about home theaters that showed before National Treasure II. The cartoon was much better than the feature film.) Why not cocoon at home and enjoy at home the movie you want to see at the time of your own choosing? There’s certainly a lot of appeal to the idea compared to theater experiences highlighted by rude cell phone users, sticky floors, projectors with bad bulbs and sound bleeding in from the theater on the other side of the wall.
But there still is something to be said for watching films in a crowd. Comedies seem funnier with others laughing with you. I know some critics don’t like to review comedies they see alone because it isn’t the same experience. Many people won’t laugh out loud when viewing something alone, but they will in the presence of others.
Even the drive-in experience used to have a sense of community. Though all were in their own metal compartments, there were times when they would join together to let their feelings be known. When there were technical difficulties, horns would honk in unison to make the projectionist aware of their discontent. When I lived in Santa Cruz County there was (and still is) a drive-in theater. On warm nights people would bring their lawn chairs to sit on the ground or in the back of their pick-up trucks. (As the great film critic Joe Bob Briggs has stated, “The drive-in will never die.”)
I said before that ideally, conversation does not take place during a movie. We don’t want to hear teens gossiping behind us about who’s hooking up with whom or someone in front of us asking for explanations of the previous half hour’s plot points. We especially don’t want to hear someone referring to future plot points (“I think this is where they shoot the dog. No, that happens later. This is where they find the treasure.”)
But there are other ways that people interact with what’s going on the screen. In recent years there have been movie musical sing-a-longs. The Sound of Music has been a favorite for this. The lyrics appear on the bottom of the screen and the audience is encouraged to sing along.
There was a television show, “Mystery Science Theater 3000”, wherein bad films were shown, and a man and his two robot pals silhouetted at the bottom of the screen would offer funny, mocking remarks throughout the film (really, this is the only way to watch Santa Claus Conquers the Martians). Now, at some special screenings, audiences are encouraged to join in the mocking.
At some inner city theaters, audiences have always been quite vocal in expressing their feelings. Audiences warn on-screen teenagers not to go out in the dark alone and encourage heroes along in their fist fights and gun battles. This talk back viewing is obviously related to the talk back in African-American churches where people encourage the preachers with Amens and Hallelujahs.
That’s what I like about viewing a film with other people. Even during the viewing there is a shared experience. When the film is good, there is a shared exhilaration. There is something in human nature that makes us want to share the things we enjoy and admire. That is part of the excitement of going to see a ball game with other fans or going to a concert. We want to join with others in praising actors, athletes, musicians and speakers we admire. There is something particular and wonderful when people applaud at the end of a film. Obviously, the people who made the movie can not hear the applause. But we still want to express our appreciation in some way.
There is something about this desire to enjoy things together, in community, that relates to the act of worship. Yes, there is a time and place for worship in solitude. We should take time to pray, read Scripture and even sing hymns when we are alone. There are people who say they never go to church because they prefer to worship God “out in nature in my own way”. But real worship leads us to worship with others.
As David said in Psalm 34, “O Magnify the Lord with me, Let us exalt His name together” (KJV). Worship cannot only be a solitary act. We are not made that way. We are not made to keep good things to ourselves. And the best thing we have is God. “To Know God and Enjoy Him” (Westminster Catechism) is what we were made to do. How much better when we can do so with others?

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