Fiddler on the Roof: Worldview Change and the Foundational Power of Story, by Gary David Stratton

Part of ongoing series:  Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Through the Stories We Live By

Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as… a fiddler on the roof!

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

Fiddler-Movie-Poster-200x300Fiddler on the Roof (1971) is one of the most beloved dramas of the stage and screen. [1] On Broadway (1964), Fiddler was the first musical to surpass 3,000 performances. It won nine Tony Awards, including Best Musical.  The Hollywood version (1971) lost the Academy Awards Best Picture nod to the more cutting-edge The French Connection, but still managed a box office of over 365 million dollars (adjusted for inflation), making it the 9th highest grossing musical of all time.[2] After four Broadway revivals, three London runs, and countless high school and community theatre performances, Fiddler became one of the more influential cultural works of the late twentieth-century.

The film also provides a beautiful illustration of  the adaptability of worldview at the upper levels: 1) Actions/Decisions and 2) Rules of Life/Culture. Fiddler chronicles the life of a small Jewish community seeking to maintain their cultural balance (like a fiddler on the roof) in the Gentile-dominated Czarist Russian village of Anatevka. The story’s protagonist, Tevye, is a poor dairy farmer seeking to scratch out a meager existence with his wife Golde. It is a task made all the more difficult by the fact that God has blessed them, not with economically viable and socially valuable sons, but five daughters.

Tevye (Topoland Golde’s (Norma Crane) three oldest daughters—Tzeitel (Rosalind Harris), Hodel (Michele Marsh), and Chava (Neva Small)—provide the storyline that so clearly illustrates all four levels of worldview:

(1) the visible Actions and Behaviors of our day-to-day decisions, and

(2) the Rules and Roles of personal strategies and cultural conventions that form the ‘scripts’ we follow in most of our decisions without ever thinking about—as well as the resiliency of worldview at its deepest levels

(3) the Beliefs and Values that form the and presuppositional principles of our belief system, and especially

(4) the foundational Stories and Myths that form the authoritative “scriptures” for both the macro-worldview of the society we live in, as well as our more personalized micro-worldview (See, Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview.)

Screen shot 2013-05-02 at 1.37.53 AMFrom the four-level construct perspective, Tevye’s worldview is a set of stories from the foundational Scriptures of The Torah (the “Holy Book” or “Good book” in Tevye’s language) of how God has revealed himself and his law to his people Israel (Level 4), from which generations of Rabbinic scholarship have drawn key theological beliefs and ethical values (Level 3), from which synagogue and societal leaders have constructed cultural conventions and rules for daily life (Level 2), from which the residents of Anatevka live out their faith in their daily behaviors and moral judgments (Level 1).

Matchmaker, Matchmaker

Some of Anatevka’s strongest cultural conventions surround the roles and rules surrounding the institution of marriage. Over the course of the film, Tevye’s three daughter’s confront him with more and more counter-cultural views of marriage, which in turn drives Tevye to explore his worldview at deeper and deeper levels. When using Fiddler to teach worldview, I use six scenes to trace the transformation of the upper levels of Tevye’s worldview, and his ultimate resistance to change at his worldview’s deepest level (Scene times in parenthesis are from the downloadable ITunes version.)

1) Tradition!

Tradition! Tevye and the cultural rules/conventions (Level 2), theological principles (Level 3), and authoritative story, Torah (Level 4), that undergird his life (Level 1).

Scene One: Tradition! The first scene (1:40–12:00 on ITunes version of Fiddler) introduces the protagonist, Tevye, and the cultural conventions that govern his daily decisions through the song, Tradition.

I ask the class to use the four-level worldview construct to organize the elements of Tevye’s worldview described in the film. Students easily pick out see the rules, conventions and role conformity that govern the social relationships of his culture (Level 2), and that this culture is based upon the authoritative story of the Torah (Level 4). It normally takes them a little longer to flesh out the principles (theology and philosophy) that undergird the conventions. They also quickly see that many of Tevye’s assumptions are unexamined.

Tevye: Because of our traditions, we've kept our 
balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka, 
we have traditions for everything... You may ask, 
"How did this tradition get started?" I'll tell 
you! [pause] I don't know. But it's a tradition... 
and because of our traditions... Every one 
of us knows who he is and what God expects him 
to do.

See movie clip of various roles here.

2) Traditional Marriage Culture

Golde and Yente the matchmaker arrange the marriage, before Tevye seals the deal with Lazar Wolf

Scene Two: Tevye and Golde’s Worldview Construct of Marriage. In the second scene (1:04:09–1:07:30) Tevye informs Golde that he has successfully arranged a marriage for their oldest daughter, Tzeitel. What’s more, the groom is the richest widower in the village, Lazar Wolf.

I ask students to watch the clip and to use the four-level construct to flesh out Tevye and Golde’s worldview in regards to marriage. It normally takes a bit of prodding to help them see that what they view Tevye’s actions in arranging the marriage (Level 1) as virtuous and in the best interest of Tzeitel, because the father is in the best position to arrange a marriage (Level 2), because marriage is essentially a business/social contract (Level 3), based upon the village’s “story” that happiness is tied to increasing one’s prosperity and social standing (Level 4).

3) A Non-Traditional View of Marriage

Tzeitel and Motel make a counter-cultural pledge, but reason for permission from solid business logic

Scene Three: Tzeitel and Motel’s Conflicting Worldview Construct of Marriage. In scene 3 (1:07:30 –1:14:42), Tzeitel & Motel (Leonard Frey) object to Tevye’s decision (Level 1), precisely because they disagree with Tevye’s belief that marriage is primarily a business arrangement. They believe that marriage is best based upon romantic love (Level 3), and therefore propose a different convention for arranging a marriage—a pledge between lovers (Level 2). After all, while the father is in the best position to make a successful business arrangement, the couple is in a better position to arrange a marriage based on love. For Tevye, a pledge is well outside the plausibility structures of his worldview.

Tevye: They gave each other a pledge? Unheard of... absurd!
They gave each other a pledge?  Unthinkable!

 

However, Motel is a good negotiator. While his own worldview provides romantic love as the basis for his pledge to Tzeitel, he ultimately appeals to the Anatevka’s prosperity/happiness myth (Level 4) to try to convince his would-be father-in-law:

Tevye: You are just a poor tailor!
Motel: That's true, Reb Tevye, but even a poor tailor
is entitled to some happiness! [He places his arm around
Tzeitel.] I promise you, Tevye, your daughter will not starve.

 

(View clip of Tevye’s final decision here.)

While it often takes awhile, students are normally able parse out the these worldview levels (although I often have to point out level four.)  What is really interesting is helping them examine Tevye’s reasoning in allowing Tzeitel & Motel to wed. Students are normally able to discern that Tevye’s worldview has not actually changed as much as it appears. “Papa” is still making the decision based on his daughter happiness (Level 1). While he is breaking with convention to allow the couple’s pledge to stand (Level 2), he is not really buying their notion of romantic love (Level 3) as its basis. To him marriage is still a business arrangement (Level 3), and he approves only once he is convinced that Motel is capable of giving his daughter enough financial security to satisfy the village prosperity myth (Level 4).

4) Pushing the Boundaries

Hodel and Perchik ask only for Tevye’s blessing of their love-based engagement forcing Papa to delve into the story level Torah of his worldview

Scene Four: Hodel and Perchik’s Conflicting Worldview Construct of Marriage: In scene four (1:57:23 – 2:03:53), Tevye’s second daughter, Hodel, and her love interest, Perchik (Paul Michael Glaser), escalate the worldview conflict. Hodel and Perchik also believe that marriage should be based primarily on the principle of romantic love (Level 3). However they further break with village conventions by choosing to become engaged without consulting their parents (Level 2). They ask only for Tevye’s blessing (not permission)—a blessing Tevye is not anxious to grant.

From a worldview perspective, the scene is absolutely fascinating. Tevye’s reason for allowing their engagement to stand reaches well beyond the village’s prosperity/happiness myth and into the authoritative worldview stories of the Torah (Level 4).

Tevye:  On the other hand, our old ways were once new,
weren't they? ... On the other hand, they decided without
parents, without a matchmaker!... On the other hand,
did Adam and Eve have a matchmaker ?... Well, yes, they did.
 And it seems these two have the same Matchmaker!

 

By reorienting his worldview around a new principle of love (Level 3) derived from a new insight into the authoritative story from Scripture (Level 4), Tevye is able to embrace a counter-cultural convention for marriage. He is undergoing a significant paradigm shift. Students can nearly always connect with this transformation and “get” the worldview transformation issues.[2]

5) Tevye and Golde’s Worldview Shift

Their daughters’ counter-cultural challenge causes Tevye and Golda to reinterpret their own marriage around the principle of love

Scene Five: Tevye and Golde’s Paradigm Shift: Scene five (2:03:53—2:09:05) is a touching portrayal of Tevye seeking to apply (Level 1) his new understanding of love (Levels 2-4) to his own marriage. He asks Golde a question made possible now only by the new probability structures of his transformed worldview: “Do you love me?”

This revolutionary question evokes a wonderful interchange on the true meaning of marriage, complete with a back and forth exchange between Golde’s conventional understanding and Tevye’s deeper counter-conventional challenge inspired by their daughters. It concludes with a paradigm shift on Golde’s part as well.

Tevye: Then you love me?
Golde: I suppose I do
Tevye: And I suppose I love you too
Both: It change a thing, but even so, after 25 years
it's nice to know.

 

I normally need only ask students to watch the clip and tell me what is going on, to evoke a spirited conversation. They nearly always get the point. It DOES change a thing. It changes everything. Their new worldview of marriage changes the plausibility structure of their of their daily decisions. Ultimately, it will transform their marriage.

6) A Bridge Too Far

There is no other hand! Tevye’s worldview bends at the upper levels, but does not break at the root.

Scene Six: Tevye and Golde’s Rejection of Chava and Fyedka’s Marriage. The final scene in Tevye’s worldview journey is not nearly as heartening.[4] The scene details Tevye and Golde’s rejection of their youngest daughter, Chava, due to her marriage to a Gentile, Fyedka (Ray Lovelock). I normally show the first part of the scene (2:22:00 – 2:25:33)—Chava’s love for Fyedka and Tevye’s disapproval and stop the film. I then ask the class to use the four-level construct to try to predict how Tevye will respond.

Once they have made their prediction(s), I show the rest of the scene (2:25:34 – 2:35:35). It is a gut wrenching depiction of a man who has come to the foundations of his worldview and found (much to his dismay) that there is no room for further reinterpretation. There is no story that will save his relationship with his daughter. She is dead to him.

Chava: Papa, I beg you to accept us.
Tevye: Accept them? How can I accept them?
Can I deny everything I believe in? ON the other hand,
can I deny my own daughter?  On the other hand,
how can I turn my back on my faith, my people.
If I try to bend that far... I’ll break.
On the other hand... NO... there is no other hand!
NO, CHAVA!! NO! NO!! NO!!!

 

I normally let the scene play all the way through Chava’s desolate tears. When I turn up the lights, the room is very quiet. I normally need only ask, “What do you think?” to evoke a highly emotional conversation. I try to force them to think through why Tevye reached the limits of accommodation possible in his worldview. (With A classroom of adult learners this often brings up some of their own painful family and personal experiences with interfaith marriage.)

Tradition helps us keep our balance, but it is Story that points the way forward

In the end, most students reject Tevye’s rejection of Chava. I push them hard to discern what it is in their worldview (romantic, sentimental, relativistic, Western, democratic, pluralistic, postmodern, individualism) that reacts so negatively to Tevye’s moral judgment. When I am feeling particularly antagonistic, I often ask them, “Would it make any difference if the story was set in Israel around 1000 BC and Fyedka was a Canaanite?”  (That really gets things going.)

After a spirited discussion I ask students if they know the limits of accommodation in their own worldview? How do we know when cross from accommodation to assimilation?  I suspect the only way is to be certain of the foundational stories of our own worldview.

Like Tevye, the stories of Scripture provide for us, not only fertile soil for nurturing reinterpretations of our philosophy and culture for a new generation, but also foundational bedrock for grounding the story of our own life in the mind of God.

Next: Crash goes the Worldview: Why Worldview Transformation Requires Changing Scripts

See also:

Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Through Academy Award-winning Films

Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview: Why Everyone Meets at Rick’s 

It’s a Wonderful Worldview: Frank Capra’s Theistic Masterpiece

Bungee-Jumping to Eternity: The Existential Angst of Dead Poets Society

Deep Culture: Is Winning an Oscar a Reliable Indicator of a Truly Great Film?

If you Live it, They Will Come: The Blind Side and Better Faith-Based Filmmaking

 

Related Posts:

Using Zombie Movies to Teach Politics, by Daniel W. Drezner

The Joker Is Satan, and So Are We: René Girard and The Dark Knight, by Charles Bellinger

Echoes of René Girard in the Films of Martin Scorsese: Scapegoats and Redemption on ‘Shutter Island,’ by Cari Myers

Hitchcock and the Scapegoat: René Girard, Violence and Victimization in The Wrong Man, by David Humbert

 

Notes


[1] Norman Jewison, Topol, Norma Crane and Leonard Frey, Fiddler on the Roof (MGM Home Entertainment, 2004.

[2] http://www.the-numbers.com/market/Genres/Musical.php

[3] This conversation is even more interesting when the class includes at least one student from a culture of arranged marriages.

[4] In fact, it is so troubling to some students that I sometimes I skip it and end with the Do You Love Me discussion.

 

Why are ‘Deep Culture Impact’ Films so Rare?

Part three in series: The Oscar “Huh?!” Factor: Why Academy Voters Usually Pick the Wrong Film

In the past 40 years only three Academy Award-winning films managed to break into the coveted top 60 all-time box office earners. 

by Gary David Stratton, PhD • Senior Editor

ET is one of only 9 films on the AFI Top 100 list to crack the top 65 all-time box office hits

A century of motion picture production has generated a remarkably small cannon of films that have achieved true ‘Deep Culture’ Impact.  The odds against making a true “double-bottom-line” film–Critical Acclaim and, Popular Appeal–are nearly astronomical.

Never Tell Me the Odds!

At any given moment there are over 100,000 screenplays being shopped around Hollywood. These are the ones agents deem worthy of representing. The total number of completed screenplays is much higher.

Of these 100,000+ screenplays, less than 5,000 per year are actually produced as independent films. These are the films vying for notice at Sundance, Cannes, Tribecca, Toronto, and other film festivals for major Studio purchase and hopefully distribution. They join a handful of Studio-produced films that are all but assured to end up on screen.

Of these 5,000+ films, less than 250 actually end up in national theatrical release each year, and another 250 or so distributed for limited release.  That means that less than 500 films per year make it to the local cinemaplex and/or art house theater.

The 2012 Best Picture winner garnered less than $45 million in domestic box office, normally not nearly enough for a deep culture impact
The 2012 Best Picture winner garnered less than $45 million in domestic box office, normally not nearly enough for a deep culture impact

Of these 500 films, only 10 to 15 garner enough critical acclaim for Oscar consideration in the “Best Picture” [1] and/or “Best Writing” categories (original or adapted screenplay.)

If you’re keeping score, that means that a screenwriter who manages to get an agent to represent their passion project has less than .02% chance of their movie even being  nominated for an Academy Award.  An indie producer who manages to achieve film lock has less than .075% chance of nomination. And that doesn’t even guarantee their the film will be profitable.

Of the 10 to 15 Academy Award-nominated films, many never reach the threshold of box office respectability requisite for broad “popular appeal.” For instance, 2012 Best Picture winner, The Artist, garnered less than $45 million in domestic box office, and 2010 winner, The Hurt Locker only $17 million. They may be great films, but not enough people will ever see them for the movie to have much of a cultural impact (although the rise of Netflix and other streaming services is changing that formula.) A film financier recently told me that their entertainment lawyer suggested that they would have a better chance of turning a profit if they purchased $10 million in lottery tickets.

Elite Company

Return of the King is one of only three post-1980 Academy Award winners to break into the 50 all time top grossing films

No wonder only THREE Academy Award-winning films have managed to break into the coveted top 60 all-time box office earners (adjusted for inflation) in the past 40 years.

Forrest Gump (1994)

Titanic (1997)

The Return of the King (2003)

These films are the type of rare gems I seek for use in teaching my students. They not only constitute what makes for a truly great film, they also help my students discover the stories that have most deeply shaped their lives. When combined with films like the nine in yesterday’s post, they form the foundation of a very rare canon of films to achieve deep cultural impact.

Could any of this year’s nominees join this elite company? Perhaps. Only time will tell, which measure is better for finding a ‘deep culture’ impact film: the 6000+ academy voters, or the test of time.

.

Next: 100+ All-Time Top ‘Deep Culture Impact’ Films


[1] In 2011 the Academy expanded Best Picture Nominees from 5 to as many as 10.

 

The Oscar “Huh?!” Factor: Why Academy Voters Usually Pick the Wrong Film

A college professor reveals the method behind his madness in NOT always choosing Academy Award-winning films when selecting the stories students live by for classroom use.  Part one in 2015 Oscar Week Series.

The Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg recently opined: “I try to vote in a way so that, in 50 years, people aren’t going to go, ‘Huh?!'” Sadly, history reveals that, when it comes to picking a film audiences will recognize as truly great 50 years from now, Oscar voters nearly always miss the mark. Here’s why.

by Gary David Stratton, Ph.D. • Senior Editor

Powerfully acted and gorgeously directed, will this year's enigmatic front-runner produce anything more than a "Huh?" fifty years from now?
Powerfully acted and gorgeously directed, will this year’s enigmatic front-runner produce anything more than a “Huh?” fifty years from now?

Sunday night tens of millions of viewers from nearly every nation on earth will tune in for the coronation of Hollywood’s “Best Picture” of the year.  Studios spend millions of dollars in countless screeners, screenings, billboards, interviews, Variety Ads, Twitter campaigns, blog attacks, and countless party conversations, seeking to sway the roughly 6,000 members of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters to crown their film as King or Queen of the industry.

This year’s battle between Richard Linklater’s groundbreaking directorial achievement Boyhood, Clint Eastwood’s controversial crown-pleaser American Sniper, Ava DuVernay’s perfectly timed social commentary Selma, Wes Anderson’s rare comedy nominee The Grand Budapest Hotel, and acting powerhouses BirdmanWhiplashThe Theory of Everything, and The Imitation Game (over 50% of the Academy voters are actors), this might be the most wide open race in recent memory.

Historical films are riding a five-year winning streak (The Hurt Locker, The Artist, and Life of Pi, Argo and Twelve Year’s a Slave), leading many to believe that the producing teams for Selma, Imitation Game, or Theory of Everything will be giving their carefully prepared acceptance speeches Sunday night. Other’s believe this will be the year that breaks that streak. My personal hope is for Selma, but my guess is that acting/directing of Birdman or the novelty of Boyhood will win out.

Mistakes of History

But no mater who Academy voters select, will they get it right? You wouldn’t think so looking at the award’s history. Arguments are legion. Nearly every year is controversial in one way or another. The truth is, many if not most Oscar winners simply don’t stand the test of time. For instance, there are few Academy voters today who would argue that Shakespeare in Love (1998) was anything close to a classic, yet it somehow managed to win over Stephen Spielberg’s WWII epic, Saving Private Ryan.  The 1968 musical Oliver was certainly endearing, but not nearly as enduring as 2001: A Space Odyssey. Why does such a careful and democratic  process often fail?  Here are a few reasons.

Politics as Usual

26263-oscarmovies-1424335238-969-640x480Many Oscar winners have “outside the film” appeal to voters that may not always be a genuine indicators of greatness. The Hurt Locker (2009) was a compelling film, but it is hard to imagine how voting might have gone if Katherine Bigelow had not been in a position to be the first female director to win top honors. (Or, if Avatar director, James Cameron–Katherine’s ex-husband–had not alienated many academy voters with his “I’m king of the world” Oscar acceptance speech for his 1998 Titanic win.) In fact, Katherine’s might have been more worthy of winning for Zero Dark Thirty (2012), but other political factors led to actor/director Ben Affleck’s film Argo winning after being snubbed by the directors guild in their nominations for best director. (Remember what I said about half the voters being actors?)

Even more dramatic are the publicity efforts launched by studios and internet devotees in order to promote their films and sometimes smear their rivals.  2011 winner The King’s Speech had to overcome an alleged smear campaign launched by devotees of The Social Network that all but overshadowed the equally deserving Inception.

A Series of Unfortunate Timings

15 years later, it is hard to imagine how ‘Shakespeare in Love’ won over Spielberg’s WWII classic.

Some films are simply too far ahead of their times to even receive a nomination for Best Picture. Citizen Kane (1941) is near the top of most “All-Time Great Films” lists, but lost to the long forgotten How Green is My Valley. Hitchcock’s cutting-edge masterpiece Vertigo is still required viewing in any school of film, while only the most die-hard fans even remember the 1958 winner Gigi. 1999 genre-bender The Matrix couldn’t even garner a Best Picture nomination, yet few doubt that it will be studied as a classic for years to come.

Other great films lose Oscars simply because they are up against other greats the same year.  Forrest Gump (1994) garnered a much-deserved Best Picture Oscar. Yet few would argue that it was unequivocally better than two other celebrated films in the same year: Quentin Tarantino’s groundbreaking  Pulp Fiction, and Shawshank Redemption (currently #1 on IMDB‘s greatest movies ever made.)

Sometimes a film’s novelty gives it a short-term popularity. The unique silent film aesthetics of 2012 winner The Artist helped give it the upper hand over more conventional films. Yet many purists point to the social importance of the civil rights movement portrayal of The Helpthe acting excellence of The Descendants, and/or the overall of craftsmanship of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (11 nominations) as more deserving.

The truth is, the public-relations-driven, artistically myopic, and sometime overtly political nature of Hollywood often make an Oscar a highly unreliable measure of long-term greatness.

How Shall We Then Choose?

The 2011 Picture of the Year had to overcome a smear campaign

What about this year?  Unfortunately, most Academy voters aren’t like Scott Feinberg who recently admitted: “I try to vote in a way so that, in 50 years, people aren’t going to go, ‘Huh?!'” Chances are they will get it wrong.

And what about those of us voting at home?  If the professionals don’t always get it right, what hope do we mere mortals have?

Still, over two decades of using film in the classroom has taught me that there might be a better way to predict which film will have true staying power. Although I started out using only Academy Award-winning films, I quickly realized that the Academy isn’t very good at selecting the stories my students live by.

In the next three posts I’ll reveal what those standards are.

Next: 

 

Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview: Why Everyone Meets at Rick’s

Part of ongoing series:  Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview thru the Stories We Live By

By changing the foundational story of Rick’s life from that of a self-centered love-betrayed to the story of a other-centered love renewed, Ilsa transforms Rick’s values and rule of life as well. 

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

urlSince its release over seventy years ago, Casablanca has grown to become one of the most beloved films in the history of American cinema. Winner of three 1942 Academy Awards in (best picture, best writing, and best director)  Casablanca is now recognized by the Writers Guild of America as the greatest screenplay of all time, and by the American Film Institute as the second greatest American movie ever.[1] Even in the high-tech world of Blu-ray players and streaming video, this black-and-white masterpiece remains enduring favorite with contemporary audiences and critics alike.

Casablanca also provides a compelling example of the four levels of worldview, and how change at the story level can lead to dramatic change in every level of worldview. Character development (both cinematic and moral) “flows” from the hidden recesses of our life story, where our unexamined presuppositions about reality form a worldview that guides our life in ways we rarely think about in our day-to-day existence. In life and great films, we experience our worldview on four overlapping, but distinguishable levels. [2]

Four Levels of Worldview

Level 1) Actions and Behaviors: The countless personal decisions and moral judgments we make on a daily basis make up the visible tip of the iceberg of our largely hidden worldview. We glide through thousands of “preconditioned” responses each hour—what to wear, where to live, who to befriend, when to lie, how to speak—simply doing what we do, without ever examining why we do them. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred these decisions predictably emerge from the lower levels of our worldview, usually without any conscious awareness of why we make them.

Level 2) Rule of Life: The next level of our worldview is found in the rules and roles defined for us in the traditions and ‘scripts’ society develops to maintain equilibrium, or the personal strategies developed by us to cope with the difficulties of life. At this level our worldview provides a ‘rule of life” that defines our relationships, and the boundaries and maxims we use to guide our own personal behavior.  The clothes we buy, the worship we express, and even the words we use, are dictated by cultural expectations and personal habits far beyond our normal self-awareness.

The countless decisions we make each day are but the visible tip of the iceberg of our largely hidden worldview.
The countless decisions we make each day are but the visible tip of the iceberg of our largely hidden worldview.

3) Value and Belief System: The rules and roles we follow on a daily basis are normally based upon a presuppositional value and beliefs system that undergird these conventions, (once again, usually sub-consciously.) These principles, doctrines, aphorisms, and symbols are the often unspoken “commanding truths, which define the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ of our experience, and accordingly, the good and evil…” [3] They provide the language and categories by which we unconsciously interpret reality and make sense out of our experiences of our life.

Level 4) Stories and ‘Scriptures’: The deepest level of our worldview is normally found in the stories of our life-shaping personal experiences and our community’s authoritative ‘scriptures’ that form the basis of our principles and strategies for living. The three upper levels are “embedded within narratives that often have overlapping themes and various myths that often reinforce common ideals.” [4] The personal and corporate stories we live by are self-evidently true to us (even if they are, in fact, hopelessly false). To question them is to question reality itself. [5]

Constructing a False Worldview

At first glance Rick seems the model narcissist, longing only to catch the only plane out of Casablanca while sticking his neck out for nobody.
At first glance Rick seems the model narcissist, longing only to catch the last plane out of Casablanca while sticking his neck out for nobody.

Casablanca provides a beautiful example of all four levels of this process. Originally entitled, “Everyone Meets at Rick’s,” this masterpiece traces the worldview transformation of American expatriate and nightclub owner, Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart). Set against the backdrop of Nazi-controlled but unoccupied north African territories of Vichy France during WWII, the movie opens with a bitter and cynical Rick Blaine making his daily decisions (level 1) out of a fairly consistent rule of life (level 2).  He never drinks with customers, never commits to a woman, never takes sides in a political debate, and never intervenes to help others. His narcissistic value and belief system (level 3) leaves little room for anyone but himself, his alcoholism, his business, and his business partner, Sam.  His value system (level 3) is clearly expressed in his famous rule of life (level 2), “I stick my neck out for nobody.”

Captain Louis Renault is the first to recognize a deeper story rumbling beneath Rick's cynical shell
Captain Louis Renault is the first to recognize a deeper story rumbling beneath Rick’s cynical shell

However, as the movie progresses we learn that Rick’s worldview wasn’t always so jaded.  In fact, both French prefect Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains) and Nazi Gestapo Major, Heinrich Strasser (Conrad Veidt) express concern that Rick’s current story might not be his true self. They note that there was once a time when Rick’s value and belief system led him to a rule of life marked by a heroic willingness to sacrificially fight against tyranny even in a losing cause. They don’t want Rick returning to this old rule of life by aiding Czech freedom fighter Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid) in his attempt to escape Casablanca (and the Nazi) by means of a pair of stolen letters of transit granting the bearers free passage on a flight to neutral Portugal.

Movie Clip 1: Captain Louis Renault Accuses Rick of a Deeper Story

The beautiful and enchanting Ilsa Lund stole Rick’s heart in a whirlwind Paris romance Paris only to break it as the German tanks rolled into Paris.
The beautiful and enchanting Ilsa Lund stole Rick’s heart in a whirlwind Paris romance Paris only to break it as the German tanks rolled into Paris.

What Louis doesn’t know, is that Rick’s current rule of life and value system are driven by a heart-wrenching story (level 4). Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), a beautiful and enchanting Norwegian once stole Rick’s heart in a whirlwind Paris romance at the outset of WWII.

Movie Clip 2: Paris

However, after swearing her undying love, Ilsa abandons Rick just as the German army descends upon Paris. By the time Rick gets to Casablanca Ilsa’s betrayal provides the seething caldron of molten anguish driving Rick’s cynical value system and narcissistic rule of life. Like the city where he dwells in exile, his life is a desert with but one goal: escape.

A Different Story?

A guy standing on a station platform in the rain with a comical look on his face, because his insides had been kicked out.
A guy standing on a station platform in the rain with a comical look on his face, because his insides had been kicked out.

This is the story Rick is living when Ilsa turns up in Casablanca as the traveling companion for none other than Victor Lazlo. Confronted anew with heartache of Paris, Rick’s narcissistic behavior only intensifies. Despite his admiration for Lazlo, Rick refuses to help the desperate couple. He stubbornly retains his “I stick my neck for nobody” rule of life even as Ilsa desperately tries to convey a different story than the one driving his current behavior.

Movie Clip 3: Ilsa Tries to Explain Her Story

Just when Rick’s journey toward the dark side seems complete, something happens that radically changes the interpretation of his entire life story. With the Nazi’s closing in and their every effort to escape Casablanca thwarted, the stolen letters of transit in Rick’s possession are now Isla and Lazlo’s only hope. A desperate Ilsa turns up at Rick’s apartment intent to do anything to obtain them.

Movie Clip 4: Midnight at Rick’s apartment

Ilsa’s startling admission begins to change Rick’s worldview at every level.
Ilsa’s startling admission begins to change Rick’s worldview at every level.

Ilsa’s startling admission that she still loves Rick begins to change Rick’s worldview at every level. He now knows that Ilsa left him behind in Paris only because she learned that Lazlo, her husband, was still alive. She was not living a story of a self-centered love betrayed, but rather one of heroic sacrifice. While no one yet realizes it, this new story of a sacrificial love-renewed (level 4) begins to invisibly reenergize Rick’s heroic value system (level 3), displacing his values of narcissism and his “I stick my neck out for nobody” rule of life (level 2).

In the iconic airport scene, Rick’s new worldview based upon his new story suddenly erupts into full view with a startling decision (level 1).

Clip 5: Rick and Ilsa at the Airport

Change the Story, Change the World

At the airport, Rick's new story empowers him to not only give up his ticket to freedom, but Ilsa as well.
At the airport, Rick’s new story empowers him to not only give up his ticket to freedom, but Ilsa as well.

It turns out that Captain Louis Renault was right about Rick all along. The real Rick Blaine is, in fact, a hero. The pain of losing Ilsa had created a false life narrative, but once he knew the real story, his value system and rule of life came back on line. Rick decides to give away his tickets to freedom to Ilsa and her husband (level 1), because he has (re)embraced his rule of life of to fight against tyranny even in a losing cause (level 2), rooted in his rediscovered value of self-sacrificing heroism (level 3), birthed by his true life story (Level 4). By changing the foundational story of Rick’s life from that of a self-centered love-betrayed to a story of an other-centered love renewed, Isla transforms Rick’s values and rule of life as well. He now sticks his neck for everybody, even the husband of the woman he loves.

In the end, the power of Rick’s true story is becomes so compelling it returns Louis to his own true story, values, and rule of life.

Movie clip 6: A beautiful friendship

Everyone Meets at Rick’s

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“This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” In the end, even Louis is caught up in Rick’s heroic transformation.

One reason why Casablanca resonates so deeply with audiences is our strong identification with Rick. We have all been hurt deeply. We all develop belief systems and strategies to protect ourselves from further pain. We all know what it is like to have those rules of life sabotage our heroic journey. We all know what it is like to be trapped in a life story that hurts everyone around us and yet we are powerless to change.  We all want to believe that we are the master of our own fate, freely making our own choices at any given moment, when in reality our unexplored stories, unexamined values, and unexamined rules of life dictate much of our daily decision-making. Sooner or later, everyone meets at Rick’s.

For those who are willing to listen, the deepest longings of our heroic life story may be churning just beneath the surface and well worth the journey of further exploration. Over the course of this ongoing series I hope to help you do exactly that. I’m hoping this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Next posts in series:

Fiddler on the Roof: Worldview Change and the Journey to Life-Interpreting Story

The Volcano in Your Backyard: Micro-Worldviews and the Honeymoon from Hell

See also:

Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Through Academy Award-winning Films

Crash goes the Worldview: Why Worldview Transformation Requires Changing Scripts

It’s a Wonderful Worldview: Frank Capra’s Theistic Masterpiece

Bungee-Jumping to Eternity: The Existential Angst of Dead Poets Society

Deep Culture: Is Winning an Oscar a Reliable Indicator of a Truly Great Film?

If you Live it, They Will Come: The Blind Side and Better Faith-Based Filmmaking

 

Related Posts:

Using Zombie Movies to Teach Politics, by Daniel W. Drezner

The Joker Is Satan, and So Are We: René Girard and The Dark Knight, by Charles Bellinger

Echoes of René Girard in the Films of Martin Scorsese: Scapegoats and Redemption on ‘Shutter Island,’ by Cari Myers

Hitchcock and the Scapegoat: René Girard, Violence and Victimization in The Wrong Man, by David Humbert

 

 

Notes

[1] Casablanca is currently #25 rating on the IMDB all-time best film list. Michael Curtiz, Julius J. Epstein, Howard Koch, Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, et al. Casablanca (Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 1999).

[2] Followers of Arthur F. Holmes’ will notice that I am using his categories for evaluating ethical decisions.  See, Ethics: approaching moral decisions. Contours of Christian philosophy (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2007), 52-80. See also, Lawrence Kohlberg, The Development of Children’s Orientations Toward a Moral Order (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press); Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press); and, James W. Fowler, Stages of Faith: the Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981).

[3] James Davidson Hunter, To Change the World (Oxford University Press, 2010), 32. To be fair, Hunter considers all four levels to be overlapping elements of “culture,” not worldview. However, this is at least somewhat a matter of semantic disagreement between philosophers (who study worldviews),and sociologists, like Hunter (who study cultures.)

[4] Hunter, Change, 33.

[5] What I am calling the ‘Story’ level of worldview is what philosopher James K. A. Smith refers to as the ‘pre-worldview’ level of ‘social Imaginary.’  “The social imaginary’ is an affective, noncognitive understanding of the world. It is described as an imaginary (rather than a theory) because it is fueled by the stuff of the imagination rather than the intellect: it is made up of, and embedded in, stories, narratives, myths, and icons. These visions capture our hearts and imaginations by “lining” our imagination, as it were— providing us with frameworks of “meaning” by which we make sense of our world and our calling in it. An irreducible understanding of the world resides in our intuitive, precognitive grasp of these stories. Desiring the Kingdom (Cultural Liturgies): Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Publishing Group, 2009), p. 68.

 

 

Hollywood and Higher Education: Worldview and the Stories We Live By

Part one of ongoing series

Raised in a culture dominated by Hollywood storytelling—from Disney to Tarantino—my students often know Hollywood’s stories better than they know their own.

by Gary David Stratton, Ph.D.

A worldview is a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart, that can be expressed in a set of presuppositions, or better yet, in a story.
A worldview is a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart, that can be expressed in a set of presuppositions, or better yet, in a story.

The concept of worldview first proposed by Immanuel Kant in 1790 has grown to become one of the “central intellectual conceptions in contemporary thought and culture.” [2] After a century of growing influence in continental philosophy, worldview (from the German word weltanschauung) migrated to the U.S. in the late nineteenth-century and gained immediate acceptance in both philosophical inquiry and popular culture. As David Naugle notes in his magisterial Worldview: The History of a Concept, “Few transplanted European notions have enjoyed as much success as Weltanschauung, as a first cousin to ‘philosophy,’ in aptly capturing the intrinsic human aspiration to formulate a worthy view of life” [3]

Over the course of the twentieth-century worldview grew to embody neo-evangelicalism’s attempt to reconstruct intellectually rigorous higher education on both sides of the Reformed-Wesleyan divide. It became foundational not only to teaching the disciplines of philosophy and theology, but the entire larger project of the integration of faith and learning. As Arthur Holmes declares in his highly influential, The Idea of a Christian College:

A world and life view is not the same things as theology… [Theology] looks within, whereas a Christian worldview looks without, at life and thought in other departments and disciplines, in order to see these other things from the standpoint of revelation and as an interrelated whole. Integration is ultimately concerned to see things from a Christian perspective, to penetrate thought with that perspective, to think Christianly. [4]

By the mid-1970’s, freshman worldview courses began to appear in the catalogs of Christian College Consortium (CCC), and Council for Christian Colleges and Universities  (CCCU) schools. [5] James W. Sire’s The Universe Next Door: A Basic World View Catalog (1976) [6] became the gold standard of worldview textbooks. Universe traces Sires’ framework for eight philosophical macro-worldviews—Christian Theism, Deism, Naturalism, Nihilism, Existentialism, New Age, Eastern Pantheistic Monism, Postmodernism, and Islamic Theism [7]—differentiated by their answers to seven key questions regarding, ultimate reality, the physical universe, anthropology, death, epistemology, ethics, and history. In time Sire’s definition of worldview became ipso facto orthodoxy for countless worldview courses:

worldview is a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart, that can be expressed as a story or in a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true, or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic constitution of reality, and that provides the foundation on which we live and move and have our being. [8]

The Worldview Classroom Disconnect

This emphasis on worldview was good news for the future of American evangelicalism, but often bad news for the faculty assigned to teach these courses. Worldview is a difficult enough philosophical concept for first-year students to grasp. When coupled with the reality that many of the faculty assigned to teach these courses had little or no academic preparation in philosophy, they often worked far better in principle than in practice.

This was the precise situation wherein I found myself as low man on the faculty totem pole at a an evangelical university in the 1990’s.  My first term as a full-time faculty member included  three sections of our newly created first-year worldview course. A previous version of the class had been, in the words of my department chair, “an unmitigated disaster.” It was my job to try to fix it. In a school whose tenure and promotion policies were heavily tied to student evaluations, it was the existential equivalent of having my short-lived academic career pass before my eyes. To say that I spent that summer in prayer and fasting for wisdom as to how to help the course connect with students would be a gross understatement.

Stories articulate, legitimate, support, and modify our worldviews.
Stories articulate, legitimate, support, and modify our worldviews.

Even as a non-philosopher my problem wasn’t so much grasping the course content as much as it was finding connections between those worldview concepts and lives of my students. Effective teaching is the art of taking what students do know and connecting it to what they don’t know. So I spent the summer desperately searching for at least one common experience that nearly all my eighteen-year-old students knew; something I could use to build a bridge that might make worldview concepts come alive for them.

Then, just as all seemed lost, I woke one morning with a blinding realization. While my students had been raised in a vast kaleidoscope of denominational churches, listened to uniquely personalized tastes in music, and watched a bewildering array of highly niched television shows, they all watched the same feature films. I had my answer: It was Hollywood!  I had exactly what I wanted—a way to connect worldview concepts to something my students already knew (and thereby save my academic career). Within a semester my department chair had exactly what he wanted—the course went from one of the lowest rated in the university to one of the highest.

The Power of World-interpreting Story

One of the primary reasons Hollywood proved to be such an effective tool for exploring worldview with my students is that worldviews are often best expressed as stories. My students accepted this as a self-evident starting point, but it is not always instantly obvious to the academy. While philosophers and theologians are likely to express their own worldview as a set of propositions, doctrines, or values it is just as critical to understand worldview as the stories we live by.

These world-interpreting stories provide a “foundation or governing platform upon which people think, interpret and know.” [9] Whether one views a worldview as the tapestry out of which we weave our interpretation of the “strings of experience,” [10] the picture on the box of the jigsaw puzzle that shows us where all the pieces of life should go,[11] or “a conceptual scheme by which we consciously or unconsciously place or fit everything we believe and by which we interpret and judge reality,”[12] it is stories that articulate, legitimate, support, and modify our worldviews. [13]

The Power of Personality-Shaping Story 

We make ourselves by subconsciously composing a continually evolving “heroic story of self” that forms the foundation of our identity.
We make ourselves by subconsciously composing a continually evolving “heroic story of self” that forms the foundation of our identity.

What I quickly discovered was that story served not only as the foundation of the philosophical macro-worldviews of societies and civilizations, they were also the primary basis for the psychological micro-worldviews out of which my individual students constructed their identities. Narrative psychology recognizes storytelling as the fundamental way in which human beings package our ideas and express ourselves. We do not so much discover ourselves through story so much as we make ourselves by subconsciously composing a continually evolving “heroic story of self” that forms much of our identity. As Dan P. McAdams, the father of narrative psychology asserts, “If you want to know me, then you must know my story, for my story defines who I am. And if I want to know myself, to gain insight into the meaning of my own life, then I, too, must come to know my own story.” [14]

Novelists and other creatives often capture this story-based idea of personal worldview in more poetic terms. Sue Monk Kid explains in her memoir, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, “In a way humans are not made of skin and bone as much as we’re made of stories.”[15]  In Barry Lopez’s children’s classic, Crow tells Weasel, “The stories people tell have a way of  taking care of them.”[1] And in Patrick Rothfuss’s novel, The Name of the Wind, Bass tells the Chronicler, “It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. We build ourselves out of that story. That story makes you what you are.” [16]  (See: Black Hawk Down: No One Asks to be a Hero… or Do They?)

As Hollywood story guru, Robert McKee argues:

(A)ll fine films, novels, and plays… give the audience a fresh model of life empowered with affective meaning… Our appetite for story is a reflection of the profound human need to grasp the pattern of living, not merely as an intellectual exercise, but within a personal, emotional experience. In the words of playwright Jen Anouilh, ‘Fiction gives life its form.'[17]

The Intertwining Stories in Macro and Micro Worldviews

The stories we create influence the stories of other people, those stories give rise to still others.
Fiction give life its form.

Of course there is a complicated relationship between the stories of our personal micro-worldviews and those of the corporate macro-worldviews that surround us. The raw materials for constructing our own life story are found not only our personal experiences, but also in the stories passed down to us by our families, churches, teachers, writers, and filmmakers.

At a very early age we begin to form our own identity by identifying with the heroes of the stories we hear.  Screenwriter Christopher Vogel rejoins, “Stories invite us to invest part of our personal identity in the Hero for the short duration of the experience. In a sense we become the Hero for a while. We project ourselves into the Hero’s psyche and see the world through her eyes.”[18] (See, the “Hero We Deserve” speech from The Dark Knight) The power of these heroic (or non-heroic) stories is nearly impossible to overstate, and difficult to separate from the world around us. As McAdams’ research demonstrates:

“The stories we create influence the stories of other people, those stories give rise to still others, and soon we find meaning and connection within a web of story making and story living… [W]e help to create the world we live in, at the same time that it is creating us.” [19]

Disney to Tarantino
We help to create the world we live in, at the same time that it is creating us.
We help to create the world we live in, at the same time that it is creating us.

Perhaps this is why I found Academy award-winning films [20] such a perfect vehicle for exploring the stories my students live by. Raised in a culture dominated by Hollywood storytelling—from the Disney Channel to Quentin Tarantino—my students often know Hollywood’s stories better than they know their own (and much better than they know epistemology.) By helping them grasp the worldview-shaping forces in the stories of their Hollywood heroes it became relatively easy for them to gain a reference point for exploring both the macro-worldviews that have influenced them, as well as the micro-worldview of the story of their own life.

If Hollywood provides us with much of the raw material of the stories we live by, why not return the favor? By teaching students to reverse engineer films using Hollywood’s approach to story structure, they quickly learned the structure their own life story so they could see the recurring patterns in the complicated web of meaning connecting their micro-worldview with the macro-worldviews around them. By teaching them Hollywood’s approach to heroic character development they learned to better cooperate with the story their divine author was crafting in the development of their own heroic character.

A Continuing Story

Raised in a culture dominated by Hollywood storytelling—from the Disney Channel to Quentin Tarantino—my students often know Hollywood's stories better than they know their own
Raised in a culture dominated by Hollywood storytelling—from the Disney Channel to Quentin Tarantino—my students often know Hollywood’s stories better than they know their own.

Fifteen years, over sixty worldview classes, and nearly 2,500 students later, I consider this unusual guidance from God to use films to explore the stories my students live by as one of the greatest answers to prayer in my professional life. I have used academy award-winning cinema to teach worldview to elite liberal arts students, über conservative Bible College students, pragmatic adult learners, and seasoned Hollywood film students and professionals. Nearly without exception the use of film has greatly heightened students’ grasp of the subtle nuance of worldview.

Along the way I have learned a things or two about both using film to teach worldview and using worldview to create films as well. Over the course of the next year, I will try to keep an ongoing series going relating some of the most useful insights I’ve had to date.

Next Posts in Series:

Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview: Why Everyone Meets at Rick’s

The Blind Side Leading the Blind: Better Faith-Based Filmmaking through Better Stories

Deep Culture Impact: Is an Academy Award a Reliable Indicator of a Truly Great Film?

Notes: 

[1] Barry H. Lopez, Crow and Weasel (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1900), 60.

[2] David K. Naugle, Worldview: The History of a Concept (Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans, 2002), 66.

[3] Naugle, Worldview, 62.

[4] Arthur P. Holmes, The Idea of a Christian College (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 59-60.

[5] And later schools in the Association of Biblical Higher Education (ABHE) and the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI).

[6] James W. Sire The Universe Next Door, 5th Edition (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009).

[7] Postmodernism was added to the 4th edition (2004), and Islamic Theism to the 5th Edition (2009).

[8] Sire, Universe, 20.

[9] Naugle, Worldview, 297.

[10] Robert A. Harris, The Integration of Faith and Learning: A Worldview Approach (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2004), 78.

[11] Mark P. Cosgrove, Foundations of Christian Thought: Faith, Learning, and the Christian Worldview (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2006), 19, 20, 24.

[12] Ronald H. Nash, Worldviews in Conflict: Choosing Christianity in a World of Ideas (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 16.

[13] N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 116.

[14] Dan P. McAdams, The Stories We Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self (New York: Guilford Press, 1997), 11.

[15] Sue Monk Kidd, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1996), 72.

[16] Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind  (New York: DAW Books, 2007), 111.

[17] Christopher Vogler. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 3rd Edition. (Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 2007), 30.

[18] Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting (New York: Regan Books, 1997), 12.

[19] McAdams, Stories, 37.

[20] Actually, I started out by using only Academy Award-winning films, but have since altered my criteria for what makes a true culture making film. See, Deep Culture Impact:  Why an Oscar isn’t a Reliable Indicator of a Truly Great Film.

 

Why Achieving ‘Deep Culture’ Impact is so Elusive

Part of 12 series: Hollywood & Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Thru Academy Award-winning Film

Of these 400+ films released in theaters each year, only 5 to 10 garner sufficient critical acclaim for Oscar consideration as “Best Picture,” and few of  which reach a broad enough audience to deeply impact culture.

by Gary David Stratton, Senior Editor

ET is one of only 9 films on the AFI Top 100 list to crack the top 65 all-time box office hits

A century of motion picture production has generated a remarkably small cannon of films that have achieved true “deep culture” impact. (See, Films with ‘Deep Culture’ Impact.) Even if you know that your goal is the “double bottom-line” of Critical Acclaim and, Popular Appeal–it is a fete that is nearly impossible to achieve.

The truth is, the odds against making a true “double-bottom-line” film are astronomical.

At any given moment there are over 100,000 screenplays being shopped around Hollywood. These are the ones agents deem worthy of shopping. The total number of scripts is much higher. (See, Fresh Story Ideas a Tough Sell in Hollywood.)

Of these 100,000 screenplays, less than 5,000 per year are actually produced as independent films vying for notice (and purchase) at Sundance, Cannes, or other lesser film festivals.

Of these 5,000 films, less than 250 are purchased and/or developed by studios for national theatrical release year, and another 250 or so distributed for limited release.  That means that only 500 films per year make it to the local cinemaplex and/or art house theater.

2010 Best Picture, The King’s Speech, looks like the type of film that could stand the test of time, but will it?

Of these 500 films, only 10 to 15 garner sufficient critical acclaim for Oscar consideration in Best Picture [1] and/or “Best Writing” categories (Original or Adapted screenplay.)

Of these 10 to 15 Academy Award-nominated films, many never reach a threshold of box office respectability necessary to considered to have achieved “popular appeal.”

In other words, very few motion pictures are BOTH critically acclaimed and widely experienced.

In fact, in the past 25 years only THREE Academy Award-winning films have managed to break into the coveted top 50 all-time box office earners (adjusted for inflation).

Forrest Gump (1994)

Titanic (1997)

The Return of the King (2003)

.

Return of the King is one of only three post-1980 Academy Award winners to break into the 50 all time top grossing films

These films are the kind of rare gems that I seek to utilize in teaching my students. They not only constitute what makes a truly great film, they also to help my students discover the stories that have most deeply shaped their lives.

When combined with films like the nine in yesterday’s post, they form the foundation of a very rare canon of films to achieve deep cultural impact.

Could any of 2010’s nominees join this august pantheon. Perhaps. This year’s nominees may have the highest “deep culture” potential of any slate of Best Pictures in recent memory. Five of the ten nominees have broken the $100M box office mark–Inception, Toy Story 3, Black Swan, True Grit, and King’s Speech, with two others likely to break that mark as well–The Fighter and The Social Network. This fete is even more remarkable when you consider that last year’s winner, The Hurt Locker, grossed only $17M.

In fact, I believe that one of this year’s films has a very high potential for eventually achieving “deep culture impact.” (Hint: It isn’t even my pick for Best Picture.)

Next Post in the Series: My All-Time Favorite ‘Deep Culture’ Films 

Comment: What are your favorite “Deep Culture” films?



[1] In 2010 Best Picture Nominees were expanded from 5 to 10.

 

Joel and Ethan Coen Spill Their Screenwriting Secrets to the Hollywood Reporter

The Oscar winners’ unorthodox, but highly effective approach to screenwriting by Tim Appelo in The Hollywood Reporter.

Joel and Ethan Coen flank Martin Scorsese. (AP photo)

The True Grit filmmakers explain their creative process, the usefulness of lunatic screenwriters and  why nurse sex can make good cinematic sense. Read Q&As with all 10 Oscar nominees in The Hollywood Reporter’s “Year of the Screenwriter” special issue. (Excerpt below).

.

The Hollywood Reporter: You never say what your work process is like. It’s a black box.

JC: We’re not in a black box. It’s a very social – other people are all around us when we’re working. Not when we’re writing.

THR: Tim Blake Nelson says you’re always passing books around your circle, your heads are always in stew of books and movies, an idea arises out of that, then you write it pretty fast.

JC: I don’t know. Head being in a stew of movies and books. I guess so, but not more than a lot of other people who have nothing to do with the movie business.

Ethan Coen: Actually, a lot of lay people probably see more movies than we do.

THR: What’s your daily work routine?

JC: We have a daily work routine in the sense that we come into the office, but I would call it a daily routine as opposed to a daily work routine. We don’t necessarily do any work when we get here.

Continue reading interview…

Or, to read even more about how the Coens made True Grit, how its $150 million success made them feel and which other Oscar nominated movie they really most wish they’d written, get THR’s “Year of the Screenwriter” special issue.

Using Worldview to Create Academy Award-winning Films (Series Introduction)

Striving to attain mastery as a Two Handed Warrior occasionally results in some very enjoyable if unintended consequences. Learning to “reverse engineer” Academy Award-winning films in order to teach worldview (see Teaching Worldview Through Film) somehow led to my inadvertently developing a unique skill-set for analyzing how filmmakers create Academy Award-winning films.

A true script consultant, such as Linda Seger or Key F. Payton, has read thousands of screenplays and can instantly recognize a myriad of factors that might improve an unfinished script.  I, on the other hand, hate reading screenplays, and often can’t tell the difference between snappy dialogue and good scenery.

However, in the kingdom of the blind the one eyed man is king. Since few (if any) script consultants are trained in worldview thinking, I can sometimes help screenwriters and creative executives in story development in a way that others can’t.  The highly intuitive use of worldview often employed by Academy Award-winning filmmakers in their character-transformation arcs is often clearer to me (the amateur) than it is to more broadly trained experts.

Guiding my students’ understanding of worldview in the classroom and serving as story consultant in Hollywood have become some of the most enjoyable aspects of my journey toward becoming a two handed warrior. Helping screenwriters, producers, directors, and creative executives “see” and clarify the worldview journey in their film is a very gratifying experience.

So while I would never claim to be an expert, I hope that this ongoing discussion of the relationship between worldview and story will be as helpful to filmmakers as it is to educators.

Who knows, it might even help a two-handed filmmaker win an Academy Award someday.

Now, that would be a very intended consequence,

Gary

Next Post in Series: Worldview and the Power of Story