All-Time Top Films for Deep Culture Impact

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

Two decades of using film in the classroom has resulted in quite a few surprises in the stories with the deepest cultural impact on this generation.

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

The list below is in no way infallible, but it sure could get a good Oscar weekend conversation going.  (See Deep Culture Impact Films for the ever-evolving DCI criteria.)

Key

Action/Adventure/Western

Comedy/Musical/Animated

Drama

Fantasy/SciFi

Thriller/Horror

* Indicates Academy Award Winner

url-51933  King Kong (F)

1936  Modern Times (C)

1937  Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs (C)

1939  The Wizard of Oz (F)

1939  Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (D)

1939  Gone with the Wind (D)*

1940 Fantasia (C)

1941  Citizen Kane (D)

1943  Casablanca (D)*

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1946  It’s a Wonderful Life (D)

1951  The African Queen (D)

1952  Singin’ In The Rain (C)

1954  Rear Window (T)

1954  On the Waterfront (D)*

1955  Rebel Without a Cause (D)

1954  Seven Samurai (D)

1956  The Ten Commandments (D)

1957  The Bridge on the River Kwai (D)*

20121210051712!Sleeping_beauty_disney1957  12 Angry Men (D)

1958  Vertigo (T)

1959  Ben-Hur (A)*

1959  Sleeping Beauty (C)

1960  Psycho (T)

1961  West Side Story (C)*

1961  101 Dalmatians (C)

1961  Breakfast at Tiffany’s (D)

1962  To Kill a Mockingbird (D)

Screen shot 2013-02-23 at 6.03.20 PM

1962  Lawrence of Arabia (D)*

1964  Mary Poppins (C)

1964  My Fair Lady (C)*

1964  Dr. Strangelove (C)

1964 Goldfinger (A) and the entire Bond franchise, especially 1965 Thunderball (A) and 2006  Casino Royale (A)

1965  The Sound of Music (C)*

1966 The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (D)

1967  Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (D)

1967  The Graduate (D)

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1967  The Jungle Book (C)

1968  2001: A Space Odyssey (F)

1969  In the Heat of the Night (D)*

1969  Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (A)

1971  Fiddler on the Roof (C)

1972  The Godfather (D) and 1974 The Godfather 2 (D)

1973  The Exorcist (T)

1973  The Sting (C)*

1973  American Graffiti (D)

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1974  Chinatown (D)*

1975  One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (D)*

1975  Jaws (F)

1976  Monty Python and the Holy Grail (C)

1976  Rocky (D),* as well as 2006 Rocky Balboa (D) and 2015 Creed (D)

1976  Taxi Driver (D)

1977  Star Wars: A New Hope (F) and 1980 The Empire Strikes Back (F)

1977  Annie Hall (C)*

raiders_of_the_lost_ark_ver1_xlg1978  National Lampoon’s Animal House (C)

1979  Apocalypse Now (D)

1979  Alien (F) and even better 1986 Aliens (F)

1980  Raging Bull (D)

1981  Raiders of the Lost Ark (A) and 1989 Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (A)

1981  Chariots of Fire (D)*

1982  Blade Runner (T)

1982  Tootsie (C)

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1982  E. T. The Extra-Terrestrial (F)

1984  Amadeus (D)*

1984  Beverly Hills Cop (C)

1984  Ghostbusters (C)

1985 The Breakfast Club (D)

1985  Back to the Future (C)

1985  The Color Purple (D)

1986  Top Gun (A)

1986  Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (F)  The best of the highly influential franchise… so far. (J.J. Abrams could change that.)

schindlers_list

1986  Ferris Bueller’s Day Off  (C)

1987  The Princess Bride (C)

1988  Rain Man (D)*

1989  Dead Poets Society (D)

1989  Field of Dreams (F)

1989  Do the Right Thing (D)

1989  Driving Miss Daisy (D)*

1990  Dances with Wolves (D)*

1990  Pretty Woman (D)

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1991  Terminator 2: Judgment Day (F)

1991  Beauty and the Beast (F)

1991  The Silence of the Lambs (D)*

1992  A Few Good Men (D)

1992  Unforgiven (A)*

1993  Groundhog Day (C)

1993  Jurassic Park (F)

1993  Schindler’s List (D)*

1994  Forrest Gump (D)*

Screenshot 2014-03-02 23.59.401994  Pulp Fiction (D)

1994  Shawshank Redemption (D)

1994  The Lion King (C)

1995  Braveheart (A)*

1995 The Usual Suspects (D)

1995  Toy Story (C) and the entire Toy Story trilogy.

1996  Jerry Maguire (D)

1996  Fargo (D)

1998  Saving Private Ryan (A)

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1996  Independence Day (T)

1997  Men in Black (C)

1997  Good Will Hunting (D)

1997  Titanic (D)*

1998  American History X  (D)

1999  American Beauty (D)*

1999  Fight Club (A)

1999  The Matrix (F)

1999  The Sixth Sense (T)

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2000  Gladiator (A)*

2000 Memento (D)

2001  Shrek (C) and the entire Shrek franchise.

2001  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (F) and the entire Harry Potter series.

2001 Serendipity (C)

2003 The Return of the King (F)* and the rest of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy: 2001 The Fellowship of the Ring (F) and especially 2002 The Two Towers (F).

2003  Finding Nemo (C)

2003  Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl  (A) at least as part of the entire Pirates franchise.

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2004  Spider-Man 2 (F), the entire Spider-Man Trilogy and even the new franchise starting with 2012 The Amazing Spider-Man (F) series.

2004  The Passion of the Christ (D)

2004  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (F)

2008  The Dark Knight (F) and the entire Dark Knight trilogy is definitely going to make the DCI list.

 

Films on the Deeper Culture Impact ‘watch list’

I suspect many of these movies will prove to be DCI films, but it is still too early to tell. 

2005  Crash (D)*

2006  The Departed (D)*

2012  The Avengers (F) and the entire Marvel Avengers franchise, especially 2008 IronScreen shot 2013-02-24 at 12.58.13 PM
Man (F), 2013 Iron Man 3 (F), and 2011 Thor (F)

2007  No Country for Old Men (D)*

2007  Juno (D)

2008  Slumdog Millionaire (D)*

2009  The Hangover (C)

2009  Avatar (F)

2009  The Blind Side (D)

2010 Inception (F)

2011 The Help (D)

2012 Django Unchained (D)12YAS-Poster-Art

2012 Life of Pi (F)

2012 The Hunger Games (F), and and most likely the entire Hunger Games series.

2013 12 Years a Slave (D)*

2013 Frozen (F)

2013 American Hustle (D)

2013 Gravity (D)

2014 American Sniper (D)

2014 Selma (D)

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2014 The Imitation Game (D)

2014 Guardians of the Galaxy (F)

2015 Spotlight (D)*

2015 Inside Out (A)

2016 Zootopia (A)

2016 La La Land (M)

2016 Arrival (F)

* Indicates Academy Award Winner

 

What films did I miss?

Thirty Good to Great Christmas Movies for 2014, by Gary and Sue Stratton

Our annual Christmas movie extravaganza compiled from our family’s favorite Christmas movies of all time and suggestions from members of the THW community.

by Gary & Sue Stratton

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The #1 Made-for-TV Christmas movie of all time almost never aired because CBS doubted its ‘sacred’ view of Christmas would draw a large enough audience.

What better way to get in the holiday spirit than to fire up the DVD, Blu-Ray, Tivo, Wii, XBox, Laptop, IPad, Kindle, Smart Phone, Hulu, NetFlix, Roku, Amazon Prime, etc. and watch your favorite Christmas films.

We divided our list between good and great films and categorized them with either a ‘sacred’ view of Christmas (focused more on the birth of Jesus), or a ‘secular’ version (focused more on Santa Claus). Then we listed them chronologically within each group.

We hope they inspire as much holiday cheer in your household as they do in ours.

Merry Christmas!

Gary & Sue

 

GREAT Films with a More (or Less) ‘Sacred’ View of Christmas

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The toughest on the list to find, but worth the search if you want to talk about the real meaning of Christmas with your kids.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) Frank Capra’s masterpiece is not just a great Christmas movie, it is one of the ten best films ever made.

Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) Charles Schultz’s enduring glimpse at the meaning of Christmas. Set the DVR and experience the least commercial Christmas tale ever told on network TV.

The Nativity (1987)  This Hanna-Barbera Greatest Adventures of the Bible video is hard to find, but worth it for your kids. We found a couple of YouTube links, but, uh …they might be bootleg.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005) Okay, it’s cheating a bit, but there is a Christ figure, and a Christmas, and presents, and everything. Just don’t let the White Witch hear you talking about it.

The Nativity Story (2006) Not everything you’d hope it would be, but does a marvelous job of capturing the incredible faith (and sacrifice) of Mary and Joseph.

GREAT Films with a ‘Sacred’ View of Christmas as Part of  a Larger Movie

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Zeffirelli’s Juliet (Olivia Hussey) makes a breathtaking Mary in Jesus of Nazareth

Ben-Hur (1959) Charlton Heston’s character’s life parallel’s the life of Jesus, (even if he actually misses his birth). Also, one of the best films ever made. As an added plus, that chariot scene can really get you in the mood to face the mall.

The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) Jean Negulesco directed this understated and haunting Nativity sequence.

Jesus of Nazareth (1977) Franco Zeffirelli’s masterful TV mini-series. Incredibly complex and textured. Get Episode 1 for the Nativity scene.

Jesus (1979) A clear and compelling account of the birth of Christ from the Gospel of Luke. With a worldwide audience of over 2 billion, the BBC calls Jesus “the most watched” movie of all-time.

The Gospel According to Matthew (1996) The Visual Bible‘s straightforward retelling of the birth of Christ from Matthew’s perspective.

GOOD Movies with a ‘Sacred’ View of Christmas

Muppet Christmas Carol: A scary ghost story for the PG set.

The Bishop’s Wife (1947) Samuel Goldwyn’s romantic comedy about a Bishop’s fundraising prayer that nets a lot more than cash. Cary Grant plays the angel with more on his mind than money. (The 1996 remake, The Preacher’s Wife, featuring Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston isn’t bad at all.)

A Christmas Carol (1951) When you hear them singing The Most Wonderful Time of the Year in the Mall, you know it’s time for “scary ghost stories.”  You don’t get any scarier than the original adaptation of this “Dickens Horror Picture Show.”

Scrooged (1988) A snide and cynical take on Dickens tale with the inimitable Bill Murray as Scrooge himself.

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)  Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, and the gang in an offbeat, but faithful retelling of Dickens’ classic.

Silver Bells (2013) Bruce Dalt (Bruce Boxleitner) is an ambitious television sportscaster who approaches the holidays as he does life – competitively. But when a scuffle with the ref at his son’s basketball game leads to serious consequences Bruce finally encounters the true meaning of Christmas and hope.  Act One graduate Andrea Gyertson Nasfell’s third Christmas movie, after Christmas with a Capital C (2011) and Christmas Angel (2012), not to mention her 2014 hit Mom’s Night Out.

GREAT Films with a “Secular” View of Christmas

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We watch it as a family every year as we decorate the tree. And every year we say, “They just don’t make ’em like that anymore.”

Miracle on 34th Street (1947) Classic, “Do you believe in something you can’t prove” premise.  Many remakes, none come close to the original.

White Christmas (1954) Not much Jesus (or Santa), but a wonderful tale of friendship and loyalty. We watch it every year as it chokes us up every time.

A Christmas Story (1983) I don’t know why we all get such a kick out of this admittedly B movie.  A pitch-perfect coming-of-age story surrounding the hopes and fears of a nine-year-old boy. Just don’t shoot your eye out.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1996) and How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) Both the television classic and Jim Carrey’s (over the top) psycho-drama-remake are well worth an evening. “I’m feeling!”

Elf (2003) Perhaps  Will Ferrell’s best movie. The story of Buddy the Elf is an irresistible recasting of the Santa story.  Zooey Deschanel‘s sterling role doesn’t hurt one bit.

GOOD Films with ‘Secular’ View of Christmas

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Totally idiotic and totally entertaining.

Christmas in Connecticut (1945) A New York food writer’s false personal brand as the perfect housewife is in danger of being exposed as a sham when her boss invites a returning war hero for a traditional family Christmas at her home in Connecticut. Only one problem, she doesn’t have a home n Connecticut.

Christmas Vacation (1989) Didn’t get enough of Chevy Chase on Community?  This is the movie for you.  The Griswold family’s plan for a big Christmas turns out to be “nuts’?

Prancer (1989) A bittersweet, but poignant tale of loss and redemption. One girl’s desperate faith changes her life and her father.

Home Alone (1990) A zany battle against the world’s least scary criminals. It made the list this year because so many THW conversation partners mentioned how strangely moving church scene (which wasn’t even part of the original script) added much needed gravitas to the moral premise of a very silly movie.

The Santa Clause (1994) Can you be drafted into the ranks of Father Christmas? Apparently, yes. Tim Allen’s best role since Home Improvement.

GREAT Films set During the Christmas Season (but, uh, not all are kid friendly)

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Long before last year’s Oscar nominee GRAVITY, Alfonso Cuarón was shedding new light on stories of faith, like Christmas.

Die Hard (1988)  Police Officer John McClain thwarts a ring of Euro-terrorists who crash a corporate Christmas party. Bruce Willis is at his smarmy best, but Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber almost steals the show… and the dough.

While You Were Sleeping (1995) A touching and laugh-out-loud funny tale for anyone who has ever had a secret love or faced a Christmas alone. Sandra Bullock’s best role before Blind Side..

Family Man (2000)  Turns the “what if” premise of It’s a Wonderful Life on its head. With Don Cheadle as an angel on the edge, and some of the best acting of Nicholas Cage and Tea Leoni’s careers. We watch it every year and ponder our own what if?

Joyeux Noel (‘Merry Christmas’ in French, 2005) The remarkable true story of the WWI Christmas truce. German, French, and Scottish soldiers lay down their arms for a day of celebration and wind up friends with the ‘enemy’ on the opposite side of a brutal war.  A powerful expression of both the spirit of Christmas and the power of friendship. (Subtitles.)

Children of Men (2006) Alfonso Cuarón’s masterpiece confronts us with a tale of a miraculously pregnant unwed mother and her reluctant protector set amidst the most horrific violence an empire can throw at them: in short, a stark retelling of the Christmas story.

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See also:

Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Children of Men’ (2006): A Stark Retelling of the Christmas Story

100+ All-Time Top ‘Deep Culture Impact’ Films (2014)

Part four in 2014 Oscar Week Series: Twelve Years a Slave to History: Why Academy Voters Often Miss the Real Best Picture.

Two decades of using film in the classroom has resulted in quite a few surprises in the stories with the deepest cultural impact on this generation.

by Gary David Stratton, PhD • Senior Editor

The list below is in no way infallible, but it sure could get a good Oscar weekend conversation going.  (See Deep Culture Impact Films to view my evolving DCI criteria.)

Key: Action/Adventure/Western • Comedy/Musical/Animated • Drama • Fantasy/SciFi • Thriller/Horror

* Indicates Academy Award Winner  – @Indicates NEW for 2014

king-kong-poster1933  King Kong (F)

1936  Modern Times (C)

1937  Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs (C)

1939  The Wizard of Oz (F)

1939  Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (D)

1939  Gone with the Wind (D)*

1940 Fantasia (C)

1941  Citizen Kane (D)

1943  Casablanca (D)*

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1946  It’s a Wonderful Life (D)

1951  The African Queen (D)

1952  Singin’ In The Rain (C)

1954  Rear Window (T)

1954  On the Waterfront (D)*

1955  Rebel Without a Cause (D)

1954  Seven Samurai (D)@

1956  The Ten Commandments (D)

1957  The Bridge on the River Kwai (D)*

20121210051712!Sleeping_beauty_disney1957  12 Angry Men (D)

1958  Vertigo (T)

1959  Ben-Hur (A)*

1959  Sleeping Beauty (C)

1960  Psycho (T)

1961  West Side Story (C)*

1961  101 Dalmatians (C)

1961  Breakfast at Tiffany’s (D)

1962  To Kill a Mockingbird (D)

Screen shot 2013-02-23 at 6.03.20 PM

1962  Lawrence of Arabia (D)*

1964  Mary Poppins (C)

1964  My Fair Lady (C)*

1964  Dr. Strangelove (C)

1964 Goldfinger (A) and the entire Bond franchise, especially 1965 Thunderball (A) and 2006  Casino Royale (A)

1965  The Sound of Music (C)*

1966 The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (D)

1967  Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (D)

1967  The Graduate (D)

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1967  The Jungle Book (C)

1968  2001: A Space Odyssey (F)

1969  In the Heat of the Night (D)*

1969  Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (A)

1971  Fiddler on the Roof (C)

1972  The Godfather (D)* and 1974 The Godfather 2 (D)*

1973  The Exorcist (T)

1973  The Sting (C)*

1973  American Graffiti (D)

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1974  Chinatown (D)*

1975  One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (D)*

1975  Jaws (F)

1976  Monty Python and the Holy Grail (C)

1976  Rocky (D)*

1976  Taxi Driver (D)

1977  Star Wars: A New Hope (F) and 1980 The Empire Strikes Back (F)

1977  Annie Hall (C)*

raiders_of_the_lost_ark_ver1_xlg1978  National Lampoon’s Animal House (C)

1979  Apocalypse Now (D)

1979  Alien (F) and 1986 Aliens (F)

1980  Raging Bull (D)

1981  Raiders of the Lost Ark (A) and 1989 Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (A)

1981  Chariots of Fire (D)*

1982  Blade Runner (T)

1982  Tootsie (C)

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1982  E. T. The Extra-Terrestrial (F)

1984  Amadeus (D)*

1984  Beverly Hills Cop (C)

1984  Ghostbusters (C)

1985 The Breakfast Club (D)@

1985  Back to the Future (C)

1985  The Color Purple (D)

1986  Top Gun (A)

1986  Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (F)  The best of the highly influential franchise… so far. (J.J. Abrams could change that.)

schindlers_list

1986  Ferris Bueller’s Day Off  (C)

1987  The Princess Bride (C)

1988  Rain Man (D)*

1989  Dead Poets Society (D)

1989  Field of Dreams (F)

1989  Do the Right Thing (D)

1989  Driving Miss Daisy (D)*

1990  Dances with Wolves (D)*

1990  Pretty Woman (D)

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1991  Terminator 2: Judgment Day (F)

1991  Beauty and the Beast (F)

1991  The Silence of the Lambs (D)*

1992  A Few Good Men (D)

1992  Unforgiven (A)*

1993  Groundhog Day (C)

1993  Jurassic Park (F)

1993  Schindler’s List (D)*

1994  Forrest Gump (D)*

Screenshot 2014-03-02 23.59.401994  Pulp Fiction (D)

1994  Shawshank Redemption (D)

1994  The Lion King (C)

1995  Braveheart (A)*

1995 The Usual Suspects (D) @

1995  Toy Story (C) and the entire Toy Story trilogy.

1996  Jerry Maguire (D)

1996  Fargo (D)

1998  Saving Private Ryan (A)

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1996  Independence Day (T)

1997  Men in Black (C)

1997  Good Will Hunting (D)

1997  Titanic (D)*

1998  American History X  (D)

1999  American Beauty (D)*

1999  Fight Club (A)

1999  The Matrix (F)

1999  The Sixth Sense (T)

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2000  Gladiator (A)*

2000 Memento (D)@

2001  Shrek (C) and the entire Shrek franchise.

2001  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (F) and the entire Harry Potter series.

2001 Serendipity (C)@

2003 The Return of the King (F)* and the rest of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy: 2001 The Fellowship of the Ring (F) and 2002 The Two Towers (F). (Okay, it’s only been 11 years since the last LOTR film, but I think it’s safe to say that Peter Jackson’s majestic adaptation of Tolkien’s classic will hit a very high DCI mark. )

 

Films on the Deeper Culture Impact ‘watch list’

Screen shot 2013-02-24 at 12.58.13 PMI suspect many of these films will grow into DCI films, but it is still too early to tell. After all, we have to wait at least twelve years!

2002  My Big Fat Greek Wedding (C)

2002  Spider-Man (F), the entire Spider-Man Trilogy and even the new franchise starting with 2012 The Amazing Spider-Man (F) series.

2003  Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl  (A) at least as part of the entire Pirates franchise.

2003  Finding Nemo (C)

2004  The Passion of the Christ (D)

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2004  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (F)2005  Crash (D)*

2005  The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (F) (The weakness of the other completed films in the franchise stands in the way of Chronicles (the movie) having the same high DCI as Lewis’s books.)

2006  The Departed (D)*

2007  No Country for Old Men (D)*

2007  Juno (D) (If the Juno Effect has cultural staying power this could end up being one of the top DCI films of all time.)

2008  The Dark Knight (F) and the entire Dark Knight trilogy is definitely going to make the DCI list.

Inception poster

2008  Slumdog Millionaire (D)*

2009  The Hangover (C)

2009  Avatar (F)

2009  The Blind Side (D)

2010 Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (C)@

2010  Inception (F)

2011  The Help (D)

2011 The Intouchables (D)@

2012  The Avengers (F) and the entire Marvel Avengers franchise, especially 2008 Iron Man (F), 2013 Iron Man 3 (F), 2011 Thor (F), and 2013 Thor II: The Dark World (F)

2012  The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and 2013 The Desolation of Smaug (F)

2012 Django Unchained (D)

2012 Life of Pi (F)

2012 The Hunger Games (F), 2013 The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and most likely the entire series.

 

 

It’s a Wonderful Life and the Courage to Live (and Create Art) Idealistically

Part 3 of 3-part series on It’s a Wonderful Life: Click here for Part 1.

Capra’s Christmas story came into my life just when I needed it most.

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

In the fantasy tale Crow and Weasel,  Badger declares: “If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.”[1]  It’s a Wonderful Life has been just such a story for me.

George Bailey experiences his personal “triumphal entry” into Bedford Falls

Sue and I were spending Christmas Eve far from family and friends, holed up in a downtown hotel in Kansas City, MO on one of the coldest nights on record. We had just made some of the most momentous decisions of our life. We would not return to China where we had thought we would spend our entire careers. We would not accept a prestigious internship that may have launched my career, but would have kept Sue and I apart for nearly a year. Instead, we would devote our lives to serving God as missionaries, not to a foreign country, but to a generation—young intellectuals, artists, and leaders who would shape the world for good.

To say that it was an idealistic decision is a gross understatement. We were going, “All in” to pursue a dream of cultural transformation that was hard to articulate without sounding crazy. Many friends, family members, bosses, and mentors simply didn’t understand. Frankly, we weren’t we sure we understood. Yet we were certain we were following God’s leading (at least as certain as two doubting idealists living in a physicalist culture can be.) So we talked our idealistic talk over a marvelous dinner in a famous KC steakhouse, prayed our idealistic prayers, and climbed into bed.

Enter It’s a Wonderful Life

Mindlessly, I flipped on the TV. A black and white image of two constellations talking to each other slowly materialized on the screen. Why we didn’t change channels I’ll never know, but slowly the magic of Frank Capra’s film drew us in. Instantly we identified with George and Mary Bailey and their struggle to live out their idealism in a world that seemed determined to beat it out of them. We were transfixed. It was our story. Here was a couple who kept taking punch after punch on the chin, but also kept pursuing their idealistic dream for the benefit of others, all the while wondering they were actually making any difference at all.

It was a holy moment. We wondered aloud if God wasn’t somehow using Capra’s story to communicate something of the kind of life our decisions would lead to. Boy, were we ever right.  Since that cold Kansas City night our long and winding journey from Big Ten universities, to Christian schools, to the Ivy League, and now Hollywood has proven to be even more of a challenge than we could have ever imagined. And when things have been their darkest, we have returned to the story of It’s a Wonderful Life again and again.

I know it is a bit melodramatic, but I’m not sure we would have made it this far without George Bailey’s example of self-sacrificing idealism vindicated by God’s direct intervention in the physicalist world. George and Mary Bailey were true two-handed warriors. Watching how their small idealistic decisions added up to the profound cultural influence fills my heart with strength to do the right thing on a day-to-day basis.  And in our darkest hours, just knowing that there is a God and his angels and a great cloud of witnesses looking on, helps us pray, “Lord, help me live again.”

So what lessons can modern day two handed warriors draw from Capra’s tale.  Let me propose three.

Don’t lose your idealist nerve.

The first lesson is just for filmmakers aspiring to both culture-making and faith-building, and it is this: Don’t lose your idealist nerve. By rooting his film in present-day America (at least it was present-day in 1946), Capra went against the trend of his day to express a theistic worldview only in “Bible films.” By portraying a clear and unmistakable (if comic) divine intervention, Capra went against the trend of his day to limit modern-day religious faith to the private subjective realm.[2] (See, Capra’s Saga of a Depressed Idealist.)

In an era when “magical” intervention in the physical world was established as a Hollywood staple, divine intervention is nearly completely missing. This is not to say that filmmakers of faith should never set their films in a physicalist worldview, or resort to a historical, fantasy, and even horror genres to convey their themes,[3] only that Capra’s courage to root George Bailey’s idealism in the radical repudiation of skeptical physicalism through the supernatural in-breaking of God is what is so desperately lacking in today’s films.  If filmmakers of faith won’t make divinely supernatural films, who will?

Certainly this kind of two-handed filmmaking will require remarkable wisdom and audacity. Wisdom, because physicalist Hollywood will automatically categorize any film with a supernatural element as “Fantasy.” (In fact, AFI now lists It’s a Wonderful Life as a “Fantasy Film.”) Physicalist (especially nihilist) films are held in such high honor in this town that nearly everything else is often viewed as “sentimental hogwash” (except when it is time to balance the budget.)  Making films that are both excellent and idealist and even theistic will be an incredible challenge, but I believe it can be done, because it has been done. Gladiator is a recent idealist example, even if it was a period piece.[4]

The truly audacious thing will be if someone follows Capra’s lead and manages to make a critically-acclaimed and commercially-viable theistic idealist film set it in present-day America. It will have to be a spectacular, genre-bending effort, but as Flannery O’Conner put so eloquently:

“When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”[5]

It will take the kind of courage Capra demonstrated in making Wonderful Life, and like Capra, it might take years for such courage to be vindicated on the earth, or in heaven. But is that any reason not to try?

In my life journey, I NEEDED a story like Capra’s “more than food to stay alive.” I don’t think I’m alone. But who will make the films that will sustain the next generation of two-handed warriors?  Only filmmakers like Capra with the courage to live idealistically. Is that you?

Don’t rely on Idealism alone

The second lesson I’d like to draw from Capra’s classic is for those of us–like Ricky Gervais–who are stuck between idealism we intuit to be “true” and physicalism we face with our senses everyday. (See, Ricky Gervais and Sentimental Hogwash.) Let’s be honest, some of us are way too idealistic.  We ground our faith in the unseen realm in such a way that our faith is little more than an existential and/or postmodern personal preference. Then, when someone criticizes or critiques our faith with data from the world of sense perceptions we defensively label them an “enemy of the faith.”  Perhaps they are. But isn’t it more likely that they are simply a skeptical physicalist waiting for us to provide a demonstration of the in-breaking of the idealist world into this “present evil age.” Maybe they aren’t rejecting our faith so much as the shallow level of experience we’re basing it on.

Jesus never asked his followers to judge the truth-claims of his message based upon “pie-in-the-sky bye-and-bye” idealism. He asked them to base it upon the ideals of the kingdom of God breaking into the physical world through the “miracles” of supernatural answers to prayer (John 14:12).

Until Christ followers live lives marked by supernatural power and sacrificial love, I’m afraid that the Ricky Gervais’s of the world are going to have a very hard time taking our truth claims very seriously. Roman Emperor Julian despised the Christ followers of his day, yet he could no escape the reality of their faith in their lives when he confided in a friend:

“…the kindness of Christians to strangers, their care for the burial of their dead, and the sobriety of their lifestyle has done the most to advance their cause… these impious Galileans support our poor in addition to their own… outdoing us in good deeds while we ourselves are disgraced by laziness.”[6]

Sounds like a perfect description of George and Mary Bailey to me. Yet, I mean no disrespect when I say that many of the “media leader Christians” I encounter today remind me more of Mr. Potter than George Bailey. In their preoccupation with wealth and political power, their lives and their careers seem just as dominated by “me, me, me” as any other (nihilistic) physicalist. Is it any wonder that the Ricky Gervais’s of the world have a hard time believing the message we preach?

Co-labor with God

The third lesson I’d like to draw from It’s a Wonderful Life is for all two-handed warriors—whether you labor in the Ivy League, Hollywood, Wall Street, or Main Street—Don’t allow the story of skeptical physicalism to deter you from seeking to co-labor with God in the in-breaking of his kingdom in the world. Follow George Bailey’s lead and grow a pair. We might just live to see our work transform our own culture every bit as much George and Mary’s self-sacrificing idealism transformed Bedford Falls.  But even if we never see the full result of our idealistic actions on earth, we must live our lives the way we will wish we had lived them on that day when we finally will see our life from God’s perspective—because someday we will.

It’s highly unlikely we’ll ever get a George Bailey-esque  ‘advance screening’ of our life’s work. Yet Paul of Tarsus assures us that we will “all appear before the viewing seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10). To be a true two handed warrior is to live for that heavenly red carpet affair, more than for its pale imitation at the Kodak theatre each year.

That day is the one when we want the Lord himself (and not some mere angel) to declare, “Well done, you good and faithful servant! You’ve really had a wonderful life.”

Merry Christmas!

Gary & Sue Stratton

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

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 

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

Crash goes the Worldview: Why Worldview Transformation Requires Changing Scripts

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

 

 

Notes

[1] Barry Holstun Lopez, Crow and Weasel (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990).

[2] Look for a future post on the fascinating relationship between worldview and film genre.

[3] Such as Academy Award nominees, The Robe (1953), and The Ten Commandments (1956), and Oscar-winner Ben-Hur (1959).

[4] Look for a future post on Gladiator.

[5] Flannery O’Connor, Robert Fitzgerald, and Sally Fitzgerald, Mystery and Manners (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1961). Italics mine.

[6] Julian Caesar, “Letter to Arsacius,” Based in part on the translation of Edward J. Chinnock, A Few Notes on Julian and a Translation of His Public Letters (London: David Nutt, 1901) pp. 75-78 as quoted in D. Brendan Nagle and Stanley M. Burstein, The Ancient World: Readings in Social and Cultural History (Englewood Cliffs, NJ; Prentice Hall, 1995) pp. 314-315. Introduction and e-text copyright 2005 by David W. Koeller timemaster@thenagain.info. All rights reserved.

Capra’s Tale of a Depressed Idealist: It’s a Wonderful Life, Part 2, by Gary David Stratton, PhD

Part 6 of: Hollywood & Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Through the Stories We Live By

From a worldview perspective, George is asking God–who has never been more than an otherworldly ideal to him–to directly intervene in his physicalist world.

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

The depressed idealist at home: “You call this a happy home? Why do we have to have all these kids?”

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) provides a wonderful expression of the complicated interplay between the macro-worlviews of Physicalism and Idealism as life-interpreting stories in the life of its main character, George Bailey. At the outset of the film George is caught in the vice between these two warring worldviews. He is an idealist at heart, anxious for freedom from the physicalism of running the family business where his father is trapped “spending all your life trying to figure out how to save three cents on a length of pipe.”  However, after his father’s untimely death, his own idealistic commitment to save the Bailey Building and Loan locks George into an ongoing struggle between these two powerful worldviews. Day after day he labors in the physicalist world of dollars and cents, while steadfastly maintaining his idealistic commitment to honesty, compassion, and justice.

George is a typical modern in that he simply cannot resolve the tension between physicalism and idealism. While the intuited ideals passed to him by his family’s worldview are strong enough to shape his own life, the dualistic skepticism imparted to him by his broader culture is dissolving his confidence that his ideals are actually making any difference in the physical world. Even a lifelong romance with his ever-ebullient wife Mary (Donna Reed) isn’t enough to stem George’s growing angst.

Physicalism at its worst

It is important to recognize how Capra sets up the conflict between George Bailey and the main opposing character, Mr. Potter: “the wealthiest man in town.” Potter (Lionel Barrymore) is the very incarnation of physicalism in its most devastating form—nihilism. To him, there is no meaning in his universe save his own will to dominate others through the power of his wealth.  Early in the film, George contrasts his father’s idealist view of human beings with Potter’s nihilistic perspective:

George: People were human beings to him, but to you, 
 a warped frustrated old man, they're cattle.
.

To Potter, men like Peter and George Bailey and their “so called ideals” are simply poor businessmen unwilling to dominate those around them for self-gain. Their idealism is nothing but “sentimental hogwash!”

George the idealist is able to smell out and resist Potter’s financial temptations

Potter will stop at nothing to get his hands on the Building and Loan—coercion, intimidation, seduction.  Yet, nothing succeeds. As a “steadfast main character,” George holds onto his ideals despite of the growing physical proof that his ideals have failed him.

The film’s defining moment arrives when George’s business partner, Uncle Billy, loses a $8,000 bank deposit. (Actually, Potter steals it.) Crushed between the physicalist realities of “bankruptcy and scandal and prison.” George chooses the idealist value of self-sacrifice and takes the blame for the shortfall. Finally surrendering to Potter’s domination, George asks his wealthy enemy for a loan.  Seizing the moment, Potter not only refuses to help, he swears out a warrant for George’s arrest. But before he does, he trashes George’s entire life story in a devastating radical physicalist appraisal of the failure of George’s ideals:

Potter: You once called me a warped, frustrated old man. 
What are you but a warped, frustrated, young man? 
A miserable little clerk, crawling in here on your hands 
and knees and begging for help. No securities––no stocks––
no bonds––nothing but a miserable little $500 
equity in a life insurance policy. [laughs] 
You're worth more dead than alive.
 .
George the depressed idealist pleads with Potter for his financial life.

With nowhere else to turn, George makes the ultimate Idealist leap and turns to the one person in Bedford Falls he hopes might be more powerful than Mr. Potter: God. For the first time we see that George’s ideals are rooted not just in his family’s story, but in the broader Christian story of a theistic worldview.  While he is “not a praying man,” George reaches out to the God whose story undergirds the ideals he lives by.

Idealism Breaking In

Don’t miss the courage of how Capra sets up the solution to George Bailey’s dilemma. From a worldview perspective, George is asking for the God–who has never been more than an otherworldly ideal to him–to intervene in the physicalist world.  He is not asking for strength and courage to live out his ideals through this dark hour (as noble and important as such a prayer might be), he is asking God to reach into the physical universe and change it. He is asking God to reach out of the circle of heaven and break into the box of the earth.

With nowhere else to turn, George prays for divine intervention

George’s prayer is the very essence of Biblical theism wherein idealism and physicalism are reconnected and redeemed. George is not asking for the subjective private truth of his ideals to prevail, he is asking for objective public proof that God is alive and active in the world. In the pre-dualistic language of Jesus, he is asking for a God to exert his rulership on the earth so that “his will is done on ( the physicalist) earth as it is in (idealist) heaven.”

What’s more, Capra has insured that the audience already knows what George doesn’t: God is listening! The movie opens, not only with George’s prayer, but also the countless prayers of his family and friends flooding heaven with petitions on his behalf. While the corny constellation graphics are a bit over the top and his human-turned-angel theology flawed, Capra makes certain that audience knows that the world he has constructed in his film is inhabited not merely by physical human beings, but God, and angels, and human souls.

It is NOT a merely a physicalist world. It is an idealist one as well. They are interconnected. When a despondent George drives to the bridge to end his own miserable failure of an idealistic life, the world of ideals breaks into the physical world in the person of one very star-crossed angel–Clarence.

Clarence: You've been given a great gift, George -- 
A chance to see what the world would be like without you.
 .
God’s inbreaking? Clarence Oddbody, Angel Second Class

Needless to say, the rest of the film is slow and certain vindication of George’s idealist worldview in the physicalist world of sense perception. One-by-one, Clarence reinterprets George’s idealistic decisions on an even deeper level than George ever imagined.  George was just trying to the “right” thing. As it turns out, he was also doing the “world-changing” thing. Not only is God willing to break into the physical world by his actions; George Bailey is changing the outcome of the physical universe in the direction of the will of God by his own idealistic actions.

Capra’s vision expresses the heart and soul of Christian theistic idealism: the possibility of the knowledge of God being manifest not only in the private realm of subjective knowledge, but also in the public world of sense perception. Jesus taught his disciple to pray for the “public” manifestation of the compassion and power of God, because “through answered prayer Jesus’ students experienced God as alive and active in the physical world.” He not only proclaimed the reality of the unseen (idealist) kingdom of God, he demonstrated its reality in the (physicalist) world through supernatural answers to prayer. (See, With Prayer in the School of Christ.)

Divine “in-breaking” is a key element of  Capra’s film. Just as people could “know” that the kingdom of God was “breaking into” the kingdoms of this world through supernatural answers to prayer in Jesus’ ministry, George Bailey (and vicariously, Capra’s audience) “knows” (in Hebraic language, understands by experience) that God has broken into his world. Just as Jesus called for his followers to bet their lives on the “unseen” ideals of the kingdom on the basis of the “seen” supernatural interventions of God (John 14:11), so George Bailey reaffirms his commitment to his unseen ideals because of God’s physical intervention in his life. As Clarence concludes:

Clarence: You see George, you've really had a wonderful life. 
Don't you see what a mistake it would be to just throw it away?
 .
George’s second prayer is the movie’s transforming moment

Capra’s moral premise is clear: despite strong physical evidence to the contrary, living in the light of idealism is “a wonderful life,” because those ideals are rooted in God himself. It is worth being an idealist even in a world dominated by physicalism, because as important as the physical world is, it is not all there is. They are interconnected in ways that George’s dualism (and skeptical hold upon his idealism) prevented him from ever imagining.  [1]

Next: It’s a Wonderful Life #3: The Courage to Live (and Create Art) Idealistically

.

Notes

[1] I am fairly confident that, like most artists, Capra intuited these worldview issues and expressed them in his art far beyond what he could have explained philosophically. For more insight into the concept of a “moral premise,” see, Stanley D. Williams, The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue & Vice for Box Office Success (Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 2006).

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

Part 5 of:  Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Through the Stories We Live By

Like George Bailey and Ricky Gervais, we all eventually find ourselves wondering: Is there a reward for knowing and trying to do the right thing? (Either in heaven or on earth) Or, is it all a waste of time?

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

“Why don’t I believe in God? No, no no, why do YOU believe in God? Surely the burden of proof is on the believer.” – Ricky Gervais

Ricky Gervais’s God jokes as host of  the last two Golden Globe Awards and his Wall Street Journal essay, “Why I’m An Atheist” provide perfect backdrops for examining one of Hollywood’s most famous attempts to defend Theism–It’s a Wonderful Life.  (Plus, it is one of my All-Time Favorite Christmas Movies.)

Hollywood legend Frank Capra made It’s a Wonderful Life specifically to, in his words, “combat a modern trend toward atheism.” [1] This certainly appears to make Gervais his ideal target audience. Yet, Capra’s approach to combating atheism was in no way as simplistic as one would expect. It’s a Wonderful Life is not only one of the best Christmas movies of all time, it is also a remarkable example of using worldview conflict to construct a compelling story… and live a wonderful life. Students seeking to understand worldview and filmmakers seeking to make culture-influencing movies would be wise to pay careful attention.

Currently #20 on the presitigious American Film Academy's Top 100 All Time Movies
Currently #20 on the prestigious American Film Academy’s Top 100 All Time Movies

Ironically, much like its main character, George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), It’s a Wonderful Life entered midlife as an apparent failure.[2] Before its release, Capra believed it to be his greatest film. However, after a disappointing box office, and a complete shut out at the Oscars,[3] Liberty Films didn’t even bother to renew the copyright for “Capra’s masterpiece” when it expired in 1974.

This lapse in judgment proved to be precisely the angelic intervention It’s a Wonderful Life needed. Television networks turned to the now public domain (i.e. “free”) film to fill their desperate need for cheap programming in the slow holiday season. Soon “a whole new generation of movie-lovers fell in love with the previously-obscure release.” [4] Capra had the last laugh when the film grew to become a beloved classic, now regarded by the American Film Institute as one of the 20 best films ever made.

Much of the greatness of It’s a Wonderful Life stems from Capra’s deliberate use of worldview conflict in the film. (Don’t worry, I won’t ruin your Christmas buzz with a bunch of philosophical mumbo-jumbo, but this first part is important). When philosophers speak of a “worldview” they actually mean more than one thing: micro-worldviews and macro-worldviews.[5]

At the micro level, a worldview is a description of the stories that shape the principles that support the conventions that an individual uses to make their daily decisions. (See, Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview). The problem is, nobody’s worldview is actually “personal.” While we each have unique experiences that form the backbone of the “story of our life,” we interpret these experiences through the stories transmitted to us by our larger cultures.[6] (See, Crash Goes the Worldview). Our personal micro-worldview rests within concentric circles of larger and larger macro-worldviews. In other words, (1) my (micro) worldview rests mostly within, (2) my family’s (slightly less micro) worldview, which rests mostly within (3) my sub-culture’s (even less micro) worldview, and (4) my current society’s (more macro) worldview, and (5) my historic civilization’s (macro) worldview.

While it is a gross oversimplification, you could say that the history of Western civilization has been comprised of the interplay of two key macro-worldviews: what I will call physicalism and idealism.

The ‘Box’ of Physicalism

Legendary Physicalist, Carl Sagan, “The universe is all there is and all there will ever be.”

Physicalism is a macro worldview that roots our understanding of reality in the physical world.[7] Physicalism starts with what you can see, feel, touch, and taste as the only “really real” things in the world.[8] If you can measure something’s length, weigh its mass, or quantify it in some way, then it is a reliable source of knowledge.

The worldview of physicalism can best symbolized by a BOX, because in physicalism the “closed system” of the material universe is pretty much all you can rely on. You can extrapolate from sense perceptions of the visible universe to a “spiritual” world, but every effect in the physical universe owes its existence to a cause within the physical universe. As cosmologist and the original host of Cosmos (PBS) put so eloquently, “The universe is all there is and all that there will ever be.”

This makes physicalism perfect for scientific experimentation. A laboratory technician wouldn’t be able to maintain a proper relationship between experimental variables if they had to account for factors from outside the physical universe messing with their data.  A medical researcher who used ‘angelic intervention’ as a factor in studying the effects of an antibiotic on staph infections would be laughed out of the scientific community. Good experiments require the “closed box” provided by physicalism.

Ricky Gervais’ Wall Street Journal essay is a beautiful example of using the logic of scientific physicalism to defend a broader philosophical proposition-namely atheism. Ricky explained the rationale for his lack of faith by asserting, “I don’t believe in God because there is absolutely no scientific evidence for his existence and from what I’ve heard the very definition is a logical impossibility in this known universe… (Science) bases its conclusions and beliefs on hard evidence…” By “hard” evidence, Ricky means things you can touch, taste, see, and measure.  If there is no “hard” physicalist evidence for God, then he won’t believe it. It is a common position for modern physicalists (more below.)

The ‘Circle’ of Idealism

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) the transcendental idealist: "All human knowledge begins with intuitions, proceeds from thence to concepts, and ends with ideas.”
Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) the transcendental idealist: “All human knowledge begins with intuitions, proceeds from thence to concepts, and ends with ideas.”

Idealism is a worldview that roots our understanding of reality in the world of ideas, values, spirits, and/or gods. Idealism starts with what you cannot see, touch, taste, see or feel as the only “really real” things in the world. You can’t weigh a pound of love, or measure a mile of justice, or put a soul in a beaker, yet idealists view these intuited unseen ideals as what really matters. As Immanuel Kant asserted, “All human knowledge begins with intuitions, proceeds from thence to concepts, and ends with ideas.”

The worldview of idealism is best symbolized by a CIRCLE. Normally this circle surrounds the box of the physical universe, because in idealism the physical universe exists within the broader field of unseen realities.[9] This makes idealism perfect for, say, artists and lovers. Everyone “knows” that beauty and love are what make life worth living, even if you can’t quantify them. To reduce love to mere chemical reactions, or art to the properties of sculptor’s materials is neither romantic, inspiring, nor “real.”

Idealists look beyond the hard realities of the physical world and point to something they view as much more “real.” When the Beatles sing, “All you need is love,” or Jean Valjean declares in Les Miserables, “To love another person is to see the face of God,” they are giving voice to an idealist worldview. They are not appealing to hard physical evidence, but to an ideal so ‘intuitively true’ they need no “proof.” When Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” or MLK declared, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” they were appealing to truth claims beyond the physical world and calling others toward them as ultimate realities.

A 2500-Year War

The struggle between these two worldviews is at least as old as the study of philosophy. Plato (and later Augustine and Kant) advocated for idealism, while Aristotle (and later Aquinas and Hume) sided with physicalism.  Neither side ever scored a decisive victory, yet the philosophical underpinnings of each era of Western history can often be described by the relationship between the two at a given cultural moment.

George Bailey: The young idealist years

For over 2000 years, Muslims, Jews, and Christians used both Idealism and Physicalism to support their faith. For Christians, the Hebraic worldview Jesus inherited from his Jewish heritage was more or less free from the dualism of having to choose between these two sources of knowledge. Truth was found both in the invisible God and in his visible creation. Faith-building and culture-making were therefore two sides of the same coin.

However, as the early church became less and less Jewish and more and more Greek, dualism began to plague the church. Idealism held the upper hand in ancient Greco-Roman society and nearly overwhelmed early Christianity with a radical form of Idealism known as Gnosticism. Augustine and other key thinkers restored sanity through a more moderate form of Idealism that helped salvage Christianity when the Roman empire fell. Physicalism began to gain serious traction in Middle Ages when both Muslims and Christians (such as Aquinas) began to use Aristotle’s physicalist philosophy to defend their faith. While increasingly disconnected by the “either-or” dualism of Greek thought, both idealism and physicalism remained key elements of both a God-centered view of the world as well as a number of attempts to support atheism.

The Rise of Radical Skepticism

Unfortunately, the Enlightenment gave birth to a “pervasive and astringent skepticism” that began to “dissolve” both Physicalism and Idealism (and any hope of reconnecting them.) [10] Physicalists lost confidence first in their sense perceptions, and then in their ability to extrapolate from the physical world into the spiritual. Idealists began to doubt that their own thoughts and intuitions were anything more than their own inventions (or the inventions of their community) so that there was no spiritual world “out there” only my own ideas and perspectives “in here.”

To skeptical Physicalists like Mr. Potter, the Idealistic world is nothing but, “Sentimental hogwash!”

Skepticism quickly demoted Idealism to the ranks of second class truth, enthroning a weakened and highly dualistic form of Physicalism at the center of Western thought. When a modern Westerner says that something is objectively true, we mean that it is true from a Physicalist perspective. It is something that can be verified with the physical senses.

By contrast, when we say that something is subjectively true we mean that it is “merely” an ideal–something that an individual subject (person) holds to be true, but which cannot be physically verified. Ideals are therefore second class citizens in the world of truth. Idealist (subjective) knowledge has been assigned to the back of the bus as “private” knowledge. While physicalist (objective) knowledge is driving the bus of “public” knowledge.

A Comedian’s Circular (Logic) Dilemma

Whether he realizes it or not, this is exactly why Ricky Gervais, like many physicalist moderns, has to so much trouble with Theism–it simply doesn’t make any sense from his starting point of skeptical physicalism. When Gervais exclaims, “People who believe in God don’t need proof of his existence, and they certainly don’t want evidence to the contrary,” he is giving voice to an extremely common view of faith.  Those damnable believers are appealing to knowledge derived from outside the realm of physical verifiability. Gervais continues,

“Why don’t I believe in God? No, no no, why do YOU believe in God? Surely the burden of proof is on the believer.”

And he’s right, of course, at least from a skeptical physicalist perspective.  Which is precisely the problem. He’s right back to where he started.

He begins with the presupposition that your physical senses are the only thing you can only trust, and ends up right thinking that anyone who believes in something you can’t access with your physical senses is crazy. As Gervais explains, “I don’t think there is a god, but belief in him does no harm. If it helps you in any way, then that’s fine with me.” In skeptical physicalist thinking, ideals might be personally helpful to some, but as truth-claims they are, “Sentimental Hogwash!

George Bailey ponders his failure at Gervais’s ideals, “It’s knowing that I try to do the right thing. That I lived a good life.”

However, even Gervais has to resort to idealism to guide how he actually lives his life. The same skeptical physicalism that can be so helpful in a laboratory, can be an extremely unsatisfying way of life. As James Davidson Hunter explains, “radical skepticism leading to radical nihilism is, of course, rare… for the simple reason that it is unlivable.”  Even Gervais resorts to very Idealist and Intuitive (and therefore unprovable) concepts of ‘right’ and ‘good’ in order to direct his life: “My reward is here and now. It’s knowing that I try to do the right thing. That I lived a good life.”

Enter George Bailey

Which is, of course, exactly what George Bailey is striving for in It’s a Wonderful Life. Like Gervais, George Bailey only wants to live a good life here and now. However, like most of us in the postmodern world, the crushing realities of skeptical physicalism are squeezing the life out of our weakened idealism.

Like George Bailey (and Ricky Gervais), we all eventually find ourselves wondering: Is there a reward for knowing and trying to do the right thing? (Either in heaven or on earth) Or, is it all a waste of time? Like Gervaise, we simply cannot reconcile belief in God with the ideals of truth and honesty we strive for. Like George Bailey, we simply cannot reconcile the ideals for which we live with the harsh realities of our day-to-day existence.

Caught in the vise between nihilistic physicalism and sentimental idealism there seems to be nowhere to turn.  Which is, of course, exactly where Capra wants us.

Next: Capra’s Tale of a Depressed Idealist, It’s a Wonderful Life, Part 2

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 

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

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

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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

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Notes


[1] Stephen Cox, It’s a Wonderful Life: A Memory Book (Nashville, Tenn: Cumberland House, 2003), p. 27.

[2] Frank Capra, Frances Goodrich, James Stewart, Donna Reed, et al, It’s a Wonderful Life (Hollywood, Calif: Paramount Home Entertainment, 2006).

[3] Failing to win even a single Oscar despite nominations in the five categories

[4] James Berardinelli, ReelMovies.net.

[5] Or rather, two ways of looking at the same thing.

[6] These society-wide macro worldviews exert a tremendous influence on our daily lives, even when we aren’t aware of them.

[7] How we know things, or “epistemology.”

[8] James W. Sire identifies nine macro worldviews currently influencing Western culture: predominantly physicalist worldviews, such as Naturalism, Nihilism, and Post-modernism; Predominantly idealist worldviews such as, Christian Theism, Islamic Theism and Eastern Pantheistic Monism, and hybrids, such as Existentialism, Deism, and the New Age movement. The Universe Next Door: A Basic World View Catalog(Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009).

[9] In worldviews such as Monism, the circle actually subsumes the box.

[10] See James Davidson Hunter’s masterful take on “dissolution” in To change the world: the irony, tragedy, and possibility of Christianity in the late modern world. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 205-210.

All-Time ‘Deep Culture Impact’ Films

Part of 13 series: Hollywood & Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Thru Academy Award-winning Film

I love The King’s Speech, and would vote for it as Best Picture (if  had a vote), but based upon what I’ve learned from past films, I suspect that another film will have greater ‘deep culture’ impact upon the next generation.

by Gary David Stratton, Senior Editor

Nearly two decades of using film to teach worldview to undergraduate students has resulted in a few surprises in which films have had the deepest cultural impact on a generation. (See, High Culture, Pop Culture, What about ‘Deep Culture’?)The list below is in no way infallible, but it sure could get a good conversation going.

Key: A-Action/Adventure, C-Comedy, D-Drama, F-Fantasy/Science Fiction, T-Thriller/Horror, *-Academy Award Winner

1939  The Wizard of Oz (F)

1943  Casablanca(D)*

1946  It’s a Wonderful Life(D)

1954Rear Window (T)

1959  Ben-Hur(D)*

1968  2001: A Space Odyssey (F),

1971 Fiddler on the Roof(M)

1972  The Godfather(D)* and The Godfather 2 (D)*

1973The Exorcist (T)

1973  The Sting (C)*[1]

1974  Chinatown (D)*

1975 One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (D)*

1975  Jaws(D)

1976Rocky(D)

1977  Star Wars: A New Hope (F) & 1980  The Empire Strikes Back(F)

1979  Alien (T), and 1986 Aliens(T)

1981  Raiders of the Lost Ark(F) and 1989 Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (F)

1981  Chariots of Fire(D)*

1982  E. T. The Extra-Terrestrial(F)

1982  The Godfather(D)*, and The Godfather 2 (D)*

1984  Amadeus (D)*

1984  Ghostbusters(C)

1986  Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (F) The of the best highly influential franchise… so far.

1987  The Princess Bride(C)

1989  Dead Poets Society(D)

1990  Dances with Wolves (D)*

1991 Terminator 2: Judgment Day (F)

1991  Beauty and the Beast (F)

1993  Groundhog Day(C)

1993  Schindler’s List (D)

1994  Forrest Gump(D)*

1994  Pulp Fiction (T)

1994  Shawshank Redemption(D)

1994  The Lion King(F)

1995  Braveheart (A)*

1997  Good Will Hunting (D)

1997  Titanic (D)*

1998  Saving Private Ryan(A)

1999  American Beauty (D)*

1999  Fight Club (A)

1999  The Matrix(F)

1999  The Sixth Sense(T)

2000  Gladiator(A)*

2001  The Lord of the Rings Trilogy: The Fellowship of the Ring(F), 2002  The Two Towers (F), and 2003  The Return of the King (F)*

2002  Spider-Man(F)

2004  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind(F)

2005  Crash (D)*

2008  Slumdog Millionaire(D)*

2008  The Dark Knight (F) and the entire Batman franchise [3]

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And… drum roll please… my pick (educated guess) for which of the TEN films nominated for 2011 Best Picture will have the greatest long-term deep culture impact…

2010  Inception (F)

I love The King’s Speech, and would vote for it as Best Picture (if  had a vote), but based upon what I’ve learned from past films, I suspect that Inception’s imaginative story and evocative images have the best chance of actually shaping “the stories we live by” as a culture.

What films did I miss?

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Next Post in Series: The Blind Side Leading the Blind: Better Faith-Based Filmmaking through Better Stories

 


[1] Probably should be a double mention for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid(1969), since I’m not sure The Sting would have won if voters hadn’t realized they blew it in the first Newman/Redford movie.

[2] Other than perhaps the J.J. Abrams’ updates.

[3] Honorable Mentions: Back to the Future (1985), Field of Dreams (1989), Pretty Woman (1990), A Few Good Men (1992), Jerry Maguire (1996), Independence Day (1996), A Knight’s Tale (2001), The Departed (2006)*, Little Miss Sunshine (2006), Juno(2007), Up in the Air (2009), Avatar(2009), Toy Story 3 and the entire Toy Story trilogy.