The Inner Journey
by Dwight Longenecker
“Remember folks,” my script writing teacher would say, “it’s called a ‘motion picture’ because the story is told by pictures moving.” He was trying to get us away from the temptation to move the story along with actors talking to each other. We were a Christian group of budding scriptwriters and he was aware of another temptation: to use the film as a sermon.
The first temptation is to move the story along with actors talking to each other. Instead the film maker tells the story visually. The master of visual storytelling is the director Steve Spielberg. The next time you watch one of Spielberg’s films observe how the story is told almost exclusively through visual means. In Schindler's List the entire character of Oskar Schindler is communicated to us in a very economical sequence at the beginning of the film as we see him getting dressed. Hands choose and then tie an expensive necktie. Fingers manipulate fine cufflinks into place. Rings are put on. A money clip is filled and pocketed. Expensive shoes are stepped into and finally we see the same manicured hands place a Nazi badge onto the lapel.
The most difficult part of the story to move along visually is the hero’s inner journey, and yet it is the hero’s inner journey that is of most interest to the audience. It is also the part of the story of most interest to the scriptwriter and director. Should the scriptwriter and director be Christian, then they want the hero to go through the inner journey of enlightenment, repentance and faith. How can these inner struggles be shown in pictures that move? By very definition the struggles are invisible. This is the challenge that will make or break a film. If it is done badly the audience become aware of what is going on; they smell a sermon coming on and they rebel against it and switch off. They do not switch off necessarily because the message is Christian, but because it is a sermon. They didn’t pay $10.00 for a sermon. They came to the movies to be entertained.
However, if the hero doesn’t go on an inner journey the audience is disappointed. They didn’t know it, but they really came for the inner journey—not just for the chase scenes, the jokes, the romance and the shoot outs. Therefore the inner journey must be crafted carefully and built into the film with utmost skill. There are several ways that film makers communicate the inner journey unsuccessfully. First is the inner monologue. They put the hero in some situation where he talks out loud about his inner struggle. He may go on a walk in the country or, like Hamlet, he may have a conversation with a ghost or some spiritual being like an angel. Worst of all, the hero is put in a church where he falls on his knees and talks out loud to a crucifix. The film writer or director attempts to communicate the inner struggle by having the hero talk about it. This doesn’t work because it is boring and because people don’t really do that. Have you ever gone into a church and talked out loud to a crucifix? I doubt it.
The second unsuccessful way of dealing with the inner struggle of the hero is to have him talk about it to a friend or mentor. This is usually only moderately more successful than the inner monologue. It only works if the friend or mentor is the sort of character who can manage the conversation with humility and usually with humor. That’s why good film makers will give the hero a wise friend who is either down to earth or funny or both. However, this technique often fails because the conversation drifts into meaningful platitudes and sickening sentimentality.
The third unsuccessful way of showing the inner struggle is to show the life of a saint. A film about St Therese of Lisieux was singularly unsuccessful in this respect, as were portions of Zeffirelli’s Brother Sun, Sister Moon. These films showed the saint working in the convent, dancing through fields of flowers, praying and agonizing in the inner struggle, but of course, the inner struggle was invisible so the audience was mystified. “What was the poor girls’ problem? Was she crazy? What was wrong with the boy? Why all the pained expressions and silly behavior?” Simply showing the outward signs of the inner struggle are actually counterproductive.
The truly artful scriptwriters and directors weave the inner journey seamlessly into the main plotline of the story. As a result, every decision the hero faces, becomes a moral decision. Every struggle he faces in the outer world is emblematic of the inner struggle. Then at the key moment, through a speech or a particularly strong image, the inner struggle comes to the forefront of the film. It comes into focus and the audience is enlightened and moved in a powerful way. In this way the film maker takes his audience on the inner journey with the hero and engages their own moral choice rather than dishing out a sermon or a series of moral platitudes.
This technique is handled superbly by Steve Spielberg in his other Second World War film. In Saving Private Ryan the hero, played by Tom Hanks, is faced with the challenge of finding a soldier behind enemy lines. Hanks’ character is tough, taciturn and intelligent. He rarely talks of the inner journey, except to speak of courage and duty. However, we see the strain in his face. We see his hands trembling with fear and illness, and in the final scene we see him lay down his life to save Private Ryan. The film closes with Ryan as an old man visiting a war cemetery to pay homage to his friend and savior. The final visual image is of a cross. Without any explicit references to the cross or Christianity, Spielberg has given us a masterpiece built around the core of the Christian message—the gospel truth that “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”
There are many excellent films which carry strongly positive moral messages. Some even carry strong religious and Christian messages. The film makers are right to weave the messages into the very fabric of the film because art imitates life, and that is what faith is all about. Faith, if it is to be real, is not just preached about in a sermon, or prayed about on our knees. To be real it has to be incarnated in the joys and the sorrows of ordinary life
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Copyright © Dwight Longenecker. All rights reserved. Dwight Longenecker is a Catholic writer and broadcaster working and living in England. Check his website
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