About four years ago, I watched the movie Blue Valentine. It was easily one of the saddest movies I had ever seen. The bleak message of the movie is that love won’t last and people won’t live up to your expectations. The movie juxtaposes the story of two young and hopeful lovers with the disappointment and cynicism of their older selves later in life. I walked away from it feeling deeply unsettled by the world that it was trying to convince me of.
Great movies reveal something true to their audience. They won’t make you feel sadness for the sheer sake of it, and the same goes for happiness. While some movies explore realities that are more complex than others, I believe that every movie should uphold a sense of purpose – it should demand that questions be asked even when definite answers seem unattainable.
Blue Valentine was trying to convince me of something that I still don’t believe: namely, that love ends in disappointment. Even though I don’t believe in this message, encountering the movie’s world made me deeply unsettled and filled me with anxiety. So here’s my question: was it worth it? Did the return of insight that I gained from watching this movie trump the peace of mind that I paid to encounter it?
Earlier this week, my answer was “No way!” After conversing on this topic with an art professor from my alma mater and some thoughtful fellow graduates, my answer has changed to “I really don’t know, but probably.”
Based on these conversations, it seems like the answer boils down to three main considerations. First, we must consider the importance of the artist’s intention in the audience’s experience of the piece. Ultimately, the viewer is the arbiter of meaning while interacting with a piece; if I don’t know anything about how, why, or for whom a movie is made, I will attach my own interpretations and impressions to the piece and I will react accordingly. In the case of my Blue Valentine experience, I didn’t know going into the movie that the director had created the film as a means of working through challenges he faced as a child in a broken home. Does this new understanding of the artist’s backstory shade my understanding of the movie? Probably somewhat
Second, we must be attentive to the cause of our uneasiness. Is uneasiness the appropriate reaction to what you are seeing? For example, when watching Schindler’s List, I am rightly unsettled by the evils committed against Jews during World War II. When watching 12 Years a Slave, I am rightly unsettled by its visceral portrayal of the slave trade. In these cases, the initial reaction of uneasiness is ultimately purposeful when it becomes sympathy for human pain.
Finally, we must develop and abide by personal boundaries. I know that horror films cause me more anxiety than they’re worth, so I tend to stay away from them. Some people – police officers, doctors, lawyers – don’t like watching movies about their professions because they don’t want to think about work during leisure time. Others who have experienced certain trials in life – abandonment, cancer, loss of a family member – stay away from movies about such topics because they bring back unpleasant feelings from the past. As we grow in self-knowledge, we become more and more capable of identifying areas of sensitivity and creating personal boundaries.
I’ll admit that it is difficult to anticipate what category a movie will fall into before watching it. Trailers give us a snapshot, but some times they don’t quite hit the target on the actual issues in the movie. But we can get in the habit of asking ourselves these questions after watching movies. Over time, this will help us parse out what it means to engage with art in a way that enables us to seek and discover truth.
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).