LOS ANGELES –The annual City of Angels Film Festival shines new light on mainstream films. Faith and the struggles of urban life are connected in this festival that screens movies followed by panel discussions between theologians, critics, and industry professional.
This year's theme, "American Dreams: Life, Liberty, Pursuit of...," drew attention to "Fight Club," a film typically associated with angry men beating each other to pulps as they look for community in the wrong places.
However, Pastor and film professor Scott Young places a new take on this R rated film. Young who chairs the film festival finds in the movie a desperate search for connection among people with little else in common but meaninglessness.
Craig Detweiler, producer of the 2002 festival, believes the event is important to people of faith because of film's pervasive cultural impact and ability to raise fundamental questions about life.
"There's a spiritual conversation going on in the movie palaces," Detweiler said. Hollywood movies like the recent "Signs" and "Magnolia," he explained, "are full of profound spiritual longing and quest." American moviegoers, he added, "are clearly going on a search for ultimate answers to the ultimate question."
On its rough surface, the 1999 "Fight Club," directed by David Fincher, seems far from having any implications of faith and spiritual conversions.
The movie depicts a young professional played by Ed Norton, who has all the comforts of life, but feels a void he cannot fill. He entertains himself by visiting support groups for problems he doesn't have, and eventually meets a stranger played by Brad Pitt who introduces him to a life centered around fist fights with other men seeking for something to do. The pain the men voluntarily share through the fights become the bond linking them together.
The film festival encourages viewers to see beyond the shallow level of violence depicted in the film, to the underlying message spoken by the film about a materially prosperous, but spiritually broken generation.
"Enter the world of a man whose life is full of nothing; a 30-year-old boy who has a career, a furnished apartment and spiritual depression," writes Annette Lopez, member of the festival's executive committee, in her introduction to the film.
"We are the middle children of history, raised by television to believe that someday we'll be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars, but we won't," continues Lopez. The movie, she says, "takes us on a journey of how a man seeks improvement in self-destruction."
Young Scott, observed that the characters' desperate longing for connection, as bizarre as it seems in the movie, is the same impulse that propels Christians into the community of believers.
This year's City of the Angels theme, "American Dreams: Life, Liberty, Pursuit of...," brought together key elements from the festival's past. With Los Angeles having become "a parabolic city," to use Young's phrase, theologians and filmmakers in the area began asking in the early 1990s how movies could address not only the perplexities of the modern city, but also the fundamental issues of life.
Scott said that last fall's terrorist attacks caused a lot of Americans to rethink their identity and place in the world.
The festival's opening film, the 1939 "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," provided a starkly different view of American values and problems than "Fight Club." Starring Jimmy Stewart, the movie was directed by Frank Capra, who later directed Stewart in the Christmas classic "It's a Wonderful Life."
In the 1939 film Stewart plays Jefferson Smith, a boys' club leader appointed by a bumbling state governor to go to Washington after the state's sitting senator dies. The naive but deeply patriotic Smith confronts state graft and a gossipy Washington press before facing his crooked foes in a final heroic showdown on the Senate floor. Smith's David-and-Goliath confrontation of the establishment in the film suggests that one virtuous individual can indeed change things, Young believes.
In addition to challenging today's cynical attitudes toward government, the film also provides an alternative to strictly materialistic interpretations of the American Dream, Young said. Because Smith wants to serve rather than acquire, the film argues against the "'shop till you drop' version of the American Dream," Young explained.
Even with its buoyant idealism, the movie has a darker side, according to Detweiler. Peopled with politicians and others who sell out to wealth and influence, the film "is all about corruption at the highest levels of both the government and the press," Detweiler said. "It's about one man willing to stand up against the system and push democracy to its limits."
Barbara Nicolosi, director of a Hollywood screenwriting program and member of the festival's executive committee, believes City of the Angels fills a niche by allowing Christians to dialogue more effectively with "the art form of our time."
"The church needs to engage the serious questions that artists are raising," Nicolosi said. Though some Christians might want to avoid Hollywood altogether, she believes the Bible's command to love one's neighbor means believers cannot retreat from modern culture.
"I think a lot of the sentimental, superficial schlock ... that people are clamoring for in the church, it's not good for us," Nicolosi said. Quoting a friend, she added, "I would rather see an R-rated truth than a G-rated lie."
By Pauline J.