Film: A Redemptive Argument

Three Secrets to Box Office SuccessFilm is an argument and the exploration of the human condition. Take for instance a story about a husband and wife who both hold perspectives of the truth: his view; and, her view.

Each holds a precious and important opinion that has the right to be expressed. The expression of their heartfelt view creates conflict and a soulful stand for what is right or of value. The person and their ideas are a treasure waiting to be explored, which is the role of film story.

The conflict drives curiosity that must be satisfied within the audience. They cling to every word expressed and action taken, as they try to unravel the conflict and learn how it impacts their personal life. But from the dueling of ideals or assertions also comes the acknowledgment that not all answers to life are black and white.

In the words of philosopher Jacob Needleman, “There is always something more than two opposing truths. The whole truth always includes a third part, which is the reconciliation.”

When my family was young and my wife and I were locked in a decision making tie, we always considered that we each held only a portion or a degree of the full truth and God held the vantage point we were unable to see. By seeking his views together, we found new insights that brought all of our views into perspective.

The turning point in film accomplishes the revelation of that third perspective, bringing the two opposing viewpoints into a clear light. This gives way to a new vantage point that resolves the third act, while reconciling the husband and wife to a new world view filled with redemptive qualities. This climatic moment raises both the husband and wife to a new understanding and a better life than they could ever anticipate.

By scrutinizing the issues as they worked through the struggle, the husband and wife realized their flaws and the blessings of the other. Their passion for their outlook in life shifted into a mutual drive for the best right answer, which bonded the two during their journey. When the new perspective was finally revealed, they were both able to embrace it, reconcile with each other and agree on their next steps together in life. Their story had been redeemed.

Films that are not made as an argument ever reveal the truth about the human condition and our need for redemption. Nor do they show the struggle of opposing truths that can be resolved from that third perspective, while reconciling the characters to each other and their new world view.

Audiences are unable to pull real fixes for their personal walk in life from films that don’t start with the human condition, argue through important issues to a resolve, and come to a point of reconciliation that redeems their relationship and circumstances.

An example of a film that is out of touch with reality might be about prayer always being answered. It wouldn’t cover the other truth that not all prayers are answered. Instead of struggling through conflict created by the human condition in a search to understand how prayer works, it would fall short. The audience might go home and pray vigorously for a couple weeks, but the first sign of unanswered prayer might send them into a tailspin, or cause them to think they aren’t good enough for God to answer their prayers.

A redemptive story shows what happens when a prayer is answered and unanswered. It reveals the struggle humans go through in trying to figure out how to get their prayers “to work.” The second act is filled with emotional battles of people trying to get God onto their side, which spins the characters into a mix of opposing prayers.

It’s kind of like the last World Series Championship Game. Some people prayed for the Cubs and others prayed for the Indians. The characters in the film would have to face their feelings about their prayer being answered or unanswered, and what it was that “caused” the outcome.

But then, the third act turning point would reveal that not only was there a third perspective, but the final game in the World Series Championship turned out to be the most entertaining baseball game in the audiences lifetime. The climax of the film would show that the Cubs were redeemed from the goat curse and audiences would have to consider what they explored about prayer during the feature length journey.

As the credits rolled, the audience would better understand that prayer isn’t a connection to a catalog house waiting to deliver our next desire, but instead is a communication line to chat with the one who wrote our owners manual. The one who can help us get the right and third view on life, so we can be reconciled to live and love to the fullest.

The audience leaves the theater with hope in their hearts and a desire to better know their creator. They also leave knowing that prayer is not necessarily a quick fix, but a relational tool for understanding and expression of our needs. They might even pick up The Book to learn more. But one thing is for certain; the audience is less likely to treat prayer as a lottery ticket for life.

When done right, film is definitely an argument and the exploration of the human condition.

Copyright © 2016 by CJ Powers

Emotional Beat of Story Changes Audiences

captain-americaAnimators almost have a corner on the structural elements required to emotionally impact an audience. While all filmmakers have the same opportunity to develop emotional storytelling techniques, animators were forced to learn the skills in order to give life to inanimate objects.

I produced my first animation in college. The experience caused me to stumble upon the key elements necessary to stir the audience’s emotions. The story must contain the “what” and “how” of a character to hook the audience. The “what” is the main character’s want or what he’s fighting for. The “how” is the action it takes to obtain it.

Strong stories have a proactive main character with an internal conflict. As he chases after his “what,” he experiences the internal conflict being played out in his external world. It’s not until he solves the internal conflict that he can solve the external conflict. The decisions that he makes toward this resolution not only plays out the “how,” but it also sends him on a journey that leads him to being born again—he becomes a new person.

This rebirth is also experienced by the audience, giving them the same tools for life that the main character experiences. This new life doesn’t mean the character gets his “what,” but it does mean he gets his “need.” In other words, the character doesn’t get what he was chasing, but he gets something better. He gets what he truly needed, even if he didn’t know he needed it.

The goal of every director is to entertain the audience and once they are receptive, direct their attention to the emotional core of the story. This changes the audience’s lives. Unfortunately, most rookie directors have no idea how to get the audience invested enough into the main character that his life tools become the tools of the audience.

But it’s not a secret. The core of every story demonstrates the essence of the director’s intent, whether he is privy to his own heart or not. The choice narrative in of itself holds the key.

Seymore Chatman, an American Film and literary critic said that form or narrative structure, “communicates meaning in its own right, over and above the paraphrasable contents of its story.”

This is why films like Captain America can win more people over to ideals like God and country, wholesome living, and righteous standards than most faith-based films.

In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Steve Rogers is a “flawed man” because he lives with real and honest character traits from the 1940s. He doesn’t fit into our modern superficial politically correct society. He has to figure out if he’s going to continue living with old world ethics or change. His struggle takes us on journey. We experience people making fun of him because he doesn’t swear. He is also laughed at and makes enemies for sacrificially and unconditionally giving of himself for a friend. But by the end of the journey he decides to hold to his convictions—The audience making the same decision for their own lives.

war-roomIn the successful faith-based film, War Room, Elizabeth is not a “flawed woman,” but her husband is battling temptations. Elizabeth doesn’t have to work through any obstacles to change, she only has to learn how to pray to save her husband from temptation. As a result, Elizabeth gains one tool (the power of prayer) for her life utility belt. The audience does not accept the tool because we never see her battle and overcome obstacles that give value to the power of prayer. We see that she only needs to put in her time and God answers her prayers.

Unfortunately in real life many prayers go unanswered, or the answer is “No.” We don’t get to see Elizabeth struggle through unanswered prayers and how they change her perspective for the good, creating a greater value in prayer than a god catalog order. Having her face unanswered prayer and finding the fortitude to continue praying anyway demonstrates to the audience how important it is to pray regardless of the outcome—a tool everyone would like to have in their life utility belt.

There is, however, one controversial scene where Elizabeth speaks out loud to the devil. Some might say this is a moment of her working through a struggle to overcome adversity and reveal the power of prayer, but its not. The scene only shows that by speaking prayerfully out loud you can also succeed by causing the devil to flee. Elizabeth doesn’t overcome any flaws or grow internally through adversity in any way, thereby not passing on any life tools to the audience.

Story is about change and growth. It’s also about redemption of our flaws being reworked to make us heroes, which all audiences want to implement in their own lives. Most importantly, it’s about instilling the value of the theme in the hearts of the viewers. When each of these things is in place, audiences add significant positive change and life tools to their life utility belts.

The irony is that the makers of faith-based films know the exact tools needed for people to live fulfilling lives, yet they don’t create stories that give these great tools to the audience. In the mean time, Hollywood, who knows little about life tools, makes great stories that hand both uplifting and destructive tools to the audience.

Copyright © 2016 by CJ Powers

Creating a Visual for Communicating Non-Fixable Feelings

Porch_SwingDiscerning the difference between when a man in a conversation with a partner must only listen, versus offer obvious fixes is difficult, but no longer impossible. I found myself stuck in that no-win scenario all too often and frequently made the wrong choice. Not only did my great advice fall on deaf ears, but I also got to figuratively clean the doghouse more often than my study.

The only saving grace came from a wise old man who found my circumstances funny. Yes, he had a hearty laugh. The man suggested that my solution was found in my make up. He pointed out that my internal wiring wasn’t wrong; it just hadn’t been adjusted to the female language.

Put more simply, my wife (at the time) and I needed listening goals and something visual to trigger my new behavior. He made it clear that I was wired to be visual and therefore required a symbol to engage my new listening goals.

After trial and error, we found a solution that worked so remarkably well that I started to enjoy those difficult conversations because they actually were resolved in an emotionally healthy manner. And, we had the added bonus of finding new treasures of value deep within each other’s souls – Generating new respect for one another.

Thanks to the help from the wise man, I’m now able to say that every woman can share her feelings with her man, without him trying to fix them, by applying a visual reminder with three listening goals.

Here were our goals:

  1. Share Important Feelings in a Visual Place.

We chose the front porch swing as our visual listening place. Every time I sat on the swing, I was visually reminded that if my wife shared a feeling, it was the type that required focused listening and no fixes. After a few months, my new listening behavior had matured.

My wife also had a role to play. She was not to ever share a feeling that required my opinion or a suggested fix when sitting on the swing. Those items were to be discussed elsewhere.

  1. Listen Past the Conflict until You See the Hidden Treasure.

Most of the conversations that took place on the swing were forms of frustration that my wife had to get off of her chest. As a new focused listener, I soon noticed that every point of frustration was like a red flag getting my attention to something important that was deep within her soul.

By listening closely, I was able to ask open-ended questions that allowed her to share more depth, which eventually led to the surfacing of the key issues buried within her heart. In that moment, I would see the real person, her true beliefs and everything that made her tick. It was like finding a huge treasure of great value.

The experience always humbled me as she opened up and revealed her heart. In retrospect, I realized how many lost opportunities to learn something precious had sipped away because I tried to fix things early in the conversation.

  1. Transfer the Visual to Your Partner’s Tells.

After a few months of practice I noticed that my wife had certain “tells” notifying me that she was sharing a feeling that wasn’t to be fixed, but intently listened to. I was soon able to attach my listening goals to her visual tells, so we were no longer limited to sharing deep feelings on the porch swing. If I ever started to waver, she was able to mention the swing and I would immediately heed the hint and listen carefully.

This communication technique doesn’t guarantee excellent conversations every time, as both people can short circuit the process out of anger, rather than seek understanding. In other words, these goals are a tool, not a magic genie.

The good news for men is that the listening goals were based on a visual symbol that turned my times of listening into valuable explorations of the soul. As for the woman’s benefits, it goes much deeper than being known, which in of itself is a wonderful experience.

What do you do to discern the differences between fixable and non-fixable conversations? I’d love to get your insights in the comment space below.

Copyright © 2015 by CJ Powers