What Movies Can Teach Us About Spiritual Growth
By Edwin Harkness Spina
Recently, I went to an entertainment industry event where a large portion of the audience was lamenting the fact that "no one is making movies that are spiritual." All the popular movies had "bad guys" in them doing "rotten" things. In my view, overcoming conflict is the essence of spirituality; conflict can be transformational!
Now, this is not to defend all the low-grade movies that come out every year - sequels with no originality, movies with implausible plots, special effect spectacles with no story, and vapid horror films featuring beautiful young women searching for demons in their underwear.
There are plenty of reasons to complain about these movies - but not because they may contain evil people seeking to do bad things.
Good drama requires good conflict. And good conflict requires two sides that are, by definition, opposed, i.e. different.
After all, what happens when two "identical" characters get together? NOTHING!
That's why, in a Hollywood movie, the two cops, two lovers, two roommates, two sisters, or two of anything, are almost ALWAYS diametrically opposed to each other.
It's the reason veteran tough-guy Clint Eastwood gets an inexperienced woman as a partner; neat Felix shares an apartment with slovenly Oscar; passive Thelma teams up with assertive Louise; ready-to-retire Danny Glover gets assigned insane, risk-taker Mel Gibson; and cranky cop Nick Nolte is forced to work with smooth-talking, criminal Eddie Murphy.
In more cerebral movies, the two opposing forces can reside within the same character, like Rick in Casablanca. He frequently states, "I stick my neck out for nobody," but then goes about helping underdogs. He's a walking contradiction.
What makes a movie great is when the conflict forces the characters to confront issues they'd prefer to avoid. This is more than good storytelling. It demonstrates one of the fundamental laws of the universe.
The Law of the Triangle
The mystic principle at work is The Law of the Triangle. It states that when two opposing energies come together, there is the potential to create a third energy. When a man and a woman come together, the potential is to create a child. Sometimes, it is cryptically referred to as, "One plus one equals three."
Philosophers refer to this principle as the Hegelian Dialectic: Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis. It is the process of arriving at Truth from two opposing viewpoints. It is not a debate where each side tries to win the other over to its point of view. Rather, it is an attempt to use reason to determine the best possible solution to two seemingly irreconcilable alternatives. Oftentimes, a "third" way is discovered - a synthesis of the two opposing viewpoints.
This is more than just a simple storytelling device - this is the basis of all growth and creation. Without an opposing force or viewpoint, nothing happens!
The job of the storyteller is to identify such conflicts and show how the hero adapts to resolve the conflict. The worse the "bad guy" (or "bad girl") is, or the worse the predicament the hero has gotten him or herself into, the more the hero must dig deep within to overcome the villain's evil intent and rise above the seemingly intractable situation. And by doing so, the more the hero will be transformed.
The Essence of the Transformational Arc
Many script consultants and Hollywood executives call this the "transformational arc of the character," but, again, it is more profound than a mere label. To the outside world, it appears the character has changed; but in reality he or she is actually becoming more of him or herself. His or her inner self is shining through more clearly.
One of the fastest ways to "become" your true self is through the trials and tribulations of life on earth. Hardships will oftentimes provide the motivation to change. Your true character will readily be demonstrated under pressure.
In Casablanca, what is Rick's true nature? Only when he's forced to act under pressure do we find out. If Ilsa had never shown up in his café, Rick would have likely continued to avoid personal entanglements and "stick his neck out for nobody." But Ilsa forced him to confront the issue that drove him to adopt this belief. She was married to Victor Laszlo, a resistance fighter who was risking his life to defeat the Nazis.
At the climax of the film, Rick decides to act. He not only sacrifices the chance to be with Ilsa, the love of his life, and help Laszlo, he hints that he will join the resistance!
As Rick states, "I've got a job to do, too. Where I'm going, you can't follow. What I've got to do, you can't be any part of. Ilsa, I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you'll understand that."
So whether it's a movie or a real life drama, don't "lament" that conflict is not spiritual. Remember, everything is spiritual. The conflicts that arise are meant to propel you to confront issues you may prefer to avoid. And when you take action and work through these difficulties, you grow and advance spiritually.
You become more yourself.