Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting

Courtesy of Miramax Films

Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting

November 18, 2016

GUEST ROOM | Who Needs Meaning?

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When I was a junior in high school, I taught a film and media class at my former elementary school. I gathered a group of 11 year olds around a computer to write a script and asked them, “What message do you want to share to your audience?” They told me they wanted to make a movie about a dog traveling around the world; somehow dynamite and chicken wings were involved but I can’t remember how. “No, I mean what do you want the meaning to be?” I asked again. They didn’t understand what I was trying to say. They suggested dinosaurs instead of the dog.

I considered movies the forefront of moral and social teaching, and thought that their essential purpose was to open our eyes to the diversity of experiences in the world so we could be better people. In part, I thought this because of movies that tried so hard to be life-changing, and because of people who believed so strongly that their lives had been forever altered by a film.

Movies created for young people seem to have converged around two ideas. There’s the exciting, flashy, action-adventure movies and the eye-opening narratives hoping to change your whole life. They’re in stark contrast with each other, putting themselves at either ends of the social spectrum. It’s pop and mainstream versus edgy and intellectual, with the dramas attempting to distance themselves from the mindless entertainment they look down upon.

It’s a little ridiculous to go into a project expecting to alter people’s worldview. People look to film for stories and ideas and for emotion that they can feel and then separate themselves from. It’s nearly impossible to completely dismantle and reshape a person’s worldview in two hours, and it’s usually pretty obvious when someone is trying. Worldview and identity take time. They’re influenced by what we watch and read and hear, but they’re not made in one movie.

Implicit messages and themes in movies are a great way to try to influence social change. Representation and discussion in media has been powerful in visibility and acceptance of marginalized people and controversial ideas. Film has a lot of power with small actions, but some of their power goes away when they get too big or blatant.

A lot of movies that try to be life-changing are polarizing. They’re loved or disregarded, thought of as genius or worthless. It’s the driving force behind the constant portrayal of unrealistic epiphanies, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, the just-as-bad subversion of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, the endless romanticizing of troubling circumstances, and countless other cringe-y or uplifting trends. Every now and then, I enjoy looking in on unrealistic self-searching journey of a made-up person with superficial traits that are sort of like everyone and no one. That’s what a lot of these movies have started to feel like.

A movie shouldn’t need to change my life to be enjoyable. Sitting down and spending a great two hours with a film, then getting up and moving on with my life the same way it was before is not a waste of time. If a movie’s only redeeming quality is the philosophy of a young brooding filmmaker, it’s not a good movie. The characters, cinematography, humor, plot and conflict should be worth seeing regardless of the overarching theme.

Movie content matters, and matters a lot. It does change the way people see others and how they act. We’re easily influenced by what we see on screens. Making movies with the goal of sharing positive stories and messages is noble and worth it, but making movies with the goal of completely change people’s life is unreasonable, and often aren’t worth watching.

Katie Sims is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at kms425@cornell.edu. 

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