What We can Learn from the Movies

“You know what your problem is, it’s that you haven’t seen enough movies – all of life’s problems are answered in the movies.” –Steve Martin

“Movies can and do have tremendous influence in shaping young lives in the realm of entertainment towards the ideals and objectives of normal adulthood.” –Walt Disney

“I’m just his father, Eliza, not his conscience. A man’s life ain’t worth a hill of beans except he lives up to his own conscience.” –Jess Birdwell, as played by Gary Cooper in Friendly Persuasion

Dad Sage for Memorial

I love movies. I admit it, though sometimes it’s hard to justify why. I’m very picky about the movies I watch, because I think there are movies that add something to your life, and some that take away from it.

So much discussion these days centers around the violence in movies and how it affects young people negatively. Yes, that can be true. Anything can be used for good, or ill. Movies are no different. What I want to know is, do you watch what’s popular just because it is popular, or do you pick and choose what you watch carefully? Do you allow your children to watch whatever they want, without being there to help them make sense of what happens in the movie or TV show? Whether we want to admit it or not, we’re affected by what we watch, and we can be affected in positive as well as negative ways. I knew this instinctively, but it always helps when you have a scientific study to back you up.

I get Jurgen Wolff’s daily post, “Time to Write”. On Saturday, he had the perfect Valentines Day article. I was intrigued by the title, “How movies can help prevent divorce (no joke!)” Yay validation! Watching movies can be a positive learning activity. I always knew that, because growing up we’d watch TV and movies as a family and discuss them, but I’ll tell that story later in the post.

This is the statistic from the study Wolff quoted that I loved, “The findings show that an inexpensive, fun, and relatively simple movie-and-talk approach can be just as effective as other more intensive therapist-led methods—reducing the divorce or separation rate from 24 to 11 percent after three years.” The title of the article is, “Divorce Rate Cut in Half for Couples who Discussed Relationship Movies.” Here’s the link to read the article for yourself. They provide lists of movies, and guided discussion questions at: http://www.rochester.edu/news/divorce-rate-cut-in-half-for-couples-who-discussed-relationship-movies/index.html The contact person on the website is: Susan Hagen. You can even become a part of their study.

What I found particularly interesting was what Jurgen Wolff wrote at the end of his post. He said he thought that this method could be particularly helpful in shaping the behavior of children. And that’s the thing I’d like to comment upon.

That’s exactly how I was raised! We didn’t have much money when I was growing up, so TV was a big source of entertainment. We watched all kinds of shows including the news together as a family. As I’ve written before, I’m a Baby Boomer, so we saw many things as they were happening on the news that would be censored or edited today. My parents didn’t have college degrees, but they were open minded and wanted to make sure we had a good foundation about life. To that end, we discussed everything we watched. My dad was big on asking questions about everything. He’d challenge the slant on the news, he’d question documentaries, he observed the behavior of characters in the movies and TV shows we watched. He asked his questions, because he was infinitely curious. Often he’d want to know what we thought, and that would start a discussion. Because of my parents, I learned critical thinking skills. I also learned how to analyze the motivations behind human behavior. What a gift my parents gave me.

In this age when we are all on our separate devices, connecting with our friends, coming together to watch a movie can be a great way to make connections with our family members. To encourage that, starting today, I’m going to suggest movies that I think will be fun for families to share, and that will promote wonderful conversations, and learning experiences.

The first movie I’ll suggest was one of my father’s favorites: Friendly Persuasion, with Gary Cooper and Dorothy McGuire, released in 1956. It’s about a Quaker family in Indiana in 1862. The Civil War is raging. Their religion teaches that violence and war are not acceptable. The story shows how each member of the family, and wider community responds to the crisis when a battle begins close to home. The oldest son, played by Anthony Perkins, goes against the teachings of his religion, and goes into battle with the militia to protect his family, and his community. He learns a great deal about himself from that experience. The movie is filled with incidents where each family member learns what it means to live a peaceful life. It’s easy to profess beliefs, not always so easy to live up to them. In my opinion, the message of the movie is that outward peace only comes from inner peace.

Friendly Persuasion was nominated for six Academy Awards, two for director/producer William Wyler, one for best screenplay by Michael Wilson. Though, ironically at the time, Wilson was blacklisted and so couldn’t receive the award or even have his name appear in the list of nominees. And one nomination for Anthony Perkins for Best Supporting Actor. In this day and age, when so many of us are tired of war, and long for peace, this movie could present a way to examine how to bring that peace about.

If you choose to watch this movie with your family, you could begin your discussion with the various characters and how they react or respond to the situations in which they find themselves. For example, in one scene the mother, played by Dorothy McGuire, tries to talk her son out of going to fight with the militia. She wants him to embrace peace, but in a very subtle way, she’s coercing her son to choose the path she wants him to take. Another character, who is a Quaker, professes to love peace, but when his barn is burned down by Confederate soldiers, he willingly and angrily  picks up a gun to go fight, and condemns Gary Cooper’s character for not doing so. The movie is full of those kinds of teachable moments. And think how much fun it will be to have an old fashioned movie night with your family.

I’d love to hear how it goes.

Lucinda Sage-Midgorden © 2014

Published by lucindasagemidgorden

I grew up in the West, the descendant of people traveling by wagon train to a new life. Some of their determination and wanderlust became a part of me. I imagine them sitting around the campfire telling stories, which is why I became first a theatre artist, then a teacher and now a writer. They are all ways of telling stories.

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