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The lure of comfort-watching

by
12 March 2021

Stephen Brown explores the pandemic appeal of feel-good films

Alamy

The Sound of Music (1965)

The Sound of Music (1965)

IN THESE despondent times, the papers and internet are strewn with lists of feel-good films. Before the lockdowns, we apparently watched, on average, about eight films a month — a figure almost certain to have increased in the past year through streaming platforms.

Rarely do the list-compilers display any insight into what exactly induces the feel-good sensation.

Can this be entirely attributable to needing a top-up of our pleasure-seeking dopamine hormone? Given that meditation and yoga also release this secretion, there may well be a spiritual connection between enjoying films and spirituality.

Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start. The Sound of Music is possibly the most successful feel-good movie ever. Criticised as over-sentimental — the recently deceased Christopher Plummer, who played Captain von Trapp, called it “The Sound of Mucus” — it has nevertheless twanged many heartstrings.

It is a story of rebirth. Sister Maria becomes a governess, then a wife. The disciplinarian Captain experiences a movement of the spirit from sadness to joy. His children gain new understandings of themselves and freedom.

This is played against the threatening background of the Nazi annexation of Austria, and fears of whether the Captain can resist being pressed into military service.

The real von Trapp family did not climb every mountain to escape, as in the film: they went by train. But why allow facts to interfere with an uplifting story? The esteemed director Jean Renoir said: “There is no realism in American films. No realism, but something much better: great truth.”

This occurs by integrating plot, characters, and themes with elements beyond words: music, colour, dance, locations, editing, etc. Cumulatively in The Sound of Music, they proclaim love, justice, freedom, and triumph over evil: an envisioning of how life ought to be.

If feel-good movies were just a matter of whistling in the dark to keep up our courage up, they would ultimately be doing us a disservice. But, as the Book of Genesis says, God, surveying the creation, saw that it was good. Scripture in general makes this assumption, despite any experiences that we may have of it, or our falling short of this perception.

 

TRANSCENDENCE, then, is not too exaggerated a description of films that remind us that there are more things in heaven and earth. . . At best, cinema takes us into another realm of being, and gives us a glimpse of eternal life.

AlamyIt’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Edwin Muir’s poem “The Labyrinth” imagines this real world. “I have touched it once and now I shall know it always.” Not all sensations of well-being emanate from portraying aspects of our earthbound experience. We are frequently taken somewhere over the rainbow.

Disney’s 1992 version of Aladdin typifies this particular trope of feel-good. The eponymous orphan conveys the princess on a magic carpet ride to “a whole new world”, where, in Joseph Addison’s phrase, we’re “lost in wonder, love and praise”.

Cinema dares us to dream dreams, even when nightmares, as in Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946). Note the title’s quotation marks — part of the original billing — for this is a thesis undergoing scrutiny.

The character played by James Stewart, George Bailey, pillar of the community, unjustly faces imprisonment for a felony. He wishes that he had never been born, and Clarence, Angel Second Class, has the task of showing how dreadful life would have been without him.

Theologically, hope is ultimately for future fulfilment in God. Unlike Potter, who is the villain of the piece, Bailey realises that we have been made “sufficient to have stood, though free to fall” (Milton’s Paradise Lost). Graced with that insight, he can hold his head high, no matter what awaits him.

The film is a heavenly reminder that human goodness rises above all that the flesh is heir to.

 

IT DOES not seem to matter how many times we seek that reminder. Most feel-good movie lists comprise old favourites — Singin’ in the Rain, Love Actually, or even a James Bond movie.

Nostalgia triggers memories of how things used to be — perhaps how certain films moved us on in the past. Take Pretty Woman. Now more than 30 years old, its popularity probably relies on its Cinderella-type plot.

It is just one of thousands of variants on a tale going back at the very least to Joseph’s coat of many colours. Picked up off the streets by Edward (Richard Gere), it is Vivian (Julia Roberts) who does the real rescuing, disavowing his patriarchal benefactions.

She refuses to be set up in an apartment, and leaves. Under her tutelage, this emotionally impoverished man discovers his heart: love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be.

Of course, not everyone perceives Pretty Woman this way. It has been accused of failing to be realistic about sex workers’ desperation and wretchedness. By extension, people argue that the film endorses an economic imbalance between men and women in general.

Perhaps the producers’ commercial instincts recognised that many of us are like Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. We don’t want realism: we want magic. While there’s a case for labelling the film chauvinistic, I believe that this is a misreading. We are dealing with fable — parable, even.

This archetypal rags-to-riches story reinforces our need to feel loved, even when oppressed and bewildered by the grind that the world puts us through. It is not such a far cry from the biblical notion that we are, indeed, special, because we have been made in the image of God.

Jesus, in making unjust stewards or cruel masters the protagonists of his stories, is not thereby approving of them. Given the appeal of Pretty Woman (presumably to women, as well as men), the general public has dismissed any perception that this is a true portrait of prostitution.

 

IT MUST be admitted that feel-good films have a tenuous relationship with reality. The Greatest Showman (2017) is a contemporary candidate as a rags-to-riches feel-good picture. Phineas Barnum and his circus have featured in a dozen movies. This one, starring Hugh Jackman, had a great reception, including its sing-along version and album spin-offs.

AlamyThe Greatest Showman (2017)

Despite setbacks, self-created or otherwise, Barnum triumphs over them to restore his fortunes, family life, and circus. It is seen by some as a tale of hope and redemption, but I’m not so sure. Partly it’s because, unlike Cinderella figures, this is a historical character, and we know too much about Barnum’s unsavoury aspects.

If you are going to tell a lie, tell a big one. So, the film skirts over his dishonesty and exploitative freak-shows. The credits assure us that no animals were harmed in making the film — but were any humans, actors, or audience?

The Greatest Showman deceives us with a distorted presentation of what Barnum and his circus were really like. It might have been better to create a fictitious showman; that way, we could revel in the catchy songs and razzle-dazzle without the nagging feeling of being conned.

In the Oscar-winning As Good As It Gets, Jack Nicholson’s curmudgeonly, obsessive-compulsive character Melvin tells his waitress friend that he alone realises that she is the greatest person in the universe. “And the fact that I get it makes me feel good about me.” Does this ring of self-gratification take anything away from Melvin’s declaration?

We likewise feel good that love has conquered all. It raises the question whether pleasure-seeking has any place in moral discourse if the main purpose of such narratives is a form of hedonism.

Dignifying it with an ethical label could smack of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship called cheap grace. But that evanescent glow of elation from a movie frequently reinforces a need for change in us.

Instead of being in control of our feelings, Christianity is more about letting go and letting God; abandoning ourselves to love divine, in contrast with those pagan religions in which happiness (eudaimonia) is achieved through totally subordinating feelings through human endeavour. The crucifixion teaches us that we are not in charge.

Resurrection makes sense only if we are prepared to run the danger of being edged out of the world and on to a cross. Feel-good movies foster the hope that, at the last, we shall discover that all shall be well.

alamyBabette’s Feast (1988)

Babette’s Feast epitomises this approach. A staid, austere set of Danish Christians are transfigured by a meal prepared for them by a Frenchwoman, Babette, whom two sisters befriended. Babette has spent all she has to provide it for them.

This most life-affirming of films is one where laughter, reconciliation, and love are celebrated, after disappointments, painful disclosures, and adherence to an inhospitable creed has clouded any vision of glory.

 

WHEN discussing feel-good films we should not neglect the first word. “Feeling” is just as important as “good”. Feel-good films are not always humorous, like The Climb, and Eurovision, nor television series such as Modern Family or Would I Lie to You? The courtroom drama To Kill a Mockingbird retains its potency as an affirmation that God’s righteousness will prevail.

It is a belief that continues to be presented on screen through films (Selma, The Trial of the Chicago 7) and drama series (The Bay, and Line of Duty). Sometimes, the very gentleness of films (for example, The Dig) soothes our troubled breasts.

Unfortunately, there can be a downside when hope unrealistically overcomes despair. A recent example would be Breathe, which tells the real-life story of Robin Cavendish, who fell victim to polio, was completely immobilised, and was dependent on breathing apparatus for survival.

Through his own sheer determination, and that of his wife, he lives a very full life in a film clearly intended to inspire viewers. Colin Barnes, an emeritus professor of disability studies, warns against presenting disabled characters with extraordinary abilities or attributes. Doing so suggests to disabled individuals and their carers that they, too, need only the will and the “right attitude”, and their troubles will be over.

Whatever the genre, films tend to conclude with everyone living happily ever after. (Alternative endings are frequently tested on preview audiences, in an attempt to exact the feel-best response.)

The Gospels themselves do something similar. In fact, we perceive their accounts as good news only if there is resurrection. There is nothing bad about feeling good, but, in the movies as in life, the Kingdom of God comes very near only when it genuinely meets our need for wholeness and life in all its fullness.

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2 November 2021
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13 November 2021
Lay Ministerial Calling: Vocation and Theology
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