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Movies and the Meaning of Life
Kimberly A. Blessing and Paul A. Tudico, editors
Open Court Publishing, 2005

review by Kevin Miller
film reviews on explorefaith

In the introduction to his essay on American Beauty, philosopher George T. Hole (one of the contributors to this book) says the film “does more than entertain us with yet another story of a man going through a mid-life crisis. It offers us a philosophical challenge, not simply to intellectualize about the meaning of the movie, but to examine our assumptions about the meaning of our own lives.” I could say much the same thing about this book. While it is definitely entertaining, and quoting from it certainly will make you sound intelligent, its greatest value lies in its ability to use film as a window into the soul. Reading this book won’t just give you a greater appreciation for cinema; it will also give you a greater appreciation for life.

In their effort to broaden our understanding of life and the movies, editors Kimberly A. Blessing and Paul A. Tudico bring together a sizeable team of philosophers who use some of the most popular, controversial, and memorable films of recent years to help us reflect on five of life’s most important questions: 1) What is reality and how can I know it? 2) How can I find my true identity? 3) What is the significance of my interactions with others? 4) What’s the point of my life? 5) How ought I to live my life? The book is divided into five parts or “takes,” each based around one of the five questions.

One thing I found appealing about this book is that the authors did not restrict themselves to foreign, underground, or arty films that no one has ever heard of.
Contrary to what you may think when you hear the term “philosopher,” the authors aren’t in any way elitists. They look at controversial films like Pulp Fiction and Fight Club, comedies like Crimes and Misdemeanors and Groundhog Day, sci-fi films like Minority Report and Spiderman, as well as more serious, dramatic works like Shadowlands and Contact. The good news is, there’s something for everyone here, no matter what your taste in film. And if you’ve never cared much for philosophy, that just might change after you see how viewing a film through philosophical eyes can deepen your appreciation of the art form and life as a whole.

Something else I appreciated about this book was the invitation to revisit some of my favorite films with a completely different perspective. In this regard, my favorite chapter has to be James Spence’s essay “Grace, Fate, and Accident in Pulp Fiction.” While many critics—especially Christian critics—wrote off Tarantino’s film as nothing more than the soft, squishy stuff from which it takes its name, I have always suspected there was far more going on beneath the surface of this picture. Spence’s essay more than confirms my suspicion, revealing Pulp Fiction to be a masterpiece of modern cinema and Tarantino as far more than a former video store clerk who happened to strike it rich. Other standout chapters for me include Michael Baur’s chapter on Memento, Shai Biderman’s essay on Kill Bill, Volumes 1 and 2, and Nir Eisikovits and Shai Biderman’s chapter on Minority Report.

While I certainly got more from the chapters dealing with films I had already seen, for the most part, it didn’t really matter which point of entry I chose, because each chapter—and each film—had something profound to say about t he human condition. My only real critique of the book is that it excluded one of the most popular genres around: horror. I would have loved to see an essay or two on zombie films, slasher films, or serial killer films, for example. I am certain that such movies (and our fascination with them) have much to say about the big questions of life. In addition, a chapter that looked at animé would also have been appreciated. But perhaps the authors are merely saving up such essays for the sequel—if and when they decide to write one, that is. ( And I certainly hope that they do.)

This book argues that, as with most things in life, movies are definitely worth a second look. I agree, and I encourage you to take a first look and then a second look at this book as well.

Copyright ©2005 Kevin Miller

Movies and the Meaning of Life
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