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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM

Everything I Ever Needed to Know I Learned at the Movies

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, March 7, 2010

It’s a strange world, Hollywood—and not only because it’s in California. Movies create a different kind of place in our minds. Perhaps, at times, they even give us a somewhat skewed view of existence.


Here are some of the things we might have learned at the movies (that perhaps we need to take with more than a few grains of salt):


We’ve learned that if you’re ever called upon to defuse a bomb, don’t worry about which wire to cut, because you’ll always choose the right one—and that furthermore, all bombs are conveniently fitted with electronic timing devices with large red readouts which let you know exactly when they’re going to go off.


We’ve learned from movies that most laptop computers are powerful enough to override the communications system of any invading alien society no matter how advanced it is, and that it never matters if you’re heavily outnumbered in a fight involving martial arts: your enemies will always wait patiently to attack you one by one, dancing around in a threatening manner, until you have knocked out each one of their predecessors, one by one.


From the movies, we learn that when you turn out the light to go to bed, everything in your bedroom will still be visible, just slightly bluish. We also know that all beds have special L-shaped cover sheets that reach to the armpit level on a woman but only to the waist level of the man lying beside her. Furthermore, we’ve learned (remember this, girls) that if staying in a haunted house, women should always investigate any strange noises in their most revealing negligees.


We know from the movies that if there’s a large plate glass window, it won’t be there for long: someone will be thrown through it before too long. If there’s a news bulletin on the television or radio, it will pertain to you, right then and there. If you’re in a movie, and you’re a soldier, please don’t make the mistake of showing someone the picture of your sweetheart back home—because, if you do, your minutes (let alone days) are numbered.


Finally, if you’re in a wartime setting, and you need to impersonate a German officer, there’s no need to bother to learn that nasty, complicated German language: faking a German accent will work just fine. (This also works with Russian officers, as well, because we all know that, in the movies, everyone—even Martians-- speaks English!

One shouldn’t study for the “History” section of the MCAS tests by watching too many movies, either. Hollywood is full of mangled history, from the convoluted conspiracy theories of Oliver Stone’s JFK to the syrupy romance of Pearl Harbor (complete with John Voight as Franklin Roosevelt, rising from his wheel chair at a Cabinet meeting in order to inspire the nation to take up arms against the Japanese; I mean, FDR was great—but there are limits.) One of my favorite bits of “historical license” take by a film was in the movie Gladiator back in 2000 (in my never-to-be-humble opinion, probably the most mediocre film ever to win the “Best Picture” Oscar). Gladiator had Russell Crowe and his cohorts managing, somehow, to restore the Roman Republic, following the death of the evil emperor, Commodus—killed in a gladiators’ duel in the Coliseum, no less. These are nice sentiments, perhaps, and they make for a great ending for the film. But unfortunately, none of these things ever happened. Commodus was not killed in the arena. (He was, rather, strangled by the wrestler Narcissus while taking a bath—which is almost as juicy.) But, alas, the Roman Republic was never restored, and the Roman Empire still had lots of years left in it after Commodus died.


Perhaps filmmakers don’t always follow the most stringent standards of historical verification. But we love them anyway. Movies can be an important aspect of our psychological and, I would add, spiritual, makeup. They have an important impact upon our interior landscapes.


Just like our primal ancestors, who gathered around the camp fire and listened to mythical stories of far off times and places, so we, generation after generation, go to the movies in order to be transported to a more transcendent realm. It’s interesting to note that movie projectors were originally known as “magic lanterns”. They projected the “magic” into our world. Our movies, too, illuminate our modern myths. They help us to discern the stories we live by. They help us sort out who we are; what the world around us is like; how we are called upon to behave in given situations. Movies provide role models (good ones and bad ones) of what it means to be human. Movies may not be “real life”, but there are important lessons we can really learn about life by watching movies.


When I started gathering my thoughts for this subject, I was struck by how many deep grooves of remembrance have been carved into my mind by times spent in movie theaters. I can remember going to the movies an awful lot as I was growing up. Woonsocket, that working class city in which I grew up, boasted six movie theaters along its Main Street back in the 1930s and 1940s (a little before my time). As late as the 1960s (when I was around), there were still three that remained. Then, when the Bijoux (which I can just barely remember) closed sometime around 1961, there were only two: the Stadium and the Park. It was in one or the other of these that I spent (what seems now like) just about every Saturday afternoon for God knows how many years.


Ask me what movies I saw, and I can remember very few of them now. (The last one I saw at the Bijoux was the original Thirteen Ghosts was one—in 3D, no less, with those strange googly glasses, which are back!) Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds was another one I remember; it scared the heck out of me, and I wouldn’t go up in the attic for weeks and weeks afterward. I seem to remember a couple of Three Stooges flicks, maybe a John Wayne western or two…


But maybe it wasn’t so much the actual films that were important as it was ritual of going to the movies.  It was about being part of a community-- especially when movie theaters were located on the main streets of communities, and not off in outskirts or in the suburbs. (I still mourn the closing of our own Stoughton Cinema across the street. If I had a million dollars… well, it wouldn’t be the first thing I’d do, but it might be on the list if I had a couple of million dollars!)


Back in those old days, my brothers and I used to walk to the movies every week—about a mile or so—over the gray and dusty streets of the city, across the Blackstone River, down past the railroad trestle. We’d walk past the familiar sites of the world we knew all so well, and then into one of those almost magical palaces of entertainment, where there were fountains carved into the walls, and gilt-edged decorations along the balustrade, and murals painted on the walls (even in the men’s room!), and a chandelier hanging from the ceiling. (All this for a quarter or fifty cents, too!)


Going to the movies was a way of transcending the rather mundane reality of life in those sometimes drab, sometimes boring circumstances which Woonsocket presented. It engaged my imagination; it gave me a sense of something more and something deeper in life—a sense that I, too, could “follow that dream just like those guys did way up on that screen”.


Going to the movies was about joining with others in a common endeavor—just like church, it seemed to me even back then (but a whole lot more fun and more interesting). There were others kinds of bonding that the movies fostered, as well. I can remember sitting in the Stadium Theater with my entire family—all five of us—my mother, my father, my two brothers, and myself--- sometime around 1960, watching the film Spartacus starring Kurt Douglas. I remember all of us sitting there in tears (even my father; I don’t know if I’d ever seen him cry before), as the leader of the great slave rebellion in ancient Rome caught a glimpse of his new born child, just before he lapsed into death on a cross, as a traitor to Rome. I learned something in that moment about the bond of family, and about how being a family (even an imperfect, not always functional one) means being able to laugh and to cry together.


I remember going with my father to see Taras Bulba, starring Yul Brenner as the great Cossack leader from the steppes of the Ukraine (and Tony Curtis as his son—Tony Curtis as a Cossack—oy vey!)  And I remember feeling pride when the movie ended that this was the stock from which we two, father and son, had come.


I can remember, too, when I was about thirteen and had developed this fascination with the work of Truman Capote, conning my mother into taking me to see the film version of In Cold Blood, because I couldn’t get in by myself because it had an R-rating. I can remember thinking, even then, what love this must be—how precious I must be to her—that she would, very simply, give up her time, and go to a movie in which she had absolutely no interest—just because I wanted to go. In the years following, when I was called upon by my own children to meet one of their little needs or wants, I remembered my mother and In Cold Blood, and as often as not, I’d go along.


Elizabeth and I, on our first date in 1976, went to see Barry Lyndon—about which, I must admit, I remember next to nothing (except that it was long). Sometimes, the particular film doesn’t matter. But who you’re with matters a lot. The experience can even change your life.


Different movies affect each of us differently, of course. Some of us might love particular films, which will leave others of us totally cold and confused. I remember having a conversation not too long ago with someone at coffee hour, right here in this church, about the film The Piano, which came out back around 1993 or so. It was about a woman who became a mail order bride, and was sent to live with this simply awful man in Australia (or was it New Zealand?). This woman said to me that she had simply loved it; it had touched her deeply. I’m not that bright, I guess, because I had found it bizarre and tedious. Same thing happened with Moulin Rouge a couple of years ago, which a lot of people loved. It quite literally gave me a headache.


The opposite is true, too: Every time I threaten to get out Doctor Zhivago or Gone With the Wind (my two Favorite Films of All Time), my family members run for the hills. They find them both boring and laughingly predictable. They even make fun of the recurring theme music from each—even “Laura’s Theme”-- every time it swells from the speakers.


Of course, our tastes in movies differ as widely as do our tastes in books or music or what we like to eat. Even more: just as one religion—or one political creed—or one sexual orientation—doesn’t fit all, so we don’t see the world of cinema from the same angle, either. And that’s the way life is supposed to be.


What’s important is that we maintain our integrity, and see this world with our own eyes, and like what we like (and not what some outside “authority” or “expert”-- or even spouse-- tells us we “should” like). What’s equally important, too, is that we maintain a profound sense of mutual respect for those who see things differently than we do.


So, we might learn some crazy things from the movies. Like that once it’s applied, lipstick will never rub off, even while scuba diving, And that if you decide to start dancing on the street, everyone you meet will know all the steps. (If you decide to start singing, everyone will know all the lyrics, too.) Wouldn’t it be great if life really was like the last scene of Slumdog Millionaire? A place where you know the answers to all the questions you’re asked, and people can break into mass dancing and singing, in celebration of life. Maybe it can really be that way. Maybe the movies give us the inspiration we need to keep hoping.


They teach us so many other things, too, movies do. They provide for each of us a lifetime’s worth of learning.


Lessons like “Don’t squander your life”, which I learned from American Beauty. Or, don’t underestimate how much little people like you can accomplish, which I learned from The Lord of the Rings.


Tootsie taught me about empathy and learning what it means to walk a mile is a different pair of high heels. It also reminded me that this life is awfully funny sometimes, and that in spite of it’s pain and torment, this world can be a pretty mirthful place.


E.T. taught me the about the value of friends—and it reminded me of the deep yearning we all have for that place called home.


Some movies do teach us about history, and do it pretty well—whether it’s Amistad or Glory, about our own nation’s past, or films like Schindler’s List or The Pianist or Sophie Scholl, which show us how we human ones can maintain our dignity, even in the midst of dictatorship and Holocaust. They show us that the human spirit is stronger than any force that can be mustered against it.


This is why movies speak to all of us:


Because they touch us in our deepest places.


Because they help us to know ourselves.


Because they remind us of the magnificent strands of being—all so very different—from which each of our souls is woven.


Because they remind us of the great human story we share.


Because they remind us of what it means to be alive.


Because they help us to discern the deeper meaning in this epic drama—this divine comedy—that each of us lives through these, the  best  years of our lives.



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