Time to Leave La La Land

I remember a teacher once said to me: “Want to know what you really value? Check your internet browser history.”

I don’t think that’s the best way to understand yourself (most of my time is not spent on my computer), but our online activity certainly reflects a part of who we are – sometimes a part that we’d rather ignore.

Similarly, I think the movies that we choose to watch reveal something about our desires, wishes, and fantasies. And based on what we went to see in 2016, I’m concerned.

As a New York Times article, this week reported, “not one movie rooted in a real-life setting was among the top 10 box office performers.”

That’s a real shame – this year’s “real-life” movies, such as Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea, were its best.

Cultural preferences aside, I’m worried that this desire to escape real life might also be affecting the way we think about spirituality.

A spiritual person is often understood as someone, alone on a mountaintop or in a monastery, who spends all day meditating in order to connect to something beyond this world. It’s the spirituality portrayed in movies like Dr. Strange – one full of mystical secrets and magical powers.

That is certainly a legitimate spiritual orientation. It’s comforting to believe that life has a hidden meaning that we can access if only we break through its chaotic surface. Who knows? Maybe we’re all living in a Matrix-esque illusion.

But there is a very different spiritual orientation rooted less in the extraordinary and more in the ordinary. This approach finds God within, rather than outside of, our shared human existence. It seeks meaning in connection to ourselves, each other and our surroundings rather than an escape from those things.

Theologians have been writing about the tension between these two spiritual orientations – “Transcendence” and “Immanence” – for millennia. Judaism, like any rich spiritual tradition, has always struggled to balance both.

When our movie choices reflect a disproportionate interest in fantasy at the expense of reality, I fear we may be dismissing the spiritual potential of what is right in front of us. Movies can open our eyes to the wonder of the everyday, or they can distract us from it by taking us to La La Land. It all depends on what we choose to see.

The views and opinions expressed on this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization Gather the Jews, the Gather the Jews staff, the Gather the Jews board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

5 replies
  1. Joel M
    Joel M says:

    It’s weird that you use La La Land as the poster boy of “not real life”. The NYT article you cite calls La La Land a “sophisticated earthbound film”. Of course, it’s possible you just disagree with the article.

    Reply
  2. George A.
    George A. says:

    Your point about finding spirituality meaning in ordinary life really resonates with me. But I think some aspiration for fantasy is spiritually healthy. It seems like a balance of aspiring for transcendence and finding meaning in the ordinary is key.

    Reply
  3. Aaron Potek
    Aaron Potek says:

    Thanks for your thoughts!

    Joel – I actually haven’t seen La La Land! I was more just using the name as a movie-themed substitute for the idea “fantasy land.” And I don’t like to read reviews before I see the movie, but I pretty much agree with everything A.O. Scott writes, so I’m sure I’ll agree.

    George – I agree that ultimately a healthy spiritual life should involve a balance. I guess my point is that we seem out of balance, overly focused on fantasy. And my personal preference, if we’re going to side toward one end or the other, is toward the ordinary.

    Reply

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