I don’t go to church anymore. I go to the movies.

It’s not that I’ve given up religion or my beliefs, I’ve just grown up enough to realize that I never got anything out of it. Maybe that’s not a fair statement. Maybe there were a few times I learned a factoid I didn’t know before. But my skeptical and hyper-critical nature never allowed me to “buy in” like others do. I’m not judging those who do — their faith is obviously stronger than mine, because for me there was never anything connective or communicative about the experience. For me, it was always just going through the motions, and I have an inherent need to be passionate about anything I invest myself in. That’s movies.

If you’ve ever gone to the movies with me, you know I really dig into them and get intensely annoyed at people who don’t (and God help you if you pull out your phone). I often go to the movies alone for that reason. For many they go to socialize, but I go to learn. Every movie is flawed. They’re made by a number of people who are also flawed. But despite this, every movie seems to have a message trying to get out, intentional or no. No matter how big and CGI-ed and brainless, there’s always someone trying to tell truths: an actor with their performance or a writer with a line of dialogue or the composer with their score. At least one person is passionate about their work. And I like looking for that person.

I’ve been doing Double Feature Sundays for several years now. It began as a chance to catch up on movies I wanted to see on my one regular day off. The cheaper matinee tickets were an added bonus. Then at some point, it became a regular thing, a comfort. And eventually it evolved into a full-blown ritual: every month or so I pay my dues to the cinematic powers that be and in exchange sit and receive a carefully crafted message. I laugh, I cry, I get all sorts of emotional in a room full of strangers. If that’s not a religious experience, I don’t know what is. It wasn’t until just today I decided it was time to share it with people, albeit through a written recap.

Mind you, this isn’t going to be a movie review, so don’t read it if you don’t want the movies spoiled. This is me doing my best to put all the thoughts that run through my head after these movies onto digital paper. They won’t always be meaningful or have a lesson at the end or even be coherent, but they will, hopefully, give every movie a chance to apply to your life, no matter what your background.

Thanks for joining me.

It was a pretty big weekend. 12 Years a Slave is a based on true events Oscar-bait getting a wider release, and Catching Fire is the sequel to blockbuster teen novel adaptation The Hunger Games. They couldn’t be any more different if they tried, but I still found some striking similarities between the two.

Both stories have decidedly unheroic protagonists thrust into dire circumstances where it’s them against the establishment — for the former, it’s Solomon Northup, a pre-Civil War free African-American kidnapped and forced into slavery, and for the latter, it’s Katniss Everdeen, co-victor of the most recent titular Hunger Games who must play her part in upholding the tyrannical society or watch loved ones face the consequences.

Fighting back against authority isn’t a new story by any stretch of the imagination, but I can’t help but notice the theme becoming increasingly more prevalent in today’s movies. The idea of corrupt governments that fail to protect or understand its people is resonating with audiences worldwide as the lives and actions of those in charge is made transparent through technology. It’s easy to write off Katniss’ world of Panem off as unrealistically dystopic, yet North Korea is still allowed to exist in all its oppressive, propaganda-riddled infamy. The Civil Rights Act was signed just under 50 years ago, and it was by no means an instantaneous transition. The fight for equality is still ongoing, and with technology being turned back against the individual, it’s no wonder people are identifying with these films. But I think the unrest goes deeper than that.

Both movies feature whipping scenes and we’re forced to endure the brutality of the act and the aftermath. I found both… very oddly cathartic. I didn’t enjoy watching characters be torn to shreds by cruel people who considered their targets inferior to themselves, but the overt displays of violence made it easy to say “That’s the bad guy” and eagerly await their violent retribution. It’s not that easy in real life. The antagonists to our freedoms aren’t lashing whips across our backs, they’re slowly tightening nooses around our necks. Violent criminals don’t reap violent punishments — even those sentenced to death are euthanized humanely. An eye for an eye may leave the whole world blind, but turning the other cheek leaves the innocent scarred. Is it any wonder our movies and tv shows and video games are so violent? It’s become an outlet for our human nature, the release that laws are saying we can’t have and morality is telling us won’t help.

At the end of 12 Years, we don’t see any of the antagonists punished. The epilogue text confirms that none of them, even the kidnappers, are held accountable for their crimes. While we’re meant to admire the good works Solomon went on to do, there’s no denying how satisfying it would have been to see his needless suffering avenged. A year ago, Django Unchained did exactly that and it was glorious. But that story was fiction, and Solomon’s was not. In real life, cruel people prosper by exploiting the system and there’s nothing we can do about it. We just have to settle for the rare instances of poetic justice in which they reap what they’ve sewn. But that’s enough doom and gloom for now.

I haven’t read the Hunger Games books and I think I’m better off for it. The first movie was mostly unremarkable to me but the second was great in the way it flipped expectations on their heads. There’s this feel good moment where all the competitors set to kill one another in a matter of days join hands for the whole world to see, a sign of solidarity against the system that made them promises and broke them. It’s cheesy but wonderful. Some go on to kill others anyway, but for the most part the competitors devote their talents and often their lives to protecting their symbol of hope: Katniss. It’s ironic, considering she doesn’t want to be that symbol. She’s content to live her life under President Snow’s dictatorship, so long as her friends and family are safe. By the end of the movie when they’ve escaped the Arena, she still doesn’t seem to have fully accepted that role. While many moments in the movie are too idealistic, her personality is not. She’s looking out for herself and her own, anyone else can deal with their own problems. It’s an all too familiar attitude in today’s culture.

There’s a startling lack of concern for the greater good in America. The complaints are always about me: my privacy, my choices, my money, my security. It’s all about the individual, which is a shame considering what people can accomplish as a whole. Just look at what humans have accomplished in the past — the great monuments that defy physics, impossibly intricate and built to prove we could, not for profit. Advances in technology give us the ability to create such works of art without the use of slave labor, and yet we don’t. It’s all competing corporations trying to create spectacles to sell more of their products. The demolition of the Astrodome is imminent because no company sees it as profitable to put their name on and the majority of the city’s population don’t see it as worth saving. So much work and history taken for granted, disposed of like it were an old cracked coffee cup.

That may seem like a stretch, but this prevailing way of life is the same reason we lament that our streets are no longer safe — so few people know their neighbors let alone trust them. We can’t be bothered to worry about anything that doesn’t apply to us directly, even if it’s right next door. It’s not something that can be changed by laws. A recent story about a bus driver who stopped to talk a woman out of jumping off a bridge made national headlines. He was a hero, but he wouldn’t call himself that. He claimed he was just doing what anyone would have done. But we know that’s not the case. Why? Why isn’t it the case? Why can’t it be the case? I can be.

For all their self-preservation instincts, both protagonists ended up choosing to put their fate in a stranger’s hands. Solomon asked foreigner Bass to deliver a letter that would set him free despite being betrayed under similar circumstances earlier, and Katniss chose not to kill secretive ally Finnick though she didn’t see another way out. They allowed themselves to believe in the goodness of people and in turn they were able (or will be able) to do good in return. We can do the same. We just have to take a chance and take comfort in knowing it won’t cost us our lives. Probably.

The odds are — after all — in our favor.

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