Several months ago Buzzfeed came out with a “literal video” of sorts, the topic Netflix and Chill — a synonym for fooling around. It is hard to say what the exact relationship is between streaming movies and/or television, relaxing (what else would you be doing?), and coitus (or lesser sexual acts). This sort of behavior is not new. There was a time when sedans and coupes had more spacious interiors and drive-in theaters screened questionable, if not stimulating, content, or when the cover of darkness in less popular films provided a private environment for young couples. The question this raises in my mind is this: What is this correlation between our culture of entertainment and the massive rush of hormones that fashions our ideas of intimacy?
This is an important conversation, albeit an odd one for a site dedicated to viewing Cinema through the Christian lens. The connection, however, between film (specifically) and a deadening of intimacy, and even how we view intimacy, is not accidental. The question I hope to approach is not simply moralizing over carnal relationships, but brushing on a more total scope of consumption i.e. are we, am I, the consumer or the consumed when it comes to entertainment, sexual appetite, or anything really? Have I numbed myself to the critical nature of my humanity and regressed into a more bestial state? And what sort of barometer does cultural phenomena (Netflix & Chill) provide?
Could it be possible that the connecting point (film) may not only hold the problem, but a possible answer to the problem?
The interesting thing about film is that it allows us to approach life’s complexity, its difficulties, and almost tortuous situations/problems in a safe and detached way. I can watch the people on the Titanic scream and fall, or freeze and drown in the waters; and, depending on my mood, I can find it moving or laughable (not to mention any number of emotions in between). Why? Because I am not there. I am not dying, my loved ones are not dying, and the only time I feel emotion to it is when I have taken the time to reflect, consider, and invest in the characters on screen.
We see similar effects of detachment with the news. For a moment we may feel the pangs of pity for a Syrian family whose boys washed up on shore, lifeless, after trying to escape the horrible conditions of IS in their country, but rarely do we (myself included) move beyond this. There is not a rush of people applying to harbor refugees and displaced peoples in their own homes. It is far away from our world, where we like it, and we still feel an outrage towards the injustice. Just enough to feel good about feeling bad, but not quite enough to drastically seek to change one other person’s life.
In the Eye of the Beholder
This is a challenging schism created between screen and reality, and it is not only present in issues of social justice, it is possible that our entire ability to connect with the world around us is threatened by lazy viewing… viewing that is self-encompassed.
In many ways the film Surrogates is driving at this exact point, and with virtual reality technology improving as rapidly as our understanding of neuroscience, the moral boundaries that have interlinked our desires and our actions are becoming one big blur.
How does this connect back to Netflix and Chill? It seems (since the sexual revolution, the advent of birth control, who knows) that our view of sex has lost its balance between an act of pleasure, procreation, and intimacy. It has shifted, almost exclusively, towards the pursuit of pleasure. The links between the above mentioned parentheticals, Roe v. Wade, the rise of easy-access pornography are all contributors to this outcome.
Television and movies (aside from showing sexually explicit content) generally do not come to mind when we think of this shift. There is, however, a significant connection we may be unaware of. The screen is the only form of entertainment that allows its user to be a) completely passive and b) completely disconnected.
The thing with movies is that you sit there and watch them, and even if you are not paying attention they move on. You cannot do that with a book, or a conversation; with music, yes, or a play, but the thing about these two is their differing forms of engagement.
Take music. You may find it emotionally moving, you may find the ability to connect with it on a spiritual level, but it does not create the same sense of false interaction we get on screen. Film puts us in people’s lives in a way that music simply cannot. It is too strongly connected to a total sensory experience (save touch – which is precisely where our loss of true intimacy comes into play), and music is limited to hearing. Although the movement for taking on silence as a daily routine is a growing reminder that music and constant noise are a part of this very same trend.
Plays on the other hand more closely resemble movies. The big difference is this: you can’t sit on your couch, alone, watching a stage play. You have to, in however small degrees, interact with other human beings. In many ways this is a great “forced” intimacy through shared experience.
Plugging in to Unplug
I will not bore you with statistics on average family television intake. It is a lot, and it is how we, in America, unwind from the horrible reality of monotony. We do it alone, or with others, but we do it silently and then we head off to bed (or fall asleep while watching). When we view a movie or watch television our ability to disengage, from the people and world around us, grows exponentially.
The screen makes it easy to become engulfed by a fictional world because we can be passive, we can sit and receive without the effort and watch a life lived for us… not with us. The more often we fall into viewing film passively the more we allow ourselves to disconnect when it is off. This is what makes video so different from any other form of entertainment.
This sets the stage for Netflix and Chill. Despite the ways we have disconnected, and the fact that this sexual act is weighted heavily on the scales of pleasure, I cannot help but wonder if it is our God-breathed need for intimacy that is driving people to connect in this way. Is it the loneliness of passive viewing that empties us to seek this connection… and completely miss it within the same moment?
The Church’s Role
More recently Christians have had the tendency of responding to negative effects by abstaining from their perceived outside force rather than engaging them: Teetotalers, the Moral Majority; we even see the church branching out to make alternative films (Fire Proof, Facing the Giants), and, not to mention, the CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) scene.
This is a strong shift from the early church’s focus on engaging the culture of the time (think Paul on Mars Hill). This begs the question: Is our fear of engaging issues of sexuality contributing to its deterioration – and really, not just sexuality, but entertainment and culture at large? I feel like, instead of talking about the greater good of a meaningful and truly intimate relationship, the standard youth group answer to Netflix & Chill is similar to its dating advice: watch movies in a group, then you will be accountable.
But, despite the pragmatism, isn’t this a swing-and-a-miss? If we are truly Christ-seeking, shouldn’t we be seeking intimacy in healthy ways, rather than avoiding it because other people are present? It does not address the actual issue: Engagement with our very own natures, with our entertainment, and with our culture is lazy and seeks to avoid rather than fulfill any of these as they are intended.
This is, for me, the appeal of Cinema Faith and its mission. This ability to actively engage and discuss topics that are disquieting and uncomfortable through one of the single greatest cultural influences over the past 100 years is invaluable. It is not enough to simply change the channel, to seek alternative means, or to be moved to disgust… these are just more symptoms of the true condition – an idol in place of the true God.