Decent Films Mail > Mailbag #3

Re: Faith and Film Criticism

Thanks for the wonderful service you provide your readers. A friend chastised me once for spending so much time reading film reviews, questioning why I needed someone else to tell me whether or not a film was good or not. I think I understood his point. Given the disparities in taste found among film reviewers it is certainly possible that a film I regard as dreck might be considered a masterpiece by the consensus of critics (especially in cases where a film is artfully made but contains a deplorable moral message).

I answered him that the key is not to read all the critics, but to discover for one’s self a few select critics with whom you are in consistent agreement. I first suspected you fell into this category after reading your knowing review of A Man for all Seasons, a perennial place-holder in my top 20 film list. When you discover such a critic(s) then he or she becomes like a second self, working their way through all the cinematic chaff to bring you like gifts the best the medium has to offer.

Now for my question: Can you recommend any books dealing with Christianity and film? My spouse and I facilitate a book discussion group at our Lutheran church and are interested in a book dealing with the interface between faith and film. Ideally we would like a book that discusses in detail some specific films which we could then buy or rent while ploughing through the reading.

If your friend’s question were put to me, I would say that what I need film reviews for is not to tell me whether or not a movie is good, or even whether or not the critic liked it. As useful a service as that might be from a reliable source with opinions convergent with my own, it doesn’t require a whole review; a rating would suffice.

Yet I love reading reviews, even of movies I have no interest in seeing, or movies that I have already seen. It’s not just a question of recommendations or unrecommendations. In reading good review review, I feel that I have in a sense not only seen the film already (or again), but seen it through someone else’s eyes.

In that sense, a good review offers me exactly what C. S. Lewis in An Experiment in Criticism suggests that good art offers all of us: an enlargement of my being, an opportunity to enter experiences and ways of seeing other than my own. Just as Lewis says of Ovid and Dante, one need not agree with Roger Ebert, Stephanie Zacharek or Lawrence Toppman in order to appreciate and benefit from their well-expressed insights and interpretations.

Often enough a good review of a good film enlarges my appreciation of that film, while a good review of a poor film sharpens my skepticism or disdain of that film. Even if I don’t ultimately agree with the critic on the film, a good review may help me to appreciate another point of view, or at least prod and spur me to sharpen my own dissenting POV, so that in the end I have a clearer and more satisfying understanding of my own reasons for thinking as I do about the film.

Even better, a good review may sufficiently enlarge my perspective on films generally, or on art generally, so that the way I approach all films and/or all art has been somehow enlarged. That’s something that the actual film being reviewed might not ever have done for me.

To segue into answering your question, this is very much the sort of experience offered by my friend and fellow critic Jeff Overstreet in his recent book Through a Screen Darkly: Looking Closer at Beauty, Truth and Evil in the Movies. Jeff doesn’t just tell you whether or not he liked a movie. He offers you a seat next to him as the movie unfolds and he points out and reflects on the things that thrill, fascinate or trouble him. It’s an invitation not only to look more closely, but to ponder more deeply and appreciate more fully.

There are other books out there, such as Robert K. Johnston’s Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue and Brian Godawa’s Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films With Wisdom & Discernment, but Through a Screen Darkly is the one I’d, um, recommend.

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