Sunday, November 02, 2008

Through a Screen Darkly

Through a Screen Darkly, Looking Closer at Beauty, Truth and Evil in the Movies by Jeffrey Overstreet was given to me by someone who works in a book store and knows how much I like film.

from the back of the book:
Welcome to the confessions of a Christian moviegoer. Jeffrey Overstreet, film enthusiast and movie reviewer, takes readers on a journey that spans the globe. From a desert scene in Mongolia to a galaxy far, far away, you’ll explore the power of cinematic journeys to introduce life-changing new insights. While visiting the angels of Wings of Desire and the inquisitive British newcomers of The New World, he’ll show you how different characters, different worldviews and different experiences offer pieces of a larger truth. Examining methods and styles employed by Martin Scorsese, Tony Scott, Paul Thomas Anderson, Akira Kurosawa and Krzysztof Kieslowski, Overstreet highlights the ways in which art and entertainment can both harm and heal. You’ll find excerpts from his conversations with directors Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose), Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire) and Patrice Leconte (The Widow of St. Pierre), and producer Ralph Winter (the X-Men series). What makes some films timeless rather than merely popular has everything to do with the way these artists — whether they know it or not — have captured reflections of God in their work.

Through a Screen Darkly also includes a collection of recommendations for movie discussion groups, links to frequently updated resources for moviegoers, and meditations on how different films echo the ways in which Christ captured the attention and imagination of culture. You may be surprised by Overstreet's revealing encounters with moviegoers and critics in both mainstream and religious circles. He challenges traditional Christian ideas about art and coaxes the curious toward bold, rewarding engagement with contemporary cinema.

The book struck me as defensive in the way it approaches film. It feels to me like the author is justifying himself to a conservative audience. The author spends a lot of time explaining his conservative Christian upbringing and his journey toward a more open appreciation of a broader range of movies, and still seems to me to feel the need to defend himself against conservative Christian critics who disapprove of his choices. My expectations may have been wrong, because I've looked at the reviews for this book and they are uniformly positive. I may well not be the target audience (the prominent Eugene Patterson quote on the back cover might be a clue that that's the case), because, though I grew up as a traditionally Christian church-goer, I was not brought up in the kind of culturally conservative environment he describes. My parents were careful about what I was exposed to, but I was never taught that "the world" was evil. He describes his upbringing this way:
Growing up in a Christian home in Portland, Oregan, I lived in fear of the world of sinners beyond the walls of my sanitized religious subculture. My family showed up at a Baptist church on Sunday morning and socialized in a Christian community. My younger brother and I attended Christian schools from kindergarten through college. Word around the Sunday School room convinced me that I lived in a place like Rivendell in J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, where all was beautiful and good, while everything "out there" was like Mordor. I came to believe that I was safe around believers but endangered by the worldly.

In our church community, the artwork of pop culture was treated with grave suspicion.

Though I grew up in a Christian home, I didn't grow up like the description above and didn't know anyone who did. I grew up in the 60's and 70's going to public schools. I was much more likely to know my church's views about social gospel issues than the names of the books of the Bible. I was taught that all of us were sinners, those in church as well as those outside. Sesame Street wasn't on tv until I was in junior high school. He describes a type of Christianity I was not exposed to until I was grown and began homeschooling my children. It was then that I first heard objection to fairy tales from conservative Christians, horror that I wasn't teaching a strict 6-day young-earth creationism, overt disapproval when I let my kids read the Harry Potter books. I've experienced the Christianity he describes from the outside, and it hasn't been pleasant.

All that is to say I found his defense of film unnecessary and found myself skimming those sections looking for actual discussion of the issues in the films.

There are 2 lists in the back: One list of titles for general adult discussion groups and another list for ambitious discussion groups. The lists are in alphabetical order by title and include the name of each film's director in the listing. An annotated list would have been a blessing, or perhaps a division by decade of release or genre or something. The lists leave me with no option other than to look up each individual title I'm unfamiliar with. I guess I've gotten spoiled with online annotated lists.

The author has a blog, but it hasn't been updated in almost a year. He has a journal here that's current. He has a list of favorite films from 2008 here, but it doesn't seem to be annotated or linked to reviews so I don't know why he favors them. Some of his current reviews are at Christianity Today, but I don't use the Christianity Today website anymore because I find the recurring pop-up subscription ad annoying. He has been the Artist of the Month at Image Journal.

I think I'll pass this book along to a more conservative friend.