May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
August 19, 2006
(Ed. Note: Originally published at The Matthew’s House Project.)
There is a gaunt literary cliché that perfectly describes the state of what can only problematically be described as “Christian film criticism”: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. For lack of a better term, self-professed Christians have been writing film reviews for a number of years, making savvy use of the internet to build large archives of Hollywood, independent, and foreign film reviews along with large readerships running the gamut from the irreligious to the classically fundamentalist. I count so many of these critics as close friends that I don’t want to start naming names lest I leave anyone out. It is, however, handy to point to the Film Forum column run weekly (by the inimitable Jeffrey Overstreet) at the Christianity Today website as an astoundingly current index of “Christian film critics.”
The taxonomist in me has attempted in the past to define “Christian film criticism” as a critical genre. Such attempts have been thwarted by the slippery nature of the terms “Christian” and “criticism.” But for now, and at the risk of certain judgment, one can assume something along the lines of the following unintentionally snarky clarification: “Christian film criticism is what happens when a Christian watches a film and then writes about it.” Over the years, Christian film criticism has naturally aligned itself with the same spectrum one finds in the mainstream media, from Entertainment Weekly type starred reviews offering catchy and alliterative little summaries of a given film along with mild analysis to the full-orbed technical criticism one finds in Jonathan Rosenbaum’s frequent Chicago Reader slot, genuinely replete with film historical erudition and insight. At any given point, curious readers can find reviews on every point of the spectrum in between.
Up to this point, “Christian film criticism” has been fine operating under this vague consensus, and only every once and a while does a somewhat definitive “guild” of practiced Christian critics flare up in debates over self-identity and purpose, most often on the infamous Arts and Faith discussion board. There is a point to which mainstream “film criticism” labors under a similarly indefinite banner, the intent of criticism being most often defined by the type of media outlet for which it has been written. But there have been a few recent developments in the Christianity and Film world that seem to indicate that the best way forward for “Christian film criticism” is a more carefully defined set of expectations and intents, an extended moment of self-reflection before jumping back into the fight for readerships and recognition. I would even settle for a loose working definition, something along the lines of: “Christian film criticism is what happens when a Christian watches a film and then writes about it in light of X, Y, and Z.”
The Worst of Times
It is a bit rough calling it “the worst of times” for Christian film criticism. It would be better to say that it is potentially “the worst of times.” I am thinking here of one recent case in which a Christian film criticism outlet with a very large readership has begun a relationship with the largest Hollywood publicity machine focusing specifically on the niche Christian market. I will name neither as the details of this relationship are hazy enough that I still am not quite sure how this merger will play out in the future. At the very least, the occurrence raised the possibility that Christian film review outlets could be co-opted by larger commercial concerns in the same way that any large mainstream magazine is eventually linked to a set of Hollywood production interests. In these cases, the lines between reviewing and advertising become blurred enough to render any purported film analysis useless. Simply put, Hollywood has discovered how eager American Christian ticket-holders are to see amenable things on the big screen. The attention of Hollywood publicity machines did not fail to follow suit with all due haste. What sort of affect could this have on “Christian film criticism”? In the famous case of websites like Movieguide (or is it MOVIEGUIDE, I can never tell), the worst sort. Film criticism/reviewing can be big business, and as the market shifts to accommodate Christian tastes, so will the age-old Christian concern to be “culturally relevant” to accommodate typical market practices as well.
The Best of Times
On the other hand, Christian film criticism has come into its own over the last several years. One can flip through any number of monthly magazines, weekly columns, or frequently updated websites for current, cogent criticism. Apart from all this success in terms of quality and numbers, however, there are a few interesting features of this emerging landscape that herald good things to come. One could look at “Christian film criticism” in the same way that critics look at the emergence of several key moments in film history. The French New Wave, for example, was catalyzed by a small body of somewhat like-minder writers tackling contemporary and classic films from a remarkably different bent. Ideologically driven, technically informed, and undertaken as a labor of love, such criticism effectively altered the landscape of 1960’s cinema, arguably for the better. By no means would I want to establish a one to one correspondence on this point. Yet, in the same way, Christian film criticism is now widely published enough that it serves not just as a minor alternative to mainstream criticism, but as a provocative voice in a broader public and historic discussion. Some brands of Christian criticism are more effective in this respect than others, not content with being little more than a Christian reader-response to the narrative of a given film. But if genres are defined by their most successful examples then “Christian film criticism” is well on its way to public self-definition.
The Good, The Bad, and the Slightly More Well-Defined
In light of some of the above comments, I think it is possible to say the following things about what “Christian film criticism” could be and/or should be:
1. Christian film criticism is the experience, analysis, and explication of film in light of both Christian theological and ethical concerns. It is theological in that it attempts to root the abstractions of film theory, film history, and film watching in the presence and experience of God in time and space. Aesthetic thoughts are theological thoughts whether one is conscious of it or not. It is ethical in that it seeks to adjudicate between good and bad film. It seeks to ascribe value to films that aspire to social justice, expose historical or intellectual falsehoods, and genuinely commiserate with the human spirit in its earthly travails. If theology is “thinking God’s thoughts after him,” then film is “thinking man’s thoughts after him,” and Christian film criticism consciously exists in the exchange between these two thought worlds.
2. Christian film criticism is distinct from the market concerns that influence many other mainstream media outlets. It is one of the central concerns of any criticism to ascribe value to a specific work of art, book, or film and rehearse the reasoning that leads to such a judgment. Legitimate criticism seeks ways to champion certain films, genres, or directors apart from the direct financial influence of an interested third-party. This freedom from the general market allows Christian critics to spend more time on the highways and byways, in festivals and arthouses, searching for underrated expressions of the human condition rather than simply covering what an editor with an eye towards publicity considers relevant. (Not that there is anything wrong with that.) It is often thought that Christian cultural criticism needs primarily to be relevant. But Christian film criticism seems uniquely suited to the irrelevant and relatively unseen, utterly capable of interacting with the least likely to appear in Entertainment Weekly.
3. Christian film criticism is linked to the practical, technical experience of filmmaking. As mentioned above, the French New Wave gained so much steam by its desire to be in the trenches with filmmakers, and the movement was finally born when the distinction between critic and director became sufficiently blurred. As Godard once famously quipped, “The best way to criticize a film is to make a film.” This is not to say that every Christian film critic needs to drop what they are doing and start making films. This is to say that every Christian film critic at some point needs to step back and get at least a little hands-on experience in some sort of filmmaking.Fortunately enough, the visionary efforts of Mike Hertenstein with the Flickerings Film Festival (www.flickerings.com) offers precisely such an opportunity every year along with a profound selection of screenings. Other than the practical concerns of actually watching films with more technical clarity, this feature of good film criticism has unique appeal to the Christian sensibility.
A key motivation for film criticism is the celebration of creation and ingenuity. A key motivation for Christian film criticism should be a theological appreciation of the act, technique, and execution of filmmaking, a technical awareness of the process of sight and sound. Far from being the anorakic hobby horse of film buffs, our understanding of artistic craft should match our awareness of God as a creative being.
These three points go a long way towards further defining what “Christian film criticism” is, both with and against the sorts of film criticism one will encounter in other media outlets. And I don’t claim to speak for many here, as every practicing critic is a critic because somewhere in the back of their mind they have some niggling thoughts on criticism that are asking to be articulated. But by and large, the above three points are a good place to start the little conversation that will allow Christian film criticism to engage more fruitfully in the Great Conversation that is film and all of its interpreters. If anyone out there can define “Christian film criticism” in a few hundred words is interested in sending that along to me, I would be interested in printing those thoughts in an upcoming column.