May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
February 4, 2009
(Ed. Note: Originally published at Film-Think.)
Parallel to a different Top Ten of 2008 films, Christianity Today has posted a 10 Most Redeeming Films of 2008 list. Intrigued by the idea that I could also create two lists this year, I have gone ahead and written one as well: my 10 Most Redeeming Films of 2008. Surprise! It is exactly the same as my original list. My list is already packed with moments of redemption in every sense of the term on the theological spectrum from Guiterrez’ overly political construction to Aquinas at his most bridal mystic. Cinema has an inherent capacity for redeeming spaces – street corners, buildings, entire cities – from the accretion of degrading myths about class and commerce (Still Life, My Winnipeg). Its ability to actually see people rescues them, and by extension ourselves, from the awful fate of being unknown or unheard (Red Balloon). Its immersive potential confronts us with biblical images and allusions in culturally significant ways, an immediate form of piety (Silent Light) that redeems biblical images and concepts from their overuse in the Hollywood system. Like the theological concept of redemption itself, cinema is bold enough to tangle with abortion, war, and religious oppression and actually win (4 Months…, Aleksandra). I have a vested interest in redemption, in its multiple and master-narrating biblical forms, and these kind of redemption-critical thoughts are what help me discover good film every year.
Christianity Today describes their reasoning on the list as follows:
So, what’s a “redeeming” film? The definition varies, but for our list below, we mean movies that include stories of redemption—sometimes blatantly, sometimes less so. Several of them literally have a character that represents a redeemer; all of them have characters who experience redemption to some degree—some quite clearly, some more subtly. Some are “feel-good” movies that leave a smile on your face; some are a bit more uncomfortable to watch. But the redemptive element is there in all of these films.
So they are honoring films that contain a “redemptive element” that can be traced through a redemptive figure, theme, or narrative structure. I can buy that. And I can buy it despite all the problems that are part of talking about what makes something “redemptive” in the cinema. As a matter of fact, I also consider “redemption” to be a controlling critical factor in what I think of as “good” or “bad” cinema. But I would want to expand it, even redeem the term “redemptive” from the way it is so easily tossed about in evangelical cultural criticism. By now it is subject to Walker Percy’s condemnation of how generic Christian vocabulary has become: “The old words of grace are worn smooth as poker chips and a certain devaluation has occurred, like a poker chip after it is cashed in.” It can be used in the same sentence as “movies that leave a smile on your face.” It can be disassociated from other critical concepts enough that it becomes the umbrella term for yet another list chosen of films from a given year. It has become a catch-all self-identifying term that appeals to a rapidly growing market of evangelical film-goers. What happens when “redeeming” becomes a successful market index?
Let’s face it, we often cash redemption and all of its cognates in pretty quickly, when we could be spending its capital on those things that the Bible heaps it upon so lavishly. All those beautiful hopeless Ruths, the enslaved, the solipsist Gomers, the spoiled lands, etc… In film terms, redemption has an international scale and an aesthetic pulse. It redeems the world’s poor and oppressed from their representation in a disorienting, dishonest TV universe of news bites, special interests, and marketing strategies. As a critical concept it looks for those marginalized voices out there with cameras and handfuls of shooting scripts, artists filling out festival schedules with independent productions of fragile human ideas, and unadorned reminders that people and places can actually be rescued, reconciled, adopted, and all these great verbs that are associated with redemption. And it buys back, bit by bit, all those weak ideas about redemption that have become so watered-down and denuded by Hollywood’s use of the image as an easy narrative device, a handy way of tying movies up in neat packages, or something that lends depth to otherwise flat characters.
If we want to use “redeeming” with all of its Christological force as a certain way of looking at films, then we will have to go far off the beaten track, see things we don’t want to see, and spend time and money on things that studios and publicists are telling us are worthless.