Meaningful Moviegoings: How to Watch

Film, as an art form, is closely connected to the literary and dramatic arts in their use of story to creatively communicate message and meaning. For that reason it is quite often profitable to approach the examination of a movie as one would a work of literature, armed with a critical theory.

Of course, at the words “critical theory” the eyes of anyone other than an English geek are apt to glaze over and their attention leaps quickly for the nearest exit. In this case I am simply using the term to suggest the set of predetermined standards and preconceived notions which we all bring to the interpretation of a work of art. Your personal theory is the part of your worldview that determines what, if anything, a particular piece of art will mean to you when you experience it. In this case, how (as Christians) should we be watching movies? Are there particular things we should be watching for? What ought we to do when we find them?

Like every English major, I took a literary criticism course in college. We were all equipped with a set of various critical theories (or “lenses”) through which to experience literature. Trying them all on and playing with a variety of new and foreign perspectives was a lot of fun. Some brought particular stories and poems into sharper focus while others made things a good deal blurrier. Some of them were more like a set of blinders than a pair of glasses, but all of them had something different (and potentially valuable) to bring to the table in terms of perspective.

Amidst the exhilaration of new experiences, however, there was a slight hint of discomfort. All of the critical theories which we were exposed to were adequate in their way, but none of them felt meaningful to me on a level that ran as deep as my feelings about art itself do. In particular, I was bothered by the fact that I could not fit my personal critical style into any of the categories which I was being taught. Each had value, but none gave satisfaction.

New Criticism focuses on the work and the work alone, rejecting all context. I feel that it attempts to reduce what I consider art to what it considers science. To me, New Criticism seems cold, soulless and largely ineffective as a theory.

Reader-Response is an excellent approach in its way, and probably allows the greatest latitude. However, its greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. The unlimited freedom to say whatever you feel can lead to all sorts of outrageous statements attempting to pass as legitimate interpretations.

There is a great deal more to Deconstruction as a serious approach, even for someone who believes in objective truth, than many Christians might expect. However a complete breakdown of language is the only conclusion you are ultimately allowed to arrive at, and that, surely, is far too limiting. Certainly an “objective” or “ultimate” interpretation of a particular work of art may prove to be impossible to achieve, but that doesn’t mean that one can’t draw valid meaning out of it.

Psychoanalysis and Marxism are both entertaining to mess around with. Here again are theories that cam be applied on rare occasions, but certainly not always. As Flannery O’Connor noted, “The Freudian technique can be applied to anything at all with equally ridiculous results.” Sex (or money) may well motivate everything, I don’t know, but it isn’t the meaning of everything, and as such I am not satisfied entirely with either approach.

Historical/Biographical criticism definitely has something to add to a discussion, particularly with regards to authorial intent. Why did the author/artist/filmmaker produce this work, and what did it mean to them? But I still believe it is important to consider what a work means (or ought to mean) to us, and there is no real room for that here. These considerations can be extremely useful, but only in a secondary role, not as an end in themselves.

Post-colonialism, Feminism, Queer Theory . . . all of these are variations on a theme: That there are artistic voices that have been historically stifled, and that this ought to be examined and rectified; an admirable effort, certainly. But exclusivists in these areas have simply boxed themselves in in a new location. There is no freedom here to accept certain things on their own terms.

What I personally have failed to find in any of these critical theories is a true accounting for art itself, its ultimate source, and its ability to change us. Which among them seeks to find a larger purpose and a overarching theme or drive behind the production and lasting value of art? None, at least in the way that I mean.

On the last day of that college class, Dr. Watson handed out a new theory “for our consideration.” On a single sheet of paper I found printed an answer to the question of whether a work of art can legitimately be examined and accounted for in terms of my own Christian worldview. There is an acceptable compromise between “All truth is God’s truth” and “Art for art’s sake.”

This is Christian Criticism. That label often has a negative connotation, of course. Slap “Christian” in front of it and people understandably think you’re holding something vaguely salvific and of dubious quality. Well, I’d like to reclaim the label, at least this once, as something that denotes a serious passion for whatever is excellent and worthy of praise. In this case, it refers to a perspective that is centered on the things of God, but not limited to that which is comfortable or safe.

I won’t pretend this is the last word on a critical Christian approach to the movies. It’s just a direction, a starter, a template, something to get you thinking the next time you plop down in your seat with a bucket of popcorn and a giant soft drink. This may not be the best way to “read” every movie you watch, but I find that many of my favorite movies reveal some of their greatest insights when I approach them with these things in mind.

Assumptions with which to enter the theater:
1. The glory of God is the central issue in all human endeavor.
2. The production of all film is motivated by obedience or rebellion against God.
3. Your interpretation (insight) is influenced by your own relationship to the Spirit of God.
4. Film, its making, its viewing, and its criticism is an arena for influencing conversion, redemption, and/or sanctification.

Questions to ask while watching the movie:
1. Who has “fallen” and how did it happen?
2. What does the film say about redemption, forgiveness, enlightenment, or growth into wisdom?
3. What is the impact of evil/good, sin/forgiveness, etc. on the characters and their choices, dilemmas, and interactions with each other?
4. How is God’s grace at work at various levels to bring about His moral and spiritual purpose in the film?
5. How is the film itself a product of God’s grace?
6. What incarnations of God and godliness are reflected in the work (whether knowingly by the filmmakers or not)?
7. How does the work reflect or challenge a theistic or Christian understanding of life, the universe, and everything?

Practices to apply in analyzing the film:
1. Identify issues of sin, judgment and redemption.
2. Identify who has spiritual power; what kind of spirit lies behind it; what is done with power; and who wants power.
3. Identify issues of faith, hope, and love.
4. Determine whether the film supports or undermines the status quo, “the world.”
5. Observe the sacramental archetypes in the text (water, bread, blood, marriage, forgiveness, the call of God, etc.).
6. Trace the “passion” of the main character (figures of agony, betrayal, trial, execution, resurrection, etc.).

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