| Hollywood: Thumbs Up or Down?
Three Critics Review Hollywood's Impact on
Religion and Vice Versa
There was a time when “good Christians” wouldn't dream
of going to the movies at least not within sight of their pastor.
Though times have changed, an uneasy relationship persists between
people of faith and the Hollywood film industry. The religious
sometimes find their beliefs ridiculed in movie theatres around
the country, and gratuitous sex and violence continue to earn
big at the box office. Yet films with deep faith, strong storytelling
and great art at their core have made surprising inroads.
At the height of the summer movie season, Response invited
a trio of experienced film critics who are also people of
faith to explore the relationships between religion, culture and film. We
asked each critic the same set of questions, and the result was a wide-ranging
“conversation” that highlights the challenge and
responsibility of discerning good from bad in the world of film. As a bonus,
each critic also provided a list of personal movie
favorites just in case you’re planning a trip to
the video store soon.
Though their opinions vary widely, the film critics interviewed
by Response are known for speaking out on the
relationship between religion, culture and film:
Film critic and nationally syndicated radio talk
show host Michael Medved daily reaches more than 1.8 million
listeners in 124 markets coast to coast. He has reviewed movies
as chief film critic for the New York Post and as co-host of and as co-host
of “Sneak Previews” on PBS. A frequent guest on “Larry King Live,” “Oprah” and other major TV talk shows, he
writes for USA Today and is the author of eight books, including controversial
best-seller Hollywood vs. America. Medved, who is Jewish, lives in Seattle with
his wife, psychologist/author Diane Medved, and their three children. In May
2003, he spoke on Seattle Pacific
University’s campus about Hollywood’s effects on individuals and culture.
Overstreet ’94 is co-founder of Promontory Artists Association, which provides
community, resources and encouragement for Christian artists. He developed Promontory’s
arts-review site, “Looking Closer" (www.promontoryartists.org/lookingcloser),
and writes the “Film Forum” column at ChristianityToday.com every Thursday. The
May 12, 2003, edition of the national online magazine included his in-depth exploration of whether
there should be a Christian movie industry. Overstreet traveled this year to Bushnell, Illinois,
to help guide post-viewing discussions of films at the Cornerstone Festival’s fledgling
film program, Flickerings. He is married to Anne Overstreet, a poet and freelance editor.
An SPU assistant professor of communication since 1999, Todd Rendleman teaches courses
in film theory, film history and communication studies. In “The Art of Film,” he
helps students to view films critically and appreciate the history of classical
Hollywood cinema. For the past two years, he has co-produced the Image SPU Film
Festival. In the festival, movies sharing a central theme are shown free to campus
and community audiences. Rendleman’s scholarly research explores the relationships between
religious audiences and religious images in American movies.
Q: What makes a good movie? By what standards do you judge film?
MEDVED: All movies must be judged on their own terms. They set out to
achieve very different goals. My job is to evaluate whether they reached those goals,
rather than conforming to preconceived notions of excellence on the part of the critic.
You cannot apply the same standards to a gross-out comedy (“There’s Something About
Mary”) that you would apply to a holocaust drama (“Schindler’s List”). I gave
both films positive reviews, by the way.
OVERSTREET: The mark of a great film is this: Attentive viewers
find more that is meaningful, admirable and enjoyable every time
they see it. It transcends its era and its cultural context to reveal
timeless truths. Most movies, sadly, are fast food, offering forgettable
characters and simple platitudes on which we all agree.
A good movie is a feast. We may go away inspired, humbled,
puzzled, even upset, but we have been nourished by the experience
and its lingering questions.
RENDLEMAN: Above all, movies provide us with a heightened
intensity of experience. We feel romantic thrills and witness conflict and danger
in ways that are extraordinarily vivid and larger-than-life. Movies also satisfy
our desire to place ourselves in the shoes of others. If a movie achieves that if
it allows me to see the world through someone else’s eyes, and if it’s emotionally engaging
and complex then it’s on its way to being a good movie.
Q: What impact does film have on culture, and vice versa?
MEDVED: Film’s main impact on culture is indirect. Most Americans spend very
limited time watching movies (an average of less than 10 hours per year, including
movies watched on video and DVD), but they spend a great deal of time viewing
TV (an average of more than 29 hours every week week ). Movies profoundly influence
TV providing ideas and defining trends that the networks and cable broadcasters
shamelessly mimic. Television, in turn, hugely shapes the attitudes and behavior
of all Americans defining for far too many of us what is normal, what is stylish,
what is desirable.
OVERSTREET: Our culture is enriched by films that illustrate
choices and consequences, inspire technological invention, and help us understand
lives and perspectives foreign to us. But these virtues are lost on lazy moviegoers,
whose lack of reflection can lead to harmful influences. Just as Scripture
sometimes inspires evil when taken out of context, the best movies can have distressing
influences. Many blame cultural corruption on bad movies, rather than acknowledging
the responsibility of the viewers to be discerning and mature. Scripture calls
us to “test all things (and) hold fast to what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5).
RENDLEMAN: It’s a complicated relationship. Movies simultaneously
reflect our culture and shape our understanding of ourselves. Think about
something as simple as style and all of the men over the past couple of years
who’ve hit the town on Friday night dressed like Brad Pitt in “Ocean’s 11.” There’s
no question that movies affect our behavior, although their effects are challenging
to predict and measure. At the same time, if you want to comprehend what a culture
or society values, take a look at its popular cinema. Americans often equate personal
fulfillment with romantic achievement, and nowhere is this belief evidenced more
consistently than in our movies.
Q: What impact does film have on religion, and vice versa?
MEDVED: Again, movies achieve their most important influence
through their shaping role on TV, and television helps to dictate
the dangerously short attention span of most Americans. Instead
of looking toward the next generation or even considering our
life after death most people find it difficult to look beyond the next commercial.
This shortened attention span, and the emphasis on immediate gratification that
is promulgated in both programming and commercials, make it much harder to break
through with a traditional Judeo-Christian message particularly for media-saturated
OVERSTREET: Movies are inspiring interest in religious matters.
As technology and science fail to save the world, audiences are drawn to visions
that involve spiritual consolation. “The Matrix,” like “Star Wars,” reveals the
potential dangers of technology and urges us to reach for spiritual solutions.
Then again, mainstream cinema regularly stereotypes religious folks as judgmental,
narrow-minded and reactionary. (Have we earned that? Perhaps.) Moviemakers who
focus on converting audience members with simplified sermons send viewers running.
Some realize that excellence and art are better than mediocrity and propaganda.
These moviemakers strive to show rather than tell, leaving those with “eyes to see” to
draw their own conclusions.
RENDLEMAN: Movies are the art form of contemporary culture,
and we can see our spiritual longings in them. Consider Paul
Schrader’s body of work. He’s not our greatest director, but he’s clearly working
through spiritual issues in his movies. “Hardcore” explores ways that religion
divides families. His scripts for “Taxi Driver” and “Light Sleeper” are painful
accounts of social isolation. “Auto Focus” critiques American self-absorption and
the endless pursuit of sexual pleasure. There’s no question that Schrader’s religious
upbringing has given him great material to react against and
explore. None of these are “religious” films per se, but the issues they address
are essentially spiritual, and they have something to say about our
Q: Do you draw a distinction between art and entertainment in
MEDVED: No. The best cinematic art is tremendously entertaining,
and first-class entertainment requires enormous artistry.
OVERSTREET: Entertainment aims to please. It amuses and distracts. There’s
nothing wrong with that, but art aims higher. Art comes out of an artist’s
exploration of questions or mysteries. It does not explain itself
to us. Sometimes art is hard work. Like fine wines, films by Kieslowski and
Tarkovsky are an acquired taste, but they’re good for you. They exercise your
mind and cultivate discernment. As you move from “milk” to “meat,” mere entertainment
may no longer satisfy.
RENDLEMAN: The distinctions between art and entertainment
aren’t absolute. In any age, artists have a very short shelf life if they
Q: What influence do the business pressures of the film industry
have on the quality of filmmaking?
MEDVED: The most negative impact of business pressure is the
emphasis on box office blockbusters as the only means of earning
back the soaring cost of movie production. When it costs an average of nearly
$90 million to produce and release a feature film, few studios want to take
a chance on creativity or originality. The plethora of sequels and remakes stems
from the desire to market an established brand name. Concerning any of these
familiar titles, a worried producer can assure himself with the notorious
words, “Well, they liked it before.”
OVERSTREET: Big studios make movies they know we’ll pay to
see. That’s capitalism. We have shown them we’re more interested in celebrities
and special effects than storytelling, so we get flashy stars dodging explosions.
But it’s not an impossible situation. Demonstrate what you want by supporting
it where you find it, and the business of Hollywood will notice. Audiences embraced
New Line Cinema’s risky “Lord of the Rings” films because they discovered they
like good storytelling, character development and complex mythology. Studios
that rejected Peter Jackson’s proposal are kicking themselves now and scrambling
to come up with the next big fantasy series. “Narnia” is coming to the big screen. That’s how it
RENDLEMAN: Business considerations create enormous pressures,
and the results are often depressing. Movies have always been made for financial
profit, but since the advent of the blockbuster in the 1970s, the conflation of financial
and artistic success is mind-boggling. Are there signs of hope? Yes.
The big summer releases are often criticproof, but when our best writers like
Roger Ebert draw attention to smaller films on the festival circuit, these movies
can find an audience. Ebert is doing that right now with Melissa Martin’s feature
debut, “The Bread, My Sweet.” The movie has arrived in Seattle, and Ebert’s praise is getting it noticed.
Q: What do you think is at the root of the historical tension between people
of faith and Hollywood? Why are some people of faith threatened by film?
MEDVED: It goes right to the fundamental difference between
cinematic and religious communication. Movies are a visual medium; psychologists
who have analyzed the way they reach audiences estimate that films rely on visual
images for 70–75 percent of their impact. Judeo-Christian faith, on the other hand,
relies on words. Whenever God has communicated to his people, he has used spoken
or written words, not images. Neither Moses nor Jesus drew pictures or created
visions for their followers. Movies that appeal to the eyes touch us on an emotional
level, while faith messages that appeal to the ears reach for the mind and soul.
OVERSTREET: Christians are quite accustomed to preaching. Art
seems threatening to us because it is more about exploration than exposition. We
hastily look for "the message" of a movie, failing to understand that art is for
reflection, contemplation, discussion and discovery. Further, in categorizing as
"Christian" versus "secular," we prescribe where and when God can be revealed. A
beautiful photograph of a mountain becomes "Christian art" when a verse is printed
on the sky above the peak. Then we think we know what it means, and we do not
have to think for ourselves. This cultivates an environment of lazy and reactionary
intellects, and we fail to train ourselves to discern evidence of God in the excellence
and beauty of art outside the walls of the church.
RENDLEMAN: Historically, this debate has always been a question
of sex. Movies have the potential to move and excite us emotionally, intellectually
and sexually. Since the birth of film, a key factor in its appeal has been the
promise of sexual excitement. For Christians, this is often at odds with Christ's
warning to not look lustfully at others. This has created a strange, conflicted relationship
between many religious persons and the movies. Art needs to thoughtfully address all aspects
of human life, and the issue of sexuality in film remains a sensitive one. I can't
think of an issue that merits greater discernment and reflection from people of faith.
Q: Some say boycott the movies; others say go to work in the movie business.
How do people of faith bring about change in Hollywood?
MEDVED: Boycotts don’t work, period. The ill-considered Disney
boycott endorsed by many prominent Christian organizations is a pathetic case
in point. Disney has done nothing to mend its nasty ways, or even to attempt to
placate its critics. Meanwhile, those poor deluded families that have attempted
to honor the Disney boycott have missed out on some of the best family films of
recent years, such as “The Rookie,” “Monsters, Inc.” or “Finding Nemo.” Those
people of faith who choose to work in Hollywood have already begun making a
difference bringing a more sympathetic perspective to projects as varied as “The Sixth
Sense,” “Bruce Almighty” and “We Were Soldiers.”
OVERSTREET: Christians have had a hand in recent Hollywood
hits like “X2 | X-Men United” and “Finding Nemo.” Just as the apostle Paul visited
the place where idols were worshipped and found ways he could use them as evidence
of the One True God, Christian moviegoers and critics are beginning to engage
in rewarding dialogue inspired by contemporary movies in online chat rooms and
church basement discussion groups. A recent summary of
Christian critics’ views on “X2” prompted a letter from its producer thanking
us for “getting it.” When I told the director of two blockbusters that I appreciated
the spiritual questions in his latest drama, he said he was shocked to hear that
“from a Christian” and started asking about faith. How many opportunities like
that have we missed in our hasty rush to “clean up Hollywood”?
RENDLEMAN: People of faith will make a difference in the world
when they follow their callings. As filmmakers, they will effect change by telling
meaningful stories and developing their artistry. Religious audience members will
do well to become discerning, thoughtful critics. If their points of view give
them something intriguing to say, and they say it well, people will listen.
Q: Should there be a religious movie industry and religious films for
MEDVED: Ghettoizing religious movies and religious messages
is a bad idea. Unchurched and skeptical audiences need religious movies more
than the faithful need them. The most admirable faith-based films convey their
messages subtly, without heavyhanded preaching. Such films can clearly succeed
with general audiences as well as the specialized church-based audiences.
OVERSTREET: Instructive, evangelistic movies can be useful. Just
don’t call them sufficient alternatives for art. The more a work spells out
its meaning, the farther it strays from art’s exploratory nature. We should certainly
not limit ourselves to didacticism or cut ourselves off from God’s revelation in
the art of others. Besides, “Christian” makes a bad adjective. C.S. Lewis said,
“Christian literature can exist only in the same sense in which
Christian cookery might exist.” Who decides which movies are “Christian”? Some “secular” films
point to important truths and reveal the reality of spiritual needs. Some Christians
produce lousy art. It is better we develop “eyes to see” than create subgenres and heighten
the wall between the church and culture.
RENDLEMAN: I’m skeptical of this division, because “religious films” are typically
overtly evangelistic, and didactic art from any worldview is almost always tedious.
For a better approach, look at what Robert Duvall achieved with “The Apostle.” It
attracted diverse audiences not because it was created exclusively for people of
faith, but because it was a complex portrait of a man of faith.
Q: How helpful are movie ratings, and do you believe there are some films
religious persons should avoid?
MEDVED: The rating system is better than nothing but not much better. The PG-13 rating
in particular has become a Trojan Horse, sneaking all sorts of questionable content
past defenses that might otherwise prove effective. Most parents don’t understand the enormous
gap between PG and PG-13 (which is actually much closer to R with abundant
sexuality, harsh language and violence). They ought to give that designation a new
rating of R-13 and enforce restrictions so that children below 13 aren’t allowed
to go without a parent. Of course, there are some movies so degrading that all
religious people all civilized people, in fact should avoid
them. Unfortunately, those movies don’t always earn an NC-17 rating, or even
an R rating, but sometimes qualify, alas, as PG-13.
OVERSTREET: Ratings don’t work. An R rating might indicate a
common expletive, while PG films frequently glorify recklessness, preoccupation
with sex and irreverence. We need to learn our own particular vulnerabilities.
“Everything is permissible” for us (1 Corinthians 6) even R-rated movies
but “not everything is beneficial.” Instead of merely avoiding temptation or
offense, however, we should be aggressive. Jesus says it is what “proceeds out” of a man
that defiles him, not what “goes into” the man (Mark 7). Just as we cut bones
and bruises from our food, we can learn to examine and interpret films rather
than merely absorbing and imitating them.
RENDLEMAN: In terms of content, ratings are informative. If a
movie is rated R, it’s usually for good reasons. And with newspapers and Web
sites at our fingertips, it’s easy to learn why a film has earned its rating.
Still, there are variations within categories. I’m reminded of David Lynch’s line
when he was promoting “Wild at Heart”: “Some people should rush out to see my film.
Others should see it, but they should take a friend along. And others simply
shouldn’t see my movie at all.” The bottom line is that people of faith need
to determine their own thresholds for what they will or won’t see, and the rating
system is helpful in this respect.
Q: What frustrates you the most and inspires you the most about filmmaking today?
MEDVED: After 23 years of reviewing films professionally, my main
frustration stems from the time stolen from my family to attend screenings three
or four times a week. The chief inspiration comes from those rare occasions when
a movie exceeds all expectations and actually makes me forget that I’m working
while watching it unfold.
OVERSTREET: I am frustrated by films that exist primarily to
appease our appetites for recklessness and spectacle. Likewise, I am frustrated
by moviegoers who attend only easy-to-swallow entertainment and fail to help
artistic films succeed. But what a time of opportunity for artists and art-lovers!
Little-known masters are being discovered on the Internet when the American media will not
promote their work. Some, like Hayao Miyazake, prove so popular that the studios
start distributing their work after all. Inventive and thought-provoking projects
such as “Waking Life” are winning fans.
RENDLEMAN: The loss of Golden Age class, style and glamour is
lamentable. What would Cary Grant do in a movie today? At the same time, it’s
always exciting to see how American acting evolves. For example, Susan Sarandon
continues to find intelligent, demanding roles. Forty years ago, the only work
that actresses in their 50s could find was in horror movies. Change is slow,
but at least in some respects it’s moving in a positive direction.
Q: What movie needs to be made, and who would you cast in it?
MEDVED: I would enjoy seeing a film about the brief, glamorous
life of George Gershwin highlighting the Golden Age of American pop culture,
when wholesome, brilliant American movies and music conquered
the world. The fine actor Stanley Tucci boasts an uncanny, thoroughly unnerving
resemblance to Gershwin and would be perfect in the part.
OVERSTREET: Give us the heroics of Joseph (Ewan McGregor) or the
despair of wealthy Solomon (Daniel Day-Lewis). We need stories and documentaries
that explore important and immediate issues and inspire us to action and
compassion. No more Holocaust flashbacks show us Africa’s AIDS epidemic instead.
Enough with the stories about the glory of soldiers show us the effects of
war on those who struggle to survive in the ruins. Give us heroes with higher aims
than revenge. And for once show us a sexy, lasting marriage.
RENDLEMAN: A book I enjoy studying with my students is
Julie Salamon’s The Devil’s Candy: “The Bonfire of the Vanities” Goes to Hollywood,
which is a bird’s-eye account of big-budget American filmmaking. The movie was
not intelligently scripted or cast, and with apologies to Brian DePalma, why
not do justice to Tom Wolfe’s novel and film a four-hour epic? Hire Richard Russo to write
the adaptation and Sidney Lumet to direct. Get William Hurt as Sherman McCoy,
Colin Firth as Peter Fallow, Delroy Lindo as Reverend Bacon and Annette Bening
as Judy McCoy. Keep Melanie Griffith as Maria Ruskin, and we’re in business.
— INTERVIEWS BY CLINT KELLY
PHOTOS BY JIMI LOTT
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