Friday, March 30, 2007

A Travelogue of Dangerous Moviegoing

1:44 AM
f you've ever held a 5 minute conversation with me, you know I love movies. Drama, comedy, romance, action, documentary….they're all great! And growing up in a Christian environment, I was taught that movies were worldly and movies were bad. So I was always confused. There were some truly great movies out there. But they didn't talk about God. And usually ones that did talk about God were cheesy. Was I supposed to love those anyway? It seemed like somebody was ripping God off, giving him the crappy seconds of our artistic, story-telling talent. I thought for so long, Am I alone? Can I be the only Christian who enjoys good movies? Is something wrong with my walk with God? This past month I realized that overwhelming, no, I am not alone. I just finished reading Jeffrey Overstreet's book Through A Scanner Darkly: Looking Closer at Beauty, Truth, and Evil in the Movies. Not only was it a great book, I also felt he had somehow gotten inside of my head for awhile, and wrote about what I loved, thought or feared.

I knew as soon as I read the opening quote by Frederick Buechner I was going to love this book. "The world speaks of the holy in the only language it knows, which is a worldly language." WOW! And then, Overstreet challenged me in the first chapter with "Art needs time to settle in our minds and hearts so that the process of contemplation, discussion and ongoing exploration can open up possibilities that never occurred to us in the theater". There are several times that I've watched a movie and couldn't even give an opinion until after I had mulled it over, thought through its plot, its characters, and its themes.

Overstreet devotes the first section of the book to how we watch movies, and recognizing what movies had a significant impact on our lives. "It's possible we will glimpse the glow of glory, truth that cannot be reduced to a simple paraphrase glimmering through a screen darkly." We all watch movies for different reasons…to be entertained, to be educated, to escape, or even to live vicariously (trust me, every time I watch Center Stage, I live vicariously!) But occasionally we get more than we bargained for, and more than we expected. We get a glimpse into a reality we didn't realize about ourselves or mankind or God, and it's powerful.

Overstreet had a great analogy on watching film. It's a little long, but so worth it! He calls it a "feast of movies". He equates movie watching habits to eating habits, something we all are familiar with. There is the child movie watcher, grabbing whatever passes by with no thought to harm, only to have someone reach out and take it from him until he's ready. Things that were tough are digest are replaced with easy, manageable portions. Then there's the reactionary diner. This type of viewer labels everything by just sampling. If one bite is too spicy, the entire dish is ruined. This viewer writes off an entire film because the opening burst of violence. Then you have the casual diner. This viewer is aware of reviews and previews, and in attempt to satisfy new hungers, he goes after what he wants when he wants it. This often leads to the road of the glutton. Consume, consume, consume. Quantity not quality. A literal walking Blockbuster. If living in this space too long, it can lead to becoming an addict, and no addiction is ever healthy. Viewers also suffer from cinematic allergies, by avoiding films of certain subjects. When 9/11 movies started coming in, several people debated whether it was too soon to release a film dramatizing it or not. Being a rape victim may steer you away from a storyline of sexual assault. Viewers that are seduced by nudity, clothing, product placement, or materialism live here. Overstreet relates this to food quite well. "If your friend has a peanut allergy, don't serve him a peanut butter sandwich. At the same time, don't protest the stores that sell peanut butter….The goal should be growth and strength, not mere safety." By watching movies in fear, you risk becoming phobic. It's easy to look at the ungodliness in movies and be afraid it will corrupt us as Christians. But as the Word states "Solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to know good from evil" (Hebrews 15:4) and "Everything is permissible to me - but not everything is beneficial. Everything is permissible for me - but I will not be mastered by anything." (I Corinthians 6:12) Learning how to listen to your conscience and develop your artistic discernment will allow you view without fear, and move into the healthy stage of movie watching, the nutritionist. Like being able to eat a balanced diet, it's just as much a necessity to watch movies with a balanced diet. In learning the difference between "Sofia Coppola's sauces, the exquisite wines of Eric Rohmer and the finer points of Martin Scoreses's pasta", comes true enjoyment and true health. "If dining at the table of movies becomes my primary focus, I am forgetting the purpose of the meal. It is served to give me strength so that I can return to my life stronger, healthier, and closer to being whole."

The book continues on with this intensity of movies and the heart of God that became such a spiritual experience for me. Overstreet recommends title after title, director after director, all the while spurring me on to my hidden dream of becoming a film critic one day! Perhaps one of my favorite thoughts in this book is this "I have a strange compulsion to sit down between Christian culture and secular culture, trying to help them understand each other - and, ultimately, God - better through a shared experience of art." And in that moment I got it. It resonated in my soul in a way I could never articulate and I am forever grateful to have found this book.

For more on Jeffrey Overstreet, see his blog: Looking Closer