Taking Your Christian Worldview to the Movies: Analyzing Form (Part II/III)

In last week’s article, we reviewed several theological foundations for taking your Christian worldview to the movies. We turn now to how we should use the Christian worldview in our analysis of a film’s form.

Going to the Movies

Going to the theater is a serious business. First things first: Get there early. The hustle and bustle of trying, at the last minute, to purchase your ticket, drink, and popcorn is just no fun, not to mention the fact that you’re worrying about whether the previews have started, ending up on the front row (or else in the nosebleed section), and holding your bladder because you didn’t have time to use the bathroom.

Rather, to ensure a good movie-going experience, get there with plenty of time to spare. Also, make sure that you get a center seat that’s eye level with the middle of the screen. As you sit there, with a burning sensation in your throat from the Pepsi and butter all over your fingertips from the popcorn, people begin to fill the theater as you watch the pre-previews and then the actual previews. Finally, the lights dim, the crowd hushes, and the movie begins. Something about this experience is indeed magical!

How should you watch that movie? Should you simply let it wash over you? Or should you critically (or analytically) engage it? We can enjoy movies, but we should never do so without consciously considering them according to our Christian worldview. In fact, our worldview should shape us such that it directly informs what we enjoy and what we don’t enjoy about a film.

Film Analysis and the Christian Critical Tradition

The Christian worldview should inform how we analyze both the form and the content, to use traditional categories, of a given film. Content refers to the essence, subject, or message of a film; form refers to the techniques or style by which that content is expressed.[1] At the same time, form also conveys content. As Christianity Today senior film critic Jeffrey Overstreet put it, “Style is substance.”[2] Thus, Francis Schaeffer rightly explained that we should examine a movie’s style and message.[3]

The starting point for analyzing a film is Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things” (nasb). Darrell Holley masterfully explains how each criterion in this passage applies to the arts in “The Principles of the Christian Critical Tradition,” an important foundation for thinking through form and content.[4] This article will focus on form, while a later one will consider content.

Form, Style, and Technique

When analyzing a film, we often start and conclude with its content; however, that’s a mistake. Marshall McLuhan famously stated that the medium is the message.[5] Form necessarily communicates something. For example, a movie with shaky, handheld camera shots and loud, warm color tones will often communicate more movement, tension, and even aggression than, say, a movie with still shots and subdued, cool color tones. Another example: Good CGI (computer-generated imagery) can engross the viewer in an otherwise unbelievable world, whereas poor CGI distracts from a movie’s purpose. Even something as seemingly simple as the score can determine whether a scene is dramatic or funny.

Christians and Form

Christians, who sometimes settle for mediocre form, should remember the importance of form. Holley explains, “Moral excellence presented in a technically un-excellent manner says that that morality is slight, unimportant, negligible, perhaps even untrue; moral excellence presented in a technically un-excellent fashion is satire; the style pokes fun at the words and changes the meaning.”[6] Overstreet says, “Much of what passes for ‘Christian art’ in recent decades is, in fact, simplistic, didactic, a message wrapped in mediocrity. Clunky narratives. Obvious poems. Cliche-heavy lyrics sung to derivative music.”[7]

On the other side of the coin, remarked Schaeffer, “We should realize that if something untrue or immoral is stated in great art, it can be far more destructive and devastating than if it is expressed in poor art or prosaic statement.”[8] In short, form matters.

Form at the Movies

Form refers to those technical aspects of filmmaking. These include, but are not limited to, a film’s acting and characters, cinematography, dialogue, direction, editing, images and symbols, plot, pace, production design, screenplay, score, script, special effects, and tone.[9] Some questions we might ask include: Is the acting ridiculous or believable? Is the dialogue hackneyed or fresh? Is the production quality low or high?

The bottom line is excellence: Are the technical aspects of the film excellent? Generally speaking, the more excellent they are, the more significant and memorable the film will be; the less excellent, the less important and more forgettable.

Objective Standards

Many believe that beauty, or in this case technical excellence or quality, is in the eye of the beholder. “Aren’t these things a matter of taste?” you might ask. For the Christian, the answer is no. That position results from a modern, non-Christian worldview that stands at odds with the Christian critical tradition. By contrast, the Christian worldview teaches that artifacts have inherent qualities: artifacts may be true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, reputable, excellent, and/ praiseworthy, or not, or some combination.[10]

“What about differences of opinion, though?” Analyzing the arts is certainly more difficult than, say, analyzing mathematics because they require a different type of analysis. In mathematics, the answer is either right or wrong; in the arts, an artifact is often either good or bad. Analysis of the arts is, pardon the pun, more of an art than a science. However, potential ambiguities and challenges inherent in the nature of art analysis don’t mean that the quality of its forms is a matter of personal preference. Some artifacts are beautiful, for example; others are not.

For example, Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Harvesters is a beautiful painting about the production and consumption of food. This theme is evident in at least two ways: the wheat that’s being harvested in the field compared to the bread that’s being eaten under the tree, as well as the pears that are being grown in the tree compared to the pears that are being prepared for consumption on the sheet. To use the language of Paul, The Harvesters is noble, excellent, and true to reality. By contrast, Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ is an ugly, base photograph of a crucifix submerged in urine. That’s a far cry from Paul’s call to dwell on that which is honorable, lovely, and pure.

The same rationale applies to movies. Some are excellent, while others are not. For example, the opening sequence in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is a good example of the former. From its outstanding tracking shots to its wonder-evoking score to its memorable characters to its set and costume design, Hugo displays excellence at every turn. Robert Rodriguez’s The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl, on the other hand, does not, from its bad effects to its poor sets to its mediocre acting to its off-putting score.

Analyzing Form

How do we tell the difference between excellent form and poor form? We go to the experts. If you have a question about a surgery, you ask a doctor. If you have a question about the law, you ask a lawyer. Similarly, if you have a question about excellence in the arts, you go the film critics. Holley writes, “The work must be spoken well of by those who are in a position to know.”[11] Or as the apostle Paul states, we should dwell on that which is excellent, praiseworthy, and of good reputation, rather than on that which is not (Phil. 4:8).

Of course, many film critics aren’t analyzing the arts from a Christian worldview. At the same time, though, neither are many doctors and lawyers. Thus, while we shouldn’t accept what the film critic says hook, line, and sinker, we shouldn’t just dismiss him or her either. In application, this means that many non-Christian film critics will often get form right and content wrong.

Where to begin? There’s no perfect place to go, but Rotten Tomatoes is a good starting point; it’s a clearinghouse for film reviews. Rotten Tomatoes presents an easy means by which to introduce you the world of film critics: the good, the bad, and the ugly. You can see reviews of Hugo, Sharkboy and Lavagirl, and just about any other movie. In addition, check out Christianity Today‘s reviews.

You won’t always agree with everything that film critics say, Christian or not. The point is that they’re experts of their field, competent and trained in movie analysis, and a helpful resource.

Conclusion

Two hours later, the credits roll, the soundtrack plays, and the film is over (unless, of course, there’s an extra after-credits scene). What now?

Remember the importance of the oft-overlooked element of form. Train your affections and your mind to enjoy that which is consistent with the Christian worldview. Analyze movies through the Philippians 4:8 framework, looking for things that are true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, of good repute, excellent, and praiseworthy.

Discuss your initial opinions and questions about that movie you just saw with your friends and family. Talk about what you liked and what you didn’t. Refine your tastes according to those objective standards of the Christian critical tradition as iron sharpening iron (Prov. 27:17), and, as an added bonus, you’ll grow in community and discipleship as well.

____________________

[1] See James Mooney, “The Importance of Form: Introduction to Film Studies,” Filmosophy, January 29, 2015; https://filmandphilosophy.com/2015/01/29/the-importance-of-form-introduction-to-film-studies/; accessed June 5, 2017; Internet.

[2] Jeffrey Overstreet, “The Christian Message of David Fincher’s Gone Girl . . . (Not Really),” Patheos, October 1, 2014; http://www.patheos.com/blogs/lookingcloser/2014/10/the-christian-message-of-david-finchers-gone-girl-not-really/; accessed June 6, 2017; Internet. Overstreet also writes, “The style and the substance are two different things. We should care much, much more about substance than we do about style,” as a “distressing delusion.”

[3] See Francis A. Schaeffer, Art and the Bible (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1979), 51.

[4] See Darrell Holley, “The Principles of the Christian Critical Tradition,” Integrity: A Journal of Christian Thought, vol. 1 (2000): 153-70.

[5] See Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, The Medium Is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (New York, N.Y.: Random House, 1967; reissued, Berkeley, Calif.: Gingko, 2001).

[6] Holley, 164. See Phillip Morgan, “Churches Aren’t Radio Stations,” Helwys Society Forum, May 17, 2014; http://www.helwyssocietyforum.com/?p=4774; accessed June 8, 2017; Internet.

[7] Overstreet.

[8] Schaeffer, 44.

[9] See “How to Analyze a Movie: A Step-by-step Guide,” San Diego Film Festival; http://sdfilmfest.com/how-to-analyze-a-movie-step-by-step-guide-to-reviewing-films-from-a-screeners-point-of-view/; accessed June 1, 2017; Internet.

See also John M. Frame, “Theology at the Movies,” Frame-Poythress.org; http://www.frame-poythress.org/ebooks/theology-at-the-movies#chapter3; accessed May 14, 2017; Internet.

[10] See Holley, 169-70. See also Frame, who states, “Such concepts as beauty and form are not religiously neutral” (Frame).

[11] Holley, 169.

Author: Matthew Steven Bracey

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