25 April 13 // Reading Film in a Theological Way

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One of the greatest problems in religion in a ([post]post)modern era is the absence of good storytelling. For a hundred different reasons, the zenith of our storytelling abilities seems to have been -ironically – lost. In my own faith, Christianity, I lament that our most celebrated films are Left Behind and Fireproof, or are qualified by the title Christian filmmaking. To me, that qualifier sends a clear message: This will be bad, but we get a free pass since it’s Christian. And if you don’t like this film, then you’re not a good/faithful/enlightened person of faith. 

A few years ago, I worked in television production. I don’t talk about that time much, but I worked at a news station, and left to build a communications division for a church. I was good. Not the best, but certainly good, and if I’m being candid, I wanted to work my way into independent film production. But then suddenly, I left. I looked around and, in a season of deep depression, walked away from all of it because I came to believe that my faith, Christianity, simply wasn’t any good at telling compelling stories. So, I did what anyone would do. I went back to school and, much to my father’s disappointment, got a Masters in Literature.

I’ve always loved stories. Talking about them, reading them, telling them, and it’s a gift when people share their life stories with me. If you were to meet me, within an hour, I will have tried at least five time to “mine” your life for your story. Who are you? Where are you from? Where are you going? What is your arc? Who are the secondary characters in your life – spouse? Kids? Friends? Music? Tell me about where you belong in the world. I began giving away my movie collection, because that is how I deal with this – I deconstruct and rebuild in a healthier way. I had to get rid of anything that would influence how I saw things – those movies that might sway or influence how I understood what a good film or story was.

Out of that time, I started making notes. What are some of the factors that make a story good? What makes a film worth watching? Naturally, I studied Joseph Campbell’s model of the hero’s quest. In it’s most simplistic form, Campbell’s model is separation, initiation, return. in it’s more complex variation, there are some 17 stages or points. It’s all heady stuff, but contributes to the patterns we see in religion, myth, literature, film, and human experience. We understand that “it’ll be okay” based on this model. After all, aren’t good stories, good films, those that most accurately capture our own experience, even if they are outside our experience?

Take Boogie Nights, for example. I am not a pornstar, but the film resonates with me in the way that I understand my friends and social circle. Or the alienation that Belle feels in Beauty and the Beast because she has spent her life with a nose in a book… and turned out alright, even though one of her parents wasn’t there. That resonates as well. Or what about the way that Cast Away reminds me of the ways that I superficially shut people out until I am stranded in my own loneliness, like Cast Away?

Here are a few questions to help deconstruct a film in a safe, easy, and convenient way:

  • Did you like the movie? Did it “work” for you? (affect)
  • What are the narrative elements: character, plot, tone/point of view, atmosphere?
  • Does the title of the film tell you anything? Why was it chosen?
  • Looking at the opening scene and closing scene, what do these bookends tell you about the filmmaker’s vision?
  • What are the primary metaphors, images, or symbols?
  • Paying attention to the editing style, what is the visual shape, structure, or perspective?
  • What do the music choices or score convey or emphasize about the scenes they are used in?
  • What are the themes or central questions about life posed in the film?
  • Thinking outside of this particular film, what does the filmmaker’s other films – their body of work – tell you? Are the works consistent, or are they moving in new directions? How and why?
  • What do you know about movies in this same genre?
  • What theological/ethical questions/issues/perspectives does the film suggest? From your own perspective, how can you engage with the film?
  • What are the three acts? Are they clear? Is there something significant about the setting the turn happens in? Is the transition effective or muddled in some way? What lingering questions or doubts exist (i.e. “are left unresolved”) after each?

Cont. pt. II (coming soon)

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