A movie review to study

Our discussion of movie reviewing has generated both light and heat, with lately Mark Moring, the movie review editor of Christianity Today Online joining the fray, challenging Ted Slater of Focus on the Family, the two principals of the controversy. (Gentlemen, go ahead and thrash it out if you wish, but this blog has high standards of discourse that you must adhere to.) You can follow the argument in the post “The Vocation of the Movie Critic,” below.

But I would like to propose an exercise: Consider this review of the “Sex and the City” film in The New Yorker.

It is a strongly negative review of that film. It too invokes moral reasons, though it says nothing about sex and nudity.

How is it different from BOTH the positive and the negative reviews from Christian critics? Do the latter exhibit similarities, for all their being at each other’s throats, that set them apart from this secularist reviewer? Are there things that Christian critics can learn from this secularist reviewer about critiquing movies and how to write a negative review?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Susan aka organshoes

    The first thing coming to mind, considering your questions, is that this reviewer probably despises the same things Christian critics of the movie despise: this celebration of meaninglessness; this notion that these women are in any way heroines or icons, while indeed to many women fans, they are just those things.
    I appreciate his acknowledgment that there is such a thing of at least too much sex before marriage, and that boasting and joking about it are merely ways of making an unpleasant spectacle of oneself.
    I appreciate likewise pointing out the emptiness of the movie: void of real star power (which used to be a big part of the appeal of any movie–who was in it), void of realism and thus no room for relating to the characters, void of any development of the characters from what they were on the TV–they’re too vacuous for the big screen. Just a big pile of emptiness.
    Yet, he points these salient things out without crying ‘Immorality on parade! God will punish this movie, all who are in it and all who will see it!’
    Yet, that’s exactly what the Christian will see from reading his review (well, not the God-punishing part), while the non-believer will see the uselessness, the utter BAD-ness of the movie, but through their own worldview. They’ll see it as bad movie-making, a bad depiction of the culture, and the women as a bad standard for audiences’ adoration, while acknowledging there are indeed those who adore these women and their story.
    He passes judgment on it both as a movie and as a social statement, but without turning off the un-religious.
    I think Christian reviewers could take a tip from him, and realize that they are describing after all movies and not Holy Writ, and that there is no way to compare one to the other, or to weigh one against the other. And I think they could learn from this review that, the more widely you address a movie–even its immorality and vacuousness–the more widely your view is read, and the wider a sympathetic reception of your view is possible. It would be a way in which Christians could have their voices heard in the culture, without compromising their beliefs.
    As a Christian, you should talk to everyone, whenever possible.

  • Susan aka organshoes

    The first thing coming to mind, considering your questions, is that this reviewer probably despises the same things Christian critics of the movie despise: this celebration of meaninglessness; this notion that these women are in any way heroines or icons, while indeed to many women fans, they are just those things.
    I appreciate his acknowledgment that there is such a thing of at least too much sex before marriage, and that boasting and joking about it are merely ways of making an unpleasant spectacle of oneself.
    I appreciate likewise pointing out the emptiness of the movie: void of real star power (which used to be a big part of the appeal of any movie–who was in it), void of realism and thus no room for relating to the characters, void of any development of the characters from what they were on the TV–they’re too vacuous for the big screen. Just a big pile of emptiness.
    Yet, he points these salient things out without crying ‘Immorality on parade! God will punish this movie, all who are in it and all who will see it!’
    Yet, that’s exactly what the Christian will see from reading his review (well, not the God-punishing part), while the non-believer will see the uselessness, the utter BAD-ness of the movie, but through their own worldview. They’ll see it as bad movie-making, a bad depiction of the culture, and the women as a bad standard for audiences’ adoration, while acknowledging there are indeed those who adore these women and their story.
    He passes judgment on it both as a movie and as a social statement, but without turning off the un-religious.
    I think Christian reviewers could take a tip from him, and realize that they are describing after all movies and not Holy Writ, and that there is no way to compare one to the other, or to weigh one against the other. And I think they could learn from this review that, the more widely you address a movie–even its immorality and vacuousness–the more widely your view is read, and the wider a sympathetic reception of your view is possible. It would be a way in which Christians could have their voices heard in the culture, without compromising their beliefs.
    As a Christian, you should talk to everyone, whenever possible.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    I’m afraid that many viewers of the show wouldn’t get the mockery that the reviewer dishes out here. :^)

    I’m still at the point of noting that with many R rates movies, Christians ought to seriously entertain the question “why bother”? With reference to this movie, anyone who understands the show would understand that whatever objectionable elements there are, they couldn’t add to a plot that didn’t exist in the first place.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    I’m afraid that many viewers of the show wouldn’t get the mockery that the reviewer dishes out here. :^)

    I’m still at the point of noting that with many R rates movies, Christians ought to seriously entertain the question “why bother”? With reference to this movie, anyone who understands the show would understand that whatever objectionable elements there are, they couldn’t add to a plot that didn’t exist in the first place.

  • http://lookingcloser.wordpress.com Jeffrey

    FWIW, Anthony Lane has been one of my favorite critics for a decade or more. He’s consistently thought-provoking, and even when I disagree with him I am better for having read his reviews. He pays enough attention to language that sometimes the cleverness of his wordplay is more worthwhile than the movie itself!

    I’d also recommend Roger Ebert’s reviews. Whatever you think of his sound-bite TV reviews, his written reviews are always interesting, personal, and eloquent. And he reviews *everything.*

    I frequently with Jonathan Rosenbaum, but I admire how Rosenbaum is always conscious of the social, political, and economic implications of a movie. He’s taught me to ask a host of new questions when I watch a movie, and many of them have everything to do with the ethics of artmaking.

    Truth is God’s wherever you find it, and I consistently find as much (or more) truth in the reviews of mainstream reviews than I do in the reviews of Christian reviewers… and it’s often phrased with more grace, as the writers aren’t necessarily declaring moral judgments about other moviegoers.

  • http://lookingcloser.wordpress.com Jeffrey

    FWIW, Anthony Lane has been one of my favorite critics for a decade or more. He’s consistently thought-provoking, and even when I disagree with him I am better for having read his reviews. He pays enough attention to language that sometimes the cleverness of his wordplay is more worthwhile than the movie itself!

    I’d also recommend Roger Ebert’s reviews. Whatever you think of his sound-bite TV reviews, his written reviews are always interesting, personal, and eloquent. And he reviews *everything.*

    I frequently with Jonathan Rosenbaum, but I admire how Rosenbaum is always conscious of the social, political, and economic implications of a movie. He’s taught me to ask a host of new questions when I watch a movie, and many of them have everything to do with the ethics of artmaking.

    Truth is God’s wherever you find it, and I consistently find as much (or more) truth in the reviews of mainstream reviews than I do in the reviews of Christian reviewers… and it’s often phrased with more grace, as the writers aren’t necessarily declaring moral judgments about other moviegoers.

  • http://gpiper.org/katiesbeer TK

    The New Yorker review was funny and reflects my thoughts, for what they are worth. I’ve said those things to my SATC fan and been accused of being hateful and judgmental (so much for the progress of womankind). That cartoon was rather blunt! True, but harsh. Yikes.

    It was sad to read the exchange between the two men in the former thread. That truly should have been kept private. One thing I really love about the internet is the ability to communicate with people in a way not possible before, but we must all be careful not to use it to air publicly things that should be said in private. I know I’ve violated that myself…its so easy to do that in anger or frustration. God bless them both as they find a way to make amends.

  • http://gpiper.org/katiesbeer TK

    The New Yorker review was funny and reflects my thoughts, for what they are worth. I’ve said those things to my SATC fan and been accused of being hateful and judgmental (so much for the progress of womankind). That cartoon was rather blunt! True, but harsh. Yikes.

    It was sad to read the exchange between the two men in the former thread. That truly should have been kept private. One thing I really love about the internet is the ability to communicate with people in a way not possible before, but we must all be careful not to use it to air publicly things that should be said in private. I know I’ve violated that myself…its so easy to do that in anger or frustration. God bless them both as they find a way to make amends.

  • http://lookingcloser.wordpress.com Jeffrey

    Case in point:

    Anthony Lane, reviewing the new hyperactive new adventure flick “Wanted”, imagines the director making a cup of coffee:

    “My best guess, based on the evidence of the film, is that he tosses a handful of beans toward the ceiling, shoots them individually into a fine powder, leaves it hanging in the air, runs downstairs, breaks open a fire hydrant with his head, carefully directs the jet of water through the window of his apartment, sets fire to the building, then stands patiently with his mug amid the blazing ruins to collect the precious percolated drops. Don’t even think about a cappuccino.”

  • http://lookingcloser.wordpress.com Jeffrey

    Case in point:

    Anthony Lane, reviewing the new hyperactive new adventure flick “Wanted”, imagines the director making a cup of coffee:

    “My best guess, based on the evidence of the film, is that he tosses a handful of beans toward the ceiling, shoots them individually into a fine powder, leaves it hanging in the air, runs downstairs, breaks open a fire hydrant with his head, carefully directs the jet of water through the window of his apartment, sets fire to the building, then stands patiently with his mug amid the blazing ruins to collect the precious percolated drops. Don’t even think about a cappuccino.”

  • http://www.geneveith.com Veith

    Hilarious. I think Christian reviewers, among other things, should be funny, if they can pull it off, using humor especially in a negative review. To ridicule vice is the classical function of comedy, and a humorous tone tends to be more effective than one of indignation. A good example of a Christian critic who can do this is Anthony Scaramone, a.k.a. the defunct “Luther at the Movies,” the managing editor of First Things, who still occasionally reviews movies at that site.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Veith

    Hilarious. I think Christian reviewers, among other things, should be funny, if they can pull it off, using humor especially in a negative review. To ridicule vice is the classical function of comedy, and a humorous tone tends to be more effective than one of indignation. A good example of a Christian critic who can do this is Anthony Scaramone, a.k.a. the defunct “Luther at the Movies,” the managing editor of First Things, who still occasionally reviews movies at that site.

  • http://lookingcloser.wordpress.com Jeffrey

    Sacramone’s “The Happening” review was hilarious.

    Still, humor can very easily become mere mockery and derision. I’m reminded of the speech given by that great art critic Anton Ego, who assured us of the true responsibilities of the critic at the end of “Ratatouille.”

    So remember Bruce Cockburn’s song about all of the different *kinds* of laughter, and then look to the king of “Christian comedy”… G.K. Chesterton… to learn how to get your enemies laughing right along with you.

  • http://lookingcloser.wordpress.com Jeffrey

    Sacramone’s “The Happening” review was hilarious.

    Still, humor can very easily become mere mockery and derision. I’m reminded of the speech given by that great art critic Anton Ego, who assured us of the true responsibilities of the critic at the end of “Ratatouille.”

    So remember Bruce Cockburn’s song about all of the different *kinds* of laughter, and then look to the king of “Christian comedy”… G.K. Chesterton… to learn how to get your enemies laughing right along with you.

  • http://rebeccaluellamiller.wordpress.com/ Rebecca LuElla Miller

    Susan said: they are describing after all movies and not Holy Writ, and that there is no way to compare one to the other, or to weigh one against the other.

    I disagree with this point, Susan. I think it is vital to compare one to the other and weigh one against the other. Not in list form, however. That’s where we so often get in trouble—by yanking Scripture away from the principles that make it true and using it to bludgeon someone into doing things our way.

    I happen to believe Scripture was given to guide me in all of life and godliness, and that includes what movies I go see and how I react to the ones I attend. I don’t see that a reviewer should be any different; in fact, I see anything a review says apart from the authority of Scripture as nothing more than personal opinion. Informed opinion, granted. But why listen to a Christian’s opinion over the NY Times reviewer’s opinion? There will be nothing different that the Christian brings to the table if he doesn’t shed the light of Scripture on the movie.

    Ultimately, I think reviewers can do their finest work by challenging their readers to be thinking, to be discerning and stop expecting some Superstar or some organization to tell them what movie they should or should not see.

    That’s exactly why we have the Bible, and we Christians should be studying it daily to know how to apply the principles to the knotty questions of life.

    Becky

  • http://rebeccaluellamiller.wordpress.com/ Rebecca LuElla Miller

    Susan said: they are describing after all movies and not Holy Writ, and that there is no way to compare one to the other, or to weigh one against the other.

    I disagree with this point, Susan. I think it is vital to compare one to the other and weigh one against the other. Not in list form, however. That’s where we so often get in trouble—by yanking Scripture away from the principles that make it true and using it to bludgeon someone into doing things our way.

    I happen to believe Scripture was given to guide me in all of life and godliness, and that includes what movies I go see and how I react to the ones I attend. I don’t see that a reviewer should be any different; in fact, I see anything a review says apart from the authority of Scripture as nothing more than personal opinion. Informed opinion, granted. But why listen to a Christian’s opinion over the NY Times reviewer’s opinion? There will be nothing different that the Christian brings to the table if he doesn’t shed the light of Scripture on the movie.

    Ultimately, I think reviewers can do their finest work by challenging their readers to be thinking, to be discerning and stop expecting some Superstar or some organization to tell them what movie they should or should not see.

    That’s exactly why we have the Bible, and we Christians should be studying it daily to know how to apply the principles to the knotty questions of life.

    Becky

  • Susan aka organshoes

    Becky, while I agree on the importance of scripture as a guide to myself, a reviewer who cites scripture in a movie review will not be talking to anyone but Bible readers.
    I don’t see what scripture says, or even what the scriptures are, in the same way a member of another Christian denomination sees them.
    So, unless I’m reviewing for our church newsletter, using the Bible in my review as a final arbiter of a movie’s value or lack of it, isn’t going to have the effect I’d like it to have.

  • Susan aka organshoes

    Becky, while I agree on the importance of scripture as a guide to myself, a reviewer who cites scripture in a movie review will not be talking to anyone but Bible readers.
    I don’t see what scripture says, or even what the scriptures are, in the same way a member of another Christian denomination sees them.
    So, unless I’m reviewing for our church newsletter, using the Bible in my review as a final arbiter of a movie’s value or lack of it, isn’t going to have the effect I’d like it to have.


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