Batman & the Joker

If any of you see the new Batman movie this weekend, please report. Tell the rest of us if it is worthy of all of the hype. Thank you.

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?

The vocation of the critic

Some thoughts about the controversy over movie reviews that we discussed yesterday, occasioned by the Christianity Today critic giving “Sex & the City” three stars. . .(This blog seems to have become THE place to talk about this, with even one of the parties to the controversy, Ted Slater of Focus on the Family weighing in, as well as other movie critics. I really appreciate that, Mr. Slater and the rest of you, for your stimulating discussion.) But here are some of my principles for reviewing:

(1) A review is not an advertisement or an endorsement but an analysis. Just condemning or just praising a movie or other work of art is not enough. A good review should yield understanding, not just of the work but of what the work is about.

(2) The word “good” has different senses. It can be used in a moral sense (“helping the flood victims was a good deed”) or an aesthetic sense (“that movie had good acting”). A movie can be good aesthetically and bad morally. Or, to bring the other absolutes into the discussion, a work of art that is true and good may not be beautiful; or one that is beautiful and good may not be true; or any of the other possible combinations. Part of the critic’s job is to sort all of that out.

(3) Not everyone should watch every movie, and thanks to the vocation of the movie critic, they don’t have to. Recall the principle that what is lawful for one vocation may not be lawful for someone without that vocation (e.g., soldiers, police officers, and executioners are called to do what civilians may not). Just as physicians must deal with repulsive diseases, critics may sometimes have to deal with repulsive movies. Not that even critics may fall into sin. If watching a movie is an occasion for sin, the critic should stay away, but experienced professionals usually get pretty detached, like a physician operating on a naked body. But if you can’t be detached, this may not be your calling.

(4) In the case at issue, Mr. Slater reviewed the review in a way that was overly inflammatory. Even if the critic is going to condemn something, there is a right and an effective way to go about it. The purpose of every vocation, as we have discussed, is to love and service to the neighbor, so a sense of compassion can make negative criticism sink in more. And, again, the goal of a review should be to increase understanding, both of truth (as the Focus review does, rightly, in condemning sin) and the work being discussed. While still attacking the review for minimizing the movie’s sexual immorality, the Focus on the Family critic could have zeroed in on what the review both discusses and exemplifies: the plight of single Christians–such as the reviewer herself who raises these issues–who get so little support from the church and are thrown back to the resources of the world, such as “Sex & the City.”

(5) The original review could also have given us more analysis, which might have defused some of the controversy. We are told that the movie has the characters wrestling with relationships. Tell us more about the content of those struggles. What, I think, emerges (based on snippets of the TV series that I have seen) is that what these young women really want is MARRIAGE, and yet their promiscuity undermines that quest. They treat men like they treat their shoes, as consumer accessories for their own gratification, and yet they want much more. What they yearn for is, in fact, God’s design. With that kind of specific analysis, the reviewer could fully engage the movie–praising its artistic qualities, taking it seriously by arguing with it, and leaving the reader with understanding, not just of the movie, but of issues of truth, goodness, and beauty.

So you think you can dance

Then don’t measure yourself against Cyd Charisse, who died this week. Notice how in “Singin’ in the Rain” with Gene Kelley, she projects two polar opposite feminine archtypes: the temptress (the dark lady) AND the romantic ideal (the fair maiden):

Christians reviewing movies

Hey, thanks for carrying the blog yesterday. You alerted me to lots of interesting things, some of which I might blog about. For example, thanks to Tickletext for this:

Is anyone following the mini-controversy over Christianity Today’s 3-star review of the Sex and the City film? Basically, a writer for CT Movies gave the film a qualified, moderately positive review. On the basis of that review, some outraged Christians questioned CT’s commitment to scripture, and CT published a response accordingly. Ted Slater of Focus on the Family then accused CT of “relishing sexual perversity” and endorsing pornography, and called for the magazine to “repent.” Many of the comments on his blog post echoed his sentiments. Others have responded critically to Slater.

CT’s review

CT’s editorial response

Ted Slater’s condemnation

A response to Slater which includes links to other responses

There are interesting questions here. Does a positive review amount to a promotion, as Slater says? In Areopagitica, John Milton says that truth and falsehood grow up entwined together in this fallen world, and we Christians must work to discern the true and the false. When engaging works of culture, is it possible to praise what is good without reveling in what is bad, or must Christians throw out discernment altogether? Furthermore, when another Christian praises what we regard with spiritual or moral dubiety, what should our attitude be?

I want to weigh in on this, as a long time movie reviewer for WORLD, but I’d like to hear what you have to say first.

UPDATE: See the take in Patrol Magazine.

Tedious havoc

Bob Myers, in his comment on the “Dean Jones” post identified my “tedious havoc” quotation as coming from “Paradise Lost.” Milton was criticizing epics that are nothing but battles, ignoring the “better fortitude” of patience and heroic martyrdom; that is, internal battles of character. That applies perfectly to today’s action movies. I am finding mere cinematic havoc–fighting, chase scenes, explosions, special effects–to be increasingly tedious. Seriously. I find myself dozing off during the “action” sequences. There was a time when they were impressive but they have become so conventional, so repetitive, so expected, that they do nothing for me. Am I the only one who finds what is supposed to be exciting in movies to be unexciting?