2004 in review (III): They lost it at the movies

Shrek2 “Do We Need More Christian Movie Critics?” was the first question on Slate‘s teaser for this year’s annual gabfest of the country’s top film critics about the films of the previous year. The question was raised by Armond White, a reviewer for the New York Press, in response to the near-unanimous condemnation of The Passion of the Christ by his fellow symposiasts:

[H]aving spent the year outnumbered — because it seems no mainstream publication will hire a Christian movie critic (and I’m not talking about me) — I have found the discussion [of The Passion] too oppressively lopsided, if not totalitarian. I can only “discuss” this movie on home turf.

White explained that this situation “enrages me, because I have not read a single mainstream review that sought to appreciate Gibson’s basic, powerful imagery on its own terms.” He wondered aloud, “Does atheism rule? Does blindness rule criticism? To have this movie reviewed only by nonbelievers and half-thinkers is tantamount to fascism.” Linking The Passion with Michael Moore’s anti-war pic, he said, “also avoids the film’s aesthetics,” which is pretty much what the critic is there for. Ah, I’ll let White tell it:

Many critics choose to do just that, but I can tell you there are millions of readers who, understandably, feel the lack. They aren’t getting from criticism what they want/need to know about art, mythology, spirituality. They’re only getting objections, recriminations, and remonstrations.

These comments came after fellow critics had damned The Passion as “anti-Semitic shit” and quarreled over who received the most (or best) death threats over their negative reviews of the movie. New York Times critic A.O. Scott explained that the problem was not “a lack of Christian film critics (though I grant that the underrepresentation you cite constricts the debate), but the status of criticism as a secular activity, one that of necessity touches only indirectly on ultimate matters.”

I read (more or less) the entire run of the comments of this year’s movie symposium and I have to say, whatever the problems in the wider world of movie criticism, a less New York, less liberal, less secular, less loopy mix for next year’s critics sure would make it more readable. (Christopher Kelly argued that Shrek 2 was a pro-gay marriage blockbuster. Uh, OK, but if we accept that line of argument, it was also pro-bestiality.)

As far as I can tell, all of the contributors this time were political liberals. To the extent that any had religious ties, they were either lapsed or badly frayed. Armond White came off as the token conservative only because he works at an alt-weekly that used to value contrarianism in its writers, and because the other contributors bristled so easily at the slightest non-anti-bourgeoisie provocation.

If Slate needs to get hold of some conservative and/or Christian critics who aren’t aesthetic Philistines, they might draft Terry Teachout (Crisis‘ critic) or have a look at Christianity Today‘s movie site. If they really want to spice things up, they could draft James “I hate everything” Bowman or the American Conservative‘s controversial film critic Steve Sailer.

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  • http://www.njjewishnews.com Andrew Silow-Carroll

    I’m asking any religion reporters out there for help with a column I’m researching:

    When you are researching a story on “God ad the tsunami” or any other multifaith topic, how do you choose your Jewish expert? Do you pick your source by denomination (and let me limit the exercise: you write for a general interest publication, not a Jewish one, with room only for one Jewish clergyperson, not one each from the major Jewish denominations)?

    I wonder if the first impulse would be to call an Orthodox rabbi, under the impression that you’d be getting a pespective that most closely hews to whatever it is we call “tradition.”

    The local Reform rabbi, on the other hand, probably speaks for more local Jews, but would he or she be offering a truly “Jewish” perspective or one more reflective of liberal sprituality and ethics in general (I neither endorse nor deny these generalizations — I’m just guessing how a reporter is likely to think).

    Or is the best bet to go with a Conservative rabbi, whose movement considers itself grounded in halakhah but open to “legal innovations” (as one popular Jewish reference book puts its).

    Or might you skip the clergy and instead find a professor of Jewish thought who ostensibly would offer a disinterested “Jewish view” with no denominational biases?

    I’d love to hear from religion reporters on this. Write me at ASC@NJJEWISHNEWS.COM

  • http://wetzell.blogspot.com/ dlw

    I would suggest my friend Matt of a Pilgrim’s Digression as a great candidate for being a movie reviewer. http://www.sodsbrood.com/pilgrim/

    He is a Christian, a wonderful writer with an MA in English Literature, wrote a detailed well-done review of the Passion, and is a new convert to political liberalism, though one that wants to avoid just building another brick-wall of ideology for himself.


  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    “.. To have this movie reviewed only by nonbelievers and half-thinkers is tantamount to fascism.”

    White and the people at NYPress have a record of using “fascism” even more loosely than is normal for the radic-lib set. One issue, with his column being given a splash cover-headline, characterized FAHRENHEIT 911 as “fascism with a human face”, without backing up this label with anything more than that Moore is “insensitive”.

    Is anyone going to insist to me that “Fascist” still has any meaning other than “I don’t like Them”?

  • http://www.durblog.net durb

    The only positive reviews I remember about “The Passion” came from Roger Ebert, and from Dallas TV’s Gray Cogill. Cogill made similar observations about the reviews of other critics on a local radio interview, saying that from conversations he had with many, they went into the movie knowing they were going to write negatively about it. Hardly open-minded critical thinking.

  • JoJo

    It’s so funny to see Mel Gibson’s “Passion” juxtaposed with Oliver Stone’s “Alexander”. Both films play loose with the source material. Both films get panned. Both directors blame their critics for having theological prejudices. But Stone gets ridiculed here while Gibson gets our sympathy for being a victim (albeit a VERY rich victim).

    Is it possible that Mad Mel’s Manifesto got bad reviews because it just wasn’t a very good film? Or is that too heretical a notion? Not everyone praises a bloody, manipulative production with an axe to grind. Hey, some critics didn’t care for “Fahrenheit 9/11″ either.

  • http://wetzell.blogspot.com/ dlw

    I think the Passion was an excellent portrayal of the crucifixion.

    It was theologically interpreted and included some non-biblical material, but nothing that went against the original story.


  • Tom R

    > It’s so funny to see Mel Gibson’s “Passion” juxtaposed with Oliver Stone’s “Alexander”.

    One difference is that millions of people saw and enjoyed The Passion (and yes, yes, I acknowledge the irony in citing that — “Give us Barabbas!” etc), whereas I haven’t thought of anyone who liked Stone’s Alexander. Gay groups have criticised it as too “sanitised”. Compared to Michael Moore’s film oeuvre, Stone’s has a negligible constituency. So it’s possible the disputed merits of Mel’s Lethal Crucifix, and the undisputed demerits of Oliver’s Army, are not just in the eye of the beholder?