Michael Leary’s Film-think; “No Country” Re-examined

Nobody I know takes the question “What is Christian film criticism?” more seriously than Michael Leary. And so I’m thrilled to find him starting up a new site … film-think where he’s posting his thoughts on movies.

Check out recent posts on

And his post on Southland Tales has reminded me that I need to see this movie!

Also, consider his essay “What On Earth is Christian Film Criticism?” and the follow-up: “How Should We Then Review?

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Speaking of thoughtful moviegoers…

When No Country for Old Men opened on big screens across the nation, a lot of moviegoers stormed out of the theater, frustrated with the Coens’ acclaimed film. Perhaps some understood, but didn’t appreciate the Coens’ perspective. (Or McCarthy’s.)

But most of the Christian media pundits and reviewers who wrote the movie off were not thinking about what it meant. They were instead disgusted that critics and the Academy were celebrating a movie that had not become a hit with the public. Further, they saw a violent movie, and assumed that the film was celebrating violence. They saw a film about an amoral character, and concluded that this movie was corrupting our culture with amorality. (That’s not my presumption about their perspective of the film. That’s what they openly declared.)

We’ve been conditioned to expect that movies will end with a bang, not with a monologue. We’re not used to movies that ask us to think through our experience or wrestle with the unexpected. So No Country, which can be a jarring and confounding experience during the first viewing, sent people away reeling with an experience of the unfamiliar, which some immediately concluded was a bad thing.

Furthermore, many Christian film reviewers wrote the movie off immediately because of the violent and the troubling conclusion, without stopping to consider *why* there was violence in the film, and what the conclusion of McCarthy’s unsettling narrative meant. Some pointed to the Oscars and said, “See? The fact that this film won an Oscar proves that the Oscars are in decline, and that critics are not connecting with audiences.” The rationale: Whatever is popular should be our standard of excellence, and if the audience doesn’t understand a work of art, well, that’s the artist’s fault, not the audience. (And in that case, we might as well burn down the Louvre.)

But this letter to the editor is remarkable. A response to Roger Ebert’s review of No Country for Old Men, it shows how an individual can come to a moment of personal revelation through careful contemplation of every element in a movie… even the end credits! I may not agree entirely with this fellow’s interpretation, but I’m inspired by his thinking, and grateful for a whole new list of reasons to revisit this remarkable movie.

I will hold my ground in arguing that even though McDonald’s sells a zillion burgers, that doesn’t necessarily mean they show us the standards of excellence. And I refuse to believe that those delicious, gourmet feasts being served in specialty restaurants on the edge of town should be condemned for not connecting with a larger audience.

When we start dumbing down art for the sake of connecting, we’re doing our audience a disservice. Artists should challenge us, and summon us to humble ourselves, think things through, discuss, revisit, and discover. It should inspire the audience to grow. Audiences are usually lazy. They want to be entertained, not challenged.

I prefer to get my recommendations from the critics, not the box office. And the Oscars? I’m glad they had the guts to acknowledge some challenging films this year, and to draw audiences in to see unconventional and groundbreaking work experiences that they might not otherwise have discovered.

(To revisit my first-impression review of this year’s Best Picture winner, visit CT Movies.)

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  • http://booksbypatrick.blogspot.com booksbypatrick

    that was a powerful letter… it sprung from that guys real experience and convictions

    and i thought No Country was great… it’s unassumingly unconventional yet (thankfully) never over-the-top.

    you know there are moral implications there, you just gotta do a bit of thinking/searching

  • kenmorefield

    “Ken, I usually try to avoid making my posts about specific critics, and instead address issues those critics raised”

    Jeff, that seems to me to be the crux of the matter, and I understand your explanation and appreciate your response.

    I remember a few years ago I ticked off someone or another who wrote about how “Christian critics” were responding to Superman Returns and I said something akin to, “don’t you mean how [one particular critic] is posting about the film at [one particular discussion board]?”

    Generalizations can be useful things to keep writing from getting bogged down in particular examples for every point. (i.e. Some people think that Hollywood is liberal or that TPOTC was anti-semitic.) My concern is that it can also be a lazy or offhand way of representing an entire class of people based on a single comment or review…but that doesn’t sound like from your explanation that you were using that rhetorical device. [Though I do note in your response or edits that you’ve moved from “reviews” to comments or responses, which I think probably more accurately conveys the ponit you were/are trying to make and that it is more about the subculture’s response to art and general (and this film in particular) than about the critical (sub) community’s response to this film.

    Grace and peace.

    Ken

  • http://lookingcloser.org Jeffrey Overstreet

    Ken Morefield wrote:

    Who are the “many Christian film reviewers”? Let’s not perpetuate the myth that Christian approaches to film are monolithic just because it might allow us to (at times) situate our review as a corrective.

    Ken, I usually try to avoid making my posts about specific critics, and instead address issues those critics raised. No, Christian approaches to film are not monolithic, and I read several smart interpretations of No Country from Christians who liked the film, and from those who disliked it.

    But there were also the usual flurry of reviews and reactions that were not interpretations at all, but merely complaints and rants that yet another dark, violent movie was earning praise. (Some of these were not posted as *reviews,* but appeared in commentaries on the Oscars.)

    Don’t worry… I appreciate your reviews, and I didn’t read your opinion as being reactionary. Rather, I was responding to those who say, in essence, ‘This R-rated film is just another example of how Hollywood is corrupting our society. Why can’t we have more safe, warm-hearted movies like Bella and Enchanted?’

    Morefield:

    That whole intro seems a little straw-mannish to me.

    Well, I wrote it after scanning yet another complaint about how the Academy had once again rewarded a movie that wasn’t a big box office hit (as if popularity signifies excellence). And I was shaking my head at how so many seemed to see *only* violence in the film, without catching the nuanced dialogue about societal decline, the apparent silence of God, and the faint glimmer of hope that may or may not be only a dream. So the man may be made of straw, but he keeps knocking on my door. I haven’t made him up.

    Morefield:

    Absent citing a specific example, stating that you know why a reviewer rejected a film (much less that you know he/she did so “without stopping to consider”) comes across in a way I don’t think you mean it to…it smacks (to me) a little of the “those who don’t share my likes/dislikes are not not as smart as me” type of criticism that I know irks you.

    Well, I certainly don’t want to give that impression, so I will revisit my original post and consider revising it. I was not presuming, in this case, the reviewers’ motivations, but merely accepting their own explanations for their condemnatoin of the film. Unfortunately, those explanations had little to do with what the film *does*, and more to do with the fact that the reviewers did not get a sermon about Jesus.

    Morefield:

    Hey, I’m a film critic, and I’m a Christian, and I was ambivalent about “No Country For Old Men,” so does mean you know what I did or didn’t consider before coming to that assessment? No, of course not (I know you better)…but that’s how it can read sometimes.

    Thanks for the response, Ken. And I apologize for giving you that impression. I most certainly did *not* have your review in mind. And perhaps I should have linked to specific reviews, but having posted quite a bit recently about certain reviewers, I thought I’d lay off and address a *type* of review instead of calling anybody out again.

  • http://frightfullypleased.blogspot.com Stephen

    What an amazing letter! Mr. Rizzo’s response illustrates one of the ways that great art can provoke the viewer/reader/listener to think about the reality of the human condition. This is a good thing and has a better chance of leading someone to consider eternal realities than the kind of explicitly “Christian”, inoffensive, saccharine art that gets the seal of approval from folks like Ted Baehr.

  • kenmorefield

    Jeffrey, I’m always happy to agree to disagree about a particular film (you liked NCFOM more than I did, apparently), but I wanted to make two comments about this post.

    Who are the “many Christian film reviewers”? Let’s not perpetuate the myth that Christian approaches to film are monolithic just because it might allow us to (at times) situate our review as a corrective. If you have a particular review in mind that did this, why not just name it? It seems (to me) that you strive to keep repeating over and over that one type of approach is not synonymous with “Christian” criticism but then use that approach (or an example of it) as an example of what is standard that you are rejecting or responding against. That whole intro seems a little straw-mannish to me.

    Absent citing a specific example, stating that you know why a reviewer rejected a film (much less that you know he/she did so “without stopping to consider”) comes across in a way I don’t think you mean it to…it smacks (to me) a little of the “those who don’t share my likes/dislikes are not not as smart as me” type of criticism that I know irks you. In fact, you asked your readers once to call you on it if they ever found you doing it.

    Hey, I’m a film critic, and I’m a Christian, and I was ambivalent about “No Country For Old Men,” so does mean you know what I did or didn’t consider before coming to that assessment? No, of course not (I know you better)…but that’s how it can read sometimes.

    My two cents.

    Grace and Peace.

    Ken


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