From the Wisdom of St. Cinemas, Excerpt 2: Contentious Criticism

The letters of St. Cinemas Criticus are leading me to think about the “tone of voice” in which moviegoers and film critics (myself included) discuss and review what they have seen.

I was reading a review today in which the reviewer went beyond finding fault with a movie. In fact, she condemned the work because of what she found wrong with it, and could not contain her disgust. I was surprised, because other reviewers who had acknowledged similar weaknesses in the film had also spoken appreciatively of the film’s strengths, as if some moviegoers might be blessed by it.

Then I happened upon this curious excerpt from the ancient correspondence of St. Cinemas…

I have witnessed it among you, and on my worst days I have participated in it. I speak of a contentiousness, a mean-spiritedness, a tendency among you to slander and label those who disagree with you. I speak of an attitude in which you argue with ferocious certainty that you are right in your view of a movie, and that those who disagree are fools or enemies. The moment you identify yourself as being in the camp of the enlightened and then pick up a stone to throw at someone who you believe is still in the dark, you cast more than just the stone… you case yourself out of the light. For if there had been any true enlightenment in you, it would have cultivated in you a desire to extend a hand, graciously inviting others to consider what you have begun to understand. Instead, you extend your hand in violence, to strike the offending work, to bash the viewer who disagrees with you, and to punish the offending artist.

So you did not like a Western and found it too violent. But another was enlightened by its storytelling. Be true to your conscience, but speak humbly, as one who may not yet have achieved a full understanding. And do not deprive the one who applauds of his enthusiasm, for he is probably expressing gratitude for something that blessed him. Do not deny that the Truth reveals itself to one moviegoer through one imperfect film even as its imperfections offend another. For while it is important to celebrate excellence where it can be found, it is more important to remember that Truth and Beauty may reach out and touch a moviegoer from even the shoddiest work. And what may seem to you to be a glaring flaw may seem less significant to someone who has been inspired by a strength.

Someone who has actually tasted truth is not contentious in what they say about it. If your views about a work of art are well-founded, it is good to testify, but there is no cause for aggressive or quarrelsome talk. Truth is victorious and cannot be shaken.

Those who convey contempt, those who sneer, those who provoke… whether they represent the truth or not, they betray their own insecurity, or their own arrogance, or their desire to show themselves superior… or all of the above. If someone makes an argument without humility and peaceable behavior, they may have glimpsed a trace of the truth, but they have not taken it to heart. For when truth touches the heart it brings with it a sense of peace; truth assures us that its ultimate victory is not our responsibility but has, in fact, already been achieved.

And now, if you will excuse me, I must conclude today’s correspondence, for I have been invited to watch one of the debates between those who aspire to be our next President. I must spend an hour in prayer, that my spirit may not be baited into the very contentiousness that I have described.

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