Who critiques the critics?

Who critiques the critics? February 12, 2007

The makers of The Last Sin Eater seem to be a rather touchy lot. First, on Friday, I got this e-mail from writer/producer Brian Bird (that’s him above, on the right):

Thanks for your honest review, Mr. Chattaway. We did our best with this little film on limited resources. It would have been nice to have the luxury of a big Hollywood budget, but we didn’t, so we strived for excellence in the places where we could find it. We know it’s not a perfect film, but in test screenings, audience members have wept and we got standing ovations, so we’ll take comfort with those reviews if we can’t get the professionals to admire the film. And we’ll try not to be, as you say, so “pedestrian or trivial,” on our next one.

Brian Bird
Believe Pictures, LLC

Now, I haven’t a clue why Bird mentioned the budget, since I sure didn’t mention it in my review, and in fact I even avoided saying anything about, say, the cheap special effects, precisely because I wanted to be kind and to allow for limitations of that sort — but as you can see at Rotten Tomatoes, quite a few film critics have dissed the film on those points, so perhaps Bird was still smarting from those other reviews when he responded to mine.

At any rate, my chief criticisms were on the level of screenplay and direction, and you don’t exactly need a big budget to fix those kinds of problems; you either have the talent or you don’t. I could also have mentioned the music, which sometimes lays it on a bit thick when it tells the audience what to feel at various points in the film; whether it is the composer or the director who is at fault there, I hardly think budget constraints mean anything.

Then, today, my colleagues alerted me to a radio interview that Paul Edwards of the Center for the Study of God & Culture did last week with writer/director Michael Landon Jr (that’s him above, on the left); it occupies the first 15 minutes of this mp3 file.

About half the interview is spent talking about the movie and Landon’s testimony. Then, at about the 8½-minute mark, Edwards asks Landon if he reads reviews of his films. Landon replies:

There are some that are so obvious in their agenda, when they slam a film, and you know that there’s a personal vendetta against the work, because there’s some– You can criticize a film and it’s very subjective, but there’s some great, great things about this film, and if they can’t find any good in it, I know there’s an agenda.

There is no reference to me or my review in that quote, but I would like to hold on to the word “agenda” for a minute. Edwards then reads Landon this part of my review:

The very concept of “sin eating” is so unusual that the film cannot help but be at least a little interesting. However, the movie suffers from the same sense of inevitability that afflicts so many other Christian films; at times you suspect the filmmakers are not all that interested in the phenomenon of “sin eating” for its own sake, but regard it as just another set-up for an evangelistic punch line.

Asked if it was a set-up for a punchline, Landon replies:

Oh absolutely not. I mean, that’s ridiculous. And all you’d have to do– If Peter spent any time with anybody who has turned their life over to Christ, he would know that there is a freedom in that.

And then he responds to some other critics’ criticisms. But this is an odd reply, because he doesn’t seem to be replying to the excerpt that was read to him. What’s more, by skipping over the subject of “sin eating” itself as though it doesn’t interest him, and leaping immediately to the subject of people “turning their life over to Christ”, he more or less confirms my point.

Like I say, Landon goes on to reply to the criticisms made by some other critics, but then Edwards turns the interview back to CT Movies, and he is especially critical of us for naming Children of Men the #1 movie in our “2006 Critics’ Choice Awards” — which is kind of funny, actually, because as I mentioned here at the time, I cast no votes whatsoever for that film. In fact, at this point, I probably share Edwards’ criticisms of that film more than not.

But Landon takes this opportunity to go on to say:

There is definitely an interesting agenda over at Christianity Today. Because they’re just not hammering– you know, they’re not even just hammering my film, as you just explained to me. They’re going after, you know, FoxFaith as if, you know– as if they’re the– as if Christianity Today is the only source where you can find truth and meaning and purpose.

Now that is way over the top. CT Movies is, as far as I know, the only Christian website that regularly looks at the reviews posted on other Christian websites to see what sorts of discussions we Christians are having about current films. So the idea that we think of ourselves as “the only source” for anything is preposterous.

More significant is Landon’s charge that we have some sort of “agenda” against FoxFaith. And while I can’t speak for my colleagues, I think I know enough of them personally to say that we are more interested in evaluating films on a case-by-case basis than in smearing any film based on who happens to put it out.

I assume Landon is simply stating his personal opinion here and not speaking on behalf of FoxFaith, just as when I write my reviews I am speaking for myself and not for CT Movies, per se. But I would still like to clarify that I, for one, have no agenda against FoxFaith. (Or against Bird and Landon, for that matter.)

I do, however, hope that “contemporary Christian filmmakers” can avoid falling into the trap of insinuating that just because they make films with a Christian agenda, it necessarily follows that we are all now obliged to say nice things about their movies.

FEB 13 UPDATE: Paul Edwards interviews CT Movies editor Mark Moring in this mp3 file, beginning around the 46-minute mark.

FEB 16 UPDATE: In addition to his comments here and elsewhere, Paul Edwards devoted the first 20 minutes of yesterday’s show to CT Movies, and then went after us again before the first hour was up; check this mp3 file for all the gory details. Suffice to say he misrepresents us again, and if I had time and energy, I might reply to some of his points, but for now I’ll just point you to the replies posted earlier today by Mark Moring and Jeffrey Overstreet.

FEB 18 UPDATE: Paul Edwards takes a few more potshots. Jeffrey Overstreet responds. And I have nothing further to add.

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