In my experience of discussing movies online, few people have challenged me to dig deeper and look closer at movies than Ken Morefield.
That’s why I’m enthusiastic about having his as a “guest reviewer” so often at Looking Closer.
So I am delighted to discover that…
Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema will include some of his work. And not only that, it will include essays by several more of my favorite film interpreters: Doug Cummings, Mike Hertenstein, and Darren Hughes. I’ve met these three in person, and they’re great guys with impeccable taste in films.
I’m excited about this book. Congratulations, Ken, Mike, Doug, and Darren.
If these guys started a film studies program, it would be pretty close to ideal, and I’d want to sign up right away. (Of course, I’d have to quit the rest of my life — I can’t even manage to find time for lunch these days, much less movies.) If these four were regularly participating in a film discussion board, film enthusiasts like me would flock to it from around the world. But you wouldn’t find much discussion of the movies that are playing in your neighborhood multiplex. Instead, you’d find discussion of the finest films ever made, visions from all corners of the globe. Not movies that pander to the audience, but movies that ask the viewer to consider what the world looks like from very different perspectives. Movies that the people who pick the Oscars probably don’t even know exist.
I’ll never be able to keep up with these guys, mostly because I can’t even average one movie a week these days, due to the demands of working a full-time job; fulfilling Christianity Today’s film-review assignments (which are usually about mainstream American cinema, not art films from foreign countries); *and* the pressure of deadlines associated with publishing one novel per year. But I’m thankful for the films I’ve discovered due to the discussions in the blogs and reviews of these writers. And I’m grateful to have enjoyed conversations with each of them that sharpened my discernment a little more. I miss those conversations.
Now, sometimes when film critics start talking about the difference between popular movies and art films, they quickly start sounding like snobs. Likewise, when film critics bother to talk about box office hits, they can be quickly judged as simpletons by other film critics. I find this constantly frustrating. I see a wide range of movies, for very different purposes, in very different contexts, and I discuss them daily with different communities.
I go to movies for so many reasons.
- There are those I see because the movies interest me.
- There are others I see because they’re stirring up interest in my community, and I want to participate in that discussion and help illuminate their strengths and weaknesses.
- There are some I attend simply because I’ve been assigned to review them.
- And then there are others I see just because that’s the territory where certain friendships grew and continue to flourish.
Alas, there are some circles of film dialogue that seem to require me to “repent” of these enthusiasms in order to deserve some kind of worthiness, and I’m not interested in reinforcing any such condescension or cliquish behavior. Nor am I interested keeping up with box office hits when so many of them are a total waste of time.
When I’m out on the town with friends on the weekend, I usually end up in the cineplex watching blockbusters. I want to spend time in relationship with those who still enjoy the things we enjoyed in high school and college. We love to talk about sequels and how they measure up. Or we’re looking for a new, quotable comedy that will add new vocabulary to our banter. It’s not a matter of art, it’s a matter of community. Like Madeleine L’Engle said, I don’t think of my age as an isolated statistic. I’m still four, and seven, and fourteen, and twenty-three. I still enjoy today the things I enjoyed then — and that includes ice cream bars and cheeseburgers.
Sometimes, it’s a matter of convenience and capacity. I went to see Iron Man because a traffic jam had caused me to miss a speaking engagement. I suddenly found myself in a part of town where only the only Plan B available to me was a cineplex playing the box office top five. I was frustrated by the two hours in traffic, and weary. Since I knew my local moviegoing friends were across town watching Iron Man, I liked the idea of unwinding later by discussing it with them. So I grabbed a ticket to a showing at the nearby shopping center. I didn’t have the energy for anything demanding, and Iron Man really only requires about 5% of your brain.
Online, I devote a great deal of time to the Arts and Faith community, because I’ve found more than just film discussions there — I’ve found lasting (even life-changing) friendships there, and there’s an openness to discussing the whole range of filmmaking. I can toss around trivia with comic-book fans, or I can discuss filmmakers’ subtle engagement with spiritual mysteries in abstract art. It’s part of a discipline of examining what is popular and uncovering what those movies reveal to us about our culture, our questions, our strengths and weaknesses, and our obsessions. Sometimes tempers flare, sometimes personalities clash, but it still feels like home because it’s okay to be a fan of both Kieslowski *and* the Coen Brothers *and* Disney *and* the X-Men movies. That’s where I met Mr. Morefield, and I’m glad I did.But then, on those days when I’m on my own and I can watch whatever interests me most, I go to movies for entirely different reasons. I consult particular reviewers, take trips to particular theaters, and have very different experiences. Or I rent something that never would have discovered without the help of writers like Jonathan Rosenbaum, who is so interested in the social and political implications of film, or Doug Cummings who is becoming an expert on the state of progress of cinema as an art form around the world.
A copy of Syndromes and a Century from Netflix has been sitting on my television for three months, just so I can watch it again and again, and I wouldn’t have been so eager to see it without the enthusiasm of these writers. (Next up: Private Fears in Public Places.) I have a hard time finding folks in my community who are eager to watch and discuss films that don’t feature familiar celebrities, or that are subtitled, or that don’t have a simple narrative flow. But I don’t care. When I have a day to myself (a rare event days), more often than not I end up driving across town to some out-of-the-way theater where only five or six people are in the audience. And on Sunday, when I’m asked “What have you seen lately?”, my answers usually provoke blank stares.
At the Christian writers’ conference in town last week, someone recognized my name, and asked me what the last movie I saw was. When I said Flight of the Red Balloon, his disappointment and disinterest were obvious. “Have you seen Incredible Hulk yet?” he quickly asked, hoping to talk about something that qualified as a Movie in his vocabulary. We ended up talking about, yes, Iron Man.
And that’s fine. Iron Man isn’t trash. It’s an amusement park ride. But I do tire of talking about rollercoasters and bumper cars. I wish I could have talked to him about Flight of the Red Balloon, which is not an amusement park ride… it’s more like a painting hanging in a Paris museum. But in our two-minute chat, how would I even begin to explain what I appreciate about that film? He didn’t want to talk about art. He wanted to talk about amusement.
So it can be a lonely pursuit, this desire to discover movies that demand to be studied, to find films that I’ll have to see many times to begin to understand and absorb what they have to offer. (My wife would rather read a good novel, and I don’t blame her… I miss out on a lot of great reading because of my interest in movies.) But time is short, and if I have a good opportunity I want to savor an extravagant meal instead of settling for fast food. That’s why I’m grateful for reviewers like these, whose recommendations have been so rewarding, whose blog posts can send me across town just to see for myself what they’re discussing. It may not be what my community wants to see and discuss, but it’s the kind of artmaking that inspires me most.
So I’m pre-ordering Morefield’s book. And then I’ll end up revising my Netflix request list.
Want to grow in your appreciation of film as an art form? Want to discover the best films you’ve never seen? Here are a few places to start: