| |Jeffrey Overstreet is a man of many gifts. To Christian audiences, especially moviegoers, he is best known as a film critic and writer for Christianity Today Movies’ website. To Seattle Pacific University students, faculty and alumni, he is known as an author and editor. To his future audience of readers, he is a writer of fantasy fiction.
Christians in Cinema: Jeffrey Overstreet
I met Jeffrey at the Biola Media Conference after listening to his workshop called “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Confessions of a Christian Film Critic.” He speaks of films, and searching for divine encounters through film, in a way that betrays his love for the medium. He is one of the pioneers of movie critique from a Christian perspective, and to talk with him is to learn new perspectives.
Jeffrey set aside time to talk with us from a conference room at Seattle Pacific University.
CC.com: Jeffrey, how long have you been writing film reviews?
Jeffrey: I've been writing film reviews since I was a kid. Some people kept diaries, but I really liked magazines, so I kept magazines about my life from the time I was 11 or 12 years old. I would write my thoughts down about whatever book I was reading or whatever music I was listening to. I even had little reviews of The Muppet Show. It was the way I thought through what I was listening to. It wasn’t necessarily a hobby; it was something I enjoyed doing on my own.
When I came to Seattle Pacific University (SPU), I was drawn to write movie and music reviews for the school newspaper, The Falcon, just for fun. I thoroughly enjoyed classes on literature and creative writing, where we spent all day sitting around talking about the themes and art of great literature. Why did the author choose one particular word over the other? What did a story mean in the particular historical context it was written in? A lot of these classic books we were reading were about very turbulent situations, and the characters behaved miserably. I realized just how much I needed to revise what I had been taught about story technique.
When I graduated from college I missed those in-depth conversations about literature so very much that I found the best place to continue it was in conversations about movies. In my community, we weren’t all reading the same books any more, but we were watching the same movies. So that’s where I could continue talking about the power of art; what it can show us, what it can reveal about our world, no matter where the art comes from.
When I was growing up our community looked upon movies as corrupt, generally evil, and to be avoided.
CC.com: How did you go from conversations about movies in college to writing about them?
Jeffrey: I was not planning on this being a vocation. Writing fiction has always been my main goal, and what I invested the most time in. When the internet opened up around 1995 – 96, people started putting up their own websites all over the place. So I naturally started looking on the internet for conversations about faith and art. What I found there was basically the same kind of Christian movie review I found growing up: a long list of ways in which movies might offend us.
I wanted to offer something else, and that’s why I created my own website: lookingcloser.org. That’s also when I decided I wanted to offer a different perspective on film and encourage the people to think about the movies they watched, discover their themes, consider the choices and consequences of the character, and also start paying more attention to excellence in craftsmanship.
The Christian movie reviews I was reading might go so far as to say “Cate Blanchett gave a good performance," but I wanted to talk about that more. What was a good performance? How do we tell a good one from a bad one? How do we tell good cinema from bad cinema? And does it matter?
I think excellence does matter. We’re drawn to it, whether we know it or not, because excellence reflects the glory of God. It imitates God. So as I started to put those reviews up, what happened next was very interesting. I had no idea it was going to reach a large audience. I started hearing from people all over the country, all over the world. They were saying, “Nobody will talk to me about movies at my church. Nobody is looking at art this way. If I say anything at my church I get in big trouble, so thank you for acknowledging there is something here.”
I started finding conversations here and there about this very subject. And now, a decade later, every day I visit 15-20 websites where Christians are writing very insightful things, and I’m learning a lot from their experience and interpretation. I think that’s a very exciting development.
CC.com: Do you find a large percentage of readers that agree with you versus vehemently opposing your thoughts?
Jeffrey: It started out at about three-to-one. Three would accuse me of selling out, being worldly, luring people into temptation, and being a “stumbling block.” And one would be excited about my review.
Now, it’s about the opposite. I get more negative email, but get much more positive response. The number of Christians who are excited about interpreting movies has ballooned over the last ten years because the conversation has been spreading. I think that a lot of people have been excited about this all along and they’re finally finding that it’s safe to admit that. They’re finding the voice they need to express what they get out of and appreciate about movies.
I think that’s why Christianity Today took a giant step and created their website. They had not run very many movie reviews in the past, and for a few years they invited me to do a weekly column called “Film Forum.” I would also link to what other Christians were saying about movies. That went on for seven years. Eventually, they opened up their own website — christianitytodaymovies.com — in order to provide sort of a central location for Christians to read interpretations of popular films and find discussion questions for further conversations about the movies. They included cautions for parents and things they should be aware of before walking into a movie, but didn't focus on them or make them the central issue. When we focus on the dangers of moviegoing, it can distract us from the purpose and the strengths of storytelling, and from the fact that we are encountering someone else’s perspective on the world.
If we treated people the way we treated movies in the past, we would shy away from them because of some particular aspect of their lifestyle or personality. I think engagement is a much healthier approach. We should avoid imitating bad behavior, but we should be open to engaging with, listening to, and understanding our neighbors through their art.
CC.com: In your seminar, you talked about the film “Closer,” and you said something along the lines that the glory of God is shown more profoundly by the absence of it.
Jeffrey: A lot of films out there – for that matter, a lot of music and writing – reflect back, as with a mirror, the darkest parts of the world. The worst human behavior; the greatest depravity; people who are truly lost. In Christian art, more often than not, those stories are made meaningful by introducing a Christian or an angel, or some obvious good agent into the story to fix things. But that’s not the way the world works very often. A lot of times people who are truly lost find God in another way, or find their way out of trouble through the awakening of their own conscience. Sometimes they are never found at all.
What interests me is that we can still see God at work in these stories. When things are so bad that we can’t see evidence of him, we do see the wages of sin. Think about Dante’s famous Divine Comedy — there’s a book about the glory of Heaven, but there’s also a book about the inferno, where the main character is taken on a tour of hell. He learns just how miserable life without God can be.
I think a lot of these films about darkness like "Closer," which shows people treating each other miserably, and shows what can happen when we abandon God in our lives. What happens when we live selfishly and treat each other like objects to possess rather than like individuals to love. So to me, a movie like “Closer” can be like that smoker’s billboard that shows you the rotten, cancerous lung. The reason they put that picture on the billboard, ugly as it is, is as a warning. “This is what will happen to you if you do this.” While that may not be a picture I want to hang on my wall at home, I’m glad it’s out there because it’s speaking a painful truth to people who need to hear it.
This gets more complicated because there are a lot of movies that celebrate the darkness and make it look appealing, that exploit ugly things just because people want to buy tickets. There are so many horror films like Hostel and Saw and all their sequels that are making money off the fact that people get excited watching other people get tortured. That is not the kind of movie I’m talking about. That’s not warning you about the dangers of smoking; that’s shoving a cigarette into your mouth. That’s polluting the air.
CC.com: When filmmakers create movies that give incredible glimpses of God, and the filmmakers are not necessarily Christians, where does that come from?
Jeffrey: I'm reminded of Amadeus (the film). The pious Pharisees of that world were just horrified that this rowdy, foul-mouthed, womanizing jerk named Wolfgang was able to write such beautiful music. How did this happen? Well, I think it has to do with the fact that the Bible says that “eternity is written in our hearts,” and that we are all made in the image of God. The glory of God has been made evident to everybody, so we are without excuse. These constant reminders in Scripture tell us that it’s not just Christians who have a handle on what’s true and what’s beautiful. Sometimes artists who are lost themselves in the darkness are, whether they realize it or not, bringing order out of chaos. They are finding design in a world that they might say themselves is meaningless. But when they hold that story up to us and it is meaningful to us, we recognize it as true because we have eternity in our hearts as well.
C.S. Lewis says that artists do not create anything. We simply rearrange and present, put a frame around, elements that God has made. Since God has made those things to speak to us — “The heavens declare the glory of God,” “Every day creation pours forth speech…” — they still do. So it doesn’t matter who films a beautiful sunset. If they show the moment powerfully, the meaning and glory of that sunset it going to shine through.
The same goes for storytelling. When Hamlet, who is half out of his mind, puts on a play of a character murdering another character in front of the wicked murderous king, the power of that evil deed on display awoke the conscience of the king and he stood up and shouted “Give me some light!”
Sometimes that storytelling art from anyone can bring right and wrong, light and darkness into such sharp focus that we can’t help but respond to it in a revealing way. I think about how many mediocre, preachy Christian films have scared off audiences that don’t want to hear a sermon. But recently, Amazing Grace played in Seattle. They played it in one of the most unchurched areas in Seattle, an area you don’t want to wander around alone at night. I sat in the theater watching the film and there’s this amazing moment when the great John Newton, with tears in his eyes, says, “I am a great sinner, but Christ is a great Savior.” The crowd gasped and handed around Kleenex. At the end of the movie there was applause and I said, “What is different about this movie from other Christian movies that they would never sit still for?” Well, the movie was made with beauty that kept people glued to the screen. It was made with excellence so that it reflected a world they recognized as real and relevant to their lives. They saw the darkness of that world so strongly that they recognized the light when it came on; when the truth was introduced.
I think we can learn a lot from that. We can make great art for a culture that desperately needs it, for we ourselves desperately need it.
CC.com: To what, then, do you attribute the willingness of Christians to buy the poorly-made films that have been declared by some to be worthy of placement in a “Bad Christian Movie Museum?”
Jeffrey: I think there are several things. A lot of Christians have not been exposed to great art, so they go to the best of what they know. Unfortunately, that’s setting the bar pretty low. Growing up, we would go to the Christian bookstore and I would go to the art section. There would be a section called “Photography,” with very mediocre pictures there. They would be sunsets, mountains and waterfalls with a verse stuck on them. It seemed the feeling was if it was just a photograph, it was pointless, meaningless, and you had to put a verse on there to make it meaningful. That contradicts what the Bible says about the beauty of creation — that it speaks for itself. But that was all I had growing up, so I didn’t understand the point of having a photograph of a landscape on the wall unless it had a scripture on it. But as I came to understand more and more what art was about, I realized it was narrow – telling me what it meant, boiling it down for me so I didn’t have to think about what it meant. It also boiled it down and limited the possibilities for what that photo was about. So I think Christians have not been exposed to great art or taught how to interpret it very well.
I know I’m making a gross generalization. There are many Christians who appreciate great art.
Another thing we need to think about is this: A lot of entertainment and art in any culture is popular because it’s what we want to hear. It’s what we already know and agree with. We like to hear stories that make us feel good about ourselves; hear stories that say Christians are good, Christians win awards, Christians win championships and get their prayers answered. Women who want to be pregnant will get pregnant if they just pray. We like those positive messages that tell us that we were right.
But art, when it tells the truth, often makes us feel uncomfortable. Art will tell us that our prayers aren’t always going to be answered in the way we want them to. You aren’t as righteous as you think you are. Christians don’t always win. In fact, if we’re to believe Scripture, we should believe Christians are more likely to suffer than others. In fact, following the road of Christ is a path of carrying your own cross.
I find that art that shows us what the world is really like, how hard life can really be, just makes us uncomfortable. So that becomes unpopular. We would rather watch over and over again movies about the Christian football hero who wins in the end.
CC.com: That brings us back to the point that movies are seen as a form of entertainment rather than a vehicle to explore truth and culture. Is there a happy medium between the two? It seems there is a lot of tension surrounding what people think Christian filmmakers should do. On one hand, there’s a group that says it should be edgier, everything can’t wind up happy, and we need to be more realistic. On the other hand, be true to your calling.
Jeffrey: I don’t intend to single out movies with happy endings as bad. But when I was growing up, that’s all that Christians watched or read. Anything that was complicated or had the harder part of life was rejected. If you make a habit of that, it warps your understanding of the rest of the world, and makes you very uncomfortable once you step outside the boundaries of your Christian culture.
Having seen so many Christian films with happy endings that happen when you pray, I’m more interested in seeing a more complete picture that addresses what happens when you don’t get the answer you want. But we do need a balance.
Look at Chariots of Fire. It was full of answers to prayer and thrilling victories and signs of grace. But because it was such an honest film, we could also see the disappointments and struggles. And we could also see it wasn’t just Christians who were experiencing good things. The Jewish character, Harold Abrahams, also won. Some of their other countrymen won for other reasons at the Olympics, and there were things to learn there too. I think it’s a matter when you frame your story to consider what are you leaving out, and what are you including? Are you making it look like if you find Jesus, you’ll live happily ever after? That’s not a very complete picture of the Christian life. If you say it’s all hardship and a happy ending is a lie, well that’s not a complete picture either.
CC.com: What are some films recently that have been under a Christian banner, or openly publicized as faith-based, that have succeeded? Are there producers and directors that you feel have provided us with stories that show the uncomfortable side of faith? Have you identified some filmmakers that should be watched for their work?
Jeffrey: Absolutely. I would say that some of them are Christians that have released films under the faith banner. There are others that would fit beautifully there, but they have been released into the mainstream market by people who aren’t even Christians, yet their films offer a very powerful, truthful vision of faith. Let me give you a couple of examples.
The Second Chance – directed by Steve Taylor and starring Michael W. Smith. A lot of people missed it, but I think it’s worth tracking down because it portrays conflicts within the church that are very real and speak to issues that certain churches are dealing with right now. The film did not do very well and I read again and again that the reason it didn’t do well was that Christians don’t like to sit down and watch movies about trouble within the church. I even read protests that this film is talking about things that we shouldn’t discuss openly; that we should only talk about in the privacy of our churches. Well, I don’t think we are going to stand much chance of changing if we keep our own sins hidden. We need to admit that we are flawed and struggling, and there is a lot of reconciliation that needs to be attained. I think that’s what Steve Taylor was getting at in that film, the difference between inner-city Christian ministry meeting the needs of the poor, getting by on very little resources, and the way that some mega-churches work. They get so caught up in how big they are and in production values that they forget about the poor. It was a very powerful story. I was even impressed with Michael W. Smith's acting. That’s one that got overlooked, unfortunately, and deserves a bigger audience.
I would also point to Scott Derrickson as a director who is trying to tell powerful stories about good and evil and spiritual warfare in such ways that people come away from it talking about good and evil. He directed the box office hit The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which I wouldn’t recommend for small children, and even some grown-ups. It’s very disturbing. But it’s also very true. Demon possession, if we are to believe the Bible, is a very real thing. It is happening today, and we should take that very seriously. Both times I saw the film, I walked out of the theater listening to the people around me. They weren’t talking about what was the scariest part for you (like they often do after a horror movie). They were asking, “Well, do you believe that?” "Do you believe in demon possession or do you believe it’s just a psychological disorder?" Well, that is making a difference when you stir up questions like that. I’m excited to see what Scott Derrickson does next.
I also loved when the Veggie Tales videos came out. I would sit and watch those videos with my nieces and nephews. I was so impressed with the imagination, humor and intelligence of those little cartoons! They were packed like The Muppet Show or Monty Python with humor that worked for children, but also with subtle things that adults would enjoy. Sometime the kids would get bored and leave the room and I would stay glued to the set and watch them myself. I think that’s a great standard to set.
I’d also point out a couple of other movies that show what can happen when we take the time to tell these stories with surpassing excellence. One of them is called Sophie Scholl: The Final Days. It won the Oscar two years ago for best foreign language film, and yet 99 out of 100 Christians I’ve talked to have never heard of it. It was directed by an atheist who didn’t go into this wanting to spread the gospel. Yet he was so powerfully moved by this story of a Christian German woman who spoke out against the Nazis and was dragged into interrogation that he knew this was the kind of story that could command the audience. So that film basically follows this Christian woman through her capture and interrogation. When she is interrogated, it is as intense and frightening as the conversations between Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs. What we see over the course of that story is a powerful Christian testimony and I would encourage Christian adults to sit down and watch and discuss that. We’ve rarely seen faith represented as powerfully on the big screen as we do in that film.
CC.com: Some have surmised that the relative youth of filmmakers, which prevents them from having much life experience, is keeping them from gaining studio support for their films. What do you think of that?
Jeffrey: Both Christian and mainstream filmmaking are affected by the studios’ need to run a successful business. In their minds, what makes money is glamour, violence, sex, and people who speak with foul language. If they don’t see certain things in a script, they won’t invest in it because they think they won’t get their money back. A lot of people look at that and say “Hollywood is against Christianity.” I say, “No, Hollywood is pro-profit,” and that’s too bad because money is an idol. As a result, you end up with storytellers of all kinds, faiths, lifestyles, making independent films because their story is so personal and valuable that they will invest their own resources in getting their films made. And a lot of times those movies do end up bringing in a huge audience because what Hollywood doesn’t get is that we respond to passion.
We can sense the urgency and passion behind those stories, and that draws us to the edge of our seats. Look at Little Miss Sunshine. After it was winning awards the studio jumped onboard, but not before. Again and again we’ve seen these independent little films rise up and become world-changing works of art because the artist understood the integrity of the story while the big studios didn’t perceive the money-making potential. So I think a lot of the great films, and a lot of the great films made by Christians, will be independent because they don’t play by the rules of money-making.
CC.com: What are some stories that you wish filmmakers would tell?
Jeffrey: How about Auralia’s Colors, my novel? [laughs] (I’m just kidding, but hey… why not toss that idea out there?)
There are some stories that, if they’re told the way they’re told in the Bible and not cleaned up for 5-year-olds, would make very powerful films. Take the stories of King David, or Samson, or Solomon, for example. When they’re edited so they’re suitable for young children, that’s fine, but it’s not going to bring the full power of the story. Personally, my favorite story in the Bible is the story of Joseph. It’s loaded with suspense, surprise, cleverness, humor, and incredibly powerful emotional moments when he shows grace and forgiveness to his family. I can’t believe no one has brought that to the big screen! Look at the scene with Potiphar’s wife when she tries to seduce him!
I think there’s a great, or maybe several great, films to be made about the life of David that include the whole story. I know there are projects in process about the Apostle Paul and a couple about Mary as well. I think we’re sitting on a whole library of stories about great Christian missionaries and saints that could help counteract Hollywood’s preoccupation with pedophile priests. But I don’t want to limit it to that. I don’t want to say that all the great stories are about Christians.
I think there are great stories all around the world in places where Christianity hasn’t arrived and taken root yet, where we can still see the glory of God at work in people’s hearts and lives and in creation. When I see something like “March of the Penguins,” there’s not a whole lot there announcing Christian faith. But if you watch it through the lens of faith, how can your faith not be strengthened by the awe-inspiring beauty and power of what God has made?
If we make those documentaries, we need to be careful not to hit people over the head or they’ll run away! It’s better to show them what God has done so beautifully so that they ask on their own. They should leave the theater asking “How could this be an accident?” or “How could this be meaningless?” or “How could the world be doomed? Clearly there is a creative, benevolent influence at work here.”
CC.com: What are you doing in life beyond writing film reviews for Christianity Today and “Looking Closer?”
Jeffrey: I'm writing and editing a magazine called Response for Seattle Pacific University.
Before that, I was working as a technical writer for the city of Seattle, in the department where they take care of all the land use issues. I would go home and work on the movie reviews at night. It didn’t take long before I became anxious about wanting to have a more creative role to play. Seattle Pacific invited me to come and work as a writer for their magazine, and as of a few weeks ago, I’m one of the contributing editors. It started as an alumni magazine, but it’s growing and reaching a larger audience and focuses more on subjects relative to the whole culture, not just what’s happening on campus. I’m really excited about the magazine. I’m also working on some of the marketing efforts to spread the word about the school.
I attended SPU from 1989-94, and I really admire this school because, contrary to some other Christian schools that I’ve had some experience with, they really strive to fulfill their mission statement: “Engaging the culture, changing the world.” They don’t want to build a wall between Christians and culture. They want to go out and be so busy doing such excellent work within culture that they change it. I get very excited about that. That’s why I love working here.
CC.com: Your novel Auralia’s Colors is a fantasy story. Can you give us a snippet about that?
Jeffrey: My passion for movies is about 1/10th of my passion for writing fantasy stories. Since I was 7 years old, I’ve been in love with fairy tales. I've been a huge fan of J.R.R. Tolkien since I was 8, when I first read The Lord of the Rings. I read it again, and again, and again.
I’m such a fan of the power of fairy tales to illustrate spiritual mysteries, to talk about the Kingdom of God in ways that more realistic or traditional storytelling does. I take the view of C.S. Lewis and Tolkien that the imagination of fantasy gives us a way of exploring spiritual mysteries like grace and redemption that our own everyday terminology has trouble conveying. I didn’t understand that as a kid, I just liked the stories! I liked the monsters, heroes and creativity of that genre.
For the last 10 years I’ve been working on this book Auralia’s Colors as a sort of “Thank you” to Tolkien for just how much he enriched my childhood. It’s also a way of exploring. So many artists and storytellers go into it because they want to “deliver a message” that they leave themselves very little room for discoveries. I wanted to create a world and explore it to see what was there. I’ve become so excited about these characters and what’s going on in the story of this little girl Auralia, the way her creativity changes the world around her.
She’s an artist that lives in the woods. She brings her mastery of color and creative work into various cultures who are awestruck by what she can do with color and that she uses colors they’ve never seen before. All kinds of things happen. People in power want to exploit her and use her work for their own agendas. Others are dazzled by it and they come to understand the world is a richer and bigger place than they ever imagined it. So there’s an inevitable clash between the various perspectives on Auralia and her work.
That’s just the first book in a 4-book series called “The Auralia Thread.” It will follow Auralia and her work into all these different societies and lives and see what it does to people when they encounter beauty like that. So there’s a real connection between what I feel about the power of art on the big screen and what I’m discovering about Auralia.
The first book will be out in September. I’m about halfway through the second book. I wrote short versions of all 4 books so I would know where the story is going. As I write the full-length versions, there is a greater level of detail as I write it for audiences who will read it for the first time. Then I’ll have to read reviews of my own work!
CC.com: What are your writing habits, and how do you keep track of the various things you’re writing?
Jeffrey: In order to keep my love of fiction writing alive in the middle of everything else that I’ve had to discipline myself to write everywhere I go. I write on the bus, to and from work in the morning and evening. I write in the evenings. I write on the weekends. I get inspired during my pastor’s sermons. I’ve apologized to him and said “Your sermons are so inspiring that sometimes halfway through I lose my concentration and get inspired for a story.”
I also have to say that by the grace of God I was inspired to marry “strategically.” [laughs] My wife Anne is a huge fan of fantasy literature and so she’s a great editor and my best critic. When most people go out on a Friday night and go to a movie and dinner, we go out to a coffee shop or get on a ferryboat here in Seattle and write in our journals for two hours. To us, that’s a perfect evening.
CC.com: How did you meet Anne?
Jeffrey: The best story would be that our creative writing instructor at SPU played matchmaker, but we didn’t understand that’s what she was doing. We parted ways and Anne doesn’t even remember me from that encounter. It wasn’t until she visited a reading group that I had organized several years later that we met again. That time it worked! It’s funny because my instructor said at one point, “Well, it just seemed inevitable that the two of you would get together.” I asked what she meant, and she said, “I set the two of you up for a date at one point." Neither of us realized she had intended it as a date.
CC.com: Is there a favorite place y’all like to travel?
Jeffrey: We tend to gravitate to quiet places that take us away from the noise of city life. My wife is from New Mexico, and we like spending time in the desert outside of Santa Fe and Albuquerque. We love the Oregon coast; places where you feel very close to the power of God through the parts of creation that are shouting. That’s where we go when we get the chance.
It’s tricky. To be able to write well, you have to be able to listen to everything around you, and that’s very difficult in this frantic, big city life. That’s been one of the drawbacks of becoming so busy as a film critic. It’s been harder to have the kind of meditative life you need to make art yourself. We’re always wrestling with how to strike that balance better.
CC.com: What’s something in your day-to-day activity that would surprise someone who reads your work? Something that might contradict who people think you are.
Jeffrey: I ramble on so much on the internet that I don’t really have many secrets. While I go and on about art that reveals the darker part of reality, I’m an enthusiastic fan of children’s stories. I’m a huge fan of the Muppets and Winnie the Pooh. I literally cheered yesterday when I saw a headline that said Season 2 of the Muppet Show is coming out on DVD.
It’s so hard to write well for children. People tend to give their kids whatever comes along, and don’t think that kids need complicated entertainment. But kids learn from what they’re given, and if we aren’t giving them the very best stories, they won’t learn to appreciate great stories. And they won’t learn great lessons from great stories. That’s why Jim Henson was so meticulous about writing great stories. I think I owe as much to Jim Henson and Tolkien as I do to Milne, people in my church, and even teachers I had in school. They cultivated my imagination, so I still collect Muppet memorabilia. I have Star Wars stuff in my study. I collected Lord of the Rings toys as a grown-up because I always wanted them when I was a kid and there weren’t any.
It’s easy to lose track of that child-like imagination. It’s easy to remain childish, to be reckless and foolish. But it’s also easy to lose that kind of wonder you feel as a child when you go see Snow White and the Seven Dwarves or The Muppet Movie for the first time. It’s an invaluable kind of imagination. I love what Madeline L’Engle said: “I’m not just 52. I’m also 45, and 21, and 14 and 7.” It’s like the rings of a tree. It’s all still there. We should be expanding our ability to enjoy things instead of eliminating our ability to enjoy things. So I’m a huge fan of Pixar because they tell some of the best children’s stories that have ever been turned into films. I can’t wait for Ratatouille.
CC.com: What five movies not made by Christian filmmakers and/or ignored by the church would you recommend as ones that display the glory of God through this art form of film?
Jeffrey: Babette’s Feast shows how storytelling can reveal the glory of God. There’s a series by Krzysztof Kieslowski called The Decalogue that is a series of shorts, with each one based on one of the Ten Commandments. The stories are told with such subtlety that sometimes people debate at the end of the films which one they are about. It’s a great example of spiritual storytelling.
There are great films about great Christian characters, like Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, Dead Man Walking, A Man for All Seasons, and of course, Chariots of Fire. I think people in the church may be aware of them, but may not have discussed them thoroughly. I hear people talk about Eric Liddell, but it wasn’t just about him; there were other characters. Dead Man Walking wasn’t done by Christians, but it’s a powerful witness and it raises all kinds of great questions about justice, the death penalty, grace and forgiveness.
A personal favorite is a film called Wings of Desire that was filmed in Berlin before the Wall was torn down. You saw the effects of that wall on the people who lived there. The film was told from the perspective of angels who descend on Berlin. They’re invisible. They sit on a bus where they sit with people and hear what they’re thinking about. They follow a woman on a bicycle with a baby strapped through her back. Or they drift in through an apartment window to hear a husband and wife fighting.
They’re searching for the glory of God reflected in human behavior, and one of those angels becomes quite enamored of a trapeze artist; a woman who performs in a circus. He sees in her beauty, grace and glory, and he decides he wants to become a human being in order to understand these people who are made in the image of God. So he takes the plunge and becomes a human being. As he does, he runs around trying to do all the things he’s seen people do. In the process of that, he reminds us of the glory and the privilege and the sacred nature of the simplest things. When he gets a cup of coffee and takes that first drink it’s almost like communion. He’s so thrilled to finally understand the mystery of coffee!
It’s in black and white; it’s subtitled and slow-moving without a lot of action or suspense. But the more I watch it the more it tunes my mind and my senses to remember that all of these things are opportunities to encounter God’s grace. And that is a very healthy thing for me in a very busy day to day life, to remember to appreciate those things.
CC.com: Who are some Christian filmmakers that are getting it right that you think should be watched?
Jeffrey: I’ve mentioned Scott Derrickson; I’m very interested in what he’s going to continue to do. I don’t know about his affiliation, but Terrence Malick, who made Badlands and Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, and most recently, The New World, is someone to follow.
I don’t know if he would identify himself as part of any particular denomination, but I get a very powerful sense of his Christian sensibility from the way he tells a story. In his films, nature around him becomes a part of the story. He’s as interested in the grass and trees as he is the characters in his story. The more I watch his stuff, the more I realize the grass and trees are important, that they’re saying something about what’s going on.
When there’s this terrible trauma going on in Pocahontas’ life, he’ll just let the camera stray toward a tree. It’s been broken, yet is still growing toward the light, and it’s still beautiful. Because of little things like that along the way, you start asking, “Why is he spending so much time showing us the reflection on the water? Why so much time just walking through the woods?” Well, it’s because he’s bringing you into a way of experiencing the world that’s more complete and attentive than the sensational gunfights and actions and kisses and all the stuff we’re accustomed to seeing. He’s reminding us that the pauses between all that are sacred too.
CC.com: Jeffrey, you've been very generous with your time. Thank you so much! I encourage all our readers to check out Jeffrey's blog .