Today at the Gospel Coalition website, three pieces posted regarding Christians in filmmaking – one by Brian Godawa (you should read his book Hollywood Worldviews if you haven’t already), one by Joe Carter, and one by me.
I wanted to take a moment and respond to Joe’s piece in particular. You might take a moment to read Joe’s piece and skim some of the comments. Joe wrote a provocative piece, and devoted significant real estate to assaulting The Tree of Life by Terrence Malick. Below are my responses to Joe’s points.
On point 1 – “Don’t Be Ashamed of the Christian Label”
I think things are more complicated than this. To eschew the “Christian” label for your films or (your work as an artist generally) is often not rooted in a denial of faith or a denial that faith impacts your work. In the case of most vocational Christian artists that I know, they resist the label because they don’t want their work sidelined into the Christian subcultural ghetto. Christian Music doesn’t merely mean music made by Christians or with a Christian worldview – it’s a genre in and of itself, with its own section in the few record stores that remain in the world (or in iTunes), and its own commercial market.
On the one hand, many Christians don’t want to narrow themselves to this market. On the other, they don’t to be forced into the box that the subculture demands – clear messages, inoffensive content, etc.
On point 2 –Don’t imitate Terrence Malick.
I’ll initially agree with Joe. But for that matter, don’t imitate Spielberg, Scorcese, Tarantino, the Coens or the Farrelly brothers either. Better to experiment and find your own unique voice. Other than that, I think just about everything Joe has said about Malick is wrong.
It strikes me that he doesn’t like Malick’s style. I’m not offended by that. Malick has a fairly narrow audience for his long, meditative films. So did Andrei Tarkovsky and Stanley Kubrick. They too have meanderding, meditative styles, and their work remains well-loved and respected for its unique vision and lasting impact, even if their fan base remains small.
But Joe goes a far step beyond that… saying Tree of Life fails as a work of art. That’s a bold claim that the majority of critics and film buffs would disagree with.
In the comments section, he criticizes Malick’s film for being a “tone poem”, as many have called it. Joe makes the “form and function” argument – that art genres have rules that must be obeyed in order to succeed as a movie, painting, or sculpture. There are two problems with the form and function argument though.
First – who makes the rules? Russian cinema is radically different than American cinema, with a different recipe for success. The same is true for Indian “Bollywood” cinema. Whose writes the form and function rules? My point is this – such rules are culturally conditioned, and will inevitably derive from someone’s cultural preferences.
Second – one must take into consideration the fact that art forms and rules are transient. Beethoven broke from classical music’s rules and paved the way for romanticism. Nathaniel Hawthorne broke the rules of narrative and took the story inside the minds of the characters. Elvis Presley merged country and blues, reshaping pop music forever. Art evolves as artists pioneer new forms of expression and new layers of communication.
It seems to be this “form and function” argument that makes Joe say that Tree of Life (ToL) “fails as a film.” I would argue that Malick’s approach to storytelling is an evolutionary step, following on the heels of Kubrick in particular. I would also argue that his impressionistic approach is surprisingly effective at telling a story, connecting emotionally, and arresting the viewer with a transcendent visual experience at the same time.
As for the the message of ToL, Joe argues that it’s not a “Christian” film because the god of ToL isn’t the biblical god. We don’t see Jesus – just an impersonal, distant force who (Joe argues) doesn’t care about his characters. To this, I’d argue that Joe hasn’t really dealt with the juxtaposition that drives the film – the contrast between “nature” and “grace”, illustrated through the Mother and Father characters, and played out as Sean Penn wrestles with making sense of his story. If it’s Joe’s belief that we can’t really call that “grace” because there isn’t a gospel presentation and an invitation to walk an aisle at the end of the film, I have to disagree.
Point 3 – Sometimes it’s okay for a film to Just be a movie.
Point 4 – Don’t be knostic.
Again, I think it’s more complicated than this.
First – thinking about eisegesis: Joe talks in the comments of authorial intent. We can’t say ToL is a powerful story of Law and Gospel because the author didn’t intend it. I recently wrote on the Avengers at TGC, and blogger Frank Turk essentially argued the same thing. Because the authors of the film were unregenerate (in Turk’s understanding), there can’t be a redemption theme in it. So we can celebrate heroics, selflessness, etc., but can’t connect them to Jesus in any way unless the author is a Christian. I completely disagree.
I think such a view is too simplistic. Authors will tell truths inadvertently because of their experience. An author may not have knowledge of the DSM IV but may nonetheless perfectly portray borderline disorder, depression, or compulsive narcissism. They do so because it’s part of their everyday life. A hunger for the gospel is the same. We tell redemption stories because – regardless of whether we know it or admit it – we live as fallen people in a fallen world, hungering for a savior.
The Lord of the Rings is far from a gospel-presenting allegory (Tolkein himself said he hated allegory) but the themes of the gospel are woven through every page. For Tolkein, Lewis, Chesterton, and many others, the reason for that presence in mythology, fairy tales, and a host of other stories has less to do with the regeneration of the author than it has to do with the wiring of the human heart – the deep-seated hunger for redemption that we all feel. If the gospel is truly the greatest story ever told, the hinge of history, it’s inevitably going to color the kinds of stories we tell. This isn’t to say these stories will lead us to salvation. Rather it’s to acknowledge that a hunger for the gospel lurks behind much human creativity.
With many stories, it’s a hint or a whisper. With some, it’s much more direct. I would put ToL in that category, opening with a biblical monograph and a voice over juxtaposing “nature” and “grace.” It then tells a story littered with biblical overtones, and ends with redemption imagery. Joe seems to argue that Malick didn’t mean any of it to be biblical or redemptive in this way. I’d love to see where Mallick says so, since he doesn’t really do interviews or discuss his work.
As for making Christian films, I just wonder how you would define the purpose of filmmaking (or storytelling generally). Is it ultimately about communicating a message? That would explain a lot of the areas I’m struggling with in your post and comments. I don’t deny that all stories communicate a message, but I disagree if you think that’s the primary purpose of storytelling.
Point 5 – Don’t be afraid to make distinctly Christian films.
Quoting Gene Veith, Joe says: “All distinctly Christian art must be, in some sense, about the agonizing struggle between sin and grace.”
What about the Song of Solomon? Is a love poem that isn’t about sin and grace out-of-bounds? What about your own point 3?
Point 6 – If you want to be a Christian filmmaker make a film.
In the end, I think I have a very different view of culture and of Christians working in culture than Joe. I look forward to bumping into him sometime, hopeful that he and I could enjoy a burger and a brotherly chat about these issues. Maybe after, we could go catch a movie. Just not one written and directed by Terrence Malick.