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Summer 2003 | Volume 26, Number 3 | Features
Hollywood: Thumbs Up or Down?

Three Critics Review Hollywood's Impact on Religion — and Vice Versa

There was a time when “good Christians” wouldn't dream of going to the movies — at least not within sight of their pastor. Though times have changed, an uneasy relationship persists between people of faith and the Hollywood film industry. The religious sometimes find their beliefs ridiculed in movie theatres around the country, and gratuitous sex and violence continue to earn big at the box office. Yet films with deep faith, strong storytelling and great art at their core have made surprising inroads.

At the height of the summer movie season, Response invited a trio of experienced film critics — who are also people of faith — to explore the relationships between religion, culture and film. We asked each critic the same set of questions, and the result was a wide-ranging “conversation” that highlights the challenge and responsibility of discerning good from bad in the world of film. As a bonus, each critic also provided a list of personal movie favorites — just in case you’re planning a trip to the video store soon.

Though their opinions vary widely, the film critics interviewed by Response are known for speaking out on the relationship between religion, culture and film:

Film critic and nationally syndicated radio talk show host Michael Medved daily reaches more than 1.8 million listeners in 124 markets coast to coast. He has reviewed movies as chief film critic for the New York Post and as co-host of and as co-host of “Sneak Previews” on PBS. A frequent guest on “Larry King Live,” “Oprah” and other major TV talk shows, he writes for USA Today and is the author of eight books, including controversial best-seller Hollywood vs. America. Medved, who is Jewish, lives in Seattle with his wife, psychologist/author Diane Medved, and their three children. In May 2003, he spoke on Seattle Pacific University’s campus about Hollywood’s effects on individuals and culture.

Jeffrey Overstreet ’94 is co-founder of Promontory Artists Association, which provides community, resources and encouragement for Christian artists. He developed Promontory’s arts-review site, “Looking Closer" (, and writes the “Film Forum” column at every Thursday. The May 12, 2003, edition of the national online magazine included his in-depth exploration of whether there should be a Christian movie industry. Overstreet traveled this year to Bushnell, Illinois, to help guide post-viewing discussions of films at the Cornerstone Festival’s fledgling film program, Flickerings. He is married to Anne Overstreet, a poet and freelance editor.

An SPU assistant professor of communication since 1999, Todd Rendleman teaches courses in film theory, film history and communication studies. In “The Art of Film,” he helps students to view films critically and appreciate the history of classical Hollywood cinema. For the past two years, he has co-produced the Image SPU Film Festival. In the festival, movies sharing a central theme are shown free to campus and community audiences. Rendleman’s scholarly research explores the relationships between religious audiences and religious images in American movies.

Q: What makes a good movie? By what standards do you judge film?

All movies must be judged on their own terms. They set out to achieve very different goals. My job is to evaluate whether they reached those goals, rather than conforming to preconceived notions of excellence on the part of the critic. You cannot apply the same standards to a gross-out comedy (“There’s Something About Mary”) that you would apply to a holocaust drama (“Schindler’s List”). I gave both films positive reviews, by the way.

OVERSTREET: The mark of a great film is this: Attentive viewers find more that is meaningful, admirable and enjoyable every time they see it. It transcends its era and its cultural context to reveal timeless truths. Most movies, sadly, are fast food, offering forgettable characters and simple platitudes on which we all agree. A good movie is a feast. We may go away inspired, humbled, puzzled, even upset, but we have been nourished by the experience and its lingering questions.

RENDLEMAN: Above all, movies provide us with a heightened intensity of experience. We feel romantic thrills and witness conflict and danger in ways that are extraordinarily vivid and larger-than-life. Movies also satisfy our desire to place ourselves in the shoes of others. If a movie achieves that — if it allows me to see the world through someone else’s eyes, and if it’s emotionally engaging and complex — then it’s on its way to being a good movie.

Q: What impact does film have on culture, and vice versa?

MEDVED: Film’s main impact on culture is indirect. Most Americans spend very limited time watching movies (an average of less than 10 hours per year, including movies watched on video and DVD), but they spend a great deal of time viewing TV (an average of more than 29 hours every week week ). Movies profoundly influence TV — providing ideas and defining trends that the networks and cable broadcasters shamelessly mimic. Television, in turn, hugely shapes the attitudes and behavior of all Americans — defining for far too many of us what is normal, what is stylish, what is desirable.

OVERSTREET: Our culture is enriched by films that illustrate choices and consequences, inspire technological invention, and help us understand lives and perspectives foreign to us. But these virtues are lost on lazy moviegoers, whose lack of reflection can lead to harmful influences. Just as Scripture sometimes inspires evil when taken out of context, the best movies can have distressing influences. Many blame cultural corruption on bad movies, rather than acknowledging the responsibility of the viewers to be discerning and mature. Scripture calls us to “test all things (and) hold fast to what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5).

RENDLEMAN: It’s a complicated relationship. Movies simultaneously reflect our culture and shape our understanding of ourselves. Think about something as simple as style and all of the men over the past couple of years who’ve hit the town on Friday night dressed like Brad Pitt in “Ocean’s 11.” There’s no question that movies affect our behavior, although their effects are challenging to predict and measure. At the same time, if you want to comprehend what a culture or society values, take a look at its popular cinema. Americans often equate personal fulfillment with romantic achievement, and nowhere is this belief evidenced more consistently than in our movies.

Q: What impact does film have on religion, and vice versa?

MEDVED: Again, movies achieve their most important influence through their shaping role on TV, and television helps to dictate the dangerously short attention span of most Americans. Instead of looking toward the next generation — or even considering our life after death — most people find it difficult to look beyond the next commercial. This shortened attention span, and the emphasis on immediate gratification that is promulgated in both programming and commercials, make it much harder to break through with a traditional Judeo-Christian message — particularly for media-saturated young people.

OVERSTREET: Movies are inspiring interest in religious matters. As technology and science fail to save the world, audiences are drawn to visions that involve spiritual consolation. “The Matrix,” like “Star Wars,” reveals the potential dangers of technology and urges us to reach for spiritual solutions. Then again, mainstream cinema regularly stereotypes religious folks as judgmental, narrow-minded and reactionary. (Have we earned that? Perhaps.) Moviemakers who focus on converting audience members with simplified sermons send viewers running. Some realize that excellence and art are better than mediocrity and propaganda. These moviemakers strive to show rather than tell, leaving those with “eyes to see” to draw their own conclusions.

RENDLEMAN: Movies are the art form of contemporary culture, and we can see our spiritual longings in them. Consider Paul Schrader’s body of work. He’s not our greatest director, but he’s clearly working through spiritual issues in his movies. “Hardcore” explores ways that religion divides families. His scripts for “Taxi Driver” and “Light Sleeper” are painful accounts of social isolation. “Auto Focus” critiques American self-absorption and the endless pursuit of sexual pleasure. There’s no question that Schrader’s religious upbringing has given him great material to react against and explore. None of these are “religious” films per se, but the issues they address are essentially spiritual, and they have something to say about our nation’s soul.

Q: Do you draw a distinction between art and entertainment in Hollywood?

MEDVED: No. The best cinematic art is tremendously entertaining, and first-class entertainment requires enormous artistry.

OVERSTREET: Entertainment aims to please. It amuses and distracts. There’s nothing wrong with that, but art aims higher. Art comes out of an artist’s exploration of questions or mysteries. It does not explain itself to us. Sometimes art is hard work. Like fine wines, films by Kieslowski and Tarkovsky are an acquired taste, but they’re good for you. They exercise your mind and cultivate discernment. As you move from “milk” to “meat,” mere entertainment may no longer satisfy.

RENDLEMAN: The distinctions between art and entertainment aren’t absolute. In any age, artists have a very short shelf life if they don’t entertain.

Q: What influence do the business pressures of the film industry have on the quality of filmmaking?

MEDVED: The most negative impact of business pressure is the emphasis on box office blockbusters as the only means of earning back the soaring cost of movie production. When it costs an average of nearly $90 million to produce and release a feature film, few studios want to take a chance on creativity or originality. The plethora of sequels and remakes stems from the desire to market an established brand name. Concerning any of these familiar titles, a worried producer can assure himself with the notorious words, “Well, they liked it before.”

OVERSTREET: Big studios make movies they know we’ll pay to see. That’s capitalism. We have shown them we’re more interested in celebrities and special effects than storytelling, so we get flashy stars dodging explosions. But it’s not an impossible situation. Demonstrate what you want by supporting it where you find it, and the business of Hollywood will notice. Audiences embraced New Line Cinema’s risky “Lord of the Rings” films because they discovered they like good storytelling, character development and complex mythology. Studios that rejected Peter Jackson’s proposal are kicking themselves now and scrambling to come up with the next big fantasy series. “Narnia” is coming to the big screen. That’s how it works.

RENDLEMAN: Business considerations create enormous pressures, and the results are often depressing. Movies have always been made for financial profit, but since the advent of the blockbuster in the 1970s, the conflation of financial and artistic success is mind-boggling. Are there signs of hope? Yes. The big summer releases are often criticproof, but when our best writers like Roger Ebert draw attention to smaller films on the festival circuit, these movies can find an audience. Ebert is doing that right now with Melissa Martin’s feature debut, “The Bread, My Sweet.” The movie has arrived in Seattle, and Ebert’s praise is getting it noticed.

Q: What do you think is at the root of the historical tension between people of faith and Hollywood? Why are some people of faith threatened by film?

MEDVED: It goes right to the fundamental difference between cinematic and religious communication. Movies are a visual medium; psychologists who have analyzed the way they reach audiences estimate that films rely on visual images for 70–75 percent of their impact. Judeo-Christian faith, on the other hand, relies on words. Whenever God has communicated to his people, he has used spoken or written words, not images. Neither Moses nor Jesus drew pictures or created visions for their followers. Movies that appeal to the eyes touch us on an emotional level, while faith messages that appeal to the ears reach for the mind and soul.

OVERSTREET: Christians are quite accustomed to preaching. Art seems threatening to us because it is more about exploration than exposition. We hastily look for "the message" of a movie, failing to understand that art is for reflection, contemplation, discussion and discovery. Further, in categorizing as "Christian" versus "secular," we prescribe where and when God can be revealed. A beautiful photograph of a mountain becomes "Christian art" when a verse is printed on the sky above the peak. Then we think we know what it means, and we do not have to think for ourselves. This cultivates an environment of lazy and reactionary intellects, and we fail to train ourselves to discern evidence of God in the excellence and beauty of art outside the walls of the church.

RENDLEMAN: Historically, this debate has always been a question of sex. Movies have the potential to move and excite us — emotionally, intellectually and sexually. Since the birth of film, a key factor in its appeal has been the promise of sexual excitement. For Christians, this is often at odds with Christ's warning to not look lustfully at others. This has created a strange, conflicted relationship between many religious persons and the movies. Art needs to thoughtfully address all aspects of human life, and the issue of sexuality in film remains a sensitive one. I can't think of an issue that merits greater discernment and reflection from people of faith.

Q: Some say boycott the movies; others say go to work in the movie business. How do people of faith bring about change in Hollywood?

MEDVED: Boycotts don’t work, period. The ill-considered Disney boycott endorsed by many prominent Christian organizations is a pathetic case in point. Disney has done nothing to mend its nasty ways, or even to attempt to placate its critics. Meanwhile, those poor deluded families that have attempted to honor the Disney boycott have missed out on some of the best family films of recent years, such as “The Rookie,” “Monsters, Inc.” or “Finding Nemo.” Those people of faith who choose to work in Hollywood have already begun making a difference — bringing a more sympathetic perspective to projects as varied as “The Sixth Sense,” “Bruce Almighty” and “We Were Soldiers.”

OVERSTREET: Christians have had a hand in recent Hollywood hits like “X2 | X-Men United” and “Finding Nemo.” Just as the apostle Paul visited the place where idols were worshipped and found ways he could use them as evidence of the One True God, Christian moviegoers and critics are beginning to engage in rewarding dialogue inspired by contemporary movies in online chat rooms and church basement discussion groups. A recent summary of Christian critics’ views on “X2” prompted a letter from its producer thanking us for “getting it.” When I told the director of two blockbusters that I appreciated the spiritual questions in his latest drama, he said he was shocked to hear that “from a Christian” and started asking about faith. How many opportunities like that have we missed in our hasty rush to “clean up Hollywood”?

RENDLEMAN: People of faith will make a difference in the world when they follow their callings. As filmmakers, they will effect change by telling meaningful stories and developing their artistry. Religious audience members will do well to become discerning, thoughtful critics. If their points of view give them something intriguing to say, and they say it well, people will listen.

Q: Should there be a religious movie industry and religious films for religious people?

MEDVED: Ghettoizing religious movies and religious messages is a bad idea. Unchurched and skeptical audiences need religious movies more than the faithful need them. The most admirable faith-based films convey their messages subtly, without heavyhanded preaching. Such films can clearly succeed with general audiences as well as the specialized church-based audiences.

OVERSTREET: Instructive, evangelistic movies can be useful. Just don’t call them sufficient alternatives for art. The more a work spells out its meaning, the farther it strays from art’s exploratory nature. We should certainly not limit ourselves to didacticism or cut ourselves off from God’s revelation in the art of others. Besides, “Christian” makes a bad adjective. C.S. Lewis said, “Christian literature can exist only in the same sense in which Christian cookery might exist.” Who decides which movies are “Christian”? Some “secular” films point to important truths and reveal the reality of spiritual needs. Some Christians produce lousy art. It is better we develop “eyes to see” than create subgenres and heighten the wall between the church and culture.

RENDLEMAN: I’m skeptical of this division, because “religious films” are typically overtly evangelistic, and didactic art from any worldview is almost always tedious. For a better approach, look at what Robert Duvall achieved with “The Apostle.” It attracted diverse audiences not because it was created exclusively for people of faith, but because it was a complex portrait of a man of faith.

Q: How helpful are movie ratings, and do you believe there are some films religious persons should avoid?

The rating system is better than nothing — but not much better. The PG-13 rating in particular has become a Trojan Horse, sneaking all sorts of questionable content past defenses that might otherwise prove effective. Most parents don’t understand the enormous gap between PG and PG-13 (which is actually much closer to R — with abundant sexuality, harsh language and violence). They ought to give that designation a new rating of R-13 and enforce restrictions so that children below 13 aren’t allowed to go without a parent. Of course, there are some movies so degrading that all religious people — all civilized people, in fact — should avoid them. Unfortunately, those movies don’t always earn an NC-17 rating, or even an R rating, but sometimes qualify, alas, as PG-13.

OVERSTREET: Ratings don’t work. An R rating might indicate a common expletive, while PG films frequently glorify recklessness, preoccupation with sex and irreverence. We need to learn our own particular vulnerabilities. “Everything is permissible” for us (1 Corinthians 6) — even R-rated movies — but “not everything is beneficial.” Instead of merely avoiding temptation or offense, however, we should be aggressive. Jesus says it is what “proceeds out” of a man that defiles him, not what “goes into” the man (Mark 7). Just as we cut bones and bruises from our food, we can learn to examine and interpret films rather than merely absorbing and imitating them.

RENDLEMAN: In terms of content, ratings are informative. If a movie is rated R, it’s usually for good reasons. And with newspapers and Web sites at our fingertips, it’s easy to learn why a film has earned its rating. Still, there are variations within categories. I’m reminded of David Lynch’s line when he was promoting “Wild at Heart”: “Some people should rush out to see my film. Others should see it, but they should take a friend along. And others simply shouldn’t see my movie at all.” The bottom line is that people of faith need to determine their own thresholds for what they will or won’t see, and the rating system is helpful in this respect.

Q: What frustrates you the most and inspires you the most about filmmaking today?

MEDVED: After 23 years of reviewing films professionally, my main frustration stems from the time stolen from my family to attend screenings three or four times a week. The chief inspiration comes from those rare occasions when a movie exceeds all expectations and actually makes me forget that I’m working while watching it unfold.

OVERSTREET: I am frustrated by films that exist primarily to appease our appetites for recklessness and spectacle. Likewise, I am frustrated by moviegoers who attend only easy-to-swallow entertainment and fail to help artistic films succeed. But what a time of opportunity for artists and art-lovers! Little-known masters are being discovered on the Internet when the American media will not promote their work. Some, like Hayao Miyazake, prove so popular that the studios start distributing their work after all. Inventive and thought-provoking projects such as “Waking Life” are winning fans.

RENDLEMAN: The loss of Golden Age class, style and glamour is lamentable. What would Cary Grant do in a movie today? At the same time, it’s always exciting to see how American acting evolves. For example, Susan Sarandon continues to find intelligent, demanding roles. Forty years ago, the only work that actresses in their 50s could find was in horror movies. Change is slow, but at least in some respects it’s moving in a positive direction.

Q: What movie needs to be made, and who would you cast in it?

MEDVED: I would enjoy seeing a film about the brief, glamorous life of George Gershwin — highlighting the Golden Age of American pop culture, when wholesome, brilliant American movies and music conquered the world. The fine actor Stanley Tucci boasts an uncanny, thoroughly unnerving resemblance to Gershwin and would be perfect in the part.

OVERSTREET: Give us the heroics of Joseph (Ewan McGregor) or the despair of wealthy Solomon (Daniel Day-Lewis). We need stories and documentaries that explore important and immediate issues and inspire us to action and compassion. No more Holocaust flashbacks — show us Africa’s AIDS epidemic instead. Enough with the stories about the glory of soldiers — show us the effects of war on those who struggle to survive in the ruins. Give us heroes with higher aims than revenge. And for once show us a sexy, lasting marriage.

RENDLEMAN: A book I enjoy studying with my students is Julie Salamon’s The Devil’s Candy: “The Bonfire of the Vanities” Goes to Hollywood, which is a bird’s-eye account of big-budget American filmmaking. The movie was not intelligently scripted or cast, and with apologies to Brian DePalma, why not do justice to Tom Wolfe’s novel and film a four-hour epic? Hire Richard Russo to write the adaptation and Sidney Lumet to direct. Get William Hurt as Sherman McCoy, Colin Firth as Peter Fallow, Delroy Lindo as Reverend Bacon and Annette Bening as Judy McCoy. Keep Melanie Griffith as Maria Ruskin, and we’re in business.


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