The relationship between Hollywood and Christianity is a strange one. And so I’ve called upon my good friend and church colleague Stephen Weinkauf to offer his insights on how we should approach the artistic medium of film from a faith-based perspective. Stephen has a BFA in Film and Video Studies, which in and of itself qualifies him to talk about this subject more than me. Although he is overly opinionated about movies, he also wants you to know that if you disagree with him, that’s okay. He still likes you and wants to be your friend. Regardless of your movie interests or your faith background, I think you’ll enjoy what Stephen has to say. Stay tuned next week for Part 2 of this interview.
What makes a good film? What elements or features do you look for?
This question is very subjective and my answer will not ring true of everyone who enjoys films. Also, my hope is not to say that any film that does not contain these elements is bad, I think (for the most part) all films are worth watching, even if it just shows you how not to make a film. But, a few elements that I consider when watching a film are visual story-telling, creativity, and humanity.
Film is a form of visual story-telling. What we see and observe is where the story or idea should be told, not through dialogue. Books are written story-telling. Radio and music can be audio story-telling. Film is visual story-telling. Many modern films (since the arrival of talkies) rely too heavily on dialogue to convey a story or idea that the filmmaker would like to communicate. A film that tells a story primarily through visuals (even if it has dialogue) is one that I greatly appreciate. This isn’t something I usually notice when I first watch a movie, but I’ve found that a good chunk of the films I enjoy rely less on dialogue, and more on visual story-telling.
Creativity is hard to find in films these days. Many things you’ve seen are rehashes of scenes or ideas from older films. There have been many times where I will be watching an old film and recognize a scene, then realize that a more modern film copied the scene almost exactly! It blows my mind whenever that happens. I feel lied too. But films that can achieve something original in this medium with many overused ideas really impress me.
Humanity is a bit more difficult to define in a film. What makes a film human? A heart, lungs, a brain? Starring humans or centered completely in reality? Some of the most human films I’ve seen are some of the most fantastical films out there, some don’t even center around human characters. Often it is just a film that expresses real emotions/struggles in an honest, difficult, not fully resolved way. Like a film about a woman who is cursed by a witch and turns into an old lady, but you see how the curse affects her and changes her. You see that really this curse is directly related with how she sees herself. She finds herself plain and boring like a little old lady, so she became one. She isn’t fighting a curse, but a very real internal struggle.
Or maybe it is showing a realistic representation of how characters act. If a woman is running to save two friends from certain death, does the film cut out parts of the run, or does the camera follow her without cuts, showing her struggling to find the strength to continue running as she pants endlessly for two or even four continuous minutes? Or a young girl who puts on a shoe and taps the toes on the ground to make sure it fits snugly, something that most films don’t show, but a lot of kids (and me) do when they put on shoes. Some of these little details or emotions, can be the difference between a very human film, and a film that feels disconnected with humanity.
Where have you seen some of those elements being employed well? In your opinion, what films stand above the rest and set the bar for what excellent cinema should be?
I’ll list a few film scenes that I appreciate and mention why. You can read about the scene and then watch it once you have the context of what is happening.
Sherlock Jr., Buster Keaton
Sherlock Jr, is an early silent film starring Buster Keaton, one of cinema’s greatest comedians. This motorcycle scene is full of hilarious visual jokes and contains only two lines of dialogue, which is impressive for how heartily I laugh when watching this. Sherlock Jr (the detective) is being chased by a dangerous criminal and commissions help from a passerby. He rides on the handlebars of this man’s motorcycle, but the man quickly falls off leaving Sherlock Jr naively riding without a driver. This scene goes on for a while and there are many points in the scene where you think, “He’s gotta find out, or crash, or something soon!” But he accidently (and hilariously) overcomes each obstacle. Then he finally figures out by causally looking behind him, losing balance (for the first time this whole scene), looking back briefly to confirm what he saw, then looking back a third time, but this time directly into the camera, to us. Many may disagree, but I’d define this third look as a visual cuss word. He doesn’t swear, but you see the cuss word in the desperation in his face as he makes eye contact with you.
There may not be much depth in this scene, but it is quite creative and visually dominant in its humor, rather than relying on witty or vulgar lines.
Spirited Away, Hayao Miyazaki
The few lines of dialogue in this scene aren’t in English (I couldn’t find the English dub of this scene online), but it’s okay. (Really, you can start watching one minute in.) This Japanese film is about a 12-year-old girl (Chihiro) and her parents who accidentally stumble into the spirit world. A witch turns her parents into pigs and kidnaps them, while Chihiro is forced to work in the witch’s bathhouse to prevent herself from being turned into a pig and eaten. A lot happens to Chihiro in this film as she works hard day and night. She (and the viewer) isn’t given much time to slow down and process what has been happening since she lost her parents.
In this scene, she is leaving via train to find someone to help her dear friend who is dying. As she sits on the train, silently staring at the scenery, she (and the viewer) finally has a moment to slow down, meditate, and process the difficult emotions and circumstances she’s unwillingly been whisked into. My favorite part of this scene is when Chihiro sees a little girl standing alone at a train station. The film isn’t explicit, but I wonder if Chihiro is wondering if this little girl has also lost her parents, and if she is just as lonely, confused, and afraid as Chihiro is. Miyazaki is one of the few modern filmmakers who often takes moments of slowness and silence to allow the characters and viewers to slow down, breathe, and process. It (along with other elements of the film) helps make this crazy film about the spirit world very human. I appreciate that about this scene. I also appreciate how much it reveals about Chihiro with hardly any dialogue. And the animation is beautifully detailed (and all painstakingly hand drawn).
Les Quatre Cent Coups (The 400 Blows), François Truffaut
This French film is about a young boy (Jean-Pierre), who after being ignored by his mother, step-father, teachers, and other adults in his life, falls into committing petty crimes. He’s been stuck in terrible situations his entire life and each blow pushes him heavily towards delinquency. Jean-Pierre is sent to a youth detention center, and then is literally trapped by the consequences of his mistakes and circumstances. In this scene, he cunningly escapes the center, and we see him running, and running, and yeah… still running. Truffaut holds on this scene like many filmmakers wouldn’t, but the running gives me this great feeling of freedom. This kid has been stuck in awful situations this entire film, so seeing him free and running away from his cage is wonderful, even though I know he doesn’t deserve it.
Truffaut, like many French filmmakers from this era, doesn’t believe in happy endings. As Jean-Pierre runs, he eventually gets to the ocean, stops, turns towards the camera, and stares at the audience with a “now what?” expression on his face. It just ends, very abruptly. When I first watched this film, I shouted, “Seriously?” when the FIN came on screen (which was embarrassing because I was in class with 30 other students). His high hopes come crashing down when he realizes he is still trapped by the ocean and has nowhere to go, nowhere to run. Breaking free from unfortunate situations or consequences is a lot more difficult (potentially impossible with only our own pathetic strength) than sneaking under a fence and running away.
Check back in next week for the second part of this interview, in which Stephen shares his thoughts on the spiritual value of film and how Christians should think about the movies they watch.