How To Watch A Movie

There has been a fair bit of debate and discussion going on recently amongst Christians with the theatrical release of Noah. Most of the focus is around whether or not the movie aligns with the biblical account and how can/should Christians respond. Some of the response is articulate and engaging. Much of the response, well, not so much...

I haven’t seen Noah yet and plan to soon. But I do want to highlight something I’ve seen missing in much of the discussion: understanding and practice on how to watch a movie.

I suggest four areas we need to consider when engaging any film:

1. Background
  • Who made the film (director, producers, etc...)? This will say something about what you can expect to see and hear. All films reflect the people who made them to some degree (e.g. one can’t really understand the Lord of the Rings without at least some knowledge of Peter Jackson).
  • What’s the genre? Much of the conflict over Noah is with people expecting an epic action/adventure film to parallel their historical understanding of the flood account in Genesis. Knowing the genre heading into the theatre can save you some frustration.
  • Who’s the intended audience? This may seem trivial, but it plays more into films then we may think. Whether its children, romantics, or philosophizers, the intended audience will impact how a film is produced and presented.
2. Production quality
Some key questions to ask here as you watch a movie:
  • Is the film made well?
  • How is the cinematography? Is it visually appealing?
  • How is the sound and music? Does the music enhance or hinder the story?
  • Is there good acting?
  • How is the overall flow of the story? Is it easy to follow?
3. Story and truthfulness
Here is where most movies use a story to communicate truths, even if straying greatly from actual historical truth. To say a film is based on a specific story is not to say it's attempting any sort of historical accuracy. For film, then, it’s common that storytelling lacks truth (i.e. historical accuracy) and yet is full of truths.
4. Response
In assessing movies, we often start with our response. “Did I like this film?” is our first (and only!) evaluator. Yet I’ve found if I weave my response with these other components my appreciation and engagement with film is only enhanced. In a very helpful book, Reel Spirituality, Robert Johnston highlights two ways we typically respond to films. There is the experiential (how a movie actually impacts us) and the critical (how we reflect on what we experienced). He asserts we need both, particularly if one wants to engage theology and film together. Yet much of the theological criticism of movies leaves the experience behind and focuses almost solely on criticism. Johnston, then, offers this remark on the experience-critique response to film:
“Movies, like life itself, are first experienced, then reflected on. They affect the heart, then the head. And one’s gut-level response becomes itself part of what is later reflected on...It is our encounter with the movie itself that should control all else. Faithfulness to the concrete experience of the movie’s story is the first criterion for effective theological criticism. Such movie-centered criticism can be confirmed and extended through the use of genre analysis, auteur criticism, thematic dialogue, and cultural critique. A totally idiosyncratic viewing of the shape or meaning of a film, particularly if it is then used as the basis for theological dialogue, should be thought suspect. The adequacy of any critical response to a movie must be measured by the film itself.”
Essentially, good film-watching can’t come with an agenda or preconceived idea of what a movie should say. Yes, this gets complex when a movie deals with religious history and sacred books. But we shouldn’t be relying on Hollywood to tell our sacred stories anyway, should we? And at the very least, an exercise in learning how to watch a movie should cause all Christians to pause and consider how and what role aspects of culture, including film, play in both enhancing and distracting from our deepest convictions.


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