Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Christian cinematography

OK, I’m glad the filmmakers are focusing on better quality. I salute you. But take some lessons from the past. I am currently teaching a course entitled “Major Christian Authors,” covering such authors as Dante, Spenser, Herbert, Bunyan, Hopkins, Chesterton, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor. NONE of them wrote about people’s personal problems. There is not one terminally ill orphan in the whole lot. No scenes about broken marriages or friends dying or sports teams winning the big game. These classic Christian authors–who actually did influence their cultures–saw Christianity as being rather more than a means of solving life’s problems, and none of them lapsed into the deadly aesthetic sin of SENTIMENTALITY.

These aesthetically more ambitious movies still have a soft-spot for sentimentality. Try making movies that do not attempt to make us cry. That means no diseases, no thrilling comebacks, no dying children. Try making movies that are exciting, or send our imaginations reeling, or that are funny. You will be surprised how well such stories can express and even explore the Christian faith.


Well, with all due respect, perhaps that’s why so few folks, whether believers or unbelievers, ever read the “major Christian” authors. It’s so far removed from their daily experience, from their ordinary joys, frustrations, disappointments, hopes, fears, struggles, and doldrums.

Isn’t Veith setting up a false dichotomy? Sure, it’s great to watch movies that stretch our imagination. Movies that depict an ideal state of affairs.

But to say that Christian filmmakers should steer clear of death, disease, broken homes, and other asperities of life in a fallen world hardly strikes me as a balanced Christian palette. The Bible itself covers the complete spectrum: the highest highs, lowest lows, and much else in-between.


  1. I'm not sure what he's suggesting would make an "ideal" Christian film. I personally liked Shadowlands (which, although not a specifically Christian film, certainly did not hide it thematically).

    In terms of not showing flawed people, one of the things that so turned me off to some elements of Christian art growing up was its overly cherubic portrait of the saints. The halos, the ever-skyward gazes, the folded hands, the almost sexless appearances: this isn't reality, it's more of a caricature.

  2. CS Lewis' fiction included dying mothers (The Magician's Nephew),dying children (The Last Battle) and all manner of thrilling comebacks. His adult fiction discusses loveless marriages (That Hideous Strength) and unrequited love (Till We Have Faces).
    John Bunyan's most famous work could be described as a litany of "personal problems" including the death of friends (albeit allegorical ones), depression and dramatic victories. Charles Williams is at times unabashedly sentimental.

    I don't think this guy has a case.

  3. I remember the touching depiction of the martyrdom of Christian's friend at the Vanity Fair in Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress":


  4. i think that it would be incredible to see this story in visual media. for a controversial and volatile read, please consider the newly released true novel by christian author r.k. rytaran entitled Euclid Avenue, Our scars mean something. the press release can be seen at eloquentbooks.com/euclidavenue.html. the book is also available at amazon.com, barnes & noble, books & co, books-a-million, borders and select hallmark book stores.

  5. Veith may want to distinguish between sentiment, sentimental, and sentimentality. Arguably Andrew Stanton's WALL-E is a spectacularly sentimental film but it works by underplaying the emotions the director intends to evoke in the audience with respect to the title character. Stanton was clearly making an extravagantly sentimental film and as he told Christianity Today, he wanted his faith to inform the film without being a "Christian" film in the sense that many Christians attempt to make film.

    I don't buy the "how" of Veith's assertion but I think I appreciate the "what". In terms of sentimental stories it may be instructive to contrast Pixar to Disney. For once I agree with David Denby when he wrote that Pixar's films involve moral arcs rather than the psychological arcs of Disney films. The Disney protagonist struggles to discover his/her true self and have that appreciated by others, a Pixar protagonist struggles (usually) to do the right thing by his or her neighbor.

    It's shooting fish in a barrell, but an easy way to illustrate Denby's assertion is to compare and contrast the characters and stories in Pixar's Toy Story and Disney's Pocahantas, both from 1995. In the Pixar film the two central characters are both self-deluding themselves with respect to their character and identity, both characters must confront the full consequences of their self deception and wrath. Both Woody and Buzz Lightyear have to repent of what they stubbornly cling to in the face of reality. Once both repent of their self-deception and see their capacity for wrath, envy, or delusion, they stop seeing each other as enemies and become friends.

    Then there's Disney's Pocahantas, who gets a magical hint that something is about to change; is enjoined to follow her heart (of course the only right thing to do); falls in love with someone she's not pledged to marry (so the parent who doesn't understand must learn the importance of whatever); and wants to know why everyone can't just get along. Where Pocahantas can solve everything by listening to her heart and following it, Woody destroys nearly everything in his life he cares about by following his heart and only regains what he cares about by repenting of his animosity toward Buzz.

    The reason sentimentality in film is so often bad is usually because people want a triumph of the human spirit without either sacrifice or the threat of actual failure, to say nothing of repentence. I would argue that Pixar films are more artistically successful than Disney films because they deal more forthrightly with the reality of death, loneliness, and failure. This is most obvious in Toy Story and Toy Story 2. Disney, to frame their artistic failure in the 1990s in typological terms, wanted a resurrection without a crucifixion. Perhaps the problem with a lot of ostensibly "Christian" films is not the broken marriage or the sick child but that we know the goose is cooked in advance. The Christian film-maker is not going to let us see the fall of Saul but the more fashionable rise of a David or at least a repenting David without the future of Amnon and Absalom.