Welcome to Reader Mailstrom, a chronicle of stand-outs from the daily maelstrom of Looking Closer email.
A little while back, you posted a trailer for Lance Hammer’s Ballast on your blog, which I watched and decided to check out sometime. To my delight, Ballast just had its Canadian premiere at the Vancouver Film Festival, and I was able to catch that screening. I’ve posted my review of the film at my blog: http://filmatical.wordpress.com/
Ballast is an excellent film, and I want to thank you for putting it onto my radar.
By the way, I’ve started reading Auralia’s Colors and I’m really enjoying it so far. I’m trying to get caught up quickly to join in on the Cyndere’s Midnight fun.
Yeah, Ballast was hard to watch… due to its dispiriting and yet convincing portrait of a boy starved for love and trapped in a world so bleak it might exist on the edges of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It’s haunted me since I saw it, and I look forward to seeing it again. As the credits rolled, the event organizer announced that Lance Hammer was present, and would take questions. I was in a rush to meet someone for dinner, alas. But on my way out, I passed him in the aisle, shook his hand, and congratulated him on a stunning debut.
You’ll find even more thoughtful reviews here.
GERVAIS + KINNEAR = CHEMISTRY!
I’ll try to rein in my enthusiasm, but Ghost Town was actuallly WONDERFUL, a nearly perfect variation on the Christmas Carol story! Is it a great film, a deathless cinematic achievement? Don’t know, don’t care. I just know that I laughed my ass off and was also tremendously moved. Not being familiar with Ricky Gervais, I became an instantaneous fan. Greg Kinnear has even more chemistry with Gervais than he did with Pierce Brosnan in The Matador, and I didn’t think that was possible. High points for Tea Leoni as well. Since it’s been getting such faint praise (2 1/2 stars, B minus, etc.), [my friend] and I agreed that it is automatically the most underrated movie of 2008.
Wow. You’re not the first person to tell me this. I’ve got to see Ghost Town.
TED BAEHR AT BAYLOR
This past week has been an interesting one for me.
For my purposes it all started last Saturday when I caught up with your [Through a Screen Darkly] article and decided to watch The Island upon your recommendation. Wow. Once again you’ve proven your ability to really find the gold. It was a sheer joy and delight to find such a film and I can’t thank you enough. If we could only get Christians to watch these kinds of films instead of Facing the Giants.
Which segways me into my next notable point of interest. Monday I discovered that your favorite Christian Critic (sarcasm intended) Ted Baehr was on my college campus for a lecture and luncheon. I attended both.
It was rather depressing what he was telling everyone. Essentially he touted that “Christian” ideas are present in most major Hollywood blockbusters and are a big part of what makes them successful (The William Goldman quote “No one knows anything” popped immediately into my mind.). His big example was the failure of The Golden Compass in comparison with the success of Prince Caspian. Films like Gladiator and Pirates of the Caribbean struck me as almost militantly anti-religious.
He seemed to make his points quick, cite on example, and then move on. But he seemed to be pulling out the exceptions than the norm. But where he really incited some personal emotion is when he scorned the indie industry with a couple of scathing quotes labeling it snobbish and elitist. He also shoved the Oscars into this category and all I could think is that I saw all the Oscar films last year and they were all good (unlike a lot of the blockbusters of 2007 I saw that he touted as “promoting Christian values”).
At the luncheon we got to ask questions and being diplomatic I simply asked him if he ever thought nudity was appropriate in a film. His short answer was no, his long one was vague and ambiguous, talking about it’s degrading effects on unhealthy perceptions of sexual life and women (from a Male perspective). But I framed the question in the context of more, what I labeled as “spiritually transcendent” films. He was taking it as a whole, but left it a bit ambiguous. I’m not sure what images of films he was conjuring but I was thinking along the lines of a Kieslowski or Bergman film.
And he of course spent most of his talk on how language, sex and violence are bad and actually make a film’s boxoffice results worse off (maybe it’s because parents don’t take their kids to films with language, sex and violence–imagine that!). For him the bottom line was Christian values and boxoffice results. He wanted Christians in Hollywood. He even said not to get into the indie industry because it is “dying”. (Which strikes me as a totally basless sentiment given that two of the biggest cultural films of this decade–Juno and Napoleon Dynamite –were both indie films.)
But you probably already know most of his views. For me it’s a realization how much harder your work must be since you are probably stereotyped as in the same category as guys like this. It makes me appreciate your views all the more so thanks a lot for keeping on.
But while my small exchange was mostly a sad reminder of how narrow minded so many Christians are I got the opportunity to talk to lady in charge of our schools Honors Film Society. We had a great conversation and I told her about The Island. I also told her about your article and book, Through a Screen Darkly.
And speaking of books I picked up Cyndere’s Midnight. I haven’t gotten too far yet but am enjoying it so far. Fantastic opening with the waterdragon skeleton. In fact, I think I’m going to read the rest right now.
Keep up the great work.
Thanks, James. I hope you enjoy the rest of Cyndere’s Midnight, and I hope the woman leading your Honors Film Society enjoys Through a Screen Darkly. (Chapter Two of that book is affectionately dedicated to Ted Baehr and Movieguide.) I’d be happy to talk with her about the book if she’d be interested. I’ve visited a lot of schools in order to talk with the students about faith and film, and it would be fun to come to Baylor.
Since 2003, some of us at Arts and Faith have been monitoring and discussing the wild, wacky world of Movieguide.
And you might find this interesting….
A few months ago, I received this testimony from Lindsay Marshall, a former reviewer at Ted Baehr’s Movieguide. And if it seems suspicious, well, check out this testimony (here), which I received last year.
Here is my Movieguide story in all its gory detail. Feel free to use it on your blog if you’d like.
And feel free to use my name – I’d like it redeemed.
My brief stint as a movie reviewer and why it’s Movieguide’s fault I probably can’t go back to it again. (Or something to that effect.)
There’s not a lot I can add to Sean’s account of his own experience working for Movieguide. I, too, was in on the earlier days of the magazine (back before anyone had learned html, from the looks of the website). I was just a starstruck kid from the heart of Texas who was shocked that anyone would hand her pen and paper and send her in to meet famous people. My mom worked for Movieguide casually the first year or so they lived in southern California, and I tagged along with her a couple times until her boss agreed to give me an assignment.
I was given their list of ridiculous acronyms and their template for their reviews, but I wasn’t given any guidance beyond that. Foolishly, I assumed that I should simply catalog the items Movieguide subscribers might find offensive, then write a standard review of the artistry of the film from its technical aspects to its literary traits. I was a dutiful film student at the time, so I really did my homework and worked hard to fulfill their required content reporting as well as avoid sounding like a complete rube when it came to my comments on the actual film.
My mom and I joked a lot about the futility (and wicked nature) of counting every single f-word or trying to make sure we saw every single exposed anatomical feature to report accurately, but we were also having a lot of fun getting to see movies first and on rare occasions interview the filmmakers. That is, until I started reading my own reviews on Movieguide’s website.
Like Sean, I was far too small potatoes to have contact with the might Baehr. However, my editor was not, like his, interested in pushing past the ‘tee hee hee’ factor of finding all the naughty things in films. He was a frequent imbiber of the Ted Baehr kool-aid, and he was rewriting my reviews, and then selling them … without telling me… or changing the name on the review.
I wouldn’t have minded too much if what Tom was writing in my name wasn’t both completely incorrect in relation to the film and, from what I can tell (and I consider myself a pretty serious scholar of the Bible), non-biblical. It all came to a head with my review of Seabiscuit. Where I saw the film as a story about the redemptive power of hope, personified by that funny little horse, Tom (and Ted) saw it as a tract for communism. Tom rewrote the entire review, leaving maybe a few scattered sentences of mine intact, and then distributed it so that in various websites I railed against the evil FDR (one my personal heroes!) and stated that it was anti-Christian to suggest that the state offer material aid to the poor.
I couldn’t let that one go.
After a heated round of emails (which I saved, just in case), I convinced Tom to remove my name and, sadly, resigned from one of the more fun jobs I’ve had. I just couldn’t continue to work for people who were destroying what my fellow Christians were trying to build in Hollywood. I thought for awhile that I could fight the bad tendencies from within, but as they continued to nitpick over naughtiness (thus making the entire focus of their publication sin, not virtue, irony of ironies), I realized change wouldn’t come to that organization as long as Ted Baehr was at the helm.
Beyond that, I came to realize that writing reviews their way was bad for my soul. Instead of seeking Truth and Beauty in a film, I was training myself to look for evil in it. That’s a very bad habit to develop, and I’m glad God allowed me to have that huge argument with my editor before it became too deeply engrained in my practice.
So thanks for letting me tell the story. I still pray for the group, and pray for those it hurts or trains up in the wrong way. But I have confidence in Christ’s mission in Hollywood, and if the gates of Hell shall not prevail against Him, neither will a couple crystal teddy bear statues.
I appreciate the willingness of Lindsay, and of Sean, to share their stories. I wonder what the folks who brought Baehr to Baylor would say if they read through all of this.
Once, I was interviewed on the radio by Dick Staub about the value of fairy tales. Baehr was the next guest on the program. When Staug asked him what he thought of my views on fairy tales, Baehr’s answer was, “Well, he’s never read the Bible. And he’s been blinded by the glitter of Hollywood.” You know, I *have* read the Bible, and it makes heavy claims about the punishment awaiting those who claim to have powers of clairvoyance. The only way Baehr could make such a claim about me was if he was clairvoyant… and even then it would be a lie, as I’ve grown up in a Christian home and Christian educaiton, and been a lifelong churchgoer. Never read the Bible? That was his claim about me on live radio. If he’s so quick to cast false and damning judgment like that, imagine how trustworthy he is on the subject of art.
If you have the stomach for it, you can now read a chapter online from Baehr’s book The Culture-Wise Family: Upholding Christian Values in a Mass Media World.”
The chapter is called “Who Stole Our Culture?”
It’s quite revealing. To say the least.
I just wanted to write you and thank you so much for your book `Through A Screen Darkly`. It is one of the most inspiring books I have ever read. I am 21 and in school for media criticism and journalism, hoping to become a film critic and screenwriter someday. Anyways, I just wanted to say thank you a thousand times!
Well, thanks to the invention of “cut-and-paste”, I suppose you could try! But seriously… I am continually surprised and pleased at how that little book continues to make its way into unexpected places. I’m so glad you liked it.