Who are the Looking Closer All-Stars?

Okay – I admit that it’s a goofy title. But after reading an essay by Sarah Welch-Larson the other day, I felt suddenly compelled to start celebrating some of my favorite writers. Writers who help me discover and appreciate great art. Writers who are “carrying the fire” (to borrow a phrase from Cormac McCarthy’s feel-good family-time storybook The Road) — that is to say, they lead us to meaningful blazes in a world dark and cold. And they do so generously, without the distraction of ego, and with the benefits of wisdom and wit.

I began this series with praise for Sarah Welch-Larson’s writing. I’ve been reading her for several years now. But today’s All-Star, well… we go way, way back.

I’ve been learning from Steven D. Greydanus‘s film criticism for more than two decades now, since the earliest days of Looking Closer and his own website, Decent Films, which launched in 2000. (Scrolling back through my history here at Looking Closer, I find mentions of Steven’s views in more than 200 posts!) His work at Decent Films, The National Catholic Register, Crux, Catholic World Report, Christianity Today, and (most recently) at Bright Wall Dark Room has been consistently enlightening and beautifully written. He brings such a personal passion to his work, drawing from his expertise in cinema but also in literature, in drawing, and in raising a family. When he’s writing about literary adaptations, he’s especially good. And parents may be the readers who have the most to gain from his work, as his care for the family experience of movies comes from his own experience with his wife Suzanne and their children. (I’ve noted his review of Coraline as a good example in the past.)

His passion for excellence in cinema is deeply rooted in his love for the Gospel: thus, he celebrates beauty, imagination, and truth. It’s a joy to share his reviews and essays as examples of excellence in my classes on academic writing and the arts.

Steven has corresponded with me about film through all of those years in a variety of ways: He’s texted me right after a screening to enthuse about something that impressed him. He participated in the long-running ArtsandFaith.com community that Image used to host, which captured the decades-long history of a growing community. And he’s played a leadership role in weeks-long threads of conversation online with other colleagues so that we can all find our way toward greater understanding of complicated films we’ve just seen.

In 2019, I had a fantastic time comparing lists with him — lists of our favorite literary adaptations to film — on a podcast formerly called Libromania (but apparently now called Bibliography?) You can listen to that here:

Some of my best memories of Steven come from times we’ve shared at press screenings. I have particularly vivid memories of our attendance at special events for Constantine and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, after which we interviewed the casts and filmmakers of those movies. I treasure my recordings of those conversations, and his questions often provoked memorable responses and conversations. And then we would talk movies for hours over meals in the hotel bar. I miss those days — it was always an honor to work beside him. And I’ve had the privilege of being welcomed with such warm hospitality into his family’s home.

But most of all I am thankful for his leadership as an exemplar of faith in public. How many film critics with membership in the New York Film Critics Circle are also deacons in the Roman Catholic Church (in this case, the Archdiocese of Newark)? His social media accounts are full of scriptures, prayers, and he never fails to challenge distortions of the Gospel where he finds them — especially if those harms are committed by those who profess Jesus’ name (as they so often are). But I never find him self-righteous or arrogant. He doesn’t just talk about Jesus; he reminds me of Jesus.

And he carves out some impressive Jesus sand sculptures, too!

Okay — let’s get back to the particular work that makes me include him in this list: He’s just posted two new pieces at Decent Films that are well worth your attention.

First, there’s “The Gospel According to the McDonaghs.” He’s taken a deep dive into the films of Martin or John Michael McDonagh, who gave us In Bruges, Calvary, and the new movie The Banshees of Inisherin. And he comes back with treasure. He writes:

Beyond Catholic cultural elements and religious and moral themes, these three films share a number of hallmarks common to the brothers’ work: absurdism and humor; gruesome violence and grotesque elements; questions of guilt, punishment, and redemption; and a dark cynicism at least approaching misanthropy or nihilism, though not entirely despairing of hope. Going further, each of the three films is set in a picturesque, ostensibly idyllic location that for its characters becomes a kind of ambiguous limbo, if not a manifestation of hell. The central conflict in each case turns on a deadly grievance among male characters, with Gleeson playing one of the principals as a man with a capacity for violence who, in a pivotal third-act moment, meets a potentially deadly threat with Christlike nonresistance. A female character in at least two films represents some sort of grace, while children and animals embody innocence, and killing a child or a beloved pet, even accidentally, may be regarded as an unthinkable crime, beyond all hope of forgiveness or atonement. Scenes set in confessionals figure in all three films, but they’re settings more of conflict than of reconciliation.

There’s more bad news than good news in the McDonaghs’ work, but there is no good news without the bad. One way and another, there are signposts here pointing out the most excellent way, for those with eyes to see.

He’s also written several pieces about the new Amazon series The Rings of Power. Here’s his wrap-up of Season One, where he writes,

A fictional world, for Tolkien, is a “sub-creation,” and the creativity of the human author is in some way a reflection of, and participation in, the creative activity of God. In the case of a derivative work like The Rings of Power—or even a relatively direct adaptation like Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films—we might say that, if Tolkien is the “sub-creator” of Middle-earth, perhaps storytellers adapting and expanding on his work, or artists visualizing it, are “sub-sub-creators.” Only what Tolkien wrote or drew himself is actually his own sub-creation; anyone else’s efforts (even artwork approved by Tolkien, such as some of Pauline Baynes’ illustrations for The Adventures of Tom Bombadil) are at best a reflection of Tolkien’s creative work.

And that is merely a prelude to his review.

If you want some of the most consistently rewarding work on the arts enhanced by deep Christian conviction, you can’t do much better than to follow Steven Greydanus week by week as his career of extraordinary eloquence and insight continues.

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