With summer blockbusters showing up in theaters, we asked film critic Jeffrey Overstreet for tips on how to have a better experience at the cinema. He delivered the following opening address for the first 2014 meeting of Sight Club—a fictional church-basement movie club in Seattle. You are welcome to start your own Sight Club, and to use these recommendations as a guide.
Good to see you, Sight Club newcomers!
We old-timers welcome you. If you received an invitation, it’s because we know that you love good movies. We want your voices to join our conversation about them.
Who does this anymore? Who sets aside time to enjoy watching movies with friends, and then sets aside even more time—hours!—to talk about the films afterwards?
You’re here because you want more than junk food. You want something substantial. Most moviegoers are like kids turned loose in a grocery store. They run to whatever is sweet, whatever gives an adrenaline rush, whatever is immediately satisfying. They aren’t discerning about nutrition or about the culinary arts.
Art is poetic. It is challenging. It asks us to take our time. It asks us to try new things, to do some work. Discernment is essential, or we might swallow something harmful. But adventurousness is important, too, or we’ll miss out on amazing things. Proceed with both courage and caution.
If we love our neighbors, then we’ll attend to what they say with the same respect that we would want them to show us, even if we disagree.
But first, for the newcomers, here are 12 guidelines—the good counsel that has made Sight Club a rich and rewarding experience for 10 years running.
Sight Club is like a 12-step program. We’re here to cultivate “eyes to see” and “ears to hear” in a world full of darkness and noise. Movies give us a world of opportunities. So here we go . . .
1. & 2. Remember the greatest commandments: Love God with your whole self, and love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.
What do these have to do with moviegoing? Everything.
If you love God, then you’ll have an appetite for the things of God: truth, beauty, imagination, excellence, love, joy, peace . . . all of that good stuff.
Everybody—including the unbeliever—is made in the image of God. When we create, we’re following God’s example. Believers and unbelievers alike are capable of glorious achievements, mediocrity, and trash. We shouldn’t worry too much about who makes a work of art. We should instead “test all things,” as the Scriptures instruct us, “and hold fast to what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21). We should get out our metal detectors and go searching for whatever is beautiful, true, excellent, and worthy of praise (Phil. 4:8). These things are from God wherever we find them.
If we love God, then we’ll accept the Scriptures’ instruction to become “transformed by the renewing of [our] mind” (Rom. 12:2). To renew our minds, we must exercise them. Good movies don’t have mere “messages”—they’re alive with suggestions, with opportunities for meaningful contemplation. We’ll all see slightly different aspects of what a movie means.
If we love God, we’ll pay attention to how Jesus used art in His teaching. He was a master of metaphor and parable. The theologian C. H. Dodd described a parable as “a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.”
I mustn’t judge you for liking something that I didn’t like, or for having a problem with something that powerfully moved me.
Thus, parables are more than mere lessons. They’re mysterious. They’re intriguing. They get us talking and arguing about what they mean. They fire up the brain. They might be offensive, dark, or troubling. They might be shocking.
Great art is not necessarily “clean.” Ephesians 5:11 tells us to abstain from “the fruitless deeds of darkness.” But in that very same passage, Scripture tells us to “expose” the deeds of darkness. When you go to the movies, ask yourself: Is the filmmaker recommending evil? Or is he exposing it so that we might gain wisdom? Many films that have been described as “obscene” or “violent” are instead teaching us to recognize obscenity and violence—for our own good. That may make us uncomfortable in a very constructive way.
Remember how Hamlet staged a play about a murder? The shock of it awakened the conscience of his murderous uncle, who cried out, “Give me some light!” In that way, Hamlet was an agent of truth—highlighting horrors to scare us toward holiness.
The best art does not explain things. It reveals them imaginatively. It takes ideas and embodies them. That’s an imitation of the incarnation—“word” becoming “flesh.” Art can draw us closer to God by reflecting the powerful appeal of truth; it can also send us running to Him by showing us the horror of a world without Him.
If we love our neighbors, then we’ll attend to what they say—whether they are moviegoers or artists—with the same attention, humility, and respect that we would want them to show us, even if we disagree.
The following guidelines all grow like branches from the sturdy trunk of #1 and #2.
3. Love yourself. That is, pay attention to your conscience.
To love ourselves, we should love the voice of God within ourselves. The closer we come to Christ, the more clearly we’ll hear the voice of conscience. It’s the voice that asks you, “Is this experience really nourishing you? Or is it a waste of time? Don’t rush to judgment, but seriously—is this blessing you, or is it inclining you toward unhealthy appetites?”
If we can find that still, small voice amidst the din of our own desires for cheap thrills and entertaining lies, then we will travel more rewarding paths—in moviegoing and in everything else.
But remember that the Scriptures tell me to attend to my own conscience, and not to judge others for how clearly they hear their own.
4. Love the filmmaker.
Artists are often our most inquisitive neighbors. They’re asking questions. They’re bearing witness. We should give them our attention with respect, humility, and patience—especially if we hope they’ll respond to us with the same.
And besides, whether we’re paying attention to Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, or Sofia Coppola, we might learn something.
I’ve often heard Christians speaking of filmmakers as threats, as agents seeking to indoctrinate or corrupt an audience. There are villains in any profession, to be sure. But at times my own faith has grown more during encounters with “secular” art than art made by Christians. Why is that, I wonder? Is it that Christian artists are often too eager to explain what their art means? Is it that non-Christian artists are often more in love with the act of artmaking, and more willing to share things they do not fully understand?
The minister and author Frederick Buechner once said, “The world speaks of holy things in the only language it knows, which is a worldly language.” Are we easily offended by worldly language? If so, we’re going to have a lot of difficulty loving our neighbors—whether they be artists, characters, or other moviegoers.
Nevertheless, we mustn’t waste our time. A lot of movies—especially those promoted by big studios—were made out of recycled ideas from other movies. Constructed by committees, they follow moneymaking formulas. And as a result, theaters are filled with factory-made fast food. They give us what they think we want, not what anybody thought we might need. Better to seek out something constructively discomforting than something completely derivative.
5. Love other moviegoers—film critics included.
They’re our neighbors, too, after all.
Moviegoers are mysterious. Whatever the movie in question, we bring with us different tapestries of memory and experience, personality and preference, knowledge and ignorance. That means we experience movies very differently, and nobody has The Correct Opinion.
I mustn’t judge you for liking something that I didn’t like, or for having a problem with something that powerfully moved me. My closest friends had wildly different views about many films during Oscar season last year. All we ask, here at Sight Club, is for a conversation characterized by grace and respect.
By the way, a film critic is just another variety of moviegoer. Reviewers can become snobs and haters. But most film reviewers I know are just moviegoers who love film so much that they have accepted a low-income life in order to pursue their passion for something new and exciting.
Many critics see more than 200 films a year. If you think that’s crazy, think about what you love. How many football games do you watch a year? How many sitcoms?
6.-10. Love the art of cinema—directing, acting, editing, film, music, cinematography, etc.
We’d need a whole book to explore these different disciplines. But I encourage you to study these arts together.
What are the distinctions of a director’s style, personality, and thematic interests? Does he draw attention to himself or to a vision?
What drew you into a performance? Did the actress overdo it? Or did she capture your attention with subtlety?
Was the music manipulative or suggestive? Are these things teasing your mind into active thought? Are they earning your emotions, or are they using cheap shortcuts to get you to feel things?
How would you describe the cinematography? Can you discern the “why” of the cinematographer’s decisions about light, shadow, camera movement, and composition?
How would you describe the editing? Does the editing contribute to the feel of the film? Is it worth talking about? Does it contribute meaningfully to the movie? Or is it used only to keep us staring at the screen?
11. Listen to Flannery O’Connor.
Yes, O’Connor was a novelist. But what she wrote about art can teach about all different forms of art—including movies.
It was O’Connor who said that a true artist seeks to “control every excess, everything that does not contribute to [the] central meaning and design. He cannot indulge in sentimentality, in propagandizing, or in pornography and create a work of art, for all these things are excesses. They call attention to themselves and distract from the work as a whole.”
12. Don’t let the haters get you down.
My own film reviews have incurred wrathful responses—from Christians, especially—for more than 15 years. Occasionally, if handled with care, these exchanges can become rewarding conversations. But most are not exchanges at all. They come from people who believe God has given them a License to Judge and Punish those who disagree with them.
Here’s the good news: I’m increasingly hearing from Christians who are finding inspiration, revelation, and a deepening faith through thoughtful and courageous engagement with art.
It’s so easy to become seduced by glamorous garbage, to cultivate unhealthy appetites. But it’s also dangerous to let discernment devolve into a fearful and damaging detachment from culture, from the world in which we are called to live, and from the neighbors we are called to love. Peter risked sinking in order to stumble toward Christ on the water. I’m inclined to think that Jesus smiled.
You may have already guessed what I’m really getting at. Sight Club isn’t just about movies. It’s about how to live.