This week my guest is Jeffrey Overstreet, author of the new book Through a Screen Darkly: Looking Closer at Beauty, Truth and Evil in the Movies. Jeffrey calls upon a decade of experience as a film reviewer and columnist for his popular website, www.lookingcloser.org. He is a weekly columnist and critic at Christianity Today’s movie website, and his perspectives are regularly published in Risen and Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine. His work has also appeared Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion and Paste, and he frequently speaks about the arts at Seattle Pacific, in churches and on radio talk shows around the U. S. His film reviews were celebrated in a front-page feature of The Seattle Times’ Sunday magazine (Pacific Northwest), and his work has been noted in Time Magazine. He and his wife, Anne, a poet, can be found writing in the coffee shops of Shoreline, Washington.
LeAnne: Tell me about three movies that would not be considered Christian but have strong spiritual themes.
Jeffrey: There are so many, I hardly know where to start. In every chapter of Through a Screen Darkly, I take a look at several movies with spiritual themes. Here are three that spring to mind:
I wrote about Amadeus. That movie is about how God gives grace to all human beings, and sometimes, just to keep his servants humble, he gives the most extraordinary gifts to the most childlike… and childish… characters. Amadeus was a womanizing, rowdy, offensive party animal, according to this movie. And yet he was the one who could pull back the veil and show us glory, which incensed the courtly "Pharisees" who considered themselves superior.
I ran out of room to write about Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors in the book. It's all about a man who decides that there is no God. He decides that it doesn't really matter if he commits murder. He rationalizes his decision, and sees that he is able to sin and go on living without punishment. And as he does, the film seems to suggest that sinners will get away with it, and thus there is no God. But I am impressed by the emptiness of that conclusion, the inescapable sense that a soul has been ruined.
How do I pick just one more? The Truman Show is about conformity, freedom, and what life would be like if God was a tyrant instead of a benevolent deity. The films of Dreyer, Bresson, Kieslowski, Tarkovsky, and Kurosawa — oh, Ikiru is a fantastic film about redemption — are overflowing with spiritual insight. Just this last year, I was deeply moved and challenged by the spiritual insights in The New World, Babel, and Pan's Labyrinth.
I even find The Muppet Movie to have some powerful spiritual insights — The Great Gonzo sings a song in that movie that makes me think about my own longing for heaven, for arriving at my heart's true home.
LM: There are Christians in Hollywood who are creating good work and making a difference. Can you talk about one or two of these directors or producers—about the work they've done and what they hope to accomplish?
JO: Ralph Winter, who has worked as a producer on films in the Star Trek, X-Men, and Fantastic Four franchises. Winter has done such good work on his Hollywood blockbusters, that he has clout and influence in the industry. His work is a testimony that excellence matters. But he's not a snob... he does smaller projects in order to work with up-and-coming filmmakers, and in contributing to their growth, he sometimes discovers promising new talent.
Scott Derrickson, the director of The Exorcism of Emily Rose, has a good sense of the potential for horror films to cause us to think about the consequences of sin and the reality of spiritual warfare. Derrickson has a lot of ideas for future projects for mass audiences, but he's also an artist — he wrote a thoughtful film for director Wim Wenders, called Land of Plenty, which is available on DVD, and which features an inspiring Christian character played by Michelle Williams.
LM: Is there anything you'd like to add?
JO: For me, seeing a movie for the first time is just one small step in experiencing it. The best part comes when moviegoers start discussing their thoughts and feelings about the film afterward. I hope that readers of Through a Screen Darkly will start up vigorous conversations with their moviegoing friends, and that they'll share their experiences with me at my web site: www.lookingcloser.org.