by Tony Watkins (Damaris Books, 2007)
Films have never been more popular or, with the increase in television channels and home rentals, so readily available. But how much of what we watch do we really understand? Focus: The Art and Soul of Cinema explains how films communicate the worldview of the film-maker, helping us to engage more fully with the films we watch - and so to enjoy them more. With a passion for film and a deep concern to develop a robust Christian understanding of our culture, Tony Watkins equips us to recognise and respond to the messages in today's movies. Essential reading for anyone who enjoys films and who wants to get more out of their viewing experience.
First Reel: Worldviews and films
1. Cinema Paradiso – Cinema and culture
2. What Lies Beneath – Understanding the message
3. Modern Times – a history of worldviews and film
Second Reel: How films communicate
4. Making Movies – Film-makers and their art
5. Telling tales – The narrative structure of films
6. Bending the rules – Genres and worldviews
Third Reel: Responding to what films are really saying
7. What’s it all about, Alfie? – Film and our deepest longings
8. The soul of cinema – Responding to films
Appendix 1: Questions to consider when watching a film
Appendix 2: The problem of content – Sex and violence
In an age where Film and Media is the dominant language of the times, we need able, clear, Christian, and insightful voices to offer guidance for those seeking to live well. I heartily recommend this book as a vital resource for an informed Christian journey.
Stuart McAllister, International Director, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries
Students of film or mere enthusiasts will find great value in Tony Watkins's Focus: the Art and Soul of Cinema. Here is a fine book by an engaging cultural critic who is enthusiastic that Christians use film analysis as a tool to influence the culture for Christ. Watkins offers a helpful interpretive grid through which we in our 'movie-made culture' can find the essential questions: what is a film saying about the world in which we live, about the nature of man, about ethics, about the means to happiness and salvation? He is concise and coherent, even when introducing complex philosophical and aesthetic concepts, which he skillfully illustrates through a wide range of classic and contemporary films.
Peter Fraser, author (with Vernon Edwin Neal) of ReViewing the Movies: A Christian Response to Contemporary Film (Crossway, 2000)
I still vividly remember, though it was 20 years ago, watching a film with a group of students and then leading a discussion on what it was trying to communicate. My opening questions were greeted with blank stares. After some awkward silence brave souls started to contribute their embryonic thoughts. The problem? They were watching the film in 'entertainment mode' rather than thoughtfully engaging with its message. I am delighted that Tony Watkins has written the book that those students needed 20 years ago! For all of us who enjoy films this book will help us think more deeply about how to watch thoughtfully and critique using Biblical principles. Tony knows the Bible and he knows the world of film. This is a great book!
Elaine Duncan, Chief Executive, Scottish Bible Society
Focus is a breath of fresh air - an enthusiastic, thorough and profoundly practical exploration of the relationship between films and worldviews. Anyone who wants to engage with films from a Christian perspective will be helped immeasurably in this careful, comprehensive and insightful book.
Lars Dahle, Principal, Gimlekollen School of Journalism and Communication, Norway
The medium of film has increasing power in the postmodern world. In this highly readable and accessible book, Tony Watkins rightly urges us to respond to our ‘movie-made culture’ with a God-directed wisdom.
Jeremy Begbie, former vice-principal, Ridley Theological College, Cambridge
Film is a powerful influence in modern life. This intelligent book helps us understand the world of film better. More, it gives us useable tools to relate creatively and critically to what is going on before our very eyes. Tony Watkins is deeply rooted in Christian thinking and up to date in the world of film. An important book!
Stefan Gustavsson, Director of Credo Academy, Stockholm, and General Secretary, Swedish Evangelical Alliance
All of us know the influence of film in contemporary society but we often lack the necessary equipment to both understand and engage with the medium. With no reliable compass, Christians can often stray into the territories of Irrational Avoidance, Dangerous Assimilation or Embarrassing 'Christianizing'. Tony Watkins knows about films and film making, but more importantly he has developed an all-encompassing Christian worldview through which he can faithfully analyse the medium. In this book, he gives us a map of biblical reality that will enable Christians to penetrate deeply into the Art and Soul of Cinema. For our own holiness, for those we seek to evangelise, and for Christ's Lordship over all of culture (including film) this book is a welcome help and guide.
Daniel Strange, Lecturer in Culture, Religion and Public Theology, Oak Hill Theological College, London
This is an extremely insightful guide to the movies. It will help anyone engage thoughtfully with what films are trying to say in our contemporary culture. Covering a wide range of film, classic and modern, Tony Watkins demonstrates the importance of understanding the worldviews that have influenced them. I highly recommend reading this book before your next trip to the multiplex!
Chris Sinkinson, Pastor and lecturer in apologetics, Moorlands College
Nothing shapes the imagination of this generation more than the movies. There is no better channel for engaging with the ideas of the culture nor a more pressing area for Christian discernment. Tony Watkins has produced an excellent introduction to the whole subject - comprehensive, balanced, readable and immanently useful. Focus: the Art and Soul of Cinema will help orient you to both the opportunities and the challenges of our media-saturated culture
Jock McGregor, L'Abri Fellowship, Rochester, Massachusetts
You've seen the films - now read the book. Focus: the Art and Soul of Cinema is an engaging, thoughtful and challenging study but be warned, after reading this you may never watch a movie in the same way again!
Chris Stoddard, Reaching the Unchurched Network
Best book on film that I have read in years. This is a masterful book that communicates the author's experience both enjoying and thinking about film. What I loved about this book was that it was utterly unpretentious. Most books on film make you feel like an idiot, because you aren't as "well watched" as the writer. Watkin's is a welcome relief from all of that, and is clearly able to do justice to the films as well as some of the themes that he tackles. This book has given me a superb list of great films to see, and has also helped me to appreciate what I have already watched. I absolutely loved this book. Highly recommended.
Trg Price "bethinking" review on Amazon.co.uk
An excellent resource for getting to the heart of films. This book explores both the art and the soul of cinema (hence the subtitle). Some of the mechanics of film making are looked at with the emphasis on how this adds to the message of the film. The heart of this book examines how films communicate, how they are profoundly meaningful and worthy of serious thought and critical engagement. Overall, an excellent resource, full of helpful examples to make going to the cinema, or thinking about film, a more fruitful and enjoyable experience. Essential for anyone studying film and media as well as for anyone who wants to go beyond the superficial and think about how films are fundamentally spiritual.
J. Murkett review on Amazon.co.uk
An excellent guide for all who love film. Having been studying Media With Cultural studies at university, this book has been a great follow on to apply my Christian faith to my knowledge of film and culture. Any one with an interest in watching or studying film, and is looking at how christians in contemporary society can engage with film, should read this book. Tony has a great way of mixing examples of films, bible references, and his own knowledge of both to create a brilliant and easy to understand read. The book really helps you to look deeper into how culture is created, and how we should be engaging with it. An excellent book.
A. Coleman "media student" review on Amazon.co.uk
As the subtitle suggests, this book is concerned with exploring both the art and the soul of cinema. To that end, Part Two deals with the art of cinema, while Parts One and Three are taken up with analysing the soul of cinema. In Part Two, Watkins examines the process of filmmaking, looking at key players within the production of films such as the producers and editors, as well as exploring the narrative structure of films as they tell their story. All this is undertaken, not as an end in itself, but because it is Watkins’s conviction that “as we become more proficient at understanding how a film is structured, we also get better at seeing how it communicates at a worldview level” (p. 120).
Here we come to the very heart of the book in Parts One and Three, where the soul of cinema is explored. Watkins main thesis about films is that they communicate “at the level of worldviews” (p. 26) and so must be studied at that level. To aid this, Part One examines the concept of culture from a biblical point of view and how worldviews are a part of that. A step-by-step guide to recognising, evaluating, and responding to worldviews is provided. Watkins builds his case cogently that films are an inherently religious medium, worthy of engagement as the cultural products of “rebellious image-bearers” (p. 15). Part Three is especially concerned with how “films explore some of humanity’s deepest desires” (p. 152) and concludes with outlining the range of responses that Christians should make when watching films, including emotional, ethical, and aesthetic responses. Two appendices finish the book, one containing an extensive list of questions to bear in mind when watching a film and the other exploring the problems of unhelpful content within films. Ultimately, Watkins has written this book because
it is important for our ongoing Christian growth that we learn to watch films thoughtfully rather than let them wash over us, seeing them as mere entertainment. It is important for our ability to relate to our friends that we learn to understand the messages which films communicate and how they relate to the good news of Jesus Christ (p. xv).
Since “movies both reflect and shape culture” (p. 174), if Christians are serious in thinking about cultural engagement and transformation, they must be serious in thinking about film. This book is written to serve this end and to provide a starting point in this process.
One of the many highlights of this book is the chapter on film and culture. Using material from Genesis 1–3, Watkins exposes the two sides of culture: on the one hand, “culture is God’s idea” (p.10), and on the other hand, “culture is dangerous since it is also bound up with our rebellion against God” (p. 11). This tension must be acknowledged when Christians consider films so that they avoid the dangers of escapism and uncritical acceptance. Watkins adopts a better approach, that of “positive critical engagement” (p. 17), which respects both the beauty and depravity within films. Films deal in worldviews and in this sense are a religious medium. As Christians engage with films, they should celebrate where there is truth and “evidence of the longing for God which is innate in every human being” (p. 43). As Christians engage with films, they should challenge idolatry as we see the “God-substitutes which people chase when they cannot or will not pursue a relationship with the creator himself” (p. 45). Films express the fundamental heart commitments of those who make them and so are ultimately concerned with who or what one worships. I think this chapter would have been slightly improved by an explicit treatment of how general revelation provides non-Christians with the ‘raw-material’ for their cultural products including film. This theme is prominent in the work of Ted Turnau, and including this material would have further underpinned the theological rationale provided for Christian engagement with film.
Reading any book about film is bound to be a slightly frustrating experience due to the fact that film communicates visually whereas a book is a different medium. In addition, if the reader is unaware of a certain film, the impact of illustrations and examples may be lost. However, the fact that this book is full of varied examples, spanning many genres and decades, goes a long way to overcoming these inevitable limitations and provides connection points for as wide an audience as possible.
Overall, this book is an excellent resource and a welcome addition to the literature of Christian engagement with film. It is thorough, thoughtful, and above all, biblically rigorous. It provides practical help for Christians wishing to think about films. It will equip Christians to be aware of the potentially corrosive messages that films are communicating, to open up avenues into helpful conversations with non-Christian friends, and ultimately to declare the Lordship of Christ over every aspect of culture. This book should be essential reading for Christian film-studies students, for anyone who loves film, and for anyone who wants to think about how Christ relates to culture.
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