To really see what's going on in a movie, you need to look

Bob Davidson, 'Eyes Wide Open', Christianity Today Movies, 14 April 2009

It's good to see Christianity Today Movies publishing an article about getting beyond the surface level of film-viewing. CTMovies has some great reviewers, some of whom are online friends and very active in the Arts&Faith forum, but Bob Davidson's article helps people to engage more deeply for themselves, which is the idea behind my book, Focus: The Art and Soul of Cinema.

He laments the trivial way in which many people watch films, and suggests that critics are partly responsible:

. . . the four-star rating system of film critics has killed the filmgoers' experience. We have forced films into "good" and "bad" categories (largely) on the basis of entertainment value. Will I receive my ten dollars' worth of leisure?

While nobody wants to dismiss mindless entertainment (I know I don't), this "sense of entitlement" has slowly dismantled the relationship between the viewer and film. We now have a tendency to detach ourselves from film: Until it proves itself to us, we owe it nothing. It's a posture that can quickly drain any wonder or aesthetical value out of the room.

Davidson quotes John Dillenberger's A Theology of Artistic Sensibilities and says that art - including film - is in need of a new discipline of seeing:

'Because art has a seductive character, sensuous to the core, a discipline of seeing is essential in order for one to be illumined beyond the sensory embodiment.' In short, Dillenberger says that when an encounter with art moves from passivity to wonder, 'horizons are stretched, formed, and filtered, as creation's images are regained . . . precisely for their Creator.'

Bob Davidson very helpfully works this through by discussing three films which themselves explore the need to look beyond the surface: Smoke (1995), American Beauty (1999) and Horton Hears a Who (2008). He concludes:

In pursuit of a new discipline of seeing (and hearing), maybe the simplest thing we can conclude is that posture matters, for how sad would it be for the wondrous reality of God to exist in and around film—only to be missed by closed eyes and ears?

How can we best develop a discipline of open eyes and ears? As Dillenberger suggests, it comes through 'seeing and seeing and seeing over and over again.'

The one small concern I have is that Davidson seems to be suggesting that we are to be looking for God to reveal himself in our film viewing. 'But does our theology allow for God to both speak and reveal himself through such ordinary spaces today? Even via the confines of a screen?' he asks. He does acknowledge that 'This is not to suggest that in every film and in every scene the reality of God is front and center, ready to transform.' But this still leaves people with the idea that to really watch a film as a Christian is to be alert for the spiritual stuff, the reflections of theology or glimmers of transcendence. This is certainly part of what we need to do. But as Gordon Matties notes, we also need to be alert for the 'shadows of brokenness and alienation'. We need to listen to what the film is saying, on its own terms, and respond to that message, rather than just keep our ears pricked for something 'spiritual'.

Despite this reservation, this is a very helpful article to stimulate people to look deeper into films.

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© Tony Watkins, 2020
The Tony and Jane Watkins Trust oversees and supports the ministries of Tony and Jane Watkins in Christian training, education, and communication. It is a charity registered in England and Wales, no. 1062254.
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