Q: I get the sense you’d rather be writing instead of teaching, speaking and fundraising.
BRN: I would much rather be writing. I would much rather be writing because every day I stand in front of the mirror and say, “Why does anyone listen to you? You don’t have anything out there to prove that you are anything more than talk.” I’ve had some nasty people say to me, “Those who can do, those who can’t teach.” I had someone say it to me recently, kind of insinuating, “What do you know, you haven’t ever made a movie yet.” A couple of Christians who had made a horrible waste of money movie, grumbled to my manager that the root of my criticism of their project was jealosuy. Because they had made a movie and I haven't. Of course, then they went on and took all my notes on the rough cut! (It's still dreadful I hear, though. You can't edit crap into the beautiful.)
This is particularly ugly coming from Christians. The fact is, I took an eight year detour off my writing career, because something was offered to me that needed to be done. And it seemed to me that I had been uniquely prepared to take on the task. It's eyeball-rollingly stinging to have fellow Christians spin the founding of Act One as a financial fall-back plan because of disappointed writing career plans.
But hey, I have to consider, “Maybe God told What's-Their-Names to throw stones at Barbara,” because I do think it has kept my feet to the fire. I've never stopped writing, even when I had to let screenwriting opportunities pass by because I just couldn't do it while running around the country speaking to anybody who would listen about what we were trying to do with Act One.
Q: Probably some of the resentment you have encountered comes from the fact that you have been very hard on "Christian" movie projects. Even when other Christian critics have given a project a pass for good-intentions, you have kept your standards the same as you would for secular projects.
BRN: Thanks. I think so too. Although, I will go to my grave regretting that I didn't see all of Gods and Generals before giving it a rave. Rats. My pathological obsession with all things Civil War tripped me up in that case.
But yes, I do think I am different among the legions of Christian movie critics in that I have actually written screenplays. I've made a couple of short films and so had to look through a camera and understand how the camera can see and what is possible. I've had to be constrained by a production budget, and had to rework on the set an idea that the actor just couldn't pull off. The main way I’ve learned about the challenge of Christians trying to reflect their worldview in art is actually through my own work.
To tell you the truth, I am disgusted with the film criticism in the church very often because it is completely done by people who are not practitioners. And it shows in the way they talk about screen stories. Much of it seems worthless to me, these people who know nothing about the art form and tend to criticize movies just on the basis of story. Few of our Christian film critics have gone to film school or made movies. They basically used to report on one beat for their local Christian paper or radio station - or else they were the kid in seminary who really, really, really loved Star Wars. And then one day they got the call to be the media reporter. That is, unfortunately, the people who are telling masses of our Christians what movies to go see.
Particularly egregious are the critical passes that come from Christian critics who are effectively ga-ga over "the Hollywood thing." The p.r. folks have them go to the Four Seasons for a junket, give them a giftbag and have them touch a couple stars, and then the reviews come out with more than a bit of a soft-focus lens. Part of it is that these critics want to be invited to the next junket. I find the celebrity obsession in Christians inane and almost worthless.
Another problem in Christian critics is that they they miss the subtextual heart of a project because they can't see past its use of sin as inciting incident. Projects like In the Bedroom, or In America, get panned because “They had sex,” or “They were murderers who don’t end up in jail.”
And now, we have the recent nauseating post-modern Christian critic who is so hungering to be hip that they end up swallowing all kinds of violating movie camels to promote a few gnats of story or character substance. This is the "It's all good" crowd. The only movie they are offended by is any film that is sympathetic to Christianity. They see themselves as standing outside the church somehow, not one of the clueless bourgeois masses of Christians who are horrified by things like the Incarnate Son of God having sex (DVC) or reducing the Eucharist to less potent in its substance than a well-intentioned candy truffle (Chocolat). God save us from the sophomoric Teflon Christian critic!
Anyway, a good Christian critic takes into consideration matter and form. And has a sense of beauty as wholeness, harmony and radiance. The technique, art form, artistry and imagery needs to be considered as well as the plot points and performance. I want to start a program called Act One: Critics at some point, because I am exhausted with our Christian critics praising what should be scorned and ignoring what should be praised.
Q: Does the fact that you are giving yourself to these other areas besides writing make Act One something of a cross for you?
BRN: Act One has been a great, great blessing for me! As my novice mistress said to me years ago in the convent, "Ministry is principally saving for the minister." Most days, I can't believe how I stumbled into being a part of this wonderful thing.
If it is a cross in any sense, it is because of the money situation. Basically, my job for the last eight years has been to beg for money. I'm not the kind of person who likes to ask for things. I like to make things happen using hardwork and creativity and talent. But running a non-profit will always mean that you are not basically independent. You are always going to be dependent on people with means to get what you are doing and to help pay for those who can't pay for themselves.
And we have learned through experience in these last eight years, that we are a tough sell. And, even though I understand the instinctive Christian aversion towards things- Hollywood, I do not understand why believers out there can't see what we are doing in a missionary capacity. It is frustrating for me. To not be able to pay my staff what they deserve. To have to limit the numbers of young people we can help. To have to say "No" to wonderful pastoral ideas because I can't afford to add another staff member. Talk about my theme that God gives you the destiny but not the map! I’m sitting on this program, which I’ve seen be transformational - saving in the lives of lots and lots of artists, young and old, and now it’s starting to see it succeed on the screen. But we can't see how we are going to pay the bills three months ahead.
Q: And you are seeing the fruit at Act One?
BRN: Oh yeah. We were seeing the fruit a long time before the world was seeing the fruit because we were seeing what the community was meaning in the lives of our students and faculty. How it was making them aspire to a holy rivalry - in virtue and in heroism and in dying to self and challenging each other on, and in being there for each other. When they move: “Sleep on my couch. I can help you.” “So-and-so is sick, everyone is going to take care of them.” Wonderful things that you do not find in secular artistic or academic-based communities that have become so much about the individual expression of the artist that they are completely isolated. So we have this new model of community, which is the artist in the center of the community. I see it as the renaissance model, and I think JPII's 1999 Letter to Artists called for that: for the artist to be not on the fringe, but in the heart of the community. This fringe thing has been the 20th century story of artists–they’re freaks because they have been told that to preserve their vision, they have to be alone. If you’re alone, all you can write about is your own guts, and that’s not pretty.
Q: Especially if it misleads others.
BRN: We’ve been telling artists that the only sin is to not be honest to what is inside of them. No. There are a few other sins for artists. One of them is, not being honest about whether they really have the gifts of nature to be supported by the community as a prophet. If you’re not good enough, don’t waste our time. Your art is probably just for your own therapy.
Another sin is sloth. Many artists have natural ability, but they can not motivate themselves to do the hours and hours of scales that it will take them to develope technique. The craft takes dedication. So don’t get me to try to buy your painting, watch your movie or read your story if you’re not good, if you haven’t put the time in.
On another level, artists need to be led to see that sometimes some of the things inside of them are poisonous. They could be sick - someone who really has ideas that are disordered. Just because you’re an artist you get to disease me with your ideas? If you had a sense of responsibility, you’d be able to discern, “In my creative time, I have all of this stuff. This is kind of sick. This is kind of dark. This is actually something that is wonderful.” It is this fundamentally different view of the arts. The secular side is saying the arts are about the artistic expression of the artist. The church is saying that the arts are about service to the People of God, and to the global community.
Artists need help discerning the difference in the stuff they make that is catharthis just for them, and the stuff that is prophetic for the rest of us. I absolutely do not think the decision needs to be made by anyone outside. That’s when you talk about censorship. It’s not about that.
Q: It’s internal.
BRN: An internal censorship that says, “This is garbage.” Things can be garbage in many ways as art. They can be garbage in terms of their craft and they can be garbage in terms of their heart. To me, something like American Beauty was garbage in its heart. Movies like The Hours or Far From Heaven, or even Brokeback Mountain are pretty to look at and technically superb, but in their heart, as Jesus says, they are like whitewashed sepulchers: pretty, white, clean on the outside and full of filth and dead men’s bones on the inside.
Q: So, is the picture ahead of the Church and the arts more positive or more negative?
BRN: We aren't going to have any kind of new renaissance in the arts without the People of God intentionally calling for it and then making sacrifices to make it happen. We are not. The Church is not going to become the Patron of the Arts accidentally. It is going to require a huge rethinking, reprioritizing, and reallocation of resources. And a lot of peoples’ sensibilities are going to be hurt. A lot of people who love keeping the 1970s music alive at Sunday Mass – the stuff that is so artistically crass and unworthy is going to have to go. It's going to take the baby-Boomers - who currently have all the power in the Church - relinquishing their incessant reliving of their glory days. Okay, let’s bring back the kids sitting around the campfire, but not at our worship service! That is not worship. Worship is first fruits and it is an act of giving glory to God by the greatness and beauty of the work that we do. A new renaissance is not going to come from anywhere but from real serious commitment and sacrifice on the part of the whole church, but we can’t not do it. The stakes are just too high.
On the other side, I see this amazing groundswell of reaching towards the arts on the part of the millenial generation of young people. They want so much to be artists. They want beauty so much. Unfortunately, they are so crippled by their education and whatever we’ve done with them, that they don’t even know what beauty is. All the time, I see people from Generation X and Gen Next saying things that are alternately profound and banal and they have know way of knowing the difference. It’s because they just reveal they are educationally deficient. At the same time, I find them really, really rejecting absolute materialism. That means the arts are going to have a renewal.
I hope I see it. That's a Promised Land in which I'd love to meander.