Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A “Christian” Cinema? An interview with Av Venire

Here is an interview that just came out. It is me being interviewed by writer Andrea Galli for the Italian paper Av Venire. I don’t have an exact translation, but these are the answers to her questions that I sent by email.
Q: A straightforward question (that was the title of one of your recent lectures): Why do “heathens” seem to make the best Christian films? Why are there still so few good Christian movies?
BN: This is really a very loaded question because it touches on the nature of art, story and beauty, as well as many of the particular errors which have infected Christendom as a reactionary response to the Sexual Revolution and modernity itself.
The first thing to note is that there really isn’t such a thing as a Christian movie, any more than there is a Christian pizza or a Christian motorcycle. Christian is a noun. It was never meant to be an adjective. What we mean by Christian movie or book today is something that was produced in the Christian subculture for the Christian subculture. The religious subculture is a uniquely modern perversity, and I do mean perversity. As a response to the decay, and the harsh critique that we Christians were finding in mainstream modern secularism, Christians created our own “safe place” to talk to ourselves. Culturally it was meant to be a refuge, but practically it became a ghetto, and now it is a prison. The standards of the subculture quickly became an over-emphasis on innocence, that is sentimentality, and the absence of sex, crass language and violence. Sadly, other standards that got tossed in modern Christendom are aesthetics and the sense of taste. Art and music today produced by Christians tends to be among the ugliest art that modern man is producing. As proof, I would send you into any Catholic Church on Sunday morning to have your musical instincts flayed by what Pope Benedict called, “the cult of the banal” (ref. “The Spirit of the Liturgy”). The art form of oratory is also dead in the Church today as most sermons are meandering, boring and generally insulting.
A helpful distinction that we need to reclaim in Christendom is that of “sacred” art which should refer to any project that the Church is commissioning for explicitly liturgical or ecclesial purposes. Sacred art as a loving response of faith to God has the overt agenda of deepening the faith of the Church. It can still edify the masses of heathens outside, as in the way non-believers flock to the Pieta and the Sistine Chapel. Christian sub-culture product, with a more sneaky propagandistic agenda, is generally freakish to the masses and embarrassing to the faithful. Movies will rarely fall in the “sacred art” category as they are consitutionally unsuited to liturgical and ecclesial purposes. The notable exception is The Passion of Christ which was an experiment by Mel Gibson to do the Stations of the Cross through cinema.
A movie made by a Christian should work with Catholics on a theological level, and should work with non-believers on an artistic and/or narrative level. It will satisfy their story instincts and their desire for the beautiful, and maybe do something more for them spiritually through the project’s theme. As an example of this kind of cultural success, I would point to the stories of Flannery O’Connor, or the movies A Man for All Seasons or The Passion of Joan of Arc.
What has happened in the Church is that we have sacrificed the search for “new epiphanies of beauty” in the words of Bl. John Paul II, to egalitarianism, cheapness and politics. We don’t care anymore if a hymn is lovely and haunting, we just need it to be singable by the assembly without any musical training or practice. This means we have had to dumb down our music to the level of pre-school ditties. Our movies and television are not flowing out of the mysterious impulse to create and connect, which is the hallmark of art, but rather out of the desire to preach and distract. Secondly, in productions created by Christians for Christians, there is nothing so unappreciated – and I would argue, resented – as God-given talent. In the Church today, the emphasis on talent seems to people to be elitist, as if God has very bad form in giving one person the ability to do something that another can not. How dare God be so unequal in His favors?!
Ideally, a movie made by Christians should be a marriage of beauty plus one of our defining themes as a subtext. That is, first and foremost a movie made by believers ought to have all its parts present and executed with excellence, and then its meaning should reflect something that only we Christians can say with unique authority. So, some of our defining themes are, “Good and evil are not equal,” and “Joy and sorrow have a necessary and ironic juxtaposition,” and “Death is not the worst thing that can happen to a person,” and “Everything we see is a sign of something we cannot see.” A sign that a movie is really, profoundly Christian, is that it will carry tremendous meaning for non-Christians. Of course, we never see this kind of project from Christian filmmakers today. Not yet any way.
In so far as talented pagan film makers are pursuing wholeness, harmony and radiance in their work – which are the elements of the beautiful – they will be producing stories that far outshine the efforts of Christians who are basically making propaganda and cheap resistance literature for the faithful. Secondly, pagans respect things like artistic principles. They tend to invest seriously in cultural endeavors, and they honor talent and training. In the Church, all that is necessary to get a job as a singer is to own a guitar and have a good heart. It is really very perverse. I think of the loss of the sense of the beautiful as one of the great heresies in the Church in the modern age. It has been devastating particularly because it undermines all of our efforts at evangelization. What good does it do to tell people that the Holy Spirit is Wisdom and Power in a hymn or movie that is lame and pedestrian?
Q: Money (rich production companies), expertise, self-confidence: what do we lack more as Christians?
BN: Christians who make sallies into the entertainment industry tend to be uninterested in the nature and potential of the visual story telling art forms. Cinema is perceived by most of the thought leaders in the Church as unserious or as a means of catechesis. We don’t have one Catholic university in the top twenty film programs in the world. Too many of our religious leaders never have a good word for any movie or television and would seem to prefer if we Christians all just lived in caves when they aren’t at church. We need to work with people who have artistic talent, regardless of where they are spiritually, because our working with them might be the way in which God will introduce Himself to the artist, and as a plus, the people of God will get beautiful work done. Too often, I have seen Christians hire bad actors or writers or directors just because they are believers. It always mean ugly movies.
Of course, it is true that most of the wealthy Christians today are pouring their money into the Church’s charities for the sick and for general education. It will take a whole rethinking to win them back to pouring their resources into works of art. We have lost the value of producing new art – of being “the Patron of the Arts” as the Church was once known. No one could seriously call the Church that today.
Q: Some say a Christian movie must not be explicitly Christian if it wants to be a good movie or go mainstream. On the other hand there are hundred millions of Christians worldwide and “The passion of the Christ” grossed more than 600 million dollars… what do you think about it?
BN: What we really need today are many wonderful parables for the people of our time, that do all the things that Aristotle notes a story should do in his seminal work “The Poetics.” Good parables don’t need to mention God. Jesus told many parables and none of them mention God. I say to my students all the time, “The story is enough.” That is, you shouldn’t need to deliver it with a copy of a homily attached.
There is a great opportunity for believers right now because the secular movie production entities in Hollywood all seemed to have forgotten how to tell a good story. (In Europe, of course, they have never understood this! Ha, ha….) We need beautiful, thoughtful parables from people whose hearts are full of love for the people of the world, and who want to lead people to inspiration and compunction. Or as Aristotle said it, human society needs stories to lead people to cathartic experiences of compassion and the fear of evil. The movie studios in Hollywood have largely been taken over by global corporations who only care about movies as products to sell. The bottom line is what matters to them, not whether the main character has an engaging transformational arc. We need a new generation of storytellers who are able to look back to classical principles and ancient wisdom, and yet to marry these inner gifts with an understanding of all the wonderful potential that the new media technology offers. Because Christians have a pastoral mandate to help and heal, storytelling should be a natural arena for us.
Q: Christians have much more “moral boundaries” than “heathens” (language, nudity/sexuality, approach to violence…): isn’t it a big disadvantage?
BN: You can’t have a good story without what we call “high stakes.” High stakes means that, in a story, death is always on the table. Stories are better than real life in that way. The most profound kinds of death that human beings experience come through sin – the death of the ability to love, the death of the instinct to care for others, the death of the ability to see and penetrate reality, for example. Hence, you can’t take sin out of storytelling. What Christians could demonstrate to the secular storytellers is how to talk about sin without it becoming an occasion of sin for the audience. The Bible shows us this. It has always high stakes stories of adultery, murder, deceit and betrayal, but never told in a ways that violate the reader.
Another modern heresy in the Church today is the impulse to be safe. There is no safety in this life and Christians least of all should be trying to live lives that are safe. We need to be prudent, but instead, too often, we Christians bring a presence of soggy toast to the world. We’re trying so hard to be nice and non-offensive that we never say anything worth hearing. There is a great line in CS Lewis’ class book “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe,” in which we are told about Aslan, the Christ figure, “Aslan is never safe. But He is good.” We need to toughen up a lot more in the Church today.

Q: Can you make some examples of recent interesting Christian movies?
BN: Few of the projects made by Christians end up being able to meet the industry standard that would allow them to be screened in mainstream theaters. I can’t think of any of these projects that have come out of the sub-culture that have really been good as movies. Where there is good intention, the story usually fails. Where the script is acceptable, the acting or the production design is embarrassing. The Passion of the Christ is the exception, but, of course, Mel did not make that movie for the Church. He made it as an act of penance to God for his own sins. Some fabulous, powerful movies made by pagans that carry Gospel themes include, “The VisitorLars and the Real GirlThe Lives of OthersJuno, and Of Gods and Men. I would include nearly everything made by Pixar as something that Christians could look to as a marriage of excellence and deep universal themes.
Q: Some read Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino as a subtle but powerful Christian movie (greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends). I personally agree with that. So, it’s not necessary to have a Christian director to have a good Christian movie.. or what?
BN: Again, a beautiful story works because it is beauty married to profound truth. You don’t have to be Christian to do this. Gran Torino was a solid film, and yes, Clint was clearly drawing a parallel to his main character as a Christ-figure. The Christ-figure archetype is well-established in Hollywood lore.
Q: How is the work of Act One in the movie industry? Do you encounter prejudices or hostility? Can you work with non-denominational production companies too? Is it hard to be Christian and work inside what was once called “Hollywood Babylonia”?
BN: Our experience at Act One has been that Hollywood is not really anti-Christian. It is much more anti-bad art. The way for Christians to get a hearing in mainstream culture is to be so good that they can’t ignore you. That is what we strive to imbue in our students. We have had some very good results. Tragically, we spend most of our time at Act One trying to pay the pills to keep the non-profit running. It is really a scandal how the Church has not stepped up to make the program grow and thrive. It really is part of the answer for redemption of culture.

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