There is a common misconception concerning the purpose of film reviews. Many people believe that film reviews are written primarily to deliver a reckoning for a film, that reviews are an act of judgment, that film critics are judicious arbiters of what’s good and bad in cinema, and that the reader’s responsibility is to either align oneself with a particular critic’s opinion or to stand against that critic, defending a film the reader loves and critic loves less.
This false belief reveals itself most clearly in the percentage meters that headline film review database websites. The Tomatometer, IMDb’s percentage scale, and Lettterboxd’s stars exists to give site visitors a quick take on the overall attitude of hundreds or thousands of reviewers towards a film. These rating systems turn works of cinematic art into consumer products and reviewers into reporters on the overall efficacy and quality of those products.
Now, there is a place for evaluative criticism in the world of popular cinema. After all, hundreds of movies are released each year either in theaters or, increasingly, on demand, and knowing what is worth one’s time can be difficult. Film reviews can be understood as a kind of qualifying voice speaking alongside the effusive, self-interested voice of advertising. Readers can interact with critics as ersatz friends who can help readers know if the hype is true about a particular film or if perhaps there is something else they might enjoy watching instead.
However, this is not the only purpose of film reviews. There is another way to understand a film’s worth, the critical endeavor, and the most appropriate reader response. The key to this other way is the idea of perspective, but before I go any further, let me tell you a quick story.
I grew up in a small town in North Texas. Through most of my childhood years, the city limit sign reported a population of only 628 people (now 757). Being that this was Texas, pretty much everyone went to church on Sunday morning, and, even though the town was small, it was served by six churches within its city limits and five more in the surrounding countryside just outside the city proper.
When I was younger, I was confused by all the different churches, so I asked my mom and dad how I was supposed to know which church was the “real” church. My parents told me then and repeated it many times after that God is bigger than any one person’s or one church’s understanding of God. They told me to respect each perspective on God held by each church and each Christian. They told me we all needed each other to better understand, appreciate, and ultimately, worship God.
God is more complicated than any one mind (or all minds) can comprehend, because God is above and beyond us. Accepting this is an important step toward spiritual maturity. It is an act of humility, and it opens one up to a richer relationship with God and with God’s people and world.
Now, movies aren’t God, of course, and no film, not even the best film, is as multi-dimensional and magnificent as God, but the basic principle still applies. Like God, films are more complicated than any one mind can comprehend for a couple of reasons rooted in different perspectives.
First, films are the product of multiple artistic perspectives. Because they are the work of many, many people, no one person knows or is capable of knowing every bit of artistry that went into making any film. If you’ve ever listened to a commentary track, you’ve likely heard a director or actor or cinematographer be amazed at some aspect of the film they’d never noticed before, some aspect that they had no hand in. This is one of my favorite things about movies – they are the work of many talented people working in their individual strengths to make something none of them could have made alone.
While some perspectives (the director’s, the writer’s, the cinematographer’s, the editor’s, the cast members’, the visual effects team’s, etc.) might be more strongly evident in the final film, no film is the work of a single artistic perspective. No finished film represents an autonomous vision. A film’s power is the combined effect of many cooperative parts. Knowing, definitively, the way all those parts interact is an impossibility.
Furthermore, each audience member brings her or his own perspective to the watching of the film. Watching a film is an emotional experience, the emotional state of each viewer is different, and each viewer’s emotional response is different from others and unintelligible often even to her or himself. This is because films are stories, and as Rob Johnston says, “Story invites response and interacts with our own stories. Thus, we see a movie’s story through the filter of our stories… there are multiple viewers and thus multiple ‘seeings.'”
Humanity is plagued by a desire for certainty. Ever since Adam and Eve bowed to the temptation of the tree in Eden, we’ve been consumed by the pursuit of knowledge, intent on distinguishing between what’s “good” and “bad” and by drawing lines between the two. To do so though is an act of violence against the thing we sit in judgment over and an act of arrogance in ourselves. We raise ourselves up to be greater than the object of our reckoning and cut the object down to be contained within our purview. The more we insist on our own acuity, the more we become like the serpent in the Genesis story, who thought himself the most intelligent of all animals and who tempted Adam and Eve to become as shrewd as God. The proper response is honest humility inspired by righteous awe and trust in the goodness of God.
Once again, movies aren’t God, but the way we interact with any part of God’s world ought to be shaped by our worship of God. Everything we do has the potential to position us toward or away from God. We practice what we are becoming, and we become what we practice. Sanctification is a feedback loop that can be bolstered or buffered by what we believe and do.
So, I encourage you, read and write film reviews with humility. Seek out the opinions of those who contradict your own. Benefit from their perspectives on these cinematic artworks that are more complicated than any one mind can comprehend. Give little attention to percentage rankings. If there is anything capitalism and democracy is ill-suited to properly reckon, it’s art. Reel spirituality can be a real spirituality if it is properly positioned with regards to who we are in relation to God.
In conclusion, what are we, Reel Spirituality, going to do about this other than campaign for this repositioning? What practical steps are we going to take to help you, our readers, and the broader film-loving community better value other perspectives?
First, we are going to begin formally presenting contrary perspectives on films in our review section. We’ve been, for some time, offering differing opinions in our articles and review sections, but we’re going to make it more apparent. Beginning last week, you’ll find what we are calling Alternate Takes amongst our film reviews. Given that we have already added a couple of Brehm Critics to our roster—Gary Ingle and, soon, Kevin Nye and Andy Singleterry, along with a couple of others who have expressed their intention to apply–we are now able to commission multiple reviews of the same film. We hope when you read one, you’ll read the others as well and enlarge your experience of the film.
Second, I wish we could get all the best Christian film critics in one place, so that all our perspectives could sit side by side, but I’m also glad we all have our own spaces, as they allow us all to do very different and very interesting things. (After what my parents taught me about churches, it would hardly be consistent if I couldn’t also value multiple congregations of Christian film critics online.)
In lieu of getting us all under one digital steeple though, we will begin linking at the end of each of our reviews to the reviews posted on these other sites. Our reviews typically post the Wednesday following a film’s release, because we are rarely invited to press screenings and to give our reviewers a little more time to process their thoughts before committing them to the internet. This will now give us time to collect links to the other reviews. We hope you’ll visit them. We value the work they are doing very much.
Finally, we encourage you to add your reactions to the films you see to our site in the comments. We’d love to hear what you think about the films. Help us to better appreciate their complexity. And, if you are a Fuller student or alumni, please do apply to our Practicing Critic Program. See movies on our dime. Add your perspective to the mix. Practice being the kind of critic the world needs.