With the Academy Awards upon us—the event will be televised Sunday on ABC (7/6c)—everybody's talking about the best movies of the year. So why not talk to somebody who really knows movies, somebody right in the middle of it all?
Ralph Winter has been producing movies for almost three decades, starting with 1984's Star Trek: The Search for Spock. A devout Christian who once considered going to seminary and becoming a pastor, Winter has more recently overseen such projects as the X-Men and Fantastic 4 movies, plus a handful of independent films geared more toward a faith audience (including The Least of These, Thr3e, House, The Visitation).
In a Sunday school class many of us would gladly pay to attend—at Montrose Church in Montrose, California—Winter teaches about how movies connect with our everyday lives, exploring the theological and sociological themes of film. Paul Shrier, a practical theology professor at Azusa Pacific University, recently interviewed Winter about the class, how others might replicate it in their own churches, and, of course, about the upcoming Oscars.
What's the significance of the Oscars?
We get to honor the best of the best. As an Academy member, we get to highlight what we think is the best achievement in various categories of our storytelling artistry, and what we think inspires others to do great work and achievement. For producers, the Oscar goes to the producers of the Best Picture; it is our highest award, the last one of the show, and frankly what we all aspire to someday.
What stands out about this year's nominees?
The Oscar nominees are a reflection of what's swirling around in the minds and hearts of filmmakers and storytellers. Some of the top nominees are reflecting back on silent films, the era of filmmaking in the 1920s and 1930s. I think they're also looking for clues as to how we move forward, recalibrate if you will, for the future of storytelling in a rapidly changing cultural landscape.
The Artist, for instance, not only celebrates silent and black-and-white filmmaking, but might actually have something "to say" (pun intended) in a world that is consumed with 3D and lots of talking, with social media, etc. Hugo also goes back in time to Georges Melies, the first filmmaker to express dreams and storytelling in the filmed era, attempting to use film as a vehicle to inspire us to greater stories.
Midnight in Paris takes a different approach, warning us that while we ought to celebrate the past in art, music, and literature, our creative opportunities lie in the present. I see each of these movies as the current thinking of our leading filmmakers and storytellers attempting to question, challenge, and inspire us to do great things today. These questions and challenges are revealed in gripping stories that are brilliantly executed—they entertain us, and along the way, inspire us.
Steven Spielberg, arguably our greatest living filmmaker, does this with War Horse. How did this young man and his horse survive the changing landscape, the new technologies and the age-old forces of war, and then thrive to help build a better world? The human and the animal inspire us to keep on striving. That's why we go to the movies.
What's the Christian's role in all of this?
If we don't engage with movies, television, and social media storytelling, I think we as Christians fail to engage our culture and community. Oscar season is a great opportunity to do that. We should be looking at the stories and movies that our culture honors, and dialogue about whether we can embrace them, learn from them, and what we find true or beautiful about them. It's a way for us to reflect on our own journey and find out if and how it matches up with the stories, and then dialogue about why it does or doesn't.