In 1961, C.S. Lewis, in full ornery Oxford don mode, drew on his experience as a literary scholar and critic to write a little book titled An Experiment in Criticism. It never once mentions the silver screen, but it has a lot to say about how we watch and think about and write about movies.
In this essay, I don't have space to explain why we cover mainstream Hollywood films and small "art house" flicks at Christianity Today, nor to explain—though others have in many venues—why we sometimes talk about movies and TV shows that have content that isn't appropriate for every audience. Instead, I want to tell you what guides me as I write and edit our coverage, why I think criticism is important—and maybe get you to read Lewis's book, too.
Lewis's titular "experiment" is this: instead of judging a book based on its content and style, let's judge it based on how well it allows for a "good" reading (more on that in a moment). So a book of what we might dismissively call genre fiction today (for instance, a work of science fiction or children's literature—Lewis certainly was not a disinterested party here) that can be read "well" is better than a technically impressive but inaccessible book. A good book opens itself to a good reader.
So what is a good reader? He is someone who, first and foremost, loves books. The good reader opens to the first page expecting to be both delighted and challenged. He wants to be changed by the book—to reach the end and be a different person.
A bad reader, by contrast, "rush[es] hastily forward to do things with the work of art instead of waiting for it to do something to them." The bad reader's goal when approaching a book is to see what he might extract from it: an abstract principle that he can apply to his life to improve it, or a new standard by which to measure others, or a higher social standing, or just some predictable amusement. His primary love is himself. He is frustrated when a book challenges his ideas or lifestyle, when it makes him see what it's like to be someone else, when it unsettles his status quo—even if those things have the ring of truth.
The bad reader, Lewis says, seeks to "use" the book for his own ends. The good reader wants to "receive" it.
So when the good reader approaches a good book, she finds that it delights her. It invites re-reading. It sticks with her long after she turns the final page. It may also improve her social standing, teach her a principle, or give her a brief escape from her real life, but that's a byproduct, not the goal. Instead, it shifts her perspective, helping her see the world, and her neighbor, in a new way.
A bad or mediocre book will fail to engage the good reader; it is forgettable, because it has not resonated with her experience as a human, nor has it challenged her in any way to enter someone else's experience or see her life anew. And that's something that "highbrow" literature can fail to do just as much as "lowbrow."
Lewis doesn't restrict his argument to books. It's not just about judging a book by the good reader; you can also, for instance, judge a painting by the good viewer, an album by the good listener—or a movie by the good watcher, something I'm always thinking about, for obvious reasons. (Television falls into this category, too, but I'll keep referring to movies from here on out for simplicity's sake.)
A good watcher is someone who enters the movie theater (or fires up her Netflix queue) with expectation and excitement. The good watcher loves movies because she loves creativity, and good stories, and the sorts of beauty and wonder that she experiences through the moving images, the sounds, the lights, the characters. She approaches a movie hoping to enter into its world and become part of it for a while, and to end with her mindset and worldview challenged and expanded. She is disappointed if what she finds is merely a chance to escape the real world for a while. Or, worse, if she finds something that refuses to challenge the status quo, whether that's her ideas about the world or her perception of beauty or her sense of wonder. And she is heartbroken when the movie denigrates human dignity.
But this doesn't happen when we walk in with an agenda or a preconceived notion of what we're about to experience. And a good watcher isn't a "film snob." She knows that even a plain old superhero movie or romantic comedy might turn out to submit to a good "reading"—might help her see the world, or herself, or her neighbor in a new way.
Lewis is firm and direct on this point. He says we must learn to surrender to the art: "Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way."
To surrender is a dangerous act; to relinquish control of our experience opens us to new experiences. As Lewis says,
The primary impulse of each is to maintain and aggrandize himself. The secondary impulse is to go out of the self, to correct its provincialism and heal its loneliness. In love, in virtue, in the pursuit of knowledge, and in the reception of the arts, we are doing this. Obviously the process can be described either as an enlargement or as a temporary annihilation of the self. But that is an old paradox; "he that loseth his life shall save it."
I use An Experiment in Criticism as the backbone of an undergraduate course I teach on writing cultural criticism. At this point in the class discussion, someone always asks, "So how can I become a good reader or watcher?"
Readers or watchers who want to become "good"—especially if they want to become critics—have to start developing the muscles that help them watch and read reflectively. I've found that a few deceptively simple things help.
Learn about the history of the art form. What I know about film history I learned from reading books about film history. It's helped me start to see how important films have been in and to our collective history. (If you want to know more about how film history and Christianity have worked together in the last hundred years, I highly recommend Bill Romanowski's excellent, readable book Reforming Hollywood, which I reviewed last year for Christianity Today.)
Learn something about craft. I lucked out; I married someone who went to film school, and who would explain in detail to me—sometimes more than I wanted!—what was significant about that incredible tracking shot in Children of Men, or why lighting matters. It could be great to take a class, but you don't have to go to film school or marry a filmmaker to get a sense of what separates production design from art direction: again, just pick up a book.
Begin to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff. There's only one way to do this: watch a lot of good movies. Every movie critic (myself included) can tell stories about a movie she once praised as the pinnacle of cinematic achievement—only to realize a few years down the road that it was her lack of experience talking, and that it was actually a shadowy imitation of something truly great. That's not something to be embarrassed about; the only way to get from milk to meat (to poorly borrow a biblical illustration) is by watching the movies that are great, just as the best way to learn what makes a good book is to read good books. And that doesn't mean just old movies, either.
Read critics who do all of these things well. Lewis said that the best literary critics he knew did two things: set the work in its historical context, and imparted some of their enthusiasm for and excitement about the art they were writing about. Good critics aren't the snarkiest, wittiest ones with the best put-downs: they're the ones that want their audience to come along for the ride. I hope our critics are helpful here. And you should certainly read my friend Jeffrey Overstreet's "memoir of dangerous moviegoing," Through a Screen Darkly, if you haven't already.
(There's one more piece to this for the budding critic, of course—and that is to learn to write well. It's hard to find those who've put the hard work into learning what makes sentences and arguments tick. But it's something that only comes through time and practice, and through reading good writers and figuring out what makes their writing beautiful and effective.)
Here at Christianity Today Movies, I'd like to believe that thinking and writing about good movies is an inherently Christian enterprise, because it is one in which we seek to love our neighbors (both the ones we see on the pews and the ones we see at the water cooler or the park). Lewis described good stories as ones in which we
seek an enlargement of our being. … We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own. … Good reading [or watching], therefore, though it is not essentially an affectional or moral or intellectual activity, has something in common with all three. In love we escape from our self into one other.
Criticism, Lewis argues, ought to do more than simply evaluate the content of the movie: it should help its reader become a good watcher or reader. I often think of it in terms of the hallmark of culture-making that Andy Crouch talks about in his book Culture Making: good criticism expands the horizons of possibility for the reader, helping him see what a form might be, and helping him see beyond his own experience.
The good critic is not necessarily the one with the eagle eye for errors, nor the highly-developed palate that can detect the faintest misstep, nor the one who shows off with virtuosic turns of phrase or impeccable taste that's better than the average audience's. A good critic loves her work, loves her reader, and tries, in her criticism, to make a new, good addition to culture that expands her readers' horizons.
And so when the great critic approaches the work with openness, hoping to be invited in, and finds the work wanting, his "negative" review reflects not a need to lambaste the artist for his stupidity or malice, but a genuine lament that the work was not all it could be, coupled with a search for what might still be true and good in the work. He will once again expand his readers' horizons by showing them that more is possible, and will spur them on to seek it out.
It's an impossibly huge undertaking. C.S. Lewis might have even termed it an "experiment." But that's what we're after here at Christianity Today Movies, because we want to love movies, and we also love our neighbors. We want to look at movies and think about how they shape and form their viewers, and how they shape and form our churches and our culture. We want to praise grace when it shows up and mourn what might have been when the movie fails. And most of all, we want to become better watchers by writing about movies, and hope we can bring our readers along on the journey, too.
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and Assistant Professor of English and Humanities at The King's College in New York City. You can follow her at @alissamarie and @CT_Movies.
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