Festival of Faith and Writing – Jeffrey Overstreet – “Through a Screen Darkly”

(Sorry for the delay in blogging the rest of my notes from the Festival. I’ll try to get the last four or five posts up sometime in the next week or two.)

Jeffrey’s second session was Through a Screen Darkly: A Memoir of Gradual Bedazzlement and Dangerous Moviegoing. Even if Jeffrey’s sessions had not been one of the reasons why I wanted to attend the Festival this year, I would have been at this session because the description in the program included a Buechner quote – “Frederick Buechner says, “If we are to love our neighbors, we must first see our neighbors with our imagination as well as our eyes. That is to say, like artists.” In a tour of movies from around the world, Overstreet examines the ways in which art – however simple, dark, or strange – can give us new perspectives and transforming encounters with beauty and truth.”

A lot of what he talked about can be found in his book, Through a Screen Darkly – Looking Closer at Beauty, Truth and Evil in the Movies, that I highly recommend if you haven’t read it yet. And his blog, the Looking Closer Journal, can be found here.

My favorite quote of the session was Jeffrey’s explanation that, “Art speaks about things that we cannot reduce to paraphrase.”

He described his work writing reviews for Christianity Today, saying, “At Christianity Today, we have a group of critics who have signed up to regularly receive boatloads of hate mail.” Jeffrey and others were trying to offer alternatives to the existing websites that declared that they alone offered The Christian Reaction to a movie. “There are a lot of websites already out there that say why you can’t watch certain movies.” In a comment that elicited knowing laughter, referring to the type of movie reviewer who determines the appropriateness of a film by counting swear words and body parts, Jeffrey said, “My sexual education occurred by reading Christian film reviews.”

He said that movies like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter are popular, that we like seeing that kind of story played out on the big screen because, “the way myth works is to appeal to our longing for something more, to tell us that there is hope after death.”

Describing the evolution of his film-watching habits, he told us about seeing Chariots of Fire for the first time. “Chariots of Fire showed us what we want to see – A Christian as the central character who gets to preach the gospel to the masses and wins the race. That’s what we want to see, Christians as the ideal.” As the range of films he has appreciated has grown, he realized that, “sometimes we learn about glory by its absence.” And sometimes movies can even wake us up by showing us evil. “[The movie] Closer is like the billboard I see on my way to work every day with the cancer-eaten lung and the cigarette. Some people need to see it.”

“Eternity is written in the hearts of saints and fools,” quoted Jeffrey, and then continued, saying, “It’s in their movies too.”

He talked about the ending of Match Point, one of my favorite movies and the basis of an essay I wrote back in November, Why I Believe in God. And showing us why superficial dismissals of movies are never a good idea, he quoted part of this paragraph from the introduction to Roger Ebert’s book Awake in the Dark (emphasis added): “A movie is not good because it arrives at conclusions you share, or bad because it does not. A movie is not about what it is about. It is about how it is about it: about the way it considers its subject matter, and about how its real subject may be quite different from the one it seems to provide.”

At the start of the festival, on Thursday evening, while having dinner with Jeffrey and another acquaintance from artsandfaith.com, I told Jeffrey I was looking forward to both his sessions. He asked why I was going to be at the one on film, since I’d already heard pretty much everything he was going to say, and I replied that I would be there in part because I enjoy seeing other’s reactions, especially when it is to something I know is coming up. For instance, Jeffrey told one story at both lectures that I love and that got a similar reaction both times. Here’s how he recounts it in his essay The Eagles Are Coming: “It can be discomforting to find glimmers of hope in the world outside of the church. After writing about the themes of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter stories, I received a letter from a woman who condemned fairy tales, calling them invitations into witchcraft and occultism: “If you think anything meaningful can be conveyed by pagan mythology, you’ve just opened Pandora’s Box!” What could I say? She had just found a “pagan myth” useful in conveying her ideas to me.”

Thanks, Jeffrey, for leading many of us into a wider appreciation of movies, for pointing out lessons you’ve learned from seeing beauty, truth, and evil on the big screen and for showing us how to do the same, for reminding us to look for the echoes of eternity in everything we take in.

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