My last night at the Sundance Film Festival included a documentary that somewhat mirrored my time here. A profile of six brothers who were forbidden by their father to leave their Lower East Side apartment for most of their childhood, The Wolfpack depicts the way they filled that void by obsessively consuming and re-enacting Hollywood movies. In other words, it offered a vision of life as only experienced through film, which is pretty much how I’ve experienced the last four days.
The Wolfpack suggests that the brothers’ childhood may not have been such a bad thing. Director Crystal Moselle emphasizes the astonishing creativity that was fueled by their limitations – including a spot-on Dark Knight suit made from cereal boxes – and the intensely supportive bond shared among the siblings. Not only did they survive this restrictive experience, the movie suggests, but it possibly formed them in positive ways.
I’m not quite sure I agree. (One of the frustrating things about the film is that it doesn’t dig deeply enough to foster much understanding.) Yet The Wolfpack does encourage a posture that’s helpful when viewing movies of any kind: the willingness to reconsider, to take another look at something that initially strikes us as odd or unhealthy.
In fact, I'd argue this should be a crucial aspect of a Christian posture toward the movies. From the prohibitive stance in the art form’s early years to the culture wars of the 1980s and ’90s to the “faith-based” filmmaking in vogue today (and with plenty of variations among and between), Christianity has never quite settled on a consistent theology of movies. Some of the good discussions I’ve had with my Into the Noise cohorts here at Sundance concerned what this posture looks like today. And even we – a group of filmmakers, critics and theologians - didn’t have a uniform answer.
What Sundance did clarify for me, however, is this notion of reconsideration, of looking at a movie from a vantage point that’s free of the sort of suspicion that’s long been a characteristic of Christian engagement with film. This isn’t to throw out the notion of discernment, which is why here at TC we debate the value of, say, horror films and wonder if Christians should see sexually explicit movies. But it is to allow for a posture in which movies are given space and celebrated, as they were at Sundance.
Christianity has never quite settled on a consistent theology of movies.
What’s to celebrate, particularly for the Christian? If nothing else, we can appreciate a movie’s artistry, its evidence of the creative spark that marks the filmmakers as children of God, whether they claim Him or not. Is it too strong to say that a poorly crafted “faith-based” film can be less Christian than something like The Witch, an occult horror flick that played here at Sundance and displayed an impressive level of narrative sophistication and period mise en scene? Maybe not.
We can also celebrate film as a vehicle for empathy, that common term for loving our neighbors as ourselves. I’ve already written about Pervert Park, a documentary about a mobile home community designed for the rehabilitation of convicted sex offenders. Sundance also offered I Smile Back, a wrenching depiction of a young mother’s struggle with depression and the destructive choices she makes. (Standup comic Sarah Silverman makes a wholly convincing dramatic debut.)
And then there’s the idea of revelation, which Into the Noise director Eric Kuiper talked about in one of our sessions together. Discussing the “disruptive” nature of film, he noted how movies can profoundly change the way we see the world.
At Sundance, that repeatedly happened in ways directly related to my faith. I can honestly say that I have a newer understanding of confession, thanks to Pervert Park; of community, thanks to Tig; of forgiveness, thanks to I Smile Back; and of witness, thanks to Don Verdean. So as I leave the Sundance wolf pack and venture back into the real world, I’m taking a revitalized passion for the revelatory power of the movies with me.