We’re Going To the Movies!

By Tim Winterstein

Who am I and what am I doing here? Or to beg a phrase, what the hell is going on?

Why am I talking about films and theology? You definitely don’t need another person,  Lutheran or not, telling you what to think about movies.

Good. Because I have no desire to do that. And besides that, I have no training. I didn’t go to film school. I’m not really sure what a best boy is, what he does, or if it has to be a boy. I can’t talk the technical language of a professional film critic. However, with that said, I am a short film programmer for the Newport Beach Film Festival, which involved watching more than 300 short films last year. So, I’ve seen a thing or two.

Still, I’m an amateur, which has negative connotations—as in someone who doesn’t have the training to do what he is doing. But “amateur” comes from the French for “lover,” someone who does something simply because he loves it. And if we aren’t talking film, theology, literature or anything because we love it—as amateurs—what’s the point?

Likewise, it’s the story in a film—perhaps helped along by excellent technique—that causes me to think about it over and over. There are films that you watch and immediately forget. And then there are films—like certain music and books—that help shape how you think, that keep rising up in your mind to show you how things are in this world. Of course, you can have excellent technique without the story being worthwhile, and you can tell a good story without the best technique (as long as the acting delivers, literally and figuratively).

There’s an idea that comes from people like C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien that the stories we tell, if they are true, are essentially telling parts of the only Story there is. I find that in the best of films—the films that move us, cause us to reconsider, say something true—accurately illustrate the two parts of this Story: the idolatry and depravity of people (probably the easier thing to do), or in one way or another, the truth of redemption.

By way of example, I once watched Atonement and 30 Days of Night back to back. Atonement is a sort of high-brow, artistic literary film whereas 30 Days of Night is a pretty straightforward vampire flick that takes place in the continual darkness of Alaska’s winter. Ironically, the characters in Atonement can find none, while Josh Hartnett’s character in 30 Days of Night becomes a powerful image of an atoning, vicarious sacrifice. In other words, Atonement illustrates how futile are human attempts to make things right, while a vampire movie comes much closer to the Christian Story.

For my part, I’m of two minds: I like dark, somber, unflinching stories of human failure (The best is when a glimpse of redemption is had through failure. For example, both the film and the FX series Fargo or No Country for Old Men); at the same time, I’m also a fan of suspension-of-disbelief, well-paced, pure entertainment (say, Taken, Interstellar, La La Land or the Avengers movies). In college, the two films that shifted, for me, what movies can do, were The Matrix and Fight Club. Among my favorite films are The Godfather Trilogy (even Part III, excepting Sofia Coppola’s horrible acting), The Apostle, The Third Man, The Loved One, In the Bedroom, The Lives of Others, Take Shelter, Memento, Heat, and The Deer Hunter.

I have no intention of reviewing every popular movie. Rather, I want to bring to your attention films that continue to tell, in however small a part, the Story of creation, redemption, and restoration to holiness that is told in the Scriptures and which we rehearse in the Creeds and in the liturgy. I may throw in some shows like Fargo, Bosch, Better Call Saul, or whatever catches my imagination at the moment. Whatever it is, it’s bound to be something that calls forth strong opinions on multiple sides. That’s what makes it fun.

Here’s to continuing the conversations provoked by films. And here’s to the amateurs.