Alissa Wilkinson was not a likely candidate to grow up and become a film critic. She watched very few movies as a child, and after college, she took a Wall Street job in New York. But when she started dating a filmmaker, she got interested in movies, books, the arts, and culture, and how they influence one another. She eventually began writing about these topics, and within a few years, it opened the door to a new career.
Alissa is now the chief film critic at Christianity Today, and she is a professor at The King’s College in New York City, where she teaches cultural criticism and writing, and she writes for a variety of publications including The Washington Post, The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Pacific Standard, Books & Culture, and others.
Alissa and I met recently at a screening for the upcoming film Many Beautiful Things, and we talked about holiness in horror films, porn that Christians tolerate, bad Christian movies, and other topics. Here are some of the thoughts she shared.
1. I recently heard you mention that you saw a couple of horror films at the Sundance Film Festival, and they had the holiest themes of anything else you saw. Can you please explain again how you found anything redemptive about a horror film?
I have to start by saying that I’m not sure we really know what we mean when we say something is “redemptive.” I think we often mean a movie in which the characters experience redemption — which means being saved from sin, error or evil. But that seems too simplistic to me. A film could also be “redemptive” in that the viewer is saved from sin, error or evil, even if the characters are not. The story of King Saul in the Bible, for instance, does not end particularly well for Saul, but we continue to tell it to children because it teaches us important things about power, sin and lies.
So, yes, I think (some) horror films often serve a “redemptive” purpose, particularly in our time. Horror is possibly the only genre of film watched by many people who don’t believe in the supernatural that frequently proposes the existence of sin, evil and powers beyond ourselves. (A fair number of the stories in the Bible would make splendid horror films, by the way.) And horror is the most lucrative genre for filmmakers, to boot. So while I’m not in any way suggesting that everyone needs to go out and start watching horror films, and while I think there are, of course, bad horror films, I also think the genre can be the last bastion of a — yes — redemptive encounter with the world beyond the visible for many viewers.
2. You’ve said that Christians are critical of inappropriately sexual films, but they watch PG-13 porn flicks all the time and don’t think a thing of it. Can you talk about that a little bit?
We tend to use the word “porn” to mean “explicit sexual content.” And that’s accurate, historically. But using it this way means we zero in on one particular desire that can be good or can be disordered — our sexual desire — without noting that films can also prompt us toward disordered desires in other, more common ways that are often socially accepted in the church.
For instance, not all romantic films are porn-like, but some of them can cause us to have disordered desires toward unrealistic romance. Not all war films are porn-like, but some of them are designed to appeal to our lusts for violence and revenge. Not all superhero films are porn-like, but some of them deaden our sadness at innocent death in their pursuit of our desire for thrills. I’d argue that many notable Christian films tip over into fulfilling our wishful fantasies about ourselves as Christians, telling us we’re actually Christians because we’re better than other people, rather than because we are just as sinful.
3. I frequently feel awkward and embarrassed when I watch Christian-produced movies. You’re a professional film critic and professor. Can you please help me understand what makes so many Christian movies so bad, other than low budgets?
Low budgets are never the problem with Christian movies. Low budgets are never the problem with bad movies, full stop. What’s the old saying? It’s a bad carpenter who blames his tools? Most viewers (and certainly most critics) are discerning enough to make allowances for the limitations of technology. “Well, we did our best with a low budget” is an excuse that Christian filmmakers have used for a long time to excuse what is actually shoddy craftsmanship, and it’s disdainful of the audience, to boot.
Typically, the biggest problem in Christian films is something that doesn’t require money at all: the writing. (Of course the screenwriter should get paid, but it’s not like buying a better camera.) Christian films rarely tell stories with anything like nuance. I wish I knew why this is; I think it may be because we’ve spent decades growing up in churches where stories from the Bible are trotted out in order to teach a pithy lesson about ourselves, rather than to be marveled at as stories of the mysteries of God’s plan, and so our story-telling engine is broken down. The single best thing Christians can do as filmmakers is to spend more time on their stories, to workshop them, to develop and hone the craft of writing. There have been efforts in this direction, to be sure. But there’s still a long way to go.
The irony, of course, is that Christians ought to be best at this. Our central practice, communion or the Eucharist, reminds us that the Word was made flesh. Christ is the message of God, taking form. He is in many ways the greatest work of art of all. And we are people of the book.
4. If you went to prison for the rest of your life and could only take three movies with you to watch until the day you died, what movies would they be and why?
Krzystof Kieslowski’s Blue, the first of three movies in his Three Colors trilogy, starring Juliette Binoche. In the trilogy, Kieslowski was asked to explore the meaning behind each of the three colors in the French flag: liberty, equality and fraternity. He does so by beautifully and subtly subverting the extremes those ideals can bring us to. Blue is the story of a woman given ultimate freedom from all others, and laid on top of a recurring 1 Corinthians 13 motif, it shows that freedom is nothing without love. It’s also gorgeously shot and scored.
Marc Forster’s Stranger Than Fiction, which is such a strange little film that has broad appeal but merits re-watching. It’s a story about storytelling, both in form and content. There are a ton of strange formal jokes embedded throughout (did you realize all the characters are named for scientists and mathemeticians?), and it’s also hilarious and entertaining, accessible to anyone.
And at Sundance, I saw End of the Tour, the film about David Foster Wallace directed by James Ponsoldt. I think it might be the third film I’d want with me. It’s incredibly funny and deep; Wallace is a writer who is extremely important to me and my spiritual development, and there are many small moments in the film that merit revisiting.
5. Every year when the Academy Awards roll around, all I can think is, Who cares? Do you care? Does it really matter, or is it just a popularity contest among Hollywood elites that is roughly based on excellence in filmmaking?
I don’t care all that much about the Oscars. But I am sort of professionally obligated to follow them in the way I follow the Pulitzers and the National Book Awards. Apparently many, many people who aren’t similarly obligated do the same, because otherwise the show wouldn’t pull in a sufficient commercial market share to keep it airing on TV!
I don’t think the Oscars tell us a ton about film overall. They don’t tend to pay attention to tiny films, and because the Academy members still skew overwhelming white, male, and over 65, they only reflect the taste of a tiny (but powerful) subset of Hollywood culture.
But I also don’t think they’re supposed to do much more than that. And they’re important, in the way that any professional guild’s awards are important: They can make a career for someone (for instance, Ava Duvernay, who made Selma and is now being propelled into other great projects), and they can be a barometer onto what a particular industry is interested in. I think it’s odd that we viewers seem to insist a professional guild has to reflect the tastes of the masses. I wouldn’t expect to see that in most any other field. I suspect that sentiment tells us more about ourselves than about them.