I like books on reading movies through the lens of a Christian worldview. I’m a sucker for Christ figures, evidence of grace, and sin and redemption in the movies. Films give us a common forum in which to discuss the important themes of life with both Christians and non-Christians. At our church, we have a semi-regular Faith & Film night where we screen a movie and discuss the themes. I love this, as it forces us to go beyond merely, “I liked it,” or “The explosions were cool.” Movies are another form of story to interpret, discuss, and enjoy.
My bookshelf has an ever-growing collection of books that help viewers learn how to interpret movies well. I read one a few years ago that helped me to frame my thinking and discussions. Useless Beauty: Ecclesiastes through the Lens of Contemporary Film by Robert Johnston is still one of my favorites. When I hear of a good book, I’ll buy it, browse through it, and return to Johnston’s work. It’s better than most I’ve read. I was excited to read a review of Grant Horner’s new book, Meaning at the Movies: Being a Discerning Viewer. Horner is an English professor at Master’s College in California, and his book has received good reviews. I was eager to read it, especially after discovering that my friend John Freiberg had Horner as a professor at Master’s. John made a glowing comment about him: “I learned more about theology in that literature class than I learned in my theology classes.” A bold statement, but I understand that stories often teach us much about the world around us.
As a whole, I enjoyed Meaning at the Movies. The strongest parts were the chapters on film noir and the last chapter that discusses memory. I learned much about the genre of film noir, and have a list of movies that I want to watch. I loved his discussion of the connection of the look of black and white with the character’s moral blackness and whiteness. He discusses the darkness of these movies in the happy-go-lucky American consumerism in the 1950s. He has a great contrast of the femme fatales of film noirs with the Ozzy and Harriet housewives. Because of this chapter, I want to watch Sunset Boulevard, The Postman Always Rings Twice, A Touch of Evil, and (perhaps most of all), Scarlet Street. Horner does a great job summarizing the films.
The chapter on memory is titled, “The End of the Matter.” He uses Citizen Kane, Blade Runner, and 2001: A Space Odyssey to examine the role of memory. This chapter alone is worth the book cost. It almost seems as a stand-alone chapter, and I wondered if this was a separate essay or article that he included. He does ruin the “Rosebud” mystery in Citizen Kane, so I suggest that you watch the movie first.
There were aspects of the book that I didn’t enjoy. I don’t want to harp about them, so I’ll briefly state them:
1. Too much of mere summaries of movies and not enough analysis.
2. A 30-page introduction with little to do with movies.
3. Uses a clever line, “All the world’s a screen” more than needed to illustrate his point.
4. Overuses quotations from Ecclesiastes, which was already done in Useless Beauty.
5. Most of all these, he does not clearly help us to be discerning viewers. While I enjoyed the summaries of movies, he did not teach how we can further think about movies.
The bad does not necessarily outweigh the good in the book, but it’s about even. Horner is an excellent writer with clever insight into lots of great movies, but I’m not sure how much I learned about how to discern movies for myself.
I suggest that if you are eager to read about movies and how they intersect with a Christian worldview, begin with Useless Beauty. After that, read the last two chapters of Horner’s book.