The last sermon I heard at Providence was the one Chris preached the evening of July 30th. It was about how not necessarily everything from secular culture will be missing from the New Heavens and the New Earth, and that it may be transformed and glorified and brought into the new Jerusalem to glorify God. One point Chris made is that even though humanity, and through it, human culture, is fallen, it still carries the image of God, and therefore still reflects his glory in some way; flashes of that glory are sometimes still visible even in secular culture. I’m not phrasing it exactly the way he did, but I think we’re on the same page. The sermon really hit a few nerves with me, because this is precisely my approach to culture and criticism.
I call it “leftover beauty.” Understanding this is vital to understanding the way I write about culture, and the way I react to film, music, literature, television. I know I take it too far at times, and that’s one of the reasons I was so desirous to go to a Christian university that values popular culture…I need that grounding. But if I sometimes tend to value too much the output of a fallen culture, it’s at least partially in reaction against a Christianity that denounces it without even recognizing what value it does have.
My concept of leftover beauty is why I think American Beauty is one of the greatest films in recent years, because, quite simply, leftover beauty is precisely what American Beauty is about. It doesn’t know where beauty comes from or why, but it knows it’s there–it knows that somehow, in the midst of broken families, perverted sexuality, and isolationist despair, there is still beauty around, if we “look closer”. And that’s exactly how I feel about modern culture. There’s ugliness, sure. But there’s beauty, too…beautiful characters, beautiful scenes, beautiful technical skill, beautiful and skillful writing, beautiful acting.
I understand that others don’t feel this way, and don’t feel the need to expose themselves to certain parts of modern culture. But for me, it’s worth it to look through piles of dren to find one beautiful rose–and when I write reactions and reviews, I may forget about the dren, because I’m focused on the rose. I once read a review of Saving Private Ryan in World Magazine that basically stated “don’t see this film, it’s horrible because there’s a lot of swearing.” Granted, there is. And I know people who would avoid seeing it for that reason, and that’s fine. But to categorically say that no-one should see a beautifully made film because of one offense is heavy-handed and inappropriate for any reviewer, even a Christian one. And it’s something I refuse to do. I will meet films on their own ground, not lambast them for not living up to a standard they were never trying to meet. That’s unfair and underhanded criticism.
Consider this my disclaimer for the times when I praise a film that includes scenes you think are offensive, or times when I don’t call attention to such scenes. Sometimes I may be ignoring them purposefully because I feel the rest of the movie makes up for them. Often, I may have simply forgotten them, because I tend to do that. Seriously, I convinced my cousin and his wife to watch Garden State because it’s one of my all-time favorite films, and had to mention like four times that I had totally forgotten about such-and-such a sex-and-drug scene…they ended up ageeing with me, though, that the overall film was worth putting up with those couple of scenes. If such a scene seriously undermines the film, I probably will mention it. (And yes, despite how difficult it is to offend me, I have seen films that offended me so deeply that I refuse to review them, because I cannot judge them on their own merits–Quills is probably the best example.) Bottom line, I am not ScreenIt, though I do recommend ScreenIt if you want to know about every single “damn” and “hell” before you start a film. I am not a parent’s guide. If a reaction or review I write intrigues you and you want to know more specifics about content, ask me and I will tell you. And don’t think that just because I like a film or praise a book that I necessarily agree with its viewpoint or its message. Last month I loved The Unbearable Lightness of Being while simultaneously disagreeing vehemently with most of its philosophy.
I’ve been planning a post like this for a while, just to make clear my position and viewpoint when discussing film, literature, and television. But the immediate impetus is the July Watching Recap, which I’m about to post, and in which I praise a film called Transamerica, whose main character is transgendered (a man who wishes to become a woman). Everything about the film, on a filmic level, is so extraordinary that I couldn’t in good critical conscience give it a negative review, no matter how much I may disagree with the content. I’ve known for a while that I give greater weight to style than content (to the eternal annoyance of my mom, I think, who gives utmost weight to content and would most likely hate Transamerica), and that’s a bias that I’m trying to balance a bit. On the other hand, I really do think that it’s possible to disagree with a message while still respecting and enjoying the way in which the message is transmitted. Besides that, in the case of Transamerica, the message really isn’t “it’s cool to be transgendered” or anything like that…it’s almost a side plot, in fact…and that’s true of a lot of films that get denounced by Christians who get so caught up in all the ugliness that they can’t see the leftover beauty.