21 March 2011

Interview with Jeffrey Overstreet, author & film critic

This is the forty-third interview in the “Where are we now?” series. Please take a moment to peruse the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series.

Photo by Matt Sumi

Interview with Jeffrey Overstreet
Via email
February 8th & March 16th, 2011

In addition to Jeffrey’s blog, check out the filmwell blog and Jeffrey on tumblr.

IA: Although I would like to spend most of this interview talking about film, why don’t we start off on a different topic: your fiction writing. I should begin by congratulating you; you have just finished the epic journey of writing a four-novel fantasy series! The Auralia’s Thread series is a fascinating combination of various influences. I can detect George MacDonald and Mervyn Peake, as well as the inevitable Inklings. Can you briefly describe this series for my readers, then talk about other influences or sources?

JO: The Auralia Thread started as a fairy tale—a simple “Once upon a time….”

The idea came to me during a hike around a lake in Montana. My girlfriend was talking with me about fairy tales. She was lamenting the sad fact that most adults seem to “outgrow” their need for fairy tales. Her passion for stories like Beauty and the Beast was inspiring to me, so much so that I made two important decisions: First, I decided that I needed to marry this woman. Second, I decided to write a story about the mysterious process of “outgrowing imagination.”

The spark was struck by that conversation. I imagined that we found a colorless city there, among the brightly colored trees beside the lake. In this ash-cold kingdom, colors would be illegal by proclamation of the king and queen. Why? I figured that out later. Before I understood why colors were forbidden, I knew that the story would be about an artist who would come to the city with a revelation of colors that would throw the kingdom into turmoil. A work of imagination would turn the world upside down.

That fairy tale grew and became Auralia’s Colors, the first story of a four-book series called The Auralia Thread.

Beauty and the Beast inspired the second volume, Cyndere’s Midnight. In that story, the mysterious source of Auralia’s colors draws together a beautiful heiress and a monster with a ravenous appetite for destruction. While that may sound familiar, what happens between them is quite a bit different than the beauty-and-beast chemistry of Twilight, believe me!

The third and fourth books show us what happens with the ripples that spread from Auralia’s revelatory works of art to reach the edges of the world, as a few brave people decide to find out where Auralia’s colors come from and what they mean. And they don’t have much time, because a curse is tearing their world to pieces.

I’m delighted that The Auralia Thread books remind you of George Macdonald and Mervyn Peake. They are two of my favorite storytellers.

IA: How do you think Auralia’s Thread compares to the many other fantasy works that are so popular with (especially) young readers these days?

JO: I’ve really enjoyed recent fantasy novels by Patricia McKillip, Kate DiCamillo, and Susanna Clarke. And if Cormac McCarthy’s The Road qualifies as fantasy, well… that book took over my life.

But otherwise, I don’t read a lot of fantasy. I get ideas from reading philosophy and theology, and from literary fiction. I love Marilynne Robinson, and I’m enjoying some recent fiction by Bret Lott. I’m a big fan of Sara Zarr, a relatively new writer publishing Young Adult fiction. Her books Story of a Girl and Once was Lost were both really impressive.

Most popular fantasy books seem like quick and easy reads. I like fiction that makes me slow down and read out loud. I like prose that feels like poetry, that has a sort of music in it. So that is what I strive to achieve in my own writing. I want to write something that will make readers stop and think, ‘Wait, there’s something suspicious going on here. I think I need to read this page again.’

I also like stories that immerse me in strange but convincing worlds. If a fantasy feels like an allegory or a sermon illustration instead of an experience, I get bored. I don’t read storybooks to learn lessons. I want to meet compelling characters. I want revelation. I want to be transported into new worlds. I don’t want my own characters to represent anything. I want Jordam the Beastman to be a bloodthirsty monster with a crisis of conscience, and I want Auralia to be the whimsical and inventive girl I stumbled upon in a forest on a sunny afternoon.

When I see movies that are based on popular fantasy books, I usually get bored very quickly, because it all seems so familiar. I like searching for a story that I haven’t read before, something that feels like a whole new experience. When I think about stories by Madeleine L’Engle, Mervyn Peake, Patricia McKillip, Kate DiCamillo, C.S. Lewis, and, of course, Tolkien—I want to write books like those. They’re stories that will be even better the second time you read them.

Now, have I achieved any of that? That’s for the readers to say. I still have a lot to learn.

IA: Why do you think fantasy literature (and fantasy films, whether based on them or on original plots) are so wildly popular right now?

JO: Everything in our lives has become programmed. We like gadgets because they give us a sense of control. But the truth is that we don’t control the world. Our hearts know what our minds forget—we live in a world that is full of mysterious forces. And we are drawn to stories that remind us of that.

The world’s a mess. We know that. We sense there is a right way for the world to be, and a right way for people to behave. But they’re not going that way. We suspect that if the future of the world depends on human beings, well… we’re screwed. So we’re drawn to stories about superheroes, magicians, and benevolent monsters. It’s hard-wired into our heads and hearts to be on the lookout for someone extraordinary, something superhuman. Our hopes depend on it. The universality of that longing suggests to me that there really is something, or someone, who will fulfill it.

We relate to Harry Potter, Spider-man, Frodo Baggins, and, perhaps, to Auralia and her friend the ale boy, because we all have great potential and powerful gifts. We know that if we use those gifts selfishly, we’ll ruin the world. And if we use them in love and humility, we can prevent the world’s destruction.

Advertising promises us that we can find happiness by spending our money. But we know that happiness is fleeting. We want something more. We want joy—something that transcends our immediate circumstances. We have deep longings that can’t be fulfilled by a new iPad, a Mercedes-Benz, or an enormous burrito full of organic ingredients.

We suspect that the answer has something to do with the mysteries of true love. We’re drawn to the magic and mystery of Harry Potter because we catch glimpses of redemption there, redemption that comes from something beyond mere human effort. We’re drawn to romances like Twilight because, like Bella, we want to be told that we’re important, that we’re loved by someone extraordinary. We’re drawn to stories about monsters because we see the consequences of monstrous human behavior, and because we admit—if we’re honest—that we all behave like monsters from time to time.

And finally, I think that science, as important and valuable as it is, falls short of solving our problems. It fails to help us grasp why we still believe in good versus evil. Now, some folks may say they don’t believe in right and wrong, but try cutting them off in traffic and suddenly they’ll contradict themselves. We’re searching for a vocabulary that illustrates the daily conflict of good and evil, the forces that are clashing both visibly and invisibly all around us. Our imaginations give us that vocabulary. Fantasy—with its trolls and goblins and fairies and elves and hobbits and dragons—gives us ways to talk about spiritual struggles that go beyond the reach of the scientific method.

That’s why, at the end of the day, I don’t want to watch a scientific experiment. I want somebody to tell me a story. I want to open a book and charge up my imagination, or to go to the movies and marvel at someone else’s.

IA: Now, that leads us into talking more specifically about film. Your day job (or one of them, I gather) is primarily as a film reviewer. You write for your own blog, several websites, and a myriad magazines including Paste, Risen, Image, Relevant, Books & Culture, and Response (Seattle Pacific University). How many films do you review a year, on average?

JO: It takes a lot of hours to write a film review worth reading. And it takes a lot of moviegoing to find a film worth writing about. A few years back, I was seeing over a hundred movies a year, and trying to write about all of them. These days, I’m more selective. I review only about 30-40 a year. I focus on those that seem worthy of study and discussion. Life’s too short to waste on junk food. I’m looking for feasts.

Having said that, I’ve always done my moviegoing and review work during evenings and weekends. Same goes for my fiction writing. It’s all done in the “spare time,” because neither the film criticism nor the fiction leads to much bill-paying income.

To be a film critic or a novelist, you have to do it because you love it. If you’re hoping for substantial income, you’ll probably be disappointed. I’ve always worked a full-time day-job in order to pay the bills and support my “writing habit.” I worked for a decade as a technical editor for the City of Seattle’s building department, and now I’ve worked for almost a decade as an editor and writer for Seattle Pacific University.

IA: So, it’s pretty fair to say that you have a very good sense of what the film world looks like right now. What topics would you say tend to recur in films that have been released in, oh, the last ten years?

JO: While I say this with some chagrin… I’m an American moviegoer. I grew up in a world of commercial American entertainment. And while I tend to prefer independent films and imports, I’m better qualified to comment on trends in American cinema.

So, having said that, I do see some interesting trends in American cinema. It’s a heavy question, so here comes a heavy answer…

We’re seeing more and more movies that suggest that the world is in crisis, and that our methods for saving it are failing. We’re looking for hope in all the old familiar places, and those stories are starting to seem unsatisfying.

It used to be that we could find catharsis by demonizing another culture and making them the enemy. But globalization, technology, and an increasingly multicultural America have brought us into closer relationship with people who are different from us. It’s harder for American storytellers to make scapegoats out of people who are different than us. We used to cast Russians and Japanese and Iraqis as “the Enemy.” Now, we’re more careful. We’ve learned that it’s dangerous and foolish to portray another culture as thoroughly corrupt. And we’re coming to see that Americans can be as corrupt as the worst of them.

That’s a healthy trend. American storytellers would do well to learn humility. The pendulum can swing too far the other way, producing stories of cynicism and self-loathing. But I prefer a culture that questions itself to a culture that beats its chest in arrogance.

So what has replaced movies about evil Russians and Muslim extremists? Zombies, monsters, and alien invasions! We still enjoy the catharsis of watching people fight back with heavy artillery against whatever threatens us.

But I think a lot of moviegoers sense the emptiness in that ritual too. As much as we love movies about vengeance and violent retaliation—like Denzel Washington’s Man on Fire—the myth of the heroic Western gunslinger is fading. We’re realizing that the West is incapable of saving the world.

So we’re seeing a lot of bleak futures. Good movies like No Country for Old Men and The Road, and bad movies like 2012, Battle: Los Angeles and the Transformers films, suggest that we’re all anticipating some kind of apocalypse.

Stories about salvation through science are fading too. While we’re still trying to save the world through technology—a world of electric cars is beginning to seem possible—our own stories keep reminding us that technology is more likely to cause problems than solve them.

More and more, we look to the big screen for a vision of hope. But we’re reluctant to look beyond our own strength. We’re reluctant to doubt our own misguided impulses and hearts. So we keep falling back on these flimsy movies that tell us to “Just do it” and “Follow your heart at any cost.”

But I think we know, on some level, that our own hearts are too messed up for that. As Bob Dylan sings, “You’ve got to serve somebody.” American stories suggest we should serve our own hearts and impulses, but that’s not doing us any good. The films that resonate most powerfully with me are films about saints, not heroes—characters who put aside their personal impulses, live in humble service of something greater, and become conveyors of grace. On some level, we know that’s a step in the right direction. But those films are rare.

IA: What specific film techniques have you seen invented, or significantly developed in your years as a reviewer?

JO: 3-D is everywhere. But so what? It gives us some interesting new ways to paint a picture. But it’s too often used as a gimmick, a show-off. It shocks and dazzles, but does it enhance storytelling? Does it achieve real beauty? Does it make art a richer communal experience, or does it make moviegoing more of a rich person’s activity? I want movies to become more accessible, not more expensive.

On the plus side, I’m pleased to see that the Dogme movement of the 1990s has influenced so many filmmakers, so that some have learned that “less is more.” I love movies that refuse to rely on music, special effects, familiar celebrities, and sentimentality to evoke emotion.

I love films that plant me in a character’s point of view and challenge me to figure out for myself what is happening. The Dardenne Brothers are masters of this. They know how to let their scenes play out in real time, within the limitations of their primary character’s point of view, so that we are drawn more intimately into that character’s world. When we’re denied the traditional musical cues, and all of the typical cues that tell us what to think, our imaginations wake up. We’re left to figure things out on our own, and we arrive at our own genuine emotional responses.

That makes the moviegoing experience more personal. It sticks with us because we have become participants, not just recipients.

IA: What theories inform current directors, producers, screenwriters, and others in the industry? I’m thinking of aesthetic theories, economic theories, and/or fundamental worldviews that lie behind the movies we blithely pay to see.

JO: Film is such a collaborative process, that almost every film contains a very mixed bag of ideas. It is very rare that you encounter something with real integrity. It’s rare that a film feels like a “personal vision.”

There are so many filmmakers, so many worldviews, so many kinds of films and platforms, it would be presumptuous of me to try and summarize their motivations or intentions. I don’t sit in the offices where those discussions go on, so I’d be guessing.

But as a moviegoer, I find it fairly easy to recognize when a film has been designed according to box office potential instead of art. So many are crafted by committees based on what surveys tell them audiences want to see. So much is based on what has proven profitable. So many popular movies are just telling us what we want to hear: Follow your heart. Do what you want. Rules are bad. Many films seem to be about freedom… but they only go so far as to show us how to be free from something. Characters seek freedom from persecution, freedom from zombies, freedom from fear, freedom from social restrictions, freedom from religious oppression. These films are full of ugliness, and we desire to escape from it. Mostly those films end happily, with a sigh of relief that oppressors have been overthrown and restrictions have been dismantled.

But movies rarely challenge us to consider what to do with our freedom. They rarely show us visions of beauty that will inspire us to care, to do something, to strengthen the good things that remain in this world. That’s the bigger challenge. That’s the more important story.

We need films that remind us of our accountability and responsibility, that inspire us to change ourselves instead of just rising up in frustration against “the Man.” If Hollywood just keeps flattering us by telling us we’re all okay and we should get what we want, we’ve just signed up for a new kind of slavery. A slavery to our own misguided desires.

By contrast, there is real freedom to be found in resisting our impulses, and in committing to serve a cause greater than ourselves. You rarely see that on the big screen. You rarely see endorsements of humility, selfless love, service, and cooperation. But when we do—as in, for example, the new film Of Gods and Men, or Terrence Malick’s film The New World, or, believe it or not, Pixar’s Up—we encounter visions of beauty that are rare and memorable.

IA: How do you think spirituality (in general) is faring in films?

JO: Oh, “spirituality” is fine. It’s everywhere. It’s just that nobody really knows what it is. Most filmmakers drape their films with “elements of spirituality”, as if they’re decorating a Christmas tree. They insert catchy maxims like the sort of sentiments you’ll find printed on boxes of tea or paper coffee cups. But what passes as a “spiritual” message is often just a message of self-advancement, of taking control and pursuing success. They’re not really about love and service.

Fairy tales are in vogue, probably because they preserve the sense that there is something mystical and magical and spiritual about the universe. We’re happy to accept the terms of good and evil that those worlds offer, so long as the film is playing. But we don’t leave the theater thinking about the shape that such a struggle takes in our own world. The real world’s battles of good and evil require a great deal of us, and that threatens our sense of independence and

It’s a sort of Hollywood mantra—we should be “spiritual, but not religious.” That way, we can convey that we’re mysterious creatures, but still remain separate and cool and free of any accountability.

I can’t count how many times I’ve asked a filmmaker or an actor to talk about their beliefs, and they’ve answered, “I’m not religious, but I’m a very spiritual person.” And then they say, “But it’s private,” as if their spiritual convictions are a kind of blemish they need to keep covered. To give voice to their spiritual convictions would mean to align themselves with a worldview, and that would make them accountable to something.

When spirituality finds a common vocabulary, and a shape that can be shared… well, that’s what we call religion. But the movies usually portray religion as conformity, a system of oppression, “a hive of scum and villainy.”

Religion… marriage… business. Those three things are always portrayed in movies as occasions for corruption, abuse, and misery.

Why? What do these three things have in common?

They require us to serve something larger than ourselves. They suggest that there might be something more important than our immediate impulses.
In the real world, faith, marriages, and businesses can flourish if we commit ourselves to them with the humility and service that love demands. But that threatens our sense of individuality, and it looks a lot like conformity. It suggests accountability.

And our desire to be free from authority keeps us from finding the kind of freedom that only comes in service of the best authority.

America celebrates each individual’s right to choose. But if somebody chooses a path of sacrifice and service, especially one related to a tradition or a religion, that’s seen as a failure and a threat to personhood. As a result, our art and entertainment remains stuck in the shallow world of “private spiritualities”, where we’re too afraid to give anything a name. That makes for a very lonely world.

I prefer films about saints—characters who are humble enough to commit to something larger than themselves, larger than their desires. But those aren’t glamorous stories. Beautiful, yes, but very unglamorous.

I saw Mike Leigh’s film Another Year recently, and that film’s portrayal of a faithful, joyous marriage brought tears to my eyes. What a rare and wonderful film!

IA: How about Christianity, specifically? How should it fare in the movies, and how should the Church respond to filmmaking? You have really answered this question through your personal story in your memoir of “dangerous moviegoing,” Through A Screen Darkly. Perhaps you can briefly explain your approach for those who have not yet read your book (but I encourage them to do so!).

JO: Yes, it’s true that I address this in the book pretty thoroughly. But I wrote the book because it’s a very difficult thing to paraphrase.

I’ll just say this: Christianity is made of Christians, and Christians are as messed up as anybody else. So the Church should be portrayed honestly, as a place full of people who make mistakes. But the Gospel rarely gets attention at the movies, and that’s a shame since it’s a beautiful thing. When it is presented, it’s shown to be like some kind of magical answer to your troubles… and that is something it definitely isn’t.

Movies that show us inspiring pictures of beauty and love are far more effective at conveying the power of God’s love than movies designed to persuade people that they should convert to Christianity.

IA: Who are some of the most important directors working right now, and why those? What is it about their work that you think will make it last and become classic?

JO: I love Terrence Malick. Rather than trying to construct artificial wonders, he is patient and observant enough to reveal that the world around us is already full of wonders. His films are closer to poetry than prose.

I’m also fond of Pixar—I think they’re doing extraordinary work for moviegoers of all ages. They seem to be more concerned about visual beauty and storytelling than they are about drawing a big audience. And that’s why their work is so superior. Every month, I review movies at Image’s website, talking about the movies that are inspiring me.

IA: What are some good movies waiting in the wings—films that you either know are in production, or that you wish would be made in the next few years?

JO: I’m looking forward to Win Win, the new film by Tom McCarthy, who made one of my favorites—The Station Agent.

Certified Copy, by Abbas Kiarostami, is getting wonderful reviews, and I think he’s one of the most interesting filmmakers alive today.

Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is likely to be 2011’s most impressive big screen event, and I cannot wait to see it on the biggest screen in town.

Martin Scorsese is working on filming one of my favorite novels, a book called Silence, by Shusaku Endo. If he adapts the book faithfully, it will be a harrowing, haunting movie about the demands of true faith.

IA: I’m going to be self-indulgent here and ask something specific to my interests. I was glad to see that you (correctly, and in a balanced way) gave The Voyage of the Dawn Treader a negative review. Do you know if the series is going forward? Will the next four be made? And if so, with the same creative team? Who would you recommend to be the best director to translate Lewis’s books for the screen?

JO: I don’t know if they’ll continue the series. I suspect that they will. But frankly, I don’t want any director to make Narnia movies. The magic of Narnia stories is in their simplicity, and in how they invite childlike imaginations to participate in constructing those worlds and illustrating those characters. When it’s all exaggerated, embellished, and served up in three dimensions, the stories are almost entirely drained of magic, and they prevent children from the important,
developmental work of imagining the stories for themselves.

IA: More broadly, now, where is the film industry going in the future?

JO: I’ll answer this very briefly. I think artists—whatever their religion or worldview—are doing us a service when they attend to beauty, truth, and excellence.

When we encounter a story well told, a persuasive illustration of human experience, or a beautiful picture, we receive something meaningful that cannot be reduced to paraphrase.

This is true whatever medium the artist has chosen—2-D, 3-D, online streaming, animation, drama, comedy, documentary, short films, feature films, television, whatever.

I don’t think Christians should be striving to win power in Hollywood. When they do, they lose the capacity to make great art, and they enter the realm of politics. I think Christians, like any other artists, should be striving to find their own work, and do that work to the best of their ability wherever they are.

Power is useless, and even destructive, when it is sought after without vision. If our ambition is to muscle our way into Hollywood in order to reshape the world according to our own priorities, we’ll do as much harm as good.

But if we humbly commit ourselves to the hard work of beauty—to revealing God’s presence in the world by imitating and reflecting his own extravagant creativity and his love—then we don’t have to worry about changing the world. Beauty will change the world on its own.

This T-shirt, with its quote from Dostoyevsky, is available at the Image store

1 comment:

sbadgett said...

I lived in a colorless city for a number of years. Of course, Chesterton regards white as a color.