RP: You also write for the Soul Food Movies blog and are currently at work on a book, Soul Food Movies: A Guide to Films with a Spiritual Flavour—so you are also knowledgeable about contemporary film. A glance at your blog suggests that you have seen just about every movie that came out this past year, so it’s pretty fair to say that you have a 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?
RR: The book’s on hold; it started to come back alive again, and then I got three ideas for plays and decided I’d write them. And I’ve seen all the good movies that came out last year.
Ten years is a big sample size. It probably shifts more frequently. I’m actually going to go back 12 years, to 1999, which was a milestone year. It was this peculiar explosion of really memorable films that are still watched over and over again. There’s just a ton: Magnolia, American Beauty — just a heap of remarkable films in 1999. The peculiar thing, as Mr. Soul Food Movies, is how many films there were that were engaged with spiritual themes, even Christian themes. Before that, by and large, if a film had spiritual themes, it still wouldn’t be a Christian story. And so Babette’s Feast or Chariots of Fire, every Christian on the planet would go see those, because we were never up there on screen, unless we were a lying evangelist, a pedophile, a bigot, or a Klansman. I’ve been a Christian all my life and I don’t know any of those people. They’re choosing a really small sample size. And then all of a sudden there’s just people who are Christians, or themes that are obviously spiritual and Christian, or just spiritual but in an unabashed way. I think it was a certain amount of superstition about the turn of the millennium, but whatever. It was also some kind of synergy with the economy of the film industry itself: the rise of independent films, the health of film studies, some kind of sweet spot for money to fund the films, some peculiar flowering of screenwriting, Many, many real lovers of film emphasize the director. I would never minimize the role of the director, but I actually give equal weight to a strong screenplay. That is diminished in a Hollywood film, because so often the screenplay is just a piece of processed meat; it’s been ground up and reshaped and repackaged so many times. But on a smaller independent film or an auteur film, that screenplay is incredibly important. Again, coming from the theatre world, you don’t change a word of that play, the script is Scripture. In the film world it’s almost opposite, but it shouldn’t be. Many of the best films come from a screenplay that is superb. Half the time it wasn’t developed by committee. Somebody wrote that thing. It comes from a person’s heart, so I really value the writer.
All that to say, for whatever reasons, 1999 was such a year. And then that openness to spiritual things has continued. I feel like it lulled some, because as the conservative presidencies carried on, the country became more polarized again, and people who were scared of Christians or scared about Christianity – sometimes with good reasons, because of the only churches or Christians they knew – that asserted itself again. Whatever kind of openness there’d been started to get polarized again: “Oh, those Christians just want to invade countries and bomb people.” The tide’s turning again, and these tides do turn. I’m seeing more of those Christians who are obnoxious characters, more films that vilify Christians or even generally spiritual characters. But nah, not too bad. It’s not like some backlash. It still comes up more often than you might have thought, more often than I grew accustomed to growing up in the 60’s, 70s, and into the 80s. It still feels like a heyday for films that are spiritually engaged.
RP: What specific film techniques have you seen invented or significantly developed in your years as a film critic?
RR: Disruption of narrative continuity. It doesn’t flow from beginning to middle to end. It can be a gimmick, but it can also be very invigorating. A good film used to be filmed consistently from beginning to end with one look and feel that would give a sort of visual unity -- just like we have the dramatic unities of time and place. Certain kinds of filter or film stock were used throughout. You’d see Scene 3 of Dr. Zhivago and Scene 10. One was a frozen ice palace, and one was blood in the streets, and yet you’re going “that’s the same film.” A good thing, however I think of a film like Into the Wild. I love the way that was filmed. One section is shaky like it was filmed with a camera phone, and then another is a panorama, a massive gorgeously detailed, sculpted shot. I like that kind of mash-up of filmic style at the same time as I can love a film that has unity of style. I think that comes about because people have camcorders and cell phone cameras and point-and-shoots, and all that. So we are used to that variety. The news used to just be film: Channel 5 film crew filmed all the events. Well now, people’s cell phones capture an accident, and they put it on. “If it bleeds it leads.” We just take the data in through every kind of form, so films can reflect that.
There’s also the fact that you can shoot a pretty gorgeous film now with far less expensive equipment, so it doesn’t need to be a studio. There’s been some discouragement in recent years, though. We thought independent film would explode, but then we found out that distribution is critical. That’s still a challenge.
RP: I’m guessing more people are trying to make films now, just because the cost of equipment is going down, and the understanding of filmmaking as an art form is more available, you can learn about it on the Internet.
RR: You don’t assume a studio has to hire you or bankroll you. But also there’s the proliferation of film schools. With the first film school graduates of the 70s, now there are so many film school graduates, you’ve got a large community of highly educated people doing it. So I suppose there’s more crowding, harder for an individual to do it.
RP: But there are all kinds of ways to distribute a film solo, by publishing it on the Internet; you might not get a lot of money from it, but you might get ad clicks, you might get discovered.
RR: If people want to do that, there are those ways to make a webcast, something made for the Internet. There is a proliferation of small film festivals, so you can have a very little film. I have one friend who makes a film or two a year, shows them in those places, and is quite content to do that. That’s his art. He no more craves nationwide distribution than I crave a 2000-seat theatre. I’m going to do my work for 100 people at a time. I wouldn’t mind 250, but that’s it. It’s like the slow food movement. You don’t expect to feed 5000 people with this meal. You take five hours to make it, and it’s for a dozen guests, and that’s it. And that’s what my theatre is, and that’s what my friend’s filmmaking is. And if you’re content there, great. Most people who make the webisodes are doing it as a calling card so someone will hire them to do it for real. That’s a shame. But I mean, why not. Any strategy you can use. I say it’s a shame, because the chances are still so slim.
RP: Social networking is affecting film too, isn’t it? Not a huge number of people hit it lucky in that way, but if you are able to catch a huge wave, if you’ve got something that’s really good and somebody forwards it around to enough people and it spreads…
RR: The first movie like that was Blair Witch Project. That’s the one that the Internet made. But it had no legs. As soon as it closed at the end of the summer, nobody watched it anymore. People laugh about it: “Why were we scared about that?” Somehow the hype made it a phenomenon. But some things that have been Internet driven have great staying power I think.
Lots of little independent films were made last year for terribly shrunken budgets with little hope of getting beyond Sundance, and Winter’s Bone did. Why? Well, it’s phenomenal. It really is a piece of complete integrity. It’s real filmmaking, extraordinary story, fine screenplay, based on a novel. That probably could be said of a number of other projects. But somebody saw it, somebody promoted it, somebody else decided to show it. It is a combination of luck, perseverance, and high artistic quality. Those ones with the luck factor will keep happening. Every now and then there will be a piece that’s just terrific. I believe that Animal Kingdom was an equally strong picture. In my experience it was actually slightly stronger. They’re very comparable. But it didn’t catch the same wave in America. Most people, when I say Animal Kingdom, say “oh, that nature thing?” No, It didn’t get on their radar. I remember several years ago, two films that I saw, really close in time, that were so comparable in so many ways: The Lives of Others and After the Wedding.
RP: I saw The Lives of Others; haven’t heard of After the Wedding.
RR: My point exactly. When I saw them, I was equally excited about both. One of them caught the wave, got lucky (in my opinion that’s the only difference), and became a “you’ve got to see this” movie. And I was thinking, “But what about After the Wedding?” In retrospect, I think After the Wedding was a better picture. Remarkable film. Maybe it had a less sentimental ending; and people, even when they like their art films, they still like – I don’t want to call it “sentimental” – that’s a little too strong a word. I don’t mean to demean The Lives of Others. But you know, you felt good. And I’m not sure After the Wedding gave you quite that. It’s a little bit cool and more Nordic, so maybe that’s why. Nonetheless, very comparable films. One you’ve heard of; the other you haven’t. So there’s that luck factor. Luck or who knows what.
RP: How do you think spirituality (in general) is faring in films? How about Christianity, specifically? How should it fare in the movies, and how should the Church respond to filmmaking?
RR: I’ll just take the “should” part, because that’s where my mind tends to go. When Mel Gibson made The Passion of the Christ, he made a personal vision, a peculiar, eccentric film, where he might as well film it in weird languages, because nobody was going to see anyway. It was only going to be shown in a few art houses, so he would follow the limit of his vision and make his most distinctive film. He could make Lethal Weapon 79. But this was his heart. He put that film out there. It became the biggest sensation imaginable. And then the organized church said, “Hey, he made a film for us. There’s a Christian market. Let’s tap it. Let’s have more of those films for us, and let’s make money off making them. So let’s do some market testing, and find out what Christians want to see, and let’s make that for them.” Is that what Mel Gibson did? No. Some people say it was a mercenary, calculated financial thing to make all this money. They are full of rocks. That’s just not true. It did not begin there. I know that once they saw that this could sell 87 trillion dollars worth of business, they went after it. Well, so would Winter’s Bone if it had the chance, or the most obscure Polynesian postmodern performance art. So it became a bit of a media circus. But it was not made for that purpose. They got it completely wrong. And so we saw many years of insipid, churchy movies. Now, some of the people who worked on those films are people of integrity, artistic skill, even vision. But still, what showed up on the screen was like Hallmark movie of the week, with more religion. That’s OK. That’s what some people want to see. I don’t criticize them. I don’t think that Mrs. Swenson in some small town in Minnesota should have to watch Jesus Hopped the “A” Train. She should have some art that suits her, and that does, so God bless it. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be made. I’m just saying “is it actually of any interest to anyone who is not in that subculture already?” Nope. Find me a positive review from your regular old theatre reviewer about those and they’ll be in short supply. They tend to make vastly populist, sweetly religious films, though there are some exceptions.
RP: There have been a couple that got attention outside the Christian subculture. I can’t remember when the remake of Shadowlands came out. That was before Mel Gibson’s...
RR: Oh, that had nothing to do with the Christian subculture. No, that wasn’t made for the church.
RP: What about Amazing Grace?
RR: Amazing Grace got marketed a little more that way. That is post-Passion. But it wasn’t made by a group of Christians who said “Let’s make something for the mega-church-goers in Atlanta and LA.” They were trying to do something different. They marketed it, though, very much to the churches, especially evangelical churches, saying “Look, evangelicals were at the forefront of abolitionism. Why shouldn’t we be today?” They loved the way it engaged social conscience and explicit themes of faith. And they were evangelical Christians in this film, as opposed to those dread Catholics or Anglicans or Lutherans or something like that (all in quotation marks). So it crossed over that way; it tried.
RP: There were a couple of films where there was quite a push in the evangelical subculture to email all your friends and get them to go see such-and-such a movie, because if it doesn’t get enough views the first weekend, it’s going to die, and we need to have it survive. I don’t remember which ones they were.
RR: Well, exactly. If you actually came up with the name of the film, you wouldn’t remember anything about it.
Another thing that’s happened more and more. Young Christians see no barrier to working in the film industry, whether they are a camera person, a screen writer, a director, a grip. So more and more there are Christians involved in the film industry. I want to put an asterisk by that. I keep differentiating between evangelical Christians and other Christians. It’s not because one is real and one is not, at all. There have been Catholics and mainstream Christians involved in live theatre and film way back. Far less of a divide there. It’s just that evangelicals came later to the game, in engagement with the culture as a whole (late 60s into the 70s), in letting their kids go to theatre schools and film schools (70s, 80s). And then with film, again, something happened ramping up to the late 90s to make an explosion in the world of film. Partly DVDs. You could get whatever film you wanted. Partly the Internet. You could read about any movie you wanted. You learned about films. So I think that explosion caused lots of Christians to end up there. The business itself has a lot more Christians, evangelical and not. (Those labels become not that useful.) So that shifts how the whole things works. Though, again I don’t want to be negative about this, but money drives most of the movie business. Massive amounts of money, power, ego. And all three of those are a poor fit with the real gospel of Jesus. Most people who decide they’re going to invest $20 million in a film aren’t probably going “I admire the integrity of this work. It needs to be done, even if only five people see it.” I don’t think so. I think it’s “If I put $20 million in, I get $40 million back.” So however many Christians might be involved, as producers, directors, writers, it’s going to have a pervasive effect. But that’s exactly where Christians should be. The most venal of motivations can lead to a spiritually profound work of art. It doesn’t matter if the producer is married to Satan. If it happens that the screenwriter was telling some truth, and it makes it through the rewrites, doesn’t get cut, you can go to that theatre, you can see that, and your life can be changed.
RP: 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 (if it hasn’t already)?
RR: I could have given you a really good answer on this five years ago, but not now, partly because I’m not immersed in it anymore. Partly also because the people I would have named then haven’t made any good films since. I would have pointed you to Lars von Trier, P.T. Anderson, Whit Stillman, Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth). I might have thrown Peter Jackson in the mix. Also Anders Thomas Jensen who made Adam’s Apples.
They all made extraordinary films with the kind of things I especially like in film, but then— Lars von Trier had a really dark and nasty element in his film that I felt was in tension with the other elements; the other elements fell away and it just, oh my goodness, the poor man. Antichrist is so toxic and so nasty. He had a breakdown and fell into a clinical depression and didn’t make films for a while. Who knows what’s to come of that? Then P.T. Anderson, people felt he had come back with marvelously with There Will Be Blood. I didn’t like it. I admired it. It’s well shot, it’s fascinating. But to my mind it went back to a story that I was sick of by 1970. I was only 13 in 1970. The venal, compromised revival preacher who really doesn’t care about spiritual things, and is just as much of a manipulator as the oil baron, and it’s two power-grubbing people. Yeah, yeah. And it didn’t surprise me at all when I found out eventually that it’s actually from a novel that was written 80 years ago. That’s what the stories were about then, and I find that boring. Well-made, but I was disappointed. Whereas in his previous films, there was so much nuance and intricacy about spiritual themes, even Christians themes. And all of a sudden, the Christian character is reduced to this two-dimensional cardboard stereotype. Quite a disappointment. It was still a very strong film, though. So, is he still a strong filmmaker? Yeah. Although he went from Hard Eight to Boogie Nights to Magnolia in the space of a few years. And then…Punch Drunk Love. To my mind a wonderful but more minor film. Other people feel it’s his best of all. I think it’s a little bit more of a side exercise before his next great film. That looked like the trajectory: Really interesting small, independent film; much bigger, really good film; and then a masterpiece. And then this wonderfully quirky brilliant smaller piece, while he’s gathering strength for something big. And then a bunch of years, nothing. And then, what many people consider his greatest masterpiece, which I feel disappointed in. He’s just not on that pace he was on as a brand new filmmaker.
Then there’s the Coens. You never know. Each new film comes out. People see it and go, “Nah, it’s too clever, it’s shrill, it’s jokey.” And then a little bit later, the tide always shifts and people go, “That’s really interesting, that’s substantial.” They keep pulling that out of their hats. Their recent film, A Serious Man, engages right on the center of theological questions in a direct sort of way. I think they’re playing for keeps there. And then True Grit. I still don’t know if that Protestant voice of the narrator is meant to be taken seriously in the novel. The Scripture-saturated, hymn-quoting thing, is straight-up. And this is a good, religious character, in the middle of an anarchic world. Or if that’s the irony, that this girl, in her naiveté sings hymns, quotes her daddy, quotes Scripture, quotes theology, and heads out to commit vengeance, and actually is as conscienceless a killer as anybody around her. I haven’t discerned that yet. The Coens may have just liked it because they like strong voices. They like Marge Gunderson to talk with her accent. They like O Brother, Where Art Thou to talk from the South. They like the dude to be a Southern California drop-out. They love those. When I say “voice” I mean a character voice – an audible, spoken voice. And I bet they like the voice of that character in that book. And they found it funny, and they found it ironic; they probably never stopped to go “Hmm, are we setting this up or not?” But they play with that stuff; they keep doing it. Who knows what lies ahead for the Coens; they’re pretty fascinating.
RP: 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?
RR: Again, because I’m not writing regularly about film, I’d have to think about it. I’ve got some written down. That’s a really good question, but I’m kind of stuck. David Michôd, the guy who directed Animal Kingdom. That is the director I’m most interested in right now. I can’t wait to see what he does next. I’ll also say playwright Martin McDonagh. His first, which he wrote and directed was In Bruges. And that’s got legs. I loved it overwhelmingly when it came out, and now it’s one of those ones that everyone talks about. It’s so good, and very theological, as well as very funny, very offensive, very entertaining. He was kind of the bad boy entertainer-playwright, and then he made that film. He made a short film, Six Shooter, that won an Academy Award that’s really interesting. And then In Bruges. I hope he makes another film. No guarantee it’s going to be theologically or spiritually engaged. But he’s pretty fascinated by moral and ethical questions. So I’m curious to see if he makes another film. [He is at work on Seven Psychopaths (2012). – rp]
And Danny Boyle! I can’t wait to see what he does next. His last films have been very flashy. 127 Hours was his most recent. And Slumdog Millionaire. Some pure cinephiles have thought it was a little superficial. I don’t find it to be so. Both films were engaged with spiritual questions. I know you could say that Slumdog Millionaire is about getting rich quick. You could say it’s about rags to riches. It’s the Horatio Alger nonsense. I don’t think so. I think it’s about a young man’s faithfulness. It’s about doing whatever was needed to recover this relationship with a girl that he knew. It’s got all the social conscience of Dickens. It’s also got all the storytelling tricks and melodrama of Dickens. I don’t care. It’s wonderful. And it was profoundly about the question of this peculiar series of coincidences. Were they luck? Were they skill? Were they “Insha’Allah” (God’s will)? 127 Hours is about an irresponsible, bike-riding, adventure party boy who gets in a scrape and by his ingenuity gets out again. What’s spiritual about that? Yeah, well, it is. Profoundly it’s about a young man who is all the things we described at the beginning, who realizes as he sits there for 127 hours alone, facing his death, “I lived every second for me. I deserve everything I’m getting.” It’s like The Christmas Carol in a gorge. His life flashes before him, and he comes to reckon with…[goes to get The Christmas Carol and reads an excerpt] “’Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,’ said Scrooge. ‘But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me.’ The spirit was immovable as ever.” That’s at the heart of 127 Hours. There’s a parallel theme in Into the Wild. Danny Boyle goes after those things. I recently saw the National Theatre of England broadcast of the Danny Boyle stage production of Frankenstein. It was broadcast live to theatres. Brilliant. And again it deals with these questions about the nature of humanity, consequence, ethical things. Danny Boyle is all over that stuff.
RP: Where is the film industry going in the future? How has technology affected it (online streaming, etc.) With amazing home theatres, will we stop going out any more? How much further can special effects and digital technology go? Is the movie experience become more solitary rather than communal?
RR: Yes, the film viewing experience is more solitary than it used to be, significantly so. However, two things: after you’ve seen the film, it’s more communal. People really didn’t have as much opportunity to talk together about a film afterwards. So you’d go for coffee after and talk with your friends. Sure. But that’s it, you couldn’t see it again. There is such a conversation about film now, in the culture as a whole, and online. This conversation makes me wonder if cinemas are going to become like live theatres. They will never go away. The feeling of sitting in a room with strangers, munching popcorn, and looking up at that massive screen as the movie starts, and nobody can text you and phone you (if people text in front of me I tell them to stop). That’s something. I’ve got a 52” screen. I believe you can have a great experience in your home, a better one sometimes. But the cinemas are never going to go away. There are always going to be people showing movies in public.
RP: Are our standards for acceptable content shifting, and is this to be deplored? Are Christians going to have more or less influence in Hollywood over time?
RR: Well, the influence in Hollywood we touched on. There are more Christians there. That’s lovely. It’s still Babylon. But that’s where Christians belong. So, enough said. Content? Well, the movies have always had appalling content and great content. Just because it’s sexual content or violent content doesn’t make it bad content. Just because it portrays characters who are morally appalling… Well, Macbeth. Where are his redeeming features? Should we watch that? “No, he’s a terrible role model. What do we see except bloodshed and sexual undertone and ambition.” Well, take away Macbeth and I’ll punch you in the eye. So those are very open questions to me. I have a very safe middle-class upbringing. I’m a jerk sometimes. But I’m a nice person. I’m very invested in being a good citizen. Just a decent, boring, white, middle-class guy. But artistically, I’ve always been fascinated by films about very dark or questionable things. Maybe that’s an indulgence of my dark side. I don’t know. Now there are films that I simply don’t go see. A couple of films by Gaspar Noé. Would I say that film should never be shown? No, I wouldn’t say that. But I’m not going to see it. I just have a feeling that it’s not what I want to put in there. On the other hand, I watched Antichrist. And that’s nasty. And I watched Dogville. With Antichrist, I borderline regret that I saw it. I’m glad I saw it, but I would not see it again. But Dogville is one of my three favorite films of all time. But it’s nasty. That’s where the Holy Spirit comes in. Each individual has to discern, listening to the Holy Spirit and their conscience: what should I see, what should I not see, what films should I make, what should I not make? There’s so much made and shown that really is morally vacuous, and even negative, even bad. I’m sure the Devil himself runs many studios and can make pictures that are appalling, and yet you don’t know. Tom Key, the man who took Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Gospels and made them a stage musical. He is a marvelous man. He’s a Southern gentlemen, deeply Christian, a Catholic man. He’s a leader. He runs a live theatre in Atlanta. He’s a respected member of the theatre community. His conversion came when he saw Bonnie and Clyde, which his church friends were completely opposed to. It was degenerate, conscienceless kids, with a level of violence that was unacceptable. He went, and he got saved. God spoke to him, and he changed from a safe church-going kid to someone who saw the commonality of sin in them and himself, realized that he actually needed God instead of God being a nice little add-on to his merit badge collection. Did anybody making that film intend that? I doubt it. Neither was it made just to exploit. It was made I think by artists. But it’s very violent, and especially for its time, over the top violent. Should it have been shown? Well, apparently. God’s mysterious. As long as he’s engaged in the whole thing. And he won’t allow himself to be disengaged.
RP: Well, thank you very much.