Jason Panella interviewed Jeffrey Overstreet, film critic for Christianity Today. He also also written for Paste, Books & Culture and Image. Overstreet is also the author of the recently-released Through a Screen Darkly (Regal Books). His first novel Auralia’s Colors (WaterBrook Press) hits shelves Sept. 4. Visit his blog at lookingcloser.org.
Jason Panella (JP): When did you first realize the importance of taking a critical/thoughtful approach to viewing films?
Jeffrey Overstreet (JO): For better or worse, kids tend to develop intense curiosity about anything that’s forbidden. When I was a kid, movies were all but forbidden—partly because they were expensive and my parents were frugal, and partly because my parents wanted to protect me from unhealthy influences. However, since both of them took me to the library for recreation and read me stories every day, I was addicted to good storytelling. Moviegoing had a certain fascination. I would see the commercials, see the advertisements in the paper and grow more and more curious about what movies were about.
Then I discovered two things: movie reviews in the newspaper, which summarized the stories and then criticized them thoroughly; and Siskel and Ebert’s television show. I remember being enthralled by Siskel and Ebert’s fevered debates. I came to realize that there was more to storytelling than just sitting and listening. There was discernment involved. I needed to decide if I agreed with Siskel or Ebert. I needed to learn the difference between good storytelling and bad storytelling.
This pursuit seemed to fit in which some of the things I was hearing in church. Philippians 4:8 exhorts you to “let your mind dwell on” things that are excellent. I wanted to learn how to recognize excellence.
Instead of keeping a diary like most kids do at some point, I began to write little magazines full of amateur reviews of books I read and music I heard. I even wrote reviews of the stories I composed, and I wasn’t always a friendly critic of my own stuff. When I started going to G-rated and PG-rated films, I reviewed those too.
JP: How did you end up as a film reviewer? What is the role of the film critic?
JO: I eventually contributed music and film reviews to The Falcon, the student newspaper at Seattle Pacific University. And when I graduated, the internet was opening up, so I started posting my own reviews on my first website: Looking Closer.
This was exciting because, having graduated, I was now missing out on the kinds of rigorous critical discussions of literature I had enjoyed at Seattle Pacific. By posting movie reviews online, and by making it clear that my faith played an important part in my engagement with art, I provoked readers to respond with some rather passionate e-mail. I got a lot of hate mail from Christians who thought I was serving the devil by talking about R-rated movies in public. And I got even more enthusiastic mail from Christians around the world who were feeling lonely in their churches because they couldn’t find other passionate cinephiles who would discuss movies with them.
Then I got an email from Steve Lansingh, who had been writing a column about film for Christianity Today. He was stepping down, and he had recommended me as his replacement because he liked my website. I was astonished and overjoyed. Suddenly, I had a large audience of Christian readers who were curious about movies and quite a few readers who weren’t Christians but who were curious about why a Christian was saying about movies. The conversation became much livelier and more interesting.
In my opinion, the role of the film critic is to help moviegoers learn to look closely, consider films more carefully, develop critical discernment and discover the rich rewards that great art has to offer. Like Anton Ego says in Ratatouille, it’s not a critic’s job to sneer and be condescending, but rather to be a passionate advocate for what is new and beautiful and profound. We don’t need food critics to tell us that McDonald’s food is unhealthy and cheap… we all know that. We need food critics to teach us about the art of fine cuisine and to introduce us to that little-known, hole-in-the-wall Thai food restaurant on the edge of town, so we can all enjoy what that place has to offer. When I discover something wonderful, I can’t wait to share it with people. That’s why I write film reviews.