Thursday, February 7, 2008

Book Review: Through a Screen Darkly

I've always had this sense that there is another language I once knew, a joy that was mine before I was born. When I get a glimpse of that glory through art, I can feel the memory of it pressing against the back of my mind, and the longing for that peace and resolution wells up inside me. I can't quite grasp it. I can't speak my native language. Not yet ... but I'm learning.

If I do the difficult thing and pull myself away from art that is merely entertaining and start searching for those currents of truth that reside within beauty and mystery, I will be drawn off the path of familiarity and comfort. The reality of God is not bound to a particular earthly language, country or style. His spirit can speak through anything. But He is far more likely to be encountered in those things that are excellent rather than shoddy, particular rather than general, authentic rather than derivative. I will find myself investigating art and expression that never played for audiences in this country -- art that waits overlooked on the shelves of foreign and independent films at the video store. And I will be changed, concerns with cares and disciplines that make no sense to Hollywood movie publicists.

It could be a lonely road. But it's a road that leads farther up, farther in, to greater majesty and transforming truth.
Through a Screen Darkly by Jeffrey Overstreet
Not exactly what you'd expect from a book about movies is it?

The measure of a good book is when I find myself on the second chapter without even noticing I finished the first. I was on the third chapter before I looked up from this one.

I never thought about my passion for movies as a passion for art. However, I have learned from reading Overstreet's reviews that he can pull your thinking to a new place. I have never forgotten that it was his review of Hero that made me even consider watching it. His ability to communicate some of that intangibles I fell in love with in that movie, now one of my favorites, was what made me eager to read his book. From the excerpt above, I think you can see that this book delivers much more.

Suffice it to say that he is sufficiently convincing to make me add Babette's Feast to my movie list although I swore nothing would drag me through that movie again. In my own defense, I watched it many years ago and believe that I wasn't ready for it. Not that I necessarily am now, because no matter how persuasively he wheedles, I am just plain not interested in watching The New World (for that Walt Disney's travesty can take part of the blame ... but I am completely disinterested in Pocahontas in any guise). I also, reluctantly, am adding Born into Brothels to my "to watch" list. Buyer beware, that is just how well Overstreet makes his case.

I really only had one complaint, which was that not only do they use endnotes (nothing breaks the mood more than having to go hunt down endnotes) ... but they put the endnotes at the end of each chapter! So not only do I have do go hunting endnotes but first I've got to track down the end of each chapter. Sheez!

You can see that these are all just very minor quibbles. I really can't praise this book highly enough. Overstreet looks at how to approach movies as art and an education to enrich our lives and raise our souls to an experience of God. I certainly am grateful to the high school teacher who made it his mission to educate Overstreet and his classmates as to how to think and appreciate movies. This experience has been enlarged upon and passed along to us, along with choice selections from various movies for illustrations.

I will end with another little bit for you to sample.
There are so many different lenses through we can examine a film. We benefit when we bring in to focus each movie's writing, editing, lighting, performance, direction, the intended audience and the film's political, spiritual and cultural perspectives and agendas. Questions about these aspects can lead us to discover strengths, weaknesses and new insights. For some filmmakers, movies are just illustrated narratives. But others aim higher. In treating film as art that is no less profitable for study than great literature and painting, they organize what we see and hear in such a way as to encourage the viewer to examine relationships between character, image, color, music and camera angle...

In this way, film is uniquely qualified to explore spirituality. More than any other art, it mirrors our experience in time and space. Reflecting our world back to us, it gives us the opportunity to explore and revisit moments. Offering imaginative visions of alternative worlds, it helps us glimpse aspects of our own that we might otherwise have missed. Slowly, we begin to discover the universal in the particular, the timeless in the temporal, the miraculous in the mundane.
This review originally appeared in several different posts at Happy Catholic.

Jeffrey Overstreet's thoughts on the one year anniversary of this book and the amazing chain of events that led to its being written and published. He's also planning a sequel and soliciting subjects so this is your chance to have some input.

1 comment:

Shannon said...

"Born into Brothels" is not to be missed. I stumbled upon it in the movie section at the library last night. I kept thinking, "This is the city Mother Teresa loved so well." Visit it and see.