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Anne Hornaday, Christian Film Critic

The Washington Post film critic Anne Hornaday, a practicing Episcopalian, writes about how she approaches her job. [1] It’s a wonderful, thoughtful piece. Excerpt:

If it’s a challenge to write about Christian films as a Christian, it can be just as problematic to review nonreligious films, especially the bad ones: The humility and loving kindness I try so hard to cultivate in my daily life doesn’t hew to the snark and downright cruelty that can be the occupational hazard of the reviewer’s job. Where I’ve become much more unforgiving, however, is in depictions of violence. As a student of film history, I know that violence is a long-standing, even essential element of cinematic grammar and audience catharsis; as a Christian, I find it increasingly difficult to accept portrayals of brutality that are glib, meaningless, played for laughs or cynically nihilistic. As Underhill wrote, “We cannot begin the day by a real act of communion with the Author of peace and Lover of concord, and then go on to read a bloodthirsty newspaper at breakfast.” If a bellicose tabloid is enough to give peace-lovers a case of indigestion, they should try watching a Quentin Tarantino film on an empty stomach.

Conversely, I’m constantly on the lookout for films that lift up our capacities for connection and mutual understanding — not as sentimental, schoolmarmish morality plays, but as an artist’s genuine healing response to a broken and confused world. Anything that seeks to honor or nourish or at least acknowledge our fumbling, feeble, quietly heroic attempts to help get each other through the heartbreak and suffering of life will always earn at least a nod of gratitude from me.

Boy, do I ever get that. Alas, I wasn’t mature enough as a Christian or as a critic to reach the state that Anne Hornaday is in when I was reviewing films professionally, but I tried. Like her, gratuitous, graphic violence was the thing I couldn’t stand about movies. I would not want to return to that job.

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16 Comments To "Anne Hornaday, Christian Film Critic"

#1 Comment By Grumpy realist On April 11, 2014 @ 5:38 pm

Interesting to compare the differences in levels of acceptable violence and sex in films among different countries. In Japan it’s far easier to find edited porn (I.e with the naughty bits pixilated) on TV than graphic violence. The US seems to be the exact opposite.
Some TV series made in Australia seem to have far more erotically suggestive scenes than I can ever imagine be shown on mainstream TV in the US.

and if you can’t tell a good story without using graphic violence, maybe you don’t have a good story.

#2 Comment By lancelot lamar On April 11, 2014 @ 6:48 pm

I have often thought that she was a more gentle critic. I will read her with greater appreciation now.

#3 Comment By charles cosimano On April 11, 2014 @ 8:14 pm

I have a strange feeling that I would not like the movies she would like. Of course that would not be the first time. Back in the 70s and 80s I would read Gene Siskal’s reviews and if he hated a movie I knew I would probably like it and if he liked a movie I knew to stay away from it.

Of course it would be fun to read her trying to review Titus Andronicus…

#4 Comment By Jane On April 11, 2014 @ 9:15 pm

What a thoughtful essay. Thanks for introducing her to me.

Great post!

#5 Comment By Josh McGee On April 11, 2014 @ 10:39 pm

This is another example of the belief that mutual understanding is capable of producing healing, while ignoring that it is just as capable of producing conflict.

Also, film, being both a visual and passive (for the viewer) medium, should be expected to be more graphic. Being passive, it has to keep the audience engaged via ‘action’, since it has no mechanism to take the audience inside the minds of the characters (narrations are often clunky and almost always provide acces to the thoughts of only one character anyway). I agree with her assessment of Tarantino’s use of violence, but I suspect a lot of pious folks would also be bothered by many biblical scenes depicted directly on screen – see what folks would think about depicting David cutting off the head of Goliath, for example. This is both an advantage and a disadvantage to film. On the one hand, it can really show, plain as day, the real violence of the sin of abortion (for example), so that no one can deny what they have just seen. On the other hand, in doing so, it may be an image so grotesque, almost no one should ever consume it.

#6 Comment By ArgleBargleZarg On April 12, 2014 @ 12:27 am

Conversely, I’m constantly on the lookout for films that lift up our capacities for connection and mutual understanding — not as sentimental, schoolmarmish morality plays, but as an artist’s genuine healing response to a broken and confused world. Anything that seeks to honor or nourish or at least acknowledge our fumbling, feeble, quietly heroic attempts to help get each other through the heartbreak and suffering of life will always earn at least a nod of gratitude from me.

A movie that fits this description is Jeff Who Lives At Home. It’s really good.

#7 Comment By RB On April 12, 2014 @ 1:29 am

I don’t envy any film critic for their job. Having to watch everything, and watch it deeply, no matter how unsettling, smacks of a required daily dose of iocane powder.

#8 Comment By Ann Olivier On April 12, 2014 @ 1:38 am

Explicit violence seems to be addictive for many people, and the movies and TV supply the heavy stuff readily and often. Does the craving for it become progressively worse the way some drug addictions become worse? I’m generally very much against censorship, but it seems to me that enjoyment of brutality is a sin, and it should be named as such.

Yes, the Greeks had it right — the violence belongs off-stage.

#9 Comment By Aaron Gross On April 12, 2014 @ 3:15 am

She criticizes Tarantino, but the only Tarantino movie that I’ve seen, Pulp Fiction, does seek “to honor or nourish or at least acknowledge our fumbling, feeble, quietly heroic attempts to help get each other through the heartbreak and suffering of life.” In fact, as I’ve said here before (and people agreed with me), the main themes of Pulp Fiction are strongly Catholic. (Maybe they’re Orthodox, too, I wouldn’t know).

Regarding “portrayals of brutality that are glib, meaningless, played for laughs or cynically nihilistic,” Pulp Fiction does have some that are played for laughs – though none that are glib, meaningless, or nihilistic – but I think the playing for laughs is part of the whole “surprised by sin” structure of the movie. That is, you’re supposed to first participate in and laugh with the brutality, and then to see its sinfulness, and your own sin in being drawn into it. Like Milton, Tarantino really might be of the Devil’s party without knowing it, but the “surprised by sin” structure is nevertheless there.

I haven’t seen other Tarantino movies because I’m just too squeamish about violence. (I’ve been that way ever since I became a father. Movie-going-wise, not a good way to be.) But I’ve read reviews of later Tarantino movies that said the same thing, that the movie is very critical of the brutality it portrays. It’s anything but nihilistic.

#10 Comment By Aaron Gross On April 12, 2014 @ 3:23 am

By the way, the excellent movie Spring Breakers used the same device as Pulp Fiction to make an anti-violence and anti-brutality point: showing the same violent scene twice, at different points in the movie and from different points of view, to shock the viewer into seeing his own participation in or acceptance of brutality.

So my point isn’t just about Tarantino. It’s that portrayals of brutality that are apparently “meaningless, played for laughs or cynically nihilistic” may in fact not be at all as they appear. But that can only be seen in the context of the whole movie.

#11 Comment By Josh McGee On April 12, 2014 @ 10:11 am

Aaron, Tarontino’s movies of the last decade lack the point of violence that Pulp Fiction had. Well, that’s not entirely true. They are all of a common theme: revenge fantasy. And the revenge tends to be depicted in the most graphic ways possible. I find his movies have become increasingly childish…

#12 Comment By David J. White On April 12, 2014 @ 10:38 am

Back in the 70s and 80s I would read Gene Siskal’s reviews and if he hated a movie I knew I would probably like it and if he liked a movie I knew to stay away from it.

Hah! Charles Cosimano and I agree on something!

One thing that always bugged me about Siskel and Ebert is that they seem to praise, almost reflexively, anything that had Martin Scorsese’s name attached to it, regardless of any other attributes it might have.

Geoffrey Lyons and Michael Medved were another pair whose recommendations I tended to avoid.

But then, I mostly avoid current releases in movies, just as I mostly avoid new releases in fiction.

#13 Comment By Aaron Gross On April 12, 2014 @ 2:54 pm

Josh, a review I read of Inglorious Basterds said that the movie was critical of the whole revenge thing and of the characters who sought revenge. I didn’t see the movie (I’d have liked to, but too violent), but the anti-revenge theme the reviewer saw in the movie sounded very much like the anti-violence theme I saw in Pulp Fiction. So I believe that the reviewer saw something that was really there. But I didn’t see the movie.

#14 Comment By David J. White On April 12, 2014 @ 7:19 pm

but the anti-revenge theme the reviewer saw in the movie sounded very much like the anti-violence theme I saw in Pulp Fiction. So I believe that the reviewer saw something that was really there. But I didn’t see the movie.

I did, and I didn’t see any “anti-revenge” theme in it. In fact, as a revenge fantasy, it was pretty satisfying. The main feeling I (and, I think, most of the others in the theatre on the day I saw it) had, when Hitler and the chief Nazis had all been gunned down, was, “Well, that’s a job well done!” Yes, it was pretty brutal, but, you know, the actual war was even more so.

Not every text has a subtext.

#15 Comment By Frater On April 12, 2014 @ 11:18 pm

Interesting comments here. I myself tend not to completely dislike violent movies (even though I avoid them, because, as people noticed, they might be an occasion to sin), and maybe the reason is because I feel quite the opposite from Ms. Hornaday with regards to the news: it seems that she thinks a movie with senseless violence is worse than news of violence, but with me its the news that really disturbs me, and even ruin some of my days; I’d take a Tarantino movie over the news of rape or murder any day.

And maybe that is why I like violent movies: they seem to give back a sense of order. After the crime, the vengeance and the punishment.

And this brings me to my question: is this sinful? Were the women sinning when they sang “Saul slain his thousands and David his tens of thousands”? Was the Psalter sinning when he said regarding the sons of the Babylonians “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!”?
And another commentator spoke of the scene where David beheads Goliath. Goliath was already dead, and this boy comes and chops his head off (imagine the long seconds of terror of the people watching this scene of apparently senseless violence).
I guess one could resume these inquires into the question: is there justice without violence? You know, maybe Ms. Hornaday’s religion is just one very anodyne and watered down version of Christianity.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a Catholic and quite religious myself (and yes, I’m working on my irate personality), and would be nice indeed if someone showed me I am wrong, showing, for example, that indeed the people in hell will have such disorderly desires that they will desire to be in hell, and therefore punishment is no violence, etc. (even though I’m often tempted to be more on the side of Gregory of Nyssa, just because it is a more beautiful image: no more brokenness or disorder, everything being from God and to God, but I guess this sort of universalism was condemned, so I’ll just hope knowing that God has a more beautiful vision of the redeemed universe than Gregory could conceive).

#16 Comment By elrond On April 14, 2014 @ 9:20 am

What a great article. I’m so thankful that there’s another Christian who likes The Life of Brian. One of my guilty pleasures.