Better Together

Could a deep affinity for words hinder our appreciation of film? It is tempting to privilege text over images. But Calvin College English professor Roy Anker understands the power of light, the physical process of film projection that makes an impression on our retina, even burning into our brains. The cover for Of Pilgrims and Fire suggests how light might blind a moviegoer. The Apostle Paul was struck on the Damascus Road; Anker recounts the epiphanies he experienced at the cineplex.

Half of the films Anker discussed so eloquently in Catching Light (2004) are revisited in Of Pilgrims and Fire. Click to purchase However, in this volume, Anker demonstrates how to bridge the gulf between the academy and the pews, turning a commentary into a study guide. Dedicated to the retirees who attend the Calvin Academy of Lifelong Learning, the book features pre-viewing comments for each chapter, followed by discussion questions that have been put into practice in the CALL program.

In a time when viewing options are extended to the private modes of iPads and iPhones, Of Pilgrims and Fire celebrates communal filmgoing. Our laughter and tears are heightened in a theater, and Anker wants us to process our responses with others. So while most theology-and-film books take readers into a state of quiet contemplation, Anker launches contemplation that leads to conversation. The result is a study guide worth sharing, perfect for small groups or Sunday school classes.

Twenty films are subdivided according to broad themes. Anker begins, as the Creator did in the Garden, with beauty. Imaginative films can inspire wonder, and Anker celebrates the majesty of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. As a World War II film released after Saving Private Ryan, Thin Red Line‘s poetic complexity was steamrolled by the visceral power of Spielberg’s recreation of D-Day. Yet more than a decade later, the subtlety of Thin Red Line continues to reward repeat viewings. Anker notes Malick’s obsession with glory, and the recent release of The Tree of Life confirms Anker’s instincts. Cherishing God’s glory remains a seminal Malick theme.

Anker also highlights overlooked foreign films like The Color of Paradise and The Decalogue. With Iran remaining in the news, a close reading of The Color of Paradise only increases our compassion for those struggling under a repressive regime. And Krzysztof Kieslowski’s first hour of The Decalogue sparks profound discussions about the limits of science. In this section, Anker chooses challenging movies that are also accessible.

Anker’s second grouping focuses upon the darkness that threatens to undo us. He starts with Woody Allen’s haunting meditation on (im)morality, Crimes and Misdemeanors. In teaching theology and film, I’ve found Allen’s exploration of ethics remarkably resonant, and Anker unpacks cinematic touch-points for this film that will endure. On the other hand, daring to celebrate the virtues of Godfather III takes a fair amount of chutzpah. But Anker pushes past the distracting performance of Sophia Coppola to find the cautionary tale of Michael Corleone’s final fall. He also embraces M. Night Shyamalan’s early film Wide Awake. It has a refreshing innocence that has proven tough to recreate. Time will tell whether Shyamalan will continue to unravel his artistic reputation, which has declined dramatically since The Sixth Sense. But Anker doesn’t mind taking chances and endorsing films that other critics (like me!) might dismiss. He clearly believes in the possibility of redemption.

Anker’s choices for conversion stories come across as almost perfunctory. The Shawshank Redemption, Dead Man Walking, and The Apostle are widely embraced by Christians across denominational lines. Yet, Anker rightly points out that these films were largely ignored upon initial release. It took word of mouth (and with Shawshank, repeated showings on TNT) before these remarkable films found a broad audience clued into their transformative stories. I wonder, though, if something more recent like Lars and the Real Girl or Munyurangabo might deserve similar appreciation.

These films with explicitly Christian themes are followed by more obliquely religious “popcorn” movies. Yet the parabolic power of E.T., Superman, and Millions inspires the child in all of us. Anker says these films work from what Emily Dickinson called a “slant.” They enter our subconscious from the side window rather than the front door, and their flights of fancy create a childlike wonder. Anker celebrates how Millions allows us to greet the world afresh, with the eyes of a boy who sees saints on a regular basis. Here I wonder why Anker does not mention the Christmas backdrop which surrounds the story. In films united by the Incarnation, it seems to me that he fails to connect the most obvious dot.

Anker concludes his cinematic guidebook with two magic movies that collapse the distance between heaven and earth. In Magnolia, a rain of frogs falls from the sky as a blessing. In Heaven, a terrorist and an Italian policeman become soulmates. Few filmgoers experienced their transcendent journey from experience to innocence, but Anker does a lovely job of tracing their long walk back to the Garden. Overall, then, Of Pilgrims and Fire takes us from suburban nightmares in American Beauty to visions of Heaven.

I found Anker’s groupings quite helpful. Some are rooted in stronger thematic connections, but all of them suggest provocative double features, mini-filmfests, or month-long screening series. Anker hopes to inspire more thoughtful film viewing among the Christian community, and with a small section devoted to “A dozen tips for smart film viewing,” he provides tangible suggestions. The “what to watch for” section provided for each film also offers plenty of clues. Does such specific guidance lead audiences down a prescribed path? Perhaps. But this extensive list of under-seen classics suggests we still need help finding what we will eventually love.

Hopefully, this smart, practical book will equip us to recognize greatness when it arises rather than after the fact. Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life opened this summer as the latest opportunity for cinematic pilgrims to have their spirit rekindled. Thanks to Roy Anker, more lights will flash on for thoughtful filmgoers.

Craig Detweiler directs the Center for Entertainment, Media, and Culture at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. His latest book is Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God (Westminster John Knox Press).