WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith and today you’ll be listening in on a discussion about “how to read a movie” with author and speaker Ken Boa.
Earlier this year, I drove to Atlanta to interview Ken Boa about his latest book, Life in the Presence of God: Practices for Living in Light of Eternity. While I was there, I discovered that we shared a passion for movies, and since then I’ve read a great deal about what Ken Boa has written about movies at his website KenBoa.org. I share all of that to say that it is very unusual to have a guest on Listening In twice, and especially in such quick succession, but stories generally, and movies in particular, are such powerful shapers of worldview that I thought it would be interesting and helpful to have Ken Boa back to talk about his system for watching movies. So today’s conversation is based on an essay you can find on Ken’s website called “How To Read A Movie,” which I’ll tell you how to find at the end of the podcast. I had this conversation with Ken Boa at his home in Atlanta.
SMITH: Ken Boa, welcome back to the program. It was great to have you on a few months ago and now to be back here in Atlanta in your home again to talk about how to watch a movie, how to read a movie, I think is the way you describe it. Is that right?
KEN BOA, GUEST: Correct. We call it read because you’re really trying to understand as you would a book.
SMITH: Yeah, and you know you did a webinar with the Colson Center on this topic and I found it so compelling that I absolutely wanted to sort of get this on audio because it was just a really powerful tool, process, I don’t know what you would call it, to help people really be discerning whenever they watch movies. What do you call it? A tool? A process?
BOA: I think it is a process, and it’s not step by step, in terms of being lockstep, but these are 10 components that we’ve discovered really help people think it through.
SMITH: Well, you said 10 components. Let’s jump straight into it.
SMITH: You say that component one, step one, is to determine the genre of the film.
BOA: Yes, because in the broadest sense, what we have to ask ourselves is, “Why did I enjoy this?” or “Why did I push back?”, “Why did it speak to me?” or “Was it compelling?” And these steps we found really helped us think it through, to analyze that experience so that it’s not just an emotional dump, but rather we’re processing it. And so clearly one component of that process—we have about 25 different genres today and then so many sub genres like Western or education or comedy. And just think of comedy, it can be screwball, romantic, parody, satire, farce, black comedy, sports; then we have sports and musical heart; all the kinds of things. So we need to let the film be what it is and to speak in its own terms or we’re going to just try to do a transfer of one set of criteria and film is not trying to achieve that. And so that makes a big difference, if it’s a comedy versus a tragedy. Or is it like a Coen brothers movie where it’s—they’ve got a little bit of both; dark comedies. And that all affects our way of understanding what it means.
SMITH: Well, you know, it’s funny, Ken, when you say that, because I’m not the kind of Bible scholar that you are, or maybe even some of our listeners are, but that’s an important step to go through no matter what form of art you are evaluating, even in Scripture, right? That one of the things that they tell you is that you need to evaluate the genre. Is it poetry? Is it one of the wisdom books? Is it a Gospel? Is it more of a narrative story?
BOA: Yes. Because the way you’re going to deal with apocalyptic literature is gonna be very different than a narrative sequence, or poetry, so unless you understand that—And then also the figures of speech, the various literary components. That’s why I say say read a film, because you’re reading it like you’d read a book. What’s the context of this thing? So when I’m looking at literature, or I need to know, “Is this poetry? Is this some kind of material that is attempting to be—is it science fiction?” And everything matters and affects the way I understand the material. Then it has its own rules of engagement and that’s what I mean by genre. What are the rules of engagement that I’m seeking to use, that then I understand. Does it educate? Does it just entertain? Does it speak to my heart? Is it trying to really give me a sense of empathy?
SMITH: Well, once you sort of have an idea of what genre it’s in, then we start dealing with the story itself. And step two is to identify the protagonist’s quest and the character arc. So he’s going from Point A to point B, and he’s changing in the process. Is that what you’re trying to tell us?
BOA: That’s correct. In almost every kind of film—it can be comedy or tragedy—there’s going to be a story arc. Sometimes it’s interesting that story arcs can move from a person who needs to have greater depth of character and clarity or humility, but sometimes the story arc can be negative. It’s interesting that one of the TV series that was such a big award winner, Breaking Bad, there were two story arcs. One was one character who moved from a good to a bad, and the other from a bad to a good and they overarched each other. It was a fascinating dynamic. But if you think about a film, the person at the end of the film, if it’s a good story, if it’s literature, if it’s a play, will not be the same person after conflict because conflict is the stuff of story and so without conflict and adversity, there’s not much of an interesting story. So how do they respond to the story? And then that brings things out and forces them often to move from what they want to what they should actually wish to have; in other words what they really need. So even if it’s a comedy, the people at the end are not the same as the people at the beginning. They’ve been shaped by that. And often it’s adversity that we see in any kind of literature and film. It’s this adversity that becomes redemptive, at least it ought to be, in a good story where a person learns through their setbacks, through their pains, through their problems.
SMITH: You know, Ken, you said something that it’s through the adversity that a story can become redemptive, and then you also mentioned Breaking Bad as well. I loved Breaking Bad, by the way, I thought it was a fascinating picture of human depravity. As you say, a good guy, Walter White, the high school chemistry teacher, who in some ways for positive motives, right? He wants to look after—he thinks he’s got cancer; he wants to look after his family, does some utterly despicable things, and the despicable things that he does ends up destroying him in the end. And yet I found it, at least in part, while there were some questionable things along the way, I found that story to be very instructive about the human condition, even though it didn’t have a quote unquote happy ending.
BOA: That’s correct. In fact, it had a profound resolution. And then Jesse, by contrast, is a character you don’t want to know, but who becomes a better person. And it’s intriguing, in both cases, when I first saw it, I said, I don’t see anything in this. And then later on I read about the critical acclaim and began to give it another try. I realized this is a morality play and it’s not something cynical. There really are values. There really are things that are true and false, good and evil, and beauty and ugliness. All these are there. And so it also reveals the subtlety of temptation as—a way of I like to put is that the subtlety of temptation is it always presents its pleasures and never its consequences. This is why men never fantasize about getting caught. They never think about the future. What—is there no future in it. And so here, each act of declension or compromise or an erosion from his standards makes the next level possible. But you cannot go from a minus one to a minus eight. You can only go from—if you woke up and you are a minus eight, you’d say, “How’d I get here?” Well because you became a minus seven. That’s how you got there. How did you get to be a minus six. There’s too much cognitive dissonance. So in both cases, with Jesse and also with Walter, you see an incremental—this gradual process. And so that’s what we mean by character arc.
SMITH: Well, that’s right. I was going to—one of the expressions that you use when you’re talking about the protagonist’s quest and the character arc is this idea that it’s got to be incremental. It goes from, like you said, negative seven to negative eight, or in some cases from positive seven to positive eight, and it’s got to bring the reader, bring the viewer, bring the listener along, or it becomes unbelievable at some point.
BOA: That’s correct. And that’s—a good story then has credibility. And the whole idea that good and evil both increase at compound interest, as C.S. Lewis put it, is true. He who is righteous in a very little thing, Luke 16, will be righteous in much. He who is faithless in little things, faithless in much. They grow. And so when I see this, then you see, he’s not just there. There’s something going on. There’s something surrounding him. There’s some context in which he has to act and he’s player. We’re all in this play.
SMITH: Yeah, and usually what happens too, and that takes us to step three, there’s some inciting incident, right? In other words, these characters existed before. Walter White, at least in this fictional world, existed before the series started. He had a wife, he had a family, he had a career as a teacher, but there was this inciting incident. And in that particular case—and we’re maybe spending too much time on Breaking Bad—it was the fact that he had cancer or at least he thought he had cancer.
BOA: That’s right. So that became a justification, which then gave him a narrative that he could then begin to deceive himself. And you know, there are so many powerful defense mechanisms like rationalization, projection, and denial. If we just limited ourselves to three, those three, the human capacity for self-deception is virtually boundless. And so you see, “It’s plausible. Ah, he has this reason.” So while stories can be simplified into three parts, beginning, middle, and end, I use five. There’s an inciting incident, we’ve described, something precipitates. In this case, the cancer. And he’s a teacher. Things have been going as always, but now his wife is in this condition. So what are we going to do with this situation here? This progressive complication. And then we move into a crisis where as a result, you’re going to go one way or another. How you respond to your crisis is always going to define your character. A climax, and then a final resolution. And I must say that Breaking Bad had my favorite two episodes—we keep going back, but it’s, we’re using it as a metaphor.
BOA: The last episode of season four was astonishing. And then the last of season five. Right now, we just started Better Call Saul season four, which is the prequel, and it’s fascinating how it’s building. And people are impatient. They want him to become Saul Goodman. No, he’s got to develop that and become that person. Give it time and let the characters evolve, and then they have more of a plausible context. But we’re all immersed in the story, and my view of this story in which we find ourselves—and that’s why I love to teach film because anything, any story well told always points beyond itself to the greatest story ever told. And so we are all immersed in a great story. And of course my whole point here is that the best way to fix a broken story is to embed ourselves in the greatest story ever told. A story that began well and will end well. So that’s why Dante called it a Divine Comedy. But as I see it though, we have a story in which we are immersed and I believe that God will use even the pain and the difficulties of our present darkness and use it redemptively. A way I like to tell people is that I believe—and film often can reveal this in powerful ways—that the pain of our bounded past is not what defines us any longer. We are now defined by the joy of our unbounded future. Very different point. And it’s even there, I secondly add, that that joy is going to reach back to the pain of the past and make that the stuff of redemption as well. Jonathan Edwards’ wonderful sermon outline, when he was 18 years old, ‘Our bad things will turn out for good,’ is his first point. Then, ‘Our good things will never be lost.’ And then his third—that was the second point—his third point is, ‘The best is yet to come.’ Well, that’s our story. And so it whether it leads to an ill end or a good end, we learn that we are immersed in that, and you have no option but to play your role in that incident. It’s a drama, and life is this.
So, Ken Boa, we were talking about the 10 steps for how to read a film. You were saying first you needed to determine the genre. Secondly, you need to identify the protagonist’s quest and his character arc. Thirdly, there’s an inciting incident, typically, and we need to sort of identify that, and why and how that sets the story in motion. Now we’re up to number four, identify the progressive complications. What do you mean by that?
BOA: Yes. When we’re talking about conflict, the role of conflict is absolutely essential. A story that begins well and it continues well and it ends well is nice, but it’s uninteresting and conflict is the stuff that drives a story forward. So there can be three kinds of conflict. There can be inner conflict, within the protagonist, and stream of consciousness genre often has that. A personal conflict between the protagonist and others, and soap operas we mention as an obvious example of that. And then extra personal conflict, something external to the protagonist, and we often see this in action adventure as well as farce as genres, but it can come from anyone, or two or three of these sources. And so this—the conflict then reveals something. It reveals what the character is really like and it shows them in some painful ways to themselves. They see things in their own life journey. So where are we going? There’s no neutrality. There’s a progress, there’s a movement. So you can’t just stop on this escalator. It keeps moving.
SMITH: Yeah, so the protagonist in your story, he encounters these conflicts, it reveals things about his character, he changes as a result of encountering these conflicts. He either grows stronger or he grows weaker, or maybe in some ways both. At some point though, it can’t just be conflict, conflict, conflict over and over and over again. You eventually come to a crisis.
BOA: A crisis. And that’s our fifth step, to identify the crisis. Because we’re shaped by these things, and it not only reveals us, but we become either better or bitter depending on whether—how we respond to the adversities that we encounter. And so there’s a crisis moment, some ultimate decision that carries us through these complications.
SMITH: Can you give me a couple of examples of that? I mean, that are not Breaking Bad related? Like for example, maybe in the Lord of the Rings, these conflicts, there are sort of—there are battles and then there’s this huge battle in the third movie, right?
BOA: Yes, huge battle. And then within the character arcs as well, in Frodo’s quest, and Samwise, you also have another one. It happens that one’s fresh in my mind, because I’m going through the Lord of the Rings trilogy for the seventh time; every few years I do it, and this is the best one because I read it to my wife at night. And just last night, we were almost at the end of the Two Towers, and it’s when Gollum is leading Sam and Frodo to Cirith Ungol. And ultimately, of course, it’s a trap in Shelob’s lair. And so what will happen in their lives is a crisis within the larger narrative crisis of the book, which all really comes together at the final end, at the end of the third novel. But that said though, this is a powerful crisis because what’s going to happen? Sam supposes Frodo’s dead. Everything changes, all the rules change. How will he respond, how will he act? And that is a revelatory moment and so we have to—we’re waiting for something that will—as we say, it’s the encounter with the dragon that guards the protagonist’s object of desire. And it can be literal like Jaws or Jurassic Park, or metaphorical or meaningless, like despair.
SMITH: Well, and to sort of carry on with the Lord of the Rings. You talked about there being inner conflict, personal conflict, and extra personal conflict. We see all of that there, right, in the Lord of the Rings?
BOA: All of them.
SMITH: We see, I mean, in Frodo for example, I mean he’s got this powerful ring and occasionally he slips it on and he knows it gives him great power, but it also destroys. It’s in the process of destroying him as well. So he has to make some personal decisions. Within the fellowship of the ring, the first book ends, as a matter of fact, whenever some of those interpersonal conflicts come to the surface.
BOA: He makes this profound decision that—he’s almost hearing himself say it, and yet it’s the decisive moment, “I’ll bear the ring.” And it’s a moment of dignity and honor. And one appreciates that. These humble characters, these hobbits, are much more than meets the eye. And that’s, I think, what God is telling us in our own life journeys, that we may not have big roles as the world would define it, but actually we have played decisive roles in the overall cosmic conflict and controversies that are—we’re part of something bigger than us. And so what we—our decisions at these points matter, they really do. They’re not trivial. Even if others don’t notice, God does. And so that’s the vision.
SMITH: Well, and you said something else, Ken, that I want to drill down on just a little bit. You said you’re going through the Lord of the Rings for the seventh time. I’ve been through it a couple of times myself, so I know seven times is a huge enterprise because those are big books; three big books as a matter of fact. But it also reminds me that great literature, great movies, they’d bear repeat watching.
SMITH: They bear repeat readings. The more you look, the more you see.
BOA: The more you see. And moreover, the more you mature, the more you see. As you well know, most people are exposed to the greatest literature they’ll ever see when they’re not ready for it: high school, college. Then when they begin to have enough maturity under their belt, then instead they don’t read that great book. Or if they had read it, they choose not to read it again. In my view, great film needs to be seen multiple times; great plays, great literature of everything. You’re quite right.
SMITH: Well, so so we have identified the crisis and now let’s move on to step number six, which is identify the climax.
BOA: Yes. So you’re dealing with turning points; these twists and turns that are always being revealed through a character under pressure. And even minor little turning points can become major decisions. And so we in the audience, it will have an effect, it’ll have a fourfold effect: surprise or increased curiosity or insight or a new direction. So what you’re dealing with is a revolution in values and it’s going to be either from positive to negative or negative to positive. And the idea here is that you can’t be the same person, you don’t have that option anymore. And so being a player then, the decisions we make will shape the next decisions we make. And so our own lives, then, matter in terms of the fact that the small decisions shape the larger. Our lives are tapestries that are woven out of small decisions. I just saw Goodbye, Christopher Robin this morning. I saw the end of it. I watch a lot of films in when I’m in the kitchen; I have several films going on at one time. I’ve trained myself to watch movies sometimes the way I read books, I have several going at once. That’s okay. I got to the end and I had to stay and continue it, but again, you just realize, oh, this was so gripping because everything came together as a head in the end, and they looked back on their lives and they reflected and it took all that to get that point of view, that perspective. So again, great stories do this.
SMITH: Well, and one of the things that you say that great stories also do is present a climax to us, and you use Aristotle’s words here, that are both inevitable and unexpected at the same time.
BOA: That’s a hard thing to pull off.
SMITH: Oh, absolutely. And so can you say more about that?
BOA: Yes. I mean, again, last night my wife and I saw part one of Breaking Bad season four. And I knew where it was going. In fact, we already know what’s going to happen because it’s a prequel. But the genius of this is that they use small little things and build a sense of dread or fear or drama out of the smallest minor things. The reason why I like that is because our lives are like that. There’s nothing really trivial when you stop and think about it. The way you respond to a stranger, my attitude toward other people, the choices that I make: all these things matter. So in my thinking, then, these things are there, but still, that said, there’s going to be some key, a larger overarching thing that may be catastrophic, or perhaps something that a first appears trivial, but after a while we realized, no, no, that was—you didn’t know that, but it turned out that everything came out of that small moment.
SMITH: So Ken, after a climax—and we’re going to go ahead and move onto number seven here, because I want to save our third segment for eight, nine, and ten—but also to ask you some additional questions like what does this mean for us as movie viewers, especially as Christian movie viewers. But let’s go ahead and talk about number seven. So you have the big—the great climax, and then though, that’s usually not the end of the movie. Usually there’s a denouement of some kind or another, a resolution, a tying up of the story into maybe a nice little bow.
BOA: Yes. So if you have these five steps in a story process, what we were describing before, you had the the whole process of the inciting incident, remember, the progressive complications, crisis, climax. Then we have to have the fifth component and that’s the resolution and it is something that could climax a subplot. It could show the spread of how lives were changed by that event, or perhaps like a slow curtain, a courtesy to the audience. Let them catch their breath, let them refresh themselves. Going back to the Lord of the Rings, that has multiple endings. It fades to dark, and then another ending fades to dark, and then it fades to white several times. Brilliant. Because—some people didn’t like that. They said, “What are they doing?” No, they’re giving us as an audience—this is how this is resolved. This relationship was resolved, this was resolved, and each of them, I thought Peter Jackson did a fine job in trying to see how we could gather our thoughts and leave—as I like to put it, leave the cinema with dignity.
SMITH: Well, in fact, I interviewed Peter Jackson whenever the third movie came out, and he talked about that very thing that he wanted to let the ending—I mean, this was a great epic, right? And, you know, 10—almost 10 hours—over nine hours worth of movies. And he said he wanted to make sure that both the audience felt fully satisfied, and the story was fully honored.
BOA: That is right. And so each of those endings was intentional, and each satisfied a different—some more than others, but each one—what about the elves? What about—what happened to Sam? What happened to Frodo? What happened to each of them? We need to see that. We don’t want to just be left with questions like the awful, in my opinion, the dreadful ending of Lost. It was the most unsatisfying final episode I ever saw, because it did not respect the narrative idea that the whole thing was built around the mythology of the island. And they just, “Eh, it doesn’t matter; it’s just the characters.” No, it did matter. That’s why we saw it. And so we need to have that. So we need to have that resolution
SMITH: Well, and I hate to go back to Breaking Bad, but you know I think that’s one of the things that’s so brilliant about Breaking Bad is that, you know, especially—it started on network television. They didn’t even know if they would have a second season, and yet by the time you got to the final season you begin to realize just the brilliance of how all of these things fit together.
BOA: I marvel at that, and I felt that every one of the seasons was better than the one before. But the craftsmanship and the clarity, the coherence, the integrity, connecting these dots together that you didn’t at first see. You go back, “Ah, I see that was a critical moment for me.” But like life itself, when I reflect on my own life journey, I know that there are certain small decisions—what appeared to be—that were decisive. Small things then reveal me and reveal my life, and then how I respond to that illumination is critical.
SMITH: So Ken, we’re coming to the end of your 10 steps. We’re up to step number eight. And I would say eight, nine, and ten are in some ways—if one through seven are really focused directly on the narrative—maybe number one, where you’re determining the genre, is placing the narrative in a larger context; certainly eight, nine, and ten are doing that explicitly, where you’re placing the individual story in a larger context. So number eight is determine the plot type, which of course implies that there are many plot types and you’ve got to figure out which one.
BOA: Right. And it’s not an easy thing to do because most people think of one sort, and it’s just not the case. There are arch plots, in which we have a clear sense of positive change, and reality has meaning in life is good, and we will end well, and that sort of a thing.
SMITH: And by the way, that’s sort of the classic Hollywood.
BOA: That’s the classic kind of thing. Almost all films in Hollywood in the 40s and 50s and certainly in that era were largely—well, there was some film noir, and some dark and anti-plots, but generally speaking people like that happy ending, that sort of a thing. But the anti-plot is very, very different. That’s why I love the Coen brothers, because they do them all. They are fascinating to me because they do—and I’m working my way through all their films right now with my wife. I do these little—how would I describe them? They’re like my own little art festival and I do them in chronological sequence, so we just did Blood Simple and Raising Arizona. We’re about to do Miller’s Cross and they’re utterly different and some are dark, comedy. There’s always darkness and comedy, but differing proportions, different kinds of plots.
SMITH: Well and especially the two you mentioned, Miller’s Cross, very dark, and Raising Arizona, very zany.
BOA: Very zany, and screwball-itude as I call it. But then there are mini plots as well, so you can have little plots within plots that don’t seem to be major, but there are—some stories have multi plots as well, and then they are even non plots, and of course as I mentioned earlier, film noir where there’s just a darkness about that. But they can be very powerful kinds of things as well, like Maltese Falcon, and I’m thinking about any number of things that are—the Double Indemnity and things of this sort. Powerful, though, because they almost—you almost walk away with a cynical view, but unless you’ve grasped this kind of plot type, you’re gonna misconstrue, misunderstand the film. And so if—a film that’s well done, though, will be faithful to that, and will actually have a consistency at least where they try to really realize that. And then we have of course subplots as well, you see, that can be different angles that one can take. Some stories are more character driven, some are more plot driven, some are more atmosphere driven, some of them are more a point of view. And so all of those kinds of things are there. So when we talk about this, it gets pretty complicated.
SMITH: Yeah. Well, and correct me if I’m wrong, Ken, but just generally we talked, you know, the arc plot being more sort of the classic Hollywood story, and the more anti plot would be—that will be more of a modernist and postmodern phenomenon; is that fair?
BOA: Much more. And a higher percentage of those as a consequence in our own times.
SMITH: And we see, you know on television, we might even see like a Seinfeld, which was a show about nothing. There was no plot, really, in some cases.
BOA: Right, it was a no plot. Not an anti plot, but no plot.
SMITH: Or a movie like Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, which there is a story—in some ways that kind of turns the whole nomenclature on its head, because there is a story, but it’s told in a very nonlinear way.
BOA: That’s right. Or Mulholland Drive, the same kind of a thing. Or then I think as well of Christopher Nolan films, and like Memento, and you think about a film like that, or of Inception, things within things; nested hierarchies. So there’s always more than meets the eye. I love a film though that tricks me, and by the end of the film I realize, ‘Ah, now I have to see the whole thing over again.’
SMITH: That’s right, sort of that unexpected and inevitable thing, going back to Aristotle again, right?
BOA: Right. That’s precisely the case. So then you have to see it, even with films like The Usual Suspects, or The Game, or—I think about any number of films that trick us. Sixth Sense, Memento, Fight Club, all of these are films that actually you were misled. The whole thing turned out to be this. One of my favorites is The Prestige, another Nolan film. Fascinating.
SMITH: Yeah, great movie.
BOA: Because remember, here you have, in a work of magic, you have to have the pledge, and then there’s the turn, where you pull it off, or apparently. But that’s not enough. There’s a prestige. So you make the man disappear. You say you’re going to do it. He disappears. And that’s nice. But the prestige is when he appears in another part of the stage, or in another box. How did he do that? And what I love about that film, is you discover the film itself as a prestige. He pulled that out and you were totally deceived by the two brothers. But then you have to see it again to realize how did he do that? How was I deceived? How did I accept this assumption? So that’s what makes great film fun, because you realize there’s so much more than initially meets the eye.
SMITH: Yeah. Well let’s keep going. Identify the controlling idea is step nine.
BOA: Yes. So what’s the main message? What are they trying to convey? What is the director trying to convey? One simple sentence of how or why life undergoes change, and so we go from one thing to another. And as I say, you can’t reduce it necessarily to a rubric, but there are going to be components here where love triumphs, for example, because the lovers sacrifice their needs for one another. One of my favorite films along this story line is Babette’s Feast. I can summarize that film in one controlling idea. It’s this: reconciliation in broken relationships through sacrificial love. And that captures in my mind the entire film. Now, let’s unpack that and what does that look like? What is that sacrifice? They don’t even know the greatness of the meal that they ate, that actually brought them together, and all of these components, but that overarching motif then gives integrity to the work. I think that we need to look for that and I think it’s very powerful. Yeah, you can have happy endings or sad endings, or happy sad endings. At least we have a sense of where are we going. So it could be idealistic, pessimistic, or ironic. More films, I think, especially since the era of film noir are more ironic, cynical in some cases as well.
SMITH: Well, and the viewer often ends up, and of course this is really sort of the crux of irony, right, is that the viewer ends up in a different place than the character in the movie ends up sometimes. And I remember a movie, No Country for Old Men.
BOA: Oh yeah. Another Coen brothers film.
SMITH: Exactly, and the way that movie ends was, you know, looking into the face of Tommy Lee Jones, and it’s just a very, very powerful moment. Or a movie like Castaway, Robert Zameccason, and you know, he, after being on this island where he had no choice other than to do what he had to do to survive every day, he comes to this crossroads.
BOA: Crossroads, where is he going to go? And we are not told.
SMITH: And he just looks straight into the camera and it’s just—
BOA: And that’s the way to do it.
SMITH: Right! And we’ve got to make the—as the, you know, he’s—there’s a little hint of a smile in Tom Hanks’ face whenever he looks, like he’s made that decision, but we don’t know.
BOA: We don’t know. And that’s exactly right. Or the end of Inception in the same way. But there are certain iconic moments of uncertainty, and we don’t want to have that resolution. And we want to see that there’s an open-endedness to that plot.
SMITH: Well, and that takes us to sort of the biggest question of all, that’s step ten, which is, “What is the worldview of the film?” And you know, so say some more about that. And I have some questions I want to ask you, because it’s like, you know, I think it’s a little too simplistic for us as Christians, “Well that has a Christian worldview, so we should watch it, and that one doesn’t have a Christian worldview, so we shouldn’t watch it.” It’s sort of a sophisticated way of just saying, “That’s good and that’s bad, and we should watch the good and not watch the bad.” Say more about that.
BOA: Yes. I think again, a film, even if it is a very nihilistic film, a cynical film, can still, if it’s done with skill and integrity and excellence, be something that’s worth looking at to teach us, to instruct us. So it’s not so simplistic: “Good message, good film.” No, it’s not, “Good worldview, good film.” Not necessarily. There’s a lot of mediocrity done in the name of Christian film. And so given that, then, in my view, it’s just like reading a book. I’m right now reading Jordan Peterson’s Twelve Rules of Life. Well, in reading that there’s a lot of gold in there, and a lot of gravel. And so I have to choose to eschew the gravel. As you know, every book has them both, but some have a greater proportion of one than the other. But it’s the same with a film. If it’s well crafted, then there will be gold, there’ll be nuggets here and there. Some are more consistent, some less, but at the end of the day, are we dealing with a naturalistic worldview, or are we dealing with something monistic or theistic? And so a naturalistic, of course, impersonal plus time and chance; that’s all there is. We came from the impersonal; we’re going back to that, there is no ultimate meaning and purpose. Some people are more and more toward a—more of a monistic sort of a notion, perhaps a pantheistic, or even sometimes a panentheistic worldview. And that’s why Buddhism is fascinating to me, as being the one major world religion that’s really “cool” in a postmodern world, because you don’t have to believe anything. In fact, the the whole thing is about “nothing really is as it seems,” and so you can have this ironic posture. That said, though, there is going to be a message and they’re going to say that they’re going to have a view of origin, purpose, and destiny. So always the questions that surface are “Why are we here? Where did we come from? Where are we going? What’s the meaning and purpose of life? What’s the problem? What’s the solution?” And those are worldview questions that if we do not ask, something’s wrong.
SMITH: Yeah, well in some ways, Ken—and we just briefly alluded a couple of times to Christian movies, but I want to get you to spend a minute or two saying a little bit more about that. A lot of bad Christian movies are being made and in some ways that is ironic and tragic at the same time, because Christian movies, Christian filmmakers, of all filmmakers, should be the ones that take these ideas seriously. And I’m wondering if you would agree with this statement, that one of the reasons that Christian films are as bad as they are, often, is because they don’t understand these 10 steps. They don’t understand their own worldview questions seriously, and what the implications of those worldview questions are.
BOA: I think that is so. They haven’t thought those things through. They haven’t thought through the craft. They haven’t—don’t have the integrity. They want to push it too hard. I know there was a debate between Tolkien and Lewis, vis a vis the more overt nature of the Narniad, the Chronicles of Narnia, versus the deep mythic approach of the Lord of the Rings. Although there was much more to the Narniad, it turned out, than met the eye. But that said, there are so many Christian films that are just so much either in your face, or so obvious, or that they become virtually uninteresting, and they’re just trying to manipulate an emotional response. But there’s not an integrity of really an honest development of character, and thinking these things through. That to me is a mistake. And so I very rarely see many Christian films that have any depth of substance in terms of the technical expertise, the skill of character development, the use of irony, plot narrative, and so forth, these devices. It just seems like it’s almost a polemic if you’re not careful. And then it leads to shoddy workmanship. And actually, we have such a robust worldview that we should have the cutting edge. We should have the advantage, but we don’t take advantage of that reality. So it does bother me. Now, some more recent attempts, like I Can Only Imagine, are an attempt to be a little bit more nuanced, a little bit broader, and seeing the darkness and the pain and so forth. But to be honest with you, still, I hate to say it, we are not on the cutting edge. And it’s a sad thing because for a thousand years, the church was. When the socialists—basically, when you think about the whole majority, those who got to define what truth, goodness, and beauty look like. So this was the essence, the sociological elite, shall we say. And when that became theistic, largely speaking, in the sixth century to about the 16th century, the world never saw anything like it. And they were on the cutting edge: the best art, the best music, the best literature, the best universities, and institutions, and everything. They were cutting edge. And of course the one appearance of science, of empirical science. So they were the cutting edge. And then they lost it, it seems to me, and as a consequence petered out with the movement into deism where it got watered down, and deism became a transitional worldview toward naturalism. It was just a process downwards and it was an inevitability. Now people are trying to have a more new age kind of a synthesis where they can have their cake and eat it too, where they have the warm fuzzies of transcendence, but at the end of the day, when you knock on the door of the universe, no one’s home.
SMITH: Right, so like Avatar might fit into that category.
BOA: Avatar, precisely. So there’s no accountability, but it gives people the feeling that there must be something, but they don’t have to be accountable.
SMITH: Yeah, exactly right. Well, of course, great artists need an audience. And so, Ken, you’ve been so helpful today in this conversation in helping us be more discerning and more demanding viewers of movies, so thank you very much.
BOA: Thank you.
SMITH: You’ve been listening in on my conversation with Ken Boa. We’ve been discussing his essay “How To Read A Film.” You can find that essay at his website, KenBoa,org. Then click on the “Culture” tab. That essay is near the top of that page. Ken Boa is the president of Reflections Ministries, and you can find out more about his work at the same web address: that’s KenBoa.org
Listening In is brought to you by World News Group, and this podcast is just one of the many benefits of WORLD membership. To find out more about becoming a member of WORLD, go to GetWorldNow.com. The technical producer for today’s program is Rich Roszel. He gets strong assistance from Alan Brooks. Our executive producer is Nick Eicher. I’m your host Warren Smith. And you’ve been Listening In.