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Overstreet

Of Gods and Men (2010)

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Attica, I'm sure Jeff agrees with the thrust of your comments, which is why he warmly recommended the film in his Comment piece, and why he says he recommends it to everyone. Let's not make the divergence bigger than it is. :)

Edited by SDG

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Attica, I'm sure Jeff agrees with the thrust of your comments, which is why he warmly recommended the film in his Touchstone piece, and why he says he recommends it to everyone. Let's not make the divergence bigger than it is. :)

Sorry if it looked like I meant to make the divergence bigger than it was. I wasn't .... and that's why I put in the bit about not trying to indict him. I was using Jeff's comments as a stepping stone to put out some thoughts, nothing more. ::blush::

Edited by Attica

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Yes, this is definitely not a yea-sayer versus a nay-sayer. It is a case of just how much yea-ness we're experiencing. :)

This is in no way a brag, but I can't say the film introduced any new ideas to me at all.

You didn't find the moral territory Christian had to negotiate dealing with Ali Fayattia to be at all challenging? The idea of Muslim terrorists protecting a Christian monastery wasn't a new thought to you?

Well, it was an interesting plot point, and an interesting matter of strategy. It reminded me of one of my favorite passages of Scripture, the one in which we're told that in this messy world, the weeds exist right among the good growth, and that if we violently uproot the weeds, we're bound to damage the good growth as well.

So I'm not sure what you mean "Was it a new thought?" Was it a story I hadn't heard before? Sure. Does it illustrate or open up things I haven't thought about before? Hmm. I'm not sure that it does. But perhaps I'm missing something.

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That's why I don't want to even participate in a discussion about whether Of Gods and Men is better than The Tree of Life. But if we're talking about the "how it is about it" part of artmaking, I find the method of one film more fully inspiring and satisfying and inviting for subsequent experiences than the other. (Again, that's a personal thing, and not something I expect others to share.) I could write books on both the "what it is about" and the "how it is about it" aspect of the films of Tarkovsky or Kieslowski. I would be happy to write a book on "what Of Gods and Men is about," with maybe a chapter or two on "how it is about it."

I am growing increasingly dissatisfied with the "what it is about"/"how it is about it" pattern of thinking through a film. Too much residue from one builds up in the other. Are there better basic questions? Or are we stuck with these?

But I did above make the suggestion that Of Gods and Men belongs to a different tradition of filmmaking than we think. There is a lot of Varda in the film, for example, that creates a different perspective on the material than a simplisitic Christian moral translation. In addition, I find it fascinating that I respond to the film far differently than its director, who does not share or understand my (or the monks) Christological convictions - but rather embraces the ritual behavior of the community as a form of existential deliverance from the whole shock of the Algerian crisis. The Last Supper scene is such a treasure because though it is rooted (and perceived by me) in the very life of Jesus and the disciples, it also appeals to such a post-Christian context as France that the film enjoyed unexpected success there. All this is to say, there is more artistry on the "how it is about it" side of the question than meets the eye.

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Excellent thoughts, Mike. (I think you meant "what it is about" at the end. Edit: or no, maybe you didn't. Reading it the other way around now.)

So I'm not sure what you mean "Was it a new thought?" Was it a story I hadn't heard before? Sure. Does it illustrate or open up things I haven't thought about before? Hmm. I'm not sure that it does. But perhaps I'm missing something.

What about the other questions?

Edited by SDG

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Just to add my two cents…

I think Jeffrey has done a fine job of clarifying his personal taste--he's a poetry guy and not a prose guy. Fine. Let him define and defend what is "poetic" in cinema!

But I think Morefield's original point is still relevant, and in the spirit of courteous discussion I would concur that there is perhaps a faint whiff of condescension in the references to "Christian circles" and "mainstream evangelicals."

It's all too easy for a movie reviewer to stake out a position of superiority over his/her audience, chastising them for not being as well informed or discriminating as himself/herself. A subtle "guilt trip" rhetoric tends to creep in if one is not vigilant. Now, I don't think there was anything pointedly offensive in Jeff's observation that Of Gods and Men has "gone almost unnoticed in Christian circles," but it wasn't a necessary observation, either. While I suspect it's more or less true (indeed, it smacks of "truthiness"), it is nevertheless unsubstantiated in the article, and it doesn't take into account the good work being done by his colleagues. I think that's what Morefield is driving at.

Jeffrey's mission has always been to get his readership excited about experiencing art, particularly film art, and I believe this has been a challenge well and bravely met. It will always be an uphill battle. To paraphrase Pauline Kael, we (cinephiles) will always be in a hopeless minority compared with the millions of people who go to the movies for easy gratification. But that's still no excuse to be smug. Smugness runs counter to the mission. It will not win very many converts.

Edited by Nathaniel

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So I'm not sure what you mean "Was it a new thought?" Was it a story I hadn't heard before? Sure. Does it illustrate or open up things I haven't thought about before? Hmm. I'm not sure that it does. But perhaps I'm missing something.

What about the other questions?

The other questions are similar... they are about theological or political ideas spoken in the film, and I can offer whether I'm excited by those ideas or not. But again, we're not talking about aesthetics anymore. I've already said I'm moved and challenged by the story, by what they characters do and say. But the "how" of the presentation doesn't keep me awake thinking, "Wow, I'm just blown away by the way the director filmed this or shot this or juxtaposed this with this..."

And here's another way to look at it: Most of what we're discussing are ideas that are openly spoken in the film. The dialogue of a film is an important aspect, but it is only one aspect.

If I were teaching a course on excellence in cinema, I would understand teaching Citizen Kane for all of the important breakthroughs and virtuosic cinematography, editing, composition, etc. I would definitely share Of Gods and Men for the purposes of theological discussion and "ministry," but on how many levels of motion picture art is Beauvoix's work really standard-setting?

When it comes to motion pictures, my interests are increasingly caught up in the pictures. They do things that a stage play version or a novel could not.

*

Nathaniel,

If I sounded smug than I have failed.

My point was that there are certain *kinds* of stories that excite audiences... including Christian audiences. I have seen, and suspect that it is usually the case, that stories about heroes will draw bigger audiences, and inspire more sermon illustrations, than stories about saints. That's my primary argument. When you take away the stuff of heroism, you take away the sexy stuff. It's difficult to draw an audience for a story about self-denial.

I did not mean in any way to discredit good critics who have published good reviews in good publications. I was responding to the fact that, in spite of that, I run into references to Of Gods and Men in the Christian communities I know about as often as I run into references of Sophie Scholl. And that makes me sad.

Whew... I'm getting dizzy from trying to recommend the movie to one group, and trying to wade through another group's frustrations at my lack of enthrallment with it.

Now... I have assignments due, including overdue A&F Top 25 blurbs, so I must sign off in order to attend to them.

Edited by Overstreet

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If I were teaching a course on excellence in cinema, I would understand teaching Citizen Kane for all of the important breakthroughs and virtuosic cinematography, editing, composition, etc. I would definitely share Of Gods and Men for the purposes of theological discussion and "ministry," but on how many levels is it really standard-setting?

When it comes to motion pictures, my interests are increasingly caught up in the pictures. They do things that a stage play version or a novel could not.

That to me is precisely its odd strength. I am very resistant to message cinema. Heck, I am resistant to cinema that makes sense. But here is a very lo-fi, very blatant, very remedial film about these monks that floored me on the basis of its message. I can think of no film that so neatly captures the intellectual heart of Hauerwas, or Yoder, or Milbank, or any other of the theologians that have shaped my head over the past decade.

Edited by M. Leary

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But I think Morefield's original point is still relevant, and in the spirit of courteous discussion I would concur that there is perhaps a faint whiff of condescension in the references to "Christian circles" and "mainstream evangelicals."

It's all too easy for a movie reviewer to stake out a position of superiority over his/her audience, chastising them for not being as well informed or discriminating as himself/herself. A subtle "guilt trip" rhetoric tends to creep in if one is not vigilant. Now, I don't think there was anything pointedly offensive in Jeff's observation that Of Gods and Men has "gone almost unnoticed in Christian circles," but it wasn't a necessary observation, either. While I suspect it's more or less true (indeed, it smacks of "truthiness"), it is nevertheless unsubstantiated in the article, and it doesn't take into account the good work being done by his colleagues. I think that's what Morefield is driving at.

Hi Nathaniel. Not sure if we've been introduced formally on these boards. Feel free to call me Ken should you care to. (Hmmm...I just heard Monty Python in my head..."There are those who call me....Ken?")

I think your observations are true enough about dangers confronting us as Christians, though condescension has more to do with the tone of rather than the content of writing, and I try not to interject a whole lot about tone since past history has told me that tone, even among friends, can get largely misread.

My issue is not that I think the claim that the film went largely unnoticed or commented in Christian circles was unsubstantiated. It's that I think it was false incorrect. Jeff, to the extent I understand his replies, disagrees and thinks that this generalization is a fair one. Since I doubt we (Jeff and I) disagree as to the meaning of "unnoticed" I can only conclude that we disagree about the meaning of "Christian circles." I think (but am in no way sure) that what Jeff meant by this phrase was "Christians I know--or a subset of Christian culture that I believe myself to be familiar with." I don't dispute that this subset of Christian culture is unenthusiastic about or unaware of the film. I do dispute that this subset represents the sum totality of what an average reader will parse when confronted with the term "Christian circles." I think it was some lazy ineffective writing, and Jeff has said (again, assuming I understand him correctly) that he thinks trying to more narrowly define the group he was characterizing would have been rhetorically cumbersome and implies (or I infer) that many/most of his readers will understand his usage of broader Christian labels better than I apparently did.

But, even this summary paragraph reminds me of the bad ole days of A&F with lots of meta-arguments (arguments about the argument rather than the subject matter of the argument) and word parsing. To channel Steven for a second, I think the things we (Jeff and I) agree about (it's a pretty good movie and it's a shame more Christians haven't seen it or want to see it) outweighs the things we disagree about it (how widespread and universal is the generalization that Christians are uninterested in/unenthusiastic about the film).

Edit: P.S. As regards the film itself, I find this whole poetry/prose discussion a little funny. I know in talking to Steven privately about the film, I offered up as one reason why I did not like OGaM as much as he did is because I'm a narrative/prose guy and the film, with its climactic opera montage was not traditional narrative cinema of the type that I prefer. (Another is that my screening of the film was very, very late because Bruce Springsteen was at TIFF that year and they apparently didn't know he is not easy to usher out of an auditorium just because people are waiting to use it to watch some French film). There are differences between judgments of taste (this is the kind of thing I like) and judgments of quality. Jeff acknowledges as much in his comments/responses, even if (imo) his initial review(s) can appear to me to be conflating the two. But my point about the whole poetry/prose thing is that comparing this film to Malick's ToL makes me feel like the guy in politics who says there really ain't that much difference between the Republicans and the Democrats except at their extreme fringes. It's not like we're talking about Stan Brakhage versus James Cameron here. There's a difference between arguing about how poetic two prose pieces are on the one hand and saying one is prose and one is poetry on the other hand. I guess what I'm saying is that the poetry/prose dichotomy doesn't explain the different tastes it just pushes them to a different level of language/discourse. It's still affective versus descriptive criticism--gauging how the work of art makes me respond (the same way poetry does) rather than saying what it actually does. It is possible to do formalist criticism of poetry (most New Criticism sprouted when poetry was the dominant genre of academic consideration) or personal-response criticism of prose (i.e. talking in emotive terms about how a novel makes you feel). Poetic is a very subjective term. I find the human face inherently visually interesting, and, although I've only seen the film once, over a year and half ago, I was more struck by some of the visual images in the film (such as the monks simple raising of their hands when they are voting--pregnant with meaning and imbuing the image with power rather than trying to make a powerful image) than any single shot in the whole Malick opus put together. I found the anguish on the face of the one monk who was left behind/survived sublimely poetic, by which I mean hard to translate to prose without losing something of its meaning. A good poem=irreducible, can't be summarized, only repeated.

Edited by kenmorefield

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That to me is precisely its odd strength. I am very resistant to message cinema. Heck, I am resistant to cinema that makes sense. But here is a very lo-fi, very blatant, very remedial film about these monks that floored me on the basis of its message. I can think of no film that so neatly captures the intellectual heart of Hauerwas, or Yoder, or Milbank, or any other of the theologians that have shaped my head over the past decade.

And that does so, not in the abstract, in the expression of intellectual ideas, but persuasively embodies those ideas in a lived experience in a context as messy, ambiguous and uncertain as the world we all live in. D'accord. That's what give the film its power for me also.

The other questions are similar... they are about theological or political ideas spoken in the film, and I can offer whether I'm excited by those ideas or not. But again, we're not talking about aesthetics anymore.

Exactly. It's precisely the privileging of aesthetics, and even more the aesthetics of visuals over the aesthetics of narrative, that I resist.

I agree with M. that the "what it's about"/"how it's about it" framework has definite limits -- but if "how it's about it" is reduced to the purely visual, then it's not just limited, but flat-out wrong.

Certainly that's not what Ebert meant by "how it's about it." In Ebert's thought, that phrase denotes not just the visuals, but a film's entire approach, attitude, sensibility toward its subject matter as conveyed in all aspects of the moviemaking process, including dialogue, plot structuring and other aspects of narrative, as well as acting, etc.

But the "how" of the presentation doesn't keep me awake thinking, "Wow, I'm just blown away by the way the director filmed this or shot this or juxtaposed this with this..."

I think this is where I fall back on the reply that if the film did these things it would not be more successful but less. I'm not saying the film couldn't be more successful, including more successful with filming and shooting and juxtaposing. But if it blew us away with these things, it would not be a greater film but a lesser one.

And here's another way to look at it: Most of what we're discussing are ideas that are openly spoken in the film. The dialogue of a film is an important aspect, but it is only one aspect.

Likewise pictures are only one aspect. A crucial aspect, arguably even more crucial than words (since you can have cinema without words, but you can't really have cinema without pictures). But the pictures are not necessarily more important than ideas. Any attempt to exalt the importance of pictures over ideas is going to run into trouble over films from The Birth of a Nation to The Passion of the Christ. There are things bigger than aesthetics, or, if you like, asthetics bigger than the purely artistic.

I called out ideas because they were easy to call out and because I think what a film is about is important (and indeed, as M points out, is not ultimately entirely separate from how it is about it). I could have pointed to the portrayal of the injured terrorist evoking Mantegna, which we've seen before with The Return, but doing it with a terrorist is a further challenge. There's also the wonderful shot of Luc with his head pressed to the side of the Savior on the fresco, a holy image that becomes a new holy image on the screen uniting the Lord and the disciple.

I'm not saying these are "groundbreaking," or that they dazzle me with their challenging newness. I'm saying they make what I believe is true in the abstract real and concrete to me in immediate and challenging ways -- ways unmatched by any film I can think of.

If I were teaching a course on excellence in cinema, I would understand teaching Citizen Kane for all of the important breakthroughs and virtuosic cinematography, editing, composition, etc. I would definitely share Of Gods and Men for the purposes of theological discussion and "ministry," but on how many levels is it really standard-setting?

I agree that in a context such as a course on "excellence in filmmaking," which sets artificial constraints on our sphere of interest in a film, Of Gods may have less to offer than some others. If I think about the film from that artificially limited perspective, it's less interesting to me.

But I am more than a film instructor, and even more than a picture-appreciating being. I am a human being, and a Christian. The film speaks profoundly to me as a human being and a Christian. Partly insofar as I am a picture-appreciating being, but only partly on that level.

When it comes to motion pictures, my interests are increasingly caught up in the pictures. They do things that a stage play version or a novel could not.

Of Gods certainly does things that a stage play or novel can't. I don't quarrel with your verdict that the big-screen presentation doesn't necessarily do anything to which a decent-sized small screen can't do reasonable justice. The same is perforce true of Dekalog. I don't think that automatically consigns a work to lesser status.

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My issue is not that I think the claim that the film went largely unnoticed or commented in Christian circles was unsubstantiated. It's that I think it was false incorrect. Jeff, to the extent I understand his replies, disagrees and thinks that this generalization is a fair one. Since I doubt we (Jeff and I) disagree as to the meaning of "unnoticed" I can only conclude that we disagree about the meaning of "Christian circles." I think (but am in no way sure) that what Jeff meant by this phrase was "Christians I know--or a subset of Christian culture that I believe myself to be familiar with." I don't dispute that this subset of Christian culture is unenthusiastic about or unaware of the film. I do dispute that this subset represents the sum totality of what an average reader will parse when confronted with the term "Christian circles." I think it was some lazy writing, and Jeff has said (again, assuming I understand him correctly) that he thinks trying to more narrowly define the group he was characterizing would have been rhetorically cumbersome and implies (or I infer) that many/most of his readers will understand his usage of broader Christian labels better than I apparently did.

Well. At the risk of adding to the arguments about the argument. I'll defend Jeff and say that I've read some of his pieces (including his book on film) and I'd say that he's not one to have lazy writing. I understand quite well what he's trying to say.

Earlier on you had quoted this bit with a certain part underlined.

So why is it that, almost two years since its debut and a full year after its American release date, the film seems to have gone almost unnoticed in the Christian circles, where enthusiasm for "Christian movies" is so intense? Why hasn't it become the new standard for "sacred cinema," inspiring church-basement screenings across the country? Why hasn't it caught on with mainstream evangelicals like Courageous,Fireproof, and Facing the Giants?

I'll underline another part of that quote.

So why is it that, almost two years since its debut and a full year after its American release date, the film seems to have gone almost unnoticed in the Christian circles, where enthusiasm for "Christian movies" is so intense? Why hasn't it become the new standard for "sacred cinema," inspiring church-basement screenings across the country? Why hasn't it caught on with mainstream evangelicals like Courageous,Fireproof, and Facing the Giants?

This group of people, with an intense enthusiam for "Christian movies" (like his examples of Fireproof and the like) is a very specific subset of Christianity, that being largely a subset of mainstream Evangelicals although I hasten to add not all of Evangelicals. I read that quote as Jeff talking about a fairly well known circle of Christians. I personally know some of them.

Edited by Attica

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I have not placed aesthetics over narrative. I am only arguing that it aesthetics are, for me, arguably as important, since what we see speaks as much as plot or dialogue.

Nor have I suggested that "how it is about it" is just about visual information. Rhythms, sounds, score, what is shown, what is withheld... all of these things are certainly instrumental.

But what I am saying, I must not be saying well, because almost every reply to my posts has me immediately responding, "Wait, where did you get that? When did I become a nay-sayer or an assailant to this film? When did I say plot doesn't matter and aesthetics are everything? Why do I feel like I'm being punished for not having had the same experience watching this movie as its most fervent advocates?"

I'll leave it at this: I think it's a great film. A great film. Like you, I think it is about the clearest portrayal of the Gospel I have seen in a film.

But as I am ministered to by imagery as much as script, by mystery as much as declaration, by visual beauty as much as character choices, I wouldn't list Of Gods and Men on a short list of the greatest examples of cinematic art I've ever seen. Forgive me if that bothers you. I certainly have no objection to you choosing it.

So much of this has to do with that mysterious, subjective, personal experience of "what speaks to me" that it would be presumptuous of me to say that you're wrong to celebrate it the way you do. And I don't think I have any argument at all with what Michael Leary's said here.

I've never been argued into loving a movie. It's all about what happens when the lights go down and eyes and ears and minds and hearts open up, and what continues to nourish us afterward through reflection and discussion and revisiting the experience.

Edited by Overstreet

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Earlier on you had quoted this bit with a certain part underlined.

So why is it that, almost two years since its debut and a full year after its American release date, the film seems to have gone almost unnoticed in the Christian circles, where enthusiasm for "Christian movies" is so intense? Why hasn't it become the new standard for "sacred cinema," inspiring church-basement screenings across the country? Why hasn't it caught on with mainstream evangelicals like Courageous,Fireproof, and Facing the Giants?

I'll underline another part of that quote.

So why is it that, almost two years since its debut and a full year after its American release date, the film seems to have gone almost unnoticed in the Christian circles, where enthusiasm for "Christian movies" is so intense? Why hasn't it become the new standard for "sacred cinema," inspiring church-basement screenings across the country? Why hasn't it caught on with mainstream evangelicals like Courageous,Fireproof, and Facing the Giants?

This group of people, with an intense enthusiam for "Christian movies" (like his examples of Fireproop and the like) is a very specific subset of Christianity, that being largely a subset of mainstream Evangelicals. Although I hasten to add not all of Evangelicals. I read that quote as Jeff talking about a fairly well known circle of Christians. I personally know some of them.

Hi Attica, for what it's worth, I did not underline that part for emphasis. I made a hyperlink to Jeff's article, so the underlining is part of the hyperlink.

FWIW, the comma in between "circles" and "where" makes the last part of the sentence a non-restrictive clause. So grammatically the sentence parses as saying that enthusiasm for Christian movies is intense in "the Christian Circles" (i.e. all of them). Had there been no comma there, I would have read it as I think it was intended (and as the determiner "the" might suggest)--i.e. as a restrictive clause meant to modify "Christian circles" (i.e. which circles--answer, the ones that like these sorts of movies). That the meaning was plain(er) to you based on your knowledge of Jeff's other writings I actually take as evidencing my point. The writing, even just in that one sentence, isn't particularly clear as to the claim that is being made, a fact that is partially obscured by the use of generalizations or words/labels that some (but not all) readers will have very different connotations of. But you're right that lazy is (or can be perceived to be) pejorative. Jeff is a workhorse who cranks out a lot of writing. (As do I.) One result of such a work rate is that we often don't have the time/energy to be as careful in saying what we mean as some readers would like. So, Jeff, I apologize if "lazy" is/was pejorative. I was trying to get at something akin to "imprecise" -- i.e. making a comment about the clarity of the words not the effort put into them.

Edited by kenmorefield

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Of Gods certainly does things that a stage play or novel can't. I don't quarrel with your verdict that the big-screen presentation doesn't necessarily do anything to which a decent-sized small screen can't do reasonable justice. The same is perforce true of Dekalog. I don't think that automatically consigns a work to lesser status.

Interesting that you'd choose that for comparison. I've seen the Dekalog a couple of times, and I admire it immensely. But I don't find myself thirsty to revisit it very often. It often feels a bit studied and stifling to me. Compared to Kieslowski's subsequent works, which I find far more interesting aesthetically, it's lacking the sense of mystery and beauty and grace and synchronicity that makes me reach for those films on an almost monthly basis. (And the aesthetics aren't *just* aesthetics. They are essential to meaning.) But again, that's just me.

Edited by Overstreet

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While I think that OF GODS AND MEN is awesome in a bajillion different ways (not all of which I caught on first viewing), one of them is the form that it takes. This isn't remotely a merely-functional recounting of events for, among other reasons — its structure and how it embodies what the film is and is about. OF GODS AND MEN is the most liturgical film I have ever seen, and it achieves this without the easy crutch of, say, title cards or some other explicit structuring device. The first 20 minutes of the film is nothing but the monks' daily activities, that are important in, and because of, their everydayness and their repetitive character. If there were "drama," in these scenes, their function as rite/ritual would be undermined. There are scenes of the monks singing hymns / saying Masses that come from a diegetic nowhere and function as structural breaks, as reminders and as transitions within the film, exactly as hymns do within the Church's liturgy. There are scenes of debate around a table that play an analogous role to the Mass's readings — as overt teaching (albeit in the form of a discussion). And finally ... well ... you know.

Edited by vjmorton

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Hi Attica, for what it's worth, I did not underline that part for emphasis. I made a hyperlink to Jeff's article, so the underlining is part of the hyperlink.

That the meaning was plain(er) to you based on your knowledge of Jeff's other writings I actually take as evidencing my point.

Hi Ken.

The meaning was plain to me because of my understanding of this particular subset more than because of Jeff's other writings. When I read that quote I had a "mind picture" of an exact type of Christian folk. This picture fits in with the discussion at hand, being, why isn't this subset of filmgoers appreciating films like OF GODS AND MEN..... and how can we encourage them to.

I'm with Jeff in that I also grieve a little that some folks aren't experiencing or digging into films like OF GODS AND MEN, nevermind films that might be more controversial in nature (to them at least). This is fitting with what he's said above about the cathedrals and the mystery of it all. There is a greater world of wonder, mystery, depth, and connection with others to be experienced in filmgoing that this particular subset possibly isn't aware of or at least walking into. The sad thing is, that maybe this isn't just a lack of an understanding of film and I'd question if its also a lack of an awareness of what God is capable of (and is) doing outside of this subset of Christianity's understanding of the faith, which extends far beyond film. If that makes sense.

Edited by Attica

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I actually generalized in my article for the covert purpose of drawing Ken Morefield back into more conversation on A&F. I've missed him and his ear, which is so admirably sensitive to tone, and I knew that nothing would be more likely to inspire him to speak up than the possibility of some condescension in my review. ;)

While I think that OF GODS AND MEN is awesome in a bajillion different ways (not all of which I caught on first viewing), one of them is the form that it takes.

That's the thing about art. One can see and admire a work in a hundred different ways, and still not be struck or enthralled by it the way another, perhaps less admirably crafted, work of art might sweep you away.

Insofar as I've been describing my personal experience of the work, an apology would make no sense. But I certainly hope that my explanation of why I'm not breathless with awe watching this movie hasn't stepped on anybody's toes. I don't think you'll find anything in what I've said that comes anywhere close to discrediting the film for any perceived flaws. I've merely been describing why it hasn't made me feel a strong desire to revisit it (after only three viewings... gasp!), or sent me to the rooftops saying that I've seen a new personal favorite. That rarely happens anyway. It did with Certified Copy... a film that moved me to reflect on the Gospel, and my response to it, far more aggressively than Of Gods and Men. Again... different languages for different sensibilities, different lenses for different eyes.

(For what it's worth, I agree with pretty much all of the things you're saying about the film's strong points, Victor, but at the same time, most of them could be done in a stage play version... so your description still isn't getting to distinctly cinematic aspects of the film, aspects that I've been trying and failing to describe here.)

Edited by Overstreet

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FWIW, among the aesthetic pleasures that Of Gods and Men gives me that, say, The Tree of Life does not is the pleasure of feeling that every note is right; that every cadence is appropriately (but naturally and persuasively) brought to resolution; that all the parts tell. Every shot, line, exchange, scene, plot point and rise and fall of action cogently advances the whole, creating a harmonious and symmetrical whole. Nothing jumps out as unsatisfying, unconvincing, unrevealing, unbalanced. I'm not distracted by elements that seem not to belong or that trivially don't make sense, or that don't speak to me at all, or that can plausibly be critiqued as risible. I certainly appreciate a complex work of art challenging me with elements that seem dissonant at first but which suggest a higher and more complex inner unity. But after three viewings I'm still far from convinced that the harsher critics of The Tree of Life don't have some very cogent points.

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Overstreet wrote:

: My point was that there are certain *kinds* of stories that excite audiences... including Christian audiences. I have seen, and suspect that it is usually the case, that stories about heroes will draw bigger audiences, and inspire more sermon illustrations, than stories about saints. That's my primary argument. When you take away the stuff of heroism, you take away the sexy stuff. It's difficult to draw an audience for a story about self-denial.

This touches on something else I found odd about your review. I was surprised to hear that it was even POSSIBLE to tell children the stories of David or Samson without somehow getting into their flaws. (It's a lot easier to overlook, say, the bitter irony in the story of Joseph, who enslaved the Egyptians years before Egypt enslaved the Hebrews.) But I found myself wondering if you were suggesting that the story of Jesus somehow obliterates the stories of those Old Testament heroes. The fact that those heroes were flawed does not, in and of itself, mitigate against their heroic deeds, any more than the fact that most martyrs are flawed might diminish their martyrdom.

vjmorton wrote:

: While I think that OF GODS AND MEN is awesome in a bajillion different ways (not all of which I caught on first viewing), one of them is the form that it takes. This isn't remotely a merely-functional recounting of events for, among other reasons — its structure and how it embodies what the film is and is about. OF GODS AND MEN is the most liturgical film I have ever seen . . .

Oh, brilliant! I don't know how similar Catholic liturgy is to Orthodox, but I'll certainly keep this point in mind next time I see the film.

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But what I am saying, I must not be saying well, because almost every reply to my posts has me immediately responding, "Wait, where did you get that?"

Or maybe I'm being dense. Either way, we're mutually puzzling each other. Anyway, looking back over the thread, some of my comments seem to me sharper than I meant them, and I apologize for that.

Oh, brilliant! I don't know how similar Catholic liturgy is to Orthodox, but I'll certainly keep this point in mind next time I see the film.

Really? You haven't experienced a Catholic liturgy? For the purposes of the present discussion, the movements are essentially identical.

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vjmorton wrote:

: While I think that OF GODS AND MEN is awesome in a bajillion different ways (not all of which I caught on first viewing), one of them is the form that it takes. This isn't remotely a merely-functional recounting of events for, among other reasons — its structure and how it embodies what the film is and is about. OF GODS AND MEN is the most liturgical film I have ever seen . . .

Oh, brilliant! I don't know how similar Catholic liturgy is to Orthodox, but I'll certainly keep this point in mind next time I see the film.

I think this is correct and referenced it a bit above, in terms of the fact that the director's first point of access to the life of this community is not ideological, but phenomenological. In one of the very few interviews he has given about the film, he talks a bit about trying to figure out how to reduplicate the clothing, the rhythms, and liturgical language of the community. I think it is fascinating that a film I respond to from a devotional or confessional perspective emerges from a completely different, more naturalist, impulse.

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I think it is fascinating that a film I respond to from a devotional or confessional perspective emerges from a completely different, more naturalist, impulse.

I think a number of works that invite and reward devotional responses are rooted in such naturalism, or something like it. The Flowers of St. Francis isn't exactly naturalistic, but there's a "phenomenological" dimension to Rossellini's humanistic interest in the "the perfume of the most primitive Franciscanism."

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Given how much has been said already, I'm not sure I have much to add to the conversation here, but I'll give it a whirl.

The word I would use to describe OGaM is harmonious. I used it in my review for Relevant (which I won't link to here because the writing seems a bit purple to me know), and I still think it fits. It feels like one unified whole, which gives it a special kind of beauty beyond just either a visual or narrative beauty alone.

Also, I showed this movie to both my parents and my in-laws, all of whom could be said to belong to "mainstream evangelicalism," and they were stunned by the experience. Would they have sought it out on their own? I don't think so. Were they challenged by it? I absolutely think they were. I'm tempted to speculate on why they might or might not have looked for it by themselves, but I'd rather concentrate on how glad I am that they saw it and were moved by it.

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SDG wrote:

: Really? You haven't experienced a Catholic liturgy?

Nope.

: For the purposes of the present discussion, the movements are essentially identical.

I figured as much, since I recently saw your buddy Akin reference a writing of Justin Martyr's that I have seen the Orthodox reference as well, regarding how the basic outline of our present-day liturgies goes all the way back to the mid-2nd century at the very least.

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I actually generalized in my article for the covert purpose of drawing Ken Morefield back into more conversation on A&F. I've missed him and his ear, which is so admirably sensitive to tone, and I knew that nothing would be more likely to inspire him to speak up than the possibility of some condescension in my review. ;)

Thanks, Jeff. That's kind of you.

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