The Catholic Film Critic: 18 Questions for Steven Greydanus
Steven D. Greydanus is an American Catholic film critic who writes for the National Catholic Register and founded the website Decent Films in 2000. His reviews and essays also appear regularly in Crux and Catholic Digest. He has contributed to the New Catholic Encyclopedia; the Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought, Social Science, and Social Policy; Catholic World Report; Our Sunday Visitor; Image Journal;and the Office of Film and Broadcasting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Mr. Greydanus earned a BFA in Media Arts from the School of Visual Arts in New York and an MA in Religious Studies from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Overbrook, PA. As a candidate for the permanent diaconate in the Archdiocese of Newark, he’s currently pursuing an MA in Theology from Immaculate Conception Seminary at Seton Hall University. Mr. Greydanus and his wife Suzanne have seven children.
On March 9, I interviewed Mr. Greydanus by email about the intersection of his faith and work.
The Decent Films website where you collect all of your reviews is subtitled "film appreciation and criticism informed by Christian faith." What does that mean for you?
Well, I wanted to strike a positive note, to start with—to emphasize that I write out of a love of film, not just a concern with moral content. Too much film writing by Christians is dominated by counting swear words or condemning bedroom scenes. Moral questions can never be set aside, but if we look at films only through the lens of the moralist, we’re going to miss nearly everything they have to offer us.
I also wanted to indicate that while I write as a Christian, and I bring my faith to what I do, I don’t write a special genre of "Christian film reviewing"—and I don’t see myself as writing only for Christians. I’ve benefited a great deal from film writers of other faiths, and of none. By the same token, my work is addressed to interested readers of all backgrounds. Over the years I’ve received gratifying feedback from atheists and agnostics as well as Jewish readers and other non-Christians.
Your reviews of major Hollywood films sometimes recall the style of the late Roger Ebert, whose essays were frequently infused with Catholic references and smart criticisms of Hollywood Catholicism informed by his own faith background. Some people might even suggest you have succeeded Ebert as a leading American Catholic voice on movies. In what way might that be true?
That’s so kind of you to say! But no one will ever succeed to Roger Ebert, certainly not me. He was as big a star as the actors he wrote about. Along with Gene Siskel, he pioneered a new kind of film criticism that was neither a journalistic beat nor a scholarly discipline, but a populist discussion that drew people in as much as the movies themselves.
It’s true but trivial to say that Ebert was an enormous influence on me and my work; the same is true of practically my whole generation of critics. I will say this: I was interested in writing long before I was interested in writing film criticism, and Ebert the writer has influenced me as much as, or more than, Ebert the critic.
The traces of Ebert’s Catholic heritage in his film writing were one thing I loved about his work. For viewers who suffered through some of the more misguided iterations of Hollywood Catholicism, his reviews could be downright cathartic. I try to do something similar in my work, in a more systematic and integral way, of course.
There’s a particular grading scheme on your website for judging films, but sometimes your reviews seem to prioritize the religious merit over the artistic quality of a film, or vice versa. In reviewing a Hollywood movie with explicit or implicit Christian themes, how do you navigate the tension between assessing it by its artistry and assessing it by its spiritual value?
Here’s where I start. Everyone recognizes that a movie can work well as a movie, yet have problematic or offensive implications. Take D. W. Griffith’s "The Birth of a Nation," released 100 years ago. It’s a masterfully made film that synthesizes all the cinematic advances of the early silent era—but it’s also a deeply racist document that inspired the second Ku Klux Klan.
Likewise, a film of modest artistic merits can be elevated by an edifying theme or topic. The Raúl Juliá biopic "Romero" is a well-made film, not a great film, but Archbishop Óscar Romero’s story is deeply inspiring, and comes across with sufficient power to elevate the film from merely decent to something I would recommend pretty highly.
There are limits. The most inspiring theme in the world can’t make a lame film worthwhile. Genuinely bad art is false art, however true the themes are. And sufficiently offensive moral themes can poison a film as entertainment or even as art.
My main rating is for recommendability. A movie I highly recommend, like "Sophie Scholl: The Final Days," gets an A; a movie I consider mediocre, like "Shrek the Third," gets a C; a movie I think is terrible and should be avoided at all costs, like "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," gets an F.
Then there are two supplementary ratings meant to offer an index of why I consider a movie recommendable or not. First I ask: “How well does the movie work? Does it deliver what it sets out to deliver in an aesthetically satisfying way?” My shorthand for that is “artistic–entertainment value,” and I gauge that with a star rating.
Second, there’s “moral–spiritual value,” which I rate on a scale of +4 to -4. So a movie I find deeply spiritual or edifying, like "Into Great Silence," gets a +4; a movie I find deeply objectionable or offensive, like "The Da Vinci Code," gets a -4. A zero rating is neutral.
In artistic–entertainment terms, I rated "Romero" 3 stars out of 4. But I gave it the highest moral-spiritual rating, +4. That +4 explains why "Romero" is an A- rather than a B, which, all things being equal, is what one might expect a 3-star movie to be.
I don’t pretend that there’s a formula for this, that it works out mathematically, or even that I’m consistent. Ultimately, ratings are reductive. A movie can’t be reduced to a number, nor can a critic’s response to a film. The review is what matters, not the ratings.
Although you still review many faith-based films in theaters and on video, you also review many secular Hollywood movies, including titles without any explicit religious connection. How do you decide what films to review?
Oh, I’ve always reviewed all kinds of movies, Hollywood and otherwise. The year I created Decent Films, 2000, I picked Ang Lee’s "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" as my favorite film on American screens that year.
How do I pick what to review? I start with anything I’m interested in or that I think my readers are interested in—either because it looks good, or because it looks bad, but people want confirmation and perspective on its badness.
So there are popular movies like "Guardians of the Galaxy" or "Frozen" that everyone is excited about, and controversial movies like "The Lone Ranger" or "Noah" that people are concerned about. Sometimes I share my readers’ enthusiasm or concerns; sometimes I take a different view. (I’m still getting pushback for my contrarian critique of "Frozen" and my enthusiasm for "Noah." I regret nothing!)
Then there are movies many people have never heard of or wouldn’t otherwise see, but I know many love them if I can get them to see them. When someone emails me saying "I’d never heard of 'The Overnighters' until I read your review, and wow, what a powerful film"—that’s the most rewarding part of this job.
Some readers might wish for you to post more reviews of independent faith-based films and television productions, such as the TNT Bible Series and the better titles from the Ignatius Press DVD catalogue. Is there any chance you might one day post a more extended video guide to Judeo-Christian titles that includes, say, the Emmy-winning "Joseph" miniseries from 1995?
Well, for going on three years I’ve been on what I’ve been calling "academic semi-hiatus" as I prepare for ordination in 2016. Obviously after that I’ll be beginning my diaconal ministry, but I also hope to begin a new phase in my critical career, and to write a lot more than I’m doing now.
Focusing more on smaller faith-based films is one thing I’ve thought about doing, although frankly I’m not interested in most faith-based fare because so little of it is any good. There is some worth calling out, though.
I want to write more about older films and foreign films. The 1971 pastoral instruction Communio et Progressio talks about the importance of developing "a truly catholic taste" in movies and other arts, embracing the traditional and the cutting-edge as well as the productions of all nations, cultures and subcultures. We Americans tend to be more parochial than "truly catholic" in our tastes, mostly going for mainstream Hollywood fare. I’d like to be a voice pointing people in other directions as well.
When people talk about "Catholic movies," they often mean either films with an implicit Catholic imagination like Hitchcock’s "Vertigo" and the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, or films with explicit Catholic themes like "Gran Torino" and "The Mission." What are your own criteria of a good Catholic movie and what are some exemplars?
Honestly, I don’t like the term "Catholic movies" any more than I do "Catholic film criticism." Flannery O’Connor was a Catholic novelist, but she resisted the term "Catholic novel."
There are good movies and bad ones, true ones and false ones. There are films with Catholic trappings that are subtly Protestant, like "The Keys of the Kingdom," and films with Protestant trappings that are subtly Catholic, like "How Green Was My Valley."
All truth is God’s truth, all goodness is God’s goodness, all beauty is God’s beauty. What I want to promote is not so much watching Catholic movies as Catholic movie watching, if you follow me.
How does the Catholic faith inform your approach to film?
I would say being Catholic gives me a place to stand, not just morally, but existentially.
As a Catholic, I believe goodness, truth and beauty are varying perceptions of the same transcendent reality—“rays of God,” in Pope Pius XII’s memorable phrase. I believe we are created in God’s image, that our creative aspirations dimly reflect God’s creative actions.
So I reject the nihilistic view of art as a way of distracting or deceiving ourselves regarding the intolerable reality of the human condition (“lies breathed through silver,” to borrow a phrase from C. S. Lewis). I don’t believe “life is a mistake only art can correct,” as Stew bellows in Spike Lee’s amazing "Passing Strange."
Rather, I believe, as John Paul II wrote in his 1985 “Letter to Artists,” that even when artists “explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil,” they “give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption”—a redemption that is real, not merely poetic.
How has your work changed or evolved over the years?
Oh, gosh. I’ve learned so much. I started out with a decent education in film, but I’d read a lot of film criticism without making a study of it, and it took me years to grow into the work. For a long time I was a better essayist than a critic—particularly when I really admired a film. The older reviews I’m least satisfied with today are the ones I worked hardest on, for movies that moved me the most.
The rise of Emmy-winning online TV shows, including programs available exclusively on Netflix, seems to highlight the ongoing decline of traditional media—including network television and newspapers where film critics have traditionally thrived. How do you adapt to survive these trends?
The jury’s still out! I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had.
I came along at a point where it was easy to put out a shingle on the Web and start posting movie reviews. The flip side, of course, is that online film critics are a dime a dozen. I had a blend of media arts training and religious education that I credit with helping me to carve out a niche and get some recognition. After a while I got my first regular gig with the National Catholic Register, which is my primary affiliation, and that led to other things.
I’m not a strategist, a networker or a self-marketer. I don’t know how to plan a successful career. I’m really all about the movies, the writing and the conversation. I just want to talk about movies and culture from the perspective of faith. I’ll keep doing that as long as I have something to say and as long as I have a platform to work from.
Looking back at your career thus far, what have been some highlights?
I was thrilled to be cited twice by Roger Ebert. In 2004 he cited me in his written and televised reviews of "The Passion of the Christ." In 2008, in an essay on "The Last Temptation of Christ" which went into his book on Martin Scorsese, he credited me with having persuaded him, against his earlier view, that the film is “technically blasphemous.” (He didn’t think its blasphemous character mattered, which is fair enough.) I’ve sometimes thought that if controversial Jesus movies were a Hollywood staple, I might have scored a guest hosting gig on his TV show!
Of all the filmmaker interviews I’ve done, the best experience was probably my first junket, for "The Return of the King" in 2004. I especially enjoyed talking to Ian McKellen and John Rhys-Davies, both thoughtful guys with very different perspectives.
Ultimately, the best part of the job is writing about those rare films that awaken everything in you that loves cinema and writing about it, that inspire you to reach deep into yourself and produce something that’s as much a manifesto or a love letter as a review. Writing about films like "The Kid with a Bike" or "Of Gods and Men" is the greatest privilege I have as a critic.
What has been most challenging for you as a film critic?
On a trivial level, the biggest challenge is that the majority of high-profile Hollywood movies are terrible to mediocre—but those are the movies people want to read about. My review of "How to Train Your Dragon 2," which I didn’t care for, got something like four times more reads than my review of "Selma," my #2 film of 2014. That’s discouraging!
You are a film critic, father, husband, and diaconal candidate. How would you describe your vocation?
Complicated! Thankfully, my first and primary vocation, my marriage, has provided the firmest possible foundation for all the rest. Without Suzanne’s heroic support and advocacy, there’s no way I could even think of doing what I do.
Who are your role models in the faith, either living or dead?
Thomas More, Francis de Sales, Francis Xavier, Thérèse of Lisieux and Edith Stein. John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis.
In some of your reviews you seem to suggest that film can transcend its medium to become a spiritual experience. How might a really good movie become a form of prayer for you?
In as many ways as there are kinds of movies. Watching a great nature documentary, like Luc Besson’s "Atlantis," can be an implicit psalm of praise to the Creator. A painful drama about family dysfunction, like "A Separation," can express yearning for healing and reconciliation. A transcendent comedy, like "The Court Jester," can restore the soul and fill the heart with joy and gratitude. God can meet us in the goodness of "Le Fils," the beauty of "Finding Nemo" and the concern for truth in "The Informant!" All we need is eyes to see.
What did you give up for Lent this year and why?
Heh. Oh dear.
Well, I’ll just throw this out: I think the official ascesis of the Latin Church today, what we call fasting and abstinence, is pitifully lax. Meatless Fridays in Lent, only two “fasting” days annually during which you can still eat three times a day, and an hour “fast” before communion, which barely counts. It’s tokenism, even legalism.
Catholics used to go meatless through all of Lent (and of course we had meatless Fridays year round). No eggs or dairy either. Easter eggs used to mean something, because we’d gone without eggs for six weeks. The Eastern Churches still restrict all this and more—fish, olive oil, alcohol, even sex! They have real fasting too, as in no food for a whole day or more.
Latin Catholics badly need a renewal in serious ascesis. A praxis that costs little is worth little. I’m not saying I relish the idea of going quasi-vegan for six weeks! Frankly, Eastern ascesis scares me. But each year I try to get a little closer, to give up one more thing.
For years I’ve said I could give up practically anything for Lent, except my beloved fukamushi green tea, which I drink all day long. So naturally this year I had to give up tea. It was easier than I thought, thank God.
What do you hope people take away from your work?
I don’t want to tell anyone what to think. I hope I offer a model of how to think about movies. I hope each review offers a responsible, thoughtful approach to the film, along with sufficient context and perspective to aid readers in reaching their own conclusions. Also, of course, I hope it makes for a good read.
There are pious souls who can’t imagine a morally serious person finding value in "Harry Potter," and sophisticated cinephiles who suppose that anyone with theological objections to "The Last Temptation of Christ" must be a censorious nut job. If I can cause either one a bit of cognitive dissonance and help open them up to dialogue with another point of view, then that to me is a job well done.
What are your hopes for the future?
Well, I’ve just completed the most ambitious redesign of Decent Films in its history, and whenever I have a shiny new website it makes me want to write more! Someday I would love to finish the book I’ve been trying to finish for over a decade. After ordination! My life begins again in mid-2016.
Any final thoughts?
To borrow a tagline from my friend and peer Jeffrey Overstreet: “P.S. I could be wrong.” About any review, any movie. I’m not the pope of movies. There is no pope of movies. Even the pope isn’t the pope of movies. I’m always happy to be disagreed with, if someone can back up their opinions with thoughtful reasons.
Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.