Brett McCracken (and Me) on Movies, Nostalgia, and Criticism

For the last few weeks I’ve been chatting via email with pastor, writer, and Christian film critic Brett McCracken. Brett is one of the most articulate, and consistently helpful evangelical culture writers that I know. I was eager to get some of his perspective on a variety of movie-related topics–such as the state of the industry, Christian approaches to film, the importance of critics, etc.

The conversation will continue beyond this post, but I asked Brett if I could share some of our thoughts already. He graciously agreed.


Samuel: Before we talk about issues related to Christians and movies, I’d love to get your perspective on just the film industry as a whole right now. I think a lot of people thought this year’s crop of Oscar nominees was a strong one, so in one sense there’s good reason to be excited about what Hollywood is doing. But in another sense, 2016 was, a lot like previous years, a huge year for reboots, remakes and sequels. I’m not sure what you make of that trend?

Personally, I’ve not been shy about criticizing what I feel like is a dearth of creative thinking and originalism from the studios. It seems to me that this drought of fresh ideas may not be unprecedented but it does feel quite invulnerable right now. As long as superhero franchises top the box office, we’re going to get more of the same (how many different Spider-Man actors can we cram into one millennium?)

Is that the impression you have, or am I missing something?

Brett: I think your reading of the industry is correct. It seems like studios are indeed mostly interested in reboots, remakes and sequels, which is to say: proven formulas and guaranteed global moneymakers. One of the key words in that last sentence is global. As the theatrical, old-school movie experience in North America declines in popularity, in other parts of the world it has been growing. Thus, Hollywood has in the last decade or so really concentrated on overseas markets. The thing about movies that play well all over the world is that they have to be able to click with audiences across various cultural divides. This means more subtle, character-driven stories (as well as comedy, which doesn’t translate well across cultures) have less global appeal, while (you guessed it) familiar franchise films and big budget, CGI-heavy action films draw audiences everywhere.

I also think there is an interesting dynamic going on in the larger culture right now, which is a sort of obsession with nostalgia and an inability to truly innovate new things. You see this in politics, with both parties holding on to old goals and defined more by nostalgia for the past (e.g. “Make America Great Again”) than vision for the future (the inability of the GOP to unite around a healthcare vision is case-in-point). Yuval Levin’s Fractured Republic is a great book for understanding the “politics of nostalgia.”

The same thing seems to be happening in film and television. Everything is sequel/spinoff/reboot/franchise/familiar. A new Twin Peaks. Fuller House. Girl Meets World. Another Fast and the Furious movie. Another Spiderman. Another Indiana Jones. New Star Wars and Avengers and Justice League films planned until 2025 and beyond (or so it seems). Live action versions of beloved Disney animated films. Even the “original” things are driven by nostalgia. Stranger Things is soaked in 80s/Spielbergian nostalgia. La La Land is an exercise in nostalgia for a classic Hollywood genre. When news breaks that The Matrix is being rebooted, you know things are bad.

I think in one sense, nostalgia is a proven source of commercial success at a time when the industry is jittery because the whole model is changing (streaming, etc). On the other hand, there is a cultural anxiety at play wherein the present is simply too fragmented, too overwhelming, too unknowable (this is the “post-truth” / #alternativefacts era after all) to inspire contemporary narratives that resonate with mass audiences. And so Hollywood goes to the future (sci-fi, apocalypse, dystopia) or to the past, but doesn’t know what to do with the present. I recommend Douglas Rushkoff’s book Present Shock for understanding this phenomenon.

None of this is to say there are no places where innovation is happening. There are. Especially in new formats on streaming sites like Netflix. It will be interesting if these new formats inject new life and originality into Hollywood’s storytelling rut.

Samuel: Your point about nostalgia and current cultural anxiety over the present is very interesting. I suppose if you were OK with the “post-9/11” cliche you could try to understand the box office since 2001 as representing a cultural thirst for morality and heroism. 2001-2002 seems to be a watershed time frame, too; Lord of the Rings and the first Harry Potter film both debuted in 2001 and immediately made fantasy the go-to genre, and then in 2002 you had Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man really re-energize the market for superhero films. But I think it’s just as plausible to see it, as you said, as a response to an increasingly fragmented, metanarrative-less public square.

Every time I talk about this I remember A.O. Scott’s essay about the death of adulthood in pop culture. His argument has been very compelling for me and, in my opinion, helps make sense of a lot of what we see from Hollywood right now. Especially helpful was his description of this movie generation as the “unassailable ascendancy of the fan,” meaning that audiences are essentially immune to film criticism because they have franchises rather than stories, and with those franchises comes a sense of belonging, the belonging of fandom. Do you think that as movies become more openly nostalgic, formulaic, and franchise-driven, the task of the movie critic becomes harder or even more irrelevant? Should critics just embrace the reboot era and judge movies on how well they resuscitate the original material, or should there be a point where critics say, “Even if this is a well-produced retread, it’s a retread, and as such its value as art is inherently handicapped”?

Brett: I think the task of the critic today is different than it was in previous eras, but no less crucial. It’s true that some franchise and tentpole films are “critic-proof,” but the rising popularity of sites like Rotten Tomatoes indicates that audiences are at least somewhat interested in critics’ opinions, even if a correlation between critical consensus and a film’s box office success is debatable.

From my perspective, the importance of the critic today is not about a “thumbs up or down” endorsement as much as it is about adding value and depth to an experience of film/TV, at a time when the overwhelming speed and glut of media leaves us with little time and few tools for processing what we’ve seen. Whether or not audiences are interested in taking time to process and understand something, rather than quickly moving on to the next thing, is an open question. I know for myself after I see a complex film, I love reading my favorite critics as a way of extending the filmgoing experience by processing it communally. The communal aspect of film/TV is being lost, as society becomes further atomized and isolated, with no two media feeds looking the same. Fan communities fill some of this communal void, but reading critics is another way we can make an otherwise solitary experience something that connects us with others.

As to the question of how critics should approach films in the reboot/franchise era, I think the task should be less about fidelity to franchise and the “did they get it right?” question, as much as simply evaluating it as a film on its own two feet. A film’s faithfulness to the “world” of the franchise is a concern for fandom. A film’s insights into the world we live in today is the concern for critics. What does a film or TV show, however nostalgic it may be for the past, say about who we are as a society today? This is a question I believe critics should be asking.

There is plenty of room for innovation and beauty within the constraints of franchise (see Nolan’s The Dark Knight, LOTR, some of the Harry Potter films, and so on), and some might argue that the limits of genre/franchise/adaptation actually can sometimes spark the most innovation. The fact that “there is nothing new under the sun” need not be a downer for critics and audiences. Great narratives, great characters and themes endure because they are great. The best artists can mine these sources in ways that are fresh and timely for today’s world.
Samuel: I agree with you about the importance of good criticism. As I’m sure you have, I’ve known a lot of Christians who sort of thumbed their nose at professional criticism. I’ve been the “negative” guy in the group leaving the theater plenty of times. I think the perception many people have (and I would say this definitely more true in conservative culture) is that talking honestly about a movie’s flaws and strengths is a kind of elitism that exaggerates the importance of movies. “It’s just a movie,” “Just enjoy it,” etc etc.

Right now I’m reading Tom Nichols’ book “The Death of Expertise,” and the main argument of that book is that we are in a cultural moment in America where there is not only widespread ignorance (which is not really unique to our time) but active hostility toward knowledge and credentials (which, Nichols argues, IS unique). As someone who has watched more movies than many, probably most, other Christians, and has studied and practiced the art of criticism and analysis, how do you exercise a kind of authority in your criticism, without pretense or arrogance? If someone were to approach you and say that Terrence Malick, for example, was an untalented director who made gibberish, what’s your approach to correcting this idea–or do you? Can you argue taste after all?

(This is an important question to me because it gets at the heart of something I believe strongly about Christian culture–that we’ve failed to produce good art largely because our idea of good has been defined down to mean “family-friendly” and “inoffensive”)

Brett: I think taste is, in large part, learned. It’s why people in different cultures and contexts have taste for certain types of foods and have different conceptions of beauty. They’ve been nurtured in a certain environment where they’ve developed those tastes. So when someone doesn’t share our taste exactly, we shouldn’t begrudge them for it. But I do think it’s natural and good for us to not simply shrug and say “to each their own!” but to dialogue and try to help others see what we see in something. Lewis talks about how our desire to share something we enjoy with others is not superfluous but rather integral to our enjoyment of it: “We delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.”

And so if someone were to say to me that Terrence Malick is untalented and makes gibberish, I could not just say “well we see differently.” Part of my enjoyment of Malick (an integral part) is being able to share with others what I’ve discovered in his work. And so I’d do my best to not be angry and get worked up about the other person’s comments, but to share with them why I think Malick is brilliant and his films are important. This is the nature of criticism. A good critic writes not out of a place of spite but a place of love. My enjoyment of Malick’s films doesn’t stop if others struggle with them. But if I can help others through their struggles and help them appreciate Malick more, that only adds to my enjoyment.

Another thing I would say is that for film critics or any expert on anything, it’s important that you show and not just tell that something is important. What I mean is, rather than simply pronouncing “x is good,” an expert’s criticism or description of “x” should prove its goodness by being so beautiful and interesting and enlightening in its own right that readers can’t help but see x as something of value. The way Paul Schrader wrote about Ozu films made me learn to love Ozu. The way my Wheaton College professor Roger Lundin so passionately talked about Emily Dickinson made me learn to love Dickinson. The way the food critics on Chef’s Table talk about the importance of certain chefs makes me desire to try their restaurants. The way my college roommate passionately loved coffee helped me develop a more refined taste for it.

It’s not just what critics or experts say but how they say it that matters. So much of what we learn as humans comes from observation of others, from models and mimesis. Good critics and experts (and teachers of any sort) model ways of thinking about and enjoying things well. And we need to value those models now more than ever, in a society where it is easier than ever to consume things poorly, cheaply, excessively. The Nichols book sounds great, and very timely!

I would hope that when people observe how much I love Malick, how seriously I take his films and how deeply I engage them, I hope they not only gain an appreciation for Malick but also a desire to love and think deeply about other films, engaging them deeply even when it is challenging. This is what I hope my writing about film for Christian publications has done over the years: modeled a more complex, nuanced and ultimately more enriching engagement with film beyond the reductive “good = inoffensive and family friendly” approach that you rightly note has left us ill-equipped to be good creators.

Author: Samuel D. James

Believer, husband, father, acquisitions editor, writer.