With the recent publishing of Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film, and Culture, it seems appropriate to look at a comparable book that escaped our review when first published.
The Hollywood Project by Alex Field is similar to the edited collection Behind the Screen, but Project isn’t as compelling. Field, associate editor for Gospel Light Publications in Southern California at the time of publishing in 2004, puts together ten chapters, each on a different filmmaker who has made at least one “spiritually relevant” film. He hopes in the process to shed light on how films can change culture.
We do hear from the filmmakers—Mel Gibson, Ralph Winter, Tim McCanlies, Dallas Jenkins, Craig Detweiler, Ed Solomon, Scott Derrickson, Richard Linklater, David L. Cunningham and Lee and Janet Batchler—but there’s not much new in the way of changing culture through moviemaking. Nothing earth-shattering emerges, but a simple truth does slip through: When someone dares to make a movie—succeed or fail—a possibility for transformation is created. Really, that’s a nice thought.
The introduction is slow and unnecessary, as Field rehashes his ho-hum road to writing the book. Field deserves credit, though, for including non-Christians in his analysis. His subtitle merely indicates he’s including “makers of spiritually relevant films,” which he’s quick to argue can include agnostics, for example.
Examples here are Ed Solomon (“Men in Black,” “Levity”) and Richard Linklater (“Beyond Sunrise,” “The School of Rock”), both of whom aren’t even sure God exists. Nevertheless, each has tackled spirituality in weighty films. I think the chapter on Solomon, who speaks frankly about his spiritual journey, is especially good.
“Could it be that certain filmmakers and their films afford deeper access to biblical truths than Christians and followers of Christ have been able to present in the pulpits and pews of our churches?” asks Field. This question leads him to mention “common grace,” where he draws on the excellent work of professor and author Robert K. Johnston.
Field writes not as a disinterested party; he quickly and frequently injects his own defense of the filmmakers when he allows for criticism. This is especially notable in the chapter on Mel Gibson, which begins the book. This chapter includes too much information about the making of “The Passion of the Christ,” offering nothing new and not really contributing to the book’s stated goals.
Those who follow spirituality and film will wish more fresh information and insights populated the book. Field does offer some of his own analysis as well as conclusions and quotes based on personal interviews, but more often than not he’s quoting the filmmakers from a secondary source, whether newspaper, magazine or book.
Field manages some especially interesting chapters on Scott Derrickson (“The Exorcism of Emily Rose”) and Ralph Winter (“X-Men,” “Planet of the Apes”)—both of whom were featured in Behind the Screen (as were Craig Detweiler and the Batchlers, which suggests a small pool for these kinds of books).
Derrickson is an intelligent Christian filmmaker who has mostly worked in the horror genre (“Hellraiser: Inferno,” “Urban Legends: Final Cut”). Field quotes Derrickson saying horror is “most friendly to the subject matter of faith and belief in religion.”
In the chapter on Ralph Winter, Field rightly points out the parallel Christian circles in Hollywood: Christians who work (alongside non-Christians) in the mainstream industry (of whom Winter is a pre-eminent example), and Christians who shore up “the Christian film industry” to produce movies specifically for Christian audiences. Dallas Jenkins (“Hometown Legend”), who is given a chapter, would be an example of the latter. Interestingly, brothers Peter and Paul Lalonde (makers of the “Left Behind” films) didn’t make the cut here, nor did they get a chapter in Behind the Screen, which is a collection of essays by the filmmakers themselves.
A problem, perhaps, occurs when one looks back at the book as a whole. Field concludes the book with his “Movie List”—a “less-than-comprehensive and entirely subjective list” of 22 spiritually moving films.
He includes “The Apostle,” “The Mission,” “Signs,” “Magnolia” and other good films. The problem, though, is that with the exception of “Braveheart” (directed by Gibson), none of the films were made by any of the filmmakers profiled in Project.
Given that personal interviews weren’t required for a filmmaker to be profiled in this book, why not include chapters on the moviemakers listed at book’s end? Where are Robert Duvall, Roland Joffe, M. Night Shyamalan, Peter Weir, George Lucas, Frank Darabont and Niki Caro?
Field says the book is for filmmakers as well as film watchers. The former will find some inspiration in these pages; the latter will find some interesting information, but deserve more that’s original to the book.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
Buy The Hollywood Project now from Amazon.com.