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A Brief Review of
When the Lights Go Down: Movie Review as Christian Practice
Mark D. Eckel
Paperback: Westbow, 2014
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Reviewed by Gina Dalfonzo
There are those who warn that spending too much time watching movies and shows necessitates the turning off of one’s brain. Mark D. Eckel begs to differ. Movies, for him, open the door to a world of ideas and emotions that can enrich the life of anyone who’s willing to engage them seriously. More than that, movies are an example of God’s common grace, a gift that He gives to everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike, from which they can learn and benefit.
Eckel’s book When the Lights Go Down: Movie Review as Christian Practice shares the insights he’s gained from years of watching movies, thinking about movies, and sharing movies with friends, students, and family members. It includes reviews of movies in a number of different genres, as well as interviews with Christians in a variety of fields, from education to media production to blogging to sitcom writing, about their experiences with movies.
Eckel is Professor of Leadership, Education, and Discipleship at Capital Seminary and Graduate School, and his theological expertise serves him well in his reflections on movies and what they have to offer Christians. I was particularly impressed by his understanding of the Old Testament (presented concisely, to fit into a few pages, but nonetheless impressive for that) and how he brought it to bear on the subjects of justice, violence, and fantastical elements in movies.
The book will be a welcome resource for any Christian who’s interested in either working in the movies, or simply watching them. It’s one of the better Christian books on movies that I’ve read, and I’ve read my share. To his credit, Eckel openly resists any effort to pin him down to a hard-and-fast rule—“watch this, don’t watch that”—for believers to follow. Instead he wants viewers to think deeply, to ask questions of themselves and of the movies they watch; and he goes so far as to suggest sample questions for every genre. He’s amused but patient with certain prevalent Christian ideas and viewing habits, such as “Don’t watch violence unless it’s in The Lord of the Rings,” but he has a way of turning them neatly on their heads and forcing us to see them differently. He himself can watch horror films and usually come through unscathed, but he can’t bear to watch the opening scene of The Return of the King, in which Smeagol/Gollum’s murderous greed reminds him of the monster within all of us.
But even as he insists on focusing on the big picture and looking beyond the ratings system, Eckel gives us an honest picture of the high price Christians have to pay to work in Hollywood, as when he talks with comedy writer Jack Lugar about the nitty-gritty of working in the writers’ room of a TV show. (“Being light in a lot of darkness forced compromises I didn’t want to make,” Lugar tells him.)
For all his positivity about movies, Eckel has a real gift for looking at a subject realistically, with no hint of rose-colored glasses. And he writes with refreshing humility and enthusiasm, confessing to habits such as standing up and shouting back at the screen—at the movie theater, as well as at home—and driving his young daughter crazy by constantly pausing A Little Princess to point out the flaws in its worldview. His love of his subject is infectious, and thoroughly enjoyable.
If he displays a fault here, it’s his tendency to wax eloquent about movies without really conveying what they’re about. Several of his movie reviews consist more of his letting the movie start a train of thought for him, and riding happily off on it, than of his actually reviewing the movie. Additionally, he has a way of throwing long lists of movie titles at us without really giving us enough information to make the movies stick in our minds and get us genuinely interested in seeing them for ourselves. For instance, this is part of the introduction (it goes on for more than a page, but I’ll just give a sample):
“Love Actually and About Time advise us that love is not only possible but beneficial.
“Snitch asks, ‘What would you do to save your son?’
“Toy Story 3 tells young and old that friendship depends on commitment to people and place.
“Gimme Shelter prompts us not to forget, not to ignore, not to neglect those who cannot help themselves.
“Olympus Has Fallen believes the individual can make a difference, national security matters, and American government is worth saving.
“Thor, The Avengers, and Superman: superhero movies invigorate us toward good but still leave us thinking, I need outside help.”
And so on. A little of this is all right, but too much of it is overwhelming.
This review would be remiss if it didn’t point out the unfortunate fact that Eckel’s editor did a very shoddy job on this book. It contains punctuation and spelling mistakes and the occasional awkwardly written sentence, not to mention distracting errors in content. One of Eckel’s interviewees is described, in two different places in the book, with the exact same paragraph. And not once but twice, Eckel refers to the famous Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man” as “Serving Humanity.” A good editor never would have let the book go to press in this condition.
Though Eckel has written other books, I believe When the Lights Go Down is his first book on the topic of movies. I hope it won’t be his last. He has a great deal to offer on the topic. But if he does go on to write more such books, I hope he’ll take time to focus deeply on a few, and give us the gist of them, instead of giving us only sketchy descriptions. And I further hope that his editor won’t go AWOL next time.
Gina Dalfonzo is editor of BreakPoint.org and Dickensblog.