Since my first post from last week’s Sundance Film Festival I have found something besides almonds to eat. But man shall not live by bread alone so let me share some of the spiritual fare that I found in the cinemas around Park City.
One of the big stories circulating around the festival was the lack of film buying by the big streaming services: Netflix and Amazon. A theory is that they are reserving the tens of millions they’ve recently been spending on independent film to make their own productions. In fact, the last film I saw at Sundance is one that I recommend to the Spectrum audience. It was produced by Netflix and will be streaming beginning on April 13. You might have heard this story on the public radio program This American Life. The episode, called Heretics, first aired back in 2005. The film version, Come Sunday, is “based on true events, globally-renowned pastor Carlton Pearson risks everything when he questions church doctrine and is branded a modern-day heretic.” It stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Danny Glover, Jason Segel, and a fantastic Martin Sheen as the very charismatic Oral Roberts. Actually, this could be played for a good Sabbath School discussion or a church youth group meeting as it includes tensions between keeping a church growing vs. following individual conscience, and touches on hot theological questions around universal salvation, LGBT inclusion, and what it means to witness.
WATCH the Come Sunday Trailer:
Another film that connects directly to faith that I didn’t get to see, but that got a lot of attention is the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor about Fred Rogers. My friend Ryan Parker over at Pop Theology saw it and describes it here:
Using home videos, clips from and behind-the-scenes footage of the show, and interviews with Rogers, his family, and colleagues, Academy Award-winning director Morgan Neville paints a portrait of a Protestant saint (if that part of the Christian church ever decides to have them, Rogers should be our first). A deeply religious and spiritual man, Rogers had no difficulty integrating his personal faith with his professional life and work. As it should always be, his faith was the heartbeat of his public persona, not its skin. An ordained Presbyterian minister, Rogers’ Christianity was motivated by Jesus’ central teaching to love your neighbor as yourself. Beyond this, his own life overflowed with the fruits of the spirit along with a deep love of, respect for, and passion to protect children. It is difficult to listen to Rogers’ speak about children and not hear echoes of Matthew 19:14.
I did see one film I barely want to think about, a horror called Hereditary that was horribly boring. The decapitation of the sister suffering from peanut allergies could be called a highlight, but actually Toni Collette was the brightest bulb in this dismally overwrought story about family pain. Vanity Fair called it “emotionally and intellectually terrifying” and for different reasons I agree. I mention it because it did have a strange faith focus that never really made sense—but it does end with everyone laying prostrate and worshipping something beastly.
★ movie poster, photo courtesy of the author.
Finally, although it had no overt religious subject matter, the most sublime film I watched did not even have a word title. It was part of the avant-garde New Frontiers section of Sundance and played late one night in a mostly empty theater far from the main drag. The title of this film is just the generic symbol of a star. It was ninety-nine minutes of only the clips of the starry heavens in movies from the beginning of cinema to now. The filmmaker, Johann Lurf, personally watched over 1,000 films and his research assistants screened another 3,000 to find and extract only the moments in any film from around the world that the stars—but no other heavenly bodies—are shown. The first few minutes were silent for obvious reasons and then the only audio was whatever was part of the original star shot so it was disjunctive, but combined with the chronological rhythm of heavenly shots changing every couple seconds on average, I found it transcendent. The Sundance description does a good job:
Lurf playfully shows how cinema turned the stars into endless metaphors, dreams, and warm blankets. There is no story or characters — only movie scenes worked together outside of their contexts. We put our own thoughts into the stunning scenes while each clip’s sound design presents us with ambience, brief dialogue, or loud music. The editing enthralls us as space is not depicted the same in every clip. If you have a love affair with movies and the sky, ★ is the ultimate romantic art film.
WATCH the ★ Trailer:
I did get outside myself. I took advantage of the Park City resort location of the festival and snowboarded for several mornings. It was a little icy the first time, but then we got about six inches of snow mid-week and I could not resist the powder pull to the mountains. It was beautiful. With the Sundance crowds in town, the slopes were empty and meditative. Carving down those almost empty runs and cutting through the trees was a refreshing, even uplifting break from the art films and the festival artifice.
Alexander Carpenter is a board member of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum.
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