Treating mental illness fairly onscreen: NxPNW Student Perspectives

At Seattle Pacific University, students ask provocative questions about movies as they engage the art of cinema. writing about film, they discover how movies create spaces within which — through the observation, discussion, critical studies, and academic writing — hearts and minds grow stronger in understanding and empathy.
That’s the focus of this series of posts: NxPNW Student Perspectives.

In a recent film-focused section of Writing 1100 — the Disciplinary Research and Writing Seminar — students offered insightful perspectives on a variety of timely subjects like this one:

Russell Crowe as John Nash in A Beautiful Mind: an empathetic portrait of a man suffering from paranoid schizophrenia.

Almost every year, we see one or more new films that focus on characters afflicted with varying forms of mental illness. And, almost all of those movies end up becoming the subject of serious criticism.

Why? Some films treat mentally challenged individuals as ‘magical,’ people blessed with superpowers who just need the help of a kind and generous community. Some films, in their endeavors to explain away the troubling behavior of villains, point to mental illness as a factor. In many cases, medical professionals are often portrayed as oppressive, ignorant, and cruel. None of these options are particularly truthful, respectful, or helpful.

In her essay “People Like Us: Giving Mental Illness a Fair Shot in Film,” Maddie Grigg (now a sophomore) considered a variety of films focused on characters with neurological disorders. She made reference to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, and M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, but most of her attention focused on three films that stood out to her as exemplars (to some degree): Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, and Lenny Abrahamson’s Room.  Continue reading “Treating mental illness fairly onscreen: NxPNW Student Perspectives”

“Turn and Face the Strange”: a challenge for artists and churches

In April, I spoke at Brehm Cascadia‘s Sacrament & Story conference.

As usual, I was asked to speak for about half an hour, so I prepared notes for a full hour, and then just moved really, really fast. I packed in a lot of David Bowie, David Dark, Madeleine L’Engle, Over the Rhine, Sam Phillips, Moonrise Kingdom, The Secret of Kells, Babette’s Feast, a scene from The Fits, and more.

Oh, and even though my voice was in bad shape from a week of heavy lectures at school, I sang a little. Very, very badly.

Anyway, if you’re interested, this is a presentation about the courage that artists must have in order to behold, and then bear witness to, new visions of beauty and truth. It’s also about the need for churches to trust, support, and attend to their artists.

Enjoy. And I’d love to hear from you if it inspires any thoughts or questions.

The Sacred Cinema Canon: The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

Writing for Image, producer and screenwriter Ron Austin said this about cinema history:

The art of movies began with Charlie Chaplin and Carl Dreyer, who used the human face as a line of defense against the dehumanization of war and the growing conformity of mass societies. Chaplin’s humanism, his famous blend of laughter and tears, became a touchstone for generations…. Dreyer offered a more spiritual perspective by creating a powerful cinematic icon, so to speak, in the visage of a saint, Joan of Arc, consumed in flames.

If that sounds like an exaggeration to you, check in with other film scholars. The Passion of Joan of Arc, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s landmark 1928 motion picture about the French peasant who was eventually made a martyr for her role in the Hundred Years’ War, regularly shows up in lists of the most important films ever made. It’s in the top ten of the Sight & Sound poll, for instance, a 2012 list reflecting the votes of 846 scholars, critics, festival programmers, and film distributors. And no less a film scholar than Jonathan Rosenbaum has called it “the pinnacle of silent cinema — and perhaps of the cinema itself.”

It belongs on any list of important films that engage questions of faith, too. “To witness The Passion of Joan of Arc is to glimpse the soul of a saint in her hour of trial,” writes film critic Steven D. Greydanus. “The film is more than a dramatization, more than a biopic, more than a documentary: It is a spiritual portrait, almost a mystical portrait, of a Christ-like soul sharing in the sufferings of Christ.”

Greydanus said this on the occasion that a large community of Christian film scholars and enthusiasts voted The Passion of Joan of Arc into the #1 spot on their Top 100 Films list.

Let’s state the obvious: If NxPNW‘s feature called “The Sacred Cinema Canon“ is going to have any credibility, it has to include — has to highlight — Dreyer’s masterpiece of silent cinema, one that has inspired many musical compositions that can serve as a complete accompaniment for the film. (For lack of a better source on this, I suggest you check the “Music” section of this film’s Wikipedia entry for a list.)

And there are so many reasons to celebrate this film…

Continue reading “The Sacred Cinema Canon: The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)”

Bamboozled and More: Hornbeck and Overstreet discuss films of Spike Lee

Spike Lee earned an Oscar for his latest film BlacKkKlansman, but more than 40 SPU students are just discovering his work this week in a course called “Film & Faith,” focusing on Lee’s 1989 landmark feature Do the Right Thing.

In this new episode of the North by Pacific Northwest podcast, Jeffrey Overstreet discusses Lee’s films with cinephile and writer Josh Hornbeck.

Hornbeck graduated from Seattle Pacific University in 1999, and has since established himself as an authority on cinema and theater in Seattle’s arts communities. He worked for the Seattle International Film Festival’s development of Digital Marketing Department, and also served as writer and director of SPU’s touring theatre troupe. and has been a freelance writer for a number churches, universities, and nonprofit organizations across the Puget Sound. He now serves as the communications director for the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia, while contributing to film conversations at the Criterion Reflections podcast.

What’s your favorite book-to-screen adaptation?

This week at Libromania, “a podcast for the book-obsessed” from the Close Reads Podcast Network, host David Kern welcomed Jeffrey Overstreet, SPU assistant professor of English and writing, and Steven D. Greydanus, film critic for The National Catholic Register, to discuss the challenges of adapting books for the big screen.

They discussed favorites and they discussed the adaptations that have made them cringe. Many, many titles came up, everything from Charlotte’s Web to Babe, from The Hobbit to Watership Downfrom The End of the Affair to The Name of the Rose, from Noah to No Country for Old Men, from Where the Wild Things Are to Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse.

You can listen in to this 90-minute special episode here.

Dr. Jeff Keuss and novelist J.L. Spohr talk Oscars

This week, after the Academy Awards celebrated movies like Green Book, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Favourite, and Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse, Dr. Jeff Keuss and novelist J.L. Spohr joined me for a special roundtable episode of the North by Pacific Northwest podcast.

We talked about the awards we liked, the awards we didn’t, the state of the Oscar broadcast, and what the movies of 2018 say about the times we’re in.

It was great to welcome these special guests, as the three of us used to record episodes of The Kindlings Muse, an arts-and-culture podcast established by Dick Staub, over several years.

By the way, Keuss has a new book on the way: Live the Questions: How Searching Shapes Our Convictions and Commitments.

You can catch up with J. L. Spohr’s historical fiction series here.