SDG Says Farewell
In his last column for the Register, our long-time film critic reflects on his work over the last two decades.
Among the toughest questions I’ve been asked over the years is also one of the most regular and predictable: How does one get started as a film critic, especially in the Catholic media space?
It’s hard to answer partly because I know what I did 20-odd years ago, but it was a different world then. Another reason is that I (like more than one of my own role models, including Roger Ebert) didn’t set out to become a film critic, in Catholic media or otherwise. I believe I was led to this work, but it would also be accurate to say it just sort of happened, which is sometimes how God leads us.
I’ve always loved movies, of course. I took film and animation history classes at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, but I was a media major, not a film major (my first love was cartooning and illustration). As a young Catholic convert, I went on to earn a graduate degree in religious studies from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, but I had no thought of working in Catholic media (I thought I might go into teaching or Scripture studies, though in fact I wound up doing book and web design with some freelance cartooning and illustration).
One day in, I think, April 2000, I had a chat with a close friend that significantly changed my life. Jimmy Akin, a brilliant apologist at Catholic Answers, whom I had gotten to know years earlier while at St. Charles, suggested that, between my deep interest in film and film criticism and the study I had made of my faith, I could easily talk about movies from a Catholic perspective for an hour on the call-in radio show, Catholic Answers Live.
I had done public speaking and was comfortable doing radio, and during the show the host asked me to put together a list of movies I recommended, to be mailed to callers. I quickly compiled a list of about 35 films — and then, when I saw Toy Story and Schindler’s List side by side in alphabetical order, I decided a bit of context was needed. I quickly wrote capsule reviews for each film, improvised a three-part ratings system, and sent it off.
What happened next seemed inconsequential at the time. Despite working as a web designer, I had put off learning HTML, which had always seemed like too much work without meaningful content to build around. “Well,” I thought, “I’ll build some kind of site for these mini-reviews, just to see if I can.” So I constructed the first version of what became Decent Films. It was graphic-intensive and had a lot of menus and supporting tools overshadowing the slight content, because I was really just trying to learn the technology.
A couple of months later, Catholic Answers invited me to do a follow-up show, and I thought, “I should probably buy a domain and turn this into a real website.” I had been reading Inter Mirifica, Vatican II’s Decree on the Media of Social Communications, which talks about responsible media use and the roles of creators, teachers and critics. I came across this paragraph:
The production and showing of films that have value as decent entertainment, humane culture or art, especially when they are designed for young people, ought to be encouraged and assured by every effective means. This can be done particularly by supporting and joining in projects and enterprises for the production and distribution of decent films, by encouraging worthwhile films through critical approval and awards, by patronizing or jointly sponsoring theaters operated by Catholic and responsible managers.
And of course the phrase “decent films” leaped out at me, and I had the website running in time for the show. Soon I was adding new, full-length reviews on a regular basis. I had too much website for the content, and was eager to fill out the content. I wasn’t getting paid and didn’t look to be. I liked to call Decent Films “an apostolate of my spare time,” and I saw it as a kind of ministry both to believing and nonbelieving readers.
In those days, so much religious engagement with popular culture was dominated by content-advisory concerns (counting bad words, etc.). I wanted to promote a more thoughtful mode of engagement for believing readers and at the same time let nonbelieving readers know this was possible.
I once quipped that I hoped to help nonbelieving readers recognize that one could consider The Last Temptation of Christ blasphemous without being a fundamentalist philistine (mission accomplished) and to help pious Christian readers recognize that there could be value in R-rated or subtitled movies other than The Passion of the Christ.
As my audience grew, so did my sense of responsibility. I started attending advance screenings and putting more time into my work — time for which my young family wasn’t being compensated. This is where an enterprising person would have started pitching his work around. In my case, one day in 2003 I got a call out of the blue from an editor at the National Catholic Register, Dave Pearson, who liked my work and invited me to do some writing for them. This was the kind of thing you might be able to get away with 20 years ago: just hanging out an online shingle and waiting for God to open a door for you. (Of course it helped that I was on the radio, but then that was also a door that had been opened for me.)
When I think about my time at the Register, I think, above all, of movies and reviews that, for me, define my work and my adventures in moviegoing over the past 18 years. They run the gamut from the sublime (Into Great Silence; Of Gods and Men; Selma; Silence; A Hidden Life) to the ridiculous (Angels & Demons; The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug; The Mummy) and even a few films that somehow blended the two (Calvary; Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc; Menashe).
I recall controversial favorites that many readers hated (Avatar; Noah; The Witch); contrarian critiques of well-liked movies (3:10 to Yuma; Thor: Ragnarok; The Two Popes); faith-based movies I was “supposed” to like more than I did (There Be Dragons; God’s Not Dead; Son of God). I think, of course, of a lot of comic-book movies — not just the big Marvel and DC stuff, but also curiosities like The Adventures of Tintin. I’m glad for the silly fun I had with The Social Network, the latest Grinch and two movies by Jon Favreau. I even coined a few terms.
With chagrin I remember, too, the many times I missed the mark or left too many readers with the wrong idea. I tried to learn from the many angry responses to my first piece on The Magdalene Sisters, and I’ve come to see that, although I strove to be fair to the film while critiquing its excesses, my tone was more defensive than it would be now. I still hold The Passion of the Christ in great esteem, but I now realize that concerns about antisemitism in connection with the film are knottier than I first thought. I was blindsided by misperceptions that my initial take on Call Me By Your Name was positive, but it was my own fault, and I’ve learned from that experience, too.
Not all the work I just mentioned was done for the Register. Other doors opened following that first phone call. I wrote quite a bit over the years for Christianity Today and Catholic World Report. For years I had a monthly column in Catholic Digest, and, when the Boston Globe launched Crux in 2015, I somehow kept up a weekly column there for 18 months — a period of significant strain, but of creative and personal growth as well. (I was also in diaconal formation at the time!) Then there were the 10 years, from 2010 to 2019, that I co-hosted Reel Faith with David DiCerto for NET TV and did a bunch of video reviews (first 30 seconds, then 60 for the most part). More recently, I’m very pleased to have a deep-dive analysis of The Green Knight at Bright Wall/Dark Room and an essay on Midnight Mass at Slate.
Still, whatever I published elsewhere, for many years the Register has been my home. I’m grateful to the Register for providing a reliable platform for the particular kind of film discussion I want to foster — particularly given, along with everything else that’s changed over the years, the decline of film writing and journalism generally. I’m grateful because I like stability and familiarity (it goes with not being enterprising). My natural tendency is to stay put, to try to bloom where I’m planted and not to look for greener pastures. Also, of course, there are ties of affection and loyalty to people I’ve long worked with: Tom Wehner, Amy Smith, Kevin Knight, Jeanette DeMelo, Peter Smith and others. (I think also of some who left the Register before me, including Tom Hoopes and especially Dave Pearson, whose blend of appreciation and editorial acumen helped me grow as a writer.)
I’m grateful, too, for thoughtful regular readers who, for many years, made reading and interacting in the comments often as rewarding as the writing itself, whose screen names I remember like the names of old friends. If anyone from those days happens across this, you know who you are — and you know, too, how long ago it was, and how much has changed since those days, including perhaps ourselves. It was, again, a different world, and there’s no going back. Doors are closed as well as opened.
I’m proud of the work I’ve done at the Register. I have, as I suppose most anyone would, complex, mixed feelings about leaving an institution that’s been such a big part of my life, but I have no regrets regarding my decisions or doubts about how God is leading me. God willing, I have more work to do. If that interests you, you know who you are, and where I’ll be.
Soli Deo Gloria