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Warning: The Witch is just the beginning

I was lucky enough to start reading work by Lauren Wilford when she was still an undergraduate at Seattle Pacific University. Just a few years later, here she is — the senior editor at an extraordinary film journal called Bright Wall Dark Room, where she’s quickly becoming one of the most compelling writers in film criticism. I find myself bookmarking her articles and waiting, knowing that I will need significant time and attention in order to appreciate the scope and substance of what she’s doing.

Wilford’s recent essay “Witch-Craft: Why Robert Eggers is Our Next Great Filmmaker” is a perfect example of this.

I highly recommend that you read the whole thing, even if you’re steering clear of the movie because, well, you want to be able to sleep without nightmares. There is a lot of wisdom in this piece, not just from Eggers but from Wilford herself as she considers the relationship between Eggers’s creative process and that of other ambitious artists. It’s an essay about a subject that is close to my heart: the ways in which great works of art defy our efforts to paraphrase, categorize, “solve,” or narrowly interpret them.

Wilford writes:

One has to peel back a few layers of accreted cultural criticism to get to what The Witch actually is, as a film. If you get through talking about whether it’s feminist or anti-Christian or, in fact, not feminist enough, there’s another debate behind that one: is The Witch even a real horror film?

Here’s one bit that really got my attention:

I tend to take note whenever artists talk about what first inspired them to go to work, especially if they insist that it all began with “an image.” That’s what C.S. Lewis said about the origin of The Chronicles of Narnia. And it rings true to me — that’s how my own stories begin: with images, not themes or agendas. That’s why I lean forward when I I hear an artist shrug off praise of his work as “relevant” or “significant.”

And now this…

Eggers is clearly savvy to the issues his script [for The Witch] raises, and the years he spent researching for the film have provided him with lots of insight into the meaning of the witch as a symbol. But he’s adamant that he didn’t make the movie to make an ideological statement: “I don’t say, ‘This is an idea that I am thinking about, that I want to explore using the past’—I don’t do it like that. Often, it’s just a series of images and an atmosphere that is compelling to me, and then in doing my research, the story emerges.”

I could go on, but I want you read Wilford’s work and Eggers’s comments in their proper context. Time may well prove Wilford’s predictions true regarding this filmmaker’s importance. The Witch may be the beginning of one of the most exciting American film careers in recent history. But that’s not what this essay is really about: It’s about the mysterious forces that bring art about, and about the rare wonder of an artist attentive enough, and focused enough, to serve a vision.

Find the time. I doubt I’ll read anything film-related quite as substantial as this for a long time to come… at least until the next issue of Bright Wall Dark Room.

Lead the way, Lauren. You’re the professor now.

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Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet

Novelist and critic Jeffrey Overstreet teaches writing (Seattle Pacific University) and film studies (Northwest University and Houston Baptist University). He's written a memoir of moviegoing and faith (Through a Screen Darkly, Baker, 2007) and a fantasy series that begins with Auralia's Colors (The Auralia Thread, Random House, 2007-11). He's worked since 2001 as a film critic and columnist at Christianity Today, and he's been a regular contributor to Image, Paste, and Christ & Pop Culture. His writing has been recognized by The New Yorker and The Seattle Times. He regularly speaks at universities, conferences, and churches in the U.S. and abroad. Want to invite him to teach or speak? Email joverstreet@gmail.com.