Friday, November 30, 2007

Golden Compass Media Literacy Guide for the Faith Community

Media Mindfulness Strategy for The Golden Compass


As a media literacy education specialist I know that a media mindfulness strategy can be very helpful when analyzing books and films such as The Golden Compass.  By simply asking and answering these four questions below, families can make an informed decision about seeing the film and once they see it, talk about it in meaningful ways with young people. Catechists and religion teachers can also use this strategy as a means to talk about theology and philosophy in the greater context of the books (presuming that they will choose the wise approach and read the books and see the film before entering into dialogue.)


 Everyone can use the strategy as a point of departure for further exploring what they believe and articulating this well.


Here is the four part-strategy:


1.      What’s going on? What’s the story? How is the film’s reality created and why


2.      What’s really going on? Who is telling the story and why? (The film business; the author; the screenwriter).


3.      What difference does the film make? Is it really atheistic? Or does it evoke thoughtful conversation about things that matter?


4.      What difference can I make? What did the characters in the film learn? How did they grow and change? Did they? What, if any, light did the film shed on how I can live the Christian life is ways that respect human dignity? (See Media Mindfulness: Educating Teens about Faith and Media, Hailer/Pacatte, St. Mary’s Press, 2007, )


            The Golden Compass film challenges believing adults to articulate their faith and values and to brush up on Church history, theology, and literature and literary forms to do so - not because the film deals with these issues but because of the culture surrounding the release of the film. This film is an opportunity for us to develop our critical thinking skills: to ask questions and seek and articulate the answers: the answers to "why?"


     This is a difficult assignment for busy parents and teachers, but an excellent way to engage in our culture rationally and faithfully and with relevance. To “just say no” is not a valid option in today’s media world.  Let us respond, rather than react, to the world around us.           




The Golden Compass: To Talk About


  • What kind of a story is The Golden Compass? Do you like fiction and fantasy? Why or why not?
  • In one or two sentences only, explain what the movie is about.
  • What did the movie mean to you?
  • Who invented the Golden Compass and why?
  • Who is your favorite character in the film? Why?
  • What do you think are Lyra’s best qualities?
  • Does Lyra change and grow on the inside over the course of the film? How?
  • What did Lyra do when she was afraid?
  • If you could ask Lyra any question, what would it be? What would you ask Mrs. Coulter, or any of the characters?
  • Do you think it is a good thing to ask questions? Why?
  • Lyra is very curious in the film; what is curiosity? Do you think curiosity is a good thing? Why or why not?
  • Why do you think God gave us the ability to ask questions and seek the truth?
  • What purpose do the daemons serve in the story? What are they meant to represent?
  • What do the scholars – and Mrs. Coulter – seek in the story? What will happen if they get what they want?
  • If you read the book, how were the film and the novel the same or different? Which did you like more? Why?
  • In the film it says that if a child’s daemon is cut away, then the Oblation Board will be able to raise a generation of people that will not ask questions about anything, including about their teachers and government. What do you think would happen in the world if children (or grown-ups) stopped asking questions?
  • What do you think is the meaning of “dust”? What do you think it stand for in real life?
  • If you don’t know the meaning of the word “Magisterium”, look it up. Do you think it is used properly within the context of the story? Why or why not?
  • At the end Lyra says that “free will” is the most important thing. What does she mean by this?
  • What does “free will” mean to you as a Christian? What is free will for? How and why do humans have free will? What happens when anyone misuses their free will? Where does our free will come from?
  • How did the film make you feel? Did you like it? Why or why not?

The film opens tomorrow, December 7, and here are some links to recent articles about the film that some may find helpful:


Catholic Digest: 

United States Catholic Conference Office for Film and Broadcast:

The Christian Science Monitor: <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />

Toronto (Canada) Globe and Mail :


Golden Compass The Movie

New Line Cinema’s latest contribution to the fantasy film genre is director/writer Chris Weitz’s (About a Boy) The Golden Compass, based on the 1995 award-winning book of the same title by Phillip Pullman. New Line was the studio behind director Peter Jackson’s interpretation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasy trilogy The Lord of the Rings, and it may have another hit trilogy on its hands, beginning with The Golden Compass.


The Golden Compass is Book I of Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy; Part II is The Subtle Knife (1997) and Part III The Amber Spyglass (2000.)  Over 15 million copies of the books have been sold worldwide. As author Pullman notes, he has borrowed from every book he has ever read to create this best-selling and controversial trilogy and these include the fantasy writings and mythic imagination of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein. 




The Golden Compass is a very exciting film about a young girl, Lyra and her animal-shaped spirit companion, Pan, voiced by Freddie Highmore (called a daemon in the film) who guided by a golden compass embark on an odyssey to rescue their friends. It will engage young and old alike (scenes of peril and fantasy violence may scare very younger children.) There are missing children, interesting daemons (in Greek mythology, these are spirit beings who can be good or malevolent), terrible scientific experiments, great polar bears and witches, and the Authority, or Magisterium, that controls the universe.


The seamless animation and brilliant special effects should attract some awards. Dakota Blue Richards, not burdened by excessive cuteness, plays Lyra with strength and courage. Nicole Kidman is positively chilling as Mrs. Coulter. My favorite character is the great armored polar bear, Iorek Byrnison, voiced by Sir Ian McKellan. Along with Lee Scorsby,  an “aeronaut” from Texas, played by Sam Elliott, he is Lyra’s brave and loyal champion.

 The Controversy

Phillip Pullman (bn. 1946) is a professed atheist:  “Although I call myself an atheist I am a Church of England atheist, and a 1662 Book of Common Prayer atheist, because that’s the tradition I was brought up in and I cannot escape those early influences” (quoted in Killing the Imposter God: Phillip Pullman’s Spiritual Imagination in “His Dark Materials”, 2007, JosseyBass).


Some critics believe that Pullman’s fantasy epic is an expression of an atheist agenda. The Catholic League ( agrees and has published a pamphlet about the book trilogy and sent it to all Catholic schools in the U.S. The Catholic League’s website states that seeing the film – even  if it is not as troubling as the trilogy – will cause children to want to read the novels and this would harm their faith. The Catholic League’s website says that Pullman has twin goals “to promote atheism anddenigrate Christianity. To kids.”


Others, such as Donna Frietas and Jason King, admit to Pullman’s atheism in their book Killing the Imposter God: Phillip Pullman’s Spiritual Imagination in “His Dark Materials” but think he employs feminist and liberation critical theology in his writings, and that using these lenses reveals truth rather than denies it. Kurt Bruner and Jim Ware concede Pullman’s darkness but also find and explore religious themes in their book, Shedding Light on His Dark Materials: Exploring Hidden Spiritual Themes in Philip Pullman’s Popular Series (2007, SaltRiver/Tyndale.)


His Dark Materials: Source Material


Phillip Pullman’s theological and spiritual source for the entire trilogy of fantasy books, His Dark Materials seems to be the epic scriptural/theological poem “Paradise Lost” by John Milton (1608 – 1674.) Milton’s influence on the Pullman’s worldview as revealed in His Dark Materials cannot be underestimated.


Milton wrote passionately against England’s monarchy as being head of church and state. In his later years, Milton also rejected Trinitarian Christianity and moved toward a more Unitarian theology. Some critics say that Pullman’s vision of Christianity is medieval but it is really the Christianity of Milton’s age, framed by the Renaissance-Reformation-and Counter-Reformation centuries that fuel his discourse.


Philosophically, Milton was a monist. Simply put, monists believe that all matter can be reduced to a single substance, a kind of energy that animates everything, even angels. Pullman calls this substance “dust”. 


Human free will is the key theme in “Paradise Lost” and His Dark Materials. Free will continues to be a point of theological debate between Catholics and Protestants and is contested in the film and books as well.

In the trilogy, Pullman places the headquarters of the church/magisterium (a term used by Catholics that means the teaching authority of the Church) in Geneva, Switzerland, where John Calvin’s (1509 – 1564) religious movement was based. It is interesting that Phillip Pullman does not single out the Catholic Church for his critique but includes all organized religion, including mainstream Protestant churches. There is one brief sequence when the polar bear Iorek Byrnison attacks the Magisterium’s building in the north to retrieve his armor; the building is adorned with icons. To me, this showed that religion was one of the agencies in the film oppressing the characters, not the whole story.


 Pullman’s Atheism?

There appears to be no explicit religious content, and therefore no explicit atheism in film version of The Golden Compass.  Also, one would be hard pressed to find philosophical arguments for atheism in the film.


The book version of The GoldenCompass is critical of religion and organized religion, though it is difficult to assess how much readers actually engage in the philosophy and theology that underpin his fantasy tale. Pullman does reject, and ultimately attempts to kill off, a convoluted idea of God in Part III of his trilogy The Amber Spyglass. On the one hand he presents a theological image of God as an old man, perhaps cruel and distant. On the other hand, Pullman rids the universe of a philosophical image of God that is uninterested in his creation, a creation that originally created him in the first place.


To believers, God is the author of creation and not subject to it; therefore, the god that Pullman tries to kill through the imposter angel Metatron in The Amber Skyglass, is not the God we believe in anyway. 


Pullman’s image of God reminds me of how Bruce described him in Tom Shadyac’s 2003 film Bruce Almighty: “God is a mean kid sitting on an anthill with a magnifying glass, and I'm the ant. He could fix my life in five minutes if He wanted to, but he'd rather burn off my feelers and watch me squirm.” Although it is not clear if the divine will be part of any subsequent films, should they be produced, perhaps Pullman has done us all a favor by ridding us of many false images of God.


I do think that Pullman’s writings ultimately reveal a nihilistic view of life and at the end of the day, shed little light on the meaning of life.  The Golden Compass film, however, demonstrates the values and virtues heroism, self-sacrifice and courage that transcend the challenges the characters face. If future filmsare made, we can hope that they will be consistent with this first film.



Thursday, November 29, 2007

No Country for Old Men Movie

This will be a brief entry because I don't have much time but I saw No country for Old Men yesterday. It was an afternoon showing in the  suburbs; I think it was senior citizen day.

On the way out of the theater I overheard an older woman saying to her husband (I think): "Next time I get to pick the movie!" Another woman said, "I have no idea what that movie was about." And then the two older ladies in front of me were commenting and one said to the other, "Well that movie really sucked."

I was laughing my head off (discreetly, of course.)

I think this audience was expecting a Tommy Lee Jones western-type picture and what they got was a Coen Brothers TexMex crime flick with blood and violence running through it.

But Tommy Lee Jones is awesome in the film. The kid who sold me my ticket said he had seen the film, but it just stops at the end. There's really no ending. He shrugged his shoulders - but I persevered.

There is an ending, I just can't tell you. And yes, it does just stop.

This is about a psychopath drug lord (Javier Bardem) who wants his drug money at all costs. He's crazy, kills brutally and without remorse. He talks in riddles. But so does Tommy Lee Jones as the sherrif and he is not crazy.

It's a smart film and pure Coen. It has a point, though some may contest it. But it's not a must-see film for everyone so if you are a Coen fan, don't take your grandmother. She will say it sucks.


Friday, November 23, 2007

Champions of Faith: Baseball - Thanksgiving Special Offer

Champions of Faith: Baseball is one of the best documentaries in recent years. On November 4, 2007 it won a CIMA (Catholics in Media) Award for documentary film.

I just received an email with a link to a special offer for bulk orders of this wonderful DVD (excellent for middle-school kids through adults of all ages). What a meaningful Christmas gift this will make for you, your family and friends - for anyone teaching Confirmation classes, too. Instead of a gift card this Christmas, why not give this DVD to your pastor or pastoral staff at your parish? It's inspiring and entertaining! (Many nuns are great baseball fans, too.)

Here is the link: good only for this weekend! I only received it today (Friday evening) so I hope you will be able to place your order on time (or give you a little extra time if you are only opening this when you get to your office on Monday!)

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Cine&Media Elist

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

Several years ago a few folks who love theology, spirituality, and film, started a yahoo group called Cine&Media.

In typical technology overload fashion, I forgot my password and the list and languished a bit for lack of management. However, my technology-enduced brain cloud lifted and I remembered!

If you are interested in joining out group (you can sign up for a daily digest or individual emails when people post), please do the following:

Go yo

Search for  cineandmedia

Request membership.

I will approve your request and voila'! You can post about your insights, questions, ideas (for teaching or ministry).

We are not that busy of a list, but when we do get into a film or a topic, it's great.

The only requirement is an interest in theology, spirituality and film.

There are 102 members at this time.

Blessings to all!


Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Where's the Love? Movie Critic vs Religious Audience

Jeffrey Overstreet, moderator; Rev. Peter Malone, Claudia Puig, Eleonora Granata, Jonathan Bock, panelists.

On Sunday, October 28, 2007, Catholics in Media Associates (CIMA; and Open Call ( sponsored an panel discussion event during the City of Angels Film Festival ( at the Directors Guild of America in Hollywood.

The event was a panel conversation entitled: "Where's the Love? The Movie Critic vs. the Religious Audience." As one of the panelists, Rev. Peter Malone, MSH, past president of SIGNIS (, the world Catholic organization for communication, put it, "This is not the title I would have chosen since it sounds adversarial; I see my role as a film reviewer as one of mediation between the film and the audience." This was a point well-taken by his colleagues on the panel.

The moderator of the panel was Jeffrey Overstreet, a novelist and award-winning film critic whose reviews appear on the Christianity Today web site. (See

Our panelists included:

Rev. Peter Malone and Claudia Puig chat after the event


Claudia Puig has been a film critic at USA Today since 2001. Her odyssey led to the position of lead film critic in 2006 and since that time she has also served as a film festival judge, moderator for Screen Actors Guild panels,  presenter at the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. annual awards dinner and is a regular contributor for National Public Radio’s Film Week and on public television’s Life and Times. She is also a frequent contributor on Mitch Albom’s syndicated radio show.  She has discussed the socio-cultural impact of specific movies on NBC News, CNN and MSNBC. She has also been nominated  Entertainment Journalist of the Year three times, an award given by the Publicists Guild. Claudia began her journalism career in 1986 at the Los Angeles Times covering city government, crime and courts. She was part of the teamthat won a Pulitzer for its coverage of the L.A. Riots in 1991.  In 1993 she began covering primarily the movie business, until her departure in 1997. She began her tenure at USA Today in October, 1997 covering the film industry as a reporter for the Life section. She still writes the occasional news story, feature or obituary, but concentrates mostly on film reviews and analyses. Claudia lives in Glendale, California, is fluent in Spanish and speaks Italian and French also. She has a B.A. in Communications Studies from UCLA and an M.A. in Communications from University of Southern California’s Annenberg School.


Eleonora Granata is currently the U.S. Representative and Program Advisor for the Venice Film Festival – a position which she has held for the past five years.  She isalso the Senior Programmer, World Dramatic Features at the Miami International Film Festival. She previously worked as the U.S. Representative for the Locarno International Film Festival and Taormina Film Festival.  Prior  to working with these festivals, Ms. Granata served as Senior Vice President, Acquisitions and Production at Pandora Cinema and as Vice President and Head of the Acquisitions and Co-Productions Division at Turner Pictures. She began her career with RCS Films and Television in Italy, where she held various acquisitions positions and eventually oversaw the company’s worldwide acquisitions and production from Los Angeles.  She is a graduate of the Milan Institute of Higher Education where she studied economics and law, and she has a Juris Doctoratein Political Science and International Law from Milan University.


Jonathan Bock is the founder and president of Grace Hill Media, a company that promotes mainstream films to faith communities and most recently the producer of two Christian comedy concerts: Thou Shalt Laugh and Thou Shalt Laugh: The Deuce (these are available at the book store in the lobby). Jonathan is a former television comedy writer and also worked for the publicity department at Warner Bros. Jonathan attended Connecticut College, is married and the father of two daughters, and a member of Bel Air Presbyterian Church.


The Reverend Peter Malone is a Missionary of the Sacred Heart from Melbourne, Australia, who lives and works in London, UK. Peter is the award-winning author of more than 30 books on faith, scripture, and film, (several of which he co-wrote with Sister Rose Pacatte, the Director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Culver City). His latest book is “Through a Catholic Lens: Religious Perspectives of Nineteen Film Directors from Around the World” (it is available at the CAFF bookstore in the lobby). Peter is the President-emeritus of SIGNIS, the Vatican-approved world organization for communication. He now heads the film desk and writes reviews for the SIGNIS website as well as for Catholic newspapers in the UK. Peter has participated in CAFF for the last seven years.


 Members of the audience

Open Call and CIMA members chat after the event

Please note: I was able to download the video files to mycomputer; I am still working on uploading them to this site.

Watch this space!


Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Lars and the Real Girl

"Lars and the Real Girl" is my favorite film of the year so far. Written by Nancy Oliver (who also penned several episodes of Six Feet Under) and directed by Craig Gillespie (Mr. Woodcock), Lars is a complete surprise.

Lars (Ryan Gosling) moves back home but lives in the garage while his brother and sister-in-law (Emily Mortimer) live in the family house. Lars, dreadfully shy, insists on living alone. Their father has died, and we discover that their mother died when giving birth to Lars.

Lars has a job and the other worker in his cubical finds a site on the internet that sells anatomically correct sex-dolls. Lo and behold, Lars orders one - but not for the reasons his co-worker might have. A big box arrives for Lars. He then presents himself at his brother's door and says a female friend has come to visit, she doesn't speak much English, and she's in a wheelchair. Lars is a church-goer so he knows it would be improper for Bianca to stay with him and he asks if she can stay in the guest room. Karin, his sister-in-law, goes along with his delusion; his brother struggles with it - to say the least.

Patricia Clarkson plays the town doctor who is also a psychologist. Her care for Bianca/Lars is understated and moving.

This amazing little film is about how a family and a community gathers around a fragile man as he integrates the dimensions of his life and becomes a man. The scene where he follows his brother into the basement, where his brother is doing the laundry because his pregnant wife needs help, and asks: "When did you know you became a man?" is wonderful. It's not about sex, it's when "You stop jerking other people around, you take responsibility for those you care about" and so on. And there he is, doing the laundry.

This film is also about the role of play in child - and human - development. It's about empathy, caring, the church community, the community at large, and their caring for the weakest among them, throughout a long, cold winter.

Ryan Gospling is amazing as the frightened Lars; Paul Schnieder as the brother is excellent and Emily Mortimer sees what others don't - at first - and shows us all what caring about someone unconditionally means.

And did I mention the good humor?

The film also shows what a church community can really be for people - a safe place where love takes root and grows in hearts and action.

I loved the way the audience responded to the film; the innocence of the laughter reflected the innocence of the film itself.

I told a friend that I would love to see a film about a woman who grows because of the love of the community. My friend said, yes, but the women in the film have strong roles - as helpers, I replied. As usual. A fine film with a woman as the example of universal human experience is still to be made, I think. (Gender roles is a good media literacy angle for looking at this film.)

Lions for Lambs

Robert Redford's new film is a study in how media and politics reinforce the other and the tragic results of journalism's failure to ask questions in the current war. Parallel to this storyline skillfully played by Tom Cruise as the arrogant and ambitious senator and Meryl Streep as the veteran journalist in an hour-long conversation, are two more. One of these is a storyline about a political science professor played by Redford, who is trying to get a student to become involved in the bigger events in the world (and come to class), events that mean something, but war isn't what he has in mind. He uses the story of two of his most promising students who decided to make a difference in the world by getting off the gang-ridden streets of Los Angeles to fight the war in Afghanistan - when he meant to change the world where you are planted. While this conversation is going on, the two soldiers are deployed, during this same hour, to be part of a new war strategy proposed to the president by the above-said senator (based on a failed strategy used in Vietnam but the senator doesn't want to think of the past only the future.)



This tightly wound drama that takes place almost in real time ends by showing the influence of television when a young man finally decides to do something meaningful.


I think Lions (wonderful, talented, intelligent young soldiers) for Lambs (men in white collars and suits who never get their hands dirty and don't have a clue about combat) is a tough, not-so-subtle or enjoyable, statement of the current status of the war - the role of the media in the film's view is unmistakable.


 “Nowhere have I seen such Lions led by such Lambs" is said (in the film) to have been spoken by a German soldier during World War I after witnessing the slaughter of British troops at the Battle of the Somme. Thoughts of Peter Weir's "Gallipoli" also come to mind as does Kubrick's anti-war films "Paths of Glory" and "Full Metal Jacket." The heartbreak and the  tragedy of war and the culture it creates - as well as the culture that creates it.


"Lions for Lambs" is a good subject for media literacy study, I think - for itself and for its commentary on the role of media and war.

It is also a study in the role of ethics and morality in modern life.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Primo Levi's Journey the Film

Primo Levi’s Journey – (not rated) Primo Levi (1919 - 1987) was an Italian Jew, a writer and scientist, who spent about a year in Auschwitz before liberation by Russian troops. He survived but before he could reach his home in Milan, Italy, he made a journey of 1,000 miles to get there. This unique documentary re-traces Levi's eight-month journey through Russia, Poland, and Romania. These months coincided with the brief truce between the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War. The film is based on Levi’s 1963 memoir, “The Truce” and it asks the audience to reflect on the current truce that began when the Berlin Wall fell along with the Iron Curtain and effectively ended on September 11, 2001.

The film evokes the question: When and who will take responsibility for the next truce and what will it mean for humanity?

(Primo Levi fell to his death in his home from a staircase landing; it was ruled a suicide but many contest this verdict.)