Monday, 28 June 2010
If there's one thing that I'm known for railing at Christian subculture for -- other than for being a subculture and not a counterculture -- it's lack of excellence in the arts. Whether it be in novel-writing, Christian-themed paintings, or T-shirts, it seems like the Christian community is too often willing to accept poorly-crafted material or cheap knock-offs of secular products, simply because it bears a Christian™ brand name. Nowhere is this more evident than in Christian film-making. I feel like I've been exposed to so many badly-directed, badly-acted films just because they were made by such-and-such a ministry.
It's not that I'm trying to be a ruder version of Roger Ebert here. Can God work using a badly-made movie? Sure he can -- but he's also worked using a donkey before, and that's no reason to put donkeys in pulpits. I just wish that the Christian audience would stop being so happy when they get a film that is "family-friendly" or that has a "Christian message" that they never demand higher artistic standards.
We've given Christian directors little financial incentive to be good at their art, and often we don't even criticize them if their art is bad. If you're going to offer something and claim it as being representative of Christianity, you've got to make sure it's worthy of doing so. It's like how you couldn't offer a blemished lamb to God, or shoddy worksmanship on the Tabernacle. Is it too much to ask for (as W. David O. Taylor defined it) a movie that is both well crafted and true?
The Visitation. Loved the book the second time I read it (took me a while to warm up to it), but I can't stand the movie. It's not just a case of Adaptation Decay: the things they changed between book and screenplay are the very things that were the beating heart of the book. At its core, Peretti's book is about the gray area between churches and cults, about how we react to supposed miracles, about the social community of the church and how it can be used abusively, and ultimately about a piercing self-reflection for the American church (of whatever denomination) regarding what we accept as "from God." All that context is edited out of the movie. The young, annoyingly-always-joyful, gonna-take-this-town-for-jeezus pastor is instead portrayed by Randy Travis as older, spooky... essentially Mulder from the X-files. Methodist minister Morgan is instead turned into a veterinarian so she can play Scully to Travis's Mulder. And all the uncertainty regarding whether "Brandon" is really Jesus or not is taken away: he's portrayed from the first like he's trying to be creepy, with a neon sign over his head saying "Villain Right Here!", not like a charismatic likeable deceptively-friendly man who could develop a cult following. (Also, Obvious Wig is Obvious.) Add in some CGI exorcisms, bad acting, and senseless plot convolutions that would make a SciFi Channel Original Movie proud, and this movie takes its place among The Bad. But I will say this for it: as far as I remember, it doesn't get preachy, and there's no uber-fake conversion scene in it. For that, they have my thanks.
Left Behind. All arguments regarding questionable eschatology aside: There were some serious glaring issues with this movie. Normally, when it comes to Christian movies, I understand the restrictions of a low budget. You don't get Michael Bay studio backing, you don't get Michael Bay CGI. But this movie had the budget for better effects, and yet when Russia attacks Israel it looks like something out of Power Rangers. Now, effects do not a movie make, but aside from Cameron, who at least pulled his weight, most of the acting was wooden or forced. The dialogue is horrible, but especially any of the various conversion scenes, which are so streamlined so as to be unclear as to exactly what they're converting to. (Cameron's big line is, "...and I believe." Ho-kay... believe in what? In God? Even the demons believe, and tremble--you've got to give us more than that!) Characterization is contrived and melodramatic. In the end it's just another Eschploitation film, in the vein of the Rapture films by Robert Ormond.
The Judas Project. Basically, they tried to tell the story of Jesus in the modern-day, kinda like the Joshua book series, Godspell, J.C. Superstar... An interesting concept, if as doomed to anachronism (since so much of Western society was influenced by Christianity over the centuries) as the medieval passion-plays. The acting was really bad, with disciples actually doing cartoon faint-takes at the Transfiguration. The plot is presented in a very confusing way--sometimes you're not sure what moment in the real Jesus' life they're trying to portray. Things happen for no reason, like modern guards with guns using crucifixion. Not only that, but in completely dropping Jesus' Jewish background, or the Jewish context to Jesus' life and death, the narrative itself makes less sense. No sacrifices, after all, so what is Jesus perfecting by his death?
Facing the Giants. I hesitate to put this one on this list. I enjoyed it, actually. But I enjoyed it for its message, not for its artistry. It was original, in a way, in that I don't think anyone has done before. And I loved the idea of a man learning to center every aspect of his life around God's will--that Christianity isn't something that only affects us on Sundays and can be left out of our workplace. I loved the "We lose, he gets the glory; we win, he gets the glory" anthem--that's practically out of Shadrack's mouth. But some of the acting was just horrible. I could not stomach the coach's wife, and I didn't believe her character for a second. And, more than the acting, its depiction of God was a little too Cosmic Vending Machine for my liking. If I recenter my life around You, You'll win the Superbowl for me, get me a truck, and impregnate my wife for me? I don't think that's quite how Psalm 35 works. Not to mention the plot, once it got going, was utterly without surprises, predictable.
Faith Like Potatoes. Full of Christianese phrases without subtitles. The film hints at a crisis of faith, but doesn't show us the character struggling with his beliefs. Characterization doesn't appear by itself, you have to build it--especially with a dynamic character. The same thing goes with the rising tension--it's difficult to feel that with this movie, which at times seem more a series of snapshots from across Angus's life rather than a cohesive story. (I know it's hard, because this is a true story, but that's the biographer's job--to find the threads of narrative in the loose structure of life.) The cinematography, though, is excellent, and the lead actor delivers exceptionally well. Other actors, though, are eclipsed by this performance, and do not hold their own.
The 1970s Eschatological Films of Robert Ormond. A Thief In The Night, A Distant Thunder, Image of the Beast. Basically, the cinematic version of those hell-houses that pop up in churches every Halloween. We're going to scare you into the Kingdom, boogy-woogy. *wiggles fingers* Inevitably each is set in the end-times, after a Rapture, with the remnants of the recently-converted trying to escape the evil forces of the antichrist. The United Nations is evil, Christians get guillotined, and characters are dragged off screaming in the last scene. Insert disaster footage, wooden dialogue, and "it was all a dream" endings, and you've got movies that should be reviewed on Mystery Science Theater 3000. On the plus side, though, the cinematography is actually fairly good.
Covenant Rider/Any movie with Wichita Slim in it. Basically, a kids' movie where a Christian U.S. Marshal guns down the evil bank robber in a classic gun duel (the bad guy draws first, of course), but then makes the robber repeat the Sinner's Prayer as he lies dying. I don't think I need say more. If art must be believable and not contrived in order to make an impact on the viewer, this movie has failed.
Commander Kellie and the Superkids (or any of its sequels). The Superkids live in an alternate present or possible future in which one evil corporation (NME) has taken over all television and media publishing (Rupert Murdoch, is that you?), and makes them all play evil disgusting things over the airwaves. The only hope is the Superkids, who possess a pirate transmitter and will jam the evil airwaves with their own signal, in which they sing about Jesus while doing dance routines. Oi, where to begin... I can't fault this one for being subcultural, because the mentality it promotes is more approaching isolationism or separatism (not good either). But the Fridge Logic and Plot Holes that run through the whole thing are cringe-worthy. (How do all the good little kids watch only the Superkids' transmissions when the Superkids broadcast sporadically and without warning? Wouldn't they have to sit and watch NME shows all day long for just the chance of getting to see the good show?) It's basically a family-friendly kid's show that teaches kids to only watch family-friendly kids shows. Also, bad CG, bad acting, and a character named "Rapper."
I think part of the problem with some of those films is that they try to be works of ministry, not works of art. A good "Christian film" (if such a thing exists) should be a great work of art that can be used for ministry. See the difference? To quote Taylor again, "...the greater power of art resides in the suggestion of truth, not its proclamation, in the beckoning hint, not the feeble platitude." Here are some films that, in my opinion, do meet those criteria.
End of the Spear. A very well-directed and well-acted adaptation of the Saint/Eliot missionary team and the ramifications/aftereffects of their missionary trip. The message is here, but it never turns preachy, except maybe just near the end. The art is here--it's all beautifully done.
Chariots of Fire. Da-da-da-DA daaa, daaa.... *ahem* Sorry. Classic movie here. The actors have their roles down perfectly, the soundtrack of course is iconic, and the presentation is excellent. The Christian message is a gentle undercurrent rather than a 2012-style tsunami.
VeggieTales: Jonah and the Big Fish. You know, this is the only kid's version of Jonah I've ever seen that includes the whole story, with the part about the plant and the worm. For that matter, it's the only version of Jonah I've seen that was content not to end with an artificially added "happy ending." Even Superbook wasn't that bold. For a kid's movie, this one was well-made, witty, entertaining, and yet still didn't water down the actual message (though some details may have been allegorized for younger audiences, like the fish-slapping). A tough balancing act to pull off, yet this movie made it look easy.
Ben-Hur. This movie is absolutely excellent. A compelling story, of course that chariot race... And under it all is the very human emotion of anger and hatred, the human need for vengeance, being gently contrasted against the depth of forgiveness and the power of agape. We see what hatred does to the one who hates. Sure, the "don't-show-Jesus'-face" thing gets kind of cheesy after a while, but it's still a lot better than many performances as Jesus. Ben-Hur still hasn't been beaten (only tied) for its record-breaking number of Oscars.
It's probably noteworthy that, of the good films I've listed, less than half were made by the "Christian film industry." That is, more than half didn't just market to a niche and expect that niche to carry them through: they were made and marketed like any other movie, and succeeded like any normal movie succeeds. Perhaps the take-home lesson is that the best way to make a Christian movie is not to make a "Christian" movie: that is, to make a movie that is "unconsciously, not deliberately or defiantly, Christian" (--T.S. Eliot). Perhaps Christian is better off as a noun than as an adjective.
What about you? There's plenty of movies I've left out -- what do you feel belongs on the list of Worst (or Best) "Christian films"?
[Edited to add:] Here's your suggestions! I don't agree with them all, but I'll toss 'em up for people to discuss! (Some titles may be on both lists, depending on what people said.)
--One Night With The King
--The Omega Code (and, presumably, its sequel Megiddo)
--The third Left Behind movie
--The Last Temptation of Christ
--Man For All Seasons
--To End All Wars
--The Nativity Story
--The Blind Side
--Daddy's Little Girls
--I Can Do Bad All By Myself
--Black Robe highly recommend: it's brutal, it's hard to watch, and it's beautiful and honest.)
--Last Temptation of Christ
--The Passion of the Christ