Monthly Archives: September 2008


So I saw Fireproof over the weekend (as did, apparently, quite a few people: the $500,000-budgeted film earned $6 million in its opening weekend and landed at #4). I previously had no intentions of seeing the film, until my colleague Peter Chattaway gave it a surprisingly positive (3/4 star) review for Christianity Today. Having seen the trailer earlier this summer and lamenting the maudlin quality of Christian film, I had very little hope that Fireproof would be good, and suspected that it wouldn’t even be particularly watchable.

Turns out Fireproof was watchable (certainly moreso than its predecessor, Facing the Giants, which I couldn’t watch with a straight face), though by no means was it good.

I didn’t laugh as much during Fireproof as I did during Facing the Giants, and I only felt the urge to look away from the screen a few times. There were oodles of uncomfortably saccharine moments and heavy-handed digressions of overacting, but it was a huge, huge improvement over Giants. This makes me happy, but it neither excuses Fireproof for its numerous failures nor justifies it as a successful film.

Fireproof takes a promising, nicely compact premise—a relationship falling apart and the fight by one man (Kirk Cameron) to keep it alive—and removes most subtlety and nuance from it. What is left is a melodramatic, Hallmark Hall of Fame film riddled with clichés and one too many Kodak moments. The filmmaking is clunky and features some truly ghastly montages and sequences of editing (a “he said/she said” comedic bit is particularly bad), replete with Third Day songs and heavily-accented Southern supporting actors.

The heavy-handedness of it all is truly unfortunate. The whole “fireman” metaphor is clever but ultimately overplayed. “Marriages are not fireproof,” says Cameron at one point. “Sometimes you get burned.” Do people really talk like this in normal life? Do we really string together movie-tagline clichés when speaking of our personal struggles?

I also didn’t get why there were so many sequences of firemen rescuing people: girl stuck in a car on a train track (with train approaching), girl caught in a burning house (rescued by Kirk “why do I get respect from everyone but my wife” Cameron), etc. These moments had nothing to do with the rest of the story. The same could be said for some other sequences such as an unfunny comedic soliloquy for one of the requisite funny-guy supporting players.

This is not to say there is nothing good to be found in Fireproof. There are definitely some tender moments (especially featuring the elder “mom and dad” characters) and an overall feel-good vibe. Kirk Cameron and the female lead (Erin Bethea) have occasional moments of humane acting, to be sure.

Ultimately, though, Fireproof left a bad taste in my mouth, and it goes beyond the clunky filmmaking. Several ideas—both explicit and implicit—in Fireproof felt a bit wrong-headed to me. The film seems to argue that marriages can only really survive when God is at the center (Kirk Cameron only can start loving his wife again after he converts to Christianity). Certainly I agree that a Christ-centered marriage is a good idea; but isn’t it a bit problematic to assume that just because one converts to Christianity, marriage somehow gets easier? And what about all the millions of successful, long-lasting marriages that have existed throughout time outside of a “Christ-focus?” And what about the statistics about Christians having just as many or more divorces than anyone else? Don’t get me wrong: I think it does a marriage great good to have Christ at the center. And for a movie that is being made by a church (Sherwood Baptist), I can’t really fault them from honing in on this. But, to be honest, the least truthful part of this movie was the “Christianity saved my marriage” part…

There are other problems I had with the film: it felt pretty sexist, occasionally racist (why are the black people in the film the only real authorities on divorce?), and a bit too afraid of going to dark places (the words “divorce” and “porn,” which are crucial to the plot, are rarely spoken of directly). For a film about a failing marriage, the PG glow is not really the best fit.

Alas, this is a film made by a church. A church! The cast and crew (minus Kirk Cameron) are members of the church, and if they want to make a film, they have every right to make it however they please. Congratulations to them for creating a film from the ground up—a film that is now the #4 film in the nation. Not an easy feat.

As a critic, though, I can’t give them a ringing endorsement because of these extra-filmic circumstances. The best I could say is that Fireproof is probably the “best film to ever be made by a church.” It’s not a good film, but it is a small step forward for Sherwood Films and a tiny step forward for Christian filmmaking in general. A tiny step.

Changing Culture: Through or in Spite of the Marketplace?

Here’s a question I’ve been pondering for a number of years: when you want to change culture, is it better to start from an analysis of what the culture/market wants, or is it better to start from a personal conviction or idea about what the culture should be like? That is: should we work within the interests of the culture—however misdirected or disordered they may be—or should we work to change the interests of the culture by offering something new?

It’s a dialectic that some people might reduce to elitism vs. populism; top-down vs. bottom-up change. But those binaries don’t really get at what I’m talking about… I’d consider myself neither an elitist nor a fan of top-down reform, but when it comes to culture, I’m increasingly skeptical about letting the audience be our guide. I don’t know… maybe that is elitist.

Ultimately, it’s about what you think about market sovereignty in the cultural industries.

The film industry, for example, has differing opinions about market sovereignty. On one hand, the big studios are totally responsive to the box office and the box office alone. If the people turn out to see Norbit in droves, Hollywood will make Norbit 2, no matter what they’d like to do. But on the other hand, there are loads of more artistic and independent-minded films being churned out every year with personal and political messages unconcerned with the approval of large swaths of the marketplace. There are companies like Plan B and Participant Productions that only make these “change people’s opinions” type films, to more or less tepid financial results.

Likewise in the music, television, and publishing industries. There are market-minded approaches (find the next Jonas Brothers, Lost, or Dan Brown before these interests wane!), but there are also personal/artistic approaches.

The question is this: can we change anything if we create some personal, challenging artistic product that only reaches a few hundred people of a certain niche? Or can we only ever effect change if we research and respond to the market trends, creating products that may not be our ideal but are nevertheless moving more units?

Ironically, this was a crucial question in my mind last weekend when I was at the GodBlog Convention in Las Vegas.

On my blog, I often find myself in conflict between what I really want to write about and what I think people want to read. To be quite frank, I find myself responding to the statistics detailing which types of posts post the highest numbers. But in the end, I wonder if I really want to be beholden to “the audience” in this way (especially since I’m doing this for free!).

The question remains unanswered in my mind, and it goes way beyond my own personal blog.

You see it in all aspects of society. In politics, for example. The two presidential candidates are almost completely defined by a response to what the populace is telling them they are concerned with. The media, on the other hand, is more oriented towards setting its own agenda; but even within media there is a wide discrepancy on this. On one hand there are people like Matt Drudge who determine “news” based on what is the most sensationalistic and scandalous (i.e. that which the public is most interested in); on the other there are things like C-SPAN’s BookNotes which hopes to improve the discourse around new literature and has little to no concern for what the audience wants.

Both are impacting culture, in different ways. But which will—at the end of the day—leave the culture better off?

Instances of Inappropriate Censorship

Ever since Sarah Palin mania started a month ago, the media has whined and whined about the prospective Veep’s reluctance to allow them access to her life and thoughts at every second of the day. Just this week, many members of the media threw a fit because they couldn’t be in the room with Palin as she met with world leaders in New York. The press increasingly loathe Palin because she dares to scoff at their self-endowed prerogative to be “in on” whatever “story” they want. Just read this bitter rant from Campbell “Obama’s biggest fan” Brown.

Resentful members of the press claim that Palin’s avoidance is harming the free flow of information, of “truth.” As journalists, they are all about the freedom of information. But the unspoken truth of most journalists is that they are the biggest censors of all. They get the facts, then selectively report them. They hear and see the story, then re-tell it in the way they would like it to be.

Of course, it is not just journalists who do this. All of us believe in free speech in theory. But when that speech is dangerous or threatens something we hold dear, we don’t really shy away from trying to stifle it.

Two recent examples of the suspicious suppression of free speech:

YouTube Removes Obama Abortion Video
YouTube is increasingly showing its partisan colors this election cycle, as evidenced in the removal of a video produced by The Kansas Coalition for Life, called “Obama: WRONG Change for Children.” Sure, the video contains a few brief images of aborted fetuses, but there is far worse elsewhere on YouTube. Apparently YouTube’s only explanation for the video’s removal is that it did not meet a “Community Guideline.” This seems a nebulous reason to remove the video, which—as you can see if you watch below—may be creepily over-the-top, but is not really deserving of censorship.

Southern Baptist bookstore chain hides magazine with female pastors on cover

Bookstores have the right to carry and sell whatever they want, but when you have a deal to distribute a magazine and then take it off shelves because you disagree with the image on the cover, that is a little suspect. Such was the case when Lifeway Christian Stores, a chain of 100+ bookstores owned by the Southern Baptist Convention, took this month’s issue of GospelToday off its shelves and hid it behind the counter. Why? Because the cover of the magazine featured a photo of five female pastors—an idea that is evidently too hot to handle for the SBC.

Alas, these are just two current events that showcase the widespread practice of censorship in America today. Of course the argument could be made that censorship isn’t such a bad thing, in which case I’m totally fine with YouTube and the SBC censoring whatever they wish. But the problem is when these institutions feign protection of the free flow of thought and ideas—branding themselves as “open-minded” but then closing off discourse to the ideas they dislike. This is hypocrisy, which is even more annoying than censorship.

Can Anything Save TV?

Watching the Primetime Emmy Awards this Sunday night (well, “watching” is a generous word… it was on my TV at least) was kind of like watching John McCain try to convince America that he invented the BlackBerry.

It was laughable and sad.

Coming off of the dangerously-close-to-fatal WGA strike that soured many of us on the television, this year’s Emmy’s really couldn’t expect to get gangbuster ratings. And predictably, the audiences did not turn out. It was the least-viewed Emmy show since 1990 (a paltry 12.2 million people watched the 3 hour show). Chalk it up to the insignificance of the event that I, a scholar of and apologist for television, didn’t know the Emmy’s were even on until I turned on the television Sunday night.

Alas, it was a horrible, horrible three hours of TV. From the painful quintet of reality show hosts (Ryan Seacrest, Howie Mandel, Jeff Probst, Heidi Klum and Tom Bergeron) to Josh Groban’s kitschy medley of TV show theme songs, it was bad news. You had director Barry Sonnenfeld saying, “love TV and fear the Internet,” which was a pathetic cry for help from an aging old media relic. Then there was all the predictable political nonsense, with Martin Sheen rambling about voting practices and various other people putting in their appeals for America to get smart and vote Democrat. Add to it some humdrum Laugh In segment and some inexplicable appearances from Oprah and Lauren Conrad, and we had one highly unfortunate hot mess of an Emmys.

But in spite of the apathy most of America rightfully showed toward television’s “biggest night,” I do have to say that, for the most part, I was happy with who won awards. AMC’s Mad Men is indeed the best drama on television right now, not counting Friday Night Lights (which comes back in NBC in January and DirecTV next week!). And NBC’s 30 Rock is indeed the best comedy. I was happy to see it win so many awards… maybe now (please, people!) it will gain some much-needed viewers. Better late than never, I’d say. But—and this goes for all of TV—it appears that “never” is looming ever closer on the horizon for this medium in the twilight of its life.

Live From GodBlogCon 2008

So I’m here at the 4th Annual GodBlog Convention (aka the Christian blogger convention) in Las Vegas, meeting and greeting and hobnobbing with a diverse assortment of Christian bloggers. It’s a total trip. There are mombloggers here, comedy bloggers, political bloggers, and one guy whose blog exclusively covers Mormons. Everyone is sitting with their laptops, Twittering away as the speakers speak, “liveblogging” their thoughts on what they are hearing.

It’s all very nerdy, and honestly the unsettling questions and concerns I had about blogging coming in have only been increased by what I’m hearing and seeing at this conference.

I increasingly wonder if the glory days of the individual blog are nearing an end… that perhaps it had its heyday maybe three years ago but has leveled off now. Maybe for the better.

Ken Myers (of Mars Hill Audio) spoke today about the unintended and problematic consequences of wholesale embrace of new technologies, and I resonated with every word of what he said (though I think many bloggers in the audience were less impressed). Myers brought up points about identity that I’ve been harping on for the last few years: namely that the Internet has rendered the human self a fluid, flexible, not-fixed amalgam of a multiplicity of heterogeneous “selves.” (I later told him about my I’m Not There paper that addressed these issues in their contemporary cinematic representation.) Myers also pointed out how technology has rendered books and reading largely obsolete… mainly because we are all too busy writing about ourselves to bother reading someone else’s work.

This is almost too much of a gut check for me on the weekend I not only joined Facebook but drove to Las Vegas to attend a blog convention, and two days after I composed a column for an upcoming issue of Relevant in which I slam the self-absorbed Twitter mentality.

When I drive home through the desert tonight, part of me wants to just veer off onto some sage-ridden state highway and find a monastery or something to join. I could read books all day, and try to forget about the technological pests I’m plagued by. I could make my own jam and just think about things. Mull them over. Keep them circling in my head instead of floating around in cyberspace.

I Joined Facebook… Sigh.

September 19 was a dark day for me… but one that I feared would come soon enough.

I joined Facebook.

This is after years and years of publicly campaigning against it in articles such as this and this… oh and this one as recently as January where I talked about “the irrevocable damage Facebook and its various counterparts have done to meaningful communication.”

And now I am a part of the monster, feeding it like everyone else…

Laughable, I know. It will take a while for me to recover from this swift idealistic collapse. Now I know what Obama must feel like after talking so much about not running a negative campaign and then being forced to do it anyway.

Not that I was forced to do it, but believe me when I say that I had to join Facebook. Any professional journalist really cannot function without it these days, and my job at Biola magazine (especially some articles I’m writing now) necessitated some serious usage of Facebook.

I sickens me when technology wins, when I can no longer survive without it. This is like the cell phone: so many people held out and refused to get them five years ago, but now we’d all die without them. These are moments when Neil Postman’s Technopoly seems more prescient than ever.

I joined Facebook with the hope that I could “hide” and only use it secretly for work purposes. Ha. That lasted about 30 minutes earlier today, quickly devolving into just another Facebook startup: “friends,” friend-requests, profile-making, etc. I’ve really fallen fast, giving myself over to my sworn enemy with crude ease and jolting swiftness. At this rate of ideological turnaround I will be Facebook’s biggest champion by this time next week. Heaven forbid.

Bevy of New Reviews

I have three new reviews up at CT Movies today–the most I’ve ever published on a given day. I reviewed Hounddog, Lakeview Terrace, and Appaloosa. Of the three, I’d recommend the latter two if you are looking for a new movie to see this weekend that isn’t Ghost Town or The Duchess. Hounddog is, well… I gave it a generous 1 out of 4 stars.

Here are some excerpts from the reviews:

Hounddog (1 star): “Films as committed to obscurity as Hounddog rarely work, and in efforts to achieve artistic mystery and subtlety they frequently come across as quite heavy-handed. Here, the heavy-handedness includes a plot that is utterly predictable, characters that are offensively stereotypical, and an overall palette that tries so hard to look Southern (sepia tones, lightning bugs, humidity, whiskey, black men with spiritual wisdom) that it winds up looking like not much at all.”

Lakeview Terrace (2.5 stars): “Lakeview Terrace is like Crash in a cul-de-sac. It’s a film about race; it’s set in L.A.; it features a corrupt LAPD cop. Ultimately, it doesn’t take itself quite as seriously as Crash does, however, and instead of using car crashes as a metaphor it uses another Southern California staple: out-of-control wildfires.”

Appaloosa (2.5 stars): “As Virgil, Harris embodies a man who is in many ways a classic, John Wayne-esque western figure: grizzled and slightly brutish, but principled and with a heart of gold. He’s uneducated, but wise in the ways of the world. He frequently must ask Everett for the proper vocabulary when he is trying to make a point—words like “obsolete” and “byproduct.” Everett, meanwhile, is the quieter, double-barrel-shotgun-toting sidekick—an intelligent man who secretly wonders why we even have laws. Both are superb quick-draw gunmen, and both teeter precariously on the edge of using their talents for non-lawful purposes.”

Is Regulation Really the Answer?

The events on Wall Street this week have proven a number of things about the state of the American economy: 1) the recession is going to get worse before it gets better, 2) the government will bail out greedy and careless corporations rather than let them totally collapse and cause more severe short-term damage to the economy, and 3) the general consensus is that Washington must be more proactive in regulating the problematic real estate and banking sectors.

But I wonder: is more rigorous regulation really going to solve the problem? Certainly there needs to be some regulation, but I’ve always been suspicious of the idea that government (in all of its complicated, corrupted interests) is more efficient and enabling than private enterprise.

Regulation by the American government has historically been a good idea during times of intense industrial change (as in Teddy Roosevelt’s Square Deal) or war (as in FDR’s New Deal), but in times of relative stability, de-regulation has been more effective for the economy (as in the Reagan 80s). It’s hard to tell where we are right now.

In general, I tend to think that regulation (and the political push for it… typically a liberal/progressive/Democrat concern) is founded in a flawed philosophy. Regulation assumes that people are ultimately too stupid or greedy to self-regulate. Like most liberal thinking, regulation is about entrusting the government with more power–on the premise that one centralized authority acting with some vague “national interest” in mind is more capable than a million mini-authorities with their own self interests (usually the pursuit of wealth and property).

It’s condescending, really. Are average citizens really too dumb to act in their own best interests? Maybe. I suppose the liberal perception is that too many Americans are ignorant and emotional on the level of Sarah Palin (the whipping girl for unprecedented levels of unleashed liberal hatred). Thus, it’s probably better to limit the personal agency of these hicks and give the power to the presumably smarter politicians in Washington.

The problem is this: self-interest is always a more effective motivator than collective interest. The fact is: we’re humans. Humans are flawed, selfish, and, above all, desperately preoccupied with our own safety and future. Though it is a higher, more virtuous, doutbtless more Christ-like ambition to put the community or collective first, it is unfortunately impractical that humans will, en masse, “come together” to serve the nation before they serve themselves. As it happens, they actually end up serving the collective better when they put their own self-interests first. Why? Because collectivism only works when everyone is on board, and regrettably our fallen world renders that scenario impossible.

If this were Eden and we were perfect, all of us would agree that the community took precedence over the individual, that regulation for the greater good was far more important than our own self interests. But then again, in such a world our self interests wouldn’t be so problematic.

The New Christian Irony

If you are a Christian of a certain age (let’s say 21-50), and you grew up in the Christian church (especially in the 80s or early 90s), you probably love making fun of the evangelical subculture. I know I do. I love nothing more than laughing about and ironically consuming vintage Christian kitsch items. Whether it’s McGee and Me, DC Talk, Left Behind or any number of other bits of Jesus junk, I always enjoy reminiscing about it. In the same way that the rest of our generation ironically talks about Zach Morris or Labyrinth or those years when it was cool to roll up your jean shorts, Christians are finding great amusement in recalling the nonsensical oddities of the evangelical world.

One of the things Christian hipsters love to point out is just how sickeningly derivative evangelical culture is—that we always have to copy what the secular world is doing, usually a few months or years later (case in point: the new Christian version of Guitar Hero). These are also the Christian hipsters who take joy in looking ironically upon the maudlin kitsch that birthed them. It is the ultimate bit of irony, then, that Christians have coopted the irony industry to make out of it an evangelical alternative. For your consideration: larknews and stuffchristianslike:

Lark News: This is the Christian version of The Onion. It’s a fake news rag with infrequent but hilarious updates, with headlines like “Denominations reach non-compete agreement” and “Missionaries maintain obesity against long odds.” It’s a great source of laughs at the expense of our evangelical ridiculousness. The website also features a shop where you can buy snarky, make-fun-of-ourselves t-shirts.

Stuff Christians Like: This is the Christian version of Stuff White People Like—the runaway blog success that revels in smarmy self-loathing and the purging of white bourgeois guilt. The Christian version, which began on Jan 1, 2008 and features the same “countdown” format as its mainstream predecessor, includes such entries as “#31: Occasionally swearing,” “#393: Family Fish Bumper Stickers,” “#382: Perfectly Timing Your Communion Walk,” and “#93: Riding on the Cool Van in the Youth Group.”

Of course, there are many other examples of this sort of thing that I could mention. The Wittenberg Door, Relevant, and countless evangelical college humor magazines have been doing this stuff for years. But it seems that Christian irony is increasingly prevalent these days, maybe because all of us naïve children are grown up now and stunned by the crazy things we grew up in. Sometimes all we can do is laugh.

Have You Seen His Childhood?

On August 29, Michael Jackson celebrated his 50th birthday. It was a low key affair, with the King of Pop hanging out with his three kids, eating candy, giggling, “watching cartoons” and “just relaxing.” No Macaulay Culkin, no Elizabeth Taylor, no Chris Tucker. Just Michael and his kids (Prince Michael, Paris, and Prince Michael II). Just like a normal family.

It’s crazy to think that Michael, the kid who not so many years ago blew our minds with the insane dancing of “Thriller” and “Beat It” and repeatedly set records with album sales, is now a half century old (joining Madonna and Prince, who also turned 50 this year), living in relative obscurity somewhere in Bahrain (and recently Las Vegas), supposedly working on a new album. Will he ever return to the glory days again?

Probably not; not in this day and age when the new royals of pop are Disney Channel stars (Jonas Brothers, Miley Cyrus, Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens, etc) or otherwise talentless prefab teen-pop confections. Being a superstar is not about talent anymore; it’s about being cross-marketable and cute. Michael Jackson was once adorable (back in the Jackson 5 days), but now he is a haunting, disturbingly post-human specter. I’ll be surprised if he ever has a hit record again.

It’s funny what happens to pop stars after they peak, after they grow up. We’ve already watched Britney loose her grip on reality after she left her teenybopper days behind; Lindsay Lohan is fast on her heals. These are the kids who were once the icons of sugar-pop, Disney kitsch. Now they are grown up and trying to remain relevant, often to little success (at least Britney seems to be on a semi-upswing… she’s readying a new single and staying out of the headlines).

Alas, it must be immensely disorienting for a person to reach such high levels of fame and fortune at such a young age. When you reach the top before you are 20, where do you go from there? Perhaps this is why aging popstars are always trying so hard to be edgy and new, to remain in the public consciousness. Did you see Christina Aguilera at the VMA’s? Her remix performance of “Genie in the Bottle” was kind of cool, but does anyone really care about her anymore, when there are new singers like Rihanna and Jordan Sparks to worry about? And can anyone really believe that the New Kids on the Block have reunited and attempted a comeback? Is there anything sadder than that?

Actually, I shouldn’t pity these people. I’m sure I’ll be like them one day, trying to remain cool and relevant even when I’m clearly out of touch. I already feel that way, actually. Neither I nor Michael Jackson will ever again be as cool as the Jonas Brothers are now…