Tag Archives: Calvary

On the Poor Quality of Christian-Made Movies: A Proposition

GodsNotDead

A year ago at this time, discussion of Hollywood’s “religious renaissance” began in earnest. Movies like Son of God, Noah, Heaven is for Real and God’s Not Dead were preparing to release, with more faith-oriented films set to come out later in the year (Mom’s Night Out, The Identical, Left Behind, Exodus). A year later, after mixed box office results and plenty of heated blogosphere chatter, what have we learned about what works and what doesn’t when faith and film collide?

There is a lot that could be said about this topic, and a lot that has already been written. Brandon Ambrosino’s excellent recent Vox piece, “Why are Christian movies so painfully bad?” summarizes many of the key themes. I’ve done a lot of thinking and writing about this topic over the years and hate to belabor familiar points, but the increasing ubiquity and decreasing quality of the “by and for Christians” genre has me pondering anew what is wrong and what can be done. 2014 saw a new low for an already low bar, after all.

Take a look at the following list of “made by and for Christians” films, with their Rottentomatoes.com scores in parentheses: Son of God (21%), God’s Not Dead (17%), Heaven is for Real (46%), Mom’s Night Out (18%), The Identical (7%), Left Behind (2%), Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas (0%). The average score of these seven films is 16%. Even Christian critics joined the critical consensus in acknowledging the poor quality of these films.

Peter Chattaway called God’s Not Dead “a sloppily written, badly argued, unevenly acted film,” and suggested that “if this becomes the standard for all Christian films to come, then the genre is truly in deep, deep trouble.” The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday, who recently wrote about being a Christian and a film critic, described Mom’s Night Out as a “strained, clunkily orchestrated and dismally retrograde film.” Christianity Today critic Jackson Cuidon gave Left Behind half of a star (out of four), writing that “Left Behind is not a Christian Movie, whatever ‘Christian Movie’ could even possibly mean.”

Why are these movies so terrible? I’d like to propose that the problem is propositional. That is, these are films that reflect the propositional bent of evangelicalism (think three point sermons with clear “life application” takeaways).

Consider the very titles of God’s Not Dead and Heaven is for Real. They are themselves propositions, unambiguous assertions stating a truth: God is NOT dead! Heaven is for REAL! The films’ flimsy conflicts are only temporary doubts and objections systematically overcome en route to the black-and-white conclusions already asserted in their titles. God’s Not Dead is literally mostly an argument in a lecture hall, and Heaven is For Real spends far too much time literally preaching from the pulpit.

Art should neither preach nor lecture, and yet many Christian films do too much of both, telling us what faith is rather than showing us.

It’s not that films shouldn’t have messages; they should. But the message should not be a foregone conclusion based on the title, nor should it (I would argue) be self-evident even after the end credits roll. The best art gives shape to a “message” (or maybe “reflection” or “revelation” are better words) that is considered, wrestled with, debated and engaged far after we initially encounter it. And sometimes the construal of a message is secondary to the experience of beauty; something few Christian filmmakers seem to understand.

Christians should be the first to acknowledge that the mysteries of God and the grace of Jesus Christ are not concepts to be understood or arguments to be won as much as goodness we receive, beauty that confronts and truth that transforms. This is why art is so urgent and necessary. It sometimes comes the closest to capturing the aspects of religious truth and transcendent experience that words, sermons and propositions cannot adequately communicate.

When I think about the most affecting “Christian” films to come out in 2014, the ones that come to mind are not the clear-cut, “the answer is in the title” films but rather the ones that feature complex portraits of believing characters or journeys of faith. Films like Calvary, Ida, The Overnighters and Selma are powerful films that take belief seriously yet do not present tidy resolutions to the tensions they explore. They are powerful in part because they are sincere without being saccharine and beautiful without being unblemished. It’s perhaps notable that the average Rottentomatoes.com score of these four films is 95%. Critics are not inherently opposed to sincere films about Christianity. But what they respond to is not a message preached or points made as much as truths explored and beauty unveiled.

The problem of the “by and for Christians” films is that they assume that the packaging or the how of storytelling is important only insofar as the what being proposed is clearly and unmistakably communicated. It stems from the evangelical failure to recognize that the relationship between medium and message is inextricable rather than incidental.

Most evangelicals acknowledge that the medium is important, and for that reason they often put lots of money and resources into the latest and greatest communication technologies: using the newest and most expensive cameras to make their movies; expertly employing social media in their ministries; hiring design firms to create cutting edge brand identity for a church. But making medium a point of emphasis is not enough. Christians need to recognize that medium and message are related to each other in an ontological and not just instrumentalist way. Style, form, packaging, etc. cannot and should not be employed simply in service of the message. They are the message. To see the forms of art and worship as irrelevant or merely instrumental to the communication of content is dangerous and downright Gnostic.

Evangelical filmmakers need to focus on becoming masters of form not so that they can make the message more pretty; but because form can itself be a powerful message, revealing things that might otherwise be lost if we focused solely on the intelligibility or “takeaway value” of what we have to say. The saying itself, and the living, matter at least as much as what is said.

The Incarnation is the perfect example of this. Jesus was not formless content or simply content with form. He was the Word made flesh, fully God and fully man, salvation and hope in embodied, storied form. He wasn’t just a walking powerpoint presentation; he healed and lived and worked his way through a very specific story. In the fullness of time God sent his son because He recognized that the salvation of humanity required not a message but a man; not concepts but a cross: a real, tangible, splintery, beautifully ugly cross.

Advertisements

Best Films of 2014

BOYHOOD

In spite of North Korea-sponsored hacks and Hollywood’s subsequent self-censorship, constant doomsday talk of box office decline and much ink spilt about The End of Movies, it was a terrific year for cinema. It’s always difficult in years like this to narrow down to ten favorites, but  below is my attempt. These are films that moved me, astonished me, taught me, and focused my attention more clearly than any others this year. I heartily recommend them all to you:

10) Only Lovers Left Alive: Jim Jarmusch has long been one of my favorite directors, and his goth-hipster take on the vampire genre did not disappoint. Starring the always wonderful Tilda Swinton and Tom “Loki” Hiddleston as a pair of vampire lovers with impeccable taste (Basquiat, Lord Byron, David Foster Wallace), Only Lovers Left Alive is both darkly funny, elegant and mournful in a way only Jarmusch (Down By Law, Broken Flowers) can quite pull off.

9) Calvary: This dark comedy from John Michael McDonagh (Ned Kelly) tells the story of an Irish priest (Brendan Gleeson) who receives a death threat from one of his parishioners. The film plays at times like a Clue-esque whodunit but what I found most compelling about it is how it shows the day-to-day ministry of a priest caring for his flock. Against the backdrop of a post-Christendom Europe, where churches and clergy are viewed by many with suspicion if not contempt, Calvary shows one the beauty of one man’s faithfulness and burden for the lost.

8) It Felt Like Love: This stunning debut film from Eliza Hittman follows a 14-year-old girl (Gina Piersanti) in Brooklyn as she navigates relationships and sexuality in those awkward girl-to-woman years. Subtle, realistic, quiet and immensely perceptive, the film reminded me a bit of Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank (2010). More than anything I’ve seen, It Felt Like Love shows the disturbing ways that our sex-saturated society and misogynistic media landscape warp young people’s senses of love, body image, relationships and sexuality.

7) Ida: This Polish film from Pawel Pawlikowski (My Summer of Love) is quiet, spare (filmed in black and white) and understated, yet it packs a punch. Set in the devastated (physically, emotional, existentially) landscape of post-Holocaust Poland, the film follows a novitiate nun as she discovers details about her family from the time of the Nazi occupation. Perhaps the most beautifully shot film of the year, Ida is also one of the most insightful films I’ve seen about the lingering ghosts of WWII in contemporary Europe.

6) Noah: I’ve been unabashed in my acclaim for Darren Aronofsky’s Noah and my insistence that, in spite of all the controversy surrounding the ROCK MONSTERS, “liberties taken with the story” and accusations of Gnosticism, it’s actually a pretty excellent film–one of Aronofsky’s best. Not only is it a great film but it’s a rather reverential one too, taking faith in God more seriously (ironically) than some of the more on-the-nose God films that came out this year (I’m looking at you, God’s Not Dead). Yes, its an unfamiliar take on the story. Yes, it’s environmentalist (so is the Bible). Yes, it draws from more than just the Bible in its telling of a biblical story (so did The Passion of the Christ). Whatever. I loved it, I’m a Christian and my faith is richer because of this film. (my review)

5) Locke: The more I think about this film, a one-man-in-a-car-for-90-minutes tour de force from Tom Hardy, the more I find it impressive. Not only is it another fine entry into the growing genre of “minimalist actor showcase” films (see also: Robert Redford in the criminally under seen All is Lost), but it’s also a master class in filmmaking. Only after the film is over, and just as you’re getting used to Hardy’s peculiar Welsh accent, does the force of its power start to hit you. It’s a film that doesn’t tell you what it’s about but reveals itself over time (days, weeks, months in my case) and after much reflection to be a film that is about nearly everything. Countless times over the last few months, whether reading Genesis, watching the news, dealing with relational stress or driving the L.A. freeways, my thoughts have returned to Locke. That’s the mark of a great film. (my review)

4) The Immigrant: The latest from James Gray (Two Lovers, We Own the Night), The Immigrant is a glorious and deceptively simple throwback to classic Hollywood melodrama. Featuring exceptional work from the always terrific Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix, The Immigrant explores the very American mingling of God and mammon, as well as grace and work, as it tells the tale of America’s messy dream. (my review)

3) Under the Skin: Jonathan Glazer’s follow-up to his stylish enigma Birth (2004), Under the Skin is a similarly provocative exploration of what it means to be human, particularly what it means to be embodied. Starring Scarlett Johansson in her second non-human role in a row (see also: Her), Under the Skin is quite literally about skin: the phenomenon of a soul clothed in a body, of our bodily substance, of what an alien’s gaze at the awkwardness of humanity might look like if it spent some time in our shoes. It’s also about incarnation, which is also a theme in Her. In the midst of our disembodying, digital age, films like these help remind us of the complexity and wonder of what it means to be human.

2) Two Days, One Night: The Belgian Dardenne brothers (The Son, The Child, The Kid With a Bike) make masterpieces so often it would be easy to take them for granted. “It’s just another tour-de-force triumph of humane neorealism,” one might say of their latest film, Two Days, One Night. “Ho hum.” But the film, starring Marion Cotillard (her second Oscar-worthy performance of the year, in my estimation), is nevertheless worthy to be counted among the best movies of the year, even if it feels like another effortless outing in Dardenne-land. What makes Two Days stand out this year is how timely it seems, touching as it does on issues of depression and mental health, as well as economic malaise and the struggle between individual profit and collective responsibility. Like all the Dardenne brothers’ films, Two Days feels beautifully specific and yet at the same time universal–a film about a woman, a husband and a community which we can all identify with.

1) Boyhood: Even if its acting and story were a bust (they aren’t), Richard Linklater’s Boyhood would still be something of a monumental achievement in cinema. Shot over 12 years (the patience!) with the same actors, showing on film the real growing up of a boy (real in the sense of each year he is visibly older, as are his family members), Boyhood chisels away from a mound of time to form an unprecedented cinematic sculpture of temporality and family-shaping childhood development. It’s sort of like the Up series meets David Brooks’ The Social Animal. As I’ve reflected on the film I’ve thought about the inaccessible reality of one’s childhood: photographs and video documentation of it may exist, and one has memories. But they are fading and will one day disappear, as will the physical artifacts and photos. Eventually one’s descendants will render their life only sketchily in their imaginations, and then not at all. The power of films like Boyhood is that they do what any human with memories longs to do: they reconstruct the elusive past, vividly conjuring holy moments of old that would otherwise be lost. (my review)

Honorable Mention: Cold in July, Foxcatcher, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Interstellar, Nightcrawler, The Wind Rises, Snowpiercer, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely,  Selma, Whiplash.

Note: Several of the films on this list contain content (violence, nudity, sex, drugs, language, etc.) that should be approached with caution.