Some thoughts on truth and fraudulence in Christian cinema

Two excellent articles considering an important question — Why do Christian movies suck? — have appeared recently.  The first was written by Salon critic Andrew O’Hehir, while the response was posted on by Timothy Dalrymple.  As with just about everything else in my blog, this is a topic I’d planned to cover at some point, and others beat me to it, so now’s as good a time as any to say my piece.  I need to emphasize before going further that I greatly enjoyed both articles, and there is much I agree with in both.  The wit and insight on display suggests that O’Hehir and Dalrymple would be prime candidates for a televised roundtable.  (Make it happen, people!)  I don’t feel like recapitulating each article, so before you read further, please read both articles so we can bite right into the meat.

O’Hehir and Dalrymple both accede a key point right away: that most explicitly Christian movies in the last couple decades have been awful.  Dalrymple makes a case that the word “explicit” (as used by O’Hehir) carries a pernicious implication, and this is where I’m inclined to commence my disagreement with both writers.  To a certain extent, I agree with Dalrymple that the explicit depiction of religious faith should not have the same queasy connotation as, say, “The film contained an explicit scene in which a man with a drill-penis literally screws a woman to death.”  (Yes, really.)  But even if O’Hehir is personally discomfited by movies with explicit Christian ideas just because he’s a secularist, the fact remains that “explicit” messages or images in films tend to be propagandistic or exploitative.  They cheapen the subject matter and pander to the audience.  If Soul Surfer is explicit in that sense, then the problem is that it is hamfisted and insulting in its simplicity, rather than synonymous with sleazy or shocking content.

Catering to a niche audience by giving them the most of what they want is the very definition of exploitation cinema (at least, as it was explained by Robert Rodriguez in the special features for the Grindhouse DVD).  What Rodriguez called “exploitable elements” can be scenes of earnest prayer or scenes in which Quentin Tarantino’s schlong melts off.  If there’s an audience for buxom women going on killing sprees (a la Russ Meyer), there’s an audience for evangelical Christians asking God how to get on with life after losing a family member or an appendage.  The mark of an exploitation film is the fact that it is more willing to showcase the exploitable elements that cater to its market than it is to focus on smooth storytelling, high-caliber acting, or a strong script.

I’m inclined to agree with Dalrymple that most Hollywood product is as hackneyed as the worst offenders in the faith-based film market, but the difference is that secular filmmaking has its verifiable maestros.  Apart from Mel Gibson, are there any other American filmmakers who have made a point of producing films with explicit, pro-Christian content who are also acknowledged masters of the craft?  Even Gibson has really only made one explicitly pro-Christian film, and that was dogged by controversy for its graphic violence and inflated charges of anti-Semitism.  (An aside: I was thrilled that O’Hehir correctly applied the term “visionary” to Gibson.)  His only post-Passion project as a director, Apocalypto, was a deeply antisocial rant against the abuses of civilization’s most entrenched  institutions — and the final shot of the film implicated none other than the Church as one of the abusers.  There are many filmmakers who hail from various Christian backgrounds (a former Catholic like Martin Scorsese; a former Methodist like George Lucas), but few of them actively promulgate specifically Christian beliefs in their films.  Christianity may be part of the background for themes, characters, or ideas, but nobody is meant to come away from their films meditating on the potential benefits of adopting a Christian belief-system.  And even if the films are steeped in a particularly Christian milieu, the unique way that Christians grapple with certain questions — faith, the meaning of life, the existence of a Higher Power — is not the focus of the story.  Christianity is most often used as a lever to explore such themes in a humanist way.

I don’t condemn that.  Neither does Dalrymple, but his astute observation — that the prolonged absence of explicit Christian content from mainstream film makes it more jarring when it appears — isn’t really a justification for the poor quality of explicitly Christian filmmaking, either.  Audiences of faith may readily eat up films that do offer Christian content, but the fact that an audience ratifies a film at the box office doesn’t mean that the film is of a high quality.  Just as Dalrymple is correct that the secular arm of the entertainment industry produces a lot of crap, it is also true that audiences, Christian and secular alike, are not, as a whole, terribly discerning.  Explicitly Christian crap is still crap, even if it means well.

That’s why O’Hehir’s mocking of the new wave in faith-based filmmaking isn’t really off the mark.  His casual contempt for these films, and by extension, their target audience, is the same contempt that is aimed at the people who lap up a film like Your Highness.  (And I have to take issue with Dalrymple’s characterization of that film as a “putrid, half-baked mess.”  Given the, uh, medicinal supplements used by the people involved, I believe the correct term would be “perpetually baked.”)  Most of the movies that make money are as blunt and poorly constructed as the Christian films that O’Hehir cites, but I think it’s unreasonably peevish of him to say that he doesn’t expect Christian filmmakers to rise to the challenge.  As if Transformers: Rise of the Fallen demonstrates beyond the shadow of a doubt the continual artistic refinement of a secular juggernaut wrangler like Michael Bay, as opposed to its predecessor, which doesn’t come quite as close to the Platonic ideal.

Educated cinephiles recognize the difference between quality and junk.  Some of us still enjoy junk food celluloid now and then.  Cineliteracy is an intrinsically relevant point: I have already stated that it is one of the most important educational issues in our culture.  The real question isn’t whether Christian audiences and filmmakers can learn to watch or make film of real quality, though.  The question is whether they can tell the difference, and if they would have an appetite for filet mignon after stuffing themselves with stale Twinkies for a couple decades.  I don’t personally see anything wrong with a Christian enjoying a film like Soul Surfer for what it is; there may even be a case to be made that faithsploitation has its own unique and valuable attributes, just as any other niche subgenre.  The art of the melodrama as a whole can be taken to rare heights, and low-budget filmmakers like Rainer Werner Fassbinder could wring high art out of a film like The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, even by utilizing tropes that were (and are) dismissed by the high priests of haute culture.  Not every filmgoer would necessarily recognize the expertise in which hoarier tropes are used to great effect, but at least they’d feel the power of them.

That’s a very rosy, optimistic idea, of course.  I haven’t heard of anybody in the faith-based film community approaching Fassbinder-like levels, although from what I hear, Tyler Perry may be the closest thing out there.  Even if there were a few truly excellent filmmakers producing films for the church crowd, I’m left to wonder if “the secular movie-reviewing elite” would allow that Christian movies don’t suck anymore… or if perhaps they would simply highlight those films as being flukes that are totally unrepresentative of the whole.  It’s almost easier to dismiss a niche as a whole if you can point to one or two truly exceptional individuals, and contrast the rest of the heap as crap by comparison.  These singular exceptions might even be folded into a different artistic class — endorsed for their humanist virtues and universal appeal, rather than praised for being outstanding, specifically Christian films.

There are, of course, some explicitly Christian filmmakers whose films are inseparable from their own faith systems.  Robert Bresson, for a famous example, developed a very unique aesthetic style that has led to his virtual canonization as one of cinema’s foremost artists.  Frank Borzage, by contrast, was a studio director who often very subtly manipulated secular narratives and tropes to signify his Catholic beliefs — and though he enjoys a respectable reputation, he is not remembered as an innovator or stylistic genius.  More often than not, it seems to me that films about religious faith or by very Christian filmmakers are awarded more accolades in direct proportion to how little appeal they hold for a mass audience.  John Woo identifies himself as a devout Christian, but this is most often noted as an ironic aside; his commercial films are known for balletic, graphic violence and the romantic interplay between men who share codes of honor.  Therefore his canonization is as an heir to Peckinpah, rather than one of the finest Christian directors in the world.  Kim Ki-duk also identifies himself as a Christian, but films like Bad Guy and The Isle feature some genuinely shocking flashes of violence and sexuality, stylistic traits uncommon in films like Fireproof or Left Behind.  Though the information I’ve seen about the specifics of Kim’s belief-system is vague, the word “Christian” was used explicitly; yet virtually every mainstream American critic has couched his films in terms of Buddhism in the wake of Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring.  Maybe secular critics are uncomfortable with extolling the Christian virtues of Christian films, but if the popularity of filmmakers like Bresson is any indication, Christian audiences are equally as uncomfortable with genuine artistic bravura.

Then there’s the fact that some of the great Christian films have been made by non-Christians.  Ingmar Bergman, whose atheism is legendary, made the best film about faith I’ve ever seen.  Winter Light is not generally regarded as his masterpiece, but it is a masterpiece and probably my favorite of his films.  C.T. Dreyer is most famous for The Passion of Joan of Arc, one of the most admired dramas of faith and martyrdom, and the vagaries of religion figure heavily into his final three sound films, especially Ordet.  Accordingly, many Christian critics dub him as one of our own, but Jonathan Rosenbaum lays out a compelling case that Dreyer was, in fact, not especially religious at all.  All of these filmmakers and films deal in some way with the Christian experience, yet O’Hehir and Dalrymple both ignore them, preferring to couch the discussion in the terms of Biblical epics or uplifting family films.  The idea that “Christian films” is a label that only applies to films that are marketed to subscribers to Focus on the Family is specious.  I think it speaks to O’Hehir’s prejudices about the kind of art Christians are capable of producing as much as it speaks to Dalrymple’s acceptance of Hollywood-style commercialism as the key aesthetic toward which faith-based films (should) aspire.

Isn’t it kind of sad that marketeers are framing this debate?  It’s probably true that the average Christian doesn’t give three sheets about Bresson, Dreyer, or Kim, but why didn’t O’Hehir factor them into his article?  When he concedes the craft of a “family film” director like Frank Capra, he still flicks it at the reader like cigarette ash, a backhanded acknowledgement that Capra made “masterpieces of a certain overcooked variety.”

Dalrymple deconstructed the implications of “explicit.”  Allow me to nitpick the implications of O’Hehir’s “overcooked” comment.  Though he establishes the long legacy of Christian contributions to the arts, he relegates the Christian contributions to cinema to the realm of The Greatest Story Ever Told (read: the now-defunct subgenre of Biblical epics) and the homogenized “family film.”  No Bergman.  No Bresson.  No Borzage.  Just Shirley Temple (“unwatchable”) and Frank Capra (“overcooked”).  In other words, he holds Soul Surfer up against Hollywood’s mainstream output and finds it lacking; then he indicates that Hollywood’s mainstream output is similarly lacking.  Therefore, in O’Hehir’s view, Christian films are at least two steps removed from cinema of genuine quality.

There’s no way for aspiring Christian film artists to win.  At best, O’Hehir has allowed Tinseltown ad men to dictate the terms of the debate from the get-go, thus ensuring that any response must first address the downmarket ghetto of Hallmark Channel castoffs like Fireproof in contrast to family films like The Blind Side.  But O’Hehir himself seems to relegate family films to an artistic ghetto of their own, measuring even the great Frank Capra against an unspecified artistic ideal that results in even his films being labeled overcooked masterpieces.  When Dalrymple responds to O’Hehir at length, he therefore concedes that Soul Surfer isn’t really a great film; he simply ends up articulating how the average Christian can empathize with a not-particularly-great movie.

That’s kind of depressing, especially since Dalrymple chides O’Hehir and his secular associates for perpetuating a “subtle but insidious prejudice in the belief that stories of despair and sorrow are profounder or truer than stories of hope and joy.”  I agree wholeheartedly with Dalrymple that this is a false premise, but what has happened is that Dalrymple ended up writing an extended apologia for mediocre entertainment that soft-sells Hope™, which is problematic on two levels.  One: even the most powerful message, if delivered in trite terms, is diminished.  My suspicion is that Dalrymple’s explanation of Soul Surfer’s appeal is far more erudite and persuasive than the film itself.  Two: in dwelling on the validity of the uplifting, “inspiring true story” aspect of Christian cinema, he excludes all the films with more ambiguous or complicated meanings or aesthetics.  He ends up committing the same sin as O’Hehir, albeit for different reasons.  Yes, the “deep and hidden logic of the world” is irrational and wiser in joy than sorrow, but sorrow and despair are also part of the human — and spiritual — experience.  Not everyone who battles these emotions emerges intact or with as clear a view of his/her own faith as Bethany Hamilton.  The general arc of a person’s faith life may still be positive or orthodox, but films like those of the filmmakers I mentioned earlier don’t paint clear-cut pictures of the world that religious faith allows us to see.

Life is always more complicated, and there are films that attempt to dramatize that complexity in ways that embrace the totality of the human experience rather than seizing on the “teachable” aspects.  The Christian faith — any faith system, really — is a working definition of the difference between “simple” and “simplistic.”  Confessing that Jesus Christ is my savior is simple; my faith in the truth of that is simple.  The meaning and ramifications radiating out from that one, simple thing, however, are a spiderweb of logical contradictions, ontological challenges, and emotional hurdles.  Nothing in the world is more difficult than believing in a clear and simple Truth, whatever that Truth may be.  I tend to regard any attempt to make this simplicity simplistic as fraudulent, and I think most intelligent critics do, too.  That’s why they praise films like Au Hasard Balthazar and tear movies like Soul Surfer a new bunghole, even if they do not share the religious worldview of Robert Bresson: they recognize a fraudulent conception of reality when they see it, and it offends them that the filmmakers apparently think it is genuine.

Exploitation films cater to an audience’s fantasy.  Faithsploitation caters to a world Christians wish existed.  Even if the real-life Bethany Hamilton simply went through a rough patch, rediscovered her faith, and moved on, better than ever, the notion that any and every other Christian watching the film can do that is a fantasy.  Christians watch films like this for the same reason people watch Serendipity to believe in happy endings, Death Wish to vindicate the morality of their darker impulses, or Avatar to be transported to an alternate world where epic, Manichean battles are granted legitimacy because the mundane details of that world are so fantastic.  Most movies cater to human fantasy in some way.  Even Eric Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s could perhaps qualify as a scenario dreamed up by a Christian intellectual who wants to indulge the fantasy of temptation, if not the empty satisfaction of the sin.

These are hasty generalizations.  I admit that.  But true art happens where seriousness of purpose meets the skill of craftsmanship, even if the seriousness of purpose is nothing loftier than providing a jolt of irresistible entertainment.  Over at Confused Gender, Alex Maisey recently skewered the false feminism of Casino Royale’s characterization of Vesper Lynd in an adroit comment that has applications here:

In Casino Royale, like M before her Vesper Lynd easily succeeds in taking Bond down a peg or two verbally in a scene oft-cited as showing her to be Bond’s equal. Now, I’m very – particularly – behind the portrayal of women in movies as smart, intelligent and able to hold their own in conversation, but context is everything and Casino Royale, whichever way you spin it, is not The Three Colours trilogy and it’s not a studied, layered, nuanced dissection of existentialism in modern society. It’s an action movie and it’s destined to play out on genre terms via the rules of action movies, which include notions of audience expectation.

Alex’s criticism echoes what C.S. Lewis wrote in the very first sentence of his Preface to Paradise Lost:

The first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know what it is–what it was intended to do and how it is meant to be used.  After that has been discovered the temperance reformer may decide that the corkscrew was made for a bad purpose, and the communist may think the same about the cathedral.  But such questions come later.  The first thing is to understand the object before you: as long as you think the corkscrew was meant for opening tins or the cathedral for entertaining tourists you can say nothing to the purpose about them.

My hypothesis is that so-called “faith-based films” are intended to reaffirm the faith of the Christian audience in some fashion.  The terms of the rules of faith-based filmmaking is that moral and spiritual dilemmas have definite answers that are satisfactorily resolved; that the audience not be subjected to images or messages that may cause them discomfort; that the actors perform in an accessible, unambiguous style; that the aesthetic scheme go out of its way to be clear, to be anything but obscure.  Once we understand the rules of the game, we can choose whether or not to play; we know whether or not the game will be fun for us.  For me (and, I suspect, for a majority of secular critics), this game doesn’t look like a lot of fun.  It looks like a game of dodgeball, in which the other team is stacked with venomously visaged Swedish bodybuilders.

In the context of this discussion, then, it’s fair to say that a move like Soul Surfer may constitute a “faith-based film,” but is it a “Christian film?”  I don’t think so.  As discussed above, Christian films come in a multitude of shapes and sizes.  A faith-based film may be a Christian film, but a Christian film is not necessarily a faith-based film.  Nobody is drawing comparisons between Soul Surfer and Jesus of Montreal.  We need to identify Christian films as Christian films, not designate a certain kind of mediocrity as “Christian” and hold it in reserve, like a stiletto in a waterfront brawl.  Both Christian and secular critics are guilty of this, and both do a disservice to the diversity of Christian film art by doing so.

I’m not blind to the fact that the recent decades haven’t given us a whole lot of great Christian films, but I’m also not sure that there is a surfeit of great Christian filmmaking to be found earlier, either.  The corpus of world cinema is almost unimaginably vast, so naturally there are hundreds of great Christian movies, but compared to cinema’s total output, it’s probably a proportionally small number, just as the ratio of masterpieces to generally released films is also small.  I think it’s unfortunate that the Christian communities in the world haven’t given us a significant amount of great films in the last several years.  Whatever the reasons for that, I don’t think it’s a permanent state of the art.  My hunch is that we’ll probably see a number of innovative Christian filmmakers emerge the more that motion picture technology floods the market.  The next iteration of the entertainment industry — whatever it may look like in our increasingly cyber-spacefaring world — will probably see a boom of younger, hungry Christian artists developing new ways to express their faith in motion picture form.  Maybe we’ll even see some come up through the ranks of the established industry.

In any case, Christianity has persisted for two millennia.  I don’t think that a glut of mediocre, sappy family films is the death knell of Christianity’s influence on popular art, nor should mediocre, sappy family films be considered to be synonymous with “Christian filmmaking.”  O’Hehir’s dismissal of Christian films is ultimately as simplistic as the film he describes as Soul Surfer.  I’m more inclined to agree with Dalrymple in the sense that — and I paraphrase him — faith-based filmmaking must die to its vision of itself before it can find the new life intended for it.  I don’t know if there’s a deep and hidden logic to that, but the cheesy, family-film aesthetic cultivated by the current crop seems to suffer from an addiction to test-marketed tropes and imagistic bromides.  Christian faith is illogical, simple, and beautiful in its perplexing fragility.  Christians don’t stay strong in the faith because they give people what they want (or what they think people want); they gain strength from the mystery of Christ.  Christian film could use a healthy dose of that kind of visionary irrationality. ☕


About tardishobbit

Reads. Writes. Watches movies. Occasionally stirs from chair. Holds an advanced degree in heuristic indolence. View all posts by tardishobbit

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