Fireproof ☕ d. Alex Kendrick, 2008

In writing class, one of the most inflexible pieces of advice I ever received was to use exclamation points as sparingly as possible.  By “advice,” I mean more of a commandment that translates as “Thou shalt not use exclamation points.”  It’s along the same lines as not writing in all caps.  Among the practical reasons for these admonishments is reader exhaustion: IT’S SIMPLY WEARYING TO READ SENTENCES LIKE THIS!!!  YOU CAN’T DO IT FOR LONG PERIODS OF TIME!!!  NOT EVERYTHING OF IMPORTANCE HAS TO BE EXPRESSED IN THE STRONGEST VISUAL TERMS!!!  Besides the negative effect on the reader, overuse of a particular technique blunts its effect.  Any tool in the writer’s toolbox can be deployed in just the right circumstance, but bringing the big guns to bear too often will overheat them; they’ll jam.  The proverbial boy who cried wolf learned this lesson WHEN THE WOLF ATE HIM OMFG!!!!!

Fireproof is a textbook example of exclamation-point filmmaking.

After trotting it out repeatedly as a go-to example of bad faith-based filmmaking in a previous post, I figured it was only fair to elaborate on why Fireproof is a bad film, rather than taking for granted that everyone should accept it as such.  After all, it is rather popular with its target audience, if not with critics.  On Amazon, the average rating out of 702 customer reviews is four-and-a-half out of five stars; on Netflix, the average rating of more than 690,000 votes is four of five stars.  Independently produced on a budget of $500,000, the film took in more than $30 million in domestic box office receipts, and that’s not even counting DVD sales and rentals.  Clearly, there was a voracious audience for this picture, and numerous analyses of so-called “Christian cinema” since its release have attempted to account for its appeal.  The articles by Andrew O’Hehir and Timothy Dalrymple were part of this effort.

I’m not here to contest its popularity (though I do aggressively contest the taste of the film’s supporters).  Without intending to sound hysterical, let me state the situation plainly: Fireproof is a problem for Christian cinephiles.  It’s an even bigger problem for Christians who aren’t cinephiles, primarily because they’re the ones least equipped to understand the ramifications of the problem.

Non-Christian cinephiles grasp the problem almost instinctually.  On an ideological level, it is irrelevant at best and toxic at worst.  I refer you to Scott Tobias’s astute, terse breakdown, as published in The Onion’s A.V. Club:

Basically, the problem with Cameron and Bethea’s marriage is that he’s pissed off because his wife actually expects something from him, like extending a little kindness to her or washing a dish every once in awhile. He’s like a gardener who never supplies a drop of water to a plant, then rages petulantly when the plant wilts. And when Cameron gets in a rage, out comes the baseball bat… Cameron acts like a childish jerk, even in the reconciliation phase, and the underlying reason is that he—and the movie—hates women.

My wife and I watched the film together, presumably as Kendrick and his brother, Stephen, intend Christian couples to do.  Tobias refers to a running gag in the film in which Cameron’s character, Caleb, after each dust-up with his wife, runs outside to beat the stuffing out of his garbage can in an inchoate fury.  My wife’s immediate reaction: “That’s the first sign that she’s in an abusive relationship.”  I could only concur.  These scenes were also a testament to Alex Kenrick’s total tone-deafness.  Invariably following an unbelievably melodramatic confrontation, the garbage can scenes are played for comic effect: Caleb’s elderly neighbor always seems to be watering his plants or doing similarly elderly-neighbor things whenever Caleb vents his wrath on the dustbin, leading to an awkward (read: “Awk-ward!”) exchange of niceties.  Coming after such a disproportionate explosion of rage, the stab at humor isn’t just ill-timed — it undercuts the severity of what we’ve just witnessed, as if, to the Kendricks, it’s not such a big deal at all.  The kind of thing that can be papered over with sitcom-quality muggery.  You know: for balance.

The gag mutates throughout the film.  Most reviewers make mention of an infamous scene evidently cribbed from Office Space.  One of Caleb’s sins against his wife is his addiction to Internet porn.  At a minorly climactic point, Caleb decides to go cold turkey… by destroying his home computer with a baseball bat.  Mark 9:49 does say, “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out,” but the problem is that Catherine doesn’t use Caleb’s eyes — she may, however, use the home desktop for her work as a public relations administrator at the local hospital.  As admirable as it may be for Caleb to want to remove any possible temptation from his life, his sacrifice comes across as inconsiderate, rather than thoughtful.  It’s exactly the kind of “act now, repent later” contrition that paints Caleb as a terrible husband and rather shortsighted as a Christian.

This is all beside the fact that the whole Internet porn subplot is handled with a bizarre mixture of gracelessness and chastity.  I recognize that not every film about sinners has to be laden with explicit representations of sinful acts.  I’m not asking to see Kirk Cameron jacking off all over his keyboard — in fact, I would definitely prefer not to see anything of the kind.  But the film’s mise-en-scene fails in even subtle hints of Caleb’s trespasses: for a guy who spends so much time “pleasing himself” to “that trash,” you’d think he’d at least keep a Kleenex box next to the monitor.  In the one scene where we’re allowed to see what’s on Caleb’s monitor, it’s a site devoted to luxury boats, and a porn ad randomly pops up.  I realize that gauche webcam girl popups can surface in the unlikeliest of places, but… sailboats?  Really?  The shadowy lighting and furtive clicks suggest that Caleb is engaging in something shameful, but the way Cameron just stares unblinkingly at the screen suggests boredom more than vicarious lust.  The problem is that these scenes are supposed to suggest the weight of wrongful actions, but they just plain don’t feel naughty or uncomfortable.  They’re not sinful.

Rather than inserted with a dextrous hint of something salacious and sinful, the depiction of Caleb’s porn addiction is as hamfisted as his Louisville slugger self-administered cure.  Perhaps it’s tasteful in the sense that the viewer is not implicated in his voyeurism, but the handling of those scenes suggests an ignorance — perhaps willful — of the reality of sin, which means that the scenes are tasteless in a more aesthetic sense.  They’re exclamation points where ellipses would do the trick.

The aesthetic sins don’t stop there.  Caleb’s awful behavior toward his wife is underscored with glaring red ink, both in his unreasonable outrage toward her and in the way Catherine is written.  She’s virtually flawless, an idealized construction of a dutiful wife and empowered female professional — the kind of condescending caricature that I imagine would send Kathleen Quinlan into a quivering rage.  And rightly so.  Catherine is both successful and independent; she is also the spitting image of the domestic goddess.  She cooks, cleans, and brings home the lioness’s share of the income… plus her mom has suffered from a stroke, and she’s trying to save up enough to purchase in-home medical equipment for dear old mom.  Naturally, Caleb would rather spend their life savings on a stupid boat.  (Perhaps he saw a boat ad popup on a porn site?)  In other words, Catherine is portrayed as contributing nothing to the marital strife.  This is great for making a polemical point about personal responsibility in marriage, but terrible at dramatizing real-world marital conflict.  Yes, there are dysfunctional relationships where the abuse is totally one-sided, but in those situations, the victim is rarely the shining example of 21st century womanhood that Catherine is clearly intended to be.  There’s a lot more co-dependence and sickness on the part of the victim, and in this film, that’s nowhere to be seen.  Instead, the Kendricks present Catherine with a tone-deaf moral dilemma.

Said requisite dilemma arrives in the form of a charming, handsome doctor at the hospital (played by an actor who is bland and charmless) who woos and flatters her.  This conflict is introduced with the subtlety of a bamboo splinter under a fingernail.  As Catherine speaks to a couple of nurses (who are apparently her friends), Dr. Blandsome stops by to flirt.  Kendrick inserts a shot of the nurses exchanging a Judgmental Look.  After the flirtation runs its course and Catherine moves on, instead of ending the scene, Kendrick pans over for a brief exchange between the nurses that does something like this:

NURSE 1: That doctor is interested in way more than getting some good P.R.

NURSE 2: Mmmmmm-hmmmmm!!!!! [<---- note exclamation points]

Later on, in a flirtation scene in the hospital cafeteria, an older nurse is prominently framed in the foreground, once again delivering a Judgmental Look.  As cinematic convention would have it, the Older Nurse is also apparently a friend of Catherine’s, and her lack of presence in the story is conveniently explained away by a dialogue exchange upon their meeting up later in the story in which Catherine says, “Wow, I haven’t talked to you in a while!”  (Like, ever?)  This is the crucial scene in which the Older Nurse sagely warns Catherine that the moral character of a man who would woo a married woman may be less than impeccable.  My guess is that the brothers planned this particular scene as foreshadowing, for — lo and behold! — after Caleb finds Jesus and sojourns to the hospital to remind Dr. Blandsome that he intends to fight to keep Catherine, we find out that (if you aren’t already sitting down, do so) Dr. Blandsome is already married.

Shock awe oh no he did-uhnt etc.

The next time Catherine encounters her doctor, he blows her off, and she skips work the next day to act like a fifteen year old girl by crying the afternoon away in bed.  (The only thing missing is a pint of Haagen-Daas.)

This entire plot is structured in such a way as to deny Catherine agency.  She is pursued by Dr. Blandsome.  Though she returns his flirtations, he is the initiator and solicitor of her confidence and affections, and before this arc even reaches the point of a moral dilemma — in which Catherine would have to choose between her husband and another married man — the doctor breaks it off.  The choice is never hers.  In essence, Catherine is never even given the option to be flawed.  By contrast, Caleb is presented with decision points throughout the narrative.

As befitting a film made by Southern evangelicals, Caleb is given a big conversion scene.  The main plot of the film is Caleb’s journey from spiritual darkness to spiritual enlightenment.  His spiritual guide is his father, who gives him a 40-day “Love Dare” devotional book; each day, Caleb must perform a Scripturally-inspired task that shows his love for his wife.  In one of the few interesting structural choices made by the filmmakers, the conversion scene is the midpoint of the narrative; it is not the climax.  It is placed to highlight that coming to faith in Christ is not a before/after contrast of misery/joy.  Instead, it is a constant struggle.  At least, this is the theoretical conceit; the film doesn’t really play it out very well, but I liked the intent behind this particular structural choice.  Throughout the first half of Caleb’s Love Dare quest, his pathetic, letter-of-the-law-if-not-the-spirit efforts earn him nothing but contempt from his wife.  Caleb and his father take a walk along a trail at a Christian campground; seated near a wooden cross by a picturesque river, Caleb rants despairingly about how much work he’s put into showing his love for his wife and received nothing but contempt in return.  In a moment of surprising elegance, the camera tracks along with Caleb’s father as he circles the campfire circle toward the cross, coming to rest against it just as Caleb asks how anyone can keep showing love to someone who “spits in his face.”  Light by magic-hour, setting sunlight, his father inclines his head briefly to the cross and replies, “That’s a good question.”

Not subtle, but definitely cinematic, and a somewhat surprising twist on the lesson of the whole Love Dare experiment.  Since Catherine is portrayed as virtually flawless, she’s a poor allegorical for sinful humankind, but the lesson driven home to Caleb in that single moment took me aback with its simple power.  I thought, “Wow.  What a great way to end that scene.”

Well, the scene wasn’t over.

Instead, it continues for a couple more minutes while Caleb Sr. expounds on the meaning of the lesson we all just learned.  (Bamboo; fingernail.)  Caleb protests that he’s a good person.  After all, he literally saves lives in his profession as a firefighter.  I almost expected the dialogue exchange to go like this.

CALEB: But I’m a fireman, dad! I save people!  I’m a good person!  Haven’t I done enough good to go to heaven?

CALEB’S FATHER (resting hand on Caleb’s shoulder): No, son — work righteousness is Papist bulls**t.

Alas.  They may be evangelicals, but they are not Lutheran.

As gorgeous as the cinematography is, and as fluid as the camerawork was in that one moment, it is not substantially different from the camera movements and editing throughout the rest of the film.  Average dialogue exchanges do not take on a different cinematic caliber than the conversion scene, so the cinematic techniques that accompany Caleb’s decision for Christ are roughly the same as the cinematic techniques that accompany Caleb pouring a cup of coffee.

Though that scene’s placement is structurally interesting, Kendrick’s constructing elsewhere fails to convey the kind of theological import that would justify it.  His ambition is commendable, though.  Despite the noxious Christian pop rock that aurally shreds the momentum of the film’s montages, I did like that Caleb’s work on the Love Dare challenge was visually signified by a montage of his team of firefighters training.  Similarly, the Kendricks’ script vies for parallel thematic construction in a subplot involving Caleb’s best friend, who is a born-again Christian.  His friend is in a loving, healthy marriage, but it turns out that he destroyed one in the past, much as Caleb is destroying his.  There’s a rescue scene that, as with the training montage, signifies Caleb’s desire to rescue his marriage, and some nonsense about rookie firemen learning the ropes, just as Caleb is re-learning the rules of being a responsible husband.  Ambition is great, if you have the chops to back it up.  But Kendrick doesn’t.

For instance, in the training montage, there’s a scene of a rookie climbing the extension ladder.  The ladder to heaven might have been an intriguing metaphor for Caleb’s heavenward journey, but he wasn’t the one on the ladder, and the God’s-eye view of the rookie from top down isn’t indicative of the human struggle to measure up, it’s indicative of a dispassionate observer looking down, which isn’t exactly the story the film is trying to tell.  Michael is a great example of a film character who is a genuine Christian, but his struggles are not depicted, they’re related.  Apart from how stupid his salt-and-pepper-shaker metaphor is (the less said, the better), he is less of a supporting character than a sounding board for Caleb’s problems.  Then there are the rookies.  The Kendricks seem to have a slightly more raucous sense of humor than I expected.  One of the few rewarding scenes in the film features a rigged tabasco-drinking contest for comic relief.  But there are other scenes used for comic relief that fall flat because no attempt is made to integrate them into the narrative.  At one point, one fireman is shown dancing in the bathroom.  I had no idea who he was.  I’d glimpsed him before, but I had no idea that he was going to be a character.  The scene is in there for laffs, but it’s just another tone-deaf digression among many.  Even the rescue scene is laden with details that took me right out of the film — like Caleb forgetting to bring his radio with him.  Maybe it’s more dramatic, but it also illustrates just how blasted incompetent Caleb is.

Ironically, in a film that emphasizes that there’s nothing we can do to earn Christ’s love, the main dramatic thrust is a husband’s efforts to earn back his wife’s love.  By conflating Caleb’s marital crisis with the larger spiritual crisis of humanity, the Kendricks back themselves into a theological corner.  Every aspect of the main plot hinges upon the successful completion of specific acts of the Love Dare, and when Caleb ultimately wins back his wife, it’s not because of the bedside confession of his sins — it’s because he cashes out his dream boat fund in order to purchase the medical equipment for his mother-in-law.

That’s right.  Caleb literally buys her love.  Eat it, Paul McCartney.  You can buy love.  You can buy it for the price of a good sailboat.

So many things are wrong with the world presented by this film that it almost feels churlish to bring commerce into it, but that particular climax leaves the door wide open.  Even the Love Dare journal given to Caleb by his father is a product placement.  The Kendricks themselves authored the Love Dare as a self-help guide for couples.  And — wouldn’t you know it? — the film dramatizes how it snatches a highly dysfunctional marriage from the jaws of certain ruin.  I hate to be so cynical about a film whose intentions appear to be so benevolent, but I tend to be very suspicious of any film that seems to blare BUY THIS BOOK!!! (see what I did there?), whether that book is some self-help drivel or the Bible itself.  Christians don’t care about selling Bibles; they care about people reading and understanding Bibles.  The Scripture according to Fireproof just happens to be a marketing tie-in.  Go figure.

Just when you thought you’d hit rock bottom — an experience common to both alcoholics and viewers of treacly Christian family films — Kendrick throws a Shyamalan twist at you. (!)  Turns out that, even though Caleb Sr. has been advocating the lessons of the Love Dare this whole time, he wasn’t the one who had to win back his wife: she was the one who had to win him back.  (!!)  Catherine is so impressed by the fact that another woman in this film had something to do other than look pretty and get hit on by blandsome doctors that she decides she wants to convert to Christianity, too.  (!!!)  Caleb and Catherine renew their vows under the same cross where Caleb converted, although the pastor at the ceremony (played by Alex Kendrick) reiterates that this is the first real marriage ceremony for the two of them, since it’s the first one sanctioned by God.  (!!!!)

Do I even have to say that the film ends with a title card featuring a Bible verse?

In a recent post at Unfolding Forms, Brett David Potter ruminated on the inefficacy of Christian ska music, which led to a perceptive insight on how assiduously “Christian” art in general burdens its audience:

It has become clear to me that a recurring problem with the overall idea of “Christian music” is the expectation it has to be constantly, consistently about God and religious themes. Perhaps a similar problem underlies “Christian” movies and “Christian” art, particularly within evangelicalism. The need to have an explicit Christian theme leads to a lack of imagination, of creativity, in short of artistry. Can a “Christian” musician not release an album about, say, relationships? Hartse has described this as a “Jesus-per-minute” problem; Christian record labels used to put pressure on Christian bands to include more explicit Christian content, constraining the artists to fit into a particular box. But this model of the CCM industry is dying, maybe even dead. The problem now does not come from record label execs, but from artists of the Christian faith who lack any orientation as to what making good art and music are all about. We have a failure of imagination, on the part of artists undernourished by their churches and communities.

Fireproof bludgeons its audience with its “Christian-ness” (as opposed to Christianity) the way that Jack Nicholson bludgeoned the bathroom door in The Shining with that fireman’s axe.  The result is not enlightenment, but obliteration, with a dose of overcooked line readings.  It’s not enough to end the film on the traditional happy ending of a wedding; it has to be punctuated with a quote from Scripture.

I’m not sure I agree with Scott Tobias that the film “hates” women, but I would heartily agree that it is a perfect example of the phallocentrism of conservative Christianity.  It isn’t just Caleb that’s saved — Catherine (the woman) is saved through him (the man).  And even though Kendrick puts a last-minute spin on the formula to suggest that his mom is the one who saved her marriage and husband, the film foregrounds the father as the agent of Christ, not the mother.  That twist is totally unmotivated by any part of the narrative or thematic thrust.  Beyond that, we see no reason why Caleb and Catherine should even be together.  They literally spend most of the film fighting or pulling apart from each other; the Love Dare is totally one-sided.  There’s no semblance of a real relationship between them either at the beginning of the film or the end — so the idea that this is now a Christ-centered marriage actually reflects poorly on Kendrick’s perception of a Christ-centered marriage, rather than one without Christ.

In my previous post, I used the word “fraudulent.”  That’s exactly what this film is.  Even though it is sincere, polished, and apparently very effective in terms of audience response, it is utterly hollow on a conceptual and technical level.  That’s a problem for anyone who has even an inkling about how one should think about movies.  But what about those who don’t know how?  Or those who refuse?

The thing about exclamation points and all caps is that these techniques draw the eye.  They are big, bold, and signify importance.  At least, that’s the grammatical convention.  It’s the reason that so many bumper stickers and protest signs are written in such a way, and it’s the reason why half the spam you get in your inbox has a subject line like, “Very IMPORTANT!  Open immediately!”  Even in more run-of-the-mill correspondence, these techniques have their uses.  Deployed skillfully, they can accentuate the meaning of the words and shape the reception of the reader.  The problem is that even unskilled writers recognize the impact of such a basic technique.  The content may be risible or unimportant, but we’re conditioned by our own education to regard anything presented in these terms as worthy of our attention.  But not everything is worth our attention.  Some things may be worth attention, but not worthy of praise or consideration.  These degrees of difference are crucial, and all but ignored by the vast majority of people.

Not every element of Fireproof is incompetent.  The production values are impressively high for a film made on a small budget with a crew of volunteers.  And the acting on the part of the two leads is actually decent, if not very well modulated.  The incidental music is serviceable, and the script clearly has a notion about narrative technique, since it does mount a valiant attempt at reinforcing themes with parallel threads and critical placement of crisis points.  Even its stabs at sophomoric humor are in keeping with contemporary Hollywood tropes.  There is genuine merit in several aspects of the film.  If you look at some of the screencaps, you’ll notice that there is some genuine filmmaking going on.  The colors of Caleb’s wardrobe and his father’s blend into the natural surroundings, suggesting an at-oneness in these peripatetic lessons that is appropriate to the spiritual content.  In the picture of Caleb, Michael, and Michael’s wife at the firehouse, Michael and his wife are demonstrating their love by commiserating about a date, while Caleb obsesses over his dream boat; it’s a very straightforward bit of staging to suggest the stark contrast in the priorities of each couple.  That is to say, one couple is comprised of man and wife, while the other is comprised of Caleb and his boat fantasy.  Though I’ve spent a great deal of time mocking this movie, I do recognize that there is at least some craft and intelligence at work.

But even a film made with the highest degree of craftsmanship in each discrete element is a failure if these elements don’t coalesce into a coherent whole.  This is the crucial point at which, in my opinion, the judgment of the film’s apologists falls apart.  There is no way to justify, in aesthetic terms, the creative decisions that comprise the final cut of Fireproof in its entirety.  The craft of the film is integral to the success of conveying the messages of the film, and since the craft is deeply flawed, so is the “Christian” message.

Most people who loved Fireproof were thrilled by the simple prospect of watching a movie with professional-level qualities that promoted a distinctly conservative Christian message.  The problem was twofold:  1.) the film does not actually demonstrate proficiency, even if things like the cinematography have a professional gloss to them; 2.) the messages are garbled or wrongheaded.  The overriding impression that I get from the film is that it is intended as a life lesson first and a work of art (or entertainment) second.  In being so heavy-handed with the message and paying so little attention to the practical details of narrative construction or film technique, Kendrick cheapens the emotional and spiritual content of the film.  Similarly, it is possible that the practical, technical details are so awkward and messy because the kind of mental processes that created them are beholden to awkward and messy spiritual convictions.  It may be simpler to say that neither the filmmaking nor the dogmatics are sophisticated, and that this lack of sophistication on both fronts is mutually detrimental to each.  Fireproof is not very thoughtful or sensitive; even if I were slagging it for not being cosmopolitan enough, the kind of simplicity I’ve mentioned before regarding Christian faith is totally botched by the film’s hamfisted efforts to make things more complicated and overwrought than they need to be.  All told, it is just a mess, and not a terribly interesting one.

The net effect of watching the film was the kind of eyesore exhaustion that sets in after I’ve read too many message board posts comprised of all caps and exclamation points.  You might call it “freshman-level thinking,” in which all the pitfalls of a first year college student’s attempt to write the most insightful term paper ever are sabotaged by the simple fact that first year college students don’t really know anything, or how to express it properly even if they did.  I suppose it’s possible that Alex Kendrick is actually a sophisticated thinker with a great depth of passion in real life; perhaps a conversation with him would be the latter-day equivalent of an afternoon with a Southern Aristotle.  (And if that were the case, I’m sure I wouldn’t even be smart enough to keep up my half of the conversation.)  But filmmaking requires a certain set of skills, and Kendrick doesn’t appear to possess them.  Not yet.  They can be learned and honed.  First, Kendrick needs to completely rethink the rules of film grammar, the possibilities packed into each potential decision.  You’d think that a minister in a branch of Christianity that emphasizes making a decision for Christ would understand the eternal consequences of making the right creative choices, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.  Instead, his faith seems to be in the notion that he’ll just plug along and believe that people will get what he’s going for.  So far, this seems to be the case, but I have to worry about the people who are blindly — and enthusiastically — following the leadership of a person who, when it comes right down to it, doesn’t really know what he’s doing, and is doing it as forcefully and gracelessly as possible.  These people do need to be saved.

Not from Satan; from well-intentioned, artistically bankrupt indie filmmakers. ☕

About mjschneider

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

25 responses to “Fireproof ☕ d. Alex Kendrick, 2008

  • A Blithering Idiot

    That is a super-peachy-keen post. Thanks for really blathering on like that! Seriously, I don’t think I could have spent more effort wishing for something heavy to fall on me to erase that nonsense from my mind!

  • jesusisking

    Thank you very much for your review of this film! I agree with on all points. I’m an aspiring filmmaker who happened to learn a lot from this post. You gave cold hard facts, as opposed to: “O, da movei suks lawl, krik kamron iz wurst aktor evar! also: !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

    I honestly do believe that one day, a christian filmmaker will get his rear into gear (Hurr, rhyming :D) and make a film with a solid message, but also one that succeeds from a creative standpoint.

    Thank you very much, I hope you do more reviews like this. Blessings!

    Also, to the previous poster: This movie is not masterpiece by ANY stretch of the imagination. Quit defending it, and maybe we’ll sort another problem in the christian film community.

    • mjschneider

      Thanks for reading and for the comment; I really appreciate it. I’ve written other posts about the current state of Christian cinema, and while it would be good for Christians to make good films with solid messages, it’s not as if there aren’t already several excellent films that would are spiritually edifying. For instance, one of my very favorite films is Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light. Bergman was an outspoken atheist, yet I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film grapple so eloquently with the struggle to maintain faith in a world that frequently seems to exist without God’s voice. It’s not a new film, but it’s proof that the category of “Christian films” is expansive enough to include films that aren’t even necessarily made to advance a pro-Christian message. One of the recent films that I thought actually had an interesting take on religion and faith was “The Last Exorcism.” Again, not made with the intent of bearing witness or proselytizing, but it presented its subject matter in an intriguing and surprisingly thoughtful way.

      I think the problem with a film like Fireproof and its ilk is that they are more about the message than the art; they exploit the niche audience’s desire for a faith-affirming message in a very transparent, lazy fashion. That’s why I call them “faithsploitation” flicks. I certainly look forward to more Christian filmmakers getting out there and doing what they can to contribute to the culture — and if you’re one of them, then God bless your efforts! — but I think too many Christians focus so hard on whether or not a film has the right message (or inoffensive content) that they end up cherishing and valuing films as good when they are, in fact, legitimately bad. They do this because they’d rather be comfortable than edified; if these films are preaching to the choir, most Christians are simply happy to be the proverbial choir, rather than consider the quality of how the sermon is being preached. That is highly detrimental to both the culture-at-large and to the specifically Christian pockets of culture. If we applaud and praise crap, then Christians will continue to make crap, and the real tragedy is that most of them won’t even know the difference after a while.

    • jesusisking

      Thanks for replying! Yes I agree. That’s why, even though my parents seem to be confused, I really don’t like this film. And I mean, a strong dislike. Mostly because christians actually believe that this is a good movie! The first time watched this, I came up with excuses to like it, but watching it a second time, reality struck. Fireproof is not well written, not well acted, (Seriously, the first argument scene? Ish….) and it’s message is bogged down by the way it’s delivered.

      Of course, I talked to another christian about my dislike of this film, and he just replied: “Well, it’s because you’re not married.” (He wasen’t either BTW.)

      Thankfully, reading your post showed me that my contempt for this movie was at least shared by somebody who is actually married.

      Sure, the Kendricks intention might be good, but they should be reminded that this our Heavenly Father we are talking about. They really should have put much more effort into the story. And them having a low budget is no excuse. They had plenty enough to tell a good story.

      Your point about being unable to tell if a christian movie unfortunately seems likely. I was watching In The Blink Of An Eye “Starring” David A.R White, and after a while it kinda got hard to view it objectively because I have to praise it for the message, but the quality really wasn’t that good!

      It’s sad christians take shortcuts with films with so much potential like Fireproof, but at the end of the day, it seems christians will be happy to just gobble it up. (Their new movie, Courageous, doesn’t seem any different.)

      The other guy I was talking about? Strangely, he thought Amazing Grace by Michael Apted, (Which is hear is actually good.) was an awful movie…..???

      But anyways, thanks for the reply once again, it’s nice to have somebody in the christian community with similar sentiments!
      And I will definately focus on the delivering the message in a unique and creative way in my films, whenever I make them ;D

      Also, Winter Light sounds interesting. I’ll check it out when I get the chance. :)

    • mjschneider

      I hope you enjoy Winter Light whenever you get around to it. There are plenty of movies out there that Christians can enjoy that are both aesthetically and spiritually edifying; don’t be afraid to go for some unconventional choices. The Arts & Faith list is an especially good one: http://artsandfaith.com/t100/

    • jesusisking

      Didn’t see your comment until now. Will check it out, thanks for replying :D

  • voxrobotica

    This is probably the most intelligent review of a Sherwood film I’ve ever seen. Now please write one about Courageous.

    I have friends imploring me to watch the latest load of Sherwood Tripe, and I just don’t want to, because I KNOW it’s bad. The Kendricks have done nothing to make me think otherwise, so why should I trust them?

    • mjschneider

      Thanks for the kind words. I don’t know if I’ll ever get around to watching Courageous; it depends on how much demand I get for it, and, frankly, I doubt there’ll be much demand. Fireproof is the only film of theirs that I’ve seen, and it did not encourage me to look any further. I feel like I’ve done my due diligence by sitting through and reviewing Fireproof. By the same token, it’s entirely *possible* that Courageous is a three hundred percent improvement, and that it is everything you never knew you wanted a film about fatherhood to be. It’s possible, but not *likely*.

  • jesusisking

    Well, I just recently watched Courageous and have to say, it’s better Fireproof. But not like that’s saying much.

    I would very much like to know your take on it, but if you don’t get enough requests, that’s ok. It’s not really all that hard to see what’s the goods, and what’s the bads. So I would have to say, this one disappointed me as well.

    I really think the Kendrick’s CAN actually make a good movie, but until they find out what’s wrong with their previous efforts, I doubt they will.

    • jesusisking

      *Than Fireproof.

      Sheesh, these internet folks are getting to me.

    • mjschneider

      I appreciate the follow-up comment, though the fact that you were not impressed with Courageous doesn’t really encourage me to seek it out. I admire your perseverance, though. :)

      I will say this, though. Based on the technical polish of Fireproof and the surprising elegance of a few scenes, I would agree that the Kendricks *could* make a truly good movie at some point. The biggest drawback, I think, is that they don’t write with any sophistication. If they could collaborate with a writer/producer who knew a bit more about how to structure a sophisticated narrative, I think Alex Kendrick could rise to the occasion of adequately filming it. If that ever happens, I would be glad to give it a look and, if merited, praise it. And I certainly hope that they do improve to that point. It would be nice to have an evangelical filmmaker out there who knew what the feck he was doing.

    • jesusisking

      XD

      Yes, one of my biggest problems with Courageous (And that piece of *=@% Fireproof) Is that they can’t really write a good story.

      For example: Many storylines are brought in that don’t have a parrot snot to do with the central theme.(Fatherhood)

      Once again, there also is a lot of genuinely funny moments in this film, but WHAT DOES HAVE TO DO WITH THE MAIN STORYLINE!?!?! D:

      And above all, they don’t teach their message through story, rather they preach it through mundane and uninteresting dialogue.

      One of the things I found about Filmmaking, is that you should show, not tell. And the Kendricks just don’t seem to grasp that.

      Maybe it’s because they haven’t found reviews like yours. In which case, I think I might have write to them and tell them what I think.

      God willing, they will listen.

      Once again, thanks for responding! :)

      God bless.

    • mjschneider

      Again, I admire your persistence!

    • jesusisking

      XD Thanks!

      Now I just have to figure out what to say to them :/

  • jesusisking

    I suddenly felt the need to say something important, so I went back to this review, for some MORE ranting. :P

    After a few months of having it sink in, I made up my mind about Courageous; It’s a film made by people who earnestly WANT to make a movie for Jesus, but don’t know that they should also try and make a GOOD story as well.

    I recently watched a movie made Act of Valor. Don’t know if you’ve seen it. For me, it felt like it suffered from the same problems as the films of Sherwood; it is appealing to what it’s audience wants, rather than trying to actually making a good film that takes risks, by maybe giving the audience a story that may be exactly the OPPOSITE of what they want.

    For example: Act of Valor appeals to all the Realismist’s who want movies to not have as much far-farfetchedness and be more real, man. When what they don’t realize is, that we watch movies because they are NOT realistic. Nobody watches a film to see how war really is, right down to the freakin’ brand of cigarettes the soldiers smoke. (Not that Act of Valor does that. :P) No, they want a story.

    Same thing with Courageous and the rest: As you said, they are trying to appeal to the faith of the audience, preaching a message they most likely already believe in. Question is, how is a film engaging if it doesn’t challenge you at all, and just strokes your ears?

    What if they made a story that was darker? What if in Fireproof, it ended in divorce, or murder, or suicide? Does it tell a better story, with which you promote the message?

    There are some darker moments in Courageous, but I won’t spoil it for you so that you can do that review of your’s with a bit more objectivity, wink wink, nudge nudge. XD

    The problem of something like Fireproof boils down to:

    They give the audience a message they most likely already agree with.

    They make straw-man characters that have little to no depth.

    They gloss over bad things, like Kirk’s fabulous little tantrum after arguing with his wife, the online gamblin-I mean porn story tid bit, and the chili scene, which should have shown what happens the next morning; hands on the floor showering.

    And they never take a risk, like giving the audience something uncomfortable to ponder about. I sort of knew Kirk was perving on the ladies on his computer screen, but heck, it didn’t look that way. It seems to be glossed over. (I know I’m repeating what you said, but that’s only a good thing. It means you’re right. XD)

    And he just simply breaks the computer screen, and the problems are ALLLL over.

    ….Bull$#^. It takes more than that! But focusing too much on THAT, wouldn’t be family friendly, now would it?

    I’m not saying we should suddenly get ‘edgy’, no. I don’t want that to happen. What I do want to happen is, they should explore the problems we face as believers in Jesus on a deeper level. Somebody overcoming their weaknesses, through hell, high water, and repeated suffering makes for a MUCH better story.

    But until they realize that, I doubt they will change. And too add to the depression, there doesn’t seem to be a way to talk to them about their filmmaking skills directly. I guess that it’s a no-no to ‘judge’ a church, right?

    Sigh…And people always want to argue with you, when you say it disappointed you quality wise. I have been personally attacked because of not wanting to watch another crappy Christian movie, so this may have stoked me up a bit.

    And it’s ONLY because people like the message. I asked another guy why he liked Courageous, and his response was: “I liked it because I really see the importance of a loving father in a home. God has so many scriptures in his word for the man of the house and it’s for…..”

    You see? The message. Not the film.

    Also: PLEASE NOTE: NO OFFENSE TO THE GUY IN QUESTION. HE IS A FRIEND WHO ILLUSTRATED MY POINT. Now I can stop screaming. :P

    Anyways, that’s all. I hope what I’m saying makes sense, and doesn’t carry across a lot of stupidity. XD

    Just had to get that off my chest.

    Again. :P

    • mjschneider

      I’m glad that you aren’t exactly saying that Christian movies should be “edgier” in order to be better. And it’s clear that you’re surrounded by people who may mean well and share your beliefs, but simply cannot comprehend that they’re consuming the cinematic equivalent of rat poison. It is a shame, but all you can do is try to express your opinions on this film (or others like it) the best you can. I don’t think that the Sherwood crew deliberately tries not to tell a good story; I suspect rather the opposite. My guess is that they, like most filmmakers, try to do a great job, and that they hope the audience will respond positively to their efforts. The fact that some filmmakers fail spectacularly in this effort is sad and regrettable, but there it is. It is my belief that the message of Fireproof is no better than its technique, and therefore does not, in itself, serve God or the church. At the same time, I believe that the Kendricks and all those who participate in their filmmaking efforts are sincerely trying to serve God and the church in what they do. It may be done in good faith, but it’s bad art. God judges faith; we judge art. Trying to communicate both that distinction and the substance of the judgment is just another way that we can serve God.

    • jesusisking

      Well, if filmmaking were easy, everybody would making movies. XD

      I agree with you; Sherwood is trying from their hearts to make a good story, as much as the people who produce church videos which are poor quality. The message is good, and Jesus looks into your heart, so I respect what they are trying to do.

      …TRYING, to do. See, I am not attacking them because I feel like it. No, I want to them to become better at what they are doing, to the point they can make a deeply enthralling story that challenges you emotionally, and does not contain minor acts of, pardon this, dumbness that occur in a movie like Courageous. Seriously, they were so glaringly obvious I noticed them, and I usually don’t.

      I have recently started a personal blog that is devoted to nothing. Which means, I can post reviews of Christian movies on it. I have to view Courageous for a second time before making my review of it, but…….err, you can make one too? XD

      My motivation for making movies was watching Christian filmmakers fail at it. That really kicked me into gear. But even if Sherwood snaps right, and starts making really good movies, is that going to stop me? Nope. :P Storytelling is what I always loved, and this is one of the many tools.

      But never mind the random brain wave;

      As for the Christians….oh boy. What you said about their being a distinction between faith and art will really come in handy, but even then people will probably stick their heads in the sand and adamantly refuse to listen. My friend that I quoted has a good taste in movies, and he is a nice guy, so I think after a bit of talking he will probably be onboard. I hope. :P

      Now, for Sherwood’s next movie…I don’t know what it is going to be, but hopefully it won’t be something like Courageous that tells you it’s a movie about Fatherhood. Every. Single. Freaking. Second!

      I hope somebody acts like the good Samaritan and helps Sherwood out with their next movie. I am way too young and inexperienced for that job, so I hope and pray somebody gives em a hand.

    • mjschneider

      I want all filmmakers to make good films. Most don’t. I don’t even criticize their work necessarily out of the hope that, by sheer magical coincidence, they read my blog, assent to my sage wisdom, and make the necessary corrections to their technique in the future. I’m more interested in the cultural conversation. People like you and your anonymous friend are the ones I’m trying to engage. If a filmmaker reads what I have to say, and if my words have some positive impact, that’s wonderful. That’s not my goal, but if someone from Sherwood reads this post and decides to solicit input from you or me, then… well, awesome. :)

    • jesusisking

      Yeah, true. I doubt Sherwood listens to any of those ‘ignorant film critics’ who criticise them, me quoting from the average Christian viewer. :P

      As for me, I’m interested in turning Christian’s perception of film around, so that they can actually know what constitutes a good movie besides a good message. Of course, they’re stubborn as donkeys, so that is a pretty hard task. And if they only they would listen for a change, instead of thinking I’m crazy because I denounce the ‘holy works of God’, when I’m actually doing the opposite; I want to show them that these people aren’t doing such a good job, and need to take a step back and actually listen to their critics.

      Or Christians just shoot down what I say, because I’m just the typical teenager who likes to criticise and sound smart. Not true, I don’t like criticising, and generally shy away from confrontations. Thankfully, I have at least one friend who listens to what I have to say, the anonymous guy who I quoted from. As I said, he has a good taste in film, so I hope he listens to what you and I have to say.

      And yes, most filmmakers fail. Believe me, I can see why. :P Even with writing this stupid little novel of mine, I realise just how hard it is to make compelling characters, write prose so that it doesn’t sound like a drunken man speaking, and just plain make an interesting story. However, the more I write, the better I get, and I hope that it at least means I make a good novel at the VERY least.

      Back to Fireproof; (I have a very unorganised mind. :P) It is a bit hard to explain my nitpicks with the message to Christians, as I have a hard time explaining my nitpicks with the actual film quality already. Courageous had it’s own with the message; All the fathers take an oath in effect, to be good fathers. Didn’t the bible say do not swear by heaven or earth, but let your nay be your nay, and your yea be your yea? (Hope I didn’t misquote. :P)

      Oh, and a father gives his daughter a purity ring. It’s good he wants her to be pure and holy, but seriously man? That thing isn’t going to stop ANYBODY from getting what they want, if they really want it…..man.

      …Minor stuff to be honest, but the oath bit could be an issue. Fireproof disappointed me more, and effectively ticked me off from any kind of Christian movie. I would like to watch both again so that I can see what is the goods and the bads. I’m certain my parents will want to watch both again, no offense to them of course. :P

      Another film with some flaws in the message is “In The Blink of an Eye”, which had a guy know the exact date when Jesus comes back, only to cut to the credits and have a verse pop up on the screen saying: “For that day no man knoweth, except the Father in heaven.”

      ….Uh, right.

      And let’s zap over to Courageous. It actually does have good moments. The jokes are actually quite funny, and the cinematography is beautiful. Although, I don’t know if some of the pretty looking shots actually serve some purpose in the ‘story’. But if you look at it as a whole, it unfortunately falls flat.

      One part of me desperately wants to like it, but the other part of me knows that it isn’t that good.

      So theres another brain wave! I think I’ll open up the plot synopsis on IMDB to refresh my mind with Courageous so that I can review it. OH BOY. Anyways, I will link to it here when I’m done. (It might take a while. :P)

  • Reader question: Should Christian movies be more “indie”? « Catecinem

    [...] of Left Behind, infamously starring Kirk Cameron (who went on to star, somewhat more infamously, in Fireproof), was execrable. As in, it makes Fireproof look like The Seventh Seal. I don’t remember the books [...]

  • jubilare

    “It has become clear to me that a recurring problem with the overall idea of “Christian music” is the expectation it has to be constantly, consistently about God and religious themes.”

    Oh, how true. You know, one of the most empowering realizations that I have experienced in my faith is the realization that the universe is, by default, Christian. This world may be fallen, but even so its every atom has its source in Him. That changes the game, doesn’t it? We don’t have to force things into a Christian shape, we just have to look at them in the right light.
    It is our ham-fisted attempts to force messages that, often, we don’t even fully understand, that sabotage God’s work and create bad art all at once (and I am of the opinion that good art, in itself, is God’s work). My masks have nothing overtly “Christian” about them (some of them even look downright demonic…) but I am Christian, and I make them from my love of God through my love of the materials He created for us to experience. Clay is truly miraculous, and feathers… and glass! I could go on forever. I do not sanctify clay by shaping it into a cross. It is sanctified through its existence, and I am blessed to use it.

    With storytelling, things are a bit different, of course. Stories have such power. But stories, too, have their uttermost roots in the Great Story, whether they know it or not. Christian storytellers, therefore, should be the least ham-fisted of all because they have more reason to trust than any. Instead, for some reason, many seem to have fists made completely of ham… there are some exceptions, and I thank God for them.

    • mjschneider

      Very true. I don’t know if I touched on it here or elsewhere, but the “Jesus-per-minute” problem, to me, bespeaks a lack of confidence in the inherent “Christian-ness” of a Christian worldview. Kyle criticized this blog not too long ago for not having enough posts explicitly about Christianity or Christian themes in films. I understood where he was coming from, but I don’t share his perspective on that particular issue. My response was that, even if I’m not doing a post that directly addresses Christianity, everything I write is informed by my Christian worldview. Therefore, this is still a Christian blog, even if it touches on things that are not apparently “Christian.” One of my key struggles in life is developing a proper form of witness, because I’m cognizant of the fact that virtually everything I do — both privately and publicly, internally and externally — is a kind of witness to my faith. This includes everything from my attitudes and behavior toward others to my art and craft.

      The idea is to be Christ-centered, not Christ-oriented (if I may make the semantic distinction); my faith therefore orients me, rather than me being ostentatiously oriented myself around my professed faith. The latter path may lead to fraudulence, an emphasis on outward show. Not always, but it’s a danger to which I feel I may be particularly prey, so I choose another path, which runs the risk of not sufficiently proclaiming Christian doctrine, but which feels to me a much more authentic and effective witness. Many other Christians successfully walk the former path without emptying their faith into outward signals of their religion. Either way, it’s a struggle. And when that struggle takes the form of an external artifact, it tends to exemplify all the strengths and weaknesses of the path you walk.

      A film like Fireproof connected quite deeply with a big chunk of its Christian viewership; clearly, many people take that path and respond strongly to overt signals of faith, even if those signals are ugly and (to me) a bit pernicious. A film like The Son is a much subtler kind of witness that doesn’t necessarily reflect the artists’ inherent Christian-ness, but rather the Christian nature of the universe. One path draws attention to the signs of faith as expressed by an individual; another draws attention to the way God works in the hearts of mankind. Both have value, but not everyone can share in the former; not everyone will notice the latter.

  • jubilare

    “One of my key struggles in life is developing a proper form of witness, because I’m cognizant of the fact that virtually everything I do — both privately and publicly, internally and externally — is a kind of witness to my faith. This includes everything from my attitudes and behavior toward others to my art and craft.”

    I am with you there. It is definitely a struggle, but my aim is to be centered on Jesus and to have my every action reflect Him in the same way that water reflects the sky. I’m a long way from that goal, but He helps me, sometimes through conversations like this. :)
    I have seen so many people turn away from God, especially Jesus, because of heavy-handed witness that I feel subtlety is far more effective. Maybe it is simply that different people need different kinds of witness, and God has turned my heart to my fellows who react badly to loud voices. Perhaps my background has something to do with this, but I have had to learn to become more comfortable with expressing my faith overtly. It does not come naturally to me, but I recognize the need for that balance. I should never be afraid of expressing my faith overtly, but I should also trust the power of my faith in things that, on the surface, seem to have nothing to do with it.

  • Jake

    No matter how great a movie is, be the picture, editing, visual effects, there would still be some type of loops. Most important is what message we get out of it. Alex Kendrick by far is one of the most intelligent filmmaker that exist. Entertainment in a way educates. Do you agree? Last couple of years, Hollywood has done nothing but adapt a lot of shitty stories about Criminals. If not Vampire , then it would be some sort of Sex movies. How is that adding to anyone’s life? At a point it was War films, then Terrorism. We need a breath of Fresh air. Like it or not, Four of Alex kendrick movies has a beautiful theme and something to learn.

    • mjschneider

      I’m not sure what you mean by loops, and without wanting to be completely ungenerous, I certainly don’t consider Alex Kendrick to be one of the most intelligent filmmakers that exist. I agree that entertainment can be educational; I’m not sure that being “educational” qualifies as an intrinsic virtue, though. Just because Kendrick wants to teach us something about his view of life, the universe, and everything — that is to say, he wants to evangelize — doesn’t mean that what he has to say is particularly valuable. The message I got out of the film was garbled at best and disturbing at worst. As I indicated in my review, I’m willing to accept that this film was made with the noblest of intentions, but noble intentions don’t equate to good filmmaking, nor does noble intent necessitate that I swallow its message uncritically.

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