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. ☕