Tuesday, April 18, 2017

SILENCE (2016) – Film Review

Rarely has a director of Martin Scorsese’s caliber tackled such weighty religious themes head-on with such heartfelt passion. As such, Silence is not an insignificant film. The controversial story has, unsurprisingly, met with a wide variety of responses; it has been called “one of the finest religious movies ever made,” as well as an egregious “subversion of the Christian faith.”

Since the movie came out last year, most everyone has had his or her say. I’m not sure if anything new can be added to the voices that have already spoken. Still, I didn’t get a chance to see Silence until recently, and, for what it’s worth, still wanted to write down my thoughts. [Insert joke about me not wanting to remain silent about Silence.]

WARNING: There is no way to deal with the thematic elements of this film without revealing major spoilers. In fact, I’m going to enter Spoiler Land and set up camp there. I might even start a fire and cook some S’mores. Yes, this could get sticky.

As a reminder, I rate movies based on three criteria: potentially objectionable content (C), artistic merit (A), and my personal opinions (P).

CONTENT (C): +8/-8, for a total of 0 out of 10

In this section of a movie review, I typically deal with material that some might find offensive or problematic. In Silence, there is definitely violence involved in the torture of Japanese villagers—although, with the exception of one swift beheading, there is very little blood or gore involved.

The most controversial element of the film is how it handles the topic of apostasy. Regarding that in particular, it seems fairly obvious that Scorsese’s intentions are not to undermine the Christian faith. The ministry of the gospel is taken seriously, as are sacrifices made by both Japanese and European characters in the story. The hostility toward Christianity in the film is shown for what it is: evil. At the end, the film is even explicitly dedicated to “Japanese Christians and their pastors.”

To quote Steven D. Greydanus in his review of another controversial Scorsese film, “we must not be too quick to judge any particular portrait of Christ [or His people] merely because it challenges our expectations or makes us uncomfortable.” This sentiment applies to Silence as well. The movie makes us uncomfortable in different ways—some good (hence, the positive content rating), and some bad (hence, the negative—as well as the overall—content rating). I will explore the misfires in-depth in the final section of this review.

ATRISTRY (A): 8 out of 10

Artistically speaking, there is little to critique. Silence is obviously a labor of love by a gifted filmmaker. It received an Oscar nomination for cinematography (and rightly so), but I think it deserves more—including, at the very least, Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor for Liam Neeson. Even though Neeson’s role is more of a glorified cameo, his performance as a compromised priest is infused with a gravitas that arrests the viewer’s attention. He is, for different reasons, both the best and the worst part about the movie. (I’ll explain the “worst part” in more detail in just a minute.)
                                    
If more faith-based films displayed this level of artistry, both in front of and behind the camera, the world would be a better place. Alas and alack, that is not the case. In comparison with Silence, the common faith-based film is utterly repugnant and artless—what one might call enterdreckment.

I was surprised, however, by just how many continuity errors there are in Silence. I have never noticed so many instances in one movie before. They’re nothing to derail the film, but they do stick out like…well, like a Caucasian priest in a Japanese village.

PREFERENCE (P): 5 out of 10

In some scenes, Silence paints a fairly cut-and-dried picture of apostasy and martyrdom—especially when the malicious government officials first appear on the scene. They command a group of villagers to stamp on a fumie—softly, if necessary. They are told it is “just a formality.” And yet when the villagers (including some who are Christians) place their foot on the fumie, they do so with such little conviction that the government authorities demand a further display of apostasy: the villagers must spit on an image of the cross.

Why give a more harsh command if all they are looking for is “just a formality”? Because they know what they are asking for is not a mere formality. By forsaking any profession of faith, Christians are forsaking faith itself. And when the Japanese believers are faced with a choice between denying their faith (by spitting on an image of Christ) and dying, they choose to die.

Anyone familiar with the storyline of Silence is aware that “cut and dried” is not an adequate description of the film as a whole. That is because additional variables are involved when the priests themselves experience persecution. Their moral dilemma is ghastly: renounce their faith publicly or watch as Japanese villagers are tortured in their place.

The movie climaxes when the main protagonist, Father Rodrigues, steps on a fumie himself. This act comes out of great anguish, and only after he has been hounded by Ferreira (Liam Neeson), his former mentor who himself has long since apostatized. Rather than arguing that it is “just a formality,” Ferreira proposes that stepping on the fumie would actually be a meritorious act to save innocent sufferers. “What would you do for them?” he asks. “Pray? And get what in return? Only more suffering. A suffering only you can end. Not God!” Ferreira even goes so far as to say, “To give up your faith is the most painful act of love.” In a moment of intense temptation, these are seductive words. The whole scene reminds me of Eve in the garden, or Christ in the desert, facing the cunning deception of a crafty enemy. The outcome promised is certainly attractive.

Based on other reviews I have read, some people see this moment in the film as a turning point for Rodrigues. His pride has become more and more apparent to the audience, up until the point where he caves in and apostatizes. This act shows him coming to the end of himself as he acknowledges his limitations. By stepping on the fumie, he begins the process of crawling out of the shell of his ethnocentrism, no longer seeing himself as the imperialist savior of the people of Japan. His apostasy is, ironically, a movement from pride to humility.

It is true that Rodrigues’ pride becomes more and more apparent as the movie progresses. It shows up in a small statement here and there. It is revealed in how he corrects the villagers in their pronunciation of the word “paradise” so that they use the proper—i.e., European—term. Later in the film, his pride becomes strikingly evident in how he reacts when coming face-to-face with the apostasy of Ferreira. Rodrigues is not broken over Ferreira’s compromises so much as he is condescendingly disgusted with them. His initial response to Ferreira reveals not godly sorrow over a wounded (at best) or lost (at worst) faith, but rather a haughty and worldly condemnation of another human being.

However, I do not see Rodrigues’ apostasy as a character arc from pride to humility. He is simply trading in one form of pride for another. Before, his pride revealed itself in a type of messiah complex: he had an inflated view of his perceptions and abilities in contrast with those of others. There was never a possibility in his mind that anyone other than him knew what was best. (One example is when he encourages a group of peasants to consider stomping on a fumie to avoid persecution, to which another priest, Father Garupe, rightly responds with correction.)

It is true that with his apostasy, Rodrigues’ confidence in himself is, in a sense, shattered. As a result, what’s on the surface changes, but what’s inside remains: pride. A pride that says it can renounce his faith to serve his neighbor so that he may maintain his faith in service to his neighbor. Rodrigues has decided to follow God and serve his fellow man on his own terms. His arc is destructive, not redemptive. To quote Steven D. Greydanus again, “Perhaps Silence is a true tragedy in the classical sense, in which a virtuous man is undone by a fatal flaw.”

Yes, the situation is complicated by the nature of the threat against Rodrigues and the other priests. They are not given a simple and straightforward choice between denying the faith and dying a martyr’s death; they are given the choice between denying the faith and watching others suffer torture at their expense. It is an especially harsh and sadistic burden forced on their shoulders. I do not wish to minimize the moral and psychological anguish this places on them. Were I in Rodrigues’ shoes, would I still stand firm? I can’t say for sure.

What I can say for sure is that there is actually a third option, and it is the option taken by Father Garupe. Rather than stand by as others are tortured in his stead, he rushes to the rescue with such passionate selflessness that he himself is also killed. It is not the glorious kind of death that Rodrigues would have wanted for himself, but it is a glorious death from an eternal perspective: “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13). In his death, Garupe avoids being counted among those who have “trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace” (Hebrews 10:29).

In stark contrast to Garupe’s final moments, Rodrigues’ final years are described in the movie with these words: “[he] never acknowledged the Christian God. Not by word or symbol. He never spoke of him and never prayed.”

The ultimate problem with Silence is not that it asks us to sympathize with Rodrigues’ temptations and failings. Such sympathy is warranted. The ultimate problem with Silence is that it leads the viewer to not only sympathize with Rodrigues’ apostasy, but also to legitimize it. For the rest of his life, Rodrigues is forced into repeated demonstrations of a denial of his faith. We are asked to consider that these demonstrations can be, as the Japanese officials claimed earlier on, just a formality.

Silence postulates that it is possible to live an innocuous Christian life, in which all public pretense of faith is stripped away. Whereas Christ condemned those who repeatedly blessed God with their lips while their hearts were far from Him (Mark 7:6), Scorsese asks us to at least consider approving of those who repeatedly curse God with their lips (or feet) but whose hearts clandestinely draw near. Such a prospect may seem attractive within our modern cultural milieu, but not within the framework of historical Christianity.

At times, Scorsese has crafted works of art that have ended up communicating something other than what he purposed. It appears that he did not set out to blaspheme Christ with The Last Temptation of Christ, but that ended up being the end result—a fact which even Roger Ebert (who loved the film) conceded. Scorsese did not attempt to glorify vice with The Wolf of Wall Street, but that ended up being an unintended consequence. Nuance and ambiguity gave way to inadvertent mixed messages.

Similarly, Silence does at times display nuance and ambiguity, but the denouement—including the final shot of the film—settles not for complexity so much as a cacophony of disjointed, and ultimately contradictory, sentiments. For these reasons, Silence unfortunately earns the lowest movie rating I have yet given.

CAP score: 43%

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Why Compare the Filming of Sex Scenes to Sexual Assault?

It is near impossible to adequately address a controversial topic in one blog post. Take one (fairly) recent entry: A Tale of Two Sexual Assaults on Jennifer Lawrence. There is much I could have said but didn’t. And by leaving many things unsaid, I inevitably left the door open for people to hear things I did not say.

Based on feedback I’ve received, I want to clarify and strengthen my argument by examining three items: 1) the underlying message of the movie Passengers, 2) the controversial language I chose, and 3) human agency—in particular, female agency.

Please be forewarned that the following material contains spoilers for the movie Passengers.

THE MESSAGE OF PASSENGERS

In a work of art, the message and/or worldview of the artist(s) is shown not just in the story that is being told, but in the way the story is being told. The storyteller’s method is part of the message. And the general consensus among critics is that sexual exploitation is the inescapable thematic core of Passengers.

Several reviews have pointed out how the storyline works to dehumanize and objectify Aurora (Lawrence’s character). For example, Wendy Ide writes that the whole story is “predicated on a single act of staggering selfishness” in which Jim, the main character, is “the perv who practically [grinds] himself against a woman’s sleep pod before stealing her life to be his chosen playmate.” Katie Walsh concurs, saying the movie focuses on “sexy space fun times, turning Jim’s morally reprehensible choice into a meet cute.”

The entire narrative, says Robert Abele, is stained by “issues of male captivity fantasy and victimization.” He then adds, “It doesn’t help that [Director] Tyldum frequently shoots Lawrence with an almost fetishistic interest in her curves, to the point that even after the cat’s out of the bag — and Lawrence nails Aurora’s initial distress and rage — he cuts from her screaming ‘You took my life!’ to an ogling shot of her swimming in a two-piece.”

Like the filming of the movie itself, the storyline of Passengers reveals a dangerous subculture at work: one in which women are viewed as sex objects, existing primarily for the pleasure of men. In the words of film critic Steven D. Greydanus:

[There is a] male cultural assumption that women are there for male enjoyment and that men have a right to enjoy them. It’s a reality that women face every day. PASSENGERS is ultimately, in its own way, a reflection of this cultural assumption.

Mr. Greydanus is right. In the case of Passengers, this cultural assumption is evident on several fronts. It’s evident in the story the filmmakers decided to tell, in the way they treated their characters, and in the way they treated the actors who played those characters.

QUESTIONABLE LANGUAGE

Some readers took issue with my labeling of the sex scene as an assault. They thought the language was too strong, especially since Lawrence wasn’t actually raped. If we apply the word (or the idea of) “rape” to everything, it loses its meaning.

I sympathize with that position—and, to a certain extent, agree with it. In order to clarify the reason for my word choice, I’d like to point to the strong language many critics used in regards to the film itself. The references to rape are legion, even though the sex that takes place in the movie is not coerced. Aurora consents to, and even sometimes initiates, her trysts with Jim. Nevertheless, critics responded (rightfully, I think) to the set of circumstances leading to this “romantic” relationship as sexual assault. The sex is consensual, yes, but it involves manipulation. Such consent should not be construed as free.

Similarly, the filming of Jennifer Lawrence’s sex scene was indeed consensual. It also involved societal manipulation, evidenced in large part by the amount of fear, guilt, and anguish Lawrence experienced during and after the shoot. In the face of such cultural duress, her consent should not be construed as free.
                               
All things considered, I think my use of the term “sexual assault” is appropriate—as long as I make distinctions between an actual person-on-person assault and an assault a society makes on a group of people. And, as anyone knows from reading the blog post, I definitely made that distinction.

FEMALE AGENCY

Another critique I have received is that my position shows a disregard for female autonomy. By focusing on the experiences of actresses in particular, I am revealing sexist and misogynistic view of women, as if they are no better at dealing with pressure than children.

I am grateful for this critique. That someone could click away from my blog thinking such things is concerning. I plan on dealing with this criticism more fully in the future. For now, let me give a short response.

My emphasis on the cultural constraints of actors is not meant to imply that actors (and especially women) in these situations are left without the reality or even the possibility of moral agency. I have focused much attention on our culture as a whole because I believe it is a critical factor.

Consider an illustration from a completely separate topic: American obesity. One might ask why we don’t focus more time on issues of autonomy and personal responsibility, rather than on societal issues like portion sizes, aggressive marketing techniques, the prevalence of junk food, and the abundance of sedentary entertainment. The answer is that zeroing in on personal responsibility while ignoring cultural trends is a shortsighted approach to the problem.

So it is, I believe, with the filming of sex scenes in modern entertainment, whether such entertainment is obviously and blatantly pornographic, or subtly and artistically pornographic. In short, although female agency is indeed a factor, it is not the only factor. And I am choosing to draw attention to factors that we as an audience can actually affect.

CONTINUING THE CONVERSATION

I greatly appreciate the feedback I have received from readers, both positive and negative. It helps me pause and consider where I might be wrong. It also helps me refine my language and/or message so that I can more successfully and clearly communicate what I believe in the future.

And even if, at the conclusion of this blog post, you still disagree with me, I hope that you can at least better understand and appreciate my intentions. In any case, thank you for contributing to this conversation.

photo credit: jenlawfilms via flickr, CC

Monday, February 06, 2017

The Indecency of Simply Ignoring Indecent Content

Over the past few years, I’ve posted numerous articles about sex and nudity in films and television. I am grateful for the opportunity to compile material from several of these posts into a new article for Reformed Perspective Magazine. The post went live last week, and it is entitled Here’s the problem with just closing your eyes during the sex scenes. This article is a good summary of some of my main points.

UPDATE: a PDF of the print edition is now available here.

photo credit: ATENCION: via flickr, CC

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

A Tale of Two Sexual Assaults on Jennifer Lawrence

The first assault against Jennifer Lawrence was heavily discussed in the news and on social media. The second has received comparatively little fanfare. The first incident resulted in an FBI investigation, subsequent prosecution, and an upcoming sentencing. The legal ramifications of the second incident are practically nonexistent. The overall response to the first was outrage. The response to the second was indifference.

What were these two incidents? The first, as you may have guessed, was the 2014 iCloud hack in which private/nude photos of several female celebrities, including Lawrence, were stolen and published online. The second incident involved the filming of Jennifer Lawrence’s first sex scene (for the sci-fi movie Passengers). Let me set the stage by sharing three similarities between the photo hack and the sex scene.

First, in the aftermath of the photo hack, Lawrence experienced anxiety. “I was just so afraid,” she later said. “I didn’t know how this would affect my career.”

Similarly, when dealing with the sex scene in Passengers, Lawrence experienced anxiety—before and after the shoot: “I got really, really drunk. But then that led to more anxiety when I got home because I was like, ‘What have I done? I don’t know.’”

Second, in the aftermath of the stolen photos, Lawrence reached out to one of her parents:

I promise you, anybody given the choice of that kind of money [for making The Hunger Games] or having to make a phone call to tell your dad that something like that has happened, it’s not worth it.

In the aftermath of the sex scene in Passengers, Lawrence once again reached out to one of her parents—this time, her mother:

[I]t was…my first time kissing a married man, and guilt is the worst feeling in your stomach. And I knew it was my job, but I couldn’t tell my stomach that. So I called my mom, and I was like, “Will you just tell me it’s OK?”

Third, in response to the stolen photos, Lawrence experienced intense grief. “I was outside crying,” she said, “and [my dog] Pippi jumped up on my lap and started licking up all my tears, and I couldn’t put her down for hours. And I mean, hours.”

Likewise, Lawrence experienced grief over the sex scene in Passengers. As evidenced by the quotes we’ve already looked at, her grief was shown in the coping mechanisms she used to eliminate distress, sorrow, and regret.

WHERE THERE’S A WILL, THERE’S A CONSCIENCE

It is true that there are some obvious differences between the stolen photos and the sex scene. For example, the first incident took place against Lawrence’s wishes, whereas the second took place with her consent. I point out the similarities above, not to prove that the situations are identical, but that they are both morally problematic. The scenarios may not be the same, but they both are serious.

For the purposes of this article, let’s summarize the differences this way: the photo hack was a violation of Lawrence’s will, while the sex scene was a violation of Lawrence’s conscience.

In our individualistic society, violence to a person’s will is quickly labeled as evil—and rightly (if not sometimes inordinately) so. That’s why no reputable news source attempted to explain why the hacked photo incident was no big deal. It was a big deal. In the words of Jennifer Lawrence herself, it was “a sex crime…a sexual violation.”

When it comes to violations of conscience, however, our hypersexualized culture is not so quick to respond. We’ve become acclimated to sex as an entertainment tool, not realizing that mainstream actors are routinely coerced and manipulated into performing sex and/or nude scenes. In the face of overwhelming societal pressure, they often submit to things they otherwise wouldn’t do.

As I have researched the pornification of our entertainment over the last few years, I’ve come across more and more stories from actors (mostly women) who describe their experience filming sex scenes with words like “embarrassing,” “mortifying,” “humiliating,” and “terrifying.” In fact, there’s an eerie similarity between how movie stars feel and how porn stars feel about shooting nude and/or sex scenes. Their feelings matter little, however, in the face of producers, directors, and audiences who don’t know and/or don’t care about their plight.

This objectification of human beings made in God’s image is a prevalent evil affecting all types of films, from Fifty Shades of Grey to The Wolf of Wall Street. It encourages us as a viewing audience to dehumanize actors in our minds, if even only unconsciously.

Going back to Lawrence’s experience in Passengers: it is clear she felt guilty about sexually acting out with a married man. Her conscience fought her during the process. Even so, she was able to later summarize the experience by saying, “[E]verything was done right; nobody did anything wrong.” (She even publicly joked about the experience shortly before the movie’s release.)

So what happened there? How did she go from guilt to acceptance? How did she go from thinking something was horribly wrong to thinking nothing was wrong? One of two things happened.

Option #1: She gained some maturity; her conscience was strengthened.

Option #2: She lost some of her innocence; her conscience was seared.

I’m going with option #2. Lawrence’s conscience, tethered to a society consumed with its own entertainment, was dragged through the mud. It then got up, wiped itself off, and followed the culture’s cues by denying there was ever any mud to begin with.
                                  
No one person attacked Lawrence during the filming of her first cinematic sex scene. The assault was a group effort. We as a culture are the perpetrator.

A CONSPIRACY OF IGNORANCE

Based on Lawrence’s public statements, the photo hack of 2014 was likely the toughest thing she has yet experienced as a celebrity. It traumatized her with grief and shame. It made her feel vulnerable and fearful.

Similarly, the sex scene in Passengers was, by Lawrence’s own admission, the toughest thing she has yet experienced as an actor. It traumatized her with grief and shame. It made her feel, as she put it, “the most vulnerable I’ve ever been.”

How does our society react to statements like that? With a yawn. A shrug. A blithe wave of the hand. We’re too enamored with the entertainment provided for us on the backs of burdened consciences. We’re too secure in the reality that what we don’t know, or don’t fully understand, won’t hurt us. We’re happy in our ignorance.

Sure, many of us are not acting with ill will. But make no mistake: our ignorance is not Jennifer Lawrence’s bliss.

UPDATE: I’ve published a follow-up piece that answers some criticism I have received: Why Compare the Filming of Sex Scenes to Sexual Assault?

photo credit: jenlawfilms via flickr, CC

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016) – Film Review

When it comes to movies featuring the Avengers, I’m definitely in the minority. My emotional response has wavered only between mild disinterest to outright boredom—especially when it comes to anything related to Thor and/or The Hulk. Similarly, Captain America: The First Avenger left me completely underwhelmed. I loved the character of Cap himself—how could I not?—but found his origin story uninteresting.

That all changed when I saw Captain America: Winter Soldier. With tense action sequences, a healthy dose of espionage, a palpable sense of danger, a deliciously entertaining supervillain, and deft handling of moral/political themes, Winter Soldier rocked my socks off. My wife and I wanted to watch the film again even before it had finished.

The announcement of Civil War thrilled me with the possibility of watching another Cap-centric Avengers film. At the same time, I knew the bar had been set quite high. Could Cap (the superhero) entertain Cap (the moviegoer) as much as he did the last time around? That’s the question I’m here to answer today.

As a reminder, I rate movies based on three criteria: potentially objectionable content (C), artistry (A), and my personal opinions (P).

CONTENT (C): 7 out of 10
Of the recent Avengers movies, Cap’s films tend to be cleaner in the areas of sexual innuendo and profanity. True to form, Civil War steers clear of the pointless innuendo that tarnished the last Avengers ensemble (i.e., Age of Ultron). The profanity is about what we’ve come to expect from a Marvel movie.

With all the action set pieces, there is a heavy amount of violence—including one scene late in the game that ended up being more disturbing than I’d have anticipated. Then again, maybe it was just me. Whatever the case, the movie definitely isn’t for younger audiences.

ARTISTRY (A): 8 out of 10
After watching the trailers, I was concerned about character motivations: would Steve “All About Authority” Rogers fighting against his chain of command and Tony “Do Whatever I Want” Stark fighting for greater government oversight work? Thankfully, it did. In fact, the filmmakers respected audiences enough to give plausible reasons for both superheroes’ positions. We genuinely empathize with both Steve and Tony, as they each have solid rhetorical points to make.

With superheroes numbering in the double digits, Civil War handles all the characters, and the introduction of a few new ones, adeptly. I can understand how some people might complain about the new heroes having little setup involved in their introductions. At the same time, Marvel has spent years setting up the main Avengers, and if they had standalone films for every single Avenger before moving forward, we’d all probably be complaining about how the studio was taking forever to get things going. Besides, more standalone films are on their way, which will give even more depth to characters about which we don’t know a lot (yet).

Probably the film’s biggest weakness is related to the movie’s villain. While his motives (once we learn what they are) are perfectly understandable, his methods are questionable. They remind me somewhat of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and the needlessly elaborate gymnastics [*SPOILER ALERT*] involving the antagonist’s desire to get Harry to touch a portkey. In Civil War, too many elements need to fall into place in order for the villain’s plans to succeed. By the end of the film, the suspension of disbelief has stretched too thin to hold incredulity at bay.

PREFERENCE (P): 9 out of 10
The suspension of disbelief mentioned above isn’t enough to ruin the movie for me, but it does weaken the impact of the ending. I have trouble feeling the supposed gravity of the situation after learning just exactly how the villain expected to pull off his grand scheme.

Even so, I still find Civil War to be like Winter Soldier in that it is a genuine thrill ride. The character interactions, moral dilemmas, and numerous action set pieces—not the least of which is the battle for which the movie gets its name—all combine into a flat-out entertaining experience.

Captain America’s films handle their political themes well. I especially appreciated one character’s exhortation about how sometimes you need to do what’s right even when the entire world (or so it seems) is telling you you’re wrong. The religious symbolism accompanying the scene is genuinely appreciated.

It also doesn’t hurt that my least two favorite Avengers are MIA in this film. Yes, I’m talking about Thor “The Mighty Bore” and Bruce “What the Heck is My Motivation” Banner. I’m sorry, but I feel nothing for these characters, and their exclusion in Civil War works strongly in the story’s favor.

One thing all the Avengers movies do is blend gravitas and humor exceptionally well, and this is no exception. We’ve grown with these characters over the years, so it feels like watching friends laugh and fight together. The same goes for the new recruits as well—especially Spider-Man. Even though we’ve seen the web-slinger in two separate franchises in the last several years, it is this Spiderman who takes the cake (and I mean that in a good way). Simply put, I loved the experience of watching these friends, new and old, duke it out on the big screen.

CAP grade: 80%

Monday, March 28, 2016

“God’s Not Dead” and the Bastardization of Christian Filmmaking

If you’re a fan of the 2014 film God’s Not Dead, and if you’re excited about its upcoming sequel, you and I probably have several things in common. We likely agree that historic Christianity is becoming less and acceptable in the public sphere. We likely agree that many of our nation’s college campuses are becoming more and more hostile to individuals who adhere to any form of absolutes. We also likely agree that there is an increasing need for believers of all types—students, teachers, pastors, filmmakers, etc.—to engage with our world in an effective and countercultural way.

It’s actually because of these shared beliefs that I’m majorly concerned with the popularity of God’s Not Dead (and other movies like it). And it’s because of these shared beliefs that I want to explain my concerns to you.

I’ll put aside most of the artistic issues I have with the film. (For that, I’ll direct you to my cyber friends Steven D. Greydanus and Peter T. Chattaway). My main focus here will be on the movie’s message. In short, the film utilizes three dangerous techniques to craft its story: caricatures, wish fulfillment, and deception.

1. Caricatures

Don’t you hate how Christians are repeatedly misrepresented in movies and television? It’s as if screenwriters take no thought to learn what true Christians are actually like. We end up with a lot of hypocritical, narrow-minded, and/or worldly characters who don’t rightly represent the vast majority of genuine believers. It’s highly unfortunate at best, and outright shameful at worst.

This misrepresentation is exactly what God’s Not Dead does to all three of the main atheists (or antitheists) in the film. All of them are evil or absurd in the extreme: no redeeming qualities, no shades of gray. Each of them is one-dimensional, robbing them of any real humanity.

What do atheists think about this? Blogger Neil Carter says it well:

In the end the central injustice of this movie is its failure to fairly represent a class of people whom Christians purport to love. But it’s not loving people well to misrepresent them this badly. This movie caricatures, dehumanizes, and depersonalizes people like me, portraying us in the worst possible light.  How could I not find this movie disgustingly offensive?

Carter is right. You don’t caricature, insult, and demean skeptics and unbelievers if you want them to actually engage with you in a meaningful conversation. You can’t practice deception and then expect people to trust you, let alone hear you. It’s Evangelism 101.

2. Wish Fulfillment

Like many Christian films, God’s Not Dead takes places in an alternate reality, where circumstances unfold unnaturally or illogically so as to work toward a contrived outcome. The suspension of disbelief is heightened to nearly insufferable levels.

Consider just a couple examples. First, the film gives us a view of persecution so watered down that it’s practically meaningless. In an early scene, the movie sets the stage for its main protagonist, college student Josh Wheaton; he is told what his experience will be like in the philosophy class he signed up for: “Think Roman Colosseumlions, people cheering for your death.” That’s the kind of persecution young Josh has in store for him, according to the movie. (I guess it’s possible to interpret that line of dialogue as hyperbole, or even as a stab at humor, but nothing about the film lends itself to such an interpretation.)

What does Josh’s experience actually entail? His atheist professor ends up giving Josh three 20-minute segments in three separate classes to explain his faith to the entire class. And other than one girl asking Josh a question during his first presentation, there’s never even a hint of mob mentality persecution.

This is in stark contrast to what Christians actually experienced in the Roman Colosseum. Violent deaths aren’t usually inspiring, and yet historical accounts of Christian martyrdom fill us with a strong sense of catharsis. Why? Because martyrs show us most clearly how a person can lose the whole world and gain his soul. All his losses are temporary and all his gains are eternal.

In spite of what the movie foreshadows, Josh’s victory over his college professor isn’t anything remotely like that. He ends up losing nothing and gaining everything—including the accolades of pop culture icons in front of a massive crowd. (Technically Josh does lose his girlfriend, but it’s obvious almost from the beginning that he was better off without her anyway.)

One more example of wish fulfillment: Josh’s victory is based on a string of unrealistic circumstances. He is somehow able to prepare three apologetic presentations, complete with Hollywood-level visual aids, in a matter of a few days. Each presentation leads to a completely unreasonable response from his professor: dastardly threats after the first presentation (even though the professor wasn’t seriously challenged at all), a vulnerable confession after the second presentation (after Josh did directly challenge the professor’s authority), and a complete meltdown during the third presentation (which, with its infantile rhetoric, wouldn’t goad anyone).

As a result, every student in the entire class—each of which agreed just a few days before that God is dead—demonstrably joins Josh’s side and declares that God is not dead. To top it all off, this little squabble somehow makes it into the news, which quickly reaches the ears of the folks at Duck Dynasty, who mysteriously collaborate with the Newsboys to interrupt their concert that weekend to give a shout out to brave young Josh.

These contrived plot elements are nothing more than fantasy masquerading as reality. That’s not inspiring; it’s stoking up the fires of paranoia and victimization.

3. Deception

This isn’t so much a third factor of the movie’s message as it is a result of the first two factors. The film dishonestly handles almost every thematic element it touches: human nature, logic, philosophy, character development, etc. We’re not just talking about being sloppy. We’re talking about lying. In a court of law, it’s called perjury. Does anyone see a problem with Christians—supposed proponents of truth—resorting to lying as a rhetorical device?

Even as the end credits roll, several real-life court cases are highlighted as the supposed inspiration for the movie. YouTuber Kevin McCreary (a.k.a., Nostalgia Christian) actually researched every single one of these cases (which he begins discussing at the 32:40 mark). Here’s what he discovered:
                                                                                                                        
…most of [the court cases] don’t have anything to do with religion, but rather political issues that tend to be more conservative. And without exception, they’re cases of Christians filing lawsuits against schools. . . . Not a single one of them are cut-and-dried cases of Christians being mistreated, and they all result in the Alliance Defending Freedom [an organization that gets an ad at the end of the credits] making a lot of money.

In spite of all this, some might argue that believers have found genuine encouragement from movies like God’s Not Dead, or that some people may have actually gotten saved as a result of watching these films. While those are real possibilities, it’s still no excuse for dishonesty in our discourse. God forbid that professing Christians play fast and loose with the truth because “the end justifies the means.” As Andrew Barber says in his excellent examination of Christian films, “The idea that one conversion validates even the worst means can be used to justify all sorts of evils.”

God’s NOT Dead…But So What?

It’s theoretically possible, I suppose, that God’s Not Dead 2 will be an improvement on its predecessor. However, the filmmakers have shown no remorse over how they handled things the first time around. In fact, it seems clear that they’re copying everything about the original film that made it a financial success. Heck, even God’s Not Dead 2’s release date is problematic: April 1 (what many Evangelicals like to self-congratulatingly call National Atheist Day). Seriously? Are they being unnecessarily offensive just so they can get another one of their fingers in the eyes of their atheist neighbors? God’s Not Dead 2 is looking like it has all the subtlety, grace, nuance, and Christian spirit of the first film—that is to say, none.

Brothers and sisters in the faith, if we continue to push artistic and moral trash like God’s Not Dead on the world, we will only continue to sour the taste of Christianity in the mouths of those in our culture. By playing in a fantasy world of our own making while simultaneously vilifying those who disagree with us, we will fail to engage with our culture in any meaningful way. In fact, we will actually damage the very gospel message we seek to proclaim.

When we play dirty like the filmmakers of God’s Not Dead have done (and are still doing?), we show ourselves to be so desperate to spread our message that we will stoop to any level in order to get our society to hear us. In effect, we act as if…well, as if God is functionally dead. As if it’s solely up to us to make a difference in the world. We tarnish the best news in the universe, all for the sake of our own therapeutic hubris. And that is something for which we should be greatly ashamed.

Monday, February 22, 2016

RISEN (2016) – Film Review

They could have called it God’s Not Dead. But then it would have been cheesy, corny, and other food-related adjectives. Risen is devoid of most cheese and corn: no caricatures, no wish-fulfillment fantasies, and no deceptive ethos-building. It’s not a perfect film, but it is a welcome addition to the faith-based genre.

As a reminder, I rate movies based on three criteria: potentially objectionable content (C), artistry (A), and my personal preference (P).

CONTENT (C): 10 out of 10
Believe it or not, faith-based films often have questionable content—not the typical sex, violence, and profanity, but something just as problematic. What they often do is jettison artistic nuance and subtlety and instead beat audiences over the head with a blatant message that, true or not, alienates skeptics and ends up preaching only to the choir. Such tactics are morally and artistically deficient.

In the case of Risen, no such overt message exists. The film is obviously sympathetic to Christianity, and religious thematic elements abound, but such is the nature of the story being told. The life, death, and resurrection of Christ are ripe events for existential exploration, and this movie does an excellent job (for the most part) of showing and not telling.

There’s even an appropriate amount of ambiguity. The last line spoken in the movie leaves one character’s spiritual state open to interpretation. There’s a potent pause in the middle of what he says, and as grammarians know, how you punctuate a sentence can radically change its meaning. So is the case here, and it’s a welcome way to end the movie. It reminds me of the ending to Inception; the audience is given room to contemplate.

It should be noted that there is a fair amount of violence and gore related to battle killings, the crucifixion of three individuals, and the inspection of a few bloated corpses. This isn’t anywhere as brutal as The Passion of the Christ, but it’s still intense.

ARTISTRY (A): 7 out of 10
Unlike your typical faith-based feature, Risen has some serious caliber talent both behind and in front of the camera, and it shows. The originality of the central plot—a manhunt for the body of Jesus—puts a fresh and engaging spin on a familiar tale. Except for a few minor cases (including the first speaking role in the film, unfortunately), the acting is stellar. An especially artistic aspect of the movie is its cinematography, which, if my memory serves, only gets more and more beautiful as the narrative progresses.

Some might say that the opening battle is sub-par, being that it’s a small scale set piece. But that’s just a Hollywood-conditioned mindset talking. (It was an automatic emotional response I initially had, in fact, so I’m pointing the finger at myself first.) The truth is, not every battle in human history resembled the Orc siege at Helm’s Deep, and that’s perfectly fine.

It could also be argued that the insertion of some material in the last third or so of the film (scenes taken from the latter part of the gospels) doesn’t contribute much to the narrative, and could in fact prove confusing for those not familiar with the gospel story. My wife compared it to a Marvel superhero movie, in that it includes a lot of references to plot points and characters that only Christians will catch and/or understand. These scenes almost make it feel like the movie is meandering without a specific goal in mind.

At the same time, if we consider that the narrative follows the character arc of someone whose entire worldview has been challenged to the core, the meandering nature of the final section of the movie could be thematically appropriate. A lot of it depends, I guess, on audience expectations.

It’s also nice to see that the followers of Jesus are living, breathing humans, not overly saintly and unrelatable (unlike, say, Charlton Heston’s Moses after the burning bush sequence in The Ten Commandments). The forcefulness of Peter’s character, in one scene especially, is deliciously potent.

PREFERENCE (P): 8 out of 10
It took me a little while to warm up to the movie, but once the manhunt was underway, my enjoyment level exponentially increased. I absolutely loved all the details related to the search for Christ’s body: the political maneuvering, the interrogations, tracking down the disciples, and so on. Riveting stuff, that. With the addition of a surprising amount of humor, I was hooked.

A lot of reviewers have complained about how the film shifts its focus at the midpoint—what students of screenwriting guru Syd Field call the point of no return. It’s an effectively dramatic scene, and it in no way lost my interest. I remained engaged as Clavius’ investigation took a more personal turn, leading him to even aid his former adversaries in a sequence that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Only when the back-to-back miracles started in the final fourth of the film did I start to lose interest. It felt disjointed and aimless (as I already mentioned above). Perhaps a second viewing would prove to be a more positive and cathartic experience.

Whatever the case, I still appreciated how the screenplay handled the interactions between key characters. The conversation between a Roman tribune and Jesus, for example, could have been so cheesy and/or ham-handed, but it better revealed the true nature and character of God in its quiet assurance.

I also liked how the film avoided a complete whitewashing of the cast, giving us (among other things) one of the most authentic looking Jesus figures thus far in a film. It’s a most welcome change from the Hollywood casting status quo.

All in all, I’ve turned into something of a fan boy of Risen. I can’t wait to watch it again and own it on DVD. It may not be the artistic masterpiece that The Passion of the Christ was, but it is more accessible, more entertaining, and (ultimately) more uplifting.

CAP grade: 83%