Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Ranting On...War Room and the Christian Film Conundrum

I have not seen War Room and I don't plan on seeing it.  There, I said it, and I'm getting that out of the way before any haters come in here.  And I'm also going to admit that this causes a bit of a dilemma for me, as I am one of those people who generally doesn't like people condemning things that they haven't experienced.  I will say that I watched the trailer to the movie, for the record, and based on several reviews, I think I can tell you 99% of the plot of the movie as a result, and why I wouldn't want to see it, and almost every other Christian-themed film out there.  This is a problem for me, though, because I don't like to dismiss entire genres, and I think it's wrong to do so; ignoring entire sectors of the filmmaking community reeks of ignorance, and though I have seen some Christian-themed films of this ilk (so I'm not completely remiss in my critical duties, and have left them thoroughly disappointed), I don't like that.  I actually had a long debate with my brother on this subject the other day that I told him halfway through "I am going to finish my argument on this subject on the blog" and so I'm going to do that now-what would it take to have artistically-relevant Christian films being made in our current era?

The reality is that I have long argued that conservative and Christian viewpoints need to be seen onscreen, and I do feel that way.  I think that ignoring sectors of the populace onscreen is wrong (I also feel this way about certain age, minority, and sexual/gender groups that seem to frequently be missing onscreen, for the record), and something we shouldn't skip.  And I genuinely want to see quality here.  I don't think that 2016: Obama's America is doing anything for this movement's cause, and while I'm not going to watch one of these films and instantly start voting for the right, I think there's a point to be made that the conservative or Christian point-of-view is absent in most modern filmmaking.

The problem here is that films like War Room and similarly-themed movies focus too much on a specific message, and not just on letting that message seep through.  The entire trailer of the film (again, I've read the plot summary and seen the trailer), focuses entirely on prayer being both an abject thought as well as something that is going to actually make the entire difference in someone else's life.  As a lifelong churchgoer, I am aware that this isn't entirely how prayer works.  It works almost entirely in an abject way, and perhaps subconsciously it affects the way that you gear your actions in the meantime.  I'm not here to argue that it doesn't perhaps have a higher-cause, but you don't see that action in what is happening (otherwise famine and pestilence would be rid from the world in an instant, and the biggest concerns would be inflation and Ryan Gosling's libido, as we'd all have won the lottery and married the star of The Notebook), and instead it's usually either fate or your own actions that influence such a decision.

Hollywood used to know this, and occasionally still does.  The most famous and most critically-acclaimed film to focus on a Christian orthodoxy is It's a Wonderful Life, the 1946 classic starring Jimmy Stewart.  The film's centerpiece is a scene where Stewart's George Bailey is praying to God to save him from himself, as he is broke and suicidal, and God sends down an angel.  Here, though, Hollywood is smart enough to at least acknowledge the fact that it's bending the rules-we know that angels don't literally come to us in our hours of needs, walk us through Pottersville and let us know that our life has value.  The film has the exact same message as a Christian film, of course (George Bailey is healed through the power of prayer and turns to God in his hour of need, which is basically what any priest/pastor is going to tell you to do), but it does so in a way that feels authentic to its own world.  George is literally aided by an angel, not just someone who prays and then the world falls into place.  You need to ground the film into its own reality-either an angel does appear, or an angel doesn't and determination, honesty, and admitting one's own faults is the true culprit, and not just prayer.

You see the conservative ideology, and through that a focus on Christian ethos, much better in some other films.  Movies like The Blind Side and American Sniper, for example, are neither what I'd consider great movies, or even particularly good ones, but they are not the cloying, underproduced movies that frequently sit in the front case of Christian bookstores either.  Both films rely on a conservative ideology and conservative worldview, but feature strong central performances from Sandra Bullock and Bradley Cooper, and while I can nitpick ways to make the films better, it's hard not to see the clear appeal of both pictures and why they made a fortune at the Box Office.  These films' weakest elements may be their scripts, but they are films that are actually fun to watch in the case of The Blind Side and occasionally deal with a more complicated worldview in American Sniper (at least until the last twenty minutes, when the film derails).  This is rarely the case for lower-budget Christian films which feel like they need to overemphasize their message, and as we know that independent features can frequently feel truly artistic and great, it's not a matter of money that stops them from appearing cloying and cheap.

As a result, Christian filmmakers of all ilks would be better-served to either go the route of The Blind Side and make a film that has a conservative ideology where that isn't the principle focus, or to instead take a more opaque tactic such as It's a Wonderful Life, with literal biblical aspects.  It also helps if you take a course from It's a Wonderful Life and not be particularly preachy; I honestly think few people would recognize It's a Wonderful Life as a Christian film in an instant way (I didn't think so until I was researching this article and it sort of gobsmacked me in the face that of course it was).  This is because the film A) has truly great actors in Stewart, Donna Reed, and Thomas Mitchell and B) because the focus isn't just on religion/Christianity, but also on everyday life (another major issue in modern Christian films as people have lives that aren't just terrible when you aren't focused on prayer).  It's a lesson worth learning, particularly considering the huge gains in goodwill such a film would receive.

Before I end, I do want to point out the strangest aspect of the Christian film dilemma, particularly considering the insane success recently of The Passion and The Bible miniseries-why is it that more biblical epics don't see the light of day onscreen?  Arguably the most-celebrated Christian film is of course The Ten Commandments, and that's not even the best one (Ben-Hur is considerably better in my opinion, and I know many people side on the part of El Cid).  I personally disliked The Passion, and I thought that Darren Aronofsky's Noah was a creative mess, but there's clearly interesting stories in the Bible (it's the bestselling book of all-time for a reason), and why precisely considering the ratio-of-success recently of biblical or Christian films have we not seen more major Hollywood productions tackling the book?  Is it that they can't see a way to tell the story literally and create a great film?  If that's the case, I think they need to look to better directors and take more daring risks with scripts, because there's definitely both an audience and an opportunity there.  Personally, I think that going in that direction may be the easier route to fix the Christian film artistry problem, but I will say that by borrowing from movies like The Blind Side and It's a Wonderful Life, you could fix it from all angles.

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