No time to write a book or anything here, but just a few quick thoughts ...
Many of the discussions around "Christian film" remind me of the discussions around "Canadian film", and vice versa.
As a Canadian, I am very aware of the fact that I sit on the fringe of the American mainstream, and so I am constantly alerted to the existence of Canadian films and told that we need to "support" Canadian films, etc., etc., and sometimes the Canadian films that get the biggest commercial push are among the crappiest Canadian films I have ever seen (e.g., Men with Brooms
, Bon Cop Bad Cop
). Likewise, as a Christian, I am very aware of the fact that I sit on the fringe of the American mainstream, and so I am constantly alerted to the existence of Christian films and told that we need to "support" Christian films, etc., etc., and sometimes the Christian films that get the biggest commercial push are among the crappiest Christian films I have ever seen (e.g., the Left Behind
Also, as a Canadian, I am sometimes inundated with debates over whether Canadian films should try to "cross over" into the American mainstream; and likewise, as a Christian, I am sometimes inundated with debates over whether Christian films should try to "cross over" into the American mainstream.
To all of this, all I can say is that I value films that are grounded in particulars but open to universals, and ideally that would mean a film that may have a special appeal to some "niche" or other, but is also truthful and insightful in a way that can draw me out of my niche (and perhaps draw others to a better understanding of my niche). And that applies equally whether my "niche" is that of a Canadian or that of a Christian. (Oh, the joy I felt a few years ago, when everyone wanted to talk about The Barbarian Invasions
-- the first Canadian film to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. That film is VERY Canadian, yet it also taps into much deeper, and much more universal, aspects of the human experience.)
So yes, please, let us praise excellence.
But let us also tread gently where filmmakers are still finding their footing.
A movie like Thr3e
has enough longtime professionals involved -- such as producer Ralph Winter and certain actors -- that I don't think we need to worry about kid gloves there. Likewise, I would argue, The Last Sin Eater
, which also has its share of industry pros. (Question: One of the producers of that film was a producer on Touched by an Angel
. Was Touched by an Angel
a "Christian" show? Should we treat The Last Sin Eater
any differently than we might have treated that show? I ask this as one who never saw Touched by an Angel
and thus have no critique to make of it one way or the other.) And when one of the Crouches can throw tens of millions of dollars at a movie (be it Megiddo: The Omega Code 2
or One Night with the King
), I don't think it matters much whether the actual writing or directing is done by veterans or amateurs -- the very production itself is built on the assumption that talent and creativity can be bought, and if it isn't actually in evidence onscreen, we need to point that out, possibly even ruthlessly, lest we fall into the trap of praising a film for being oh-so-expensive.
But a movie like Facing the Giants
... ah, that is a different story. Once you know that that movie was produced for only $98,000 by a bunch of amateurs at some church (with much of the budget going to a few pros on the technical side of things), I think it would be impossible to come away from that film without being at least SOMEWHAT impressed. Yes, by all means, let us critique the writing -- pointing out its cons as well as its pros. But let us try to do so in a constructive, encouraging way.
The director of that film told me that everything depicted in his film had actually happened to someone in his church. Great, I have no reason to doubt that. But the film is not a documentary; as the director himself admitted, he had to re-arrange things chronologically to fit them into the structure of his movie -- and beyond that, of course, he had to select which elements to include in the movie and which elements to leave out. So we could certainly ask him why he chose so many stories or subplots that end in triumph. What about a film that ends more open-endedly? -- a film that leaves some things unresolved, and invites us to ask where WE would go from there? (What sort of impact would the story of the Prodigal Son have had if it had ended with Jesus telling us HOW the elder brother responded to his father's plea?)
As I was pondering my review of The Last Sin Eater
, I toyed with the idea of mentioning that my mother's cousin had died at the age of two in an accident of the sort that one hears about in rustic frontier towns. (This accident took place in a Mennonite village in Paraguay.) And I toyed with mentioning that my mother's cousin had said, shortly before dying, that she saw an angel. For that matter, my grandmother has said that she saw ... something like that ... at a very trying point in her life, back when she still lived in Ukraine. So I would never, ever go after a film simply because it happens to show an angelic visitation, even a vistation to a young girl who has lost her sister, which is what happens in The Last Sin Eater
. I do think we as Christians have to be a little more open to that sort of thing than some of secular compatriots might be.
I am reminded of a comment that Ron Reed made at his blog recently
, about how the Jewish film Ushpizin
is sometimes described by secular critics as a "fairy tale" or a "fable"; as Christian critics, I don't think we can be so dismissive. (Or am I being too dismissive of those secular critics when I say that they are being at least somewhat dismissive?)
But my main beef with The Last Sin Eater
was that it raised this very interesting subject -- namely the practice of "sin eating" -- and then didn't seem very interested in it, beyond its capacity to be "just another set-up for an evangelical punchline."
Obviously, I have no problem with something being put into a film in order to "set up" something else down the road -- that's just good plotting. And I don't even have a problem with evangelical messages -- though if we reduce them to punchlines, we commit a sin against good drama and good evangelism. (How does that old joke go, about Christian movies being just like porno movies? Bad writing, bad acting, and you always know how it's going to end. Something like that.) It's the "just another" part of my quote that everything else hinges on.
We need to take an interest in characters and situations FOR THEIR OWN SAKE. We need to become compassionate, other-centred, willing to step out of our own ghettoes and our own skins, so that we can experience what it's like to live in someone else's shoes for a while. This is why I am uncomfortable with the dichotomy between "form" and "content" that sometimes comes up in these discussions. Looking for "excellence" in Christian films surely means more than looking for good lighting, editing, music, etc.The Last Sin Eater
erred in two ways, I think, and I alluded to both of these ways in my review, though perhaps not as well as I could have. On the one hand, it erred by showing very little interest in the phenomenon of "sin eating", beyond its ability to set up the evangelistic message that comes about halfway through the movie. On the other hand, it also erred by linking the phenomenon of "sin eating" to a rather extreme sort of back-story in which we learn that this Welsh immigrant community living in the Appalachians once slaughtered an entire tribe of Native Americans -- and THEN, after the community's leader died, his son contrived to have another member of the community selected as a "sin eater" so that the leader's son could have a chance of stealing the "sin eater's" girlfriend away from him.
So, as I see it (and feel free to argue with me), the phenomenon of "sin eating" is trivialized and reduced to the level of a plot device in a romance novel, and it is connected to a genocidal sin that virtually no one in the audience will feel any connection to. No one will see this movie and think, "Oh yeah, I know what this is about, my sins are so equally bad that I too feel the need for someone to take my sins away," etc., etc. It is more likely that people will think, "Yeah, THEY sure need to have THEIR sins forgiven, don't they." Instead of INVOLVING us in the process of guilt and redemption, the film DISTANCES us from it -- which surely must work against the film's stated aim of evangelizing people. (It doesn't help that this back-story comes up pretty much only in the last half-hour or so, so it might disorient some people who have stuck with the film this far.)
(I suppose someone might argue that the genocidal back-story DOES tap into some sort of collective American guilt over the nation's treatment of Native Americans, and that's certainly possible. But I wonder what sort of back-story this movie would have had if it were set in 19th-century Wales and not among 19th-century Welsh immigrants to America? Why did this thing called "sin eating" begin over there in the British Isles in the FIRST place? Did it exist among immigrants to America who did NOT have a history of genocide?)
It's the journey, not the destination, that counts. We know that, where Christian films are concerned, all roads will lead to Jesus. But that doesn't mean we can't take the occasional scenic route, or that the bus can't let us off a few stops early to let us walk the rest of the way on our own.
- - -
Incidentally, the radio host who went ballistic this past week recently quoted the following paragraph from the New York Times
's review of The Last Sin Eater
at his website (the bold
parts were bolded at his website):
The resulting "Ordinary People"-style expiation of guilt is so affectingly performed by Ms. Forbes and Mr. Thomas that the rest of the story, a blunt and rather prosaic Christian allegory, feels like a redundant epilogue. But since the movie is a big-screen Sunday school story with sumptuous scenery, graceful crane shots and Rembrandt lighting -- designed mainly to impart and then repeat wisdom about guilt, sin and redemption -- this can't really be considered a flaw.
I find this pretty funny, myself. The website puts "this can't really be considered a flaw" in bold -- and to what does "this" refer? Why, to "the rest of the story, a blunt and rather prosaic Christian allegory, feels like a redundant epilogue", of course. So, "blunt", "prosaic", and "redundant" can't be considered "flaws" because ... why? Because evangelistic art is by definition never mediocre? Give me a break.
Oh, and "redundancy" is apparently okay if the whole POINT of a film is to "repeat" itself?
I would respect the New York Times
review a bit more, BTW, if it didn't have a couple of glaring errors (and in a review that's only 219 words long, "a couple" of glaring errors is kind of a lot). One glaring error is minor, i.e. saying that a role is "performed by Ms. Forbes" when, in fact, Forbes is the CHARACTER'S name, not the actor's. But the other glaring error is kinda big, i.e. when the review refers to "her village's sin eater (Henry Thomas)". Um, the Sin Eater is played by someone else. Henry Thomas, of E.T.
fame, plays the Man of God. This suggests to me that the writer of the New York Times
review wasn't paying very close attention -- even for a review that is barely more than 200 words.
So the review basically says, "I wasn't paying very close attention, but the film does have some flaws, but the target audience won't care because it all looks rather pretty and they like to be preached to."
If that's the sort of "positive" review people want ...
Well, let's just say that on THIS level, I agree that Christian critics should not write like secular critics.