Wednesday, March 19, 2008

About Christian Films (Eventually)

Over the last year, a number of films have been released about the war in Iraq and more generally about the United States’ policies on terror. These films have almost uniformly flopped, both financially and critically.
I don’t want to write about the politics of the war. I know that people in our congregation cover the whole spectrum of views from far right to far left, as does the nation. I don’t really even want to talk about the Iraq War films, but I think there is something important to learn from them. The interesting thing is that these films (In the Valley of Elah, Redacted, Rendition, Lions for Lambs, etc.) failed in the “blue” (liberal, Democrat) states as well as the “red” (conservative, Republican) states.
There were major talents involved with making these films. Lions for Lambs, for instance, was directed by Oscar winning Robert Redford. He acted in the film along with Oscar winner Meryl Streep and box office champ Tom Cruise. Cruise has a long streak of films that make over one hundred million dollars. This film made fifteen million in the U.S. At the ratings review website, Lions for Lambs received positive reviews from only twenty-seven percent of the critics.
In the Valley of Elah, from the director of the Oscar winning Crash (Paul Haggis); Redacted, directed by Brian DePalma (Carrie, The Untouchables, Scarface) and Rendition, starring Legally Blonde’s Reese Witherspoon and Spiderman’s Jake Gyllenhaal all were even less successful at the box office and didn’t fare well with the critics either.
Even last year’s Oscar-nominated Iraq documentaries No End in Sight, Operation Homecoming, and the winner, Taxi to the Darkside, have all underperformed at the box office even though they won critical acclaim.
I suppose this is as good a time as any to mention that I didn’t see any of these films, so I’m not fit to discuss their merit.
Which brings me to the topic of Christian films. Admittedly, it leads me indirectly to the topic of Christian films, but we’re still here. Here’s the connection: I believe these Iraq films fail for the same reason that many films made by Christians through the years have failed both in the critical sense and failed to reach a broad audience.
Here are some of those reasons:
1) Films should tell a story rather than preach.
Fair or not, I skipped these films for the same reason I believe many other people skipped these films. I assumed they were made to teach a lesson rather than entertain. People want to know these things about a film: “Is it exciting?” “Is it funny?” “Is it scary?” “Are the stars pretty?”
“Will I learn anything?” sadly falls way down the list.
There’s nothing wrong with preaching in my book. I do it on occasion. But some people would rather avoid it altogether, and they certainly don’t want to pay for it.
I find it interesting that the film from the recent batch of terrorism films that did best was The Kingdom. I believe it did better because it was sold as an action film rather than an issue film.
The problem with many political films and Christian films is that the filmmakers are more concerned with the message they are trying to present rather than with making an entertaining story.
2) Characters in the films are too black or white.
This is a problem with both the Iraq films and the Christian films, but it plays out in polar opposites. Many people avoided the Iraq films because they heard that the politicians or, even worse, the soldiers were portrayed as mustache-twirling villains. Many Christian films present Christian characters that are pure and holy creatures that we just can’t relate to. The great heroes of the Scripture are complex. Abraham founded a nation, but he was also a liar. David was a great king, but also an adulterer and murderer. The villains are complex as well: Pilate seems at times to be working to save the life of Jesus, Saul is loved by his son and David. These films failed to present characters that are as complicated and interesting as people from real life.
3) “Tell me something I don’t know.”
In 2004, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 broke box office records, becoming the most successful documentary ever released. It won wide critical acclaim and the Oscar for Best Documentary. And it was about the war in Iraq.
Why did this film succeed while last year’s films failed? I think it’s because the ideas in the film (that the war was based on lies, that civil liberties were being violated, that the media was complicit in deceiving the public, etc.) were still fresh at that time. Whether we agree or disagree with those ideas, most of us feel we have heard all of those arguments from newspapers, the internet, TV and private conversations.
This is a challenge for Christian filmmakers as well. Whether the average American really understands Christianity or not, it would be hard to come across an American who doesn’t believe that he (or she) knows what Christianity is all about.
4) We don’t want to have our values insulted.
As I mentioned, the Iraq films didn’t do well with any particular political constituency. But I think it is obvious that there was a sizable portion of the film-going public who knew these films would present views counter to their political views, so they chose to avoid them.
There are a sizable number of people that will avoid a Christian film because they aren’t Christians and are concerned that their values will be insulted.
You’ll notice I have not referenced any specific Christian films. I just didn’t feel the need to insult work that Christians made with the best of motives to bring glory to God. And some of these films have provided encouragement to some of the readers of this column, so they have value.
But I find it interesting that many of the best Christian films (I’ll pick Tender Mercies as my example here) were not made by Christians (or at least, the film makers didn’t proclaim their faith while promoting their films). And some of the great Christian stories (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or Crime and Punishment) are not even initially recognized as such. When God took the form of a man in Jesus Christ, He kind of sneaked up on people. He told entertaining stories with messages that were not obvious. But the stories worked into people’s hearts and minds and eventually changed lives. I hope future films have sly Christian messages that will do the same.

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