Sunday, May 18, 2014
CHRISTIAN/FAITH-BASED FILMS, AND WHY I DON'T WATCH THEM AND HOW THEY COULD ACTUALLY BE GOOD, IF PEOPLE WANTED THEM TO BE.
As a filmmaker, blogger, cinephile, reviewer, etc. I'm constantly searching for, literally every movie I can find, good or bad. If it was released theatrically, and/or important to watch in any way, (Not counting television, which I'm also interested in watching) there's usually an interest in me seeing it, if for no other reason but to say that I did and have an opinion on it, although my main goal even before that, is to search for good films and good movies to watch and experience, and share with you all. So, I go through, updating my Netflix once a week at their New Release page, and checking videoeta.com every week, and everyday or so, I check my local library's website, to see if they got any new releases in, and I add those films to one of my John Nashian-ever-growing lists of films to watch. Now, I have to admit however, that I don't put every single DVD on my "To Watch"-lists, for instance, instructional videos, I skim over without thinking about it much, and things of that nature, but there's one genre of film that I almost always skip over, don't even bother putting on a list of any kind, and feel absolutely no remorse that I haven't watch more of it, and am 99.9% sure that I'm not missing out on anything, by skipping over and completely ignoring this genre. That genre, is the faith-based/Christian film genre.
And just so we don't get confused here, I'm not talking about "Ben-Hur" or "The Ten Commandments" or even "The Passion of the Christ", these Hollywood epic, artistic films, I'm talking those ones that say things like "Starring Kirk Cameron" on the DVD box, and are made by studios with names you don't recognize but if you investigated them, they end up being a secondary business associated with a church of some kind, usually an evangelical church at that, they're usually the only ones who can afford such endeavors as a film industry, and they almost always have a message, or are intended to preach some kind of values. (Either that or Mormons usually, they have a pretty active film industry too.) If you think I'm being too drastic in how many of these films there actually are, and how prevalent a genre they actually are, let me give you some stats. All the major Hollywood studios, have a department specifically designed for promoting films to the Christian market, which a conservative valuation can be place at it being a $40,000,000/year industry give or take. So that's a big market, and it's infiltrated Hollywood. 2008's highest-grossing Independent film, in theaters, was called "Fireproof". I've never heard of it either 'til I looked it up, but many Christians flocked to it, and it opened #4 on the box office charts the week it opened. And in case you're wondering how Christians heard about this movie, that others didn't?
Well, a majority of this market, are people who specifically go out-of-their-way to only watch Christian films, (And, actually before I go any further, for much of this article, I may use the term "Christians" to describe the most prevalent audiences for these films, this isn't encompassing the entire religion or it's members as a group, in fact, this is a minority of the religion I'm discussing, who are devout enough to continuous watch, seek out and collect christian films. So, before any waves that flag, I'm discussing the Christian movie audience, and not everyone in and/or associated with the religions.) and there's this whole little subset of the world, where some of the most avid believers and churchgoers for some of the films, depending on the church and the pastor for instance and their father and devotion, only subscribe and seek these kinds of films. It's almost counter-productive to think about it, but it really is an audience, that's almost completely separate from the major film industry. So separate, btw, they have their own version of imdb. Seriously, I'm not kidding, the "Christian Film Database", it's a real thing, here's the link to it:
It's imdb.com for Christian films. The people who primarily buy and watch these films, have a cult-like devotion to them. For instance, and this is apart of a future review/blog I might be preparing but, after "Alone Yet Not Alone", the Christian film famous for getting it's Oscar nomination for Best Song disqualified after some blatant rule violations from the film's composer (And btw, x amount of months later, the film is opening nationwide in theaters soon; I know that, 'cause when I've watched "Project Runway" on Roku on Lifetime lately, I keep seeing the ad for it.), I looked into the movie, and some of the controversy within the church that produced the film involving the pastor and his scandals, and read some blogs on it from insiders of the church, who mentioned that "Alone Yet Not Alone" was in many cases, the only film they had seen that year! You read that right, "Only film", they had seen that year. There's an insular quality to these films and the people who watch them, in how they're made and often distributed, which is probably the most ironic part about these films, most of them have a subliminal intention or message (Often that's not that subliminal) to preach or convert, and inspire it's audience with a religious-based message or credo, yet they really don't spread them out into the mainstream that often, or even really attempt to.
Now saying all that, I'm not even particularly against the idea of these films; I even think it's possible to make a good movie or two, within the realm of "faith-based" or Christian cinema, but not the way they go about making them. They're trying to create but they're not really making art, the way an artist would. You see,- well, there's not just trying to preach the bible in these films, most of them (Which is a bad idea, 'cause any character in a film who literally does that will most likely look like a caricature even in the best of circumstances) but when you're an artist, you take the thoughts and ideas from things, and they, the artists get inspired by them and they use that inspiration to create their own artistic expression. We can go through movies, but think, the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo. He wasn't naturally religious. He was gay, he fought with the Pope the whole time, he was hanging on his back, inches from death for years, but he had a job to do, so he took the themes and imagery and painted that marvelous ceiling, his own ideas and perceptions. It's still, the artist at work, using what inspires him; that's what great art, and great films are about. Faith-based films, and Christian films, do it the opposite way. They take the themes and messages, from their holy doctrines, and then find, what can loosely be called "stories" sometimes, that are there solely to push their religious beliefs and ideology. That's pretty much, the opposite of art, the bastardization of it to some extent. It also creates terrible work. What few faith-based films I've seen, they've been contenders among the worst movies I've ever seen. And what's strange is that, there's got to be talented people who can make real artistic expressions in these communities. For instance, I hated "Napoleon Dynamite" which, I know it's debatable but for these purposes we're gonna call it a Mormon film, but it was an artistic piece of personal expression, and it's become a cult favorite over time, outside of the church, because of that, and that's why it found mainstream success. It was from an LDS perspective, but it wasn't a preachy message-ladened tale about how faith in God, the Bible, or the Book of Mormon or whatever else you want to fill in the blank there. It was a piece of art, not a piece of propaganda.
That's the other big problem with faith-based films. Faith, is the single worst, storytelling device, ever invented! I mean, I get that, faith is the main selling point of religion, actually faith is religion, essentially. But that doesn't make it compelling storytelling. On it's face, it's completely nonsense. I mean, basically what that amounts to is, if a character believes hard enough, or just believes at all, than good things will happen. That's faith. It's fairly boring, and makes a character sound like a complete imbecile, so when up against insurmountable odds and often cold-hard facts, when they actually do manage to beat the odds, it comes off as entirely disingenuous.When you create a protagonist they need a hero's journey, something to do, a goal to achieve, and they have to be constantly struggling in their attempts at reaching their overall goals. Faith, is almost the opposite of that. It's the guy stuck on a boat waiting for God to save him if you know that old joke. If you're gonna base a movie around faith, the best ways to do it, is to show the tough inner journeys involved with faith, and the struggles about it. Hollywood's done that well, movies like "Signs" or "Higher Ground" are some of my favorite films about testing the limits of faith and the ways they can be crushed or resurrected. Christian films aren't actually interested in faith as an actuality or the realities of it, they're looking to promote faith, as the object they're selling, so faith has to be the answer to all the problems and ills of the world and its characters, and because they're unable or unwilling to really take a much more nuanced and through-provoking look at the concept, what they do instead is use it as the deus ex machima that supposedly is the object that fixes everything, magically. Or they show how, people without faith are constantly worse off than people with it. It's demeaning, unrealistic, simple-minded, and worst than all that, it's bad storytelling. Faith can only play such a limited part before it just becomes preachy and ridiculous, at a certain point, a character climbed the mountain on his own, because he had the tools, planning, physical ability and determination to do so, and not because he prayed he could do it. It's not a natural real message, and because of that, these films which are intended to preach to people the good word of the Lord, actually ostracize themselves from the wider audience they're hoping to spread their message films to. (Or the wider audience they should be trying to get) So, these movies basically are just preaching to the choir, and will almost unanimously only be enjoyed by people who are already completely devoutly bought into the religion. Even among followers that's often a minority, and many religious people also don't buy into the religion films, 'cause they're not that crazed either, and they know that, for all of the crap that people like to claim the immoralities of Hollywood bringing down the country, they know secretly that they do make better movies, because they're artists and they make work to show their artistic expression and they know the best way to tell a compelling narrative, and the tools to go about it.
I've occasionally tried to watch a Christian or faith-based film here or there, the last one I watched "October Baby" got one of my most angry negative reviews of all-time, and many others films weren't much better (and some like "Joshua" for instance, were even worse.) Some might be amazed at the people who make these films sometimes, because believe it or not, they can actually get decent and well-known names to be involved in these projects, in front of the camera and behind the scenes. Certainly not the biggest and most famous names, but definitely some proven talented people. For some, they are interested in promoting the messages in these films, and chose to parlay their successes in more mainstream work to these other projects, but most of the time, it's really just work for them. Actors have to act. More than that actually, actors have to eat. Even Oscar winners if there names aren't in demand will take roles in films like these, if they're the only ones being offered. Sometimes there are good reasons why they aren't getting work in Hollywood. (I notice a few names that I know are practically blackballed in Hollywood who seem to find their way into faith-based films, undoubtedly because they've ostracized so many in Hollywood that these are often the only parts they'll get offered now.) Let's face it, even if you're a firm believer, but also a big star, you're not gonna take a role in these movies, you just aren't, unless there's nothing else on the table. That's the other thing, art is a progressive movement, and you're constantly trying to find the next position to go, the next project, the next way of testing your limits and talents of your craft, and if anything, faith-based projects do as little of that as possible. It's forcing it's stars into the cliché and the mundane, and basically, it's going backwards towards these old and often ancient ideas, that came out from a more underdeveloped and unknowledgeable world. They're often simple roles and simple characters to go with them. Actors in particular look for things that can really be complex and deep and have to make them go through their full range. Now, occasionally this is why Christian films can be interesting in that they can come up with adventurous and interesting parts that can get an actor to sink their teeth into them, like a biblical character perhaps, but not always, and most of the time, their trying to make modern-day parables, but it's hard to create a believable balance between the teachings of the lord being viable with a contrasting modern society. Or even modern characters. Or modern behaviors.
Look, I'm not writing this piece simply to slam the Christian Film Community or it's audience, I want this to be a call to action to them, and make better movies. It's not that strange that when Hollywood makes movies like "Noah" or "The Passion of the Christ" or even movies like "The Blind Side" or "Secretariat" that get promoted to a faith-based audience, they're not only well-received critically, they're usually better films that outdo box office expectations and don't simply attract this narrow audience. Religion has been a template for many great films and filmmakers critical and devout, but Christian films, made by and for the preaching of the message, frankly just suck, and the real sad part is, that they don't have to. Now, I'm not religious, I'm not gonna be convinced to convert based on one or two movies, but there's no reason why they can't actually be good despite that; it's gotta work better than the film's you're all making now.
You,-, the Christian filmmakers, you have an audience you need to "please", and you've got limitations because of your mission statement, well so does Disney, so that's bullshit. And you know what, not that you have to, but why can't a Christian film be rated R? I read that somewhere too, I mean if faith is something that can help us overcome our darkest demons, than maybe the demons being realistic and darker would make that statement a lot stronger?! Why the limitation, most religious texts are filled with some of the most graphic, violent, sexual imagery even, ever created? So kids can't see it? First of all, in this modern age, kids can see everything on the internet, and nearly every study imaginable indicated that sheltering them just leads to risky and rebellious behavior in the future, second of all, the MPAA is not a religious authority over anything real, and third, if that's your core audience, kids who are sheltered, and adults who are already followers,- I mean, what good is that? I mean, even if these churches are only in the movie making business in order to sell the products to there congregations, (Which btw, it's that kind of cynicism that makes us less likely to listen to what you have to say to begin with, and more likely to do this [holds up middle finger] to religion instead.) why wouldn't you make films that would be more interesting to a wider audience instead? You'd probably make more money? Faith-based is a big market, but it's still smaller than the budget of half a Transformers film, and you should be trying to expanding your congregation anyway. Worst case scenario, you may anger one or two people, enough to leave your church for making a more adventurous and thoughtful film, and if that's the case, then exactly how strong was their allegiance to the church if they can be persuaded to leave because of one film? There's gotta be a way to be able to discuss such things as religion and faith, seriously without it being a punchline, construct those thoughts into well-made, believable and compelling films about the church and faith. Well, I at least hope there is anyway. I hope, but I don't have much faith in it.
Yeah, I haven't seen a lot of these movies, maybe I'm off a bit on some of these claims, but the genre and the filmmakers haven't given me any reason to seek them out either. And it's not surprising that more often than you'd probably think, my local library suddenly gets a collection of random-yeared faith-based Christian films by the half-dozen at a time, all of which I've never heard of, all at once, added to their DVD collections. Somebody gave them away, and there's good reason for them to have done so.