Blue Like Jazz, or Why Evangelicals Still Aren’t Good At Telling Stories
I saw Blue Like Jazz recently, and although I liked some aspects of the movie (the actors, some of the characters, parts of the plot), and while I admired its attempt to break out of the strict verbal and behavioral codes mandated by … Oh, wait, stop! Were you even aware there was a massive corporate media industry behind the flood of Evangelical films lately? I wasn’t either. Call it Holywood.
And yes, there are simply some things that Holywood will not put into celluloid. Gossip is fine, greed is fine, gluttony is…well, not sure that’s even a sin. Kissing is allowed if it is between consenting, attractive married couples. But dirty language? A sympathetic lesbian? An unhappy ending!? No way. Holywood aggressively tried to sink the film before it ever came out for crossing these lines.
But I digress. I just started and I’m already digressing.
Most evangelical-produced media is failing these days. (“Fail” as measured not on a monetary but an artistic scale.) This has been going on for a while now and many have been talking about it. BLJ is not the worst example by far, but in the end it succumbs to particularly evangelical weaknesses. Here are some reasons why many attempts at storytelling are failing.
- Bad Craftsmanship. One reason is that the dialog and acting are frequently very bad. The plots are predictable and repetitive. The characters are plastic. The conflicts are little more than cleaned-up Sunday School problems. All questions have answers…in the Bible (chapter and verse provided). The soundtrack is made of thumping contemporary worship music which only Evangelicals like. The motivational soliloquies are thinly veiled sermons. Precious Moments, Thomas Kincade sentimentality. Lovers of good stories know this is bad art.
- Evangelicalism is an Unappealing, Foreign Culture. The second reason is that they feature evangelicals doing evangelical stuff, saying evangelical things. And evangelicals simply do not play well on the written page or on the screen. The various postures and insider vocabulary, raising hands and earnest group prayer sessions – only Evangelicals who like to watch movies about people just like themselves might appreciate this. But they are the hokey, somewhat familiar idiosyncrasies of the Religious Right to every one else.
- One Dimensional Faith. But the biggest problem is that Evangelical fiction, books or movies or whatever, usually have only one thing to say, one message, one commentary for the world: Becoming A Christian Is The Solution To All Your Problems. Their story-telling fails because they only have one story to tell. A guy or girl or family has problems, they get right with God, and the narrative resolves. Flannery O’Connor didn’t do this, nor Walker Percy, Graham Greene, T.S. Eliot, or many others. BLJ fails mostly on this point.
Interestingly, these things are not true for Catholic-based films. Consider the tough-talking, cigarette-smoking priests in Clint Eastwood movies like Gran Torino, Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby. And another excellent Catholic film, Doubt. Black Gospel churchgoers fare pretty well (cf. Blues Brothers, Ladykillers), Sister Act notwithstanding. And movies about religious people insane or over-the-top can occasionally be good (cf. The Apostle, There Will Be Blood, Bernie).
But put an earnest good-looking evangelical in a movie and you have an instant schmaltz fest, even if they are pushing the boundaries of cool, sexual temptation, profanity, substance abuse struggling with doubts or whatever.
Full disclosure. I did not read the book. I saw the movie, along with two or three other movie trailers on the DVD that were painful to watch. Movies like the one where the Christian football team has troubles, until they really turn their lives over to Jesus.
Or the one with the fireman who has marriage troubles and can only love his wife well if he becomes a Christian. Or the one where the upper-class family has financial troubles until they turn their home budget over to Jesus. Or the Left Behind movie, soon to be remade staring the former actor known as Nicholas Cage.
Blue Like Jazz had a lot of edgy material: a college freshman rejecting his church background, his mother pregnant by the youth pastor(!) in his smarmy home church, abundant drug and alcohol use, profanity, a lesbian main character portrayed in a somewhat sympathetic light, women using the men’s restroom. Dogs and cats living together. Mass hysteria! Or at least, campus-wide hysteria.
Still, when it was all over, the main character is won over by the beautiful, blonde authentically Christian girl, and he is confessing his sins and obliquely discovering a hip new way to be a believer.
There are some good films being made by people who are either Christian or who speak the language better than Christians do: Wim Wenders, Terrence Malik, Paul Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, Andrei Tarkovsky and possibly Jill Sprecher (13 Conversations). These directors do not offer easy answers to hard questions.
Nor do they feel obliged to have happy endings, sorta like real life.
Nor, as in real life, are good and evil always easily distinguishable.
Nor are the characters always either good-looking young Anglo couples, or wise, heavyset, sassy Black women, or gruff, flannel-shirted, estranged fathers, or prescient blond children.
Nor do they have drug lords, infantry soldiers, pirates or stocky biker gangs saying things like “I’ll beat the heck out of you, gosh darn it.”
This is one of those occasions where “the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.” (Luke 16:8)