Are Christian Films Judged By a Double Standard?

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I am going to go ahead and surprise a few people–myself included–and say “yes.”

That’s not to say that I think most Christian films should be rated higher than they are. How many Christian films could even their supporters call truly excellent? But then again, the higher percentage of mediocre films than truly good films is hardly a trend exclusively limited to Christian movies, right?

Neither am I claiming that Christian films are always the victims of conscious, individual bias. We don’t often think about or articulate our criteria when we rate a film. So sometimes it may be hard to see that the criteria changes depending on what we are looking at. When I scan film reviews, I generally see critics taking one of (or a mix of) four approaches: formal criticism, cultural criticism, reader-response criticism, or genre criticism. It is my contention that the way we navigate between and among those approaches is often to the detriment of Christian films.

By formalist criticism, I mean observation, description, and judgment that focuses on the technical aspects and artistic craftsmanship that goes into the making of a film regardless of its themes or content. There has been some buzz in film journalism, particularly of the Internet variety, calling for critics to engage in more formal criticism. It’s worth pointing out here that the Online Film Critics Society (of which I am a member) currently has 275 members. The Internet has flattened film criticism considerably, and it is not uncommon for film journalists to have little or no education or experience in the art of film making or the history of film.

I know a few critics who are rightfully proud of their technical knowledge and more than a few who seek to establish (or bolster) their bona fides by including formal analysis in their reviews. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. But I know very few casual film viewers who walk away from their latest trip to the multiplex saying “that was a really clever use of negative space” or “I didn’t understand some of the low key lighting choices in Gone Girl.” And I know very few critics who consistently make technical innovation or excellence the sole factor in rating or esteeming films. It is more often a factor in dismissing or downgrading some films.

Christian films are rarely inventive on a formal level. The Kendricks and the Erwins are by their own testimony, self-taught, which means they are probably still in the stage of learning the basics of their craft rather than developing a particular style. Doing so while making commercial movies (as opposed to shorts or while in film school) puts pressure on film makers to be conventional. Experimenting takes time, money, and resources. But there’s a difference between innovative and competent. Sean Astin told a group of journalists that the dailies he saw for Mom’s Night Out looked much better than many films he had been in, some of which had exponentially bigger budgets. But I was hard pressed to find a single reviewer who praised that film for its cinematography, regardless of the overall judgment. I thought the color palette for Dolphin Tale 2 was terrific and that director Charles Martin Smith and cinematographer Daryn Okada did a fantastic job of keeping what was essentially a very tight location shoot visually interesting. Randall Wallace’s decision to eschew, as much as possible, special effects in filming Heaven is for Real kept that film from having the more cheesy appearance of The Christmas Candle.  I’m still amazed that D. J. Caruso was able to figure out how to shoot certain scenes in his anti-bullying movie Standing Up and keep it PG.

Conversely, if we don’t like a film, and we aren’t sure why, it is easy enough to retreat to vague formal pronouncements that make it sound as though we are being more objective than we really are. Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech was not particularly innovative or formally complex and it won the Academy Award for Best Picture. His next film, Les Miserables, was more experimental, touting its attempts to record the actors singing on the set. Some critics complained this was a gimmick. My point? When we otherwise like a film, we tend to praise its technique, but it is often hard to really know how much of the technique is what is informing our judgment. In a famous story from film history, when The Godfather screened for test audiences, the film itself scored high, but the tests audiences said the film, especially the opening wedding scene, was too long. A trimmer, recut version was shown to different test audiences who liked the film and characters much less. How many of us are able to tell how much the editing choices affected our overall experience?

Cultural criticism will look at the ways in which a work of art performs cultural work–how it promotes or reinforces certain ideas. Critics engaging in cultural criticism will often spend as much time trying to explain or understand why a film is popular (or not) as they do making an independent judgment. My point here is that it is quite easy to engage in cultural criticism and come up with judgments that are at odds with one’s formal estimation of the film.

I more or less despised Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, a film that I thought reveled a bit too enthusiastically in the excesses of its protagonist. An excruciatingly long set piece in which Leonardo Di Caprio crawls back to his car because he can’t control his body–and then gets into it and drives–is shot for laughs. I found the whole enterprise dreary and distasteful. Say that about the work of a respected director and you can expect a lot of push back. You just don’t get it…Martin Scorsese is a brilliant film maker (true)…it’s actually a critique…blah, blah, blah.

God’s Not Dead was a much easier target for cultural criticism. I tried to emphasize in my review that when I said I didn’t care for the film, I was really saying that I didn’t care for the cultural work the film was doing. The view of the world it represented was not one that I found accurate. But you know what? I could say much the same thing about Gone Girl (and its views of marriage and mental illness), Boyhood, The Lego Movie, or The Equalizer. Reviews of–and discussion surrounding–movies that invite cultural criticism often become less about the movies themselves and more about the views of the world they represent. This is one area that–scoff all you like–I think Christian reviewers are often more fair than some of their secular counterparts. They will more often acknowledge or perhaps even praise elements of films that are engaging in overall cultural work they find distasteful than will some of their secular counterparts. Or so it seems to me, anyway.

Reader-response criticism is often parodied and more often misunderstood. In literature reader-response is an umbrella term that covers a lot of approaches, each of which focuses on how the reader builds meaning by interacting with text. Too often it is caricaturized as suggesting that the reader (or viewer) can interpret a text however she likes.

One strain of reader-response criticism that I appreciate is that which seeks to examine the reader’s interpretive communities and how they inform his or her approach to any text. While a formalist might call on the critic (especially, the Christian critic?) to put aside his or her presuppositions when approaching a work of art, a reader-response critic is more apt to buy into the notion that doing so is impossible. In teaching, as in reviewing, I tend to privilege transparency over (dubious claims of) neutrality. It’s probably important when deciding how much weight to give to my reviews of Mom’s Night Out or When the Game Stands Tall, to know how I feel about comedies (meh) or sports films (yah!) in general.

Because I think Christian reviewers are more sensitive to (or feel more vulnerable about) charges of bias, I actually think they tend to be more up-front about their biases, which in turn makes their judgments paradoxically easier rather than harder to dismiss. I tend to think, for example, that critics go out of their way to formally criticize a film like, say, Gimme Shelter, so that they can avoid grappling with how much of their own antipathy has to do with its ideology rather than its execution. There are issues with the film, to be sure, but when was the last time you remember reading a review in which the critic said, essentially, “this was okay, but I didn’t like it because it challenges my own ideology or beliefs”? Do we really think that critics of faith are the only ones who ever feel that way? ( I read more comments explaining why Juno wasn’t really pro-life than I did admissions from critics that being pro-life was something that an individual critic might conceivably hold against a film.)

I tend to equate genre criticism in film with the late Roger Ebert. Here I am not talking about the literary tendency to break down and examine the conventions of the genre so much as an attempt to evaluate films relative to other films in the same genre. It seemed to me that Ebert figured out, as does any critic who rates films long enough, that it is hard to rate films with any sort of consistency. How can we rank A Clockwork Orange relative to Babe? Is it necessary–or helpful–to determine whether or not Spring Breakers is quantifiably better or worse than Andrei Rublev? Ebert popularized the practice of comparing films to others within their own genres, which implies (if it doesn’t state outright), that five stars for a film noir or western means something different than five stars for a kiddie movie or romantic comedy.

Here I think the Christian movie has two problems. Critics and artists sometimes deny that Christian movies are a genre unto themselves–thus making it difficult, if not impossible, for a critic to say “I don’t like Christian movies” and have it mean the same thing as my saying “I don’t like horror movies.” Heck, for that matter it doesn’t provide the Christian critic the space for saying that he/she doesn’t particularly like Christian movies without it coming across as an example of cultural or reader-response criticism. Recently one of my colleagues at Christianity Today admitted that his distaste for a film and desire to review it was informed by his wanting to make clear that the source material did not represent his “positions” or “the positions of most other Christians.” This assessment may be true, but I’m not sure what qualifies a film critic–absent some reference to actual survey data–to make it. Full disclosure, I haven’t seen Left Behind, and I do not think the books represent my own theological position. But I certainly would take pause at using that fact as the basis for saying something was categorically “not a Christian movie” particularly if I went on to claim that I did not know what that label meant.

While I certainly understand an artist wanting to eschew any label–Graham Greene once denied he was a “Catholic writer” instead claiming that he was a writer “who explored the Catholic regions of the mind”– denying that the category of “Christian” film exists (and means something) is ultimately an incomprehensible position to me. A cursory definition–either by Christians, for Christians, about Christians, or some combination of all three–doesn’t have to mean that every author of faith is participating in or exemplifying the current conventions of the genre. Is it possible for a “Christian” movie to represent social or theological positions that I disagree with and still have me accept them as “Christian” movies? Of course. Mom’s Night Out participates in and is informed by a complementarian interpretation of Biblical pronouncements about gender roles that I don’t share. That doesn’t mean that Erwins are not Christian or that I can’t accept it as a Christian movie. I wrote in my review of Heaven is For Real that I was (and am) highly skeptical of Todd Burpo’s book, but that does not mean I could not accept the film as a representative offering by (some) Christians for (some) Christians–and find themes or ideas to admire in it even where I rejected its premise. Son of God appeared to, in my reading, present Mary Magdalene as not just a disciple but as an apostle. Not buying it. But if there are any doubts that this was meant to be–and was–a Christian movie, just ask Mark Burnett and Roma Downey.

I’ll be the first to concede that the lines between Christian production and mainstream production are pretty blurry, particularly in a studio system that challenges our continued commitment to auteur theory. There are and will remain reasonable distinctions to be made between Flannery O’Connor and Tim La Haye, between D. J. Caruso and Carl Theodor Dreyer.  Heaven is for Real was directed by Randall Wallace whose body of work speaks for itself. Prior to that movie, the titles he wrote or directed, and the director himself, might have been looked at as faith-friendly, but Pearl Harbor, Secretariat, When We Were Soldiers, or even Braveheart were never thought of as “Christian” films, were they?  But that Heaven is for Real was a movie by (some) Christians for (some) Christians was emphasized by the fact that Todd Burpo only agreed to sell the story to Sony if  T.D. Jakes produced it and did so primarily because thought  that the minister/producer would preserve and protect the religious aspects of the story even while trying to entice others who might not care about such themes to watch also.

While some critics are bending over backwards to eschew explicitly acknowledging or adopting the “Christian” label, the biggest indicator I see that it informs their (our) judgment is the odd unwillingness to examine these films in the context of any other genre.When the Game Stands Tall is not a perfect sports film, but, hey, Rotten Tomatoes critics, is it seriously forty points worse than Vision Quest and fifty worse than John Huston’s shockingly overvalued Victory? Mom’s Night Out was not a comedy masterpiece, but I laughed during it more frequently than I did at The Heat, Tammy, and both Grown Ups movies combined.

While I am on the subject of Adam Sandler’s unfunny franchise, I’ll point out that it is actually ranked lower at Rotten Tomatoes than the Erwin brothers’ comedy, yet it had no trouble getting a sequel made. There are plenty of non-Christian movies that have an audience that cares little what the critics say. Yet when a publicist or reader points out the discrepancies between critical consensus and target audience enthusiasm in regards to Christian films much eye rolling ensues. I couldn’t imagine anyone but the target audience thinking Grace Unplugged was all that good, but neither could I imagine anyone but the target audience caring for Jersey Boys, Rock of Ages, or The Doors. The difference? I didn’t see defenders or fans of the latter films preemptively dismissed, their pleasure in flawed works cited as evidence that they should be disqualified from all further discussion.

The perfect Christian film was once described to me by a studio executive as one that faith audiences saw as explicitly directed towards them but that non-faith audiences would be comfortable viewing and not feel excluded from. Whether such a film even theoretically existed was–and is–an open question. The executive’s use of the metaphor for a “sweet spot” on a baseball bat indicated that if it did, its balance between announcing and hiding its faith focus would be a delicate one.

Christian films have a long way to go before they have earned the right to complain about being slighted. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the most popular films that could be included in that genre–The Blind Side, The Good Lie, Calvary–are often excluded from the conversation since some artists often don’t want to be associated with that label and segments of the audience always want the faith content to be more central and more explicit than it is. But conceding that faith-based films are often not very good doesn’t mean we can’t notice or comment on a tendency to be overly critical of them. Is there never a distinction to be made between average and terrible? Between “I didn’t care for it” and “worst movie ever”? Is it really that far out of line to ask whether, if (some? most? many?) critics hate every entry into a genre equally, they simply hate that genre?

 

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4 Replies to “Are Christian Films Judged By a Double Standard?”

  1. Jason

    Maybe I missed it, but no discussion of Terrence Malick’s work? I would say The Tree of Life and To The Wonder is what good Christian filmmaking looks like. Granted, his latest two films are more art than entertainment, but then shouldn’t Christianity create good art instead of good entertainment? Maybe the reason so many Christian films fail, is that the filmmakers are too focused on standard film devices (i.e. plot, narrative, suspense, irony, humor, etc.) that were created to simply entertain.
    Films should be exploring what makes Christianity special, such as the mysteries of the faith, and not be so simple minded with stories about the concrete things in life. This requires metaphor and symbolism, as Truth is too large to explain in black and white.
    That all said, if you were to make a conventional movie that has a Christian message, I would say it should look something like Machine Gun Preacher (seriously). Show how messy and difficult trying to be a good person really is, and how easy it is to go off the rails when we let our pride get in the way. Too many Christian movies are just too precious and saccharine, and as such, we tune out because life isn’t.

    • kenmorefield

      Jason, I think Malick is an interesting case because while his films are dear to many Christians (including a subset that doesn’t care much for the current stereotypically “Christian” movie) they draw our attention to the (some) in by (some) Christians, for (some) Christians, and/or about (some) Christians.

      The “some” here is hard to pin down. For some…indicates a marketing term and allows one to not be the target audience for the genre and still be Christian. By “some” allows a space for someone to claim he is Christian but not necessarily making films as a particular expression of his faith or wish reception of the films to be informed/influenced by that fact.

      Clearly Malick’s films have a broader appeal and are pitched at a broader audience. Whether there is a distinctive about them that is meaningfully tied to his (or the audience’s) faith is, I suspect, an open question.

      Of course one could always argue the “about” as well. To the extent the films are perceived as autobiographical, they might be argued to be “about” Christians..just not the sorts of Christians who are typically represented in the majority of entries into the genre.

      Ultimately, I suspect it has to do with how much a writer wants to expand the genre beyond its most common entrants or to what extent he/she wishes to define the genre more narrowly to exclude better works from it.Right now I see critics wanting to expand it so that they can argue, “See, we do like Christian films! Just not the bad ones….”

  2. Greg Wright

    Thanks for writing this, Ken. I think this public conversation is long overdue, and if nothing else I’ll praise Left Behind for prompting a more intelligent, cogent, and defining conversation about what “Christian film criticism” is and ought to be.

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