I thought I was going to get away without having to write anything about Alex Kendrick’s Courageous, a film which is admittedly hard for me to be fair to at least in part because I’m not really the intended audience.
Warning: there are plot spoilers in this essay.
I find myself wanting to say something, however, not so much about the film but about responses to it. Courageous clearly has a market niche and within its niche it is clearly scratching where some people itch. (It has a 29% to 93% approval rating split amongst critics and audience members respectively at Rotten Tomatoes.) As is the case with any thing that is successful, its success has engendered almost immediate push back from those seemingly anxious to comment (usually negatively) about what the success means and what it says about the people whose critical tastes are apparently so different from the naysayers’ own.
I don’t want to come across as a defender of the film (really I don’t)–which I’ve equated (only half tongue-in-cheek) to a cinematic equivalent of a fall harvest party in the church basement where all the kids get apple slices and Chick tracts because we don’t believe in Halloween–but I’ve really found it odd (and mostly pointless) how many of the reviews/critiques/comments about the film may be masquerading as (or wrapped in a thin veneer of) “we wish it had been better” but are (or strike me as being) at their core statements of “What it is cannot be good [or done well] and so we wish it had not been done at all [perhaps followed by ‘or wish they had done x instead.’]”
Earlier this week I saw a horror film (which shall for the time being remain nameless). There is (or would be) a difference between my saying “It’s a bad horror movie” and “It’s bad because it is a horror movie.” Most professional reviews aren’t usually that bald, but many so called critiques could be reduced to that–it has no “story” (denies the power of narrative), it is full of shocking and horrific CGI images, it doesn’t adequately reflect life as it really is, in elevating the role of the female hero it diminishes the role of men, by presenting a scientist (Russian) who makes a mistake it offers an implicit critique of science that paints all scientists with the same brush. In other words, it’s a horror movie, and the very reasons one person might not like it are the exact reasons someone else does.
Alternately, if I were to watch Pocohantas or The Lion King and say, “I prefer movies to be more subtle…gee, they are laying it on a bit thick, aren’t they?” it would be worth asking if I were really criticizing the film(s) as work(s) of art or whether I was instead expressing a taste preference or, even, simply denigrating a particular kind of art for being what it is.
Now if a person uses these critiques of particular films in a descriptive manner in order to explain or contextualize a personal judgment (here’s what I didn’t like about the film and why I think others might not either) that is one thing. If a person uses them in a prescriptive manner in order to make a universal judgment (here’s why everyone should hate it or why it is objectively not as good as something else) then that is something else entirely. The latter seems to me to be making (sub)cultural critiques in the guise of literary (or cinematic) criticism, rejecting the work of art because of the worldview it represents. (And hey, it’s not that I think evangelicalism is above critique or someone can’t reject it because of that reason, but then own that is what you are doing.)
I think it was Roger Ebert who is credited with popularizing the notion that he tried to approach genre films on their own terms, trying to forestall a judgment about whether a horror movie was inherently inferior to a romantic comedy which was better than a science-fiction odyssey, which was better than an action shoot-em-up, and instead tried to approach the film from a standpoint of something like “within the context of horror movies and what they are trying to do, how well does this one succeed; within the contexts of romantic-comedies and what they are, does this one work?”
I think there is plenty of room to analyze dispassionately (or even criticize) Courageous within the context of shibboleth films (or evangelifilms or whatever genre term you prefer; I don’t want to use the label Christian films because that’s a non-starter and gets us nowhere). I think the editing (and hence pacing) is off. (See for example the scene where a wife thinks her husband is going to be fired and stares at a phone ringing—it goes on way too long and we already know the outcome so there is neither surprise nor tension nor insight, there is simply waiting for the characters on screen to catch up with the meaning we’ve already gleaned.) The multiple narratives hinders development making transitions abrupt and choppy (such as at the death of the daughter) and retarding any kind of character development. But I could say the same thing about Crash and it won an Academy Award (God knoweth how). Point being that artistic flaws are not the same thing has having socially distasteful beliefs (and expressing them), and whatever artistic flaws Courageous has (and it does have some) are not necessarily a function of the subcultural belief system that produced it. Nor is saying that such beliefs could not be articulated in a way that I (as a hypothetical critic) find entertaining, appealing, or praiseworthy, the same thing as saying that they presented incompetently in any particular instance.
I think a lot of people’s beefs are with the culture whose beliefs the film is mirroring back to them rather than with the film itself. Did I find it creepy when the black cop takes his daughter out on a date and gives her a promise ring to be worn until it is replaced by her wedding ring? Umm…yeah, I sure did. But you know what? I also found it a bit creepy when Knightley tells Emma Woodhouse that he has been secretly in love with her since she was thirteen. The fact that this creeps me out doesn’t mean that Emma is a bad book or that Jane Austen is a bad writer. Does it?