Inspired by “Soul Surfer,” Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir asks the question, “Why are Christian movies so awful?” With the exception of “Passion of the Christ” most of these films (“Fireproof;” “Left Behind”) barely even play in cinemas nationwide, and the ones that do are often critical failures. He suggests that the problem is the very motivation for making the films:
Although the prehistory of Christian cinema goes back several decades — the Campus Crusade for Christ film “Jesus” played mainstream theaters in 1979 — with the solitary exception of Gibson’s gruesome and visionary “Passion of the Christ” the genre hasn’t evolved past the most tedious stage of message-delivery and representational politics. (Insert joke here about Christians and evolution.)
While O’Hehir has a good point in explaining the artistic failure of these films through their very insular approach to narrative and equally simplistic goals, I would argue that the problem is even more basic than that. Sure, the obsession with positive and empowering portrayals of evangelical Christianity is what forces these movies into sappy and uninteresting schmaltz. But beyond that, the very nature of making a movie about this particular Christian movement and its ideas is as equally flawed as any other message movie project with a single subject.
It’s here that a comparison with gay cinema makes sense, and O’Hehir lightly acknowledges this:
At the risk of offending many people in many different directions, Christian cinema reminds me of gay cinema. If, that is, gay cinema were permanently stuck in 1986, with a self-ghettoizing mandate to present positive role models for youth and tell an anodyne but uplifting story that sends a message of hope.
Maryann Johnson raises a valid question at flickfilosopher about O’Hehir’s comparison: “How could a subset of American culture that dominates the way that evangelical Christians do be as insecure in that position as are homosexuals, who have been long derided and discriminated against?” However, I think the analogy still holds. It is true that the Evangelical movement has a ton of power and influence in today’s society, but there’s a perception within that movement that it is just as oppressed and underrepresented in media as the LGBT community, if not much more so. Look at the “War on Christmas” rhetoric every year. As a result of this minority status, perceived or otherwise, both areas of cinema have the same troubles.
I don’t know how many of you follow American LGBT cinema, but as someone who grew up with it and went to Philly QFest every summer, I can say that things certainly haven’t been smooth sailing since O’Hehir’s choice of 1986 as the early and awkward start. The problem is that there is a clear distinction between gay cinema and movies about being gay. There are countless movies about coming out, for example, and far too many of them make their central focus into their only focus. A movie that has only one thing to say can rarely sustain itself for more than a few minutes without seeming trite and unfortunate, and that happens just as often in gay cinema as in Christian.
And unfortunately, that kind of reductive project seems to encourage lack of creativity. Take a look at the conservative documentaries responding to Michael Moore, or any number of other ideologically simplistic works of film. The same goes for contemporary exploitation cinema which is rarely well received critically; think about Tyler Perry’s “Madea” films, or really anything else he’s done. Are we expecting good things from the upcoming “Atlas Shrugged” films? Probably not, if Ayn Rand’s equally simplistic literary tendency is any indication. The attitude seems to be that the one goal is so important and the single message so effective that nothing else really needs too much artistic attention. It’s unfortunate, and is just lazy filmmaking that ironically can come out of the most passionate projects.
Really, I’d imagine this is a problem in just about every minority film community. When you’re making a movie to exploit a specific audience, it is far too easy to end up dealing only with the themes that make your audience unique. Christian groups may be drawn to Christian messages, but that doesn’t mean the movie should only address Christian things. It’s the same in gay cinema; what makes a movie like “C.R.A.Z.Y.” so strong is that it addresses coming out alongside the issues of family, brotherhood and the radical shifts taking place in 1960s Québec. Importantly, it takes these other ideas and doesn’t just show how they relate to coming out but uses them to present a larger inclusive story.
Unfortunately, that sort of thing doesn’t happen too often here in the US. Most of my favorite queer movies are foreign (the works of Xavier Dolan and Pedro Almodóvar, for example), and I wonder for how many others that’s true. The New Queer Cinema of the early 1990s has faded, and most of its major figures are in Hollywood making movies about straight people. In the absence of that creative rush, LGBT cinema is mostly in the business of taking mainstream genres and giving them queer characters; we now have gay horror (2004’s “Hellbent”), lesbian noir (2009’s “Drool”) and countless gay versions of “Sex and the City,” which rarely turn out to be more than low-level entertainment. But who knows, maybe Christian cinema should start doing that sort of thing – at least an Evangelical slasher flick would be more interesting than “Soul Surfer” seems to be.