Signs of Faith on the Big Screen
This week, Donna Britt of The Washington Post voiced a question that I have often encountered in conversations with fellow believers: Why doesn't popular entertainment explore issues of faith more frequently? She writes, "In movie after movie, TV show after TV show, people face every manner of terror, crime, illness and betrayal without ever turning to, or even acknowledging, a higher power. Perhaps praying and seeking spiritual counsel are too boring, passive or wordy for today's action-obsessed audiences. Maybe writers and producers fear that viewers with differing beliefs would stay away, offending Hollywood's favorite deity: the almighty dollar."
Britt then claims that Signs, the new box office champion ($60.1 million on opening weekend), takes a bold step toward encouraging spiritual discourse among viewers.
Film critic Christian Hamaker reminded me that Signs comes from Touchstone, a Disney subsidiary. It's the latest of several films from Disney that seem to appeal to conservative—even specifically Christian—audiences. This year alone, the studio has offered The Rookie and the animated hit Lilo and Stitch, both of which portrayed prayer in a positive light. Then there was The Country Bears, which got some approvals as "family safe" (even if the reviews were fairly poor.) In view of the Southern Baptist boycott of Disney films, should we interpret this as an encouraging trend? Is it time to drop the boycott? Is boycotting a productive response to studios that offend Christian sensibilities? I'm curious to hear your thoughts on this.
Hot From the Oven
Alfred Hitchcock. Steven Spielberg. M. Night Shyamalan?
With the release of Shyamalan's third film, Signs, some critics predict the young director is bound to be one of the all-time greats. Whether or not he deserves such high praise, the influence of these great directors on his style is clear. Signs clearly pays tribute to Hitchcock with visual and audio tricks that spook and surprise the viewer, an over-the-top soundtrack that recalls Bernard Herrmann, and Shyamalan's Hitchcockesque cameo appearance. He also wears Spielberg's influence on his sleeve, showing the impact of a series of terrifying paranormal experiences on wide-eyed children.
But most critics are more interested in discussing what makes Signs distinct from other directors' works—namely his emphasis on finding faith in the midst of trouble.
Mel Gibson stars in the film as Graham Hess, a former Episcopalian minister who has turned against his former faith after a traumatic event. (I will be purposefully vague here. The film is a richer experience if you know very little about it ahead of time.) He lives with his two children and his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), raises a small crop of corn, and tries to go on without God. But when strange things start rustling the cornstalks at night, and a crop circle appears on his property, he searches for rational explanations and resists his children's imaginative theories. He also refuses to pray. When television newscasts connect the strange occurrence to a broader problem that could indeed be bad news for Planet Earth, fear hits Hess hard. As he prepares to protect his family from some mysterious threat, he is forced to wrestle with his decision to live without God, without a refuge beyond his own resources and rationality.
Critics applaud Shyamalan's boldness in addressing faith, and many comment that, in spite of some illogical plot holes, the film "rings true" in the wake of September 11. It wasn't that long ago when we sat, eyes wide, flipping through news channels in hopes of finding some explanation, some good news, in spite of the devastation in New York and Washington, D.C. I remember the comfort of God's presence, but also the fear of having no answers and seeing no available solutions to the problem. It was a chilling reminder of how fragile we are, and how much of the world lives with similar fears on a daily basis. Shyamalan's film does not exploit such emotions. Nor does he paint as bleak a picture of family panic as David Fincher did earlier this year in Panic Room. Instead, he honestly and gently offers a story that suggests a welcome balm for an audience that is still wounded at heart. (My full review is at Looking Closer.)