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.)
Other religious media critics offer the film varying degrees of praise, but beware. If you link to some of these full reviews, you may stumble onto spoilers.
Holly McClure (Crosswalk) raves, "I was tense from the first frame to the last and spent hours afterward discussing the many layers of the story with my teenage boys. Don't go expecting all the pieces to fit into place and the questions to be answered in the end." Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) also finds it challenging, calling it "a double-edged sword of a movie: One side cuts with sci-fi and thrills, the other with spiritual questions and quandaries. The latter will surprise those expecting the former."
"In my years as a film-lover and critic, there have been only three films that I consider near perfect. Now I've seen four," says Dan Buck (Relevant Magazine). "This film somehow manages to be the most frightening film I've ever seen and yet have moments of joy, humor, and sorrow alongside the terror. Yet it is not emotional manipulation. It is just the realistic intermingling of the sacred with the profane, the tragic with the euphoric and despair with hope."
Phil Boatwright (Movie Reporter) also uses the word perfect and puts the film on a level with Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Lawrence of Arabia, Key Largo, Schindler's List, and other classics. "Rather than merely using the supernatural to scare us, he incorporates emotion and humanity into the thriller to give us a drama that suggests the importance of faith and spirituality in our journey through life. His film is about finding our way—or finding our way back."
Others offered mixed responses. Plot problems, according to Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films), "increasingly sap the movie's plausibility, until eventually suspension of disbelief becomes possible only by not thinking about it."
Paul Bicking (Preview) has a different complaint, withholding a full endorsement due to "a few obscenities."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says Signs is "a tense and oftentimes surprisingly funny tale." Although he perceives Shyamalan implying that God causes suffering in the world, Elliott still concludes, "Signs is a thrilling tale of supernatural mysteries … and can be used as a springboard for a myriad of biblically enriched discussions."
A critic for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says, "Shyamalan is certainly a fine storyteller … He understands that what the audience doesn't see is a lot scarier than what it does." But the writer calls Shyamalan's treatment of faith "superficial" and concludes that "the tale slips into stock scary-movie mode." Similarly, Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) complains of "ambiguous spirituality." He explains that Hess's faith is "a windblown faith based less on God's remarkable and unchanging character than on how smoothly life is going at the moment."
But there's a clear enough resolution for Ken James (Christian Spotlight). "Fun, engaging, and sympathetic to the Christian faith, it's a film that teens and their parents can enjoy together, even sparking great discussions on chance vs. providence, God's will, why do bad things happen to good people, and other stimulating topics."
That's not enough for Ted Baehr and Tom Snyder (Movieguide). They claim viewers should not be surprised that Hess's faith collapsed—after all, he was Episcopalian. Baehr says, "Having gone to Episcopal seminary myself, Graham's faith seems as flimsy as many of the ordained members of that denomination." They also conclude that, because one character has dreams about the future, Signs is "undergirded with Hinduism." One of the recurring themes—"There is no such thing as coincidence"—is a Hindu belief, they say. Certainly Signs' fictions are in some ways consistent with Hindu beliefs. But those same elements, as they appear in the story, are also arguably consistent with Christian faith. After all, believers affirm that "all things work together for good" rather than by coincidence. And aren't there a few prophetic dreamers in Scripture, as well as books that paint vivid pictures of future events? Such storytelling devices should not alarm us, especially if they are used in the context of a world governed by a benevolent deity.
But it seems Baehr and Snyder are asking for Shyamalan to be more specific, to offer a clear sermon about the gospel as the answer to our fears. This betrays a misunderstanding of the difference between preaching and art. It is the responsibility of the preacher to deliver a message. Artists ask us to use our imagination, and they allow us to interpret their work in a personal way. One tells, the other shows. We need both.
Shyamalan's story avoids preaching about a specific faith. Instead, it suggests a compelling possibility—that there is a God, that he is sovereign, that he cares about you and your family, and that, even if the bad guys do strike, we are in good hands. In a secular cinema that avoids religious themes, should we not be grateful for this? Very few blockbuster summer movies invite discussion of such themes. Spider-man, which Movieguide's critics celebrated as profound, only referenced God in customary terms like "godspeed" and "God bless you." There are no deeper explorations of faith in the film Baehr and Snyder's site currently recommends more highly than any other major studio release—The Country Bears.
Film critic David Shepherd (Chiaroscuro) concludes, "Shyamalan has crafted a work of strong metaphor and insight. The physical realities embody the battle taking place in Hess' soul as he wavers between faith and unbelief." He adds, "In retrospect, all of Shyamalan's films have been very much about relationship and human interaction, and the struggle to find one's purpose and meaning."
Mainstream critics are applauding the director's boldness, but some (like A.O. Scott of The New York Times) are troubled by the emphasis on faith. Others, like Andrew O'Hehir (Salon.com) and Owen Gleiberman (Entertainment Weekly) find the conclusion too convenient and contrived. But Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) raves: "Signs is the work of a born filmmaker, able to summon apprehension out of thin air. When it is over, we think not how little has been decided, but how much has been experienced."
Director Steven Soderbergh has compiled an eclectic repertoire of high-profile hits like Traffic, Out of Sight, and Ocean's 11, and low-profile arthouse favorites including The Limey, King of the Hill, and sex, lies, and videotape. Now he has taken an idea that would usually be an obscure art film only seen by film students and filled it with stars such as Julia Roberts and David Duchovny. The result is Full Frontal, a movie intent on confounding viewer expectations. Its experimental spirit is so audacious, in fact, that even the critics who usually applaud his every move are bewildered.
Full Frontal tells the story of the making of a movie, and also shows us a good deal of that movie. Conversations take place in and around the project, challenging viewers to separate what is real and what is fiction. Along the way, it pokes fun at the superficiality of Hollywood lifestyles—an easy and popular target. But none of this impresses critics much, and some religious media critics add to that their usual complaints about seeing immoral lifestyles on the big screen.
The USCCB critic calls it "equal parts witty and tedious, following a story line that doesn't bring its disparate parts together satisfactorily." Phil Boatwright calls it "a very uneven production" that "has some sophisticated humor mixed with lowbrow shtick and much sexuality." Paul Bicking (Preview) says it highlights "morally empty lives both on the screen and in the 'real' life of the film industry."
Mainstream critics are trying to decide if the movie is an interesting experiment or a self-indulgent failure. Ebert calls it "a film so amateurish that only the professionalism of some of the actors makes it watchable." Lisa Schwarzbaum (Entertainment Weekly) is not so dismayed: "This is all fun; certainly it keeps us admiring the director's talent for invention and excited by the liberated performances of so many favorite actors jazzed by Soderbergh's trust in their instincts. The movie would be more rewarding, however, and less of a self-contained exercise in style (and performance), were it not so besotted with its own delights and tricks."
Perhaps tired of arguing over debatable films, critics unanimously condemned the new Dana Carvey comedy The Master of Disguise. Carvey, a gifted impressionist and one of the funniest talents ever to star on TV's Saturday Night Live, seems to have taken a major misstep in playing Pistachio Disguisi, the hero of the title.
But Paul Bicking (Preview) calls it a "truly 'family' show. With a warning about some flatulence humor and questionable symbols, The Master of Disguise can be enjoyed by ages six and older."
Perhaps it can be enjoyed by someone, somewhere, but you won't find many other critics who think this is likely. The USCCB critic says the movie "drags its feet with unfunny skits and an agonizingly slow and lifeless plot that makes the film's 80 or so minutes feel interminable." And Phil Boatwright says, "Mr. Carvey [is], like Jerry Lewis, very talented, but unable to tell the good scripts from the bad or the bad impersonations from the good. This film may be the worst of the year."
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says that children might find a few reasons to "giggle," but he adds, "It's doubtful that a theater full of seven and eight year olds will pick up on the allusions to The Exorcist, 10, and Jaws. They may laugh at the big-bottomed women to whom Pistachio is attracted but it's a laugh that might make some parents a tad bit uncomfortable." Holly McClure (Crosswalk) testifies, "I took my 16-year-old son and 18-year-old nephew, who have enjoyed Carvey's previous work, and they thought this was a silly movie with only a few funny scenes."
Ebert sums up most critics' sentiments: "The movie is like a party guest who thinks he is funny and is wrong. [It's] a desperate miscalculation."
Writer-director Chris Ver Weil's new romantic comedy Who is Cletis Tout? has not drawn much attention in spite of a colorful cast including Christian Slater, Tim Allen, Chas Palminteri, and Portia de Rossi. It tries to muster some of the vibe of The Usual Suspects, Pulp Fiction, and Get Shorty, but critics are not enthused by the title question or its resolution.
A few religious media critics found something complimentary to say. Tom Snyder (Movieguide) found it more favorable than most, calling it "an entertaining romantic crime comedy that has some very sweet, funny moments in it." And the USCCB's critic writes, "Slater and de Rossi make an unexpectedly endearing on-screen couple, which may be, in part, due to the fact that there is nothing sexually gratuitous about their relationship. It is sweet and innocent throughout the whole film. Rare it is that two attractive actors with an on-screen relationship don't jump into bed by film's end."
Both critics, however, shake their heads at "objectionable elements" and "lurid subplots."
Phil Boatwright says of Lawrence, "His storytelling is forced and his humor laced with nonstop crudity and obscenity (over 300 uses of the F-word alone)."
The USCCB's critic describes it as "two hours of Lawrence blathering on in the most depraved manner about sex and relationships. Lawrence's every other word is either an expletive or a filthy phrase of some sort. Most of it seems to be laughter induced by the shocking things he spouts rather than by anything genuinely funny or observant. There may be some who find his performance entertaining, but the vast majority of moviegoers are likely to write this off as a bawdy exercise of self aggrandizement."
Mainstream critics also notice the crudeness. Ebert testifies, "This takes the trophy for dirty talk, and I've seen the docs by Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, and Andrew Dice Clay. His attitude toward women is that of a man who has purchased a cooperative household device that works perfectly until the day it astonishes him by giving birth."
But Owen Glieberman (Entertainment Weekly) actually sees some growth in the comedian's work. "Beneath the braggadocio he comes off as a warmer, more self-savvy, and altogether funnier person. At 36, with two daughters, Lawrence no longer talks about women as if he were some hip-hop pasha; there's a new empathy to his raunch. He does an outrageous routine about what it's like for a man to be in the delivery room, and when it comes to discussing the cliché celebrity obsession of prenuptial agreements, his darts are aimed squarely at himself."
Peter T. Chattaway (Vancouver Courier) says, "In a culture as obsessed with youth as our own, a film about middle-aged love and sex should be something to celebrate, and there are times when Never Again is amusing and poignant enough to merit our appreciation. But the characters … don't ring true in the end. The script keeps putting them in implausible situations and falling back on bawdy gags that would be over-the-top in a teen sex comedy." He adds, "If the point of the film is to show that grown-ups can be as naïve, egocentric and coarse as the teenagers and twentysomethings who dominate the big screen, then it succeeds. But I'm not sure we can call this progress. Given a choice between lovers who are young and mature, and lovers who are older and immature, I know which I'd prefer."
Phil Boatwright writes, "The one thing I really like about this film is the spotlight is placed on two middle-aged people searching for romance and a meaningful relationship. Our society doesn't normally cater to those over the age of 35 (for men) and 25 (for women)." But that's where his praise stops. "Its ribald humor and occasional smart dialogue are smeared by the inclusion of the kind of graphic sexuality one might expect from an HBO series. Although the film tries to be quirky and shocking, it often comes off forced and unreal."
Tom Snyder (Movieguide) is appalled: "Never Again plays like an upscale teenage sex comedy for middle-aged people. As such, it features an abhorrent, immoral attitude about sex before marriage and sexual perversions. All of these things … are seen as amusing, relatively harmless recreational endeavors and human foibles."
Next week: Clint Eastwood returns in Blood Work. Also: Spy Kids 2and XXX.
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