The Los Angeles Times has a feature called The Envelope in which it examines films in contest, either at film festivals or at the uber-awards, the Oscars. A recent contribution to this feature, “Sundance Film Festival: Movies look at faith in all its forms,” was struck by how many entries at Robert Redford’s independent-film emporium centered on religion. Five films are singled out—out of 120 entries, or a little under five percent. This, apparently, constitutes a significant number in what is ostensibly a very religious country. But this is Hollywood (actually, Utah, but you get the picture.)
As you read on, you quickly realize that these “submissions focused on faith” reflecting how “filmmakers [are] considering issues larger than themselves,” as Peter Cooper, the festival’s director, put it are about psychos, hypocrites, quasi-fascists, and empty, lonely believers looking for something more out of life.
Now, I have not seen any of these films. Very few people have. They’ve yet to be put into general release. But what I found interesting was that the Times writer didn’t stop to google a little film history as a basis of comparison for this new generation of films that “use faith—and specifically Christianity—as either a narrative fulcrum or key expositional backdrop.” From Going My Way and Song of Bernadette and A Man for All Seasons to The Mission and Shadowlands and The Passion of the Christ to five films for which Christianity is, apparently, a fool’s paradise only.
One exception to this may be Vera Farmiga’s Higher Ground, in which the central character, a Pentecostal Christian, “is a seeker. She’s got to find herself,” as Farmiga, the film’s director, describes her. While the director sounds like she attempted to provide some nuance, and is not particularly hostile to faith, I couldn’t help asking, Is this is as good as it gets? A case study in which everyone’s lost and no one is found, to twist the lyrics of “Amazing Grace”?
More typical in tone appears to be The Ledge, about a man threatening to jump off a tower and the cop who’s trying to talk him down. The Hollywood Reporter has already reviewed it and has this: “British-born writer-director Chapman, who has also penned books on the battle between faith and reason, makes it all too clear which side he is on. All well and good if he allows the religious viewpoint to make its case. But [actor Patrick] Wilson’s character is so plainly unhinged and his view so extreme within Christianity that the debate is meaningless.”
The most famous of these films on faith is undoubtedly Kevin Smith’s Red State. Smith, director of indie faves Clerks, Chasing Amy, and Dogma (in which singer Alanis Morisette, of all people, played God), as well as the critically slammed Cop-Out and Jersey Girl, is as well-known for his profanity-laced, wildly funny, and frankly frank-frank discussions about his life and the movie business as he is for his work. (If you haven’t seen the YouTuber of Smith describing his time as a scriptwriter for a Superman iteration, you can find it here. But be warned: If you’re easily offended, or even not so easily offended, by coarse language, shut down your computer now.) Smith has more than 1.7 million followers on Twitter, not to mention flesh-and-blood fans who turn out in droves for his personal appearances, especially when he is in dialogue with someone like real-life comic-book superhero Stan Lee.
Well, Smith has made the blogs jump again (the last time was when he was kicked off an airplane for supposedly being too fat) with his recent performance at Sundance. Smith was there to show Red State, dubbed variously as a religious thriller and a horror film and based on Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church (WBC). Michael Parks, last seen in not one but two amazing performances in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill I & II, plays a hate-filled preacher who lures young gay men into his compound in order to kill them. So, no, A Man Called Peter this is not.
What was the main focus of the press coverage of Red State? A review of the film as a film? How mainstream Christians (whoever they may be by MSM lights) might react to this film? Would they fear being lumped in with the WBC types? Were there any positive Christian characters to offset the haters? Did Smith, himself a Catholic who has been known to thank God in the end credits of his films, believe he had any responsibility to distance some nut job’s self-appointed anti-gospelling from the gospel of Jesus Christ itself?
Uh uh. It was how Smith blew up the auction for his film. He basically bought his own film to market himself, and apparently used the forum to explain how the system hasn’t worked for him in the past and how he was going to take Red State to the streets himself, town by town, venue by venue. This (euphemism alert) “annoyed” a lot of professional film buyers, who felt set up.
As for that LA Times piece, where was the reaction to these films by festival goers themselves? After all, the filmmakers are there to get attention from distributors—they’re there to sell their wares and, unlike Smith, cannot count on their personal popularity to bring attention to their work. The reaction from audiences would, I think, be some indication of the films’ marketability. Even though attaining blockbuster status is most probably not a concern, nor even remotely likely, you would think that the immediate reaction of some of those who had seen the film would be fetching fodder at least for this article—especially given how films on religion have been known to encourage protests and boycotts from average filmgoers and not just fringe cultists (The Last Temptation of Christ, any one?).
Were any of the audience members who saw these films Christians, by chance? Did they perceive the films as mere hatchet jobs, the product of some anti-fundamentalists with an ax to grind? Were any of the Christians depicted in any way as three-dimensional—flawed but perhaps strengthened and ennobled by their faith? Did anyone come away seeing something positive in Christianity, something they might like to explore? Or did all these entries do nothing but confirm an already anti-religion, anti-Christian bias?
In which case, would that be all that surprising? Even to the Los Angeles Times?