Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Since Christians in Hollywood tend to make news simply for being Christians in Hollywood, I thought it worth mentioning A Prairie Home Companion . Garrison Keillor, whose voice has that Death on Prozac quality about it, has written the screenplay to the film adaptation of his long-running radio program. Although Mr. Keillor describes himself as a bleeding-heart liberal, and this alone is enough to make some wish he’d bleed liberally, his program is a throwback to a more innocent time in popular culture, which is all to the good. He is also not shy about his Christian faith , even though he joshes it from time to time.

Robert Altman is behind his signature ever-probing camera, capturing the sights, sounds, and overlapping moaning of the Prairie cast as they come to terms with what is their last performance. You see, an evil Texas businessman (is there any other kind?) has purchased the Fitzgerald Theater, from which they broadcast, and he intends to turn it into a parking lot. Big business has done in the little theater troupe. (Your gasp of outrage here.)

I know these are simple folk, but did no one consider the possibility of renting out another theater ?

But that scenario would not have wafted the stench of death that pervades the show¯and the film. Though there is nothing malodorous about Virginia Madsen, a literal angel who comes to bring comfort to the soon-to-be-grieving cast.

And the cast is, for the most part, fun to watch. Kevin Kline is playfully, albeit obviously, clumsy as Guy Noir, who narrates the film (although if you expect him to play an active part in some kind of “plot,” you will be sorely disappointed). Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin play aging-none-too-gracefully sisters who sing Gospel and faux-country hokum and tell sad stories about their long-gone mom. (I had forgotten what a truly beautiful voice Ms. Streep possesses.)

Lindsay Lohan plays Streep’s suicide-obsessed daughter. She is a trite one-dimensional thing, and when she finally gets to sing, an ad-libbed version of Frankie and Johnny, you realize how feeble so many of these celebrated newcomers are.

Tommy Lee Jones comes to the movie late, as the realpolitik businessman who wishes he could have gotten the last performance on film, even though he has no intention of changing his mind about demolishing the place. And Garrison Keillor is . . . Garrison Keillor. He is like many of the intentionally bad jokes, double-entendres, and fake foul-ups that are the mainstay of Prairie: You either giggle or you don’t. I giggled.

Is there a message? Other than that guardian angels exist, death comes for us all, slow and bumbling is preferable to fast and efficient, and "good people" can be just plain awful, no. But this is a trifle. And for trifles, even those sentiments are a bounty.

Some will complain that A Prairie Home Companion is no Nashville. Thank goodness for that. A more overrated cartoon has never been foisted on the public (except for American Beauty and Fargo, of course). Prairie is sleepy Saturday afternoon confection¯but not for small children. Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly play singing cowboys (are there any other kind?) who push the limits of acceptable family entertainment with risqué humor. I could have done without them. But I’m sure Keillor would argue that that is one of his points as well¯there’s value in even the gratuitous . . . which when you think of it, is the seedbed for grace.

So The Passion of the Christ is officially the most controversial film of all time. So says Entertainment Weekly in its June 16 issue, which hit newsstands Monday.

What does this mean? Absolutely nothing, other than that film critics love lists. It’s an obsessive-compulsive thing. My usual opinion of film reviewers is that they couldn’t cobble together enough college credits for a degree in English literature because they were too busy compiling their The 101 Greatest Movies About . . . compendia. As the saying goes: Those who can’t, teach. Those who can’t teach, teach gym. And those who can’t teach gym get a degree in cinema studies. I should know: I got a degree in cinema studies. I also have a list of the Five Greatest Films About Chess. Wanna see it? Didn’t think so . . .

In case you were wondering, The Passion beat out A Clockwork Orange (No. 2), JFK (5), The Da Vinci Code (13), and such other masterworks as Fahrenheit 911 and Deep Throat . (I will leave it to you to draw any analogies . . . )

I reviewed The Passion for an evangelical website back when the film first came out. I had more of a Reformed/Calvinist outlook in those days and made the argument that emphasizing¯to the point of voyeuristic morbidity¯the physical suffering of Christ could only lead, ironically, to a defective understanding of His Passion. The extent of his suffering is incommunicable, not because of the limits of two-dimensional projected images or the bucket-of-blood special effects, but because you cannot show who is doing the suffering. I have heard it said by non-Christians that they had family and friends who had suffered greatly for a longer time than Jesus of Nazareth did, and so were unmoved by emotional appeals to his sacrifice. Again¯not the point. When you come to believe it was, in fact, the Second Person of the Trinity, the Word made flesh through whom everyone and everything lives and breathes and has its being, hanging on the cross, then the quantitative value of the suffering becomes imponderable. And unfilmable.

I heartily recommend Jacques Ellul’s The Humiliation of the Word to continue the discussion.

Terry Mattingly reports that Christianity is too "suggestive" for a G rating.

Yes, a film called Facing the Giants was given a PG on the basis of its being too evangelistic. I can just see the new explanations that usually accompany particular ratings: Rated PG for suggestive language, crude humor, sexual situations, mild violence, and John 3:16.

In addition to which :

Christianity, and the Catholic Church in particular, have never been indifferent to, nor unaffected by, earthly powers. In the June/July issue of First Things , Russell Hittinger helps us to think through the promise and danger of such political entanglements by examining the argument of Michael Burleigh in his new book Earthly Powers . The upshot of the argument is that history teaches us that the Church will until the end of time, and not least in these United States, have to contend with courage and imagination for libertas eccleseiae —the freedom of the Church to be herself. Isn’t it time you subscribed ?

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles