Monday, April 28, 2008

Excuse me, while I kiss the sky

Here's a question that has been plauging Christian filmmakers for a long time:  Should they go to work in Hollywood and bring Christian values to Hollywood films, or should they try to create an independant Christian filmmaking community outside the studio system?

Barbara Nicolosi is perhaps the greatest champion of Christians going to Hollywood.  She writes Church of the Masses, an occasionally interesting but often boring blog on Hollywood movies.  She also runs the ACT One screenwriting program, a screenwriting workshop for aspiring Christian screenwriters.  Nicolosi wrote about this a while back in a post on Facing the Giants, specifically saying these strong words:  

On the other extreme is Doug Phillips, the  founder of the San Antonio Independant Christian Film Festival.  He said:

This is a tough debate to comment upon, because I think that both of them have valid points, although I think that Nicolosi is being much more broad and condescending(although Phillips does this himself, as I'll explain in the end, as it's kind of a tangent).  I agree with Nicolosi on many of her points of criticism of Facing the Giants.  It does present questionable theology and has pat answers to tough problems.  However, none of that is a fault of its being an independant film.  For an indie film, it is well shot, with good production values.  The acting isn't the best, but the lead, played by Alex Kendrick, is more than competant enough to carry the film. 

On the other hand, I also agree with Phillips that Hollywood is great at producing films by throwing money at them and not so great at creating strong messages.  All you have to look at is a film like The Nativity Story.  It looked great, but has such a generic message that it lacks any of the power of the Biblical story.  And speaking of bad acting, just look at Keisha Castle-Hughes in that film.

However, each of them ignore the exceptions to their arguement that disprove their sweeping generalizations.  Nicolosi in general seems to dismiss any sort of independant filmmaking, which is often revered in the film world as the realm of true innovation.  Scott Derrickson may be the pinaccle of Nicolosi's vision for Hollywood, a Biola University graduate who is now directing big budget films like the Keneau Reeves remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still.  He's a Christian who's proven himself to be capable of making profitable films and is now getting bigger exposure.  He is in the position to put his, presumably, Christian values in the forefront of a major Hollywood production, even if it isn't an explictily Christian film.  Nothing wrong with what he's, and every other Christian in Hollywood is doing.

Except that Phillips is right.  Christians need their own, unique, independant film world if they want to make films about Christian ideas and themes.  Why?  Because Hollywood is a business, not an art movement.  Hollywood wants to make money, more than anything else.  Why did we get The Natvity Story?  Because someone wanted to cash in on a percieved market the made lots of money for The Passion.  Why is Scott Derrickson, graduate of a Christian college, making Keneau Reeves sci-fi remakes?  Because someone thinks it'll make money.  

The problem that I have with this arguement is that the two are not mutually exclusive.  We need more Christians working in Hollywood, to bring light into the darkness.  I would be great if enough Christians started working in Hollywood that violence and sex became less celebrated in Hollywood films.  

But we also need independant Christian film producers.  Film producers who can make films about Christian themes that appeal to niche markets that are ignored by Hollywood.  Making $100,000 profit in Hollywood isn't enough to justify a film, but it can be a boon to a indie filmmaker.  Hollywood makes movies, even those that have Christian themes, for mass audiences.  That means not just Christians, and not just Americans.  Independant filmmakers don't need to worry about depending on a strong box office return from Asia to cover their expenses.  They can free themselves from the shackles of Hollywood budgets and union rules and make films from the heart, even with a small amount of money.

What really saddens me is that both Nicolosi and Phillips are wrong about their assumptions.  

Independant filmmakers are far more than amatuer hacks fooling around in the dark.  These "unprofessional" filmmakers can bring fresh perspectives that are sorely needed in the industrialized film world of Hollywood.  Just look at what filmmakers like Kevin Smith, Quenten Tarraintno, Wes Anderson, and Robert Rodriguez have done to revoutionize the film industry.  And lets not forget those great pioneers of the 1970s, people like George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppolla, who worked outside the studio system that didn't have time for their ideas.  Nicolosi not only insults Christian independant filmmakers, but film artists around the world who prusue film as a passion, not as a business.

Phillips, on the other hand, seems to view Hollywood with flame-tinted glasses.  He sees great tasting poision all over Hollywood, ignroing the many films that portray Christian themes in very postivie lights.  Films like I am Legend, I'm Not There, and Juno; 3 films that I've seen in the past year that not only have uplifting messages, they have positive depictions of Christanity.  Phillips seems to see only the bad, the worst of the worst, even in films that are inoffensive. 

On an aside about Phillips:  In the article linked above Phillips says that the Narnia films "are becoming increasingly darker, more 21st Century teen rebellion and the occult.”  This seemed like a strange comment to me, considering that the worst criticism that I've heard about the films is that they lack a strong narrative and dilute the Christian values of the books.  He singles out Prince Caspain and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, one film that hasn't been released yet and another that has not even begun filming.  I emailed Phillips for clarification, and his assistant responded by saying that the quote was possibly innaccurate.  I suppose Phillips doesn't mind be misquoted, or he would ask for a correction.  The assistant said that the quote was correct in expression Phillips general feeling about the Narnia films.  When I pressed for more clarification, or perhaps a reference to an article which expanded upon this, particularly the aspect of the unreleased and unproduced films, the assistant responded:  "Second, Mr. Phillips attended a private event with a leading Disney executive who commented himself on the evolving and increasingly more mature nature of the Narnia films in the series. At the event, Mr. Phillips was shown previews of Caspian and never-before-seen still images from the Dawn Treader project, both of which left him with the conclusion that the direction of the project was emphatically darker, and had a distinctively more occult feeling and imagery."

This information is frustratingly vague to be making such accusations, and as I said in a response to the assistant, much the same charge could be leveled against the Narnia books.  I mean, the pagan god Baachus appears as a character in Prince Caspian, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader has such horrors as an island where nightmares come to life to trap you forever in a living hell.  And, as I recall, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader dealt pretty heavily with teen rebellion and the less obvious sins of jealousy and envy that so often tempt and torment teenagers.  I received no further response.  FWIW, as much as I find many of the Vision Forum activities rather silly, their "200 Year Plan for Christian Families"(or whatever its called) is a refreshing attempt at creating a lasting Christian legacy, which goes against disturbing  trend of assuming that Jesus will be here next week and the future is of no consequence.  

Regardless, there is no need for Hollywood Christians to despise independent filmmakers for working outside the system.  Indie filmmakers created Hollywood, once upon a time.  And there is no reason for indie filmmakers to throw stones without cause at Hollywood, as there are many decent and devout Christians working there.  If you want an industry or two to complain about evil activities and decry Christians for working for, you need only look around your own community and find the pay-day loan centers.  I'd like to believe that those vile centers of theft and corruption have no Christians in their employ, but I am afraid that statistics would indicate that more than a few work at these plentiful houses of evil.  

Thanks to our friend Tom for forwarding us these thought-provoking links.  Sorry it took so long to do a write up.  


duckbill said...

I totally appreciate what you are saying here. I think this debate raises so many important underlying questions as well:

"Can art be actually be 'Christian' or 'Christianized'?"

"Who should be the target audience of Christian art? (just Christians? or should it be an evangelism tool to reach non-Christians?)"

"Can the Christian sub-culture actually become so insulated, or so far removed from the world that it is neither 'of the world' nor even 'in the world'?"

"Should Christians (or Christian leaders) be attempting to 'protect' other Christians from certain themes or certain types of art, or should each person be completely responsible for his/her own critical judgment?"

I think there is definitely a place for Christians both in the Hollywood studio system and in more independent films (whether they are completely DIY--like the Regent University application shorts--or no-name, low-budget, auteur-driven projects, or even the Fox Family/Christiano/Cloud Ten 'mid-level' projects that strive for some mainstream appeal). I totally agree that both Nicolosi and Phillips are missing a pretty big boat--one in which most Christians working in the film industry are rowing and making progress.

It is ludicrous to assume that independent films are by their nature poorly made, and just as laughable to assert the underlying argument--that budgeted Hollywood projects are somehow more worthy because of their price tags. Nicolosi is way off base here.

Equally flawed is the argument of Phillips--which seems to assume there is some magical holiness barrier that exists between 'Christian' films (no matter how crappy or theologically off-base they may be) and projects touched by the "poisonous" Hollywood industry (no matter what values, lessons, or wisdom they demonstrate).

Of course, in the real world outside of these debate vacuums, there are Christians of all stripes making all kinds of films inside Hollywood and making all kinds of art (mainstream, independent, or otherwise). For better or worse, artists as diverse as Martin Sheen, Kevin Smith, Dave Mustaine (of Megadeth), the Indigo Girls, Sean Combs, Sam Jackson, Gary Busey, Dyan Cannon, Enya, and Ben Folds have made strong faith statements at one time or another. (Not to mention the over-publicized Christian beliefs of Bono, Stephen Baldwin, Mel Gibson, and Moby, et al.)

So the Christians are already in Hollywood and they are doing their thing. To assume or argue otherwise is to promote a pretty narrow (and naive? or perhaps arrogant?) definition of Christians in service to their Lord. At the same time, to discount independent expressions by Christians is also terribly short-sighted, although it does seem slightly easier for the average Christian with a camera to get a DVD distribution deal within the sub-culture than for 'secular' filmmakers to get a 'break' into the larger industry (although this is true with any niche market that has a proliferation of dollars flowing in and out).

OK, long and wordy and it's getting late. Thanks again for all of your thought provoking stuff, jonny. Your blog is seeing some fruit.

Brent Johnson said...

Films produced with a biblical world view? A very good idea headed up by a very bad man. This is just bound to eventually blow up in our faces and be just another huge embarrassment for the church. Here's just one example of why this is such a big problem, Doug Phillips’ Raising The Allosaur

awakenpictures said...

I'd not heard of this situation with Vision Forum. I looked around and found Vision Forum's responses to the strong accusations against them regarding taking the video off the market. Here's the link:

jonnyflash said...

Great comments all. I find it interesting that both sides in the debate over the Allosaur debate like to throw inseminations at each other.

One side calls Phillp's Vision Forum a "repressive patriarchy." The Vision Forum then posts an investigative report that links their critics to white supremacist groups through a rather flimsy speculation.

Awakenpictures said...

Here's a good forum discussing Doug Phillips' comments about Disney's Narnia movies: