Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Of All Things - A Good Christian Movie!

Why watch a Christian movie? Why go to a Christian play? I mean, either one is going to be awful, right?

Well ... right. And that's the problem.

When our culture was Christian, our art was Christian. Shakespeare's plays are the best example of profound dramatic art written from a Christian (indeed a Catholic) perspective.

But our culture is no longer Christian. And so the dramatic art of our day that's interesting and engaging and well done usually has a secular point of view or one that is only accidentally Christian, or only marginally Christian, and most typically anti-Christian.

This means that Christian groups often produce dramatic art for the Christian Ghetto, my term for the self-consciously Christian among us, who entertain one another with movies, for instance, produced with bad actors on low budgets with horrendous writing and poor direction. The Ghetto is such a limited market that the producers do not have the resources to do better, and the consumers are so desperate that they don't complain. I have written about this at length.

This has a chilling effect on evangelization.

For example, I've been moderately pleased with the movies Facing the Giants and Fireproof, both of which were produced by a Protestant group from the South, and, although they contain amateur actors and a few "prosperity gospel" plot elements, are not all that bad for "Christian movies".

But that's the problem. "Christian movies" take the risk of being limited from their inception by the Ghetto's protective notion of what something "Christian" should and should not be about (a squeamishness not shared by Christ, who ate with prostitutes, blessed the smelly poor and died on a cross). Flannery O'Connor says somewhere something to the effect that a book written by a Catholic is a Catholic book, and certainly O'Connor's stories, which are profoundly Catholic, are also profoundly disturbing and difficult to read. And yet more real and honest than stuff like Facing the Giants and Fireproof. As any Christian knows, there is nothing that Christ cannot address, engage and redeem - but Christian film-makers and film-goers are a little afraid to admit that.

For, well-intentioned as movies like Facing the Giants and Fireproof are, it takes a special kind of desire to want to see them - knowing the artificiality of the genre. In fact, Sunday my wife Karen told me that she wanted to watch "on-demand" the latest movie from this production company, one called Courageous that's all about Faith helping guys through tough times.

Well, great.

But I talked her into The Muppets instead.

Then on Monday, which was Karen's birthday, she wanted to go see October Baby in the theater. This birthday thing means I couldn't say no. But I wanted to.

After all, October Baby is another "Christian movie". Yes, my friend and Theater of the Word actress Emily Lunsford had written a glowing review of the movie, which was filmed in Emily's home town of Birmingham, one of my favorite places; and yes, my friend Fr. Brian Harrison of the Oblates of Wisdom and St. Mary of Victories church in St. Louis had emailed all of his parishioners raving about the movie, strongly encouraging us to go see it; but this is not only a Christian movie, but a pro-life Christian movie.

I mean, if you remember all of the fuss over Bella, you recall much ado about a pretty good movie but not the sort of movie you'd really make much of an effort to see again. A few notches above Facing the Giants / Fireproof, but, frankly, not as good as The Muppets.

Now I know you can't compare a feel-good family comedy like The Muppets to Bella, except you really can. Wildly differing as their goals are as films, they are both simply movies - and as a movie, The Muppets is far more clever, entertaining, and well-made than Bella.

I say this with great admiration for the people behind Bella and the message they were struggling to convey.

But I say this with the reservation that Bella succeeded to the extent it did in the same way Facing the Giants / Fireproof succeeded, in the same way that the film Therese succeeded. All of these were pretty good movies that played to a very specific audience - all of these were moderately well-done works that pleased the denizens of the Ghetto. They were supported by film-goers who bought their tickets in order to support Christian cinematic art. Without that element of patronage, one wonders how successful these movies would have been.

Having said all of this, and being fully aware that everything I say applies as well to the stuff we produce here at the Theater of the Word Incorporated, I can affirm at least one thing:

October Baby is a spectacular movie. (For once I was glad I listened to my wife!)

This is a movie that is good even outside the Ghetto.

It is well acted, well directed, and above all well-written.

Perhaps nothing hurts a movie more than a bad screenplay, and frankly the most noticeable weakness shared by all of the films mentioned above (other than The Muppets) was lackluster writing - not particularly bad writing, but rather weak writing.

October Baby, on the other hand, has a story that holds your interest from the beginning. It has three-dimensional and believable characters, well crafted conflict and structure, and above all comedy. There are wonderful comic moments in this film, the sort of thing that self-consciously Christian films lack, moments that let the viewer know that this is a film with a heart, a story that sees humanity in all its foibles and flaws, and therefore a story that is not preachy in any way.

But the thing that really destroys you in the theater is the witness of the actress who plays the birth mother, a real life witness that occurs at the end as the credits are about to run. This is the most effective meeting of fiction and reality that I have ever seen in a movie or in life.

Thank God for this film and thank God that the film-makers get it. Emily Lunsford points out that producer Jon Erwin told christiancinema.com, “I think that’s where we differ philosophically from other Christian filmmakers. We’ve been part of the secular industry for so long that I’ve grown to really love people who work in entertainment. They’re messed-up people who have a lot of needs, but I don’t want to isolate myself with Christian people making Christian movies. I’d rather engage the secular industry and not shy away from what I believe.”

With this kind of attitude there is hope.

And with a movie as beautiful as this, there is hope.

It is a movie that is true to man, to Christ, and to Protestants and Catholic alike. In short, it is true to life. It is a well-made film and the first of what I hope will be a true revolution in the culture of cinema.

And finally - the main character in this film (played beautifully by Rachel Hendrix) is the "October Baby" of the title, born October 7, 1991.

October 7 is the Feast of St. Mary of Victories.

Our Lady, under this title, was dear to St. Therese (subject of the film Therese), was the patroness of the Christian victory over Islam at Lepanto (immortalized in verse by G. K. Chesterton), is the patroness of the beautiful church housing the aforementioned Fr. Harrison and the Oblates of Wisdom, and is very dear to me for many reasons.

She is, unbeknownst to the film-makers, present in this movie in a very pervasive way. And it is the message of the Mother of Our Lord, who carried the unborn savior, and to whom all martyrs of the womb are precious - it is the message of this lady, whose heart was pierced by many pangs of sorrow - it is the message of the virgin whose unborn infant Jesus made the unborn infant John leap with joy in Elizabeth's womb - it is the message of this holy disciple of Christ - that even in the midst of a world that eats its young, a world that grinds and destroys the most innocent among us, a world that hates life and longs for death - it is the message that even in such a world, there is Victory, there is hope.

Go see October Baby. Not because it's pro-life, not because it's Christian, not because it's your wife's birthday and you have to.

Go see it because it's good.


Lee Gilbert said...

I wanted to respond to your comments about the script-writing in Therese, for one thing, and what I take to be hyper-criticism of Bella for another. This I
originally published on Yahoo shortly after the opening weekend of Therese in October of 2004:

Considering the impact the arts can have on the spirituality of a society, I personally am thrilled that out of 113 movies showing last weekend (its opening weekend) Therese came in 20th. It gets better. "Vanity Fair," which came in 22nd, made $317,000, but it showed on 317 screens, whereas Therese only showed on 32 screens and took in $357,000. This looks pretty respectable to me.

I hope the Catholic people will take heart from these numbers and promote this film to the max. It has real box office possibilities. I'll admit to being saddened by comments made to the effect that the film was overly sentimental and saccharine. To me this seems grossly unfair for two reasons. First of all, this isn't a bio of Al Capone, after all. No car chases, no shoot'em ups, no bar room brawls or fistfights. No explosions. Nor were there any of the typical teenage tantrum scenes. No real quarrels. No shouting. No "partial nudity" or "sexual situations" so common on the screen today.

Everything was very sedate, for this was after all the home of Mr. and Mrs. Martin, one of those saintly couples for whom we wish canonization, do we not? They knew how to keep a prayerful, peaceful, joyful home. And they knew how to form saintly, loving daughters. So if we wish to quarrel with anyone, it should be with them, and not with the screen writer. After all, Mrs. Defillipis could only work with what the Martin family actually presented her- a peaceful, loving, thoroughly Catholic family. This is bad?

As for sentimentality, we are not the bourgoisie of 19th century France and probably have no concept how sentimental they actually were- even having seen the movie, we who think that we are being extremely florid when we write, "Dear Bill", cross it out and write, "Hi Bill," and finally cross *that* out and write, "Bill..."The entire age was sentimental, and probably nowhere moreso than in France.

Nevertheless, I knew the film was in trouble when Mr. Martin called Therese, "My queen." "This isn't going to fly," I thought to myself. Nevertheless, that is what he did call her, whether we have trouble stomaching it or not. And it may very well have been part of the brew that so wonderfully nourished the heart of Therese Martin and made her a saint.

At least let us do the Defillipises the courtesy of not insisting that their film be anachronistic and frame the whole story in terms of our emotional and spiritual impoverishment. Viewing that film is probably as close as we can get to being in the bosom of that family in those years, the English language excepted of course, just as viewing "The Passion of Christ" put us on the scene in Jerusalem. These are both exceptionally well done, and I for one plan to go again and again till "Therese" goes away.

We cannot change the culture without changing the art, and we cannot get good films on Catholic themes by adopting an attitude of hypercriticism toward the few films that come our way. If we support Leonardo Defillipis today, he will be in a position to produce a better effort tomorrow. If it isn't up to your mark, at least concede it is a first film, and possibly the first of a large, influential and impressive body of work...if we support these fledgling efforts today.Rivers of vocations can come from such work, the conversions of many families, the reform of their homes and etc. The lives of the saints are powerful enough to do all this and more. "A Man For all Seasons"; "The Mission"; "The Passion of the Christ"; "Therese"- Four Catholic movies in forty years! If we want more, then we have got to support this one to the max. For me this is very easy to do. It's a great film.

Kevin O'Brien said...

Thanks, Lee. Good comment. But ...

While it's true that Defilipis had a challenge before him - namely, how do you dramatize a life that consists mostly of interior struggles - my criticism of "Therese" (in passing) was anything but "hyper criticism".

Your argument seems to be that we have to accept Catholic films with a kind of indulgence that secular films would never warrant. Well, this is fine for the Ghetto, but if, say, "The Muppets" were boring and flat, there's no reason to expect the audience to say, "Oh, they haven't made a movie for a while. Let's give them a chance. After all, there can't be sex and violence in a Muppet movie, so they're at a disadvantage go begin with". Word would get out and the audience would simply not see it - and rightly so.

A thing worth doing is worth doing badly, but a thing done badly is not worth consuming.

The fact is that as Catholic film-makers and dramatists we are doing this for the glory of God; and no patronizing pats on the head will come from the secular world if our work is bad, so why should they come from our own captive audience? "Therese" was not a bad movie, especially considering the insurmountable difficulty of dramatizing a life that was very dramatic interiorly but not exteriorly. "Bella" was not bad, and neither were the other Christian films I mentioned.

But "October Baby" is much, much better than all of them. It is a film that stands on its own and does not call for our indulgence or for avuncular "atta boys".

Meanwhile, the pro-abortion crowd will crucify this film. It's already begun. They're calling it "anti-woman", I am told. It's good enough that it's going to make them very very mad.

So you and I are in agreement on this - even mediocre Christian films, especially those that attack the culture of death, should be supported. Much more so excellent ones.

R.E.O. Johnson said...

I don't think it's possible to put Bella and The Muppets in the same sentence. I liked The Muppets, but, being the fan that I was, noticed a plot recycled from other Muppet productions. However, I have never seen anything like Bella. Those are just thoughts, you don't need to respond to them.

I watched an interview with the director, writer, and lead of October Baby on Life on the Rock and was wondering how it was doing. As it now sits on Rotten Tomatoes, the critics are at 23% and the audience is at 89%. I could say that the presumably Christian audience is just supporting the film with their numerous clicks, but many have even taken the time to write out lengthy reviews. So, yeah, I have a feeling that it's going to be good.

Benjamin. said...

Speaking of good Christian entertainment, what ever happened to Stanford Nutting?
Why aren't there more videos up with him?
It looks like he gets the most views.

Kevin O'Brien said...

Benjamin, the plan is to launch our own Internet TV channel this summer or fall. Mr. Nutting will be hosting his own show - SHARING WITH STANFORD. Stay tuned! I'll announce everything here when we have it all up and ready.

Benjamin. said...


Anonymous said...



(That's 5 Stars)

Dr. Eric

Adolfo said...

Therese was AWFUL. Dull, plodding, and just poor filmmaking. Bella was better, but a little forced (the countdown to the car accident being the most egregious example--who counts hide and seek backwards??). So, I've been reluctant to see October Baby. Your review gives me hope.

SDG said...

I would walk a mile to see BELLA again before I would walk a block to see OCTOBER BABY again. Sorry. BELLA is easily the better film.

yankeegospelgirl said...

I for one thought _Bella_ was excellent. It had a lot of color, a lot of vibrancy, and the editing was CRISP. It struck me as the perfect example of a film that was well-made and redemptive without feeling forced. Understatement was one of its strengths. But that's just IMO.

I enjoy the Sherwood films too, although I concede they are not Great films. But they're good, and tell good stories. I actually would recommend _Courageous_. It's better than all of its predecessors. The Kendrick brothers have a long way to go yet, but I feel they are steadily improving.

Have you seen the French movie _Of Gods and Men_? That film blew me away.

Anyway, I should check this one out, maybe on DVD. The trailer looked so-so to me, but it could be good. I honestly feel like _Bella_ already set a high bar here.

Oh, have you heard about the kerfuffle over Steve Taylor's _Blue Like Jazz_? Apparently Provident films is working hard to sever all connections to it, and Taylor is whining about how the Christian film industry is out to get him. No wonder---his film looks like a total piece of garbage. Are you planning to see it just so you can say you did? I'm certainly not.

Tom Leith said...

Stanford's first guest should be Frank -- Frank never shares, he only FARTs. It isn't clear how Stanford's producers let him slip on through -- maybe Frank has some strong views on sharing. What he does is listen politely and probe a bit, but at the end, well, he kinda clears the room with his frank assessment. Frank's something like Belloc: he gets down to the nub of it and you always know what he thinks.

In fact, his performance on Sharing with Stanford caught the attention of producers at KGGN (Katholic Ghetto Global Network) and they decided to work up a format just for Frank. His first guest will be Kirkwood Derby and the discussion will be "What Religion Matters?"

What do you think about the local Script Mechanics readings for improving writing?