Sunday, June 7, 2009

Unabashedly religious

It's possible to make a movie about religion without it being religious.

But not if that movie is a Kirk Cameron movie.

For those of you who don't know, the erstwhile Growing Pains star has Given Himself Over to God. This actually happened while Growing Pains was still filming, but it hasn't become the sole focus of Cameron's career until about the last decade. It was in 2000 that Cameron made the first of three Left Behind movies, which dealt not so subtly with The Rapture, and giving yourself over to Christ. Because I love reviewing movies that no one else sees (no one else I know, anyway), I reviewed the first two, and have just put the third on my next list of requests. They are not good movies, but they are not as bad as they could have been, either. They do, however, explicitly use the language of fundamentalist Christianity throughout.

Because most of us are accustomed to watching the portrayal of religion in some liberal Hollywood context, such as the DaVinci Code movies, it's downright weird to watch a movie that is clearly peddling a different agenda. You just don't see it in mainstream movies, unless you're talking about Tyler Perry movies, which may do good box office, but are not exactly mainstream in the sense that Hollywood usually defines it. It's like you've stumbled in on something fringe, something that wasn't intended for your demographic. When the words "God" and "Christ" are mentioned in Hollywood movies, it's not meant to convert, but to inspire skepticism. There's always something a little off about those characters, and you the viewer are usually invited to align with those who oppose them.

That's not the case in Kirk Cameron movies, and it's not the case in Fireproof, which I've now watched over parts of the last three days, finishing this morning. Despite its name, Fireproof doesn't take the fire-and-brimstone approach of the Left Behind movies -- Cameron's character is a Georgia firefighter on the brink of dissolving his marriage. But Fireproof does on occasion ask us viewers if we have accepted Christ as our personal lord and savior.

But does this mean I hated it? Does this mean I adopted a liberal, Bush-hating, 360-degrees-in-the-other-direction condescension toward it?

Heck no. In fact, I got a little emotional at the end -- twice.

What's interesting about Fireproof is that it shows that Cameron is maturing. No longer does he feel it's necessary to scare religion into us by suggesting that we non-believers will be stranded on a planet scarred by war and sinners, while everyone who went to church on Sunday has ascended to the heavens. Though there are those telltale lines of dialogue that immediately put you on guard -- "Okay, here's what this movie is really about" -- Fireproof seems at least as interested in trying to help people salvage failing marriages, even if it is God's love that's supposed to help you do it. Never is there any doubt that this movie is prostletyzing, but Cameron and his team of collaborators are smart enough to keep the percentage relatively low. We're not meant to think that Christianity is the only lesson to take here. The things that Christianity endorses -- patience in the face of repeated disappointment, love, etc. -- are more the focus than Christianity itself as an institution.

An interesting thing that Cameron does in both this and the Left Behind films is that he puts the character he plays in the role of the skeptic. Of course, since it's Cameron and since you know what his agenda is, you know he will see the light. But Cameron allows himself to speak a number of lines of dialogue doubting the power of religion. Although you can imagine it was quite difficult for him, he makes himself the surrogate of the skeptical viewer, the guy who doesn't believe in all this God-and-Jesus hocus pocus. It may be a devious trick on some level, but it also works. Coming at the viewer head on with a bunch of devout characters whose faith in God is never in question won't cut it. Cameron et al understand that there must be dramatic tension, at least, and that something isn't really a movie at all if everyone's on the same page to begin with. Christianity's many parables relate to turning non-believers into believers, and I guess this is no different, but let's just say these people are not blinded into narrative incompetence by the strength of their beliefs. They still realize that this is a movie, whose goals must involve some level of entertainment and escapism.

And it also has a sense of humor. As part of a firehouse game of one-upsmanship, two firefighters chug a hot sauce called "Wrath of God." There's also a running joke about how Cameron's neighbor always catches him taking his frustration out on some helpless inanimate object in his backyard. Their wry exchange always occurs with a nod of the head, and then, Cameron acknowledging him by saying, "Mr. Rudolph." And the neighbor answering back, "Caleb."

It's probably clear to you that I liked this film, and you're probably wondering how I feel about that. After all, I'm about the most ungodly guy you could find. Not that I'm some rampant sinner, just that I don't choose to characterize my values -- which I'm pretty proud of -- in terms of a church or religion. Nor do I ever expect to.

I should feel sullied by being "taken in" by this movie. After all, I do pride myself on my liberal outlook, which is supposed to greet any attempt at organized religion with downright disdain. I do believe that religion is responsible for the greatest share of the world's problems. But I do also acknowledge that some people use it correctly.

But one other thing I've discovered is that film critics must, to the extent that they can, set aside preexisting opinions when watching a movie like this. You aren't just reviewing this movie for likeminded liberals, but for any person that might be out there, looking for something to see on a Saturday night. (Or maybe a Sunday night in this case, if the Lord allows it.) In fact, reviewing it for liberals would miss the point entirely, since so few of them are likely to consider themselves candidates to see it in the first place.

It's funny, because I know I did request this movie to review because of a preexisting opinion I had about its pernicious agenda. I wanted an opportunity to deliver some subtle slams about Christianity -- nothing so overt that I'd seem like a hater, but just enough that I'd leave people walking away with a clear sense of my perspective. And maybe contribute to one fewer person accepting Jesus Christ as their lord and savior without first enganging in honest, intellectual introspection, to decide if it's really the right thing for them.

But you have to take every film on its own terms, and if a movie actually succeeds, like Fireproof does, I'm not going to let my liberal ideals take it down a peg. The filming is competent, the acting is more than competent (you can't tear up at the end of the movie if the actors are bad), and the dialogue is not even as on-the-nose as I was expecting. Plus, there were two pretty dynamite set pieces involving firefighters engaging in heroic rescues.

So what is my role as a critic in this scenario? An unbiased, disinterested commentator who must meet this film on its own terms? I'll let everyone know that this is a Christian movie -- how could you not. I'll let everyone know that there's some clunky dialogue. And I'll also let everyone know that this movie is darn successful in doing what it set out to do, and that even liberal-minded viewers might walk away from it with their self-respect intact.

It's not my business whether viewers come to adopt the tenets of Christianity as a result of watching. It's only my business to allow Fireproof the opportunity to try, based in part on my own recommendation, given with reservations of course, but not artificial reservations trumped up for the purposes of my own personal agenda.

As much as I would have hated to acknowledge this going in, Fireproof has earned the right.

No comments: