Blue Like Jazz And The Pyramid of Film

This past weekend my wife and I finally got around to seeing the Blue Like Jazz film adaptation of the best-selling Don Miller book of the same title.  I read the book during the summer of 2007 just prior to our move to Chicago and the start of my doctoral program.  I remember my specific thoughts on the book from that summer:

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  • I resonate with his disillusionment, but more-so because I was raised outside of the church looking in.  Miller’s is a disillusionment and rediscovery of Jesus due to being raised inside the church.  Disillusionment, similar.  Solution to disillusionment, different.
  • The book lacked a clear presentation of the Gospel, although I suspect that it was lurking somewhere in the back of Miller’s mind.
  • The book was a fun and easy read.  It helped me to make sense of my seminary education and the student body that appeared angsty and disillusioned much of the time.

I have to be honest. My expectations of the film going into the theatre were highly charged.  And my review of the film coming out of the theatre was influenced by these highly charged expectations.  In short, let me unpack my expectations in 2600 words through a device I have developed entitled the Pyramid of Film.

The Pyramid Of Film:

I observe that in America there are five basic levels of film that function in much the same manner as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs or the Wooden Pyramid of Success in that each subsequent level is built upon the pre-requisite of the previous level of film. For my egocentric purposes, I will refer to this scheme as the “Hankins’ Pyramid of Film.”

  • The bottom level is reserved for independent films.  These films are (1) script-driven, (2) relatively low budget, and (3) cast with relatively unknown actors.  These types of films range from student films to college professor films to films created by artistic film makers.  They can vary from 5-minute films to full-length features.  Indy films generally have a niche audience, comprised of a relatively small pocket of American sub-culture.
  • Level two is where charming small-budget films are located.   These films are still (1) script-driven and (2) relatively inexpensive to create, but (3a) have the advantage of a better-known cast or (3b) of a compelling documentary narrative.  Accordingly, these films tend to succeed due to other famous actors buzzing about how these films are “underrated,” when, in fact, they are intentionally created as vehicles to promote the “serious” acting abilities of up-and-coming actors or the talents of well-known indy documentary film makers.  Think of films such as Swingers and Ghost World or the documentary Hoop Dreams.
  • The third level of the Film Pyramid is more properly labeled the “DVD/TV” level because a) we probably won’t pay to see these films in theaters and b) we will inevitably rent them when nothing else looks better or we will watch them on TV at a hotel once insomnia kicks in.  You know these types of films.  In terms of directorial method, these projects start with the premise question, “How can we get two sexy, popular actors to fall in love on camera?” and then proceed to phone calls between studio execs and agents until two sexy stars are locked into a working title.  From there, the producer will hire a team of 8th graders to write the script, a team of marketers to come up with slick trailers and print advertisements, and then a decent director and principal photographer.  Everyone shows up to shoot the film during the course of three-weeks in June . . . and scene.  The film will make $ 100-200 million worldwide within three months of release but will do little to expand the cultural and intellectual palate of the viewing audience.   Examples include any Rom Com, any movie that can be considered soft-core porn, or any raunchy comedy.
  • Level four of the Film Pyramid is reserved for the blockbuster.  These movies typically start with a goal of making a movie “that no one has ever seen before” and often result in effects-driven CGI epics, blow-em-up man movies, or any cartoon kids’ film.  The cast is irrelevant because the films (see “marketing vehicle”) will make $300 – 400 million worldwide before accounting for DVD sales.   In these films the script is irrelevant.  The casting is almost irrelevant, because epics are usually vehicles for actors who want to make a ton of cash to support their next dramatic spin (See Nick Cage, Brendon Fraser, or Steve Martin).
  • Level five is reserved exclusively for Oscar-worthy films.  These are the films that have (1) well-written scripts, (2) thoughtful premises, (3) universal themes, (4) big name actors, and (4) budgets that match ambition.  These films will not necessarily gross as much as blockbuster epics, but they will, nonetheless, sell a few tickets and rack up considerable DVD sales, especially from research universities that want their students to be shaped by this new offering of cultural and intellectual art. Pick any recent Oscar nomination for best film and you have a pretty good idea of what passes in this level.

The History Of Christian Film and Unrealistic Expectations:

I admittedly brought the Hankins’ Pyramid of Film into the movie theatre when viewing Blue Like Jazz. By my estimation, Christian films have almost exclusively been relegated to the base level of the Film Pyramid due to the fact that they lack big name actors, suffer from anemic budgets, put together scripts that are not well-received by Oscar-level audiences, explore no larger universal themes, and offer little by way of cultural or intellectual fodder.

As I checked out IMDB, I noticed some interesting trends in the “Christian” films produced by Christian production companies since 1999, when The Omega Code was, then, the most commercially successful Christian Film of all time ($7.6 million Budget (B), $12.6 million Box Office (BO)):

  •  1999, The Omega Code (All results shown in terms of millions of dollars (USA))
  • 2000, Left Behind, 4 B, $4.2 BO
  • 2001, Megiddo 22 B, $5.9 BO
  • 2001, Extreme Days, ? B, $1.047 BO
  • 2002, Jonah: A Veggie Tales Movie, $14 B, 25.6 BO
  • 2002, Left Behind II: Tribulation Force, unknown results
  • 2002, Time Changer, $.85 B, 1.5 BO
  • 2003, Luther, $30 B, $20 BO
  • 2004, The Passion Of The Christ, $30 B, 611 BO
  • 2005, The Gospel, $3.4 B, 15.7 BO
  • 2006, End Of The Spear, $10 B, 11.9 BO
  • 2006, Facing The Giants, $.100 B, 10.1 BO
  • 2008, Fireproof, $.5 B, 33.4 BO
  • 2008, Billy: The Early Years, $3.6 B, .347 BO
  • 2011, Soul Surfer, $18 B, 44.2, BO
  • 2011, Courageous, $2 B, 34.3 BO
  • 2012, October Baby, $1 B, 5 BO

A couple of comments about the previous list of films. First, these were really the only “Christian” films worth considering because they were the ones that fit the mold a typical Christian film stereotype:

  1. The script is driven by a Biblical moral or theme
  2. there is a definitive preachy moment
  3. the film is produced by a Christian production company
  4. the film is financed by Christians with a decidedly Christian agenda
  5. the film must be intended for a theatrical release audience

Second, with these five characteristics in mind, I  left out straight-to-DVD movies like The Apocalypse series and the Love’s Enduring Promise series because they violated characteristic number 5.  I leave out films such as The Chronicles of Narnia series and The Apostle, mainly because they were produced by well-known non-Christian companies, but also because the scripts were driven by something other than Biblical intent (The C.S. Lewis epic narrative and Robert Duvall’s acting abilities).  I also left out Tyler Perry’s films, which almost always contain preachy moments and Biblical themes, but which lack the Biblical intent or Christian financing and agendas.  I could have also left out Mel Gibson’s The Passion of The Christ, except that Gibson was using the film to blatantly proselytize for his newfound Roman Catholic piety at the time and funded the movie himself.

So what do we learn about Christian films in light of the Pyramid?  A lot, actually. Notice that, of the films listed, only the Veggie Tales and The Passion of The Christ broke through the first level.  The Veggie tales movies played upon the American need for family friendly cartoon movies and raked in the fortunes — the film equivalent of 30-somethings getting back into “going to church” for the sake of providing the kids with a “moral foundation.” Accordingly, it was the first Christian film to reach Blockbuster status.

The Passion of the Christ killed at the box office and was the first Christian film to make the Oscar level of the pyramid, garnering THREE Oscar nods.  However, the film still carried all of the Christian Film characteristics.  (1) the goal was to preach the crucified and resurrected Jesus, (2) the film was an extended preachy moment, (3) (4) it was produced and financed by Mel, and (5) was intended for a theatrical release.  Also, consider the types of people who purchased the tickets. Virginia Tech sociologist Neal King demonstrates that the movie was largely attended by anyone in America who considers themselves to be “Christian.”  Greek Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Christians alike attended the movie due to common Christological sympathies.  And remember, it was cleverly released on Feb 25, 2004 — just in time for Lent (Feb. 28) and Easter (Apr. 11).  I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts that cultural Christians attended the movie as an alternative to going to church on Easter Sunday.  My sense is that Passion did not pull in agnostics or muslims or Scientologists to the box office.  Again, it fit a niche subculture in America — one that happened to be the Christian subculture.

Where Does Blue Like Jazz Rank?

So what does this mean?  It means that Veggie Tales and The Passion of The Christ set the bar for what we can expect from a Christian film.  It means that any new Christian film is graded on a scale ranging from The Omega Code to The Passion Of The Christ.  It means that Don Miller will either be compared to Casper Van Dien or to Mel Gibson.

Here was the hopefulness in me: based on the buzz, BLJ appeared to have a level 2 feel (relatively well-known cast, decent writing, apparently good cinematography, other actors buzzing about the film).  Could it be the first Christian charming small budget film?  Or would Miller venture into the level three Rom Com?

I observed the following things.  First the positives:

1. BLJ corresponded to real life.  The film was honest about the culture of Portland in the 2000s.  The film included the S-word, the B-word, the D-word, and the A-word.  The script spoke openly about sexuality and drug culture.  They drank beer and explored all aspects of life (including dating and heartbreak).  And the actors wrestled with existential questions such as how a god could exist in the world where so much injustice takes place.  The actors did not shy away from tough issues.  The actors ACTUALLY wrestled with things, instead of glossing over issues in order to forefront Jesus.

2. BLJ showed concern for the value of art.  BLJ was well-shot and the director appeared to care that the film had an artistic edge. The scenes where more than locations in which to talk about an agenda.  The lighting seemed intentional.  There were even some dramatic unfocused and focused scenes that served to underscore the internal tension within the actors.  Also, the script was witty at parts and drew me in to a world where the narrative was different from my own experience.  Well done.

The film also had some negative qualities:

1. $1.25 Budget.  .551 Box Office (to date).  This doesn’t tell the whole story until you consider . . .

2. BLJ peaches, but what exactly?  The climax of the movie involves the main character apologizing to a pagan man for all the abuses of the Christian (see Catholic) church.  In a moving and honest monologue, Don confesses his belief in God to his friend, The Pope, who previously had believed Don to be agnostic or ambivalent about theistic things.  Don preaches that believing in God is not something that he can deny anymore.  He even hints that intellectual honesty must include a belief in a god.  This was definitely a preachy scene. My only problem with it is that the core of Don’s preachiness is that a god exists and that Don believes in Jesus.  But he fails to mention what he believes about Jesus and a god.

  • Mormons believe in Jesus and a god.
  • Muslims believe in Jesus and a god.
  • Christians believe in Jesus and a god.
  • Jehovah’s Witnesses believe in Jesus and a god.
  • David Koresh believed in Jesus and a god.

The preaching climax of the film was that Don believed in theism, which, essentially is the reduced gospel of the Emergent Church (IMO).  At no point is there a discussion of things like the atonement, sin, obedience to the Holy Spirit’s moving, the local church, the value of the local church, missions, etc…

My number one problem with Christian films is that they use art as a means to preaching a message.  I believe that art is valuable in its exploration of universal themes without having to preach and then lead a alter call whilst playing Just As I Am.  I believe that it is possible for uniquely Christian art to raise the question of universal themes (existence, death, life, meaning) and can provide one view on this issue, without resorting to preachiness.  That being the case, I feel that if you are going to follow the Christian format and are going to use art as a medium to preach, then you mine-as-well preach the whole Gospel.  Otherwise, in my opinion, don’t preach at all.  Raise questions and show how people think about answers.  Call people to think about question and how they would answer them.  But don’t preach…unless you are going to preach the Gospel.

BLJ preaches, but not the whole Gospel.  And that was disappointing to me.

3. BLJ offers a poor representation of Christian worship services.  I despise Hollywood portrayals of worship services, mostly because Hollywood presents Christian worship as being goofy, disconnected, and 15 years behind the culture.  In fact, many churches have the opposite problem in that they are trying hard to be too relevant.

Now, I ultimately give Hollywood a pass in this area because most people in Hollywood have never set foot in a Christian church.  But, Don Miller grew up in a legitimate Christian church.  So, I expected his portrayal of Christian churches to correspond with up-to-date megachurch culture.  However, I was disappointed to discover that he presented the evangelical church in the beginning of the film as an awkward, pew-based shotgun worship space.

  • Could they not film in an actual worship space of an evangelical church?
  • Was Saddleback not available?
  • Could they not film one of Saddleback’s services or Mars Hill’s service and splice that scene in?
  • Is it too much to ask to give the audience a picture of real Christian worship?

4. BLJ the film relies on the audience having read BLJ the book.  I have read BLJ.  My wife has not.  After coming out of the theatre, my wife asked me about three things that did not make sense to her from within the confines of the movie plot: the sexy carrot device, the floating space man, and even the title.  Because I have read the book, I could give her the bigger picture of what Miller was trying to communicate.  But these explanations were both helpful and frustrating for her because she felt like they distracted from the momentum of the plot in the movie.  And they did.  This was a huge oversight in the film.  Why not take those 5 minutes of footage and add some content of the Gospel to the confession scene.  Or why not take those 5 minutes and explain how Don knew that The Pope was molested as a kid.  We are not sure how Don knows it in the film.  Was it the Holy Spirit’s leading?

5. BLJ appeals to a niche subculture of America, emergent church ticket buyers.  Check the numbers.  As my friend David Roark has pointed out:

But, really, isn’t this just a redux of what we’ve already seen before? Isn’t it just a typical Christian movie in the sense that it is a good message stuck in a bad product? The only thing that’s changed is the message itself, which now looks more like Christianity lived in left field.

Or as Atlantic writer Elenor Barkhorn wrote,

The impulse to apologize for the church reflects a misguided understanding of what skeptics want to hear.

BLJ appeared to be made for a particularly angsty in-house church crowd and failed to deliver on an appeal to Americans searching for meaning and truth.  I too had high expectations for a more universal appeal for the film (adapted from a New York Times best-selling book) and, instead, got more of the same.

My wife and I left asking the following questions:

  • Isn’t this just the emergent church version of Fireproof?
  • Doesn’t this film give conservative Christians all the ammunition they need to cynically poke fun of emergent church?
  • Doesn’t this film further reveal the divide within the American church?
  • Didn’t this film have the opportunity to draw from a much larger fan base?  But instead, didn’t this film play only to a certain subculture of America?
  • Did we miss out on the opportunity to have the first Christian charming small budget film?

As to the last question, I think the answer is yes.  Blue Like Jazz is the post-modern Fireproof, and in my opinion remains in the base level of the Pyramid.  Had it been preachy about the whole Gospel, it may have made it to level two (because the whole Gospel is more universally appealing than generic emergent theism). Perhaps someone will turn Tim Tebow’s autobiography or Jeremy Lin’s biography into a charming small budget film one day. As for today, I am still waiting for Christian film to offer something more than what we have.

About Doug Hankins

Doug is the Teaching Pastor at LifePoint Church in Plano, TX. Although not a Christian in his youth, Doug came to believe in Jesus during his teenage years. When not playing sports or pastoring Doug is probably spending time with his wife, reading a good book, or drinking some hot tea. Doug's first book Dawson Trotman: In His Own Words is available wherever books are sold. You can follow Doug on twitter.
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