A personal anecdote: I lost my first “professional” film-criticism gig over The Passion of The Christ.
It was the early 2000s, and I’d been hired off the street (well, okay, out of the video store) to be more or less the “expert” on a three-person local-access movie chat show. It all went pretty well up until the release of Mel Gibson’s ultra-controversial Jesus movie.
I found myself called to a “meeting” with the show’s producer and star, who wanted to talk to me about the pending review/discussion of the film. He’d gotten hold of a copy of an older write-up of it I’d had up on the web somewhere, in which I A) gave it a negative review and B) agreed with the various folks who’d called it “anti-Semitic.” (I stand by both contentions to this day.) My “boss” was not happy, and took rather specific umbrage at my sympathy for the Jewish folks offended by the film.
I was informed – in no uncertain terms – that a negative review of the film was not going to be allowed on the show. That, essentially, the episode would be about praising the film, its message and its religious viewpoint. I was summarily informed that my services – on this and any future installments – were no longer wanted. (Just for atmosphere’s sake, please note that this meeting was taking place early morning, in a van in an empty parking lot.)
I never saw the episode, and the show was ended shortly thereafter.
In telling a story, the first thing you need to do is hook your audience. I don’t care if you’re making a movie, writing a book or reading aloud to preschoolers – step one is “pay attention to this!” There are hundreds of ways to do this, but the quickest and most effective involve familiarity: “This is about you,” “this is about something you know,” “this is about something you care about.”
This isn’t exactly easy. You have to construct a narrative that plays to universal human experience but in a way that feels personal to an individual: “Well, I’ve never been a Tatooine moisture farmer aching to join the Rebel Alliance, but I have felt stuck in life, so I can relate to this.” You have to be introspective, empathetic and skilled at the art of human understanding.
Or, failing that, you can cheat – or, rather, take a shortcut – by making your central theme or plot device some specific hot button idea or issue designed to provoke an immediate reaction. There are certain “big things” that most people have already made their minds up about – race, religion, politics – and if you say upfront that your story is about any of them, well, now more than half your work is done. They’re already engaged with the issue, so now they’re already engaged with your story.
Of these shortcuts, religion is easily the most popular, particularly in the realm of genre fiction and genre film. Being able to say “these guys are with God, the other guys are with The Devil” makes quick work of having to establish the why of who’s good and evil. For a clear recent illustration of this, see The Book of Eli a post-apocalyptic actioner wherein the fact that our designated hero is protecting The Last Bible on Earth is supposed to be the answer to every “why are we rooting for this guy?” question you could think of. God is good, Eli is on God’s team, therefore Eli the good guy. Cut, print, cue swordfights.
Exactly how much of Eli’s Sunday School spiritualism is sincerely meant versus a cynical grab for attention, one can’t say, but in terms of inspiring devotion vastly disproportionate to that usually afforded a generic post-nuke actioner dumped unceremoniously into the January dead-zone release schedule it’s been a huge success. Religious conservatives have rallied around it with what can charitably be called glee, while my own citation of its fervor as a net-negative earned me… “interesting” feedback.
On the other side of the coin, there’s this week’s Legion which is telling a fairly standard fantasy/action story of ordinary humans caught up in a war between rival factions of good and evil supernatural beings. How best to overcome the expected “ho-hum” reaction to such a familiar setup? Easy: They aren’t just any supernatural beings, they’re angels. As in: “Of The Lord.” As in: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the.”
See how that works? Suddenly, it’s not just two magically-powered superhuman beings having it out in a gas station, it’s two magically-powered superhuman beings that a huge segment of the audience claims to actually believe in having it out in a gas station. Not only are the backstories and powersets that are much more easily explained (“what’s with the wings? Oh, right. They have those.”), suddenly this takes on an instantaneous extra level of import: You’re being “edgy” and “deconstructive” by re-imagining plundered Apocrypha in a “dark” action context. Evil… I dunno, Atlantean Sky-Elf? “Whatever.” Evil angel? “Whoa! That’s kinda-sorta blasphemous and stuff! You’re blowin my mind!”
You see this all the time. Think of how many made-up monsters are vulnerable to crucifixes (or Stars of David, or prayer scrolls, or holy water for that matter); do you suppose perhaps that’s to make them seem more important by association? How often do halos, crosses, angel wings, stained glass, monk robes, and so forth get slathered all over movies, videogames and anime in order to add weight to the proceedings? Why did The Crow spend so much time skulking around churches and graveyards? Are The Boondock Saints wearing artificial profundity (literally) on their sleeves? Think about that oddly out-of-place, monastic chant that keeps cropping up in the background of that one outer-space shooter videogame… what was it called, again? Oh, right: Halo. Hm…
There’s nothing wrong with this, technically, though it does tend to lead to lazy storytelling (see: The Book of Eli.) From where I sit, it’s more a problem of how it tends to lend heat to stuff that really doesn’t deserve it. Look at how much extra scorn seems to get tossed at the (still largely deserving of it) Twilight series for the perceived influence of Stephanie Meyer’s conservative Mormonism on the story. Hell, I got into it myself, dubbing the series “Mormon Vampire Abstinence Porn” over a year ago. Speaking only for myself, I don’t have a problem with Mormonism in and of itself, I merely find the juxtaposition of a deeply traditionalist faith with what amounts to a softcore romance series for teen girls to be humorously off-kilter. But some similar criticism gets oddly vicious: Yes, I agree, Meyer/Twilight‘s view of relationships and gen, but why is it worse if this is informed by a specific faith as opposed to her just being nonspecifically nutty?
Playing through Bayonetta recently, I find myself wondering if the details of her being a witch at war with agents of God will make people take the game’s batshit silly narrative as some kind of serious commentary on misogyny in patriarchal faiths. Will Darksiders face an outcry that never greeted God of War because its cartoonishly hypermasculine killing machine is drawn from The Book of Revelation rather than Olympian mythology? The answer to both, sadly, is “probably” – especially since Bayonetta is practically begging for it.
There are, of course, instances where this actually works out in the positive: The Exorcist – one of the greatest of all horror films – relies heavily on an audience’s immediate familiarity with a generalized Judeo-Christian concept of Satan to give its fantastical story weight. And I’d be remiss not to mention C.S. Lewis, whose fairly explicit Christian allegory helps push his Narnia books (and the various films based on them) beyond being just another longform fairytale (well, except for that last one, but that’s another column.)
I guess what’s mainly irksome about all of this is how it sours the conversation by injecting undeserved defensiveness (or offensiveness) into discussions of material that doesn’t in any way warrant it. The Book of Eli is a junky B-movie; it doesn’t deserve to have people defending it with the same fervor that they defend their faith. Ditto for Legion, ditto for anything else on the same lines. That people go and do this anyway is regrettable, and that it might be a planned strategy of the filmmakers is close to unconscionable.
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.