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11.15.2008

Christian Filmmakers Part 1

This topic will warrant multiple posts, but I'm going to start with one and write more next week. So this is an on-going thing. Please feel free to comment and ask questions, but there is much more to be said about this topic.

[NB: This will be more of an essay than a blog post... so it will be long and philosophical.]

I got an email from a mother whose daughter is currently in the film program from which I graduated. The girl's mother said because "you have been there, and are in the world of film, and as I know your background ... I would really appreciate any ideas!"

To summarize the girl's concerns:

  • The "Christian worldview" of Biola isn't there--there are no solid lines of what is appropriate in movies.
  • This is due to non-applied Bible lessons.
  • People are relativistic and work on bad films to "minister" to other filmmakers.
  • Only 2 of 30+ strongly believe you can make a comedy with a good message without vulgar humor.
  • Scripture is shot down as irrelevant because movies weren't around in Bible times.
  • I'm frustrated and disappointed but it is better than what we'd be getting at USC. We're starting a Bible study to watch movies and discuss them from a Christian filmmaker's perspective.

It seems to me that the heart of these issues is the question:

What does it mean to be a Christian filmmaker?

But let me start by addressing each of the concerns:

Appropriate Content There are no "solid lines" of what is appropriate in films. This is due to a lack of a Christian worldview and due to rejection of Bible lessons.

Film is an artistic media, and so it feels like lines are constantly being pushed and crossed. What makes this even more problematic is that the label of "Christian" has been slapped on it. So, let me start there:

The "Christian" label is a thorny issue (and is at the heart of "What does it mean to be a Christian filmmaker?"). "Christian film" typically denotes three things:

  1. Pathetic filmmaking
  2. Preachy-ness
  3. "Safe" for the whole family (as a local Christian radio station puts it)

There are Christians who are trying to improve their filmmaking skill, and coming along swimmingly. However, even if they get good sound and nice shots, their films typically derail because of a lame script that has descended into the realm of the conversion scene and the "you need to respect your father" kinds of lines. <shudder> They also tend to forget to tell a story, and instead focus on their message.

And my biggest beef with the "safe" aspect has come about because of the backlash I have received from the films I've submitted to "Christian" festivals. I was told by Christians that this one was so immodest and inappropriate that multiple people had to stop watching it.

Umm... what?

I also submitted a film to San Antonio a few years ago, but we didn't get in. After talking with people who have been there, I suspect that it was because of the content of our movie: We made a modern retelling of the book of Hosea--you know, the book about the prophet called to marry a prostitute? Well, that didn't fly so well, and we didn't ever go nearly as far as Hosea did.

And this leads to the first question: What is appropriate for a Christian film? Can it be PG, R? What about NC-17? Can it have violence, swearing, gore, sex, nudity? What kinds of topics can be covered: Lying, hatred, murder, rape, witchcraft, incest, homosexuality?

And if all of those are inappropriate, why are they such common topics of Bible stories?

Let me put it another way: Why are so many Christians thrilled about The Passion but appalled by violent films? What makes the gratuitous violence of Christ's death a thing "every Christian should see" but the insane opening minutes of Saving Private Ryan a thing to be avoided? Is it just the language? Both are historically accurate and are messages of hope and a call to live a better life.

Hopefully I have shed a little light on how this can be a gray area. And as for Biblical principles, can you imagine what kind rating Ezekiel 16:3ff would get? This certainly warrants discussion, but discussion is needed. This isn't black and white.

Relativism and Doing Evil to "Minister"

I can't comment on the relativism, as I don't know what has been said. However, as I've begun to unwrap above, things aren't nearly as cut and dried as we often would like. I've always been a passionate "black and white" kind of guy promoting truth and godliness... but as I've become older and wiser, I have come to see that things in a fallen world aren't so easily split. And that's how we can end up with God doing some pretty crazy stuff that I doubt He's going to be doing in Heaven.

As for ministry, let me give you one example we discussed briefly when I was at Biola: A Christian man was asked if he was interested in working on a full-blown pornographic film. He knew the people he'd be working with which is how he got asked onto this shoot. Here was an opportunity to "minister" if ever there was one.

But it was a porno! Can Christians work on such trash?

The man talked it over with his wife, his pastor, and some of the guys at his church. And after getting their blessing, he ended up working on that film and interacting with some of the professional "sinners" of Hollywood.

That's certainly not a path every Christian is going to walk, nor should it be. But if God is calling people to be in that kind of industry--like the people at XXX Church--then who am I to cry foul?

And when I read my Bible, the story of the Christian working on the porno set echos of Matthew 9:10-13 just a little.

People think you can't make a comedy without vulgar humor.

I agree that this is untrue. I mean, there are plenty of hilarious movies without vulgarity; take Emperor's New Groove as an example.

But even Homestarrunner.com, for how clean it tends to be, can push the envelope beyond what some Christians would find within the limits of propriety. So this comes around to the question of: What is "vulgar" and what is not?

Can Strong Bad say that he should be having kids with Ali and Ali's sister? Is that vulgar? It sure isn't "pure" ...so is it acceptable? Why or why not?

I think the confusion of your classmates is understandable: How many clean comedies are there? Not many.

Why is that? I think it's because comedy, as a genre, tends to work off the premise that "the unacceptable is funny." Or something like that--I don't remember where I heard that first, and the wording might be slightly different. But the point remains: Why do kids laugh when someone passes gas? Because it's not "appropriate"/acceptable.

And as I think about the comedies I've seen, even going back to the "old tyme films," they get their laughs from topics like divorce, nudism, genocide, and violence. It is very, very difficult to create a comedy that does not step on someone's sensibilities.

But comedy can be made without vulgarity, and every filmmaker needs to learn that. However, I can see why so many filmmakers don't realize it: There are precious few examples.

Scripture is said to be irrelevant because movies weren't around in Bible times.

Okay, that...

Umm...

That's inane.

The Bible is not a rule book and if a specific thing isn't mentioned we can't just ignore it. No, the Bible is a set of books of various genres from which we can draw knowledge and wisdom that is applicable for all of life. That's part of the whole "living and active" part of the Bible.

It does seem crazy that Christians at a Christian university would have somehow missed that.

In response, we discuss movies from a Christian filmmaker's perspective.

Excellent! There is need for this. But this clearly begs the question:

What is a Christian filmmaker?

I'll pick up there on Monday-ish <smile>.

~Luke Holzmann
Your Media Production Mentor

6 comments :

Bethany Hudson said...

As a Christian actress, I can definitely understand where you're coming from with this series. I remember having debates in college--and even now as a working professional--with other Christians about the fact that I kiss men who are not my husband on stage, sometimes I swear on stage, I've played adulterous women, etc, etc, etc. But to me, these are things that people go through and in order for art to touch, it has to be believable. Now, that's not to say I'm going to take off my clothes on stage or anything, but I'm playing a character, and for my character and the show to reach people, it needs to be realistic. We can't water it down and be "perfect" and "nice" First, because no one wants to watch that. Second, because even Christians don't live like that all the time! We're all flawed, and human flaws are what makes art accessible.
~Bethany

sally apokedak said...

First of all, you've been holding out on me. Why didn't you tell me about this link a long time ago?

Good stuff.

Secondly--hanging with makers of porn films and actually helping them make the film are two different things. Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners, he didn't collect taxes and sin himself.

No, you can't make porn and ever find a way to excuse that.

I do watch movies where actors and actresses kiss people they aren't married to--I still think they shouldn't do it. And I don't think we even need to see kissing on the screen, but definitely we don't need to see sex on the screen anymore than we need to see it in books.

And, yes, saying you want to have kids with Ali and her sister is vulgar. It may be acceptable and it may not. It depends on what the filmmaker is trying to convey, I think. I didn't finish watching the clip. It felt not only vulgar but infantile and not worth wasting time on. If there was a smashing message tied to it, then I guess it was acceptable. If it was just a stupid comic, then it wasn't acceptable.

There. All figured out. That was easy. heh heh

Luke said...

Sally, sorry, I didn't mean to be holding out on ya <laughing>.

You're not the first person to tell me that helping make porn is not acceptable. And I see where you're coming from. ...but where do we draw the line? Nudity? Clevage? Implied sex? And, as I ask in the post, why does the Bible get away with it? (Song of Solomon is really steamy.)

On the other hand, based on our idea that we fleshing out in our book, porn has to do with intent, content, and response. So, there are ways to get out of those sticky spots, but it requires discernment, and varies from person to person.

Still, we've got a lot of sex in the Bible &ltsmile>.

Homestarrunner is mostly just juvenile humor. I think you were wise to turn it off. I doubt it's your thing <smile>.

Glad you got it all figured out, and for taking the time to enlighten us too! <smile> Really, I appreciate your feedback, wisdom, and insights. Thanks for sharing them here.

~Luke

Rebecca LuElla Miller said...

Luke, it's amazing how this discussion mirrors the "Christian fiction" one among authors.

I'm putting up more thoughts on the topic today at my blog. But the key point I want to make here is that I don't think it's wise to make a list of what is or isn't acceptable.

Rather, I think the story should dictate the level of violence, language, sex--with this in mind: those elements should not detract from the story. And they should never be gratuitous.

It would make no sense to do modern-day Hosea and scrub out prostitution. That's silly. But his wife's prostitution should not be what the film is about, either, nor should the prostitution be shown in titillating detail.

Francine Rivers wrote a book called And the Shofar Blew in which a pastor falls into sexual temptation with a woman he is counseling. Ms. Rivers handled it perfectly, I thought--not shying away from the scene, but never making the illicit sex look desirable to the reader while making it look believably desirable to the character in the story.

All that to say, it can be done.

Becky

Luke said...

Becky,

I'm not surprised that a similar discussion rages in the fiction world too, but I hadn't heard of it before now. Thanks for letting me know!

I agree with you: Lists aren't going to be very effective or helpful. It's much more a matter of the intent/motivation behind what is going on.

Our modern-day Hosea story actually steered away from prostitution. We, instead, focused on the shocking nature of what God called him to do. And we tried to keep it as untitillating as possible while still believable and recognizable.

I have yet to read anything by Francine Rivers, but I've heard good things about her.

Thanks for jumping in here and adding your insights!

~Luke

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