By Derrick Clements
Today’s “Feminist Filmgoer” is less about feminism and more about the other two descriptive titles we go by: young and Mormon. Except, okay, Mormon is not really accurate either. The film is Blue Like Jazz, based on the book of the same name, and it centers around a young Christian man who moves away from home to escape his religious upbringing his first year of college. It’s a movie about figuring out personal faith in college, something many of us young Mormon feminists are doing.
Happily, it’s a feel-good movie about faith that creates its good feelings by putting its whole heart on the line, amidst realistic complexity, rather than by numbing us with the emotional novocaine that so many feel-good religious films use. It doesn’t create straw-men out of the atheists and fornicators, but actually respects them. The main character’s lesbian best friend is genuine and unapologetic. The religious people are not simplistic heroes. In short, it’s a movie that takes faith as seriously as it does doubt and every other human characteristic.
I love that the film does not celebrate Christianity by tearing down other paths or by justifying Christianity’s problems. Compare this to the depiction of non-Mormons in in, say, seminary videos from the 1980s. And even more impressively, the film’s respect of other viewpoints does not diminish or water down its own, which falls on the side of faith. That must have been a difficult task to accomplish, but it comes across as effortless. The director Steve Taylor had this to say about their approach:
I made it clear to all our potential investors and/or heads of media companies, the vast majority of whom were fellow Christians, that this was not going to be a family movie. The reason was simple: How do you tell the story of a college kid who flees his Southern Baptist upbringing in suburban Houston to attend the ‘most godless campus in America’ without showing what that environment is like? And how can that environment be portrayed realistically in the context of a ‘family’ movie? Doesn’t have to be rated R, but it’s probably going to be PG-13, right?
I learned about the film a while back and was interested in it, and then this morning I found it, rather on accident, on Netflix Instant. Now after watching it, I want to host a film festival about movies of faith. Also on the list would be Richard Dutcher’s masterpiece States of Grace (my favorite LDS-themed film) as well as the highly acclaimed Iranian film A Separation (which I have not yet seen but want to.) I’d also include Malick’s Tree of Life, which may not count explicitly as a religious film but certainly has strong spiritual undertones.
The thing is, spirituality is usually so dumb in movies. It’s rare to see a film that has both the gumption and the actual experience to portray religion as a nuanced, positive force. Independent films are where to find interesting religious characters or themes, but even they can fall short. I recently watched The Sessions, and while that film has fine performances and deals with sex with lots of nuance and complexity, William H. Macy’s priest character is laughably unbelievable in every scene he’s in. It’s as if the writers said, “let’s make him a priest, but not a total wack-o, someone who can actually understand reality.” The disconnect is that in their mind reality is so far removed from any religious imagination that the character just ends up acting with zero motivation. No serious discussion of what chastity means, in a movie about sex and prominently featuring a celibate priest? Huge letdown.
The Book of Mormon musical does a far better job at showing the complexities of faith, and that was written by atheists (I disagree with that show’s ultimate message, but that’s ok, and we can talk about that later). Angels in America does a beautiful job as well, but again, does not come from the perspective of a believer (it mines Mormon theology for poetic devices that work magnificently, but the play is not about Mormonism, Mormonism is made to be about the themes of the play).
I want to see more films like Blue Like Jazz or States of Grace, from the perspective of all religious frameworks, including humanism and atheism. I would, of course, love to see Mormon cinema return to the Dutcher standard. I don’t need any Bill Mahrs or Johnny Lingos (the world has enough of both already). And I don’t need films to necessarily fall on the side of pro-faith. But I just want more of them to be as honest as Blue Like Jazz, and to confront with more interest and sincerity the many conflicts and stories surrounding faith. Almost everybody has a set of beliefs, and almost everybody watches movies. Why is there such a disconnect?
At any rate, see Blue Like Jazz. It’s a fine film. And let’s seriously get that film festival thing going. What are your favorite films that portray religious characters or themes? Which ones don’t work for you?
Check out the trailer below: