Saturday, October 28, 2006

Virginia Film Festival, Day 2: Hollow Be Thy Name (part 2)

The most intriguing film I won't get to see at this year's festival is Joey Vigour's documentary The Malewicki Equation. Joey is in the press room with his producer, Catherine Lineberger, and they're very excited about presenting a new rough cut of their film (which one of them tells me they just finished two days ago -- such is the nature of digital editing). The Malewicki Equation is about two brothers, one of whom became an inventor (and discovered the eponymous equation), and the other of whom became a daredevil. It is apparently a meditation on the nature of creativity, of invention if you will, and in its present form it runs about seventy-five minutes. The little I've seen of it looks quite good -- thoughtfully edited, if not always gorgeously lensed. Naturally, The Malewicki Equation is a digital-video project, and although the director informs me this film was made on a very low budget, he's a bit coy when it comes to actual numbers. "If they know how much you made it for," he tells me, "they're gonna start their bid way lower." Nonetheless, Joey tells me that he and Catherine are "pretty proud of it." Malewicki is currently making the rounds at film festivals.

(By the way, Joey and Catherine are looking for a distributor, and although they didn't mention it to me they might need a little money to promote their project. So, gentle reader, if you can help a few talented young filmmakers get their feet in the door, or you just want to see what they're up to at the moment, here's their website.)

Joey, Catherine and I plan to see Larry Grimaldi and Kirk Marcolina's documentary Camp Out, a record of the first overnight Christian Bible camp for Gay and Lesbian teenagers. Marcolina learned about the camp when one of its organizers, "Pastor Brad," asked him if he knew anyone who would want to participate: Marcolina didn't, but said that he wanted to film the event.

As it turns out, a Bible camp for Gay and Lesbian teenagers is like any other Bible camp, with the usual bad food, sappy campfire songs, and buddy bonding. The only major difference is that the ten teenagers at this camp are prohibited from sleeping in dormitory buildings; they have to spread their mattresses and bedding on the floor of the camp chapel. This serves as an unpleasant reminder that adults -- even Gay and Lesbian adults -- are still very uncomfortable with the basic concept of teen sexuality. When it comes to Gay and Lesbian teenagers, who are set apart by their sexuality (and therefore can't comfort the grownups by pretending they don't have one), adults will take positively absurd measures to prevent the possibility of its expression. The chaperones are clearly on pins and needles here.

But the kids themselves seem to embody just about every old-school Gay and Lesbian caricature. There's a mentally unbalanced Paul Lynde soundalike, a musical-theater queen who grows "nervous" at the very thought of same-sex friendships, a Wiccan goth type, a butch Lesbian, an interpretive dancer, an assortment of sissies and seminary prospects, and one straight-acting hunk with whom all the Gay guys fall in love. If this were a fictional film, I'd probably condemn the filmmakers for promoting such a one-sided view of Gay and Lesbian life. But since this film is a documentary, I'm not sure what I should do. Could it be that while my generation of activists fight stereotypical portrayals of GLBT people in the media, the next generation of Gay and Lesbian kids are just taking those stereotypes and running with them, as a first step in constructing their own sense of self? Were those stereotypes truer -- or at the very least, more useful -- than we thought? And were we acting just a little homophobic ourselves, when we rebelled against them?

One eighteen-year-old attendee, Spencer, offers the film's most provocative testimonial: Because he is out of the closet as a Gay teenager, he is effectively barred from participating in many traditional teenage rites of passage. He can't join the Boy Scouts because he's Gay, nor is he allowed to attend church camp. It's a reminder that for Gay and Lesbian teenagers, and especially for rural ones, the pain and indignity of the closet are the price they must pay for an ostensibly "normal" adolescence. Our society makes a brutal devil's bargain with these kids: If they want to participate in after-school programs, enjoy extracurricular activities and have basic social opportunities with their peers -- in other words, if they want to have a youth -- they must maintain the illusion of universal and compulsory heterosexuality, regardless of the emotional cost. (In some cases, of course, the families of Gay and Lesbian teenagers drive an even harder bargain: Coming out of the closet, voluntarily or involuntarily, can cost teens their homes, their families, their academic futures, even their lives.) But although the film touches on the problems facing Gay and Lesbian youth, it never explores them in depth.

Unsurprisingly, Camp Out doesn't really live up to its premise. It borrows heavily from the confessional format of MTV's Real World, and it lacks any discernible dramatic structure. Frankly, if the film weren't about Gay and Lesbian teenagers, I doubt anyone would give it so much as a passing glance. Still, for Gay audiences, including myself, the film offers seventy minutes of unrelenting affirmation, and on that level, at least, I enjoyed it. To be fair, we need that sort of thing every once in a while, and there aren't many places for us to get it. Besides, its depiction of Gay and Lesbian Christians will almost certainly push a few buttons on the Far Right, and that's a good thing.

Co-director Larry Grimaldi attended the VFF screening, and noted that Camp Out will be broadcast on television in 2007. My guess -- totally uninformed -- is that it will appear on MTV or Logo. (I rather hope it will be on MTV, since pious Christians are somewhat underrepresented on that channel.) My friend and co-blogger Rick Sincere, who also attended the screening but had to leave before the discussion, asked me how the filmmakers handled sound design. The answer seems obvious to me, since most of the documentary participants have visible clip-on wireless mikes in the majority of the shots. This detail suggests that some scenes might have been staged for the cameras, though I can't tell which ones (or how much).

For me, the biggest disappointment at this year's festival has been Michael Apted's Amazing Grace, slated for US release in February 2007 (I doubt the film will improve much between now and then). This confused biopic of British anti-slavery activist William Wilberforce offers a "special thanks" to Purpose-Driven Life pastor Rick Warren in the closing credits, so it's just possible that evangelical Christians might embrace it. They'd be unwise to do so, especially since Amazing Grace treats Wilberforce's devout Christianity with the sort of embarrassed tolerance one might extend to nosepickers, double-dippers and bedwetters. The film spends more time on Wilberforce's colitis than his faith.

There are other problems with Amazing Grace, too. Its narrative is needlessly convoluted, and the first half-hour has more time shifts than a Kurt Vonnegut novel. The acting is uneven, to put it mildly: As Wilberforce, Ioan Gruffudd (of the Horatio Hornblower) series is bland as instant potatoes, and although Romola Garai (as Wilberforce's wife) and Benedict Cumberbatch (as Pitt the Younger) acquit themselves quite well, a fright-wigged Rufus Sewell chews too much scenery as radical activist Thomas Clarkson. Steven Knight's maladroit screenplay crashes into one silver-fork cliche after another, and the insufferable "meet cute" between Wilberforce and his future bride left me wanting to hurl brickbats at the screen. Worst of all, the movie is much too genteel and flaccid to depict the horrors of the slave trade, which drains most of the moral urgency from its central conflict.

Against the negative points, however, we must place Albert Finney: As John Newton, a former slave trader and the author of the titular hymn, he delivers a magnetic performance. When Finney is offscreen, Amazing Grace founders and sinks; when he appears, we can't look away. It doesn't hurt that the historical John Newton had a gift for aphorism: Finney's best lines are lifted directly from the biographical record (though presented out of context), and they possess a fervor and frankness sadly missing from the rest of the film. For instance, Newton actually said that "Although my memory is fading, I remember two things very clearly: I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great saviour" -- though he did not, as Finney does in the film, say it to Wilberforce.

Even when it comes to Newton, though, the film is far from satisfactory: By presenting him as Wilberforce's private conscience (another cliche), it ignores Newton's substantial popular success as a London preacher. Newton was hardly isolated from the world, as the film depicts him; rather, he was thoroughly engaged with the social, political and religious affairs of his day. (Nor was "Amazing Grace" Newton's only hymn -- he wrote nearly three hundred others.) But this omission seems of a piece with the film's more generally dismissive attitude toward Christianity. It deems faith acceptable as a private vice, provided its presence does not make unwarranted incursions into the public sphere. And that's a shame, considering that the abolition of slavery has been the greatest achievement of Christian activism to date.

I can't think of a segue to connect Amazing Grace with the next item on my schedule, a preview of the Sundance Channel reality series One Punk Under God: The Prodigal Son of Jim and Tammy Faye with director Jeremy Simmons and star Jay Bakker in attendance -- except to note that One Punk is as riveting as Amazing Grace is pedestrian. The half-hour episodes will air on Sunday nights, beginning on December 13.

I have been assigned to take pictures of Jay Bakker before the screening, and I find that for someone who has spent so much of his life in the spotlight, Jay Bakker seems remarkably ill at ease with the media. He also seems initially mistrustful of other people -- understandable, given his life story -- and this makes him in some ways a very strange figure to head a ministry. In contrast to the gregarious, outspoken "star ministers" of evangelical Christianity, Jay seems introverted, driven to solitude: For all his talk about "building relationships" with other people, one always gets the sense that he stands alone.

Jay Bakker is the heavily tattooed, cigarette-smoking son of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. You've probably heard of them. When their television ministry collapsed (and Jim Bakker went to prison), Jay began a downward spiral into alcoholism and drug abuse. He recovered, married, wrote an autobiography, and founded a grass-roots Christian ministry for the street-punk subculture of Atlanta. Even so, he never seems quite satisfied or sure of himself. In One Punk, he repeats several fascinating phrases: "I just wanna be real." "I'm just trying to be comfortable in my own skin." "I don't wanna have regrets." And the motto of his church? "We're sorry for being such self-righteous, judgmental bastards."

One Punk Under God is practically an invitation to Jay's personal crucifixion, as his life, his work, his mother's health and his ministry all fall apart before the camera's unflinching gaze. To some extent the first two episodes of the series only hint at the trials to come. But once Jay decides after serious reflection to make his Revolution Church officially gay-welcoming, all hell breaks loose, as conservative backers and staff leave his ministry in droves. Meanwhile, Jay reestablishes contact with his estranged father, his mother's colon cancer spreads to her lungs, and almost everything that can go wrong does. Where all of this will end isn't exactly clear (I'm informed that the final two episodes are still in production), but Bakker has indicated it won't necessarily be happy. Viewers will be in for a surprising, often harrowing ride.

Jay is much more charming in person than on camera, where he can appear prickly and standoffish. But whatever else can be said, he has a strong sense of personal integrity, which comes through loud and clear in the series. As director Jeremy Simmons told me, "I started out very interested in Jay, and I grew to respect and admire him more than I could ever have imagined." I suspect many people who see One Punk Under God will walk away with a similar impression.

From here you know the drill: Drink, drink, drive home, crash. Tomorrow it all starts again.

Virginia Film Festival, Day 2: Hollow Be Thy Name

One lecture and four screenings today: Terry Lindvall's talk on "Spectacular Transcendence" and African-American Christianity, Bruce Beresford's Tender Mercies, Larry Grimaldi's television documentary Camp Out, Michael Apted's upcoming film Amazing Grace and a preview of the Sundance Channel series One Punk Under God with the son of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.

So far, so good.

Yesterday I had only one major disagreement with a post-film discussion, when an English professor described Iraq in Fragments as "verite." Now this particular documentary may not be quite as far from cinema verite as one can possibly get, but the obvious pictorialism of Iraq in Fragments doesn't really fit verite's anti-aesthetic approach to the image. (You'll have to supply the accents over the first and final e in "verite," gentle reader, because my computer does not speak French.) I'm going to see plenty of cinema-verite offerings at this year's festival -- Hansen's "mockumentary" is only the first of many ultra low-budget documentary or documentary-like projects on my schedule. So frankly, I'm grateful James Longley has taken a different route and indulged my hunger for images.

In a way, it's appropriate that Terry Lindvall has written a book on animated cartoons, since he looks rather like a cartoon character himself: The short stature, protruding ears and sly grin vaguely suggest Jerry the Mouse. I wouldn't mention this except that Lindvall is a genuinely good-natured person, has a terrific speaking voice, and happens to be one of the smartest scholars the Virginia Film Festival has had the good sense to invite. Lindvall is no longer working for Pat Robertson at Regents University. Instead, he occupies the C.S. Lewis Chair of Communications and Christian Thought at Virginia Wesleyan University -- and frankly, they're very lucky to have him. Anyone would. Check out Lindvall's hilarious cartoon biography here -- and ask yourself, wouldn't you want this guy to teach you a thing or two?

For conservative types who believe that the academy is a bastion of left-wing secularism -- and for those of us who are accustomed to film scholarship with an unmistakable ideological bent -- Lindvall's lectures are not just a blast of fresh air, but a welcome reality-based tonic. Lindvall regards silent films and the classic Hollywood style with undisguised affection, and he displays not the slightest trace of snobbery, obscurantism or esotericism, the three greatest perils for anyone who thinks or writes seriously about cinema.

It's no surprise that he opens his lecture "Spectacular Transcendence," about African-American Christianity in American cinema, by throwing a long-overdue gauntlet before the hierophantic critic Paul Schrader. Schrader's concept of a "transcendental style" in film depends on an aesthetic judgment that Lindvall emphatically does not share; what's more, he notes that most American filmmakers don't seem to share it either. This may explain why Schrader's own book on transcendental filmmaking features not a single American director -- and perhaps it may also explain why Schrader's most explicitly religious film, Dominion: A Prequel to the Exorcist, violates every tenet of his "transcendental style." Lindvall calls Schrader's transcendence the equivalent of "a very dull Episcopal service," though the whole thing seems more Lutheran than Anglican to me. (Anglican rituals count as spectacles of their own.)

What Lindvall means by "spectacular transcendence" isn't entirely clear, although I suspect you can see a pretty solid example of it in the outrageously tacky sets -- and hair -- of evangelical-Christian talk shows. On one level at least, it's an attempt to create an atmosphere of superabundance, an environment of gilded excess (and to the unconverted, pretty bad taste) that hints at the good things Christian believers may hope to possess in Heaven, where streets are paved with gold and everyone sings contemporary Christian rock forever. Monty Python spoofed this train of thought in the final scene of Meaning of Life, where Heaven is a sterile middle-class vacation hotel-cum-department store, and "every single day is Christmas Day." In other words, the "spectacular transcendent" concept of Heaven is ultimately very tactile and physical: It does not take one out of one's body, but indulges senses and emotions to a point of supersaturation. In a very literal sense, it is an orgasmic Christianity, with faith as the ultimate release.

All of this is strictly guesswork, of course, because Lindvall doesn't linger on definitions today. Instead, he bombards us for two hours with clips from American films -- not all of them mainstream -- depicting African-American churches in the various throes of religion. Most of these films depict Black religion from a White point of view, the ramifications of which I wish Lindvall had explored in greater depth. The Black Church (and in these films there is only one such church) is always shown as more elemental, more primitive, more bodily centered and more socially aware than the heavily institutionalized, ritualized, and aesthetically appealing White Church. I understand that Lindvall wants us to look beyond these films' racist stereotypes, so that we may see what these films have to say about Christianity, its role in the world, and its ability to point us toward the life to come.

But for me, the stereotypes are the real point here: The racist dimensions of these films, never more apparent than when the films depict the ecclesial sphere, contaminate their spiritual and religious messages. When Lindvall attempts to deemphasize this pervasive racism, he winds up misrepresenting (to my mind at least) what these films actually have to say about religion, too. Hollywood tends to infantilize African-Americans within a religious context; we can see the tendency to some degree in King Vidor's 1929 musical Hallelujah!, and to a much greater degree in the 1936 drama Green Pastures. In the process, however, it infantilizes Christianity as well. The Black Church in these films represents a basic, Christian faith uninformed by theology or intellectual discipline; it is deemed adequate for Negro children and the childlike Negro adults who watch over them. But from a White viewer's more sophisticated subject position (which, as far as these two films are concerned, the audience is effectively presumed to share), this essential faith elicits exotic condescension. We -- and in this context "we" means "Whites" -- must consider ourselves more advanced than "them."

In other cases, the Black Church is presented as a place where White characters can discover their purpose in life (and even a place where injustices against White characters may be provisionally redressed). In Sullivan's Travels a Hollywood director imprisoned on a chain gang learns the importance of comedy, by watching Mickey Mouse cartoons in an African-American church; in Elmer Gantry Burt Lancaster magically finds an innate talent for religious flimflammery, simply by walking through the front door of a Black church. (The congregation is singing "I'm On My Way," just to drive the point home with sledgehammer subtlety.) Jake and Elwood Blues, the White minstrel-show clowns of "Saturday Night Live" fame, find inspiration in a church headed, improbably enough, by James Brown; Martin Ritt's Norma Rae emphasizes the Black Church's importance for labor-movement organizing and therefore for Sally Field's feminist self-actualization. But when the Black Church becomes strictly ancillary to the White narrative, as is true here, Christianity also falls into the margins: The important thing isn't the faith that African-American congregations may share with each other (and incidentally, with White Christians as well), but the manner in which White characters can exploit this essentialist faith to advance their own agendas. African-Americans may do the sowing, but Whites always reap -- and most of the films Lindvall discusses, regardless of their ostensible ideology, seem generally content with that arrangement.

There are exceptions, largely from African-American filmmakers and filmed within an evangelical-Christian tradition: Spencer Williams's Blood of Jesus and the various Tyler Perry films (Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Madea's Family Reunion) are the most well-publicized ones. In these films African-Americans have souls of their own to look to, which means that the redemption of White characters isn't much of a concern. They form a useful corrective to the Hollywood vision, a sense that African-American communities exist even when White people aren't looking. (The only Hollywood film I can think of that offers a similar perspective is the Douglas Sirk remake of Imitation of Life, where the Black Church is a society to which the White and White-obsessed characters simply have no access; it's not included in the Lindvall lecture, although an audience member suggests it to Lindvall afterwards.)

On the whole, I find Lindvall's overall appraisal of these films remarkably Pollyanna-ish: To say that their outlook on religion involves "justice, righteousness and joy," that the scenes he discusses within these films offer a "church invading the film and saying something about our culture," and that the transcendant element contains "elements of forgiveness and grace," ignores what these films actually do both to African-Americans and to the Christian faith these people are compelled to embody. Still, the talk is provocative and exciting, and I'm going to see his second lecture tomorrow.

As I leave the lecture, I run into Chris Hansen from last night's Proper Care and Feeding. He's just emerged from an early morning screening of Carl Dreyer's Ordet. The film broke several times, he tells me, and entire scenes were lost -- including the climax. Ouch. Hansen and I grab a quick bite at a local noodle shop; we have less than half an hour until the next screening.

I don't have the chance to ask Hansen what, as a Texas filmmaker and a Christian, he thinks of Bruce Beresford's Tender Mercies; Hansen leaves the screening before I can pose any questions. But Tender Mercies is one of the most obvious choices for a film festival on faith at the movies, since it dramatizes the central human conflicts at the heart of evangelical Christianity. Better yet, the film has brought an illustrious celebrity to the festival. Robert Duvall (who won a best-actor Oscar for his performance here) introduces this film with a marvelous opening slavo: "How many of you here have had a friend you've known for fifty years?" He describes his friendship with the film's screenwriter Horton Foote, who I am shocked to learn is still alive and writing. Duvall describes Foote as "a sort of rural or hillbilly Chekhov." For Duvall, "hillbilly" is not a term of opprobrium; he says that Foote is "one of our best writers, I think." The playwright landed him his first major film role, as Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird, and Duvall claims that when he saw the Tender Mercies script nearly two decades later, "I had a feeling he was kind of writing for me, but he wouldn't admit it." (Robert Duvall will be presenting his own film The Apostle later tonight, but I have other plans.)

Tender Mercies was a dark-horse contender at the 1983 Oscars; Foote won for his original screenplay, but Duvall's acting win was something of an upset at the time. Nowadays, small-scale character dramas practically dominate the Academy Awards, especially in the acting categories. The film still holds up rather well, both for its portrait of small-town life and its deep understanding of the nature of faith and forgiveness. Foote's script deftly avoids grand emotional moments to create a subtle, quietly affecting mood piece with an unexpectedly powerful ending. My only quibble with the film, such as it is, is that Tess Harper seems a bit too pretty for the character she plays and the situation she inhabits. I was pleasantly surprised, though, to find Broadway veteran Betty Buckley in the role of a country-western singer.

I don't have much else to say about Tender Mercies in this post, except that it's a minor masterpiece and well worth seeing -- even if the film does break, as happened once during our screening.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Virginia Film Festival, Day 1: Your Own Local-Regional Jesus

It's time once again for my favorite annual reporting gig: The Virginia Film Festival. For those of you who haven't read my play-by-plays of the festival before, the routine (for three of the four days,anyway) usually goes like this: Movie at 10 a.m., quick order of Chinese dumplings, movie at 1, movie at 4, quick slice of pizza, movie at 7, movie at 10, drink, drink, crash. During a film festival, movie critics tend to look like rumpled overcoats.

This year, however, the festival has been kind to me: They've staggered the screenings so that one movie will play on the hour, another will play at quarter-past, and another will play at half-past. What this means for me is that I can sleep for an extra half-hour on Friday and Saturday morning: Terry Lindvall's "clip lectures" on faith and cinema, which I've planned to attend since I first saw the festival program, will begin at 10:30. It may also mean that the late-night screenings will run longer, too.

My colleague Rick Sincere generally covers the celebrity-oriented events: This year, the Film Festival will feature appearances by Robert Duvall, who will receive this year's Virginia Film Award, and Morgan Freeman, who'll be touting his most recent film, 10 Items or Less. Liev Schreiber will be here, too, with his movie Everything Is Illuminated. You won't hear about these events on my blog, because I won't be there. Frankly, I don't know what to say about movie stars, except that with the exception of Schreiber they tend to look smaller and much less talented in person. Nor can I imagine what I'd say if I were to meet Morgan Freeman: "Hello Mr. Freeman, loved your work in Johnny Handsome, when are you going to stop playing beatific father-figures?"

I'm covering the other end of the festival, which strikes me as the more interesting end. Unlike the festival's mainstream offerings -- mainly screenings of movies we've seen (or should have seen) before -- the fringier elements offer oddball video projects, wack-job political commentary, and the chance that one might discover something new and exciting.

Tonight I'll be seeing two films: Chris Hansen's mockumentary Proper Care and Feeding of an American Messiah and the soon-to-be-released documentary Iraq in Fragments. But before this can begin, I'm going to attend an "All Faiths Peace Invocation" on the Downtown Mall, which will serve as a kickoff to the festival and perhaps offer some necessary comic relief.

Religious tolerance is the foundation of civil society, but it seems to me that these "interfaith services" are essentially ludicrous. In a secular society such as America, worship is akin to masturbation -- it should be done either in private or with a company of like-minded individuals. Showing other people the various ways in which one may "get off" seems more clinical than sexy -- and by no means should it be socially acceptable to whip one's religion out in public whenever one feels like it. That said, a thirty-minute prayer service combining Hindu, Shinto, Buddhist, Christian, Islamic, Jewish, and Secular Humanist rites isn't going to satisfy anyone who believes in ... well, anything.

So let's call this service by its true name: "Interfaithless." When everybody has to believe everything, then no one can legitimately believe anything. If you believe in Christianity, you can't accept Hinduism as an equally valid religious system. This doesn't mean that one sect should persecute the other, but it does mean that Shintoists and Muslims aren't likely to come together in a common cause unless some community leader (or film-festival guru) arranges it. And to be fair, religious leaders have to show up for these events, just to prove that they support "peace and justice and brotherhood -- things that everybody else in the audience is against," as Tom Lehrer quipped.

As for the service itself, it's meaningless twaddle. The participants have lit a number of small candles, this being the one thing the various faiths can agree on. The representative of African faiths (of which there must be several hundred at least) bangs out a message on his drum and encourages the audience to clap along. The Buddhist stammers through a prepared text, which I can't quite make out over the wind and ambient traffic noise. While the Islamic imam delivers his speech, I draw a woman shrouded in a black burqa -- unfortunately, I've drawn the burqa too short and can see her ankles. (The presenters are in alphabetical order, but they've changed the alphabet so that Islam precedes Hinduism.) The crowd seems well-versed in Hindu chants; the Shintoist delivers her address in Japanese; and the secular humanist gives a strangely pantheistic invocation to "mosses, lichens and molds," among other things. I've always wondered what a secular humanist would pray to, and I'm still wondering.

This leaves me well-prepared for Chris Hansen's Proper Care and Feeding of an American Messiah, which has possibly the least appetizing title of any film I'm going to see at this year's festival. Hansen is a professor of film at Baylor, the world's largest Southern Baptist university. Baylor prohibited dancing on campus until ten years ago, and last year its business school purged an advisory board member for homosexuality. (A few years ago, it threatened to expel a Gay seminary student for organizing a Gay-rights rally off-campus. The student signed a form admitting "improper conduct" instead, though one dean of the seminary continued to petition for his removal.) It could be said that most universities impose some degree of ideological conformity on their faculty, but Baylor takes the principle to startlingly overt, even draconian extremes.

Hansen says that he "wanted to make this movie, but not to get fired over it." He even had his department chair scan the script for potentially heretical or subversive implications. The result may be best compared to the auteurist products of Soviet-bloc cinema: Proper Care and Feeding clearly has a formal design as well as a critical and satirical message, but sometimes they're deliberately obscured (or blunted) to confound the party apparatchiks. And Hansen claims that his attacks on "institutionalized religion" have evaded criticism from the Baylor administration, noting that "Most people who have read the script or seen the movie see other people in it, not themselves."

Perhaps Baptists might do better to see themselves in Hansen's film, for Proper Care and Feeding is an evangelical moderate's scathing indictment of the hardcore fundamentalism for which Baylor -- and perhaps the state of Texas in general -- has become notorious. The name of the main character, Brian B. (brilliantly portrayed by Dustin Olson), is a deliberate tip of the hat to Monty Python's Life of Brian, which Hansen calls "a great example of the corrective power of faith in film." Brian has proclaimed himself "a local-regional Messiah" for persons living within a 100-mile radius of his home. He has severe stomach trouble (because, as he puts it, "My stomach is Jewish, my body is Protestant"), and endeavors to save his followers from gastrointestinal ailments even as he indulges his own ravenous appetite.

The neurotic, self-centered Brian is joined on his soul-saving mission by his dimwit brother Aaron (Joseph Frost) and chronically depressed sister Miriam (Ellen Dolan). Together, they struggle to stage a grand Messianic rally at a local civic center, where Brian will finally announce his purpose to the world -- assuming he can figure out what it is in time. Naturally, mishaps and digressions abound, from misprinted T-shirts to a deranged house-husband who asks Brian to send some unwanted (and invisible) houseguests packing. Hansen deftly inserts Christian allusions into his wildest comic setpieces, and Brian B. delivers several indelible one-liners. The climax, though wildly improbable, gives Brian a fitting and long-overdue comeuppance.

After the screening, Hansen and I spoke briefly on the nature and "proper use" of Christian filmmaking, and it's pretty clear that we disagree on its aims; he looks at Christian filmmaking from an spiritual-auteurist perspective, while I tend to look at it as a marketing tactic to yet niche audiences underserved in the current American market. For the sake of full disclosure, I should add that I've been corresponding with Hansen over the past few weeks: I meant to post an e-mail of his claiming that Proper Care and Feeding was about the "misuse" of religion, and was not intended as anti-Christian condescension. (Unfortunately, personal matters have interfered with my blogging over the past few weeks.)

I should add, too, that even though Proper Care is quite good, it's no unsung masterpiece: It's obviously shot on the tiniest of budgets with a skeleton crew, and the satire, though frequently hilarious, is spotty. Whether a film with such limited audience appeal (and a lousy title) can find theatrical distribution in the US is an open question. But it deserves to be more widely seen -- and I suspect that if Christian moderates were to discover this film, they would rapidly embrace it.

I have less to say about the second film of the evening: James Longley's Iraq in Fragments is a remarkable documentary that sidesteps the platitudes, pieties and polemics Americans tend to use in place of a real discussion of Iraq. Instead of offering prescriptive solutions to US foreign policy or dismissing the reconstruction effort as a quagmire, Longley tells three stories of life in post-Saddam Iraq, roughly corresponding to the country's three ethnicities and regions. The first, "Mohammed of Baghdad," focuses on a young Sunni boy as he attends school and looks for a job (not necessarily in that order) in the war's uncertain aftermath. The second, "Sadr's South," offers a chilling account of the rise of Moqtada al-Sadr's Shi'ite militias in the south of Iraq, while the third, "Kurdish Spring," renews the focus on children and details the economic and social renaissance of northern Iraq. The most surprising aspect of the film is the general absence of foreign troops; although Iraq is allegedly under occupation (and bitterly resentful about it), Iraqis themselves don't appear to encounter Americans very often.

With ravishing cinematography and elliptical, impressionistic storytelling, Iraq in Fragments suggests the work of Terrence Malick -- though its focus on children (especially in the first segment) makes it even more strongly reminiscent of early Francois Truffaut. (I'll leave jokes about "The 400 Bombs" to other reviewers.) This film won't resolve any disputes on Iraq, but it will undoubtedly spark more debate and discussion, as well as a greater awareness of what our troops are facing over there.

Iraq in Fragments is one of the year's best films, and certainly its best documentary.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

It's "Fun With Faith" Week at My Stupid Dog!

To celebrate the opening of the Virginia Film Festival (today), I'm going to post a few long-delayed items on faith and film. Enjoy!

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