Tuesday, April 29, 2014

ATTN: NYC Area Artists

The Catholic Artists Society invites artists, patrons, friends of the arts and their families to its annual Solemn Mass for Artists. This year's Mass will mark the 15th anniversary of Pope St. John Paul II's influential Letter to Artists. A professional choir led by organist Jared Lamenzo and director Joshua South will sing Arvo Part's Berliner Messe, written in 1990. The Mass, according to the Missal of Pope St. John XXIII, will also feature music by Perotin, Hassler, Szamotul and Alain. A reception will follow outdoors, weather permitting. RSVP for the reception by May 2nd to catholicartistssociety@gmail.com

Sunday, May 4th, 3pm-6pm
The Basilica of St. Patrick's Old Cathedral, Mott Street (between Houston & Prince), New York, NY 10012

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Why Should Christianity Be “Patron of the Arts”?

(Notes from a talk I gave earlier this year which folks asked me to share.)
I. What We Have Lost and Why it Matters
The sad thing is, if you walked on the street and took a spot survey, asking people to name the Patron of the Arts, few people would say, the Christian Church. People would probably say The Sundance Institute or the National Endowment for the Arts or the Bravo Channel. And they would be right! Hollywood does MUCH more to keep alive the arts than does the Church.
In fact, the testimony of the arts at a typical parish on a Sunday morning, can only be that the arts do not matter a whit to the Church today. I would go so far as to say that the arts in many Christian churches have become a scourge to torment the People of God.
We stagger in to the Church on Sunday morning hoping to find a glimpse of heaven, and we receive the worst vestiges of badly performed pseudo-pop music from the largely stoned, self-important, anti-intellectual folk music era, now only kept alive in our churches. In most cases, what we are exposed to musically in our churches is bad compositions badly executed. Sometimes, it attains to bad composition well-executed, but as poor imitations of what is happening in secular music, generally, the stuff we are hearing in Church is inappropriate to the liturgy in style, excellence and lyricism.
Too many churches are not an ante-chamber of heaven in their interiors, but instead are ugly, drooping, often “in the round” spaces calculated to distract us not by the Divine, but by each other. Banal banners and signs, plastic or half-hearted flowers, filthy carpets, stained ceilings, and ugly oak pews with the varnish half gone. There is truly, nothing to look at, never mind by which to be inspired.
And then there is the sloppy liturgical performance in our churches – altar servers yawning in wrinkled albs and high tops with laces undone, the readings badly done by people who haven’t prepared or else don’t read well, “the liturgy of the bulletin” with endless banal announcements for the Girl Scouts and the youth group and the fundraiser of the month.
And finally there is the preaching, which in most parishes is so far from good oratory that it constitutes a major scandal of our time all on its own. Week after week we get served up nothing worth hearing in a lame style from the priest, as if he put his words together while he was sitting there picking his fingers during the Responsorial psalm. This is a terrible thing for catechesis and ongoing formation, but as art, it is a travesty.
How far we have fallen, from that natural part of our community which is supposed to be Patron of the Arts! But even though most Sunday liturgies are exercises in sensory torture, we have to keep alive in us the fact that despite the ugliness and banality with which we have terribly obscured Her, the Church remains as Cardinal Newman wrote,
“…the poet of her children, full of music to soothe the sad and control the wayward; wonderful in story, rich in symbol and imagery. So that gentle and delicate feelings, which will not bear words, may in silence intimate their presence. The liturgy’s very being is poetry; every psalm, every petition, every prayer; the cross, the mitre, the incensor; each a fulfillment of some dream of childhood, or aspiration of youth.”
It’s beyond my scope and intestinal fortitude to do an extensive history of how we in the Christian Church got from Handel’s “Messiah” to “Gather Us In,” but there is a clear path from the shocked reaction against the Sexual Revolution, to the expansion of the Christian sub-culture to the profusion of banal art. In Protestantism, the impulse to imitate pop-culture in the Church comes from the desire to be loved by the world. In Catholicism, it is a much darker thing, a cold rejection against the elitism of excellence. Art produced in and for the sub-culture tends to be ugly for a whole lot of reasons. For now, it’s enough to point out that the Church loses the beautiful when She does thing on the cheap, when She does things that are easy, and when She does thing that are principally trying to make a political statement instead of lavishly pouring out a grateful, creative response from the reverent brooding over Revelation.
1. Christianity is Patron of the Arts because our theology is fundamentally analogical. 
This is what sets us apart from the Islamic imagination, for example. Theology can never precisely define God. But the Christian imagination says, “God is like a mountain.” Islamic imagination says, “God is NOT the mountain.”
A work of art expresses a truth that can not be said in a sentence. It expresses a Truth through the journey of the work of art itself. As Flannery O’Connor says, “If I could say it in a sentence, I wouldn’t have needed the story.”
And we have to insist that the truths that the arts convey are just as important as those that come through on the pages of a catechism. Chesterton again, in The Everlasting Man:
“Imaginative does not mean imaginary. Every true artist does feel that he is touching transcendant truths; that his images are shadows of things seen through the veil. The natural mystic knows that there is something there behind the clouds and trees; and he believes that beauty is the way to find it; that the imagination is a sort of incantation that can call it up.”
2. The Church must be Patron of the Arts because – quoting Cardinal Ratzinger from his truly beautiful essay, “Beauty and the Truth of Christ,” “There is no surer proof that our faith is true than the works of beauty we make, starting in the lives of the saints.”
And, in so far as we put the lives of the saints in beautiful art, we accomplish a double proof that our faith is true.
For me an unforgettable experience was the Bach concert that Leonard Bernstein conducted in Munich after the sudden death of Karl Richter. I was sitting next to the Lutheran Bishop Hanselmann. When the last note of one of the great Thomas-Kantor-Cantatas triumphantly faded away, we looked at each other spontaneously and right then we said: “Anyone who has heard this, knows that the faith is true”. The music had such an extraordinary force of reality that we realized, no longer by deduction, but by the impact on our hearts, that it could not have originated from nothingness, but could only have come to be through the power of the Truth that became real in the composer’s inspiration. Isn’t the same thing evident when we allow ourselves to be moved by the icon of the Trinity of RublĂ«v? In the art of the icons, as in the great Western paintings of the Romanesque and Gothic period, the experience described by Cabasilas, starting with interiority, is visibly portrayed and can be shared. (Beauty and the truth of Christ, Razinger)
3. Patron of the Arts because beauty conveys two different kinds of key knowledge/revelation.
a) We move from delight to joy to wonder to humility. We become aware of our smallness. It makes us sad, and yet joyful. It teaches with certainty that heaven exists. Again, as Ratzinger notes, “The beautiful wounds, but this is exactly how it summons man to his final destiny.”
“The only way to enjoy even just a weed, is to feel yourself completely unworthy of the weed.” (Everlasting Man, Chesterton)
“At the back of our brains, there is a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence. The object of the artistic and spiritual life is to dig for this submerged sense of wonder.” (Autobiography, Chesterton)
b) Beauty gives us firsthand experience of spiritual realities. This is contrasted with book learning as we can note in the stunning assertion by Cardinal Ratzinger that the revelation that comes to us through the encounter with the beautiful is more powerful than that which comes through the study of theology precisely because it contains a real experience.
“Being struck and overcome by the beauty of Christ is a more real, more profound knowledge than mere rational deduction. Of course we must not underrate the importance of theological reflection, of exact and precise theological thought; it remains absolutely necessary. But to move from here to disdain or to reject the impact produced by the response of the heart in the encounter with beauty as a true form of knowledge would impoverish us and dry up our faith and our theology. We must rediscover this form of knowledge; it is a pressing need of our time.”
“The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand.” (Orthodoxy, Chesterton)
4. Patron of the Arts because there is nothing that creates community more quickly and more powerfully than sharing something beautiful.
It is a sign that something is beautiful that people are moved to share it. This is why we like to watch movies together with other people. This is why, when you see a beautiful sunset, you go and get other people to see it too. This is why when there is a lovely song or short film on YouTube, you link to it on Facebook.
II. Things the Church Can Say to the Secular Culture That No One Else Will Say
1. There is a beauty that is good for us, and there is an imitation of beauty that is bad for us.
a) Spiritual Beauty – reveals that man has a spirit; leads to transcendant; leads to wonder; begs to be shared
b) Sensual Beauty – revels in man’s physical nature;
Falsehood however has another stratagem. A beauty that is deceptive and false, a dazzling beauty that does not bring human beings out of themselves to open them to the ecstasy of rising to the heights, but indeed locks them entirely into themselves. Such beauty does not reawaken a longing for the Ineffable, readiness for sacrifice, the abandonment of self, but instead stirs up the desire, the will for power, possession and pleasure. It is that type of experience of beauty of which Genesis speaks in the account of the Original Sin. Eve saw that the fruit of the tree was “beautiful” to eat and was “delightful to the eyes”. The beautiful, as she experienced it, aroused in her a desire for possession, making her, as it were, turn in upon herself.
This sham, sensual attractiveness stimulates the desire to eat; to possess; to consume; to dominate; to collect; to have sex with; it is the opposite of the impulse to share that true beauty evokes. Ratzinger notes that to manipulate men through this kind of power is part of the “strategem of hell.”
2. To restore the Artist to His Essential Place in Human Society
The story of the 20th Century has been the story of the artist in proud isolation. He was told that in order to preserve his voice, he needed to stay on the fringes of the community. Too many other people would pollute his distinct message. This is all wrong. The artist gets his message from association with human society. Without society, the only thing an artist can talk about is the contents of his own navel. We have been looking at artistic guts for too long in the last half a century.
a) The artist is prophet – to reveal the mind of God; to reveal the groanings of the Spirit; to shake us up by reminding us who we are and who God is. The point of the liturgy is always to achieve this two-fold end: to make real the Awesome God, and to make real the desperate need of humanity;
The nature of the revelation proper to art is not confusion. Confusion paralyzes. Art should lead to compunction. (David to Nathan, “I have sinned…”
This is the primary reason non-representational modern art is not appropriate in churches, btw. It is inscrutable and confusing even when it is excellent, except to those who have studied it. Sacred art needs a mass accessibility.
b) The artist as priest – dedication to his vocation to beauty is the ongoing sacrifice offered by the artist. It disfigures him. But it makes him a worthy vessel of grace.
c) The artist as representative of the Creator – he is the arbiter of beauty; he tells us what is good and what is ugly; we listen to him. Especially we clerics who have no artistic training and who only know what we like, but not what we are talking about when it comes to art.

Practice Safe Storytelling

The truth is, the tragic note that should be given about many scripts that are on the floors, desks, chairs and trunks in Hollywood is, “This script should never have been written.” Scripts get written that shouldn’t, in the same way unplanned pregnancies happen. People who may or may not be writers have a one night stand with a cheap idea and then, a few weeks or months later, push out a draft. What should have happened is a hard conversation between the person and their story idea before they jumped into Final Draft together. “Are you really the one for me?” “Are you going to be able to support a whole screenplay?” “Is there any theme underneath your spectacle?” “Is it really you I love, or is it because you remind me of somebody else?” “Is this going to be something we both get sick of in a few months?” The only good news is, you never really get naked with a bad story, but you are rarely better for having let yourself get seduced by a sexy pitch.
Once the script exists, very few people have the obnoxiousness and intestinal fortitude to say to the hapless and half-had creator, “You made a big mistake in starting this.” I wish I had the courage to say it more often, because, if you don’t say it, then you end up spending a tremendous amount of time doing what I think of as, “Tweaking Crap Around the Edges.” It always reminds me of when I was a little girl and how I hated eating liver. My cousin told me to cut it up in really really small pieces and get it down that way. But I remember trying the experiment and concluding at about age six, that you could cut up and cover up crap, but it’s still gonna taste like crap.
Not long ago, I gave notes on a script that is, for reasons known only to the movie gods – whom I’m convinced more and more are dark, dark spirits – going ahead at a production company. Basically the company knows the project is in trouble but they have already spent too much money on it to abandon it so they are going to plunge ahead hoping against all probability that a wonder of a movie will come out of a script of chopped liver.
Still, it’s an ill wind that doesn’t blow some good, and so I thought I could share some of the reasons why the project is failing for folks out there struggling with their own difficult screenplay relationships. Here are notes to help you not get used.
A) First Note: This Script Was Not Written By a Writer 
Writing is a talent. Talent means you are naturally, weirdly good at something that other people can not do. You know you have writing talent if your writing elicits an emotional response from people. You know you have talent if you know what you write is good. You KNOW it.
And then, even natural born writers need some degree of training. You can no more sit down and spew out a screenplay without having studied the craft, than a brain surgeon could just crack open a skull and start scalping. Training gives a writer appreciation for the complexity of good writing. As Thomas Mann so wonderfully noted, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
This is the kind of note that gets written on scripts that are not written by people with writing talent or training (examples are all from real scripts):
– The language in this script is clunky and the word choices awkward. (i.e. “Mary straddled a phone on her shoulder.”
– The scenes are over-written (ie. John stands nervously looking at his face in the bathroom mirror over the sink near the shower two feet from the window.”).
– There doesn’t seem to be any theme or subtext underlying this piece. The writer doesn’t seem to have any burning thing she wants to say. She has done a job, but never taken ownership.
– There is no charm here. No fun. No magic. Nothing that feels fresh or creative.
– There is nothing to learn here. The writer has nothing to teach or share.
B) Second Note: Not a Story but Lots of Chit-Chat in Different Places
Aristotle says that human beings are driven to story by two powerful instincts: for imitation and for beauty. It’s the imitation thing we are interested in here. The kind of imitation that we are driven to stare at in stories is what Aristotle calls, “Men in action.” Movement. Choices. Change. And real change that can’t just be reversed or taken back. We say “Show don’t tell,” when we are working with writers but, it’s amazing how so few people can apply this when it comes to their own work. So, I’m not going to just tell you, show don’t tell. Here’s me showing you the notes you get when a story is all talky no chantey.
– Time and time again, the writers fail dramatically in that they have characters say who they are, what they want, what the problems are and what the point of everything is, instead of showing it through visual, high stakes choices.
– Because so much of this comes down to conversations, most of the story feels unmotivated. It lacks the compelling quality that comes from “seeing is believing.”
– No one is building anything in this script. No one is climbing a mountain or slaying a dragon or doing anything enviable or, frankly, anything filmic.
– Apparently, the writer wants us to believe that these characters resolved their huge problems offscreen and without losing any limbs or jobs or jobs or even just a smashed brandy glass.
C) Third Note: Not Cross-Genre, Really Just a Mess
When I talk about genre with my students, it always turns into a discussion of their First Amendment freedoms. Many wannabe writers feel constrained by the idea of genre as if it is something outside being imposed on them. But genre isn’t something that you fit your story into. Genre is the essence that flows out of your stuff. It’s the soul in your project that pushes it to fulfillment the way Aristotle says the soul of a zebra pushes it to have black and white stripes and so that the zebra never wakes up one day with the mane of a lion. Signs you are unclear in the soul of your story are notes like this:
– What kind of movie is this? Is it a family film? Is it a comedy? A romantic comedy? A drama? A drama with romantic comedy elements? A murder mystery? This script is trying to be all things to all but isn’t attaining to any of them.
– The story never really gets us to tears, and it never really gets us to laughs. It never gets us to fear and suspense, and it never gets us to inspiration.
– This script feels like two different movies. It started feeling like “The Insider,” but then devolved into “Hang Over.”
– The writer seems to be going for black comedy here. But the thing about comedy is, it’s funny. Even when it’s black.
– This movie has a twelve year old protagonist, but then there are scenes full of R-rated language. Who is the audience for this piece?

Gravity Soars

Gravity – Directed by Alfonso Cuaron; Written by Alfonso Cuaron and Jonas Cuaron; Starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney; PG-13 for intense situations
I don’t think I’ve ever been able to say this before, but I have never had a movie experience anything remotely like what Gravity provides. If only because it is the most purely cinematic non-animated movie ever made, Gravity deserves to go down in history. It is a thrilling piece in which the spectacle never stops, but because the spectacle is serving the story at every moment, the movie works. Visually gorgeous, packed with thrills and heart, Gravity is a thoroughly stunning achievement and ought to win Best Picture for the decade as far as I am concerned. If it doesn’t win for Sound Mixing and Editing, I will personally picket the Academy.
I say it is purely cinematic, because there aren’t a handful of minutes in the whole piece that could have been achieved in any other medium except cinema. This isn’t a story that could be told in any other way than on the screen, and that is a rare and wonderful thing.
I don’t want to say anything about the story because a huge part of the enjoyment of the piece is the non-stop reversals, and if I even start to tell you about the character’s wants and needs, I’ll have given away the inciting incident.Suffice it to say this is a brilliantly structured adventure story that allows the audience a thoroughly unique point of view. We saw it in IMAX 3D so that effect was rendered even more impressive.
The story does everything it’s supposed to in heaping greater and greater challenges on the main character played very effectively by an ever-aspirating Sandra Bullock. Once it launches, the beats never let up. It’s nothing if not a Triumph of the Human Spirit story, but it also surprises with a lovely little spiritual theme about the essential religious/immortal element of human beings.
Go see it and then write and tell me how much you enjoyed it. Probably not for small children as it is very intense in its thrills, but there is nothing problematic here at all in terms of sex or language. Super movie.

A “Christian” Cinema? An interview with Av Venire

Here is an interview that just came out. It is me being interviewed by writer Andrea Galli for the Italian paper Av Venire. I don’t have an exact translation, but these are the answers to her questions that I sent by email.
Q: A straightforward question (that was the title of one of your recent lectures): Why do “heathens” seem to make the best Christian films? Why are there still so few good Christian movies?
BN: This is really a very loaded question because it touches on the nature of art, story and beauty, as well as many of the particular errors which have infected Christendom as a reactionary response to the Sexual Revolution and modernity itself.
The first thing to note is that there really isn’t such a thing as a Christian movie, any more than there is a Christian pizza or a Christian motorcycle. Christian is a noun. It was never meant to be an adjective. What we mean by Christian movie or book today is something that was produced in the Christian subculture for the Christian subculture. The religious subculture is a uniquely modern perversity, and I do mean perversity. As a response to the decay, and the harsh critique that we Christians were finding in mainstream modern secularism, Christians created our own “safe place” to talk to ourselves. Culturally it was meant to be a refuge, but practically it became a ghetto, and now it is a prison. The standards of the subculture quickly became an over-emphasis on innocence, that is sentimentality, and the absence of sex, crass language and violence. Sadly, other standards that got tossed in modern Christendom are aesthetics and the sense of taste. Art and music today produced by Christians tends to be among the ugliest art that modern man is producing. As proof, I would send you into any Catholic Church on Sunday morning to have your musical instincts flayed by what Pope Benedict called, “the cult of the banal” (ref. “The Spirit of the Liturgy”). The art form of oratory is also dead in the Church today as most sermons are meandering, boring and generally insulting.
A helpful distinction that we need to reclaim in Christendom is that of “sacred” art which should refer to any project that the Church is commissioning for explicitly liturgical or ecclesial purposes. Sacred art as a loving response of faith to God has the overt agenda of deepening the faith of the Church. It can still edify the masses of heathens outside, as in the way non-believers flock to the Pieta and the Sistine Chapel. Christian sub-culture product, with a more sneaky propagandistic agenda, is generally freakish to the masses and embarrassing to the faithful. Movies will rarely fall in the “sacred art” category as they are consitutionally unsuited to liturgical and ecclesial purposes. The notable exception is The Passion of Christ which was an experiment by Mel Gibson to do the Stations of the Cross through cinema.
A movie made by a Christian should work with Catholics on a theological level, and should work with non-believers on an artistic and/or narrative level. It will satisfy their story instincts and their desire for the beautiful, and maybe do something more for them spiritually through the project’s theme. As an example of this kind of cultural success, I would point to the stories of Flannery O’Connor, or the movies A Man for All Seasons or The Passion of Joan of Arc.
What has happened in the Church is that we have sacrificed the search for “new epiphanies of beauty” in the words of Bl. John Paul II, to egalitarianism, cheapness and politics. We don’t care anymore if a hymn is lovely and haunting, we just need it to be singable by the assembly without any musical training or practice. This means we have had to dumb down our music to the level of pre-school ditties. Our movies and television are not flowing out of the mysterious impulse to create and connect, which is the hallmark of art, but rather out of the desire to preach and distract. Secondly, in productions created by Christians for Christians, there is nothing so unappreciated – and I would argue, resented – as God-given talent. In the Church today, the emphasis on talent seems to people to be elitist, as if God has very bad form in giving one person the ability to do something that another can not. How dare God be so unequal in His favors?!
Ideally, a movie made by Christians should be a marriage of beauty plus one of our defining themes as a subtext. That is, first and foremost a movie made by believers ought to have all its parts present and executed with excellence, and then its meaning should reflect something that only we Christians can say with unique authority. So, some of our defining themes are, “Good and evil are not equal,” and “Joy and sorrow have a necessary and ironic juxtaposition,” and “Death is not the worst thing that can happen to a person,” and “Everything we see is a sign of something we cannot see.” A sign that a movie is really, profoundly Christian, is that it will carry tremendous meaning for non-Christians. Of course, we never see this kind of project from Christian filmmakers today. Not yet any way.
In so far as talented pagan film makers are pursuing wholeness, harmony and radiance in their work – which are the elements of the beautiful – they will be producing stories that far outshine the efforts of Christians who are basically making propaganda and cheap resistance literature for the faithful. Secondly, pagans respect things like artistic principles. They tend to invest seriously in cultural endeavors, and they honor talent and training. In the Church, all that is necessary to get a job as a singer is to own a guitar and have a good heart. It is really very perverse. I think of the loss of the sense of the beautiful as one of the great heresies in the Church in the modern age. It has been devastating particularly because it undermines all of our efforts at evangelization. What good does it do to tell people that the Holy Spirit is Wisdom and Power in a hymn or movie that is lame and pedestrian?
Q: Money (rich production companies), expertise, self-confidence: what do we lack more as Christians?
BN: Christians who make sallies into the entertainment industry tend to be uninterested in the nature and potential of the visual story telling art forms. Cinema is perceived by most of the thought leaders in the Church as unserious or as a means of catechesis. We don’t have one Catholic university in the top twenty film programs in the world. Too many of our religious leaders never have a good word for any movie or television and would seem to prefer if we Christians all just lived in caves when they aren’t at church. We need to work with people who have artistic talent, regardless of where they are spiritually, because our working with them might be the way in which God will introduce Himself to the artist, and as a plus, the people of God will get beautiful work done. Too often, I have seen Christians hire bad actors or writers or directors just because they are believers. It always mean ugly movies.
Of course, it is true that most of the wealthy Christians today are pouring their money into the Church’s charities for the sick and for general education. It will take a whole rethinking to win them back to pouring their resources into works of art. We have lost the value of producing new art – of being “the Patron of the Arts” as the Church was once known. No one could seriously call the Church that today.
Q: Some say a Christian movie must not be explicitly Christian if it wants to be a good movie or go mainstream. On the other hand there are hundred millions of Christians worldwide and “The passion of the Christ” grossed more than 600 million dollars… what do you think about it?
BN: What we really need today are many wonderful parables for the people of our time, that do all the things that Aristotle notes a story should do in his seminal work “The Poetics.” Good parables don’t need to mention God. Jesus told many parables and none of them mention God. I say to my students all the time, “The story is enough.” That is, you shouldn’t need to deliver it with a copy of a homily attached.
There is a great opportunity for believers right now because the secular movie production entities in Hollywood all seemed to have forgotten how to tell a good story. (In Europe, of course, they have never understood this! Ha, ha….) We need beautiful, thoughtful parables from people whose hearts are full of love for the people of the world, and who want to lead people to inspiration and compunction. Or as Aristotle said it, human society needs stories to lead people to cathartic experiences of compassion and the fear of evil. The movie studios in Hollywood have largely been taken over by global corporations who only care about movies as products to sell. The bottom line is what matters to them, not whether the main character has an engaging transformational arc. We need a new generation of storytellers who are able to look back to classical principles and ancient wisdom, and yet to marry these inner gifts with an understanding of all the wonderful potential that the new media technology offers. Because Christians have a pastoral mandate to help and heal, storytelling should be a natural arena for us.
Q: Christians have much more “moral boundaries” than “heathens” (language, nudity/sexuality, approach to violence…): isn’t it a big disadvantage?
BN: You can’t have a good story without what we call “high stakes.” High stakes means that, in a story, death is always on the table. Stories are better than real life in that way. The most profound kinds of death that human beings experience come through sin – the death of the ability to love, the death of the instinct to care for others, the death of the ability to see and penetrate reality, for example. Hence, you can’t take sin out of storytelling. What Christians could demonstrate to the secular storytellers is how to talk about sin without it becoming an occasion of sin for the audience. The Bible shows us this. It has always high stakes stories of adultery, murder, deceit and betrayal, but never told in a ways that violate the reader.
Another modern heresy in the Church today is the impulse to be safe. There is no safety in this life and Christians least of all should be trying to live lives that are safe. We need to be prudent, but instead, too often, we Christians bring a presence of soggy toast to the world. We’re trying so hard to be nice and non-offensive that we never say anything worth hearing. There is a great line in CS Lewis’ class book “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe,” in which we are told about Aslan, the Christ figure, “Aslan is never safe. But He is good.” We need to toughen up a lot more in the Church today.

Q: Can you make some examples of recent interesting Christian movies?
BN: Few of the projects made by Christians end up being able to meet the industry standard that would allow them to be screened in mainstream theaters. I can’t think of any of these projects that have come out of the sub-culture that have really been good as movies. Where there is good intention, the story usually fails. Where the script is acceptable, the acting or the production design is embarrassing. The Passion of the Christ is the exception, but, of course, Mel did not make that movie for the Church. He made it as an act of penance to God for his own sins. Some fabulous, powerful movies made by pagans that carry Gospel themes include, “The VisitorLars and the Real GirlThe Lives of OthersJuno, and Of Gods and Men. I would include nearly everything made by Pixar as something that Christians could look to as a marriage of excellence and deep universal themes.
Q: Some read Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino as a subtle but powerful Christian movie (greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends). I personally agree with that. So, it’s not necessary to have a Christian director to have a good Christian movie.. or what?
BN: Again, a beautiful story works because it is beauty married to profound truth. You don’t have to be Christian to do this. Gran Torino was a solid film, and yes, Clint was clearly drawing a parallel to his main character as a Christ-figure. The Christ-figure archetype is well-established in Hollywood lore.
Q: How is the work of Act One in the movie industry? Do you encounter prejudices or hostility? Can you work with non-denominational production companies too? Is it hard to be Christian and work inside what was once called “Hollywood Babylonia”?
BN: Our experience at Act One has been that Hollywood is not really anti-Christian. It is much more anti-bad art. The way for Christians to get a hearing in mainstream culture is to be so good that they can’t ignore you. That is what we strive to imbue in our students. We have had some very good results. Tragically, we spend most of our time at Act One trying to pay the pills to keep the non-profit running. It is really a scandal how the Church has not stepped up to make the program grow and thrive. It really is part of the answer for redemption of culture.

The Rest of the Review: Flannery O’Connor’s “A Prayer Journal”

(Here is the full length piece I wrote about Flannery O’Connor’s recently published, “A Prayer Journal.” I wrote the piece for a copy of the book for this website here. They edited out a lot of it for space, but they told me I could reprint the whole thing here.)
I can’t imagine any scenario in which Mary Flannery O’Connor would be happy to know her youthful, private supplications and confessions to God would one day be fodder for the salacious eyes of the literary world. First and foremost, it would offend her writing sense. Where O’Connor was deliberate in the selection of every comma in her published work, A Prayer Journal is meandering and repetitive, without economy or precision. Where O’Connor’s stories masterfully use action and imagery to reveal her meanings, this work is devoid of subtext.
Secondly, this edition would certainly pique O’Connor’s sense of decorum. Where she was private, preferring her work to speak for her, in A Prayer Journal the person of the artist is stripped bare: insecurities, sins, and bad spelling.
I felt self-conscious while I was reading A Prayer Journal: “How could they have had the nerve to publish this thing?” The work is so intimate as to end with O’Connor confessing an erotic thought and making a prayer, and then noting with chagrin, “There is nothing left to say of me.”
In fact, the permission to breech O’Connor’s private conversation with God is in Prayer Journal itself. One persistent request to God is that her work as a writer be a thing of grace for the world. She was unsure how she was going to do as a writer, but she was determined that her work would be at the disposition of the Divine plan. As she notes early on in the journal, “Give me a strong will to be able to bend it to the Will of the Father.”
Reading this book was a grace for me as a writer and particularly as one who is a serious Catholic. It will be a grace to anyone who wants to put his or her talents to use to make a difference in the world. To non-writers, it gives everyone of us permission to speak frankly to God without proper prose and affectation. The Prayer Journal is not in itself a work of genius, but it is engrossing as the intimate, unpretentious thoughts of a budding genius. It is inspiring in its unconsciousness, because it shows that mastery of craft united to a pastoral care for the world don’t just happen, but are the fruit of fervent desire and humility.
I’m not proud of it (actually, I probably am), but the best word to describe my reading of Prayer Journal, was greedy. I’ve always craved more access to the person who has upended my world innumerable times through her weird stories. I’ve combed through her collected letters, The Habit of Being, with the same voyeuristic spirit. There is the same stalky compulsion in the fan base of my other literary idol, the poet Emily Dickinson. Both artists were stolidly adverse to talking about the power and meaning of their work that make us, their fans crazy for validation. Most often, when people would ask Emily Dickinson the meaning of one of her strange verses, she would answer them by dashing off two or three more, just as inscrutable. O’Connor once warded off a query about the meaning of a story with the snippy squelch, “If I could say it in a sentence, I wouldn’t have written the story.”
One of the things we are looking for in works like A Prayer Journal is to find out if the greatest writers knew, really knew what we think they were doing, even as my own efforts as a writer assure me that the kind of work these women did could never be an accident. Still, the question is pressing for those of us who sweat at what young O’Connor called “aesthetic craftsmanship.” Do brilliant artists know they are stretching an art form to a new and wonderful place? Does their kind of work come out of intention or instinct?
In A Prayer Journal, young Mary Flannery has no conviction at all of attaining to literary stardom. In a wonderful way, the woman who would become probably the greatest short story writer ever, begins her career by wrestling with the horror of being mediocre. In the too often, parched, banal contemporary culture which seems mainly concerned with championing the sensibilities of the unachieving, Flannery’s bold aspiration to be a great writer pours out like a long glass of delicious cool champagne.
Flannery also worries that her writing will lead people away from God instead of towards Him. It shows she knew that her themes were going to be very high stakes and, that meaning well doesn’t necessarily mean doing well. It also shows she had already figured out that she couldn’t show the power of the resurrection in her stories, without dragging her readers through the potentially scandalizing places of fetishistic Bible salesmen, and acne-scarred Yankee crazy women, and bitter old men clinging to the N-word. Her prayers for the impact of her writing make for some of the most charming and thought-provoking parts of the book: “Please let Christian principles permeate my writing, and please let there be enough of my writing (published) for Christian principles to permeate.” Or again, after having acknowledged the mysterious way in which God “gave” her a story, she writes, “I can’t write a thing. But I’ll continue to try…I wonder if God will ever do any more writing for me.”

Flannery O’Connor, self-portrait, 1953 
(I LOVE that she painted a halo on herself!)
For those worshipful fans of Flannery who just want to uncover a few more searing Southerny sayings to haunt your comings and goings, there are several here. They aren’t as polished as those we are used to from her stories, but the fact that she wasn’t writing for anybody but herself and God makes them that much more impressive. I am always amazed how really great writers actually think quotable. The rest of us have to labor for days to get five or six words to work. Young Flannery effortlessly importunes God, “Please help me to get down under things and find You where You are.” As regards the Kingdom of God, she creates the perfect parallel formulation, “I don’t want to fear to be out. I want to love to be in.” Has anybody ever rejected sentimentality with better imagery than, “[We] have lost our power to vomit”? I thought several times reading these kind of instinctively artful marriages of style and substance, “Talent is a thing. And wondrous.”
For those who want to pour over young Flannery’s private thoughts to find insight into the recurrent theme that would go on to make her fiction a miraculous singularity particularly in the Church, there is an unassembled symphony of patterns and tropes here. In only thirty-seven short and often partial pages, A Prayer Journal references grace twenty times.
A Prayer Journal shows that she already understood at twenty the need for a ponderous and unifying “big idea” in a story noting, “To maintain any thread in a novel, there must be a view of the world behind it.” O’Connor’s “view of the world” was that good things were only possible through the direct, conscious and gratuitous action of God in human life. In the compilation of O’Connor’s speeches and essays on writing, Mystery and Manners, the taciturn one tosses off in a speech that “my subject in fiction is the action of grace in territory largely held by the devil.” It is the story she can’t get over, that she tells over and over and over. Also, evident in A Prayer Journal, is that O’Connor has already figured out that grace and suffering are inextricably linked. Again later in Mystery and Manners she confirms her youthful theories with the note, “I find that suffering uniquely prepares my characters for their moments of grace.”
The stunning quality that makes Flannery O’Connor who she is as a storyteller concerned with the Christian thing, was in pushing the notion of how terrible grace might need to be to save us. She wants her readers to come to grips with their own aversion at the idea that the worst thing that could happen to us, might be just what our soul needs. She tips her hand as to writing hauntingly provocative stories in Mystery and Manners by saying, “To make a story work, I have found that what is required is a violent act in which the devil has been the unwilling instrument of grace.”
When young Flannery O’Connor prays to God in A Prayer Journal, “Give me the courage to stand the pain to get the grace, O Lord,” she is Hulga in Good Country People, the wooden-souled seducer of Bible salesmen, about to be humiliated and perhaps left to die alone, so she might live eternally. Will respectable Christian woman (“Thank you, Jesus!”) Ruby Turpin embrace a saving “Revelation” through the horror of being cursed like a warthog to hell by a zit-faced Yankee co-ed? Can we bring ourselves to agree that “A Good Man is Hard to Find” in us because it might take somebody to put a gun in our face every day of our life? In A Prayer Journal, O’Connor notes that sin “leads a good many people to God who wouldn’t get there otherwise.” But can we really be grateful for the little lie that leads a child-saint to drown in “The River,” and be spared a probable life of sin? Could it ever really be a good thing for a decrepit, bitter old man to fall down the stairs like a dried out old “Geranium” falling off a shelf?
O’Connor’s challenge to all of us, to find the saving action of God in whatever damn thing afflicts us, is the outrageous and irresistible key to her fiction. “A Prayer Journal” assures us that before she sentenced her characters to suffer on their way to salvation, she gave God permission to first and foremost have its way with her as, “Supernatural grace that does whatever it does.” Of course, it is impossible to read this offer from the young writer without being mindful of how lupus would in a few short years begin to have its way with her, culminating in a terribly premature death at thirty-nine. Like the unconscious acts of so many of her future characters, A Prayer Journal was the divinely inspired preparation for O’Connor to embrace the purification of her suffering. May it be the same for all of us who pick it up greedily or just to satisfy our curiosity. Grace can work with that.

Noah - The Emporer's New Movie

[Reprinting this from the other place .  For posterity.]

Let me just start by saying two words which you can accept as fair warning to avoid this stupidest movie in years: Rock People.
Need more?
Tragically, as Western Civilization continues to decay all around us, one thing remains unmuddled: everything is politics. And nowhere is that more true than in media. The same polarization that fired Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty and then got him rehired, and made Mel Gibson $600 million, and then lost him his Hollywood career, and made half the world want to canonize Roman Polanski with the other half wanting him castrated — these are the same social causes propelling the embarrassingly awful horribleness of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, into an 76% fresh rating from the shameless, agenda-driven critics at RottenTomatoes.com, and setting so many Christian leaders and critics into shilling for the same. Please, stop the madness. It is astounding to me how Christians can be lured into a defense of the indefensible because they are so afraid of the charge of “unreasonablenes.” Trying so hard to be nice, we end up being patsies for people who have no other agenda than to make money off of us.
Oh yeah. And ROCK PEOPLE.
Honestly, there is so little that is Biblical in the piece that it isn’t even worth critiquing it as an irreverent adaptation. If the Bible was an original writer of the material, the WGA wouldn’t even insist on it getting a shared story credit with Aronofsky. It isn’t an adaptation in any serious sense of that term. There is a boat, a flood, and a guy named Noah in both pieces, and that is all they have in common.
Noah is a terrible, terrible movie. I kept thinking all through, “Wow. The secular critics hate Christians this much. They hate the Christians so much, that they will rave about this piece of crap because they think the Christians are going to hate it for ideological reasons.” And the Christian critics? Well, too many have been all balled up in the throes of self-loathing for at least a decade, which leads them to depths of self-contradiction in their popular culture appraisals that never seems to have a bottom. As soon as the momentum around this picture as offensive Scripturally began to go – and it is clear that this was generated intentionally by the studio and PR people promoting Noah – the Christians felt themselves double-dared to show themselves “enlightened” enough to embrace the movie even as it spits in their eye in every way – as an adaptation of Scripture, as a work of cinema, and as a plain old story. Remember when so many Christians felt the need to embrace the neo-porn mess, The Master? I remember one guy insisting that it was the best film of the decade. It wasn’t. It was an offensive, puerile mess. And remember when we were all told to go see The Da Vinci Code to promote “dialogue.” What a crock! In this case, the insane need to embrace modern sewage has the critics swallowing huge, gargantuan portions of ROCK PEOPLE!
Of course, there is also the sheer profit motive driving some of the reviews. Promoting movies is a high stakes business, and, sadly, the world of the professional movie critic is thoroughly mired in it. In the interest of full disclosure, for example, this blog is hosted on the Entertainment Channel of Patheos. That same Entertainment Channel received money to feature the movie ‘Noah’ to accompany its release. The website took money to essentially function as a paid advertising service for the movie. But those who are visiting the site don’t know that.
Where was I? Oh yes, Noah is a terrible, terrible movie. As a story, it doesn’t attain to the level of the worst of the cheesy Biblical movies made in the fifties. Aronofsky broke the first and sacred rule of storytelling: you have to make the audience care. We never cared about Noah even after he was kind to a wounded, half dog – half snake. (No, that wasn’t a mistake.) We never cared for any of the characters. I kept hearing people say this movie is deep. It isn’t. It is psychologically pedestrian. The only emotion the movie elicited in me was laughs of scorn. The script is problematic in every way in which a script can be problematic. Bad characterizations – no complex personalities, just stereotypes. Unmotivated choices abound. No imagery or story subtext. Huge story problems requiring ark-sized suspension of disbelief. Earnest, oh so earnest, dialogue with every syllable on-the-tedious-nose. Awkward transitions. Completely missing a coherent theme. Embarrassing soap-operaish holds on actors looking tense or worried or just staring ahead trying to convey lostness and doubt. And the fakest, funniest looking, plastic green snake used repeatedly to indicate “Evil is in the house.” It’s bad enough to be a Christian movie!
It’s so dumb, I can’t even write a serious review. Seems likely the studio purposely created and then drove all the controversy around the movie because they knew they had a dog. They’re hoping they can have a huge opening weekend because as soon as word gets out that this is a dull, idiotic waste, it’s going to drop like a rock person next weekend.
Here is a short list of some of the stupid story problems in Noah: (Is it possible to spoil a rotten thing? Well, be warned anyway…)
- Some of the angels felt compassion for Adam and Eve. God was so petulant and wrathful that he turned those angels into rock people. Then, human beings killed most of the rock people somehow. So, the rock people hate humans. But they take a hankering to Noah for no reason and build the ark for him.
- We say in screenwriting that the most cliched way to try to establish sympathy for the main character is to show him or her being nice to a sick child or an animal. Well, this creatively lazy piece has Noah doing both. But his gentleness to the missing-link dog is undermined when he pulls the arrow out of its flank and then stabs to death three humans. His adoption of the sick girl is undermined later when he tries to stab her infant daughters.
- Noah is a completely unsympathetic character. Somewhere in the beginning of the third act when he was in a knife fight with the raw-rat eating guy, I asked my friend, “Is it wrong of me to want Noah to die?” When the audience is rooting for the main character to be knifed (so he can’t kill his infant grandchildren), the filmmaker is deep, deep in the “film as disaster” end zone.
- Noah chides his son for ending the life of a teeny wildflower. And then he has the rock people cut down an entire forest to build the ark.
- We are told that the cities are centers of technology, but when we see the cities close up, they are just tents and unwashed people with really bad hair. You would think if they were so advanced they might have invented shampoo.
- It starts to rain, and five minutes later, Tubal Cain attacks the ark with an army of thousands and thousands. That’s a great general!
- The evil city people believe it is the apocalypse within seconds of the first drops of rain.
- Tubal-Cain hides on the ark -unknown to Noah – for nine months. He stays hidden despite the fact that he is eating the animals raw to keep up his strength. There went all the unicorns, I guess.
- The animals are lulled to deep sleep by a herbal smoke potion. It knocks the elephants flat – but it has no effect on the humans.
- Noah spends nine months firmly entrenched in his plan to murder his grandchildren at their birth. He’s intractable and insane in his conviction that this is what God wants. But then, when he is about to stick the knife in the children, he just changes his mind. Unmotivated choice.
- Five minutes after they emerge onto the new land, Noah makes himself a winery and gets crazy drunk and naked. It’s not clear if he is angry at “The Creator” or angry at himself or just an introvert who suddenly has nothing to do.
I was looking forward to the effects, but, really, the movie storytelling is so bad, that the effects fall flat. There was one cool shot of people clinging to a rock and getting washed away, but it was over too fast. The score is over the top and intrusive. It is striving so transparently to make up for the lack of emotion in the picture that it repeatedly calls attention to itself, in the worst way.
Oh yeah, and there is a ton of annoying, superior liberal preaching about how we should all be vegetarians, and that technology and cities are innately bad because they hurt the planet. Dumb, oversimplified liberal utopia nonsense. But it barely offended me because I was so much more offended by the terrible story craft in the piece.
Stay far away and save your money. Rent The Ten Commandments for the weekend. Or Ben Hur. Or even a bad Biblical movie like The Robe. Any of them are a thousand times better than this piece of pretentious, over-hyped garbage.
Galaxy Quest called. They want their rock people back.
Anybody who says Christians need to see the movie to promote dialogue is being a tool. Anybody who says the movie is visionary is jumping on an Emperor has No Clothes bandwagon. Any pastor who creates a sermon to coincide with this awful piece is being played for a sucker. And the Christians who are promoting the film for money should be ASHAMED of themselves. Really, how dare you?
P.S. rock people

Surveying the History of Biblical Films in Hollywood

My esteemed film criticism colleague, Peter Chattaway, has done a nice job for Christianity Today
of summarizing the movement in Hollywood recently towards telling Biblical epics again.  Here's my contribution to the piece:

"Biblical material needs to be handled differently," she says. "It's not fodder for the filmmaker's imagination. The filmmaker is fodder for the biblical story. When you pick up a comic book and use that as source material, that's fodder for your imagination as a filmmaker—it serves you. When you make a biblical movie, you serve it."

I admit to a shiver of horror at the comments of Ridley Scott promising that his movie on Moses coming out later this year will feature "an unconventional" view of God.  Why?  Why do they have to do that?!!  Is it too much to ask a committed, liberal atheist to not spit in the eye of the faith-based audience?  Oh, yeah....  Anyway, let's pray for the project just in case there is still time for it to not be toxic crap, or just stupid like Noah.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Heaven is For.... Anyone with a Heart

Heaven is for Real, Directed by Randall Wallace, Written by Randall Wallace and Chris Parker, based on the book by Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent; stars Greg Kinnear, Thomas Hayden Church, Kelly Reilly and Connor Corum; 

So, the good news is, Christians are finally getting better at filmmaking.  It has taken us awhile to get to respectable, and we have a long way to go to do with cinema what Flannery O'Connor did with literature, but it's a relief to me that we are starting to see movies made by believers that actually aren't ugly as art and story and don't dishonor our faith.  After having seen way too many faith-based embarrassments like The Christmas Candle, Facing the Giants, Fireproof, Therese, Mercy Streets, The Omega Code, Left Behind, Gospa, The Champion, The Stoning of Soriah M, There Be Dragons, Blue Like Jazz, The Mighty Macs, For Greater Glory, Bella and Courageous, I went in to the screening of Heaven is For Real ready to cringe.  But I didn't cringe.  I found myself generally engaged and involved with the characters, and strongly affected in a couple places - heck, I cried twice, for the right reasons.  And looking around the theater, nearly everybody else was crying too.

If you are the only one in Jerusalem - and within reach of the NY Times Bestseller list - who does not know about the story here, it is based on the hugely successful true story of a four year old boy who is given a vision of heaven during a near death experience on the operating table.  The boy's exerience wreaks havoc in the small church community that his father pastors, and leads his father and mother to question the ultimate meaning of heaven for all of us.

The movie isn't perfect, but it is solid and - for people of basic good will - entertaining.   My feeling is the principle problesm with the film originate in the source material, so there isn't too much the filmmakers could do and still please the fan base of the book.

In terms of plot, there isn't enough story in Heaven is for Real for a feature-length film.  Writer/director Wallace knows his game too well not to be aware of that, however, and so does as much as he possibly can to provide filler by taking advantage of the talented actors he has at his disposal.  Still, if I had been charged to give notes on the outline, I would have said, "You don't have enough beats and reversals for a movie."

My second quibble has to do with the lack of a formidable antagonist, and, consequently, the lack of ongoing high stakes.  Again, the filmmakers were aware of the problem and do what they can to create stakes by fomenting small crises in the main couple's marriage and in the struggle for job and money - which are fine stakes in real life, but in a story, getting or losing a job is never going to be enough.

Most significantly, taking the broader view of where we are as people of faith trying to important in our culture, Heaven is for Real seems to me to move the bar for the efforts of Christians in cinema in several ways.

1)  I know these people! -  Karen Hall, a friend of mine who has worked for more than two decades on top television shows, has said to me many times that in mainstream media,  "We Christians are never allowed to depict ourselves in our own context."  That is, few of the people making culture in an influential way tend to be committed Christians.  So, when we are depicted it is always from without, by people who don't get us, or who think Christianity is what's wrong with the world.  So, we are always seeing Christians depicted like the insane brutish lady in Misery, with her gold cross glinting in the light right before she tortures her captive, or the wild-eyed, platinum-blond, Bible clutching bomber in Contact, or the hypocritical greedy preacher in There Will Be Blood, or the cooing, silly simpleton nuns in Sister Act, or the cruel demon nuns in Philomena.

In films made by believers, the depictions of Christians are equally cringe-worthy only in the other direction of religious propaganda.  When Christians are calling the shots, they are so eager to show the best face of being a believer, that the characters come across as weird extra-terrestials speaking a saccharine foregin language and smiling into sunsets like Jesus' own Stepford Wives.  I remember screening Facing the Giants with a Jewish agent and when one of the characters suddenly got a shiny new red truck basically for kneeling down in a field and "giving his life to the Lord," my jaded Hollywood friend leaned over and said to me, "Gimme some of THAT Jesus stuff."

In Heaven is for Real by contrast, the characters are like so many people I have met - they are real people who simply have faith in Jesus as an important part of their framework.  They aren't silly or simple or wild-eyed or covering up fetid depths of hate and hypocrisy.  They aren't killing each other or making meth in their basements.  They are struggling to keep on walking, and to be better moms and dads, friends and believers.  The characters in this piece don't have the creative charm of the townspeople in Lars and the Real Girl, but I still found them fascinating just because I haven't seen them on the big screen before.

2)  Features Talented Professionals in Key Roles - This has to be reckoned as a huge leap forward for Christian projects.  Although the movie was made for much less than most Hollywood movies, it still uses real professionals in key roles, namely director and co-writer, Oscar-nominated, Randall Wallace (writer of Braveheart), Oscar-nominated actors, Greg Kinnear and Thomas Hayden Church, Oscar-winning Cinematographer, Dean Semler (Dance with Wolves),  Emmy-nominated producer, Joe Roth (Alice in Wonderland), double Oscar-nominated Editor, John Wright (Speed, Hunt for Red October) and Emmy-winning Costume Designer, Michael T. Boyd.  Just to name a few.  And while there are a handful of industry professionals who have been part of the aforementioned Christian disaster films, it is a striking part of so many of these projects that people with only a vision, but without any talent or training, reserved to themselves key creative roles.  Can't do it.  Movie-making is a craft-based, talent-based, experienced-based, professional relationship requiring enterprise.  God helps those who help real talented artists and professionals.  So, what I'm saying is, you can't transition from being n ex-Senator and failed presidential candidate into a movie producer in five minutes.  Or even two years.

Greg Kinnear deserves a lot of credit for shouldering all the parts of the film that could have been saccharine and keeping it real.  It shows how much a great actor can bring and why they are worth the money that Christians tend to never want to pay for them.  But why would you hire real actors when you can be a pastor, producer, writer, and star, right Christian folks (we all know who you are) who keep making lame movies?

3)  You Don't Have to Be Christian to Get This - Again, I remember watching a rather bad film that came out of the sub-culture a few years ago.  It was about the sons of two pastors - one white and one black.  When the movie strayed into the weird inner-workings of non-denominational church elders fighting over language style and ministry hiring practices, I remember thinking to myself, "Who ARE these people?"  In the interest of spreading the slop around this isn't just an Evangelical problem.  I've heard people speak of EWTN with the same kind of vaguely piqued, "Do these people realize they are living in a bubble?" wonder.

Heaven is for Real is first and foremost a good tale about a little child who has a vision that ends up shaking a lot of good people out of their complacency and into a more mature depth.  It respects the Aristotelian pyramid of story elements with something interesting happening (plot) to some relatable people (characters) united by universal questions about love and belief (theme),  with some fair to good verbal back and forths (dialogue) in an emotionally controlled progression (tone) with some cool   and even lovely things to see and dream on (spectacle).  I would even say the film deserves some chops for the dialogue, because much of it takes place in a church context, but it still never felt like the film itself was preachy.

I say all this to clarify WHY the various industry trades have mentioned that the movie is not only doing well with the Christian base, but also with mainstream theater-goers who were drawn in because of the provocative title and then gave the movie good ratings afterward.  Christian movies generally suck at the basic elements of story.  They tend to be much more concerned with the purity of the message, generally forcing all the elements to serves theme instead of serving story.  Heaven is for Real has a solid core.

I enjoyed this film and am quite sure that probably forty or fifty million people out there will enjoy it even more than I did.  It made me happy about God and heaven and my fellow humans.  It got me and my husband talking about NDE's and visions and why God prefers to use children as messengers - what we in screenwriter world call "unreliable narrators."  It's not a perfect film, but it's better than many and probably the best that the Christian sub-culture has yet produced.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Stories Meld Our Minds

Somebody just sent me a link to this recent article by scientist Allison Gopnik in the Wall Street Journal.  It's all about how recent research on the brain has show that sharing stories creates a mind-meld phenomenon between the storyteller and the hearer.  Fascinating stuff possessing huge ramifications for what we do here in Hollywood, but also for the Church which, after all, has the mandate to share the story of salvation history.

"In another experiment they recorded the pattern of one person’s brain activity as she told a vivid personal story. Then someone else listened to the story on tape and they recorded his brain activity. Again, there was a remarkable degree of correlation between the two brain patterns. The storyteller, like Leone, had literally gotten in to the listener’s brain and altered it in predictable ways. But more than that, she had made the listener’s brain match her own brain.
The more tightly coupled the brains became, the more the listener said that he understood the story. This coupling effect disappeared if you scrambled the sentences in the story. There was something about the literary coherence of the tale that seemed to do the work."

Go here to read the whole piece.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

I'm Baaaaaaaaaaack!

You know how I said I was closing this blog and moving over to that other place?  Well, it was nice while it lasted, but I'm very pleased to resurrect this blog at this time and officially pull up stakes at that other place.

It's a new day and it's starting today -- except that today starts the Triduum and I very much expect that I will be doing much more praying than blogging over the next few days.

But look for lots of blogging in the coming weeks - especially tied in to my new weekly Church of the Mass Radio Hour every Friday (except, you know, tomorrow, Good Friday) on Radio Titans.

But for now, have a holy and blessed Triduum!