Beware of cellists bearing prayers

When popular films portray Christians well — not as plaster saints or as hypocrites with bulging eyes — they can achieve a near-transcendence. I think of the late great Horton Foote’s screenplays for Tender Mercies or The Trip to Bountiful, or the the humanity that director Paul Thomas Anderson gave to a Christian police officer in Magnolia.

When popular films get it wrong, however, the results are painfully funny. Think of the revivalist preacher in There Will Be Blood (also by Anderson) who wears an oversized cross, or faith healer Steve Martin huffing and puffing in front of a huge crucifix in Leap of Faith.

Thus I thank Michael Paulson of The Boston Globe, who sensed there was something off about a character in The Soloist, and wrote about it at his Articles of Faith blog:

I suppose that my work as a religion reporter means I spend so much time with people of all faiths that I find it hard to connect with the knee-jerk hostility some provoke, but I was actually sort of amazed by the gratuitously negative depiction of a Bible-thumping Los Angeles Philharmonic cellist (!) in the film, especially once I learned that, even though the film depicts actual events, the evangelical musician is a fictitious character cooked up in the imagination of the filmmakers. The cellist, named Graham Claydon (played by Tom Hollander) is brought in by the film’s hero, LA Times columnist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.), to help a homeless and mentally ill Juilliard dropout, Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), resume playing the cello. The film’s press materials say that Claydon’s character “was inspired by several real-life musicians,” but Los Angeles Philharmonic spokeswoman Sophie Jefferies told me, “As far as I understand it the Tom Hollander character is entirely fictional,” and Lopez told me, “The character in the movie is fictional. I’m not sure whether it was a creation of the director or the screenwriter.”

Paulson, in turn, finds this column by film critic Robert W. Butler of The Kansas City Star:

“Susannah Grant’s screenplay presents Claydon as something of a religious fanatic. This fact dawns on us when we see Claydon outside what we assume to be his home, and it has on one wall a huge mural of Jesus done in an airbrushed style usually reserved for motorcycle gas tanks.

Then, backstage before the recital, Claydon insists on praying aloud with Ayers, and that act completely freaks out the mentally ill man. So much so that Ayers cannot face the audience and flees the building.

Paulson also notes that this review at ChristianityTodayMovies.com does not mention the Claydon character. (An accompanying discussion-starter near the bottom of this page asks, “What attitude does the movie take toward the atheistic character it shows? What about Graham [Claydon], who is a Christian? Does the movie treat one more favorably than the other?”)

Distortions of faith are common in films. I don’t think these distortions invariably arise from hostility to believers. Sometimes, and it sounds like The Soloist is an example of this, they arise from thinking that movie audiences are stupid enough to need a character like Claydon as an example of How Not to Be a Caring Friend (especially important: Don’t pray aloud). I wish some of these very talented storytellers would more often learn to trust the story, especially when reality provides enough interesting details.

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  • Jerry

    I wish some of these very talented storytellers would more often learn to trust the story, especially when reality provides enough interesting details.

    That is a key point that I think deserves emphasis. Trust the story and trust the audience.

  • http://indystar.com Russ Pulliam

    I thought the movie was reasonably well done because Steve Lopez wrote a very good book. The strength of the book, and movie, is that it shows how difficult it is to work with this kind of person. The Christian character of the man running the homeless shelter is balanced, nicely done, because, in contrast to the praying cellist(I had forgotten that scene.), he knows faith will help but there are no pat answers to this man’s troubles. That shelter directer actually represents the Christian faith well, though he is not as obviously Christian as the cello player.

  • Julia

    Last night on NBC I saw “The Last Templar” – the absolutely worst movie I have ever seen.

    It cobbled together themes from “DaVinci Code”, “Angels & Demons”, the first Indiana Jones movie, “The Perfect Storm”, “The Maltese Falcon”, “Zorba the Greek”, etc. etc.

    What a disaster. It didn’t have an albino monk, but it did have a murderous monsignor. The claim is made that the Catholic Church hunted down and killed all the Templars. [clue: it was the French king] There is a gospel that was hidden by the Templars – it was meant to later be revealed to the world that Jesus was just a carpenter, thereby destroying Christianity, and the Vatican wants to kill anybody who would dare make it public.

    BUT the heroine who has been mocking her Catholic FBI assistant has an instantaneous turn-around and finds faith when some old ladies light candles for her. She throws away the gospel and says she has found out that faith doesn’t depend on anything so silly as facts or history. It’s Omar Shariff as a kindly Greek Orthodox priest/saint who saves her and snaps her out of it. This is supposed to be a wonderful thing and and the violins are busy sawing away. She suddenly also decides she loves the guy who she thought was stupid for believing in God.

    It was truly awful. Mia Sorvino should hang her head in shame. She must have really needed the money.

    I didn’t give away the surprise twist that supposedly makes this all OK and understandable – in case you want to see it when it gets re-run, unless they burn all copies.

    I apologize to Opie & Tom – you didn’t make the worst movies of the past 100 years. The Last Templar beat you by a long shot.

  • http://www.nhreligion.com Stephen A.

    Julia, I saw the first episode, seemingly a month ago, how long was this thing anyway? I couldn’t bear to watch the rest, since it seemed so cheesy, and I apparently guessed pretty well where it was going. The entire “catholic priest=evil” meme is not only bigoted, it’s lazy and predictable writing, which is the greater sin in entertainment.

  • Larry “the grump” Rasczak

    “When popular films get it wrong, however, the results are painfully funny. Think of the revivalist preacher in There Will Be Blood (also by Anderson) who wears an oversized cross, or faith healer Steve Martin huffing and puffing in front of a huge crucifix in Leap of Faith.”

    I take strong exception to that.

    Two reasons, one I agree with and one I don’t.

    The first reason is simple fairness. Amos and Andy may have been painfully funny in the day, as was Jack Benny’s Rochester…but you don’t see them (or a Sambo’s Resturant) around any more.
    Personally I like South Park, so I think political correctness is taken to far… but if you are going to guard the sensibilities of every possible “subject class” out there…then why is it “painfully funny” to go after religious people (and conservatives) steriotypical gags, but nobody else? Apparently white men, Christians, and Sara Palin are fair game for anything…but everyone else you have to look both ways before you tell the joke.

    Secondly, I don’t think it is funny at all because a growing number of people simply don’t know that a film “gets it wrong” when it depicts Christians that way. Lets not forget, today’s teenagers are the grandchildren of the baby-boomers. This means Mom and Dad got all their moral instruction from Aaron Spelling productions on ABC. For this generation it was Fantasy Island, The Love Boat yes… actually showing up at Church…not so much. Prayer was something that wierd people do… not something that you did in school every day.

    It isn’t so bad in the USA, but in Europe this is a very serious problem…there are families there where nobody has ever been in a Church, except as a tourist or for a friends wedding, for two or three generations.

    So if the only thing they know about Christians comes from “there will be blood” and the Da Vinci Code…that’s what they think Christians are really like.

    The spiritual, political, and social implications of this are not good at all.


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