That Incredibles paranoia is still out there

mr incredible2Quite a few of you out in GetReligion land have joined me in the search for liberal paranoia about the smash hit status of The Incredibles.

Keep it up. I think the religion ghost in this is going to break loose sooner or later. At the same time, our comments pages on that last post includes more than a few raves about this film by progressive readers. Good for you.

The way I see it, it is impossible for a piece of pop culture to be identified as a Culture Wars zone without religious/moral issues getting involved. If you have doubts about the Culture Wars status of this Pixar sermonette, check out this recent essay from the London Times, with the lively headline “Pow! It’s an Incredible victory for morality.”

Writing from New York City, reporter Sarah Baxter notes:

After the re-election of President George W Bush by voters who ranked moral issues above terrorism, the economy and Iraq, the hit film “The Incredibles” has caught the national mood.

Just as Bush supporters believe that the president will always follow his conscience, so will Mr. Incredible, the beefy family man who cannot be forced to punch beneath his weight for long, and his wife Elastigirl, who bends but does not snap under pressure. It is as if Hollywood had found the perfect vehicle for the Republican-voting “red” states.

All of the usual parts of the movie are interpreted in all of the usual ways. Baxter also notes the box-office failure of the sexual-revolution tract Alfie, which is leading to more tears and second-guessing on the Hollywood left. But come to think of it, aren’t there enough blue-zone ticket buyers to have made this R-rated romp a hit?

But back to The Incredibles, which is said to be

(Red) state through and through. It opens with a pro-life condemnation of suicide and goes on to attack tort lawyers, whose powers Bush promised to curtail during the election campaign. . . . “Yes, this is a superhero action movie about the sanctity of marriage,” the National Review critic exulted. “As Mr Incredible’s daughter tells her brother, ‘Mom and dad’s lives could be in danger — or worse: their marriage.’”

Now I realize that blue-zone people have morals and marriages, too. What fascinates me is the news media’s perceptions of this film and the company that made it. Might this whole red-friendly image thing become a factor in the tense Pixar dance with Disney? That is a major, major story on the left coast.

I mean, check out this final quote from the London Times:

Liberals are dismayed by the cultural hijacking of a medium that they had once owned. Ted Rall, a newspaper cartoonist, said: “It’s kind of ironic that superheroes now have these fascist, right-wing connotations. The right has stolen our flag and our superheroes, too.”

He added: “I would be in favour of Empathy Man. The man who plants the seeds of empathy into the cold, stony heart of the average red-state American.”

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Mona Lisa frowns

Gump

For the French, it’s bound to be the most annoying American phenomenon since the freedom fries fiasco. Tom Hanks reportedly beat out Harrison Ford, George Clooney, and Hugh Jackman to star in the movie adaptation of The Da Vinci Code, to be directed by Ron Howard. Barring complications, the film should be in theatres in early 2006.

And why might this annoy the French, you ask?

Because many who read the book take author Dan Brown’s tongue-in-cheek claims to historical accuracy just a little too seriously. According to a story in the London Telegraph, the ancient, tiny village of Rennes-le-Chateau in southeastern France has been inundated with pilgrims who think that the book was more than a story — and they often refuse to take no for an answer.

Until recently, the local mayor, Jean-Franois L’Huilier, "seemed to be winning the battle against
fortune-seekers who tried to disinter bodies and dynamite holes in the walls of its 11th-century church
looking for relics." But then The Da Vinci Code hit the bestseller lists.

Now the local graveyard has had to be closed down and the body of a long-dead priest whose name appears in the novel has been exhumed and reburied under a "3.5 ton sarcophagus surrounded by five cubic metres of concrete." The mayor explained, with what I’m guessing was a lot of exasperation, "It’ll take one hell of a lot of explosive to get through that."

Nor is L’Huilier being overly paranoid. He calls the would-be Code breakers "a Philistine minority but they come here and stomp all over the place with no respect for anything or anyone." To wit, just last year, some seekers attempted to tunnel into the church.

"It was like something out of a prison escape film. They began digging in the night, put the soil in bags and put the bags in the hole which they covered with a layer of earth so nobody would see during the day. It was only when someone noticed the flower beds moving that we discovered what they were up to," Huilier explained.

This isn’t the first time that the village has had to fend off vandals and treasure seekers. Local lore and some conspiratorial pamphlets in the past have fueled speculation that that there is a treasure hoard, the holy grail, the remains of Mary Magdalene, or even the bones of Christ, buried there somewhere. Here’s hoping that the villagers are up to dealing with the deluge of invaders when Brown’s story comes to the big screen.

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You guzzle your crutch and shove it up your nose

Entertainment writers tend to be — how shall I put this? — very, very secular. Because of this demographic bias, they often have certain blinders. Hit Christian movies can sneak up on them like special forces troops creeping through tall grasses to find the enemy and rip their throats out. Now that I’ve got your attention with that rather . . . grotesque simile, I’d like to clear a story off of the GetReligion assignment desk.

Michael W. Smith is a huge name in the Christian music scene. According to one source, fans have purchased over ten million of his albums, and that is probably low-balling it (here’s his not terribly helpful website). He’s also written a few best-selling books and is a friend of President Bush.

Steve Taylor is possibly the most controversial artist in the history of evangelical Christian music (often called CCM). When I played “Lifeboat” for my college roommate, he called it the most offensive thing he’d ever heard. The controversy over “I blew up the clinic real good” got Taylor’s album pulled from stores and his tour in Australia was basically cancelled.

Back in the eighties, Taylor also managed to regularly enrage the devout. “We don’t need no color code” was a send-up of Bob Jones University’s anti-miscegenation policies. He railed against evangelical conformity and easy believism, praised the pope, and regularly mocked televangelists. In one interview, he rather forcefully rejected the idea that all Christian rockers should do altar calls: “I resent the sometimes fascist mentality on the part of some Christian bands, like their way is the only way and if you don’t do that you don’t care about kids or something like that.”

In the mid-nineties, Taylor put his solo career on a long hiatus and decided to work the other end of the music industry. He produced and wrote songs for groups such as Guardian and the Newsboys in their prime. He founded Squint Records, which signed and promoted bands such as Sixpence None the Richer (think “Kiss Me”) until the company was sold out from under him in 2001. After that he dabbled in several film projects.

The point of all this? Taylor started shooting a movie, tentatively titled “The Second Chance,” in Nashville in early October, starring Michael W. Smith in his first acting role. This has potential hit written all over it and yet the coverage so far has been almost non-existent. A Nexis search of the last 60 days netted only one substantial mention of the movie and that, it turns out, was a press release. CCM magazine, the Rolling Stone of Christian rock, has run a few items, and a number of fan sites have pitched in with details, but that’s about the end of the list.

My suggestion to entertainment reporters: Don’t let this one catch you off-guard.

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Get some propaganda with your popcorn

Leigh

Sorry I missed this year’s New York Film Festival. According to a report, the festival featured a dogfight for top tweaking-tender- religious-sensibilities-if-there-are-any-of-those-people-here honors. But director Pedro Almódovar’s Bad Education, about priestly pedophilia, comes to the issue a bit late to lay a hand on British director Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake.

Newsday scribe John Anderson wrote that Leigh’s film “features a bravura performance by Imelda Staunton as a kindly — no, saintly — middle-class, post-war English wife and mother who happens to perform syringe abortions for needy women.” Anderson informed readers that the film “won top Venice International Film Festival prizes last month” because of its “non-doctrinaire approach to a subject” which promises to “split friends, families, and nations.”

Specifically the United States. The Newsday piece let slip that Leigh had planned Vera Drake with the 2004 elections in mind, knowing that there would be friction between President Bush and whoever the Democrats nominated. From London, Leigh told Anderson that he wanted “to confront the audience with a moral dilemma,” though not in the usual canned way. The director said that the reception of his film in the Italian Catholic press had been decent: “The reviews have been kind of reasonable and say, ‘Well, actually the film isn’t black and white propaganda.’”

Black and white, no; propaganda, yes, is the judgment of James Bowman, movie reviewer for the New York Sun and the American Spectator, but that’s not a bad thing. Bowman begins his review by arguing that “Leigh plays the propagandist, offering us a defense of legal abortion by trotting out again the idea of the saintly abortionist pioneered by John Irving in The Cider House Rules. But he does so with incomparably superior results.” He explains:

So complete and so persuasive is the portrait [Leigh] paints of working class north London in 1950, when hardly anyone would have supported making abortion legal, that he undermines his own point. Everything about the film apart from the propaganda is done so well that the propaganda, when it comes, strikes a jarring note and sounds out of place.

Bowman argues that Leigh’s interest in the subject stems from his interest in the buttoned-up mores of postwar Britain. From dress to manners to euphemism, this was a society that tried hard to repress certain impulses that were judged dirty or shameful — with some success. In the movie critic’s judgment, the director does such an effective job recreating this people and setting that the larger point is swallowed up in a world where “abortion” was not a word that people were willing to just throw around.

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Not a tame lion

LionFigured I’d find out what the Kiwis were up to on the religion front, so I pointed my Mozilla browser at the New Zealand Herald. It turns out the paper has a ton of information on the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, to be directed by the country’s own Andrew Adamson, and filmed in New Zealand and the Czech Republic.

Learn about the cast, the animatronic reindeer, the imported pack of wolves, the plans for the sequel, and the controversy over why LW&W (published first but not first chronologically) should be shot first. Policy wonks can even learn about the effects of subsidies and local labor laws on the filming of the movie.

Missing thus far is much discussion of the religious aspects of the film. Hopefully we’ll see more of this as production rolls along and the trailer is cut (the movie is slated for release in late 2005). I wanted to recommend a few good Lewis websites to tide readers over, but in my admittedly limited search, I couldn’t find many that were both easy to navigate and valuable. Readers are invited to chime in.

Here’s my one small contribution to discussion of LW&W: [major spoiler warning to those who have not read the book: DO NOT READ THE NEXT SENTENCE] I always assumed that Lewis, by having Aslan killed on a stone table with the ancient law written on it, was combining the cross with the tablets of the Ten Commandments. What do you all think of that?

[A footnote: Readers who don't like seeing nude images should avoid typing the word "Aslan" in Google's Images search.]

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Sex & the Ghost III: Niches 'R' Us at the multiplex

Brownbunny_2I think it was about 10 years ago that I first heard traditional Jewish and Christian contacts in Hollywood start talking about the new movie era of grand slams and singles and the implications of this trend for religion in mainstream film.

First, let me define some baseball terms. The basic idea is that major-studio executives have, in the post-Star Wars decades, started focusing most of their attention on the creation of “event films,” those box-office grand slams that may cost $100-150 million to produce, but are going to still make loads of money if the whole culture shows up, more than once, to see them. You have to make $250 to $400 million, of course. You can’t afford to tick off too many people.

Note the emphasis on the phrase “whole culture.” This means that the movies must be hits in mainstream America as well as in elite zip codes. In other words, the movies must sell in red theaters as well as in blue theaters.

The trend associated with this is the rise of the PG-13 blockbusters, those flashy roller-coaster video rides that have enough zip for adults — that touch of Spielbergian hot sauce — yet are “safe” enough to sell to video-saturated pre-teens. Violence seems to be OK. Vivid sex is dangerous.

The losers in this scenario? People who built careers making that Hollywood staple — the sexy R-rated movie with a budget somewhere between $40-80 million, with the goal of making about $60-100 million. Once, these films were released in waves.

If the event films are grand slams, these old adult-market films were supposed to be doubles or triples. But times changed, noted the Christian Science Monitor in a recent story on sex trends in film.

A 2003 study by the Christian Film and Television Commission analyzed the box-office returns of 1,120 films over four years and found that the more explicit films sold fewer tickets.

Many would argue with that opinion and the groups that preach it. But something has been driving the decline in R-rated product.

Which brings us to films that “hit singles.” What exactly is a “single” and why is this concept important for those covering faith and film? Or sex and film?

A single is a small-budget movie that targets a smaller, but solid niche of people who are interested in a certain subject or set of beliefs. You make the film for $10-30 million and, if the script is good, you bring in $40-100 million. If the movie fails, the studio has not invested loads of cash that it could be using to make “Aliens 666.” Singles still add up to real profits, especially when something amazing happens. Think “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” or even “The Passion of the Christ.”

So what are these smaller, but solid niches of ticket-purchasing consumers who cheer for singles? Some of the niches have been around for some time now. We should be seeing green lights for more smaller films targeting women, African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians. The future is bright for gay and lesbian cinema, for marketing reasons as well as cultural reasons.

And, in the heady days post-Passion, we have seen signs that Hollywood executives might be willing to produce more films for the more traditional religious consumers in what some people are now calling the Grace Hill market (a tribute to the trailblazing Grace Hill Media publicity company). After years and years of terrible Christian films from low-budget, low-talent, low-buzz operations, there is some chance that actual studios may start making stronger films that wrestle with faith issues and decline to bash people who do not cross their fingers when they read the Bible. OK, that’s a bit of a cheap shot, but you get the idea.

But here’s the point of the headline and the art with this post. Church people are going to have to realize that this same trend in technology and marketing is going to lead to renewed interest in another very, very dependable niche subject — sex. To stay with the baseball analogy, we are going to see lots of sexy singles — like the soon to be infamous movie, “The Brown Bunny.” Here’s the Chicago Tribune on this trend:

Got sex? That could be the art-film circuit’s new slogan as explicit sex has returned to the big screen with a vengeance.

Never mind that the porn industry has migrated from grungy theaters to home video and the Internet. …
The cinema is in the midst of its own sexual revolution, flouting taboos and exploring sexuality more brazenly than ever, even if American filmmakers have been slow to pick up the mantle and explicit sex remains an anathema to mainstream theater and video chains as well as the Motion Picture Association of America.

You know something’s going on when Brian Grazer, Ron Howard’s producing partner, is preparing a sexually graphic documentary about the cultural impact of ’70s porn film “Deep Throat.”

The Tribune is not alone in seeing this trend in the culture-war age in which, to quote the story again, “outrage over an exposed breast” is “sandwiched between ads addressing sexual dysfunction.” But this neo-porn chic actually makes financial sense. The new sex films don’t cost a lot and it is actually good (from a Hollywood perspective) if their strong content actually offends some Americans.

This is precisely the same argument that many Christian filmmakers are going to be making in the years ahead, sitting across giant desks from Hollywood players. There is a case to be made for Christian singles, as well.

It is a strange time in Hollywood. Sex sells and everyone knows it. But high-quality films about faith may sell, as well. They stir passions as well, with a large “P.”

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Shyamalan caught selling tickets to the wrong niche

thevillagewallOK, I first spotted this a week or two ago and I have been watching ever since for another flash of this possible, maybe, kind of guilt-by-association, post-Passion ghost story.

Of course, we are used to reading about ghost stories involving the work of M. Night Shyamalan. But I am talking about an interesting thread that is woven through some of the essays about his latest movie. The best example of the genre is found in “Village Idiot: The case against M. Night Shyamalan” by Michael Agger, published at Slate.com.

It is always interesting, of course, to watch the tide turn in criticism of an artist who had previously been a critical darling. This is the whole “jump the shark” phenomenon, only being played for keeps in the mainstream media. Shyamalan has been one of the “it” directors for several years. But then he made a movie with, well, that Mel Gibson fellow. And it had a priest in it, and prayer, and that faith-friendly “did somebody save me?” dialogue in the final scene, and the cross symbol on the door and other problems, as well.

Maybe something was seriously wrong with Shyamalan. Pay close attention to this passage from Agger:

The Sixth Sense became one of top 10 grossing films of all time, and what does M. Night do with his newfound power? He stays put in Philadelphia, refusing to move to L.A. and play ball. He creates a local film industry around his productions. And most importantly, he begins the process of burnishing his legend. When a reporter asks him what he wanted his name to mean in the future, he replied, “Originality.” Access to his scripts in progress is extremely limited, lest anyone reveal their secrets.

OK, so far so good. It is interesting, of course, to note that the director is being lashed for the very qualities that previously led critics to praise him. This is one of those artists who wants to stand out and does not mind being honest about it. He holds prayer vigils at the start of his movies and things like … Wait, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Here comes Agger again:

M. Night could not control the audience, however, and he was unhappy with the poor performance of his sophomore thriller, Unbreakable (2000). He vowed to inject more emotion (and box office) in his next effort. Again, Shyamalan made the talk show rounds, promising another twist ending and cultivating auteurish tics such as putting himself in the movie, just like Quentin, just like Hitchcock. The result was Signs (2002) and a teary Mel Gibson. It became a modest hit, but only after it was adopted by Christians as [a] movie about the power of faith.

Bingo! The spiritual imagery in “Signs” must have been so obvious that even people in the Red Theaters liked it and started buying tickets and spreading the good news about the movie, perhaps even in church publications. Here is how Roberto Rivera, a culture writer for Boundless.org and other similar venues, reacted to the anti-Shyamalan blitz at Slate.com:

The writers’ problems stem from the religious/spiritual core to M. Night Shyamalan’s movies. He’s so distracted by this that he commits howlers like ascribing “Signs” $450 million take to evangelicals. Evangelicals probably didn’t get much of “Signs,” what with its sacramental imagery.

And while we are at it, is a film that makes $227 million or so domestic and $400-plus at the global box office really a “modest” hit? Perhaps in comparison to “The Sixth Sense,” but the adjective still seems a little strained. As does the headline on the second Slate.com essay attacking “The Village.” Speaking of interesting adjectives, check out this headline: “Village of the Darned: More pious hokum from M. Night Shyamalan.”

I think Mr. Shyamalan has wandered into the “culture wars” minefield, whether he wanted to or not.

Now, I have not had a chance to see the film yet as I dash to get ready for a new semester after a wild summer of work, study and travel. But the word of mouth from friends is almost totally positive. The film is doing OK, but not rocketing out of the gate.

Has anyone else in GetReligion-land (a) seen the film as worthy of comment on these semi-political lines or (b) seen other essays and reviews that reflect this Slate.com onslaught?

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Life imitates art imitating life

cal_girlsNARRAGANSETT — Sitting along a couch in the small office in the back of St. Peter’s-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church, Ms. August, 81, Ms. October, 71, and Ms. September, 73, laughed and chatted with the rector yesterday afternoon as they leafed through a handful of photographs.

The women, Ruth D. Toupin, Virginia S. Bucklin, and Ruth Lilla, are unlikely models in an unlikely calendar aimed at raising money for the church. The photos are of nude seniors, themselves included, with critical areas tastefully, sometimes humorously, covered.

Initially, there were indications that the calendar, conceived and created by the independent initiative of a small group of female congregants and inspired by the movie Calendar Girls, would face determined opposition from the rector, the Rev. Russell G. Ruffino.

. . . The photos that were passed around the room feature women smiling brightly, shoulders bared and chests covered by a number of seasonally-appropriate props. In one, Bucklin, Ms. October, dons a witch hat, holds a makeshift broom and lifts a bare leg suggestively.

“When she put her leg up on the bench for that pose, all the ladies started to cheer ‘go, go, go,’” said [photographer Kathleen] Almonte, who at 57 is 13 years younger than the youngest of the 12 models.

Church’s ‘calendar girls’ get the green light by Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, The Providence Journal.

Here’s a Top Ten list of films that right-thinking people should pray will not provide further inspiration to the impressionable septuagenarian and octogenarian members of St. Peter’s-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church, Narragansett:

The Full Monty (1997)

The Da Vinci Code (filming)

The Crying Game (1992)

Chariots of the Gods (1970)

Harold and Maude (1971)

The Passover Plot (1976)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Whose Life Is it Anyway? (1981)

Cocoon (1985)

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