WPost: Confessions of a (liberal) Christian film critic

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The following observations have little to do with the normal work that we do here at GetReligion, since our goal is to dissect the mainstream press coverage of religion news, seeking the good, the bad and the ugly.

Nevertheless, I think faithful readers of this blog will be interested in a new essay by Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday, which ran under this provocative headline: “Confessions of a Christian film critic.”

Right. And this very interesting essay opens with the following passage, which is long — but essential.

“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”

It may come as something of a surprise for Washington Post readers to learn that these are the words I silently invoke every time I sit down to write.

It would surely shock the gentleman who recently e-mailed to castigate me for the “evil” review I wrote of the film “Son of God,” the screen adaptation of the “Bible” TV miniseries. “You will have much to account for the day you meet God,” the e-mailer wrote. “It is now evident you cannot write a review without your personal biases surfacing. That is not professional.”

My correspondent’s words stung — not only because something I had written had caused such obvious distress. In just a few short sentences, he summed up the tensions, contradictions and fleeting moments of grace I have experienced as a film critic who also happens to be a practicing Christian.

The truth is, my angry e-mailer had good reason to assume I’m not religious. I don’t make a habit of professing my faith in my writing — a reticence I chalk up to denomination and profession. A cradle Episcopalian, I grew up within a tradition that’s notoriously chary of proselytizing; as practitioners of that most mainline of mainline Protestant denominations, we tend to prefer evangelizing through our lives and actions rather than showier protestations.

Yes, that sound you are hearing is members of some other flocks — you know, the people in all those shallow flocks that are into that whole “showier protestations” and proselytizing thing — snickering just a bit.

In other words, try to imagine a film critic drawing a paycheck at the Post who is a cradle, oh, member of the Assemblies of God or a Catholic who is active in Opus Dei writing a similar essay and feeling free to express sentiments that are exactly the opposite of this.

Then imagine them feeling free to write this next passage in the same essay:

I don’t hide the fact that I attend church regularly — in fact, I’ve been fairly active in my Baltimore parish for the past dozen years, as a member of our pastoral care committee, as a Eucharistic visitor and as a Sunday School teacher (a fact that will surely strike terror into the hearts of those readers who weren’t so crazy about my “Noah” review, either). …

But my resistance to invoking God, Jesus Christ and matters of the spirit in my writing also has to do with something the “Son of God” e-mailer correctly identified: the journalistic habit of not allowing my personal biases to surface, thereby inappropriately using my work as a religious platform and alienating those readers who don’t share my faith or have no faith at all. Those individuals have every right to read a movie review or essay without feeling sermonized, excluded or disrespected.

Wait, there is more:

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What precisely pulled Mickey Rooney back from the abyss?

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There are no second acts in American lives.

– F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940)

Oh really? So how many acts were there in the long, complicated and amazing life of Mickey Rooney? Let’s list a few: Child star, teen star, Army draftee, struggling male lead, Broadway revival star and award-winning older character actor on screens both large and small. And then there was the personal side of the drama, with eight marriages and any number of financial setbacks along the way.

That’s the kind of life that, when you pass away at age 93, earns you this kind of language in a lengthy New York Times obituary:

Although his career was one of the longest in show business history — about 90 years separated his first movie from his last — it was crammed with detours and dead ends. (“There have been crevices, fissures, pits, and I’ve fallen into a lot of them,” he told The Times in 1979.)

His elfin face and short, stocky body were part of the problem: At 28, with adolescent roles no longer an option and adult roles hard to come by, he said he would give 10 years of his life to be six inches taller. Yet most of his wounds were self-inflicted. …

Yet he always bounced back, often higher than anyone expected.

Not including the Mickey Maguire shorts, Mr. Rooney made more than 200 movies, earning a total of four Academy Award nominations — he was nominated for best supporting actor as the fast-talking soldier who dies trying to protect $30,000 he won in a craps game in “The Bold and the Brave” (1956) and as the trainer of a wild Arabian horse in “The Black Stallion” (1979). (Because of his size, Mr. Rooney played a lot of jockeys and, as his waistline expanded, former jockeys who had become trainers. He was the vagabond who helps Elizabeth Taylor turn an unruly horse into a steeplechase champion in her breakthrough film, “National Velvet,” in 1944.)

He was also nominated for five Emmy Awards and won one, for his performance in the 1981 television movie “Bill” as a developmentally disabled man who has spent most of his life in an institution and must learn to live in the outside world.

The final twist in the plot, back to a modest level of stardom late in life, even had a religious twist — which is why this is GetReligion territory. You see, there seems to be some confusion about what, precisely, took place to bring healing to this troubled soul. The Times notes:

Things began turning around for Mr. Rooney in the 1970s. He stopped drinking and became a born-again Christian. In 1978, after two more marriages and divorces, he married Jan Chamberlin, a country singer whom he met through his son Mickey Jr. Their marriage, his eighth and last, brought stability to his life. And a return to stardom was just around the corner.

So he stopped drinking and became a “born-again Christian” and that is that? This matters since this spiritual turn opened the door to his smashing return to Broadway and several other remarkable events, including that Oscar-nomination for “The Black Stallion.” Apparently no other details were needed.

But that was tame compared with the obit in The Washington Post, which went one step stranger with a neck-snapping transition from things spiritual to things earthy.

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And for a change, a ‘Noah’ movie story that sails smoothly

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Last week, I criticized USA Today’s fast-food cheeseburger of a story on the religious controversy over the new “Noah” movie.

Today, I want to praise the filet-mignon level of coverage served up by CNN’s Belief Blog and Godbeat pro Daniel Burke.

Before I do so, I must confess that I have not seen the movie and may not make it soon, as I still need to catch the new Muppet and “Veronica Mars” flicks. Plus, baseball season just started (if you’re a fan, you might enjoy my column on Opening Day in Texas), so my free time is more limited. Smile.

But back on topic: Under the headline “Does God have a prayer in Hollywood?” the in-depth CNN report combines a tractor-trailer load full of meaty material, from the director’s motivation and insight to important background on faith-based films past, present and future. Throughout, the piece provides the kind of details that speak to the beat specialist getting religion.

Let’s start with a big chunk of the top:

Los Angeles (CNN) – Forgive Darren Aronofsky if he’s begun to identify with the title character of his new film, “Noah.”

Like the infamous ark-maker, the 45-year-old director has weathered a Bible-sized storm – and it’s not over yet.

Aronofsky’s epic, which stars Russell Crowe and boasts a $130 million budget (with marketing costs to match), rode a swelling wave of controversy into American theaters on Friday.

Despite fierce criticism from some conservative Christians, “Noah” was the top box-office draw last weekend, raking in $44 million in the United States.

Part Middle-Earth fantasy flick, part family melodrama, the film is an ambitious leap for Aronofsky, director of the art-house hits “Black Swan” and “The Wrestler.”

Both of those films were showered with praise and awards. “Noah,” on the other hand, has sailed into a stiff headwind.

Glenn Beck and megachurch pastor Rick Warren blasted the film. The National Religious Broadcasters insisted “Noah” include a disclaimer acknowledging the filmmakers took “artistic license” with the Bible story. Several Muslim countries have banned the movie, citing Islam’s injunctions against depicting prophets.

Even Paramount, the studio releasing “Noah,” has agitated Aronofsky, testing at least five different versions of his film with focus groups.

See the deft way that Burke explains the Muslim opposition (the depiction of prophets)? That’s basic journalism maybe, but USA Today mentioned concern by Muslim-dominated nations with no explanation why.

Give CNN credit, too, for understanding the importance of reporting on the director’s own faith background:

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About those rough religious waters for the ‘Noah’ movie

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A USA Today headline declares:

‘Noah’ hits rough religious waters on-screen

The top of the story:

Director Darren Aronofsky has seen his share of controversy in a body of work that has included uncompromising films such as Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan.

But there hasn’t been anything quite like the storm that has erupted over his treatment of the Old Testament tale featured in Noah, out Friday. The maelstrom has battle-tested studio heads reaching for appropriate biblical comparisons.

“It’s been a unique journey,” says Rob Moore, vice chairman of distributor Paramount Studios. “I actually feel like some combination of Noah preparing for the storm, or Joseph, where you feel like you’re in some foreign land and you’re trying to figure out how to make it all work.”

The story of Noah’s construction of a massive ark to save Earth’s animals from God’s flood-borne wrath is sacred text in the Koran and the Bible, and is one of the most popular stories with children.

Keep reading, and the concise report references concerns about the film from some Muslim-dominated nations as well as conservative radio talk show host Glenn Beck. Later, readers hear from the head of the National Religious Broadcasters:

NRB President Jerry Johnson posed the all-important question in a series of articles on the organization’s website: Should Christians organize churches to see Noah, or boycott it?

While taking issue with some of Aronofsky’s vision, Johnson wrote many would “enjoy” the “quality production.”

“Most importantly, you can have healthy gospel discussions about some of the positives, and even the negatives,” Johnson wrote. He also made clear it was not a “buy up a block of tickets” moment for churches.

But what are the positives? What are the negatives?

This vague story allows that the Koran and the Bible contain the story of Noah. Why not report what those texts say about Noah and compare those stories with the one on the big screen? (Maybe those kind of details would give the plot away, but in this case, isn’t that the point?)

In a related story, USA Today reports that Hollywood has found religion and profits at theaters.

That story provides some insight:

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Time: McConaughey’s ‘confounding’ speech at Oscars

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Did you hear that awkward sound at the Oscars last night, the one right after Matthew McConaughey offered his thoughts on the meaning of life, family and, perhaps, Pilgrim’s Progress? Here’s the quote that is getting so much cyber-ink today:

“First off I want to thank God, because he’s the one I look up to, he’s graced my life with opportunities that I know are not of my hand or any other human kind. He has shown me that it’s a scientific fact that gratitude reciprocates. In the words of the late (British actor) Charlie Laughton, who said, ‘When you got God, you got a friend and that friend is you.’”

The only really mysterious part of that is the “and that friend is you” part at the end of that section of the speech where McConaughey pointed out toward, but slightly above, the rather shocked audience. Was the actor — previously known more for his ripped torso than his theological views — saying that individuals in Hollywood, if they embrace God, can finally come to peace with their complicated relationships with, well, themselves?

The confounded editorial team at the Time entertainment section tried to sum up the mini-sermon this way. Here’s the headline:

Explaining Matthew McConaughey’s Confounding Acceptance Speech

We parse it all for you — “Amen and Alright Alright Alright”

And then:

After winning for his role as Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyer’s Club, Matthew McConaughey launched into a semi-bizarre tale about his inner life. Here is what we learned:

1. He needs someone to look up to, something to look forward to and someone to chase.

2. He wants to thank God, who he looks up to. God is all about gratitude.

3. He wants to thank his family, who he looks forward to. His deceased father, he believes, is celebrating with a big pot of gumbo and a can of Miller Lite. His mother, still with us, taught him how to respect himself.

4. The person he chases is himself, 10 years into the future. He knows he will never catch up, but he wants to find out who that guy will turn out to be.

5. To all of that, he says “Amen,” ”Alright, Alright, Alright” and “Keep on Livin’.”

Now, if you watch the whole speech — which I urge you to do — it seems that the Time entertainment team was hearing most of his words, but failed to grasp the meaning of this particular meditation. For example, what’s up with the “God is all about gratitude” part, unless Time is saying that the “all about” reference is slang noting that God is pro-gratitude.

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Hollywood’s ‘Noah’ wars: Why not quote the Bible?

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Let’s face it. That Noah character in Genesis 9 is one pretty wired, complex fellow. I don’t know about you, but I can see the volatile actor Russell Crowe digging into some of this stuff:

The sons of Noah who came out of the ark were Shem, Ham and Japheth. (Ham was the father of Canaan.) These were the three sons of Noah, and from them came the people who were scattered over the whole earth.

Noah, a man of the soil, proceeded [a] to plant a vineyard. When he drank some of its wine, he became drunk and lay uncovered inside his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father naked and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it across their shoulders; then they walked in backward and covered their father’s naked body. Their faces were turned the other way so that they would not see their father naked.

When Noah awoke from his wine and found out what his youngest son had done to him, 25 he said,

Cursed be Canaan!
the lowest of slaves
will he be to his brothers
.”

In other words, whatever was going on with Noah in the events leading up to the flood and in the flood itself didn’t exactly turn him into a living ray of sunshine and light. This man had issues.

Some of that is soaked into the Hollywood drama covered in a new Hollywood Reporter piece that ran under this headline: “Rough Seas on ‘Noah’: Darren Aronofsky Opens Up on the Biblical Battle to Woo Christians (and Everyone Else).”

Now, on one level, this tale centers on one of the Holy Grails of modern Hollywood, which is the quest to latch onto the massive faith-based audience that lined up over and over for Mel Gibson’s blockbuster “The Passion of the Christ.” Hollywood big shots want that market share, but it’s clear that they are not sure how to woo said audience while continuing to do that edgy Hollywood thing that they want to do.

The Hollywood Reporter piece is all over that story. Here’s a sample:

The making of Noah, with Russell Crowe as the lead, turned into a head-on collision between an auteur filmmaker coming off a career-defining success in Black Swan ($330 million global, five Oscar nominations) and a studio working to protect a major investment that is intended to appeal to believers of every religion as well as those without any faith. Paramount Pictures, in partnership with New Regency Productions, is shouldering a budget on the March 28 release of more than $125 million, by far the costliest movie Aronofsky has made. (His previous high was $35 million for The Fountain, which foundered for Warner Bros. in 2006. Black Swan was independently financed and cost just $13 million.)

The trouble began when Paramount, nervous about how audiences would respond to Aronofsky’s fantastical world and his deeply conflicted Noah, insisted on conducting test screenings over the director’s vehement objections while the film was a work in progress.

Friction grew when a segment of the recruited Christian viewers, among whom the studio had hoped to find Noah’s most enthusiastic fans, questioned the film’s adherence to the Bible story and reacted negatively to the intensity and darkness of the lead character. Aronofsky’s Noah gets drunk, for example, and considers taking drastic measures to eradicate mankind from the planet.

The finances and Hollywood politics of all of this are quite Byzantine. Check out this material, care of Paramount Vice Chair Rob Moore:

Moore says Aronofsky’s Noah is not in the more literal vein of the blockbuster Bible series produced for the History channel by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey. “They’ve been very effective in terms of communicating to and being embraced by a Christian audience,” says Moore. “This movie has a lot more creativity to it. And therefore, if you want to put it on the spectrum, it probably is more accurate to say this movie is inspired by the story of Noah.”

At the same time, he says the film reflects “the key themes of the Noah story in Genesis — of faith and hope and God’s promise to mankind.” The studio is aware that a vocal segment of Christian viewers might reject the film over accuracy. Still, Moore says, “Our anticipation is that the vast majority of the Christian community will embrace it.”

And so forth and so on. So here is what I — literally — don’t understand:

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Pod people: Does it matter if celebrities/royals have faith?

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As the old saying goes, Americans don’t have a royal family. We have celebrities.

We even live in a day in which it is terribly important for American political leaders to be perceived as celebrities, with as much cool clout as possible if they want to be successful. Ask Mitt Romney about how that works out in the real world.

Meanwhile, the members of Great Britain’s royal family are now, arguably, the most important, the most popular, the most omnipresent celebrities in the world. The light of the exploding star named Princess Diana still glows hot.

On one level, the subject of this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to listen) was my post the other day in which I argued that there was interesting religious content (gasp) in that baptism service for Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge. I was glad that the online version of the USA Today feature on the rite included a nugget of crucial religious information, yet sad that the version of the story that millions saw in the ink-on-paper edition lacked those crucial paragraphs.

Surprise. The first thing the copy desk cut out of the baptism story, to fit it around the adds, was the factual religious content. The fashion material? In, of course. The gossipy stuff about who made the cut as godparents? In. Plenty of Diana references? In. In. In.

In particular, I wanted to know which version, traditional or progressive, of The Book of Common Prayer was used in the service, so that readers could know — if they really wanted to know — the content of the eternal vows taken by the parents on behalf of their first child. They almost certainly spoke these words or words very similar to them:

Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ?
Parents and Godparents: I will, with God’s help. …

Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
Answer: I renounce them.

Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?
Answer: I do.

Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
Answer: I do.

Does this matter? Well, it matters if you are in any way interested in whether the royals remain committed to Christian faith in any way other than its ceremonial role in British life. The details of the service, the kinds of details reporters can seek out, may have offered clues.

You see, the international press said over and over that this rite made the baby prince a member of the Church of England. That is not what a baptism rite does, in the ancient faith. The rite was the doorway — at first through the pledges of the parents and godparents, backed by the work of the Holy Spirit — into the Christian faith. Period.

Is that content part of the news story?

Meanwhile, by this point readers may have asked a logical question: Why in the world is he bloody conclusion of “Training Day” at the top of this post about the baptism of a royal baby?

Good question.

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Boy Scouts: Hollywood vs. some vague army of Americans

On one level, the recent Reuters “special report” on the financial issues haunting the 10,600-acre Summit Bechtel Family National Reserve in West Virginia breaks quite a bit of new and important ground about the current challenges faced by the Boy Scouts of America. It’s a must read and it’s clear that this expensive project is — to one degree or another — in trouble.

But on another level, it’s just plain haunted. Period.

The larger context for this hot-button story is crucial, of course.

BSA membership totals are down and, to its credit, the Reuters team includes one fact on that front that has been missing in most other reports about this era in Boy Scout life — the reality that an organization offering camping, exercise, family values and wholesome educational projects is being forced to compete with the video game and Internet culture. Are there merit badges for hitting top levels in Halo and World of Warcraft?

The story also, of course, has to deal with the ticking time bomb of gay rights and the attempts by Boy Scout leaders to please the cultural, moral and religious left. Here is one of the crucial passages:

The Summit shortfall is part of a broader financial crunch facing the Boy Scouts as the organization shrinks. That decline has been exacerbated by the protracted gay-membership battle. A compromise adopted by Scout leaders in May — allow gay youth, but not gay adults — appears to be doing little so far to ease the pressure.

Conservative troops are threatening to secede; one splinter group said this week it is forming a rival to the Scouts. Liberal troops are meanwhile establishing more-inclusive policies. Many corporate donors continue to sit on the sidelines, even as some regional Scout councils face severe deficits, according to Boy Scout executives and council members across the country.

“We cannot support an organization that has a policy that is discriminatory,” said Joanne Dwyer, a spokeswoman for CVS Caremark, which stopped all funding to local Boy Scout councils and the national organization a decade ago.

The story does a very good job of describing the powerful legal, financial and cultural forces that are pushing against the Boy Scout leadership from the left. Special attention is given — and justifiably so — to the cultural principalities and powers based near that big white sign on a hillside in Southern California. Want to drop a big name?

Will the Boy Scouts ever be able to get a returned phone call from ET’s master? How about the Middle American powers that be at The United Way?

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