LBTM: Meet the Steeles

We cut to Chicago, a series of fades beginning with an aerial shot of downtown and ending in the interior of the Steele's suburban bathroom, where Rayford is looking at himself in the mirror.

The soundtrack blares the title song, "Left Behind," by Bryan Duncan, which is worth mention here since it's a near-perfect introduction to the frustrating Mr. Duncan: great pipes, capably derivative but dated musical style, insipid lyrics. This song, recorded in 2000, is not intentionally retro or an effort to revive the musical styles of the late '80s and early '90s. It's just that it seems to have taken the CCM folks 10 years to get around to ripping off New Jack Swing.

They do that thing where the external soundtrack morphs into an internal soundtrack and we hear Duncan's voice sounding tinnier and staticky. The music is apparently coming from Chloe's room. So even though at this point in the story she's a worldly, unsaved intellectual, she's already developed a taste for listening to bad contemporary Christian music on an AM clock radio.

Cut to CamCam on the TeeVee. That's our Buck sitting at a news anchor's desk reporting for GNN (the Global News Network here substituting for Global Weekly). Buck the anchor is poorly lit and sickly pale in a wrinkled suit, slumping over the news desk like a pre-makeover Albert Brooks in Broadcast News. His report, though, marks a constructive compression and correction of the novel. Here the Israeli Miracle has been moved closer in time, so that it occurs just days before the Event. He also mumbles something about speculation that Israel may have used some kind of top-secret "laser defense." That's a flimsy bit of phlebotinum, but it's enough to suggest that here people might view Israel's miraculous-seeming defense as a non-miraculous event without having to be the kind of deliberately obtuse and willfully truth-denying idiots that the novel repeatedly suggests all non-RTCs must be.

As Cam-Cam's report plays on the television, we see Chloe and her little brother wrestling over the remote as part of a perfunctory Meet the Family scene. Mom says some mommish things and Dad says some daddish things.

Throughout this off-the-shelf conversation the filmmakers want us to see the division that runs through the Steele family. On the one side are Irene and Raymie, who are cheerful born-again RTCs. And on the other side are Rayford and Chloe, who are played by legitimate actors.

For several seconds here I liked the idea that we would be getting to see the Steele family pre-Event and intact, but that response didn't survive our actually meeting Irene and Raymie. It's no wonder that Rayford and Chloe are both packing their bags, eager to get out of the house.

Irene seems fragile and nervously birdlike, like at any moment she could burst into tears or fly into a violent rage. She reminds me of one of those Catherine O'Hara characters in a Christopher Guest movie. Watching her desperately hanging all those balloons and streamers you get the feeling that she has a secret drawer filled with dozens of prescription bottles.

Raymie is much worse. Nearly every negative stereotype attached to the phrase "child actor" is on display here. He's mugging on every line such that, regardless of the actual words he's speaking, every sentence seems to be "Aren't I adorably smark-alecky?"

This ruins what might otherwise have been the first half-decent joke in the film. His dad promises to bring back a souvenir from London and the kid asks for "one of those long, pointy sticks that they put heads on" (the script seems to confuse Buckingham Palace with the Tower of London, but let that pass). "Where does he get this stuff from?" Rayford asks. The punchline is "Sunday school," but the kid delivers this line in such an intrusively hammy fashion that all we can hear him saying is "Look at me! Aren't I the cutest?" and the joke falls flat.

Bad child actors, it seems to me, make a convincing case for the doctrine of original sin. Or at least a convincing case against the idea of childish innocence. I tend to like the idea of an "age of accountability," but as I watch this kid greedily wrestling for the spotlight I start to think that maybe some kids ought to be among those left behind. I don't remember feeling any particular dislike for Raymie while reading the book, but this kid sets my teeth on edge.

By contrast, while reading the book I found Rayford Steele almost impossible to like, ever, even a little bit. He is, from the first sentence to the final page, just about the least sympathetic protagonist I have ever encountered. But here, remarkably, I've already begun to like Rayford.

Brad Johnson inhabits Rayford Steele and sets out to make the character human. He's not getting any help from the dialogue or the plot, but he seems determined to make Rayford believable, to provide some kind of emotional logic for why he is who he is and why he does what he does. It's jarring how different this makes him from the perversely inhuman cartoon in the novel.

Johnson is a far better actor than Jerry Jenkins is a writer. That doesn't just mean that he conveys Rayford more fully or accurately than Jenkins is able to, but that he conveys Rayford differently. Casting a capable actor here means that the Rayford Steele in the movie is a different character entirely than the Rayford Steele in the book. This is a Good Thing.

I suspect that there's a bit of method-acting subtext to the scene that follows, the conversation between Rayford and Chloe in the driveway. Chloe admits that Irene drives her crazy too and that she can't stand her mom's church friends either, but she pleads with her father to at least humor them and pretend to be nice.

I imagine that an almost-identical conversation may have occurred between Janaya Stephens and Brad Johnson, probably in the smoking area off to the side of the set for this movie. "They're not my favorite people either," Chloe/Janaya says, "but we should at least pretend to take an interest." Rayford/Brad seems to think that's a lot to ask. He wishes her good luck and heads off to work. He's got a paycheck to earn and he's going to earn it.

As Rayford drives off, the soundtrack blares Bob Carlisle's "After All (Rayford's Song)" — a maudlin, oversung and overproduced piece of CCM-dreck awkwardly tacked onto the scene. The filmmakers' inability to integrate the "hit songs" written for the movie's soundtrack with the movie itself will become a recurring motif in LBTM.

Suddenly, rat-a-tat, "GNN Studios, New York" and Buck Williams is purposefully striding out of an elevator, being hailed by his adoring coworkers, when his cellphone rings.

"Buck, Dirk Burton. I know who's behind those planes falling out of the sky. … Not on an open line. … Meet me at the usual spot."

Now this is interesting. Dirk is a quite different character here than he is in the book. He's been conveniently and sensibly transplanted to New York, but more than that he seems to have been changed from nervous whistleblower to full-blown schizophrenic. Jack Langedijk — a sort of poor man's Hank Azaria — plays Dirk as a man tormented by voices and hau
nting half-glimpses of a massive conspiracy.

This makes movie-Dirk a lot more fun than novel-Dirk, but it's a curious choice for the filmmakers. It's an admission of sorts that their beliefs about the future seem similar to the ramblings of an unstable conspiracy theorist who imagines nefarious connections he's unable to defend. It's like an admission that their beliefs are indistinguishable from madness.

That could be an astute starting point if they were really interested in convincing the rest of us that their premillennial dispensationalist Bible-prophecy-seminar vision of the future is true. "You might think I'm crazy," was, not coincidentally, the first line of the title song from the soundtrack that we just heard a moment ago, and that's not a bad first line when you're describing your belief in something that might, in fact, make others think you're crazy. But the next step ought to be to say, "Let me prove to you that this crazy-sounding thing is actually true, and therefore not crazy to believe."

That's where I expected this truth-telling-madman take on Dirk Burton to lead us. But that doesn't happen with Dirk. He may have stumbled onto the truth, but apparently he believes it for the wrong reasons. He believes it because of some disk full of evidence he downloaded off of Cothran's computer. That doesn't seem to count. Apparently it only counts if you believe the truth because you read it in the Scofield Reference Bible and you chose to accept it without evidence.

The lyrics to "Left Behind" don't say, "You might think I'm crazy … but it's really true." What they say, rather, is "You might think I'm crazy but … I've made up my mind." Those two things aren't actually mutually exclusive, though, are they?

Ironically, CamCam's problem in this scene is that he hasn't made up his mind. Confronted with Langedijk's manic and unhinged Dirk Burton, he just doesn't know what to do. Or rather he never decides what to do.

CamCam, like the script for this scene, can't seem to decide whether Dirk is mentally ill or just in need of some sleep and a couple days off. He can't seem to decide whether he rushed off to see Dirk because he was looking for a legitimate story tip or because his old friend sounded like he was off his meds again and in need of help. CamCam could probably have played this scene either way, but he needed to decide one or the other and to stick with it with as much conviction as Langedijk brings here.

I don't believe, as Kirk Cameron does, that the book of Revelation presents a check list of future events preordained by God. I do believe, however, that the book of Revelation contains some excellent advice on acting that Cameron needs to learn:

"Thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot."

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NRA: Everyone dies, rocks fall
NRA: Buck's clever plan
NRA: A church without a plan
NRA: A threat to the GIRAT
  • Thalia

    What really bothered me about Raymie was one of his first lines – when Chloe asks him “do you always do what you’re told?” and he says, with moral superiority, “Yeah, you should try it sometime.”
    Obedience = good.
    Even more bizarrely, the way it was played it came off as “obedience = impishly rebellious”. WTF?

    Hmmmm…. So, you’re not familiar with the bit where one kid plays all goody-two-shoes in front of the authority figures but is actually a twit? Or where the “good” kid gets jollies taking it out on the “bad” kid, possibly even getting them in trouble? Were you an only child?

  • Boze

    Thoughts on watching this scene again for the first time in a couple of years:
    – “No way! Let the guy tell everybody he meets about the Truth. Just look at him. He’s so obviously crazy that not only will no one believe him, he will end up so completely discrediting the Truth that no one will ever believe it.”
    I was thinking along the same lines. If you were a Nefarious Conspirator and some deranged, unkempt, unslept Reverend Jim came along and stumbled on your Nefarious Conspiracy, why would you even bother getting rid of him? It’s only when people start dying that anyone gets suspicious. Between this and the Daniel-quoting prophet, it seems CamCam gives entirely too much credence to paranoid, eccentric types to be a believable secularist.
    – The main source of Rayford’s irritation in this part of the movie seems to be from the fact that he’s wandered into a movie where nobody realizes he’s an airline pilot. “Sweetie, you have to fly somewhere?” “You mean you have to leave the house?!!!” No wonder he’s driven to yelling, “GUYS, I HAVE A JOB!”
    – When I watched the movie before and heard the Carlisle song playing as Rayford was pulling out of the driveway, I assumed it was supposed to be satirical; I mean, he’s singing, “Ohhhhh, the sorrow!…” Even at fourteen or so, I felt it an ironic meditation on the melodrama of their lives.
    – “Meanwhile, I felt a sudden irony pang, since I was talking about not reading vampire books while paging through a rather enjoyable novel about a world in which 99.something percent of the population is made up of werewolves.”
    Is that the book Praline wrote? I hope the movie is better than “Twilight,” when it comes.

  • J Neo Marvin

    Oh sure, being one of four children I know all that behavior quite well. My “WTF” is more aimed at the filmmakers and what they’re trying to say with the portrait of the kid. Unless they were DELIBERATELY undermining LaHaye and Jenkins’ intent here, I don’t think they were setting out to portray Raymie as a manipulative little Eddie Haskell For Jesus, but that’s what they ended up with, which is all the more telling and falls into line with all that our host has pointed out about the sheer monstrousness of this series’ idea of a Good Role Model.

  • Boze

    Oh, and just in case you were thinking Fridays couldn’t get any more better, “Left Behind II: Tribulation Force” is five times more remarkable than the film preceding it. By remarkable I mean, “so unintentionally hilarious it hurts a little when you watch it.” Here are some snippets of dialogue:
    Reluctant, Angry Unbeliever: Rayford, I don’t know what’s real!
    Rayford (gesturing wildly): This ROOM is REAL!
    (it sounds as though he’s saying “this BROOM is REAL!” and since there isn’t actually any broom in sight, the whole scene is wonderfully, delirious confusing when you watch it the first time.)
    Bruce Barnes: If you would like to accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, please stand up and come to the front.
    (twelve to fifteen people stand to their feet. they turn around and leave.)
    My favorite:
    Bruce Barnes: The Antichrist is going to make a covenant with Israel for seven years. The Bible says that he will come pretending to be a man of peace and harmony, but what he really brings is death and war.
    Old Man in the Congregation: Well that sounds like Nicolae Carpathia! But he can’t be the Antichrist! All he ever talks about is peace and harmony!

  • Boze

    Without question, though, by far the Greatest End-times Movie of All Times is a little movie called “Megiddo: The Omega Code II,” in which the plum role is played by Michael York (the man most famous, more recently, for playing “Basil Exposition” in the Austin Powers movies). I’m going to give a brief synopsis of the film, but anyone who doesn’t have the time or inclination to read it ought at the very least to watch the little snippet at the end.
    Where does one begin to describe the wonder of a film like this? The people to whom I have shown it suspect that the screenplay writers deliberately wrote a script which is a parody of end-times movies and the whole apocalyptic mindset, and that somehow the people at TBN who produced it were too naive and gullible to notice. We think Michael York is in on the joke, since he plays the Antichrist as a suave, debonair man who loves to make outrageous, over-the-top speeches (the movie is full of them), ridiculous puns (“I really AM my brother’s keeper!” when he traps his brother in a cage), and Willy-Wonka style allusions to Shakespeare (“ah, proud man,” he greets the leader of a certain rebellious nation, “dressed in a little brief authority.”)
    The movie begins with Michael York strolling through a field in Israel, describing all the men who shed their blood upon this patch of ground in ancient Palestine. “And oh, the flowers that bloomed!” he exclaims. His little minion, Udo Kier, appears out of nowhere in a cloak and says, “He who controls Jerusalem in the end of days…” “Controls the world,” says Michael, grinning and nodding a little wistfully.
    Next, it cuts to 1960, where Stone Alexander is a little boy whose father controls a vast media empire. Stone attempts setting his baby brother David on fire in a crib, an act which suggests to Mr. Alexander that something isn’t right with the child and that he should be sent to military school. This is the scariest part of the movie. Actually, each scene gets progressively worse. By the time we reach the Final, Astonishing Climax (which you can view at the end of this post), most people are so stunned by the sheer magnitude of the absurdity that they just stare at the screen with their mouths slightly open, afraid to laugh.
    After a brief stint in military school in Italy, Stone Alexander is about fifty years old, and he’s the head of the European Union. He has a British accent. His brother David is vice-president of the United States; the president, played by R. Lee Ermey (who plays the drill sergeant in any movie that calls for one) is suspicious of David’s brother; he has a list of 200 people who at one time or another opposed him, and they all wound up dead. The president and vice-president are on their way to Rome to talk with him.
    Meanwhile, Stone is standing in front of the Roman Forum, giving a speech about his decision to divide the world into ten separate states, with himself as the head. “Witness your first day in a UNITED WOOOOORLD!” he exclaims. “One language! One currency! One dictator?! Oh yes, I know some of you are thinking that! What propels you is fear! The same fear that caused Brutus to strike down Julius Caesar… RIGHT THERE! But ‘men at some time are MASTERS of their fates’! I do not ask you to follow me, but to take the journey WITH ME! The journey to a BETTER WOOOOOOORLD!”
    The president and vice-president touch down in Rome, but they only stay long enough to explain that America isn’t interested in joining any world union. “Not while I have breath in my body,” says the president helpfully. Stone shakes his hand and walks away; the president has a heart attack and dies.
    David becomes the new president of the United States. At a party, Stone murders their father, throwing him from the top of a terrace to the street and calling in horror for an ambulance a moment afterward. “Oh, God!” he yells, “why wasn’t I THERE?!” Meanwhile, David refuses to join the new world union. “This government,” he tells his cabinet, “has been, and always will be, OF the people, BY the people, and FOR the people of the United States of America!” God seems to be in agreement, for He begins sending devastation and destruction on the earth. Fires and tornadoes sweep through the midwestern portions of the States; the Sphinx disappears into the Egyptian sands; we see a bunch of people running in a timely manner out of the Coliseum, and a moment later a meteor descends from space and smashes it to ruins. Meanwhile, Stone is watching the whole fiasco from his castle balcony. He takes communion – “this is my flesh, made foul with sin!” – and dances around a picture of Jesus. “Two thousand years,” he says. “Can you feel it all coming to an end?!” He takes his golden cup and walks out into the night. The meteorites are falling from the sky like rain. “Bravo!” he shouts. “But you can do better than that! Pour out your bowls, unleash your plagues, I CHALLENGE you!” In a delirious frenzy, he pours his wine out on the stone below. “POUR OUT YOUR BOWLS OF WRATH UPON THE EARTH! BRIIIIIIIIIIING IT ON!!!!”
    At this point in the movie I feel Michael York realized the sort of movie he was in and decided to play it up for all that it was worth. (“If you gave cameras to monkeys,” wrote the Dallas Morning News, “it’s hard to imagine a worse movie than Megiddo.”) He jets over to Kenya, where he tosses his Panama hat around like Jimmy Swaggart and informs the masses that he can no longer feed them. “YOU!” he screams. “You have seen a sky black as night in the fullness of day! You have seen a plague that RIPPED through your fields, and you look to me for help!” The masses starting nodding and speaking in tongues.
    “I cannot help you,” he says quietly. “I cannot help you because you have turned your backs on me! YOU HAVE TURNED YOUR BACKS ON ME, YOUR GOD! And for that… YOU WILL BE PUNISHED!!!” So saying, he shoots a laser out of the end of his finger and lightning starts falling from the sky. (in case you don’t believe me: Everyone runs and screams. The lightning even hits one of ’em. About a dozen people decide to hide in the top of a tree, like any smart person would in such a situation. Lightning hits the tree; one person falls out.
    Stone invites David to his castle to talk things over, and while they’re there he casually turns on the television so that they can watch a film which clearly shows David throwing their father off a balcony. Eventually, David is put under arrest by the FBI, and he escapes by helicopter to a ship in the Mediterranean. The secretary of state takes over in America, but David has control of the ship and he sends it towards Megiddo. The Chinese and Latin Americans are sending troops to Megiddo as well, under the pretense that they have come to make peace, and Stone doesn’t ever suspect that maybe they intend to attack him. He’s having a lot of fun running around making speeches and taking the occasional poke at his brother, whom he’s trapped in a hole in the ground. “I could kill you all,” he tells him jauntily, “but that wouldn’t be very fun. I mean, who will I rule over if all of you are dead?”
    At the end of the movie, the Chinese, Americans, and Latin Americans all declare war and attack the United World forces. Something explodes and David emerges from his cage. The screen turns green. His brother Stone, is standing there, but his voice is mysteriously deeper. “Surprise!” yells the Beast, in an eerily deep voice. Claws start coming out of the top of his head. “Satan!” he screams. “Lucifer! BEEEEEEEEELZEEEEBUB!”
    And then this happens:

  • Boze

    Oh dear. For some reason I didn’t notice that this version of the movie was dubbed in Spanish. It doesn’t appear to have made any difference, though.

  • Spalanzani

    Ah yes, I watched Megiddo several years ago, as part of a Church youth group thing, no less. You forgot the part where we get to see inside the president’s body as York’s voodoo magic gives him a heart attack, and the part where York vomits a plague of flies. Fun times.

  • sophia8

    Boze, I’m very glad you gave so much warning about that clip. Thanks to that, I’d taken care to finish eating my sandwich before I started watching it.

  • lalouve

    One disadvantage (the only one, so far) with teaching fantasy and science fiction is having to read essays on terribly bad texts. I have now forbidden my students to write their essays on David Eddings or Robert Jordan, because a)it’s very difficult to write about shallow texts and b)I will throw something (the essay, the student, myself) out a window if I have to read onemore gushing appreciation of Edding’s idea of a female character. I may have to add Twilight to that list, it appears.

  • Becky

    I don’t want to believe that so many people not only buy into the “girls will do anything for the bad boy and ignore the nice guy” thing, but that they can get into a plot built on that premise without hating every character involved.
    I don’t think that’s really the story. I haven’t read them but from the descriptions I’ve read it seems a lot more like: “The sexy aloof bad boy turns out not to be an aloof jerk but was actually so in love with the girl he stayed away from her because it was too hard to be around her”. Which has its own whole set of issues but is certainly very appealing to teenage girls who (let’s not forget) are the primary audience for these books.

  • Becky

    As someone who grew up with a father who was always traveling for business, I think you’re all being too hard on Irene. Knowing it was necessary for my dad to be away all the time didn’t make it any easier. It puts a lot of strain on a family. I think it’s completely understandable and realistic that Irene would be frustrated that he’s once again missing a birthday party. Especially since he didn’t seem too regretful about it, or even bother to tell her or Raymie until he was on his way out the door.

  • Geds

    Is that the book Praline wrote?
    Why yes, yes it is. Also, lalouve, you can totally add that to your approved/recommended list…
    And then this happens:

    Good night. Although I loved the random, over the top American jingoism. I think it’s a little disturbing that so much of this end times stuff is actually a thinly veiled hypernationalistic message.

  • Thalia

    @ Cactus Wren, belatedly: I could have misremembered. The line was changed, is the essential bit to me, and if it was originally what you SAID it was, Ew. Ugh.

  • Tonio

    Because the movie actors don’t reveal the characters’ horrible crazy thoughts we, as reasonable people and fair minded viewers, assume that they are thinking normal and reasonable things and try to explain their actions accordingly.
    Another explanation is that the actors are acting less like L&J creations and more like human beings.

  • lalouve

    Geds: I don’t really have an approved list – just a list of ‘don’t even think about these.’ One of the very great pleasures of teaching sf and fantasy is that you have students that have read enormous numbers of texts in the genres, and are happy to recommend them. I am, however, planning on reading Kit’s book within the foreseeable future…hm….I’m sure I need a Christmas present…