I should recognize up front that I can hardly be considered a neutral party with respect to the Blue Like Jazz movie. First, I got to see a screening of a rough cut a few months ago, and then sit in on a podcast interview with Steve Taylor, the film’s director. I also got to meet Taylor, Don Miller and Marshall Allman at a screening in Colorado Springs, and I was invited with my wife, Amy, to write up the study guide that I posted earlier today.
When you get that close to a project, it’s hard to be objective. But people have been interested in my opinions both about the book and the film, so I thought I’d reflect on both a little bit.
The inspiration for this particular article came when Bo Eberle shared a blog post of his after seeing the movie. He offers several valid and arguable criticisms of the film which he saw in advance of the release April 13th as well. Without making a point-counterpoint out of it (for one, you can read his if you want, and second, I agree with an umber of his points), I decided to generalize from his post and share a few other critiques I’ve heard from others, followed by my thoughts on them.
When I first read the book, I felt very torn. One the one hand, I identified so closely with so many things about Miller’s personal narrative. On the other hand, I took some significant issue with the language he used in talking about his theology. Although he considers the book “nonreligious,” the way he describes God in intimately human terms, and how he also talks about “Satan” and “The Devil” are strikingly familiar to me as a former evangelical.
In order to find comfort with the book, I told myself that Miller was employing this kind of language more as a literary device, particularly since much of that kind of imagery and language was notably absent from the movie. So I asked him about it when I sat down with him for the interview. I wondered if he saw his faith evolving – or at least changing, to be more neutral – from the book to the film. But he did not feel it had. In fact, he still uses the same kind of language as is found in the book when he talks about God, evil and the like.
So for Miller, the change was more a necessity of storytelling on screen. For whatever reason, I was glad to see the change. I dug a little deeper by asking about our personal constructs of God and how those might pose as false Gods in our own faith experience, and if those false Gods were at the heart of much division and even violence in the same of faith. Basically I was inviting him to join me on the postmodern bandwagon, but he was not interested. That’s not what he believe,s and for me, that’s fine. A little disappointing, but fine.
Do I agree with his theology? Definitely not. Do I think there are redeeming messages in both the book and film? Yes. Do I need someone’s theology to align with mine to find value in it? God, I hope not.
As for this being the same old Christian film, the creators have been explicit about this not being a Christian film, but rather that it’s a film that deals with some faith-related themes, some of them specifically Christian. Sure, some may call this a cop-out or convenient nuancing, and that’s fine. But personally I see one main difference between this movie and other “Christian films.”
At the heart of other Christian movies I’ve seen is an particular agenda. There is an undeniable feeling or message they want you to walk away with, and this message is consistent with the teaching in your typical evangelical Christian church. This message – what I would argue is actually propaganda – supersedes everything else in the story, including character development, plausibly storyline and even realistic dialogue.To me, however, the core of the Blue Like Jazz movie is Don’s personal story. In fact, he and Steve Taylor were quite explicit that they had no agenda with respect to what they hoped viewers would learn, believe or walk away from the movie with. Rather, they felt it was a story worth sharing. It could be argued that the movie ultimately is pro-organized-religion, especially since we find Don Miller back in church, praying once he has his “a ha” moment. This is also where he comes back into relationship with Penny, who is unapologetically religious.
Neither Taylor or Miller are anti-church. Neither am I in all cases. Hell, I’ve worked for churches! But to suggest the movie is pro-church is too broad of a brush. It critiques religion as much as it holds it up. And Miller’s epiphanies don’t happen during a sermon or Bible study. They happen while “real life” is going on around him. And it also doesn’t ultimately place Miller back in the role of faithful churchgoer. One could assume he does, but we’re left to decide for ourselves.
As for the final main critique I’ve heard about the characters coming off as two-dimensional, I can see it, though I don’t entirely agree. Yes. there are some common themes employed to move the story along that some can consider cliche, such as the reason Miller leaves church in the first place, why the “Pope” character has such disdain for God and faith, and so on.
Yes, it would be nice to take a more existential approach to the subject matter, taking Blue Like Jazz into the the realm of films like “The Misison” or “Apocalypse Now.” But let’s not forget this film was done on a budget of just more than $1 million, and it was done by people who loved the project. That love shows through, in spite of some technical imperfections in plot and characters. In fact, while the cliches do exist, I actually noted to Taylor that I felt even the non-Christian characters generally were treated with even-handed respect and care.
This could be argued all day long, as it is more opinion rather than fact. But I did learn something recently from my brother-in-law, Mateo, who is a filmmaker, that may be at play here without viewers being very aware of it. Mateo just finished a movie with a similarly small budget, and he described to me the challenge of creating depth of character when on such a tight filming schedule.
Basically, given more money, scenes are lit, re-lit, shot, re-shot and massaged in post-production to add dimension to what is being said with nonverbal texture. But in a movie made with so little money, it is generally shot more like a TV show. Each scene is lit once, maybe twice, and three shots at most are done of the same segment. So you end up with a close-up, medium and wide shot to choose from, all with basically the same blocking and lighting. And sometimes, regardless of the dioalgue or acting skill, the lack of subtlety in cinematography tends to violate the “fourth wall,” making you more aware that you’re watching a movie, rather than getting lost in it.
My concern is that I’m coming across an an apologist, and I respect the criticisms I’ve heard, most of which are valid. But considering the original story, the modest resources to get that story to screen and the genre of Christian film-making on the whole, I consider Blue Like Jazz to be welcome progress. It’s hardly perfect, and it’s not the movie I would have made. But I’m glad it finally got done, and I think a lot of people will be positively surprised as well.