One More Thought on Blue Like Jazz

One More Thought on Blue Like Jazz April 19, 2012

So, now I’m getting emails from people, asking why I’m so negative toward Blue Like Jazz: The Movie. Let me state unequivocally, I’m not against the movie. I haven’t seen it! (One person has offered to buy me a ticket.)

As background, I’m picky about my movies. While I did recently see Hot Tub Time Machine on Netflix, I tend to only watch movies that have scores above 70 on Rotten Tomatoes. I care what critics think. I don’t care much what the American movie-going public thinks. I will never see the Twilight movies. I will see The Hunger Games.

The critics don’t like BLJ. That means that I probably won’t like it, either. My tastes in movies tends to follow the critics’.

But that’s not what’s bothered me about BLJ. What bugs me is all of the people who suggest that I have an obligation to see the movie because it’s Christian — and not just Christian, but slightly progressive Christian. “We need more movies like BLJ,” shout my friends on Facebook, “So let’s all go see it and keep it afloat!” Some even want me to buy extra tickets, just to increase the film’s revenue.

Neither Don Miller nor Steve Taylor are suggesting these tactics, as far as I know. But even Don’s latest post on the movie’s opening weekend is rife with the Christian lingo that gives me the heeby-jeebies.* (Like calling Reed College the “most Godless campus in America”** and talking about “sharing the gospel.”) The post is just the slightest bit defensive, which is understandable. Here’s hoping no one ever turns one of my books into a movie. (I can see it now: Postmodern Youth Ministry: The Movie!)

Here’s the deal: I endorse products all the time. I get a couple books and manuscripts in the mail every week. Authors, publishers, and marketers want me to write a blurb for the back cover or say something nice on my blog. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t.

But never once has someone implied that I am obligated to endorse a book because it is a Christian book. I’m asked to endorse a book on its merits alone — the lucidity of its argument, the craft of its prose — not because I owe it to my religion to back the book. As a result, I endorse about half the books I’m sent.

Here’s a test case for you: I’ve been asked by his publicists to read and blog about Brian McLaren’s new ebook trilogy. I plan to read them in coming weeks. If I like them, I’ll blog about them. If I don’t, I won’t. And Brian wouldn’t want me to.

At the risk of sounding like Stephen Colbert, the market has spoken. Actually, the market spoke earlier when studios refused to pay for this movie to be made. It’s not because they didn’t agree with the faith portrayed in the script — studios are agnostically Machiavellian about what movies they make. They didn’t make it because they didn’t think it was good enough. A group of earnest and zealous fans disagreed, and they financed the movie through Kickstarter.***

Bo Eberle has been commenting on my previous posts about BLJ. I think this comment in particular says what I’m getting at:

I think this was a “Go Christian team” kind of movie at its core. The central dichotomy is between God-believers and God-disavowers. Don’s struggle is between Christianity and atheism. I may be asking too much of this movie in particular, it’s a decade old story that I hardly find relevant AFTER everything Brian McLaren, Tony, Pete Rollins, Pagitt, Rob Bell, etc. have written at the same popular level Don Miller writes to. That’s why I think the project should have stayed dead. I have to ask more of this movie than I should be I expect more from the Christian community. The movie asks superficial questions, gives superficial answers, and pats itself on the back while the evangelical audience (I was with one at a prescreening) applauds the film but also itself for playing for the right team, inspired to go out and get people back to church, darn it! It’s like how Congress has abysmal approval ratings, yet 90 something percent of citizens approve of THEIR representative. Likewise, I think the audience of this film is blind to the Church’s deep ideological and structural problems because they think that whatever they’re doing in their church is ok.

So, what do you think? Am I being unfair to BLJ?

*Contrary to popular opinion, Heeby Jeebys is not an anti-Semitic phrase.

**The Reed College blog says “Meh” about the film: “the screenwriters rely a bit too heavily on a rather generic ‘young man coming of age’ trope, skimming over the nuances of an existential crisis that this trailer seems to promise.”

***I’m actually envious that Don Miller has fans this rabid. And he deserves them. Let me reiterate what I’ve written in earlier posts: I have not met Don Miller, but I admire him and his writing. This post isn’t about him. It’s about a culture within Christianity that we need to “stick together” no matter what. It’s why people put fish stickers on their cars. And it’s stupid. But I get that Don Miller and I are on the same team.

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  • Tom

    I think you are giving Hollywood too much credit. I doubt that Hollywood producers are so altruistic that they would refuse to make a “bad” movie. You watched “Hot Tub Time Machine?” And you still think Hollywood strives to make “good” movies?” It’s about money, Tony. Hollywood rejected Blue Like Jazz because they refuse to make a movie that isn’t a blockbuster, has marquee actors, or at least makes a couple of millions of dollars from the 18-24 year old movie going crowd. They know their market and they didn’t see BLJ as a money maker. Part of that is the result of their reticence to back a movie that will be labeled “Christian.” That instantly relegates a movie to the Christian cultural ghetto. Christian films like BLJ are then forced to find alternative funding, and they don’t always find it even at the most courageous independent film company. Shoestring budgets can produce good movies, but more not than often. Enter the critics who lambast production values, scriptwriting and acting that is only as good as the budget. (BTW, critics who are no different than the Hollywood or the movie-going public who are predisposed to be biased against “Christian” entertainment.)

    There is a even more wrong with the Christian film industry that is no fault of Hollywood or movie-goers, and I think you know what those problems are, Tony. It’s not all about Christian movies being rejected by Hollywood, but it doesn’t help when Christian movie producers know that they are starting in the hole.

    • Scott

      Spot on. It’s all about the money. If hollywood execs thought the film would turn a hefty profit, they would have green-lighted it long ago. Basically, they looked at the concept and said that there is not enough here in this story for the average movie-goer to want to pay their $10-12 or so to see it. Even then, only parts of the Christian sub-culture would support it (fundies probably don’t dig the PG-13ishness). The movie is not a financial winner. The execs were right.

    • Tom, wrong on most accounts. First, I don’t think Tony’s point was that Hollywood is altruistic, in fact he said they were “Machiavellian,” what Hollywood wants to produce are films that are blockbusters with a built in audience (like the artistically atrocious ‘Transformers’ series) or, if we’re not talking CGI/Robot/Dinosaur/Apocalypse films with hundreds of millions of dollars, small “indie” flicks without star power, like BLJ, sure as heck better have the script/production/direction/acting quality to supplement so that the film will garner critical acclaim and win awards that will pique the interest of people like Tony. BLJ “isn’t good enough” not because it is Christian, but because it is just a poorly written piece. There are myriad low-budget indie films that make a TON of money at the box office and critics love (e.g. Slumdog Millionaire, Rocky). Because they’re quality. It has nothing to do with an “anti-Christian” bias. Hollywood in all its Machiavellianness would love for another “Passion of the Christ” to come along and make a few hundred million (the ‘Transformers’ of Christian cinema, btw) . The Christian-victim complex in this country, which cries out against everything from the entertainment industry, to news networks, to our political system, has got to end. It is untenable. Christians comprise the vast majority of our society and are privileged in almsot every arena. The simple fact as to why more “Christian” media isn’t being produced and backed (as if there is such a thing a “Christian” and “secular” art) is because it’s not good enough. We’re not creative enough. Why? I don’t know. I have some hope that people like Rob Bell and his new TV adventure can help with this (I’m a Bell believer). In sum, yes it’s about money, but more often than not, quality begets profit. BLJ did not offer that quality. Almost without exception, anything that sets out to be “Christian” deserves to be in its own ghetto for the sake of the sanctity of art.

      (For the record, Hot Tub Time Machine was generally liked by critics, and is a decently humorous, light, throw away comedy. Certainly funnier than BLJ).

  • The holly

    _postmodern youth ministry: the movie_ – now that’s something i’d pay to see!

    • Mike W

      Me too. I’d throw a couple bucks at a Kickstarter campaign to get this one going.

  • Derek

    I’ve seen the movie twice, and though it wasn’t the greatest of quality, I think it sort of symbolizes the continuing shift in popular evangelical Christianity. I didn’t love it, although I support it. It could have been done much better, but the concept of the story resonates with so many of us who became disenchanted with church and evangelical Christianity. I don’t really sense the “team Christian” mentality that you mentioned. It doesn’t give any nice and clear answers. It doesn’t say that you should believe in God or become a Christian. I don’t think its even about a man trying to figure out if there is a God or not. The movie is about a young man that is fed up and tired with evangelical church culture. In the end he finds that maybe Christianity has been shitty, but maybe that has nothing to do with God. Maybe God isn’t shitty, and maybe someone should start apologizing for the way the church has been representing God. There are no conversions in this movie. There is no “invitation to Christ” in this movie. There is just a community recognizing that they have fallen extremely short and they apologize for it.

    That being said, you Tony, will not like it. It’s low quality, some of the rhetoric continues to feel “churchy” (although there are plenty of curse words, sex, and drug references, including a lesbian as a main character), and the graphics and storyline aren’t the best. A lot of people won’t like it. But let’s be honest. Since when has the evangelical church been known for liking good films? My big hope is that the same people that watched Facing the Giants might watch this movie too, and learn something from it. I don’t think it’s a movie for the non-religious at all. They wouldn’t get it. But I do know some Christians that are not known for good taste in movies that could learn a hell of a lot from it. Movies don’t have to be perfect in quality to have something good to say.

    • M. Horn

      Yo, that’s a good word right there. You captured my sentiment exactly!!

  • I think one of the things that bothers me about supporting movies or any art just because it’s Christian is that it seems to become for many an article of faith, almost like praying, tithing and fasting. I also don’t feel that Jesus’ message needs to be validated by participation in popular culture.

  • Laura

    One of the best things about this film is that there are actually some Christians ticked off about it. That tells me it isn’t aimed solely at the group of believers who won’t watch anything that isn’t sold at the neighborhood “Christian Book Store.”

    For me, the film landed in the Christian-secular version of the “uncanny valley” that CGI film-makers worry about. There comes a point when your CG character or landscape is not fake enough but not real enough – and it makes viewers uncomfortable. Miller’s concern about keeping the “Christian community” (mostly C-E’s) engaged while making a movie that would resonate with people beyond the church… well, it left me watching a film that feels like it’s not gritty enough to be the “real” struggle. Definitely a “wait for Red Box” film in my book.

  • How do you make out that “heeby jeeby” isn’t a reference to Jews and their “odd” ways? The referenced Wikipedia article doesn’t give any support, it just says that the phrase originated in the media, not on the street. But media traffics in dog whistles, and cartoons and sports stories are places where they can be easily slipped in.

  • Dean

    Tony, you lost all credibility with me as to your selectivity with cinema at “While I did see Hot Tub Time Machine…”! But seriously, relax and just go see it, the movie was just ok, but sometimes it’s worth seeing something just so you can talk to other people about it. I am one of those folks who read the book (together with Love Wins) at a confusing time in my Christian journey and probably because of that, it had an outsized impact on me, so I can relate with all the fanboys (and girls) out there with high expectations for the movie. But in all honesty, it didn’t occur to me that it would be possible to translate a book like that into a feature length film and I think given those challenges, I’m a little more generous with the end product. But if you were willing to give up two hours of your life to watch Hot Tub Time Machine (which I also thoroughly enjoyed), then I think in all fairness you should give this movie a shot, if for no other reason than to give you material for another post. 🙂

  • I’m not sure I get your argument. You seem to confuse consuming with endorsing.

    You’re going to read McLaren’s book, and then decide whether to endorse it.
    So it would be consistent to go see BLJ, and then decide whether to blog about it.

    [yes, they’re not directly comparable; one costs money the other costs (more) time]

    That’s not to say that you should or shouldn’t go to the movies: that’s your call entirely. I just don’t get the argument.

  • Tom Schwolert

    You should not comment on a movie you haven’t seen, ever! I saw a pre-screening of the movie with 400 youth ministers and many I talked to felt it was an “okay” movie but the more important thing is that it’s asking the questions that many college age students are asking. I don’t know if it will spur a huge growth in Christianity, but I think it will(and has) brought on a lot of dialogue about it. This, I think, is a very good thing. College students sitting in a coffee shop after a movie talking about their faith (or lack of it) is a good thing. Lastly, if people only listened to “the market” when writing books or making movies, a lot of great art would never be experienced. C’mon Tony, just go see it. If you don’t like it (and you probably won’t) then don’t endorse it.

  • We were looking for a movie to see on date-night, which was the same day that Tony first wrote about BLJ. So we saw it. I had VERY low expectations. And for all the typical reasons. “Christian-y” films are usually not great for all the reasons previously listed (predictable, sub-par, neither fun nor deep). SO. I was surprised by how much I simply ENJOYED this film! Sure, part of the fun was the walk down college memory lane. And it was often predictable. BUT it made me laugh ’til I cried and for a good long stretch – redeeming the cost of the ticket right there. Plus, Reed is a genuinely interesting place, so the setting had a natural intrigue. The acting was good even if the characters were stereotypical. I liked them! Sure, the ‘message’ was overly simplistic and the “resolutions” left me wanting (what happened in the relationship with his father? mother? or that friend that he ditched on xmas?). And I didn’t get the film’s big plug for clergy and traditional (was it even Catholic?) church over and above just knowing God. But, despite its short-comings, I thought it was a BIG step in the right direction of relevance, creativity, humor, risk-taking and general entertaining-ness.

  • Who the heck can see it. Playing in Hanover Maryland? Uh, where is that? How about a real city?

  • For the love Tony, just go see the movie.

  • “…At the same popular level Don Miller writes to”? That phrase seems to have a bit of an edge to it, Bob – is that popular as in accessible and well-liked or popular as in low-brow?

    • Popular as in written accessibly for a general audience. It’s certainly not meant pejoratively.

  • Bob Lamonta

    I worked on this film for a long time. Here are some points to consider:
    1) This script was never shopped around to the studios as you described. There may have been brief discussions at one point, but the idea from the beginning was always to raise funds through private investors. It’s the only way to make the movie you want to make.

    2) If you’re bummed out that your friends are encouraging you to buy tickets out of some weird Christian fealty or whatever, then maybe you should make new friends. The kind that actually share your personal standards with regard to popular culture. That’s what I do. It prevents me from having to blog incessantly about things I don’t like.

    3) Prior to the release of this film, I had never heard of any of this weird inter-faith fighting stuff. I have no interest in Rob Bell, the Emergent Church, of any of the other names/terms I keep seeing thrown about here and in other blogs. I haven’t read Don’s book either. All that stuff is completely off my personal radar. Likewise, I’ve found that of all my friends and family who have seen the film (many of whom had critical things to say), the ones with the most positive reactions were those who profess no faith in God or interest in religion at all. When I was working on the film, I always assumed they were our target audience.

  • Tim

    I think Bo’s comment of leaving the project dead is worth consideration. But that’s hindsight now and here we are. I liked the movie for what it was, thought they did a great job with what they had to work with and while there were a few things that I would like to have seen them do differently, I had no trouble recommending others to see it.

    Further, most of these Christian pop culture movies/books/projects are not really targeting those who are up late at night writing/reading ebooks on original sin and the atonement. Tony, I suspect you watch Hot Tub Machine more out of a sense of irony in combination with looking for some mindless entertainment that you occasionally consume (Now if your Netflix queue contains the American Pie Trilogy and the Big Mama Director’s Cut collection, I’ll take back my comment 🙂

    I’m not even sure Don, Steve and Ben made a movie that they themselves would be included in the target audience. It seems to me they were in the awkward position of trying to create something that would please the BLJ/Miller fan base and try to draw in a new audience. The argument could be made that they succeeded and failed at both objectives.

    Many of those I am trying to connect with in my congregation (and outside of it) are watching Hot Tub Machine as they anxiously await the next blockbuster or cultural hype-filled moment/controversy/scandal. I think things like Blue LIke Jazz and Love Wins or even Tebow are entry points for conversation and I find virtue in these moments. It’s likely why I’ll recommend that Jesus Don’t Let Me Die Before I’ve Had Sex documentary and that one on Hell that Matthew Paul Turner posted about.

    But returning to your original point though, certainly I agree that no one should feel obligated or state that it’s a “Christian duty” to see the film. But then again, many of us are prone to get carried away for something we like. Take my next tweet for instance, “Check out this ebook by @jonestony A Better Atonement. It’s your duty to deepen your understanding of the atonement

    There simply is no defense against the over-zealous.

  • Recommend to your congregation films like “A Serious Man,” “The Fountain,” and “Tree of Life,” use the good stuff for entry points for conversation! If we want to shepherd people away from the “anxiously await the next blockbuster or cultural hype-filled moment/controversy/scandal” mentality, I think this is how you do it. I still feel like using something like BLJ to start conversations about faith (or whatever is most important in life) is like using Dr. Seuss’s”One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish” to talk about ocean ecology.

  • Then again, I do have to defer to those with more “field experience” than I, a humble seminary student, possess. Wanting to talk about Coen Brothers films in a congregational setting may be naive. I guess I’ll find out!

    • Not naïve if you plant a church, Bo!

    • Tim

      Really liked Tree of Life and A Serious Man (have yet to see The Fountain). I’d have no problem recommending/referencing if themes fit the message. In my last sermon I used Sufjan Stevens, the one before that Bon Jovi. Though I personally like the former more than the latter, I need different types of connection points if I am going to create trust, teach, challenge, etc. You could talk about No Country For Old Men, probably even The Big Lebowski … if there was a reason to.

      Bo, you’ll be great in ministry, church-plant or whatever context – truly excited for you.

      • Even when I’m angry you’re far too kind to me, Tim! But I appreciate it

  • Back when I was 22 I was an enormous Donald Miller fan, and I even contributed to the kickstarter – but I’d never buy a ticket just to see it do it well. I could care less. I have no idea how the movie amassed such rabid fans willing to go to such lengths. It does seem like too much is being made of this, as your posts tend to be about the fringe fanatics who suggest ridiculous tactics, which hasn’t been suggested by the filmmakers themselves (as far as I know).

  • Sorry, Tony; but if I had to go to both Veggie Tales movies, you have an obligation to go to BLJ.

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  • and4red

    UM… these are not bad reviews.

    “It tackles existential struggles that many of us grapple with – and the film industry virtually ignores – while doing so in an entertaining way. “
    San Francisco Chronicle

    “This is a rare bird, a sincere movie about Christian faith.”
    New York Post

    “It steadfastly refuses to demonize.”
    Boston Globe

    “Witty, provocative and life-affirming.”
    Paste Magazine

    “Just earnest enough to blend its religious theme with a beer-chugging hero for a surprisingly contemporary look at faith.”
    USA Today

    “…the film is very visually accomplished, with handsome compositions, labored-over art direction, and constant employment of the titular hue.”

    “…gets the atmosphere of intellectual curiosity mixed with know-it-allness just right…It’s a story that needs to be told”
    Washington Post

    “Loosely belongs to the same universe as ‘Portlandia’… This is a movie with heart”
    Seattle Times

    “Sincere and literary…”
    New York Times

    “…a cut above the usual indie-comedy mock shock.”
    Village Voice

    “It’s a glorious anomaly: a subtle, sophisticated, open-minded, and courageously non-judgmental Christian film even non-believers can enjoy. Hallelujah!”
    Onion A.V. Club