Wednesday, June 17, 2009

"The medium is the message."

Here is an interesting audio interview with Todd Bouldin, founder of Pepperdine University's MFA in Screenwriting. I disagree with Bouldin's theory of the Church's relationship to the secular culture, but the interview did make me realize something. Bouldin started out wanting to make an "impact" for Christ in law and politics and then decided that the media is a more important influence on American culture. This connection between politics and the media helped me see what has been bothering me about the typical theory of how Christians should relate to Hollywood.

In the interview, Bouldin expresses a viewpoint similar to H. Richard Niebuhr. Niebuhr rejected what he called the “Christ-against-culture” position in favor of “Christ-transforming-culture” position. (The fun pictures to the left come from this blog post.) This move has become the party line for Evangelicals in Hollywood. The claim is that Christians in the middle part of the 20th Century rejected involvement with secular culture as sinful. But, having been abandoned by Christians and left to their own secular devices, the centers of culture like Hollywood, Washington DC, and Harvard, only got worse and worse and eventually dragged down all of America with them. According to this narrative, the only hope for redeeming American culture is for Evangelical Christians to move from cultural non-engagement to engagement – from Christ-against-culture to Christ-transforming-culture.

But while Evangelicals in Hollywood are still following this party line, many Evangelicals in Washington have changed their view. (I’m not sure about the Harvard folk.) The difference seems to be that Evangelicals haven’t yet tasted any real power in secular media, but they have in politics. The United States had an Evangelical president. There’s nowhere else to go from there. But despite having achieved genuine power (not just the presidency, but many other influential governmental positions), Evangelicals have failed to transform culture. America is just as godless as ever – maybe more so. Some of the founders of the Religious Right have now admitted that they were “blinded by might” and corrupted by the power they achieved. (Here is a nice summary of this theory.) Instead of the Church transforming culture, culture transformed the Church. Baby boomer Evangelicals still seem intent on the old model (witness Sarah Palin), but younger evangelicals seem to understand the failure of their parents’ ideas (they voted for Obama). Many young people are leaving politics behind for direct engagement with the world. They’re less interested in top down transformation of culture than bottom up revolution. Why bother with ineffective politicians when we can, for example, make a real economic difference by living and working in the inner city?

What we are seeing is that Niebuhr’s categories are misleading. Everyone – even those like Tertullian, Tolstoy, and the Quakers who Niebuhr cites as paradigmatic defenders of the Christ-against-culture position – want to transform culture. The question is not should we transform culture, but how can we transform it. The Christ-against-culture position rejects the idea – held by the Christ-tranforming-culture position – that Christians can use the tools of cultural power (e.g., politics, the arts, higher education, etc.) to transform culture. Rather the Christ-against-culture position holds that the Church has its own tools and its own very different understanding of power. On this view, whenever the Church attempts to use the world’s tools, the Church only succeeds in transforming itself into the world. For example, when the Church uses advertising techniques to market itself, it positions itself as just another product to be consumed and ceases to be an alternative to consumer culture. This is what Marshall McLuhan was talking about about when he said “The medium is the message.”

Unfortunately Evangelicals in Hollywood haven’t learned the lessons of Evangelical engagement in politics. Evangelicals still dream of “impacting” Hollywood by lifestyle evangelism (as Bouldin says, “simply being there”). The assumption of this strategy is that if individual filmmakers “get saved”, then culture will change. The problem is that it won’t work. If getting the President of the United States saved couldn’t transform American culture, then why think getting the president of Disney saved would work better? It is mystifying to me that Bouldin could understand that politics can’t transform culture but think the media can.

What if we give up pursuit of Hollywood power for the kind of direct engagement in the world that young people are discovering in the political realm? This would look like making independent films by, for, and about Christians. I’m not recommending cheesy evangelistic movies of the past, but serious (both dramatic and comic) artistic engagement with the issues that matter to us but which secular filmmakers simply can’t understand. What we need is a Christian version of Spike Lee who makes excellent art by, for, and about, African-Americans. This is a Christ-against-culture position. But it is not a call to hide in some self-imposed Christian ghetto. We shouldn’t create a parallel Christian movie studio. That would be like rejecting both the Democrats and the Republicans to create a third party for Christians. Instead we should -- if we want to transform American culture – reject politics/Hollywood altogether and do something entirely new.

There’s nothing wrong with working in Hollywood or Washington, DC as long as we don’t fool ourselves into thinking that we’re secret missionaries who will have some sort of “impact”. True transformation will have to come from a more radical strategy, the strategy of the Cross. Politics is all about power, but the Cross repudiates power in favor of weakness. That’s why Jesus says thinks like “My Kingdom is not of this world” and “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s”. You might be able to be a Christian who is involved in politics, but you can’t be a Christian politician who uses the tools of Washington to further the cause of Christ. Similarly, the media is all about money, but the Cross reveals money to be an idol. That’s why Jesus says things like “You can’t serve God and money” and “Sell all you own, give to the poor, and follow me.” Again, you might be able to be a Christian who works in Hollywood, but you can’t be a Christian filmmaker who uses the tools of Hollywood to further the cause of Christ.

Am I wrong? Please let me know by posting a comment. I welcome any friendly criticism you can offer.

Monday, June 1, 2009

"When somebody asks me a question, I tell them the answer."

This weekend I finally got around to seeing last year’s Best Picture winner Slumdog Millionaire (Boyle, 2008). I liked it a lot, but I couldn’t help wondering, “Was this really the best movie of 2008?” My first thought as the film was ending was “That was good, but not as good as Wall-E or The Dark Knight.”

Now, the Academy certainly shouldn’t be ashamed of honoring Slumdog. It may be a mistake, but its not nearly as embarrassing as giving the award to Forest Gump instead of Pulp Fiction in 1994 or giving the award to movies that are actually bad like Crash in 2006 or Titanic in 1997. This line of thinking got me wondering about how often the Academy has be wrong in recent years. Here’s my list of best pictures in retrospect, all the way back to the biggest recent goof in 1994. In my opinion, the only year the Academy got it right was 2007. (Note that these aren’t necessarily my favorite movies; they’re my vote for the best movies of that year. The only years my favorite movies were also the best movies were 2001 and 2002)

The Best Movies of the Past 15 Years
1994: TIE: Pulp Fiction (Tarantino, 1994) and Three Colors: Red (Kieslowski, 1994)
1995: Toy Story (Lasseter, 1995)
1996: Fargo (Coen, 1996)
1997: Boogie Nights (Anderson, 1997)
1998: The Truman Show (Weir, 1998)
1999: Being John Malkovich (Jonze, 1999)
2000: Memento (Nolan, 2000)
2001: Moulin Rouge! (Luhrmann, 2001)
2002: Adaptation (Jonze, 2002)
2003: Dogville (von Trier, 2003)
2004: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Gondy, 2004)
2005: The New World (Malick, 2005)
2006: Children of Men (CuarĂ³n, 2006)
2007: No Country For Old Men (Coen, 2007)
2008: The Dark Knight (Nolan, 2008)

Just for fun, here are my favorite movies of the year. For the most part, they are runners-up for the best movies of the year, though some are more like guilty pleasures. (In particular, I’m not sure I can defend the artistic value of Bottle Rocket, Shaun of the Dead, The Prestige, Hot Fuzz, and Speed Racer. I just think they’re a lot of fun to watch.)

1994: The Shawshank Redemption (Darabont, 1994)
1995: 12 Monkeys (Gilliam, 1995)
1996: Bottle Rocket (Anderson, 1996)
1997: Princess Mononoke (Miyazaki, 1997)
1998: The Big Lebowski (Coen, 1998)
1999: TIE: Fight Club (Fincher, 1999) and The Matrix (Wachowski Brothers, 1999)
2000: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Lee, 2000)
2001: Moulin Rouge! (Luhrmann, 2001)
2002: Adaptation (Jonze, 2002)
2003: Kill Bill, Vol. 1 (Tarantino, 2003)
2004: Shaun of the Dead (Wright, 2004)
2005: The Constant Gardner (Meirelles, 2005)
2006: The Prestige (Nolan, 2006)
2007: Hot Fuzz (Wright, 2007)
2008: Speed Racer (Wachowski Brothers, 2008)

And, while I’m making lists, here is my current Top 10 Favorite Movies of All Time. I try to make one of these lists every couple of years, and they inevitably change. (For example, 1 and 2 new on the list this time, having become favorites since I last made a list in 2004,)

1. Babette’s Feast (Axel, 1987)
2. F for Fake (Welles, 1974)
3. Princess Mononoke (Miyazaki, 1997)
4. Adaptation (Jonze, 2002)
5. Pulp Fiction (Tarantino, 1994)
6. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (Stoppard, 1990)
7. The Big Lebowski (Coen, 1998)
8. 12 Monkeys (Gilliam, 1995)
9. The Nightmare Before Christmas (Selick, 1993)
10. The Lord of the Rings (Jackson, 2001-3)