Sunday, April 29, 2012

Thoughts on Blue Like Jazz the Movie

I saw Blue Like Jazz yesterday with some friends from the cohort, and I thought I would share some thoughts. This is far from a review of the film, but more my personal reaction. 

First, I would say that I was anxious going into the film, worried that it would basically suck and I would be extremely disappointed and frustrated. I, like many other young Christians in the early years of the new millennium, loved the book, and I was worried the movie would taint the name. I remember seeing reports about the attempts to make the movie, and even receiving emails imploring my financial support, and I refrained because I didn't think the book would translate well to the screen. To be honest, I regret that now, because although this movie certainly isn't worthy of an Oscar nominee, it is worth seeing.

So, obviously, my quick review is a "thumbs up;" I liked it. The biggest reason I liked the movie was the same reason that I liked the book - it resonated with me. I could relate to it. In the book, Don Miller does a great job stringing together very honest, transparent feelings and thoughts about church, without being overly critical or hopeless. When I read it, as a recent graduate from Bible school with a theology degree, I felt like he was putting to words the deep feelings I had about my faith. More specifically, feelings of frustration, questions, yearnings for something more, all apart from pious theology talk, and just being real with what it looks and feels like to connect with God. 

I think the movie achieves this same "feeling" but on the screen. It's easy to connect with Don in the scenes where he is an assistant to the youth pastor, called up to the front of the church to help with the kid's sermon. Those of us who have grown up in the church have all been there one time or another. And there are some great tongue-in-cheek jabs at the church, showing that we can't take this all too seriously (like when Don prepares Kool-Aid to serve the kids at the overnight, or the pinata is filled with communion cups rather than candy). 

On a deeper level, I appreciate it Don's character admitting, "I am ashamed of Jesus." I've felt that way before, and I distinctly remember my mid-20's as being a time of discovering how I could still say that I was a Christian without being embarrassed. In my opinion, this is a real value of the film, in that it depicts what so many within the evangelical church have been feeling. 

Beyond this basic sense of being able to relate to the main character and Don's existential struggles, I appreciate what I perceive to be the basic message of the movie (and the book). There is not a point by point summation of "the good news," or even a quick way to state salvation and God's love for you. Rather, the point is that we have to be honest with our experiences and our feelings about, and toward, God. Don learns at Reed that life has to be lived, and you learn by living life. We can't deny our experiences, good or bad. We have to be real with ourselves and real with God. And that's where we have to start, otherwise we're just fooling ourselves. 

In my opinion, this is the power of movie (and the book's) best scene, the "confession booth." Christians and the church are so rarely willing to be honest about the messiness of life and faith. And so when Don admits to his faults, the faults of Christianity, and asks for forgiveness, it is a powerful twist of transparency - something that is so lacking in religion. Furthermore, I feel that this scene communicates to the viewer that it is OK to feel whatever you are feeling about God. So many have left  church because they have had questions, thoughts, or feelings that have no place in the church service or the small group discussion. To me, Blue Like Jazz communicates to people the fact that it's OK if your faith is in a state of dis-resolution - if you don't have it all figured out, if you aren't sure what you believe and you have more questions than answers, if you feel like you need to experience freedom more than certainty, and if you just need a chance for some honest self-expression. Thus, the theme and recurrent phrase in the movie - life is like jazz, it doesn't resolve. 

From the perspective of a work of art, I would give the movie a B grade at best. But there are certainly worse movies out there, with far worse acting, lack of plot, and cliched, one-dimensional characters. What is very interesting, is to think about the movie as a work of "Christian art." This a very complex conversation, and I'll just offer a view quotes from review I found online. 

Boston Globe Review: [The movie gives] believers and those tottering on the edge something to chew on, and it steadfastly refuses to demonize everybody else."

Christianity Today: "Blue Like Jazz is anything but a typical "Christian movie...Christian moviegoers will find much to challenge them, to be sure—but those hoping Don's journey leads him to a clear understanding of the gospel might find Blue Like Jazz a bit unsatisfying." - Essentially, CT criticizes the movie for not being "Christian enough," as they see it.

Jonathan D. Fitzgerald of Patrol (a progressive Christian culture magazine) says a few things about Christian art in general: "It should go without saying that Christians can and do create good art, but they don’t call it Christian art because it is art first. That it was made by a Christian, that it may even in some way communicate something of Christianity, is secondary to its existence as a work of art. If this is not the case, if it is primarily didactic — or in the case of much Christian art, derivative — it cannot be good art...This, of course, is the problem with all so-called Christian art, be it film, music or books: it purports to carry a message for those outside Christianity, while appealing only to those within." He then concludes, "But by the time the lights came up, it was clear: “Blue Like Jazz” is just another Christian movie." - Interestingly, in contrast to CT, the movie is too Christian. 

These different reviews, I think, show how difficult it is to make a film that wrestles with specifically evangelical faith and belief, and that comes out with a somewhat positive message. There are many movies and stories that engage religion in an artistic way that maintains quality, but something about evangelicalism keeps it in the "Christian" genre that has dug such a deep hole for itself, it is really tough to climb out. 

Even with movies like Blue Like Jazz, that are generally pretty good. 


Nick Johnson said...

Thanks for posting your thoughts. Thinking back on the movie this morning, I realized I liked it less than I thought I did. This is mainly because (and one of the reviews you posted made a similar point) the movie "resolves." I feel like the book didn't give a clear resolution, though my memory might be fuzzy. As the dad in the movie says, and as I think the emergent message kind of is, life doesn't really resolve. I felt like the movie was far too neatly wrapped up - if you temporarily lose your faith and start drinking beers like crazy liberals, as long as you come back to God you'll still get the cute blond girl that no one else can get. Maybe if the movie didn't wrap things up so neatly with a pretty Christian bow on it, it could be qualified as "art" instead of "christian art."

Another thought, and we kind of talked about this at dinner, is that I feel like the characters other than Don were pretty one dimensional (except for the Penny, I suppose). This may be because of poor writing, or it may have been trying to convey how Don felt when he arrived and first met this different group of people and only really noticed their 'weird' characteristics at first. Most of us only see one dimension of a person the first time we meet them, so in that way it is forgivable. On second thought, I might just be being too harsh on this movie, and perhaps characters are always presented this way.

Anyway, just some rambling thoughts. I did enjoy watching the movie, largely because I related to things in it in ways that non-Christians probably wouldn't be able to.

Lal said...

Thanks for sharing, Jesse. I did enjoy the movie, too, even if not as much as I had hoped, and I have been thinking about it constantly over the course of the last week, so I guess it was good enough to be thought-provoking. :)

Fair warning, I have not read the book, so my thoughts are just about the movie.

Like Nick said, I felt like the movie "resolves." I think there was even a line about it - he's listening to Coltrane and he begins to hear resolution where he didn't think there was any before. Interestingly, you said "Thus, the theme and recurrent phrase in the movie - life is like jazz, it doesn't resolve." I think it's kind of cool that you were able to get this as the theme, in spite of that line/ending. I wanted this to be the theme, I think, coming from my own perspective and set of experiences and concerns about and within Christianity, but at the end of the story, I was troubled that the film seemed to kind of backtrack on that (with the aforementioned line about Coltrane).

Maybe this ties in with the fact that I think I might end up agreeing with Fitzgerald, that the movie was too Christian. I really wanted to leave the theatre proclaiming the film's great qualities and interest and relevance to any student of religion, to my Unitarian Universalist friends, and other groups outside Christianity, but my actual experience upon leaving was one of disappointment - I didn't feel I could brag about the film to a wider audience, with the assurance that any person of faith or anyone interested in spiritual journey or religion in america would be able to get a lot out of it, and that sense of loss bothered me.

That said, I did get things out of it myself. I thought the scenes with Yuri were great - that idea of respect for how powerful faith can be in people's lives, of honoring the courage that persons of faith can express, especially in times of persecution. And I thought the confessional scene was really powerful, too. That didn't feel contrived or "resolved" to me, it felt honest, that Don was truly sorry for the pain that his own organized religion had caused, and for his own complicity. Those things just weren't enough for me to completely love the film. I do want to read the book soon though! :)


Jesse said...

It's interesting you both feel like the move "resolves." I think to some extent, a movie does have to resolve - there are very few movies that don't offer some sort of ending and conclusion. I didn't feel like he ever explicitly "came back to God," although he does walk back into the church and does talk with Penny again. The scene in the confession booth is a sort of resolution, but it doesn't go too far - he only states that he is sorry for misrepresenting God.
This struggle with offering some sort of resolution, or just letting tension hang in the air, is tough.

nikkita said...

Some good thoughts here. I don't have much too add except an observation. At dinner, most people seemed to feel there wasn't resolution enough but it seems that after the fact, some start to feel the opposite. Could it be that we use our own conclusions to resolve the film, taking it a bit further in memory than what happened on the screen?

I do agree with Nick that the characters felt a bit one-dimensional, but that is a pretty common issue anytime a book is translated to film. Writers have much more room to expand on characters' thoughts and the subtleties of interactions, whereas a film has to rely mostly on action. Working with pre-existing characters (and books often have many more than movies) and motives is probably a lot more difficult than writing something from scratch for film. (My hunch anyway.)

So, I give this film credit for its attempt at translation, and I have seen far worse book-to-movies. I also appreciate that the movie takes more of the gesture of the book rather than trying to offer a page by page rendition, or just leaving too much out.

That being said, one thing that rankles me a bit is Don's character in the movie. It's been awhile since I read the book, but I don't remember him coming off as a jerk, and I definitely had that visceral reaction to him at times during the movie--I really didn't like him at all sometimes. The best characters allow us to empathize with them even as they make the worst decisions. The confession booth scene did a lot to reconcile my issues with his character, but some of them still linger.

Jesse said...

"Could it be that we use our own conclusions to resolve the film, taking it a bit further in memory than what happened on the screen? " - Well said, Nikki.

I also agree with your response to the character of Don in the movie, and I think I read that in a few reviews as well. One writer wondered why his friends put up with him at all. Again, the challenge of translating the book to the movie - in some ways, they did it really well. As you said, taking the "gesture" of the book, rather than a literal interpretation. But some changes, such as Don's character, were less favorable.