A couple of years ago, Provident Films and Sherwood Pictures (the folks responsible for Facing the Giants, Fireproof, and Courageous) lashed out at Steve Taylor’s Blue Like Jazz, a film which approaches issues of faith with brutal honesty and respect, based on Donald Miller’s bestselling memoir. For whatever reason, they felt threatened by the film, which, as far as I’m concerned, rocked the very foundations of the “Christian film industry” as we know it. Provident Films and the good people at Sherwood decreed that anyone who had participated in the making of Blue Like Jazz would never, ever work on a Provident production in the near future. You see, Blue Like Jazz was a game changer. It was an attempt to bring authenticity into the realm of faith-based film, and the response from audiences around the globe was extraordinarily positive. Looking back at my experience with Fireproof, Blue Like Jazz seems like a godsend.
Here are a few simple truths that I learned from Fireproof: If your marriage is on the rocks and you simply cannot control the wellspring of anger growing inside of you, there is something that you can do: take it out on the trashcan. If that doesn’t work, smash your computer – first the monitor, and then the tower. A baseball bat or a large stick should do the job. While you’re swinging the bat and/or stick with one arm, make sure you have a copy of “The Love Dare” in the other. Keep a steady swing while you read. There are forty-something pages to read, one page for each day. Do all of these things, and afterwards, all of your problems should automatically disappear and everyone in your immediate family will get saved, just like magic! The end.
I recently watched Fireproof again. People claimed that I was a bit too harsh on the film the first time around. Well, it all comes down to this:
I refuse to believe that this is the best that Christians have to offer to the film industry. Fireproof is basically a tract disguised as a movie. I found it incredibly offensive and false. There isn’t one moment of authenticity to be found in the entire film. As it is, there is only one audience for this catastrophe – an explicitly Christian audience. Any non-believer approaching this material is likely to feel alienated for the majority of the running time.
From the dialogue to the acting to the production values, Fireproof is one huge train wreck. I understand that the filmmakers used what they had to work with. This is obvious. However, other indie filmmakers have approached projects under similar conditions with much better results. Don’t get me wrong – I admire the church for pulling together and getting the film in theatres. Not an easy thing to do. But a film class or two wouldn’t hurt at all. Maybe they could read a few textbooks on Bergman and Kubrick. Perhaps an in depth study on human nature would help with character development. The way in which the characters interact in this film made me wonder if the filmmakers had ever had any real contact with an actual human being. No one talks like these characters. No one acts like them, either. This was incredibly distracting.
The heavy-handed Gospel message took me completely out of the film. This is the point at which the film stopped being an ordinary corn-fest, and segued into grade-A propaganda. A little subtlety would have been nice, and could have possibly lent the filmmakers some sort of credibility. The majority of Ingmar Bergman’s work focused on faith, and although he dealt with the subject with a touch of ambiguity, he still said what he wanted to say, and it came across as a work of art – a foundation upon which people of every background could discuss the issue of religion and faith. There are times when Fireproof comes at you like a fifty foot Bible, just waiting to stomp you over the head with its skewed portrayal of the Christian life. In the world of Fireproof, all of the conflict ends at the moment of spiritual conversion. This is an unrealistic, dangerous lie to unleash on any audience, believer or non-believer. The Christian walk is full of doubt and constant struggle. A commitment to God does not guarantee – nor does it promise – freedom from such things.
The Kendricks still have a lot to learn about the art of filmmaking, about human interaction, and, most importantly, the cold, hard facts concerning conflict in relation to the Christian walk. Subsequent productions from Sherwood have improved from a technical standpoint, but the raw sense of reality is still lacking.
Upon reading this, some of you may feel that my critique of the film is a bit extreme. That’s okay. My opinion is still the same and has yet to be swayed, and I sincerely doubt that I will ever sit through Fireproof again. The fact of the matter is this: the audience of today craves honesty, and so far, the faith-based film industry has failed to deliver on every conceivable level, opting to play it safe with squeaky-clean moralism and sermonizing, leaving little to no room for truth. This is a sickening trend in the realm of faith-based artistry, and the audience is catching on.
You see, Blue Like Jazz was completely funded with the aid of an enormously popular Kickstarter campaign, meaning that fans of the book – as well as champions of quality cinema – paid for the film out of their own pockets. They saved the production, which was nearly dead due to lack of backers. This was one of the first projects of its kind, and at the time, it was the highest ranked project on the Kickstarter site.
The audience has spoken.
The catalyst which led to the ill-advised and malicious threats from Provident Films and Sherwood Pictures – which they quickly retracted a few days later – can probably be summed up in one word – fear.
In the world of “Christian cinema”, Blue Like Jazz has arrived and has set the bar exceptionally high – and this scares all of the right people.