Hollywood has figured out that there is an untapped audience yearning to see stories that reflect their lives up on the big screen. People flock to the movies to see the latest incarnation of super heroes or opioid addicts. But there is another set. This faction of the populace is tired of the putrid offerings that the mainstream studios produce every year. These people are earnest, smartworking, faith-filled Americans who just want to forego all of the blood and guts and gutter language and sexual situations. They seek out arts and entertainment that will bring them back to their roots or charge them to continue going down their faithful pathway. They seek to view wholesome, family-oriented entertainment. What is the response? Movies like Courageous (2011) God’s Not Dead (2014) I Can Only Imagine (2018) and God Bless the Broken Road (2018) are often low-budget ($2-$5 million) and take in considerable returns usually around $50 million- $80 million.
Great dramas that have more of a romantic bent get a shunt from most studios who find them to be “unrealistic.” The proper term is to say that they are examples of romantic realism. The heroes are supposed to be exaggerated beyond life, not belief. Their actions should be moral and ethical and done with an air of panache. Whether they’re praying or singing or fasting or showing some sort of submission to the supernatural, characters in these movies reinforce the notion of portraying characters who employ their emotions rather than their thought. Faith-based films fail in this regard. The problem is that the acting is hackneyed, the direction is preposterous, the production is actually decent, but the writing is abysmal. These faith-based films are like dressing up an attractive woman who cannot speak anything of rationality.
Of course, with money to be made off of these pictures, studios continue to crank them out to their core audience. Because Postmodernism is so inclusive within school curricula, a scant amount of viewers discover the beauty of romantic art. Despite all of the appeals to the supernatural, there still exist some semblance of honor, respect, love, and other virtues. The only problem is that they are laid before the throne of the unknown and unknowable. What most audiences seem to like about the films is their down-home, earthiness if they do have flaws in telling a realistic story, much less a romantic one. So maintain your critical focus for Reason First: The Case for Romanticism in the Cinema.
The movies are almost unwatchable.
At every turn, there’s usually someone (a racecar driver, a widow, a policeman) who is experiencing a crisis of faith. They have to rely on their inner strength that of course is originated from something outside of nature. The whole time, there is clunky dialogue and Naturalistic plots.
Men and women of color are relegated to the periphery of the storylines (unless it is of course a Tyler Perry film, and he has strayed from making hardcore faith-based films). Actors from the 1990s like Robin Givens who have spent the last decade in straight-to-DVD films and relative youngsters like Jordin Sparks both get minor roles in the film Road. They say a few lines, smile at the usually white or Hispanic characters, and keep it pushing. In some films like God Bless The Broken Road, there may be multiple people of color, but they still have marginalized roles. I respect the actors for taking a check, however. And if they wish to create better roles for themselves, they should go the Perry route and start writing and producing their own works.
The men usually seem good looking and mannerly in their approach. But that is until they bottom out and have to be saved because of their “wicked ways.” The woman are mostly beautiful and well-groomed and lady-like. They give off an air of femininity without being salacious. Most Christians would attest that their faith is what keeps them from looking haggard and unseemly. They affirm that their belief is what propels them to be ethical in their approach. But it is some force beyond this universe that is throwing hexes or granting blessings. It’s not the thinking brain that is calculating the fortunes of the people who populate these films. It’s always their evil flesh that gets in the way. It’s their “selfish” concern for what they have and what they seek to get.
Some of these films like I Can Only Imagine are based on actual events which makes the case for Romanticism in the filmic arts even more pressing. Just documenting someone for the sake of telling their story should be left up to documentarians. Storylines ought to be fresh and realistic but also not deterministic and driven based on real life stories. The police officers of Courageous and the soldiers in Road do not turn the other cheek. They engage with criminals and enemy combatants. Where is the scripture in that? Is it okay for me to shoot at these people and then I’ll be saved later and all will be forgiven?
Business is presented from a belief perspective.
Most of the films depict successful business owners as if “powers” only come from a mystical source. This is the mixture that corporate leaders possess outside of the film world. They’d sooner drop to their knees and give thanks to the unworldly than to realize that it took rational thought to build a fortune.
Still, in films like Road, it seems like they became lax when it concerned the gratuity that widows receive upon the death of a spouse in combat. The United States government provides up to (in most cases) $100,000 to survivors. This film painted the protagonist as a pauper barely scraping by, trying to keep her house and support her daughter. The film also shows two servicemen showing up at a church to inform the widow of her husband’s passing. Not only would this not have ever taken place in real life, but where did they know to go? And why didn’t they inform the remaining parent of the fallen soldier? Not only is the movie naturalistic, it does something worse: it takes you out of it by being unrealistic.
While the films present big bucks for the studios that produce them, the audiences just want to view something close to their own lives. There’s no room for heroes here in most of this fair. In Imagine, one of the closest that the movies came to heroism despite it being based on true circumstances, the winner is Bart Millard. He realizes his dream of having his song become a hit on the radio charts. In Courageous, the policemen are presented as upstanding and (maybe to a fault) earnest protectors over family and neighborhoods.
The low budget big profit model that these films feed on is the mistake that most conservatives and liberal blacks make. They feel that it is a combination of faith and capitalism that drives the movies about religion. In reality, it is only because the free market system that allows movies like this to exist. The real test of this crop of faith-based films is whether they can hold up to more hero-worship films like Whiplash (2014) or A Most Violent Year (2014). Now, comparatively speaking, the aesthetics and overall idealism of films just mentioned should not be compared. The language and themes do not match up to the often blue collar, lower to middle class American tastes. These films are usually devoid of all of the glitz and glamour that Hollywood banks itself on during award shows.
Why the Romantics School Rules
For presenting portraits of people tested not by reason but faith, this presents a negative to the viewing audience. They surmise that supernatural forces are at play in their lives and that like the characters on the screen, they should sing praises and dance and shout hallelujah to escape from life’s problems. All that these pictures offer are glimpses into the lives of the normal, the everyday, the bland. No swashbuckling poet is going to show up on the screen to match wits with a fellow swordsman. No sexy vixen is going to solve crimes to protect the country from encroaching spies. In Road, you get go-cart races with children and paralyzed vets with apparent post traumatic stress disorder. This may be suitable for television news specials at the last bit of a broadcast, but to show it on digital or celluloid as a drama is to take away the pleasure of witnessing the power of a hero.
These movies make up the current climate in pop culture. People are tired of the revolting, gross-out, schlubby, over-sexualized, damn near pornographic content that is pushed out alongside these movies like a two faced monster. The body is still the same: Naturalism. This school of art drives both the grotesque and the faith-based. It delimits the terms by which auteurs express themselves through their vision of the world. On one hand, there exist the bizarre, ugly, creeping pictures or oversexed teenage romantic comedies. On the other, there remain the staid, faith fests that present man as helpless playthings in a universe run by a lunatic.
What’s so amazing is how people deal within these pictures. They go about with an understanding of reality and engage in it, slightly. They only give a half-hearted effort in showing that they are capable of living lives worthy of a human being. Instead of looking to reason to solve their many problems, they fall back on faith to clear up the mess ups in their lives.
To take these films on their merits would be giving them too much credit. They have respectable production values but the overall thrust of the storytelling is subject to a considerable critique. These faith films only have a message really, not a direct theme. The message is, “Have faith and everything will be alright.” The characterization is completely base as drunks and cops get equal footing just because they subscribe to the same creed. Plots revolve usually around everyday people from normal backgrounds and not-too-special surroundings. Little excitement arises from these run of the mill storylines. And the style of these films is more often than not as bland a manila folder.
Success follows these movies to the bank mainly because the majority of Americans connect with these pictures. They develop emotional connections to these films. Instead of the mind they think of the “heart” (although it’s really just a muscle). But the films evoke feelings in most of the viewers who possess faith. These feelings stem from their first encounters with whatever faith to which they endorse. Every one of those sensibilities converge within their consciousnesses and mix up with their reason and presents a ball and chain in their mind.
Viewers of faith-based films carry around a long chain in their minds but are not free to think because of the weight of the supernatural pressing them to the floor. The problems of life ought to be conveyed on the screen but with the flair and understanding of a hero or heroine. These films don’t have to be vulgar or graphic but they should champion the mind. They should be proponents of the rational faculty and be able to showcase drive, finesse, comprehension, beauty, and agility. For the most part, faith-based films present boring stories that barely lift off of the ground.
Sacrifice, charity, duty, altruism, and self-abnegation remain in faith-based stories. The screen presents these ideals as positives rather than detriments. People who held flickering feelings concerning these concepts become inflamed once they view these films. It is the opposite of what art is supposed to do. When Ayn Rand says “Romantic art is the fuel and the spark plug of a man’s soul: its task is to set a soul on fire and never let it go out,” she means that the projection rather than recording of random events should bolster the spirit. With faith-based dramas, the fire is self-immolation.