The Heathen’s Guide to Christian Film: Soul Surfer

January 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

Soul Surfer is a unique entry in the quickly expanding catalogue of Christian films. Unlike most films of its genre, it’s clear that this film intended to tap the secular teen/tween market first, and the Christian market only afterwards. But unlike most mass audience films with bonus Christian pandering, the faith-based plot in Soul Surfer isn’t an afterthought. It’s fully, blatantly integrated into the plot in a way that most mainstream directors wouldn’t have dared allow. And while it was a choice that was basically irrelevant to nonbelievers like me, I have a feeling that in ten years or so, Soul Surfer will be seen as revolutionary in the growing Christian market, for being one of the first Christian films to truly bridge the evangelical-versus-secular divide.

Soul Surfer is essentially a textbook sports comeback story: an up-and-coming athlete suffers a setback that causes her to lose faith and quit the sport–but of course she ultimately returns to it a few inspirational, sweaty training montages later, culminating in some sort of Big Competition that she either wins or gracefully loses (complete with life lessons learned, “I’m a better person for having been here,” and so on, future success implied). In this case, the up-and-coming athlete is Bethany Hamilton, a teenage surfer growing up in Hawaii with a loving family and an aspiring surfer of a best friend. The setback is the loss of her arm in a shark attack, but she doesn’t let that stop her. After becoming inspired by the simple joy she sees in Thai children playing in the water on a mission trip, she returns to surfing, just in time for the big girls’ surfing competition on the island.

The Hawaii scenery was, of course, beautiful, and the story was adequately entertaining, albeit conventional. But the film suffered from a number of the same problems more blatantly Christian films usually struggle with. The most blatant to me, and one that I haven’t seen a single Christian movie manage to sidestep, is its outdated attitudes to race. Not to say that mainstream Hollywood doesn’t have issues with this–it does–but Christian filmmakers usually seem to be a decade or two behind them, cheerfully employing tropes like the Magical Negro or setting up white man’s burden-style plots with an enthusiasm that would make savvier secular filmmakers (or at least their backers) cringe. Its the latter that’s in play here, when in the wake of Bethany’s quitting surfing, she goes to Thailand on a mission trip after the 2004 earthquake and tsunami. The Thai people are shown only to further Bethany’s journey; seeing them devastated convinces her that her own problems are small. There’s even a scene where she’s depicted as singlehandedly convincing a village of terrified Thai folks to go back into the ocean for the first time after the tsunami. Good thing she was there to save them! Otherwise they might never have made it back into the water, and then what?

The other problem with Soul Surfer–and one that pops up again and again in Christian films–is that it’s just not willing to go rough on its characters. Granted, this is based on a true story, and the real Bethany Hamilton claims that the movie already depicts her as more down-and-out than she actually was. In real life, she claims, she didn’t spend her time in the hospital worrying about whether she’d ever surf again or if boys would date a girl with one arm, she was visiting with church friends and playing practical jokes on the nurses. Unfortunately, church friends and practical jokes don’t make for a good movie. The film’s conflict was repeatedly underplayed–at one point I turned to my movie-watching companion and wondered if we were going to get any at all, since even the stuff that would sideline a normal person didn’t phase Movie Bethany for more than a minute or two. It was like the writers were scared to let any of their characters experience any real suffering–unfortunate, since it’s much easier to empathize with a character who suffers than one who reacts to misery with a Christ-like patience and understanding.

Daniel Radosh touched on this in his review of Fireproof: “Committed to promoting an unambiguous message that God solves all problems, Fireproof never portrays Christians doing anything untoward, or even experiencing any sorrow. . . In the perfect world of Fireproof, good Christians do not have bad marriages, any more than they drink, gamble or swear.” And in the perfect world of Soul Surfer, good Christians don’t have unhappy families or romantic problems. Everyone is beautiful, the skies are always blue and the water’s always fine. As Bethany claims as the film draws to a close, losing an arm didn’t just not change her life–it made it better. Had this not been based on a true story, the scriptwriters probably would have had Jesus come down from heaven to regrow Bethany’s arm personally. Who wants to watch that? In Christian films, the suspense is eliminated. A happy–nay, perfect–ending is guaranteed. The Garden of Eden restored, at last.


Your Cheatin’ Heart

December 11, 2011 § 1 Comment

Hank Williams was an alcoholic and a drug addict. His relationship with his wife, Audrey, was marked by infidelity and abuse, physical and emotional, on both sides. Naturally, somebody decided his life story–centered around this relationship–made good material for a schmaltzy 1960s musical helmed by Gene Nelson, most famous for directing two of Elvis’s more insipid films, Harem Scarum and Kissin’ Cousins. Picture an insipid Elvis musical where the King plays an early country music star with a drinking problem, and Your Cheatin’ Heart is pretty much what you get.

Of course, not all of this was MGM’s fault. Audrey Williams, who controlled Hank’s estate and served as technical advisor on the film, had final say on what flew. The version of the story she okayed was highly whitewashed. While Hank’s alcohol abuse is shown, his drug abuse is not. It doesn’t explain the reasons for his death at 29, which were likely drug and/or alcohol-related–in the film, he’s supposed to be clean, refusing to drink anything harder than soda in the last few moments of his life. The film barely depicts any abuse and hardly hints at their separations–in the movie, at the time of Hank’s death, he’s still married to Audrey! (In real life, the two of them had divorced for the second time six months before, and he had impregnated another woman before marrying a third.) Audrey did allow a flawed picture of herself to be presented–she comes across as a profligate spender, buying new fridges to replace month-old ones, which stresses Hank out so much he turns to the bottle. But despite this, the film is still biased in her favor, showing her mainly as the driving force behind Hank’s stardom, pushing him to succeed because he had no faith in himself.

We think of the musician biopic cliches as being relatively modern developments–discussion of them flared a few years back as Ray, Walk the Line, and Notorious were released in quick succession–and rarely anyone bothers to trace them back beyond The Buddy Holly Story in 1978. But almost all of them are in place here: opening with a tragic childhood event, the underprivileged upbringing, a whirlwind of newspaper headlines to denote a rise to fame, a slow descent into alcoholism and drug abuse, the rocky first marriage, using songs to comment on the action, the recovery from addiction (presented largely off-screen). Had someone told me that the script for Your Cheatin’ Heart was an early draft of Walk the Line, I would have no trouble believing them.

Audrey has been much maligned by Hank Williams fans over the years, and the fact that this film was released ten years late and presented such a varnished account of her relationship with Hank has–like many other things–been blamed solely on her. Maybe it’s my tendency to root for the underdog here, but I’ve got to go to bat for her, just a little bit. Being married to an addict is no picnic even under the best of situations, and when the addict in question is both abusive and untrue . . . well, that’s bound to put some stress on your relationship. Maybe the most interesting thing about Your Cheatin’ Heart was how it made me consider Audrey in a way that I hadn’t before. Here was a chance for her to rewrite history–not to completely alter the truth, just to massage it a little bit. To give herself the happy ending that she and Hank were denied in real life. She could write the other women out of the picture–not just the insignificant affairs, but his second wife and his unborn child with another woman. She could write away his addiction, putting him through a recovery that never stuck in real life. She could make clear her intentions for his life–that regardless of how it actually played out, she wanted the best for him. She could create her own ending: the two of them, happy together, with Hank sober and successful and appreciated, if only for a little bit. Wish fulfillment, all of it. But understandable.

The Unsinkable Molly Brown

October 23, 2010 § Leave a comment

In the world of romance novels, readers have identified a certain brand of heroine as one who is Too Stupid to Live. A Too Stupid to Live heroine is one whose actions go beyond the realm of mere ditziness, past idiocy and into the domain of “so unbelievable it takes you out of the story.” Too Stupid to Live heroines are the products of lazy authors, ones who can’t be bothered to create characters that match their plot and instead try to mold and manipulate the plot to fit the characters. But Too Stupid to Live heroines don’t just appear in novels. They show up at alarming rates in movies, too, and the mid-century musical may contain more of them than any other genre. And while that may have passed by unnoticed in 1964 . . . it doesn’t get past your radar in 2010.

This is where I gave up on The Unsinkable Molly Brown: when Molly decides that the best possible hiding place for the hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash that her husband has just acquired is in the stove.

Even if that hadn’t turned me off, there’s the minor problem that most of the film’s plot elements seem to be lifted wholesale from Annie Get Your Gun. Count ’em up:

  • Little girl is raised in the wilderness, grows up to be not so much tomboyish as borderline feral.
  • Not only is she half-wild, she’s also illiterate, and must learn to read and write as an adult (largely to impress men, naturally).
  • Meets, and falls in love with, a cocky cowboy type.
  • A quick rise to the top is followed by a trip to Europe, where heads of state and minor nobility fawn over her.
  • But while European success leads to a more cultured facade for our heroine, it doesn’t lead to happiness.
  • Her growing success causes a split from her man, due to his inferiority complex.
  • She ultimately gives up on what’s important to her and returns home to her man. (To be fair to Molly Brown, that musical’s ending is more of a compromise between the partners than Annie’s flat-out anti-feminist bent.)

. . . which is unfortunate, because I really wanted to like this film. The songs were written by Meredith Willson, who wrote one of my top three favorite musicals of all time, The Music Man. I love the time period, love the social climbing theme, love the concept of a musical centered around Margaret Brown. The film is beautiful: it uses real shots from Gunnison National Park in Colorado for many of its opening outdoor scenes, and the indoor sets are pitch-perfect in their use of color and design to flesh out the characters. The picture has a great energy, especially once you get to the second half and have moved past theĀ  desire to punch Molly in the face. But sadly, none of these things are enough to save it (and it doesn’t help that MGM cut the vast majority of Willson’s original score).

One of the things you have to get past when you first start watching classic film is your tendency to judge them by today’s standards. Films from the 1930s will sometimes contain blackface. Films probably won’t refer to homosexuality at all pre-1970, and if they do, it’ll likely be homophobic. Films from the 1960s will, by and large, have weak female leads–and you have to learn to go with it. But it’s sad, because Margaret Brown deserves a much better film than this. Her life story lends itself to a much better story. Somebody get started on the updated biopic, stat.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with biopic at paper pop.