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 The most blatant to me, and one that I haven’t seen a single Christian movie manage to sidestep, is its outdated attitudes to race.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.

Game of Thrones and Its Women

December 5, 2011 § 1 Comment

With my distaste for the emphasis on Manly Man Stuff in fantasy books established, perhaps I should have started with an author other than George R.R. Martin. Martin is known as a fantasy author who includes more sex than most (although I don’t find it to be gratuitous, perhaps because my last foray into genre fiction was that of romance novels). His books take place in a sexist medieval-esque society where the threat of rape seems omnipresent, and like with most male writers, I can never quite tell where he’s going with that. Most of the time, of course, he makes it obvious that the modern reader should find it repulsive, but occasionally the undertones hint that maybe he’s intellectually getting off on having free reign to write a society where the male characters (including the ones the audience is most supposed to identify with) can essentially do whatever they want. I had the same issue with Stieg Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy–though ostensibly he was writing about how horrible it was that so many men treat women so badly, the fact that his books were blatant wish fulfillment cast a weird pall over the moralizing. It’s like the preacher who can’t stop talking about how sinful something is because it gives him an excuse to think about something he’s not supposed to think about. No one can ever quite trust the man who writes multiple graphic rape scenes just to convince you of how terrible rape is.

Still, watching a couple episodes of the Game of Thrones television show sold me on the fact that Martin was able to write compelling female characters, so I decided to give it a go. Now, after finishing the second book, my thoughts are decidedly mixed.

When discussing strong female characters, the obvious choices are Daenerys, Arya, and Catelyn. Cersei is “strong” in a Hollywood sense, in that she’s tough and pulls a fair portion of the plot strings, but she isn’t particularly compelling yet. (I have a feeling that if she doesn’t end up dead by the end of the next book, that might change–there’s only so much you can do with the kind of one-note villainess she’s played up to this point.) Sansa probably isn’t compelling to the average reader because she’s so damn passive, but that’s exactly what makes her so interesting to me: because, contrary to what we’d love to think, that’s exactly how 99 percent of us would react to the situation she finds herself in. But Dany, Arya and Catelyn are the biggies, and that’s why it’s so frustrating that characters with so much promise end the first book so static.

To be fair, I love Dany. She gets the “hero’s journey” storyline of the first book, from terrified puppet to independent woman, and it is awesome. But she’s the only female character who has any kind of self-actualized journey at all. But the rest of the women remain archetypes rather than individuals: Catelyn the Mama Bear, Arya the Warrior Princess, Sansa the Innocent Maiden, Cersei cut from the Evil Stepmother cloth despite not actually being a stepmother. I’m holding out on passing judgement on this precisely because of it lot of it seems to stem from Martin’s writing style. His pace is plodding, and characters develop slowly. When you have 1000 characters name-dropped in the series, most of them will remain cardboard cutouts at best–the fortunate flip side of this being that when you have 7000 pages to flesh out the series, quite a few of them won’t. As I got into the meat of the second book, previously passive characters started to move. Arya is getting the foreshadowing of a pretty epic revenge plot, while Catelyn’s character is getting subtle gradations that weren’t present in the first book. Daenerys is still getting the most interesting storyline of the entire series. New female characters continue to be introduced, and a couple of them seem as though they may end up transcending their current stock characterizations.

Martin’s world is so vast that I’m beginning to think that the series is better graded as a whole, rather than by its parts. Characters that appear to be one thing in one book often end up being another by the next. Still, even as a serious reader, it’s hard for me to maintain the patience required to watch this whole thing play out. Asking your readers to wait 3000 pages before your characters see some interesting development–let alone 5000 or 6000 pages before you get to the core of your story–is pretty ballsy. I’m dreaming about an alternate universe where Martin had a perceptive but vicious editor who cut out the endless nonsense the author spends pages waxing about which sigil belongs to which house. These books could have been reduced to 600 pages max without losing any of the story whatsoever, and they should have been. Although I guess we also would have lost some of that Manly Man stuff where Martin describes every single move a character makes in a battle. God forbid.

Anne of Green Gables (1934)

November 30, 2011 § 1 Comment

Jaded by too many early Hollywood book-to-movie adaptations where the film had nothing in common with its source beyond the title, I had low expectations for R.K.O.’s Anne of Green Gables. I figured they’d get the orphan part right, but she’d probably be played by a ringleted blonde rather than a pigtailed redhead, and no doubt the plot would be invented out of whole cloth . . . Imagine my eyes when Anne showed up looking just how I’d always imagined her, blathering about how awful it was to have red hair and asking to be called Cordelia and proclaiming things the White Way of Delight and the Lake of Shining Waters. The plot itself was a mish-mash of some anecdotes from the book and some made up ones (there’s a little Romeo & Juliet storyline inserted to keep Anne and Gilbert apart until the movie’s end), but they got Anne so right, I couldn’t even be mad, not even when they changed the plot to allow Matthew to live at the end. (Okay, that might have more to do with the fact that I love Matthew even more than I love Gilbert Blythe.)

I’ve always found it kind of strange that there’s never been a really great, really committed Anne of Green Gables movie made. The first three books of the series are tailor-made for it: pretty settings, period dresses, heartwarming drama, short episodic plots for children with short attention spans. The conservatives can approve of the family values; the liberals can approve of the fact that the “family” in question is non-traditional. The story is Canadian, and the Japanese inexplicably love it, so it’d do okay in the global market. The third book even has a love triangle that beats the pants off of Twilight‘s. It seems like a no-brainer.

The Little Mermaid

November 26, 2011 § Leave a comment

Disney had gotten widespread complaints that their princesses weren’t feminist enough since the 1970s, and by the mid-1980s, the fairy tale films that were Disney’s bread-and-butter for many years now seemed archaic. Disney switched to animal-based films instead–cute kitties and puppies are always solid sellers, and animal protagonists allowed Disney to sidestep potential pitfalls regarding gender and race in a world where popular views on what was appropriate seemed to change monthly. But after a string of sub-par animal-based flicks, and the en masse retirement of a number of animators from Disney’s “classic” era, the company was anxious to move in a different direction with a new group of artists. Disney, of course, knew that they had made their name on princess stories, and Walt Disney himself had planned a production of The Little Mermaid as one of the company’s first projects, although it was shelved when he couldn’t find a way to make the storyline work. But the persistent concerns about the princesses’ passivity lingered.

In order to make a princess story work for the new generation, Disney had to make three significant changes in their princess heroines:

1) Take her from dependent to independent. Disney’s Original Princess Trio (Snow White, Aurora from Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella) never learn to fend for themselves. When Snow White is ousted from her house, she’s taken in by a handful of dwarves to cook and clean before being passed on to her prince. Aurora gets similar treatment, but the dwarves are replaced by a trio of fairies. Despite Cinderella’s stepfamily’s cruel treatment, she only leaves them when she, too, is rescued by a prince. None of this was particularly suprising when the films were originally made–they’re films that were created pre-women’s lib, based on hundreds-year-old tales–but they wouldn’t work for an ’80s world of shoulder pads and Charlie perfume.

2) Take her from passive to active. Both Snow White and Aurora spend significant chunks of their storylines asleep, and when they are awake, they mostly sit in their cottages or wander through the woods, singing about how someday their princes will come. Cinderella, while awake, spends the bulk of her film on her hands and knees, scrubbing the floors, or waiting on her stepsisters. All of this waiting doesn’t make for a very exciting movie, nor for very strong characters. For a modern princess, you needed to make some of the plot dependent on her actions, rather than just making her an unfortunate victim of an ill-timed curse or a jealous stepmother. And if you could make her complicit in her own salvation, rather than allowing the man to do it for her, then all the better.

3) Give her a personality. Make it a good one. The early princesses seemed basically interchangeable, aside from hair color: patient, demure, naive. The takeaway message, then, was that their ultimate fate–the prince and the castle and the happily-ever-after–were a reward for their beauty, not their behavior, and certainly not for their intelligence or strength. For its updated princesses, Disney was going to have to transform them from princess archetypes into individuals with motivations and complexities. Hell, give them a few flaws, even. It’ll make for a better story.

Let’s call Ariel a midway point. A prototype, so to speak. Compared to what came before, she’s a vast improvement. As opposed to the complacent, docile Original Princess Trio, Ariel is fiercely independent. In fact, she’s headstrong to the point of recklessness, as the movie’s very first scene–wherein she almost gets herself eaten by a shark–makes clear. She refuses to bow to the will of male authority figures, whether that authority figure is her physically imposing father or the little red crab, Sebastian. While Ariel isn’t complicit in her own salvation during the final battle, the way later Disney heroines would be, she does manage a role reversal by saving Eric earlier in the film. Nor does she neatly fit the passive damsel-in-distress mode that earlier heroines had. Disney seemed to opt for the best/worst-of-both-worlds theory here; Ariel can more than take care of herself underwater (as that initial shark fight would demonstrate), but on land, she’s utterly dependent on others. Still, unlike the earlier princesses, she’s not merely an unlucky victim of chance; she actively takes a role in everything that happens to her. The loss of her voice, and ultimately of her underwater home, is her choice.

Perhaps the most improved aspect of the story over earlier princess tales is that Ariel actually has a defined personality. Her impetuousness is matched only by her enthusiasm, but her most prominent trait is her curiosity regarding all things human–forks and tobacco pipes and candlestick holders, which she stores in an underwater vault. Societally-stunted intellectual curiosity will become something of a trademark with the early Disney Renaissance princesses: Ariel just wants to see how people live on land, Belle just wants to read books, Jasmine just wants to see something outside of her palace walls. It’s a little overdone by its third iteration, but here at the beginning it’s still fresh and new, and, if we’re taking it allegorically, quite touching: her father, King Triton, is essentially a bigot who’s terrified of those barbaric humans, while Ariel opens her heart to everyone because she can see their essential goodness underneath.

And ultimately there’s something vaguely progressive about the fact that Eric falls in love with Ariel for her voice. With the old princesses, it was clear that their beauty was the major draw–but for Eric, though Ariel looks like the girl he thought he loved, and is clearly gorgeous, it was her voice that he fell in love with. Without it, he enjoys her company, finds her fun enough to be around–but he’d clearly like her more if she had something to say. Come on, people. It’s a metaphor!

Still, there are problems. Significant problems. Like the fact that the woman is ready to make a Faustian pact to give up her legs in exchange for a man–that would be a major problem. And although Ursula is one of the best Disney villains ever created, she was blatantly patterned after drag queen Divine, which creates some troubling subtext–Disney’s queer villain subtext is a post in itself. And Ariel’s excitability and recklessness at times are taken to such extremes that she comes off as a legitimate bimbo, when I think what they were going for was more along the lines of, you know, Zooey Deschanel. But when this is what we have to compare it to, I think Disney deserves a little more credit for busting up the damsel-in-distress mold than they’re usually given.

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