In Praise of “Bad” Movies

One of the most ridiculous things to ever happen in the world of film criticism is the Roger and Ebert “thumbs up/thumbs down” approach to watching movies. That’s a good movie, or that’s a bad movie, is too quick an explanation for really engaging in films. (Ebert wasn’t fond of the practice, so I have heard, and he had a long standing difference with Pauline Kael, who by my account seemed to like tearing films apart much more than watching them. Ebert did really dive into articulated thoughts about films. Kael never seems to have been a film lover first, just a film snob who was contrary because it gained her attention.)

We all have them, even film critics. We have films we just love. There are movies which are great testaments to the art of visual storytelling. There are important visual stories that have becoming the building blocks the art form was based on. There are films of great merit. There are films that are schlock. And there are those countless films which critics tell us are worth a second look. This is one of mine. I sing in praise of a film that critics hated and audiences loved, and still love thanks to a long run on the Disney channel. Critics have poo-pooed the story, the acting, the pacing, and the premise. It’s Rotten Tomatoes rating is 8% (but its audience score there is 61%). Rita Kempley of the Washington Post said, “Dreadful as their performances are, the actors are the victims.” Another critic complained about uneven structure and “ostentatiously 80’s directorial choices.” (David Nusiar, Reel Film reviews.) The great Roger Ebert himself thought the premise and script praised materialistic yuppie ideals too much and that “nobody within a mile of this project seems to have possessed an ounce of irony.”  And yet, the film is so popular that selected Alamo Drafthouses are now doing quote-a-long screenings.

What is this “bad” movie? The delightful 1989 comedy Troop Beverly Hills.

Let me be honest, I have personal biases worth disclosing. I first saw this film when we rented it for my 10th birthday party sleepover. I laughed until I was out cold in a birthday and pizza party coma. The film at that time was a new VHS release, and in the same vein as dozens of 80s comedies my mom and eldest brother rented when we got pizza because my dad was away for the night (at the time my dad was a strictly meat and potatoes man). So it belongs in the same early category as other films of the time, like Big Business or Harry and the Hendersons. I loved it. As I recall, I insisted we keep the rental long enough to watch it again, and it was rented subsequent times. Ten-ish years later I and a group of my closest college buddies had movie night in my dorm room, and as we watched Troop Beverly Hills, a group of five or so of us realized we were all quoting it word for word. We caught each other’s eyes, mid-quote, and had moments of recognition. We were already friends, but this was true affirmation of our kindred-spiritness. My voicemail in college began with the film’s ridiculously pissy and militantly butch antagonist (Betty Thomas) saying, “My name is Velda Plendor. I’m a widow. I’m a mother. I’m an ex-army nurse. But first and foremost, I am a wilderness girl.” My friend Megan was probably the best person to trade quotes with, and she knew the film stone cold. Everything from Jasmine (Tasha Scott) telling her father, “Now daddy, shake the man’s hand and let’s be on our way” to the tormented scene where Phyllis Nefler (Shelly Long) the hero of the film, a Beverly Hills house wife who finds new meaning when she becomes the leader of her daughter Hannah (Jenny Lewis, pre Indie Rock fame)’s Wilderness Girl Troop Leader, finds herself alone in her room discouraged, with a trail of empty Evian bottles leading to her bed. When her friend, and romance novelist, Vicki (Stephanie Beacham) says, “Don’t you think you’ve had enough,” Phyllis replies, “Shut up and pass me the bottle.” Megan and I excelled at Velda Plendor quotes, though. But the point is, we and our friends Anne, Mary, and Laura could quote the entire film, from, the short-film-within-itself animated opening credits (made by an uncredited team of animators; two of whom worked on Ren and Stimpy), to the final shouts of “Beverly Hills, what a thrill!” And so much in between. “Ok so we’re not robust mountain women…as yet.” And, “You call this roughing it?” “Nine people for one bathroom? Yes.” Or my anbsolute favorite, “Dammit, dammit , dammit! Just once I would like to go the distance! …It really frosts my cookies that we have come so far and done so much, and now we have to stop!”

It goes beyond my personal experience, though. There’s a reason this film has remained so popular.  Being aired for years on the Disney channel certainly helped. The critics were just wrong. Some, like Ebert, had valid points, but the film doesn’t praise Beverly Hills in so much of a congratulatory way that it’s unrelatable. Instead, it is a clear case of a culture being able to laugh at itself. Beverly Hills is full of rich, out of touch people. One of them, Ava Ostern Fries, used her real life experiences as a Brownie Troop Leader for her daughter’s Beverly Hills Troop as basis for the story, getting back in touch by realizing how ridicuous the situations were.  According to a memoir by her husband Chuck, who served as executive producer, Ava dashed off her true stories (like a rained-out camping trip moving to a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel) and they were so good they commission a screenplay. If the film is self-congratulatory, it is so without being snobbish. In fact, that’s one of the points of the film. Mostly, it mocks the culture that goes to Christophé and Cartier with a light touch. It is in the same vein as the screwballs of the 30s that let viewers simultaneously mock the rich and live vicariously through them (see It Happened One Night, My Man Godfrey or any Ginger and Fred film).

And screwball it is. The complaint about pace is so odd I don’t even understand it, since the dialog pacing is absolutely sharp, and the sight gags spot on. Actor performance is just sublime. To the Rotten Tomatoes commenter that said, “She gave up Cheers for this?” I return, she has never shown brighter. Long absolutely sparkles in the part. You love her and believe her despite and perhaps because of her faults. Long is so comfortable in the role that when you go back to Cheers you have to adjust to Diane, who is well educated and seemingly deep but really quite shallow. Phyllis on the other hand, is seemingly shallow and materialistic, but really sincere, clever, and caring. Shelly Long could make the film,  but the cast around her is perfect (Betty Thomas, who has two prime time Emmys, is brilliant. Bril.Liant. I could quote her all day), making it an ensemble piece (with countless well used cameos) worthy of comparison to the great screwballs of the 30s. 

The script itself is of course predictable, but then any romantic comedy is really. The fun is in getting there, and Troop Beverly Hills is all fun, with no pretension to be anything but. When writing about the box-office flop but perennial favorite 1938 film Bringing Up Baby, critic David Thomson said, “…Hollywood is seldom more usefully serious than in its best comedies” (Have You Seen…? p128). This is one of the reasons we go to the movies. As the cartoon scene in  Sullivan’s Travels shows us, great comedy is profound in its impact. It can bring levity, encouragement, and joy. Good comedy is hard work that takes real skill and talent. Films by eternally adolescent boys that get critical praise by immature film critics who want to make the right friends in Hollywood may be called “good,” but I think Garry Marshall was a genius. Why else would other directors (like Troop‘s Jeff Kanew) mimic his style? His comedies had timing and character and heart. Much of the comedy was earned character moments, not an inserted flatulent joke or a cheap skin sight gag.

These “bad”films, like perhaps the ones directed by Paul Feig (I’m going to see Ghostbusters tomorrow) need reconsideration. Good and bad are too loose in their terminology. It’s more complicated than that. What are you looking for in a film? The real quality ones may sacrifice daring cinematography for an emphasis on actor performance (this is the case with most musicals), but they will be made with some kind of artistic integrity. That is somewhat subjective, true, but the debates about whether a film has artistic merit make us examine them closer. For me, it starts with the films we truly love. Why do we love them? How do they affirm us? Where is their beauty? Some comedy is cheap, demeaning, and stupid, that’s true. But comedy at its best although it looks simple and light-hearted, seemingly unimportant, allows us to play, to laugh at ourselves, and to enjoy. The comedies of the thirties were a necessary emotional leaven to the Great Depression. We need challenging stories, but when our realities are brutal, and this summer has been one brutal news story after another, we need to laugh again. Comics have a noble job. Ridiculous 80s farces about girls earning merit patches at a beauty salon do too. We think we are so intelligent, so in control, so important. We’re not, really. That’s what makes comedy both essential and “good.”

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Reflections on Independence, Expression, and All the Professional Ladies

The opening of Rebecca Traister’s remarkable 2016 book All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of the Independent Nation is a quote, a question posed by the great girl reporter Nellie Bly (who inspired the likes of Lois Lane and Ros Russell’s Hildy Johnson) and answered by America’s great suffragist Susan B. Anthony:

Bly: “What do you think the new woman will be?”

Anthony: “She’ll be free.”

Traister does a great job explaining and expounding on what that freedom is becoming and looks like, including the injustices still left to be overcome, for contemporary American women. It both challenges our ideals of freedom and affirms the work of our mothers and grandmothers, and the horizons open to us that simply were not open to them.

This impacts me (and many women I know) in a lot of profound ways. There are battles I will not have to fight, and battles the generation of my nieces will not have to either. I realize this every time I teach Thelma and Louise and we talk about how unfortunately plausible the plot is. “Could they have just gone to the police at the beginning?” some of my more sheltered students ask. The ones in the class from different life circumstances or different social circles shake their heads. They know. Occasionally I’ll have a young man in the class who just doesn’t get the film. In one sense, I’m glad there are young men who don’t understand women feeling hopeless and trapped because they’ve never seen it. But at the same time, they need to see that it’s real so they stop in when it happens–to people of both genders. And all of my students need to see that this film, this fictional story, written by Callie Khouri (who won and Oscar) and directed by Ridley Scott (who is known for directing women incredibly well), changed the way people thought. A movie did that.

I recently watched Suffragette, and agreed with the critics who praised the cast and rejoiced at the billing of a female director (Sarah Gavron), writer, and producer. The story was a bit overdone, (although the major plot points based on real events in the final scenes were stunning and literally will take your breath away) and the cinematography was beautiful but not remarkable. What I kept thinking about was how long it took for this film to be made, and that it wasn’t made in the US. Susan B. Anthony was put on the dollar coin in 1979, and this April the US Treasury announced she and other suffragists Sojourner Truth, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Alice Paul will appear on the new $10 bill. 

Where is the American movie about suffragists? 

Anyone who doubts the existence of the boy’s club in Hollywood must have missed the downplay of Katherine Bigelow’s 2008 Oscar for The Hurt Locker (Bigelow is the only female director to win an Oscar), or how Ava DuVernay’s film Selma and Charlize Theron’s performance in Mad Max: Fury Road were snubbled at Oscar time. But there is reason for hope. Bigelow is at work in her next project, a crime drama set in Detroit with GOT star Hannah Murray already signed on. 

And then there’s Broadway, which this year showed Hollywood up on pretty much every front. It was a remarkable year for theater in the Big Apple, which is saying something as it’s often a remarkable year for theater there. But from Angelica Schuyler (played by Tony winner Reneé Elise Goldsberry) singing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lovely response to the most memorable quote from the Declaration of Independence, 

“‘We hold these truths to be self-evidence, that all men are created equal.’ And when I meet Thomas Jefferson I’m going to compel him to include women in the sequel.”

Hamilton: An American Musical

to the stunning revival of The Color Purple, and the new plays Eclipsed and Waitress, women on stage did remarkable things. (Waitress, by the way, is my current favorite listen. I loved the film, which has its own remarkable story of a female filmmaker who has inspired many of us. Adrienne Shelly, Kimiko Glenn does you proud. So does Sarah Bareilles.)

In 1973 Molly Haskell wrote,

“Women  have figured more prominently in film than in any other art, industry, or profession (and film is all three) dominated by men…[but despite their impact] There have been shamefully few women directors…”

From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies

Haskell goes on to point out that several well known female directors like Ida Lupino and Lillian Gish were well known as actresses, not directors. I wonder what Lupino and Gish would say to, for instance, Kathleen Kennedy (the currently president of Lucasfilm and a major Hollywood player since the 1980’s)?

My guess is they would say what I say to all my fellow female artists. Some of whom are married, some who are not. Some with children, some not. Some highly educated, some not. Some whom I agree with about many things, some I often don’t agree with at all, but this is America and here every voice is supposed to matter. They are pianists and painters, choreographers and opera singers, composers, photographers, writers of every kind. They do good work. They change the world through their art. They have important stories to tell. To them I say, the new woman is free.

Happy Independence Day.

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Finding Dory’s (and other story’s) Lessons

Here’s a question:

If it is vital for parents to understand not just the content of films aimed at children, but the “lessons” those films teach, why aren’t more people paying attention to the “lessons” that all films teach?


I just saw Finding Dory.  It was great. And it had a great “message” (see Alissa Wilkison’s review for Christianity Today as one testament). Like Inside Out and Zootopia, the current run of Disney and Pixar features are gearing their stories to teach kids important life lessons about having a healthy sense of self-worth, handing emotions, and dealing with others.


This should come as no surprise and feel right in line with what Christians who grew up watching McGee and Me or Veggietales know. Visual stories can be fun and silly and really engaging, but also teach a valuable lesson. In fact, Christian media has been doing this with videos for people of all ages, to the point that people from our tradition tend to look for morals in all films. What is the message? What’s the take-away? (For more on this, see another article by Wilkinson titled “Lazy Cultural Engagement”)

Christian media, and Christians watching media, are not alone. Sesame Street was and is intentional about creating a diverse environment that engages children and teaches important life lessons about self worth and emotions, as well as letters and numbers. Oscar is a grouch, but Big Bird is his friend anyway. Grover makes all kinds of mistakes, but he learns from them. Elmo’s good intentions don’t always result in his being as helpful as he’d like, but he changes his behavior when he realizes this. There are all kinds of examples running rampant on Nick Jr. and Disney Kids.

Kids are not adults, you say. Kids need safe content.

Do adults?

Children are impressionable, sure, and they are developing. But to some extent, all humans are impressionable. If it’s okay, in fact it seems an imperative, for children’s media content to teach good lessons, why doesn’t the same imperative apply for all people?


We think we can handle it.

Here are a few things to note:

  • American audiences are not that good at reading sarcasm, satire, or irony. Archie Bunker was supposed to be someone we laughed at. Half of the audiences that tuned in to All in the Family considered him a bigot. The other half thought he was a hero. That half missed the satire. Only a misunderstanding of satire could result in Bart Simpson or any of the characters from The Family Guy being people one should mimic. In real life we would not choose to be around these people. They’re only funny when we laugh at them…except to many audiences they are funny, and mimicking their behavior becomes good for a laugh, approval, or asserting influence.
  • Children’s stories haven’t always been safe. Consider Grimm’s fairy tales. Consider many biblical stories. David and Goliath is not a nice clean Disney fantasy. It’s a beheading during a battle. Should children not be exposed to grim realities? Let’s not get started on the rest of David’s life, it’s pretty much one R rated film after another.
  • Safe stories don’t point out our need for grace. Movies and television are full of comforting lies. Capitalism and self-confidence will save us (Enchanted, The Wizard of Oz; virtually every film ever made). Romance is the greatest love there is (Love Comes Softly, Moulin Rouge, and virtually every film ever made). Those thoughts don’t line up with Christian doctrine at all, yet they are all over the stories we consume all the time.

We need to rethink what safe is.

There are ways to engage in media that help us make informed choices about ALL the movies and television we watch (Remote Virtue was written for just that purpose).

Finding Dory was fun, and affirming. I liked the message. I’d want kids to see it. But I hope as they grow, they can learn to take in difficult stories too, and understand how Mud or Philomena or Mad Max also have important things to say about growing up, forgiving, and freedom.

Messages matter.

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Box Office Proselytizing

In the latest issue of MovieMaker magazine there is an article by Heidi Honeycutt entitled v8-MM-Cover-Winter-2016-300x400“Box Office Prophets.” Basically, the article examines the rise in popularity of films made by and marketed to Evangelical Christians. Honeycutt mentions the commercial viability of films after The Omega Code made a surprising box office splash. Films like Courageous and Fireproof and Kevin Sorbo’s staunch defense of God’s Not Dead. Honeycutt also mentions the importance of pastoral promotion for these movies, the idea that the Christian community was looking for safe material for families to watch (giving birth to David A. R. White’s Pure Flix, a Netflix for Christians), and the easy label that anything with “prayer” in the title (like Maggie Kiley’s 2015 indie pic Dial A Prayer) gets as “Christian.”

Two things come to mind right away in response to this:

  • Honeycutt rightly mentions that many of these Christian films are disparaged as being rather poorly made. She’s right.
  • Since when has Hollywood really cared if a film is poorly made, so long as it makes money?

Both of these things explain the presence of this article in a secular filmmaking magazine; one that I have subscribed to for years, partly because the Independent got canned (then poorly resurrected but nevermind). Hollywood now cares about films for Christian audiences only because they are making money. Only then. The Christian communities producing these films are interested in something a bit more complex. They want to preach the Gospel. But they’re mostly preaching to the choir. And what they’re preaching to the choir, well, it’s not that deep, to be honest. Therefore, in response I have three relatively short notes, addressed to different parties concerned with the subject of the article. First, to MovieMaker, second, to the Christian producers, and third to audiences of all movies, but especially those hungry for something “safe” for their families.

To MovieMaker:

First off, thanks for noticing Christianity. I walked through my early career in professional theater and in film school feeling like I must have a third arm growing out of my side. I was a weirdo. This suits me. But I wasn’t a geeky weirdo in a screen-print t-shirt hiding in a dark room, unshaven, with gross hair and eating habits that would make a goat gag. That kind of weird lands you at Sundance (and I know, two of my grad school classmates took a film there this year). My kind of weird got me a polite nod and a quizzical look from professors, and distance from some colleagues. I will forever wonder how much of my work was turned down because I was 1) female (which is such a real thing. I just didn’t believe that was true when I was with all these awesome tough broads in film school but the boys club is a real thing. And it’s bizarre to be honest.) 2) from the Midwest (rightly pointed out in H’s article as being identified by Hollywood as nowhereseville. Oh Hollywood, go back and review those Ginger and Fred films. Good things come from the Midwest. Ask Garrison Keillor and Fannie Flagg.) 3) Christian (read: cute and sweet and simple and naive. To which I always wanted to respond to people, “Pick up a copy of some work by C.S. Lewis other than the Chronicles of Narnia* and get. A. Clue. This religion demands everything you’ve got if you’re trying to do it right.) 4) a bad artist.

I will never know how much my art needed improvement, and still does, because I have no idea what grounds it was dismissed on.

Please note, MM, that Christianity is getting better at this. Read some of the stuff going on in the movie section of Christianity Today. Note that Christian film scholars are talking about lots of great stuff. Like Philomena (I’m still not over that movie). Like the amoral world of The Revenant. Like what “The Force” has—if anything—to do with faith. I predict you will be doing articles on more Christian films in the future, and they may or may not be the ones preached from big-church pulpits. More likely (I hope) they will be small indie films with lots of heart and good writing. They will find audiences because audiences are so eager for redemptive, well-made material. I am so eager for them I’m drooling on my Netflix account.

To Christian Producers:

First, thank you for understanding that movies are important. They are part of how we see the world. They impact us in profound ways and therefore they are useful tools, culture-shapers and mind-blowers.

Thank you for recognizing that people love to watch movies and they are hungry for something they can really enjoy that is relevant to their life.

Second, I wish it was as simple as you want it to be. You can sell anything in a movie. You really can. Movies can make us believe almost anything. We’ll cheer for anyone if the script builds enough sympathy (think Silence of the Lambs, anything by Quentin Tarantino, anything with Adam Sandler in it).

Who are you really making these movies for? Is it for people who already believe in HidingPlace_dvd_lgChrist? If so, we need more meat and less conversion message. Christianity is a deep tradition with countless. Count.Less. real life stories that are incredibly powerful. Case in point: the well made film The Hiding Place. Or, if you are instead trying to appeal to a broad demography, can you please stop painting a narrow view of our religion?

I actually think that many of these films touted on Pure Flix and made by the likes of Sherwood Pictures are actually marketed to a culture, not a religion. These are not Christian films, these are often Southern Evangelical Fundamentalist** films, predominantly those sold at mega-churches. You’re leaving a lot of our religion out here, and it shows. Christians outside this demographic are hungry, too, and if they’re like me, they leave Mom’s Night Out encouraged by some things (Patricia Heaton’s delightful performance) but not others (all moms, all women must be that. Not true. It’s a valid critique and stop saying it’s not.)

The movies we really need won’t turn a huge profit. Most things we truly need to hear don’t. You’ve found a paying audience. But you’re taking advantage of them, and perhaps doing more harm than good. Proceed with caution.

To Audiences Looking for “Safe” Material:

There is no such thing.

There is not.

Everything comes from a worldview. Everything requires a conversation.

I grew up on Hollywood musicals and anything with Cary Grant in it. I was in my late teens before I really got what was happening in Gone With the Wind. My mom remembers watching Gunsmoke growing up and she knew there was a conversation going on in Miss Kitty’s room but, whoa, wait a minute, that means that….yep. Flew right over her head that Marshall Dillon was spending time with a hooker on TV. You think Disney is safe? It’s teaching your kids commercialism. You think sports movies are safe? They set up a whole big bunch of expectations, and often are pretty insensitive when it comes to race relations. The “safe” movies you are letting your family watch still need you to give them a context. The show you watch because it’s “not so bad, at least they don’t….” still ought to be thought through by you. What does it really value? Do you agree? Should you?

I’ve actually written a lot on this subject (insert shameless book plug here. And it is, I believe in the material so much I have no qualms in promoting Remote Virtue and will continue to do so as long as it’s in print, or longer) and there is a way to discern what is healthy or not healthy to watch. Part of it is checking out content, yes, and it always will be. But, if you really want to find good material for your family to watch, it will require you to do something much more difficult. It will require you to think.

We, as audiences, don’t want to. But we have to if we’re ever going to really engage media as Christians and understand how to be healthy in our interaction. In fact, our entire engagement with popular culture needs to be done with intention (for more info, check out work by Dr. Paul Patton).

Movies change the way we see the world. Christianity does too. That’s a combo with amazing potential. I am so eager to see what happens when more artists and more Christians hungry for well-told stories step into the arena. When they do, I hope MovieMaker is there to tell the tale, because I’ll be reading, and watching.


*The Chronicles of Narnia is a series of young adult books with a story so rich in its theological and mythological tradition that to dismiss it as just fancy is to miss Lewis’s point in writing it. Lewis’s other novels, both fiction and non, are go-to’s for many Christians.

**Any kind of label on a religious group is an overgeneralization and in some way unfair, so I wish there was a better way to categorize. A lot of good writers are talking about the differences in belief and practice in the American Christian church. PBS’s Frontline is even doing a series on it.

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An Open Letter to Carrie Fisher


Dear Carrie Fisher,

I’ve decided to write you this letter, after watching The Force Awakens, because I think the event of this film is significant. And I’ll be honest, my first comment after hearing you would be in a new Star Wars film was, “Dear lord, please just let her write her own lines.” When it became evident in the midst of the film that you would not, as I had hoped, be playing an older Leia with some intergalactic version of an ecigarette and a space martini who swore like a star sailor I’ll admit I was a teensy bit disappointed. I mean, I get why. They had to give Harrison Ford all the good lines since—spoiler alert—he might not have as many in the next film…leia13f-4-web

But I was also thinking, come on J.J. Abrams and co. (Who, no doubt, are now hearing every incidental complaint by every crazed, too-involved, get-a-life fan around the globe. And now I’m one of them. Well, you know, they asked for it. And this point aside, considering all the expectations, they made a really fun film.) Have they not read your books? Are they not aware of your public persona? I read the Entertainment Weekly article that said that Harrison Ford really is Han Solo. You’re not Princess Leia. You’re Carrie Fisher. But oh the opportunity to make General Leia a tough-talking, no-nonsense, kick *ss-and-make-snarky-comments-like “Will someone get this big walking carpet out of my way?” seems just so obvious.

I have to be up front with you. I’m one of those. I’m a Star Wars fan. When I was a teenager and my parents told my growing tomboy self I should be more of a “lady” I found few role models. Most were passive, girly, and wholly unlike who I wanted to be. Princess Leia was a “lady” (albeit in a male space fantasy) and if I could be more like Princess Leia and be a lady, I could be okay with that. As I grew up and grew out of the weird obsessed with Star Wars phase (admittedly, not totally, given I used to throw Star Wars parties for my nieces and nephews, which was a slim excuse to dress up in costumes and eat “wookie cookies”) I would tell my acting students that they should find their persona, and mine was a combination of Bonnie Hunt, Flannery O’Connor, and you. Not Leia, Carrie Fisher. You.

Maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s the week I had. My preparation for seeing The wishful-drinkingForce Awakens was not to watch the original trilogy, but listen to you reading the audiobook version of your autobiography Wishful Drinking. To be candid, it’s been a hell of a week. Mostly personal stuff I won’t bore you with, like my fiancée getting bad health news, my surrogate adopted daughter having a terrible Christmas (again), and my workplace laying more people off after we all made concessions so they wouldn’t. There was also the showdown in my house that left cats we are watching fighting and ruining presents by peeing under the tree. That was fun. Or, well, you get the idea. I actually said to someone this week, “Well, at least bombs aren’t falling out of the sky.” It was that week.

I’ve got a lot going for me right now. Just published a book. Engaged. Surrounded by people I love who are special to me. But there is also this ***t. And as I’m listening to your book, I hear you talk about one interviewer asking you if you were happy and you responding, “Among other things.” That’s my mantra this week. Lots of good. Lots of not. Happy, yes, among other things.

See, this is the thing. I know General Leia is really motherly. I like this leiaabout her. And I’m assuming they will develop your character over the next films, especially with her son and semi?* daughter. But when I think about fighting the Dark Side. I think about fear and hate and anger and depression, and how you, Carrie Fisher, have fought them. As I listen to your book, I feel empowered. We are only as sick as our secrets. It’s a powerful thing you do, telling your story. Your full acceptance of who you are and your own humanity, that’s what makes you a role model. It’s how your celebrity becomes a gift. You use humor and your own experience to help other people find some perspective. Life has beaten you up. But you’re turning the bad stuff in your past into fuel for a better future.

I know everyone has their own wants for the reboot of Star Wars. And you Carrie_Fisher_2013looked beautiful on screen (side note, your gown in the final scene, how long will it take people to figure out that you are, well, not tall? The neckline was lovely but… That aside, I loved Leia’s new hair). But, well, I don’t know how much say you have. Should I forward this to J.J. Abram’s office? Maybe in a spinoff? I mean, you’re a writer. You have a gift with words. You were married to Paul Simon for heaven’s sake. You’ve doctored how many Hollywood scripts? Can they give you a pass on the next one? I just think, here’s this gifted writer, and she understands celebrity and how persona is a part of the characters you play. For better or worse, Leia is a part of you and you are her. She does not exist without you. Not really. So couldn’t they just give you some more free reign? Leia has had some really awful stuff happen. So have you. I think you, Carrie Fisher, have some important perspective on light and dark, and I think Leia should share that.

I’d end with something like, “This is our most desperate hour” but I think that might be a tad hyperbolic. You’re not our only hope. You’re not a new hope. But, you get hope. You understand the importance of a sense of humor. I trust J.J. Abrams knows that, and is planning on it for the future.


A fan.

(An embarrassingly big one. I saw you do your one-woman show in Columbus, Ohio a few years ago. I didn’t scream “You’re awesome, Carrie!” or faint or anything like that. But I kinda wanted to.)
*I’m placing bets now she’s Kylo Ren’s twin sister, whose memory was erased by her Uncle Luke. See, I told you I was one of those nerds.

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Why This Christian Film Prof Hated God’s Not Dead

I didn’t want to. I thought I would just have a couple of issues with it I could point out to my film classes, like I do with Facing the Giants. You know, it needs some screenwriting and acting help, but hooray for a church making a movie and hooray for promoting revival.

Then I watched a trailer and got really skeptical. But a colleague said, “Some non-Christian neighbors of ours saw the movie and they’ve been asking us questions about our faith, so maybe it’s doing some good.” And I felt convicted, because who am I to stand in the way of anyone being reached by the Gospel?

So last night I watched God’s Not Dead and I didn’t like it. But I got convicted again and thought maybe I was too biased. After all, I’m a Christian academic and a Christian filmmaker. Maybe I’m a snob.GND-FB-Cover

Then I realized that this was one of the problems, and one main reason I can and will clearly state the following: I hated God’s Not Dead.

I don’t just dislike or have a couple of issues with the film. I’m pulling out what I consider a four-letter-word: Hate. I hated it. And here’s why:

  1. All of the non-Christian or non-converts in the film are villains.

All of them. All of the speaking characters are either professing Christians already, make a profession of “born again-ness” or remain not just antagonists, but villains. The most sympathetic non-Christian is the Muslim dad who throws his daughter (a Christian convert) out of the house and is in tears about it. At least he is portrayed as human enough to be broken up about what his non-Christian religious convictions cause him to do.

The most pointed example of this is the death of the professor character (Professor Radisson) played by Kevin Sorbo (you know, TV’s Hercules?). He’s not just an atheist academic, he’s a man with serious psychological problems and no professional boundaries. And he converts to Christianity after being hit by a car and right before his death.

There are two problems with this plot point. The first is that the “good” Christians get rid of an antagonist in a guilt-free way. This is the narrative equivalent of colonialist Christians baptizing native babies then bashing their heads against rocks. We don’t want you around. But we need to be okay with getting rid of you. So we’ll make sure you’re saved first, then have you die. The second is weak, weak, weak screenwriting. If the only real motivation for someone to convert to Christianity is his impending death, we’ve not preached the Gospel well (nor let the Holy Spirit do the good work of conviction well). This screenwriting device only serves to heighten emotional stakes, but like the rest of the film (except for the subplot of the Islamic family, which if developed and better directed would be a powerful story) it doesn’t earn the emotion, it just globs it on with slow dramatic zooms and heavy soundtracking, the same way Paula Dean globs on butter and oil on pasta.

  1. The film’s definition of Christian is cultural, and far too narrow.

The main plot revolves around a Christian in a philosophy classroom. Because that’s never happened before? Also, all the Christians in the film are the same brand of born again evangelicals, culturally stamped by the presence of Willie Robertson from Duck Dynasty. I’m a Christian and that guy doesn’t represent my faith. Where was the Episcopalian in that classroom? The Catholic? The non-mainline Wesleyan (that’s me). The high church has by and large been better than mainline Christianity at engaging with both academia and art. But the presence of anyone who was Christian and already academically engaged would have negated the plot. Which means the plot was weak and the demographic depictions too one-sided.

  1. The polarizing vilification of academia.

The film polarizes Christianity. In this corner, smart people who teach at colleges but are verbally abusive. And in this corner, young people who are full of emotional conviction and earnestness.

You can learn a lot about a movie’s intended messages by studying the protagonist and antagonist of the story. God’s Not Dead’s protagonist is Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper) an earnest, bright, young white man (note: the hero is a young white male. Now read any of the writing going on about Ferguson, and the debate this country has been having for centuries about the white, male, and, sadly yes, Christian establishment). But stereotypical hero aside, he’s a nice guy. (Also note, the student wins the day, not the prof. Where are all the Christians who lambasted Harry Potter because “kids” defied all the authority figures? Once again, the prof/authority figure had to be vilified in order to justify his student defying him. What if he hadn’t been a mean, angry, emotionally manipulative man? What if he had just been a really good logician who was an atheist? Would it still be okay for the student to “outsmart” him or go against his authority?)

The antagonist is a white male too. He’s a philosophy prof who makes students sign an agreement on the first day of class that God is dead. When Josh doesn’t sign it, he’s suddenly assigned a lecture series and teaches the rest of the class (which doesn’t make sense at all; was there no other topic in the syllabus?). Professor Radisson can’t just be an atheist. He has to also demean and verbally abuse his Christian girlfriend. Oh, and all his colleagues, who come over for the dinner where he verbally abuses his girlfriend, apparently agree with him. Because everyone in academia thinks the same thing? Hang around some department offices or visit a committee meeting for ten seconds and you’ll realize that’s not the case. The academy actually encourages people to disagree and discuss why, since that’s how we learn.

And believe it or not, people can disagree and still love each other. I know mainline Christianity doesn’t want to hear that, but it’s actually true. Christians have had diverse opinions for years. And it didn’t stop them from loving each other or serving together. (Pretty sure the apostle Paul talked about this. Remember 1 Corinthians 12 and the parts of the body? Unity in diversity? Paul also talked about the problem of dissention, which is not the same as being different. I’ve always though if I were a part of the body of Christ I was probably the armpit. Actually, one would think artists and filmmakers should be the eyes. If that’s the case, it makes me think about specks and planks…)

Back to the prof as villain: Let’s concede there are some antagonistic profs. I’ve had some. I’ve even been the antagonistic prof. (I’m kind of doing it now, right?) And since the film takes the time to roll in the end credits a list of pending or closed cases where students wanted first amendment rights in order to profess their faith in the classroom, I’ll even grant that there are classrooms where that might happen. But the script smacks of coloring up the hard-nosed atheist academic to make him look like a “bad guy.”

No academic I know, or have had, as antagonistic or differently viewed from me as they may have been, would ask me to give up my faith in God. I can’t say it happens in all cases, but I would wager the vast majority of philosophy classrooms are about teaching logic, not teaching dogma.

I had a tough philosophy prof in college. I went to my great-grandmother’s funeral and missed the first class. I contacted her but she didn’t reply. Since I missed the first class I had to borrow and copy a syllabus from a classmate, and I failed the first paper since I didn’t have the assignment rubric. She made me question a lot of things. But when we were talking about evidence for the supernatural, she looked around the classroom and said, “How do you know God exists?” No one answered. “Come on,” she said, “You’re at a Catholic college! Where’s your St. Augustine? Where’s your Thomas Aquinas? Those are your boys.” And I was pretty humbled by that. I was a Christian, but I didn’t know my faith as well as I should have.

Philosophy classrooms, as I understand them, and liberal arts classrooms in general, are about critical inquiry. We’re not there to teach people what to think, but how to think better. What I learned in Intro to Philosophy was not whether or not God existed, but the rules of logic. Those rules brought me to a conclusion. And the conclusion I came to is much stronger than the film’s.

I don’t want there to be “proof” of God’s existence. It is impossible to prove God exists. But, it is also impossible to prove God does not exist. Therefore, my relationship with the Divine is predicated on, you guessed it, faith. The film tries to get there, but it mixes up a rhetorical debate with an emotionally charged story, which weakens any argument it was trying to make. Especially since this prof is a singularly bad prof and bad person. And where was his department chair, by the way? Why didn’t someone take this prof aside and say, “Your agenda is getting in the way of learning outcomes here. And you can’t personally threaten students.” This is the most unprofessional professor I’ve ever seen depicted on screen, and knowing how Hollywood treats academics (The Nutty Professor anyone?), that’s saying something.

The bad smart people idea is typified by the prof’s girlfriend Mina (Cory Oliver) visting subplotted pastor Reverend Dave (David A. R. White). She describes Professor Radisson’s belittling (and gender profiling, but never mind). “Let me guess,” the pastor says, ”He’s really smart.” Uh oh. Can’t be a Christian then, I guess.

American culture has become increasingly polarized, and Christianity has succumbed to it. I felt guilty for not liking this movie, even though it negates what I try to do every day, which is teach students that Christ is a perspective for learning (for reason, even), and that filmmaking is an art. I no longer feel guilty. Not one bit. Not liking this movie does not make me less Christian. God’s Not Dead is the movie I wanted to make when I was twenty years old, full of religious ardor and a need for dramatic emotional intensity. But I took a philosophy class, a real one. And I got a film degree, so I learned about how to tell better stories. While I admire Christians trying make films people want to watch, that often means they pander, preaching to the choir and riding on emotionally manipulative storytelling (and, apparently, former TV stars). The ends do not justify the means. Christ could use a message on a Coke bottle to further His kingdom if he so chose. It doesn’t give us an excuse to be poor storytellers. We serve an excellent God. We should be making excellent art, worthy of the gifts God has given us. Christians own the greatest story ever told, and this is what “we” come up with?

I know this movie was a valid Christian experience for a lot of people. And God bless that. But for a Christian film prof, it flew in the face of everything I’m trying to do: call people to not just conversion, but holiness. Help Christians engage in critical inquiry, speaking the truth in love. Make Christian art that is more that pop culture product, but expresses the power of redemption by using the power of the medium in sophisticated and engaging ways. Don’t just redeem the story; redeem the storytelling.

I’ve heard the movie Calvary is really well done. I’m looking forward to that.


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The Birds: The Christian Hipster’s Summer Guide to Hitchcock

The Hipster Hitchcock summer draws to a close with a fearful phone booth, blondes, and, you guessed it….The_Birds_original_poster

The Birds (1963). With Tippi Hedron, Robert Taylor, Jessica Tandy, and Suzanne Pleshette. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

Things for Hipsters to Note:

-Tippi (Hedron) as Melanie.hitchcock-sizzle

She eats the screen alive wearing that green Edith Head suit. And she’s yet another blonde tortured by Hitch. This is the movie that made her famous. Incidentally, her daughter’s name is Melanie. You know, her daughter Melanie Griffith? Yep. Weird, right? (Incidentally, another minor character, a fisherman, is played by Doodles Weaver, father of Sigourney Weaver. So, the cast of Working Girl was hanging out on the set of The Birds. Oh Hollywood, such a quaint small town…)

-Tandy (Jessica).Jessica Tandy The Birds

She’s suspicious, judgmental, and completely delicious. Can you imagine her and Agnes Moorehead in a fistfight? (My money is on Tandy, in 8 rounds.)

-The Tides.bodega-bay-town-of-bodega-the-tides-wharf-restaurant-7d12412-wingsdomain-art-and-photography

A real restaurant in Bodega Bay, CA. When Hitch uses a real location, he gives it a creepy creepy backstory. So vacationing hipsters can take selfies there.


There’s no “The End” in the final shot. The opening tiles are “pecked away” by seagulls. Also, there is no music, just some electronically generated sounds to accompany the real bird sounds. All of this was intended by Hitch (reportedly B. Herrmann suggested no music; he’s credited as “sound consultant”) to be jarring, and leave the audience with no emotional context nor closure. Brilliant again, Hitch.

-The Screamimages

Robert Boyle, production designer, said Evard Munch’s famous painting The Scream was an icon for the whole film’s design.

Reasons for Hipsters to Like This Movie:

  •  Potential for pop culture jokes.images-1

It’s a movie about people being attacked by birds. And it’s one of Hitchcock’s most iconic films. Which is why it’s referenced in pop culture as much or more than Psycho. So hipsters can find:



The Birds inspired Barbie Doll.

the-birds-barbieOr create a The Birds Halloween outfit, like Darlene (Sara Gilbert) in a classic Roseanne episode.tumblr_ku6x3nGU1Q1qzpq8b

  • Hitch horror style + animal psychosis = crazy frightening.  It’s just bizarre enough to be fascinating.  And the shots. Oh my gosh the shots. Birds have never been so creepy. Especially when Melanie (Tippi Hedron) goes upstairs in the final scene. Hedron was apparently so traumatized by the week spent shooting the ultimate bird attack that she had to take a week off to recover both physically and emotionally.
  • Suzanne Pleshette as Annie Hayworth.birds4

She’s the only clued in person in clueless Bodega Bay. (Her mailbox is red, by the way. This probably means she’s a communist…or something.) Doubtless, she’s the kind, chain-smoking, sweater-wearing, moody, sarcastic, misfit hipsters would love. Eat your Bob Newhart out.

  • Incredible cinematography and special effects.It’s a good thing Hitch loved to painstakingly plan production and storyboard every single shot (he once reportedly said that shooting a film was boring, the exciting work was figuring it all out on paper). The Birds required meticulous planning, as it utilized a cumbersome sodium vapor matting process (the “blue screen” process popular at the time left a “blue fire” halo around silhouetted objects, and blurred the birds’ wings too badly). Ub Iwerks was hired from Disney to utilize the same effect that made Haley Mills twins in The Parent Trap.

imgres-1All the effects are seamless, even using optical printing wipes to move from location shot to studio shot it what looks like one seamless take (like when Melanie crosses the street and goes into the pet store at the beginning of the film. While she is behind the newsstand the shot wipes from exterior (the street) to studio (the storefront). Also of note is the iconicity of the shots: long vistas of the gorgeous California coast, the classic black crows multiplying on the playground, the gull crashing into the phone booth, countless striking shots of birds birds birds.

  • Postmodern storytelling.

The film has tons of self reference, but never explains much–like why Melanie follows Mitch (Robert Taylor) to Bodega Bay (Really? Just to deliver some birds?), why (Jessica Tandy) has such a controlling personality (Mother, much?), why Annie (Suzanne Pleshette) lives in the town anyway (since she seems so out of place there) or the biggest unanswered question of all: why do the birds attack? It seems to ask tons of questions, but come to few clear answers.

Lots of things are given significance–lovebirds, the color green, lots of female characters (lots of birds?) and only one male–but what they signify?‘s review points out Freudian and natural symbolism:

“On an allegorical level, the birds in the film are the physical embodiment and exteriorization of unleashed, disturbing, shattering forces that threaten all of humanity (those threatened in the film include schoolchildren, a defenseless farmer, bystanders, a schoolteacher, etc.) when relationships have become insubstantial, unsupportive, or hurtful. In a broader, more universal sense, the stability of the home and natural world environment, symbolized by broken teacups at the domestic level, is in jeopardy and becoming disordered when people cannot ‘see’ the dangers gathering nearby, and cannot adequately protect themselves from violence behind transparent windows, telephone booths, eyeglasses, or facades.”

Or maybe too much of any animal is creepy, and Hitch just liked the idea…


Creepy Things That Hipsters Would Express With Emojis:
The schoolhouse in Bodega Bay is really haunted. While it is now a residence, it was known in local lore that there was a creepy presence about the place. Which is why Hitch used it, of course.We-think-Tired-yawning-surprised

Daphne Du Maurier wrote the original short story “The Birds.” Hitch took the initial scenario, about birds terrorizing a cottage in Cornwall (UK), and threw out everything but bizarre attacking birds. Hitch also collected articles about real bird attacks. In May 2001, the son of Du Maurier reported that he and his wife were being terrorized by seagulls nesting outside their cottage in Cornwall…url





Things Hipsters Will Do After Watching This Movie:

  • Send someone they dislike a pair of lovebirds. But not deliver them in person.
  • Sing their favorite childhood songs in haunted schoolhouses. (I dare you!)
  • Wear green 60’s dresses and practice the blonde beehive swirl. Or for guys, wear Rob Taylor’s turtlenecks or scarf/sweater combos. When getting attacked by unexplainable and unnatural forces of nature, there’s no excuse not to look classy.
  • Freak out any and every time they see a seagull or a crow.sir_alfred_hitchcock_the_world_of_birds
  • Try to freak out people around them when they see a crow or seagull, saying things like, ”Why are they doing this? Why are they doing this? They said when you got here, the whole thing started. Who are you? What are you? Where did you come from? I think you’re the cause of all this. I think you’re evil! EVIL!”
  • Plan their children’s birthday parties for inside. With the windows nailed shut.
  • Avoid any phone booth that’s not a Tardis.

The Birdshbirds


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