Why This Christian Film Prof Loves RuPaul’s Drag Race

Listen. It’s time to talk about this. It’s going to take some space, though. So buckle up, this is a lengthy post.

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Perceived problems with a Christian prof watching Drag Race

  • Drag Race is populated by many members of the LGBTQ community who openly and freely talk about their relationships, gender, and identity.
  • Drag Race openly shows and discusses content not deemed appropriate for all ages.

Also:

  • Drag Race openly shows smoking, drinking, and occasionally use of drugs
  • The show also talks about the open sexualization of the performers for audiences

According to Christian content watchdog Common Sense Media, “The show supports the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered community, while simultaneously sending the message that drag queens must be overly sexualized in order to succeed. It also promotes self-acceptance.” [italics added]

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Perceived reasons for a Christian prof to watch Drag Race:

  • Drag Race is populated by many members of the LGBTQ community who openly and freely talk about their relationships, gender, and identity.

At the very least, understanding a social group that has been at odds with many facets of the Christian community is an important way to reach out.

I work in the theater community. I work with people from the LGBTQ community on a regular basis. The LGBTQ community is my family and my friends. It is my community. I am also a Christian. The Christian community is my community. That has not always been easy. But being in theater has provided opportunities, whenever possible, shine a light about redemptive love to everyone I encounter.

As an advocate for the LGBTQ community and a Christian—things that are not necessarily at odds —I am glad there is a mainstream show where members of this community can be open, honest, and caring about their struggles, successes, and selves.

There are many people who identify as Christian and LGBTQ or an advocate. More and more people are writing on this topic. In fact, several of the queens on Drag Race including Ginger Minj, Latrice Royale, Alyssa Edwards have hinted or explicitly talked about their Christian culture and beliefs.

  • Drag Race openly shows and discusses content not deemed appropriate for all ages.

True in many ways, like a great deal of television, but “appropriate content” is an idea worth revisiting on several levels.

Certainly some content is not appropriate based on age and maturity (oh that we could measure maturity like we measure age…), but that’s true of many kinds of content. Consider violence. Or, as Common Sense Media’s description notes, consumerism. Now consider many films deemed appropriate by Christian media advocates, like Enchanted, which rated a 4 for positive role models, a 3 for violence, and only a  3 on the consumerism scale for Common Sense Media. Since the main character “wins her love” by borrowing his credit card to go shopping for more socially appropriate clothes….I would argue a full five. I guess content is pretty subjective.

Explicit content can serve a purpose.

There are pitfalls of explicit content all over the media landscape. Theater as a social tool has often pushed boundaries with the intention of challenging audiences to rethink norms. This has been take too far on many occasions, and is often gratuitous. But has also done much good in representing people whose stories could previously not be told, and serving as a prophetic voice. As author Flannery O’Connor has put it, “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the blind you draw large, startling figures.” As many have pointed out, the Bible itself is full of explicit content.

Explicit content is important to monitor. So is implicit.

I feel so strongly about understanding the importance of implicit ideologies, the “hidden messages” of media, that I wrote a book intended to help viewers figure it out.

This includes drinking, drugs, and sexualization.

RuPaul’s Drag Race certainly has some explicit messages I personally don’t align with (the sexualization is a whole other post; people on display is always a complicated topic). Frankly, The Bachelor has many more.

The same could be said for implicit messages. However, despite both explicit and implicit messages I don’t agree with, there are several implicit messages I feel very strongly about because I agree with them so deeply:

  1. Identity requires honesty. We all perform every day. Drag explodes notions of identity. Mama Ru herself has talked about this often. The performers on Drag Race quite literally take off their masks. They “get real” in the workroom and to the confession cam. And they draw lines between what is a performance and what is not. The emotionally healthiest people on the show are those that have learned to navigate those lines intentionally. Often it is after years of messy experience. The honesty and bravery the show celebrates is not to be taken lightly. It is one of the reasons the show has become so meaningful to so many, myself included. Yes, it’s fun. Yes, it’s hilarious. Yes, for those of us who love costumes, makeup, singing, and dancing, it’s fierce as @#$%. But it’s also brave and honest. As a Christian, I celebrate that.Screen Shot 2017-05-16 at 11.50.55 AM
  2. People should be loved for their intrinsic value as beings made in the image of the Divine.

If you can’t love yourself….you’re not alone. We all need some grace. While I don’t hold the same theology as RuPaul, my theology compliments it in many ways. We have to know our own worth. Our worth is not based on external factors (or even the good things we’ve done if you follow St. Paul’s admonition to balance faith and works).

And it is true, in order to fully accept others we must realize both our own faults and our own worth. Level the playing field. We all want to be loved. We all need forgiveness.

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Fan art by Travis Falligant

The last defining factor is always the state of the viewer’s own heart. Should I watch RuPaul’s Drag Race? Let’s put it in the same category as food. Is this food offered to idols? Is it food that Gentiles eat? I have no desire to make a sister stumble. It’s a major part of why I teach and write, so I can extend that conversation. But does watching RuPaul bring me closer to the Divine? (…For those of you picking up on my play on words, condragulations.)

Flannery O’Connor also once said, “I once received a letter from an old lady in California who informed me that when the tired reader comes home at night, he wishes to read something that will lift up his heart.” She responded to the thought with, “I think that if her heart had been in the right place, it would have been lifted up.”

Where we are, the state of our heart, impacts how we take in the culture around us:

6e131f81fe7184018d0d1524bb3dd1easecular, Christian, or otherwise. I believe in holiness. I believe my job is to grow in the Fruit of the Spirit. I could list how I watch each queen for their Charisma, Uniqueness, and Talent, but also for their Fruits of the Spirit (Jinx Monsoon—meekness; Alaska—gentleness; Bianca Del Rio—joy).  Understand, that’s how I approach the show. I bring to it my own theology. I bring how I have been growing in the Fruits of the Spirit, and I don’t depend upon movies and television to be my moral teachers. I evaluate them based on the truth I know, instead of seeking their tumblr_mjxgnocpVQ1qgb5p1o1_500perceived truths. They are media I consume purposefully, thoughtfully, and intentionally. I, again as Dr. Patton would say, “lead the dance” with my interaction. I remember what place television should have in my life: to entertain me, and allow me to see people and places I otherwise could not—always keeping in mind that entertainment is a business first, and in some ways always a sham.

In that regard, Drag Race is more honest than most television shows. It knows it’s a sham, just as the performers do. No show on television more openly understands its place as entertainment. This is all performance. It’s all just drag. What is real, anyway? Identity is a hoax. If men can compete to look that amazing dressed as women, what else has the capacity to fool us? All entertainment, at some level, is a deception we willingly enter in to. That fuzzy line between life and performance is explored on Drag Race in a way it can’t be anywhere else. The show doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is, and it does so by showing all the ways performers pretend. It’s open to debate. It embraces discussion from different points of view. Drag Race has become the phenomenon it is not only because it is entertaining, but also because it is so compellingly about honesty.

So, in response, I have to be honest. Much as I find fault with most reality television shows, and much as I do have some reservations (frankly, I do about everything on television), they are outweighed by the factors I mention. I have been a tried and true fan of Drag Race for years. I’ve been watching it for a long, long time. But I have refrained from talking about it openly. I have, well, kelp my love for RuPaul in the closet.

In this small way I understand a taste of what it means to fear being accepted. To fear not only rejection but retaliation. I’m writing this post because fear is no way to live. In fact, I believe perfect love will cast it out.

If the day comes that tuning in to Drag Race makes me stop growing in the Fruits of the Spirit, it will be time to stop watching. And I hope someone I know and trust lovingly tells me so. Honesty is beautiful. No tea, no shade.

Until that day, I’m #TeamValentina #TeamShea #TeamSasha forever #TeamLatrice .

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(Another) Open Letter To Carrie Fisher

Dear Carrie Fisher,

I know you won’t ever read this, since, well, you passed away this morning, but that’s not the point—well, actually, in a roundabout way it is.

I’m writing you this letter to thank you. Actually, I’m writing a letter to express my thanks to you. It’s for other people to read since you can’t. Still, I need to say this to you, to people who know who you are, and to the universe at large:

Thank you.

Thank you for understanding, because your life forced you to, what the role of celebrity is and why people need them. You were the child of celebrities, Hollywood royalty at its most pure-blood, and became an icon in your own right. You’ve endured a lot as a celebrity.

High profile lives mean every mistake is a high-profile mistake. You’ve had yours. You owned them. You overcame them because instead of denying them, you acknowledged and understood your faults. “I have to start [this memoir] by telling you that my entire existence could be summed up in one phrase. And that is: If my life wasn’t funny it would just be true, and that is unacceptable” you say in Wishful Drinking. You also said, “We’re only as sick as our secrets,” so you took every defeat and turned it into a morality tale that was as charming as it was admonishing. An addiction to opiates is not a good thing. Acknowledged. Overcome. Bipolar 2 is a real thing, and people who have it can make terrible decisions. Acknowledged. Fought. In doing these things, you have helped countless people face their own demons. You diffused serious subjects with humor, and made these scary things that you lived through somehow less intimidating or taboo for the rest of us.

This is perhaps the great role of celebrity: to be someone others can see. You were an extremely reluctant role model, but you understood that you were one, whether you wanted to be or not. Once I went to see your one-woman show. My brother and I hung around afterward in case you came out to do autographs or something. We waited a while then finally asked one of the theater workers. “No she doesn’t come out. We just saw her for setup and the show. She’s a really private person,” the worker said. I remember not really being disappointed, but instead being rather happy for you. Good choice, I thought. You’ve appeared, acknowledged all things people know about you, telling stories about your famous playboyish father, your Hollywood musical icon (and drag queen muse—God bless her for it) mother, your marriage to Paul Simon, and you even donned a “cinnamon bun” wig to acknowledge your iconic role as Princess Leia.

You joked about being a Pez dispenser, about George Lucas (now Disney) owning your likeness “So every time I look in the mirror I have to pay him.” You knew that your notoriety was what would draw people, from curious to obsessed. You saw that people needed you to be Princess Leia for them. You gave us that. You understood that the public needed you to appear at ComicCon. You understood that countless teenage boys (and older) fantasized about you. Why do we ask this of you? Why aren’t you allowed to just be a “normal” person? You could never be that, not with your family, not with Star Wars. So you accepted your fame and you used it to talk about these things that people face. You are Hollywood, which equals American, royalty. You are our people’s Princess.

You, too, survived injustices and poor choices, pitfalls of fame and bipolarism. But you never gave up, and you never gave in. Thank you.

I’ve written elsewhere about how you became my role model, about how when I was growing up and was told to “act more like a lady,” and when I saw Princess Leia I thought, if that’s a lady, well, maybe I can do that. And how later when I learned more about you, Carrie Fisher, I looked up to you even more than the character you played. What I admired was this self-acknowledgement, this intelligent and sacrificial choice to embrace your role as a public figure.

The truth is, Princess Leia is so much of you. She shares your tenacity, your idealism, your compassion, your understanding of darkness and your battle to never succumb to it. No one could have made that character but you, acknowledged British accent in the first film included. She needed your strength. She is a symbol of human strength, class, good fighting evil, and hope. You gave her those qualities. George Lucas and Disney should still be paying you for it.

Thank you for fighting a good fight. Thank you for being who we needed you to be for us. Thank you for using pain to open up your world, not close it. Thank you for being our princess.


What I hope for you, and for you family, is peace. No more struggles. No more pain. No more needing to overcome. Death is loss and death is evil. But in it I hope you were granted some kind of release, and I hope your loved ones are comforted even though there is nothing to replace their loss.

I hope fans leave them alone. We have lost, too, but we will grieve selfishly. We loved you even though we knew your celebrity, not you personally. You gave us yourself and, like all celebrities, you will give us yourself in death. We will grieve though we didn’t know you because you meant something to us. But I hope all of us public mourners remember that what we are grieving is just that—what you meant to us, not who you were.

I hope that in death you are freed from who you need to be for others and that you are allowed to just be, just you and whatever comes next. I’m a Christian, so I have my thoughts on what does come next for all of us after death, most of which are beside the point here. I think you will meet something Eternal and account for your life. That is between you and the Eternal. But I believe you understand sacrificial love and I pray you do have peace and rest.

The most fitting goodbye I can give you is in your own words. Near the end of your book The Best Awful the character based on you, Suzanne, acknowledges her complicated relationship with Leland, the father of her child. The scene ends in a quiet way that understands and acknowledges everything between them. Your keen observance, your insightful thinking, and your way with words are all summed up.


This is how you leave us:

“And smiling, she lifted her ubiquitous glass of Diet Coke to Leland and nodded. And sipping her drink, she bowed and walked off the stage.”

God bess you, Carrie Fisher, and grant you peace.

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Rogue One: making Star Wars great again?

Note: there are no real spoilers, just hints at them, but be advised.

It’s clear that the America of 2016 is a nation divided. After having seen Rogue One: A Star Wars Story this weekend (in 3D, with, yes, my 69 year old mother) I only understand this more strongly. The fandom nation of Star Wars has also been deeply divided in its reaction to the film, which still grossed over $70 million in its first two days in theaters. You can follow a formula and create a blockbuster. But only time can tell us if Rogue One is indeed the franchise expander we’re looking for.

Let me be clear: we live in a nation that spends countless hours debating where the emails were, what the emails said, why the things were said on Twitter, and how much Putin is involved. Fans will likewise spend hours debating Grand Moff Tarkin’s heavy-handed appearance, and a million other tidbits about the new SW film. But I am interested in two things: Is this film the kind of cinema magic of the late-great originals? And as a piece of cinema, does it have something worthy to say? My answers to those questions, I hope, are not quite as convoluted as the story of Ms. Clinton’s email server in the basement or Mr. Trump’s reality-television style leadership.*


Magic

My short answer to “is it as good as the ‘real’ Star Wars films?” is, in short, no. It misses the magic because of a few key value choices on the part of the filmmakers. This is not to say the film is devoid of cinema magic. It’s a worthwhile film and I’ll probably buy the DVD. But instead of going back and seeing it in the theater again, with my limited time I’d rather go see La La Land. Why?

They sacrifice of plot for effects. George Lucas, when he was still hiring good writers and before he turned to the dark side (which I think he’s come back from, btw), was famously noted as focusing on story above special effects. Jabba’s barge is only seen fully in a few shots of Return of the Jedi, yet they built the whole full-scale thing. Because: authenticity matters. It gives a film integrity. But the film’s integrity is only worth it if the story is worth it. It’s the same mistake Paul Fieg made with his reboot of Ghostbusters. Fieg’s genius is in working with female actors who are incredible and getting great performances out of them. Those performances are half on set, and half from the editing room. All performances are. But editing time on Ghostbusters was clearly spent on effects, not on getting the most out of actor performances (see the scene in the mayor’s office where Kate McKinnon clearly tries to add in a bit and the cut jumps away before the joke can land). Likewise, the first two thirds of this film didn’t have a clear enough plot goal and the last third turned into an effects showcase. Where in the original trilogy the audiences suffers some dated, piecemeal effects (and some still amazing ones) because they are invested in the story, in Rogue One we stay invested because of the dazzling, video-game like effects fighting for glimpses of the good story covered up by too many Easter eggs and explosions. No wonder the film tends to appeal more to video-game playing types.

There’s also simply too much going on. This is doubtless deliberate, and since we live in the post Moulin Rouge! age of video games and ritalin it should come as no surprise, but I was on sensory overload often, and not in a good way. Subsequent viewings, which doubtless the film was made for, may prove me wrong in that I want more things to look at, but that doesn’t forgive the too-easy grabs for cameos of Dr. Evanzan and Ponda Baba, for instance. The plot wastes time grabbing at points that don’t need to be made, as if it is intentionally trying to lay ideas for spin-offs and fan fic. Which brings us to the CGI version of Grand Moff Tarkin. A wholly unnecessary debate, as the presence of Tarkin was heavy handed and not needed—like several of the plot turns. And let’s not talk about CGI Princess Leia… …Ok fine, let’s talk about her. I was so so so hoping she wouldn’t turn around. Want to know how to make icons? Keep something off screen. Let our imaginations fill in. We knew who it was. Like Christ’s face in Ben Hur, the presence means more for not being fully on screen. Think Hitchcock. What’s outside the frame and beyond our vision can still affect us. The original trilogy was iconic. The real answer to “was it as good?” is “will it become iconic?” No. It won’t. It’s a good film. It’s worthwhile as a big budget sci-fi shoot ‘em up/blow ‘em up/emo adventure story. But it doesn’t really have the magic, because it gets one more element of the original magic completely backward.

Too dark, and too much going on.


It relies on what Hollywood always relies on: a formula. While Rogue One is a step away from the ongoing Skywalker Saga, the film as a “Star Wars story” follows every. Plot. Convention. To the letter. They even sneak in a little lightsaber action (by a pun-speaking Darth Vader who is also wholly unnecessary to the story). The end battle, while video game-like in its construction and art, at least has a clear plot goal. And like THX-1138 reaching for the top of his man-made world, the heroes reach for a clear and highly important goal. It does try to reach from concrete to mythic by having the stolen Death Star plans be a metaphoric transmission of “hope.” But even this is too forced. The battle is an obligatory one, and like many things in the new Star Wars films it was put in because fans would expect it. There is no sense of the young George Lucas framing his mythic story on the work of Joseph Campbell (you’ve been able to go to L.A. workshops on using Campbell’s theories about myth as a storytelling formula for years). This is not a shot-in-the-dark film that takes chances and is completely foreign yet strangely familiar. This is something too familiar, with new faces in the same semantic elements of every “Star Wars story.” Added to this are the tropes of film in our age: forced intensity (I wanted to love Forrest Whitaker’s Saw Gerrera but it was just too forced. And I don’t think it was his performance, I think he was this film’s Natalie Portman—a wonderful actor who wasn’t directed or edited well), and a sense of giving the audience a gluttonous amount of dazzle so that the fine ideas of the plot get drown out like too much ranch dressing on an otherwise tasty salad. A little ranch, yes, but only enough to make the salad balance well. This is no mythic plot told with sometimes forgivable tropes and puppets you can believe in. This is not a Saturday morning serial with a great plot and good filmmaking. This is expensive filmmaking designed to get a profit. Solid, but not magic. The magic in any storytelling is its seldom something that looks palatable or profitable. But when it captures something real and something necessary, like the original trilogy and films like E.T. did so beautifully, it is magic that becomes mythic.

Resonance

These critiques said, does the film have some kind of resonance, something worthwhile to say? I think it does. Part of the original SW magic was a sense of clear good and evil in a time of great moral confusion. Rogue One deals with current zeitgeists in an interesting way, and only time can tell if these are enough to overcome the plot sacrificed for fan investment and special effects. What does it deal with well?

Moral confusion and diversity. The American presidential race aside, we are in a world awash with moral quandaries. Americans really are divided on whom to trust and whom to vilify. The answers are indeed complicated, and the plot of Rogue One reflects that. The main characters Jyn (Felicity Jones) and Cassian (Diego Rivera) have checkered and painful pasts. They feel like real people, and we do invest in them (so, of course the film ends as we know it must). Likewise, the cast is diverse, a better picture of the world than many films, and passes the Bedschel test (but could have done better…maybe at least one more female in the Rogue Squadron?). The characters are flawed but likable, and bad things happen to them. But maybe a harsh reality is called for. We live in harsh times.

Violence. I’ll be honest, I really struggled with this one. I think Americans are far too forgiving of violent movies. I think our films reflect and incite our own violent tendencies. There’s a reason the Greeks moved blood-spilling off stage. We probably shouldn’t see Medea with her kids. It’s disturbing without point. I’m all for narratively disturbing people, but my homegirl Flannery O’Connor was such a powerful writer she made the stealing of a wooden leg or an abandonment at a roadside diner as painful as any death scene. I kept thinking, “What do vets returning from war zones think of this film? What about refugees?” Is it cathartic? Is it helpful? Or does it negate their realities, or the realities of what is happening right now—this very minute as you and I sit in relative comfort and complicity—in Aleppo? It’s a shoot ‘em up. But it’s too real. Talk of uncanny valleys with half CGI characters and heroic droids, maybe the real uncanny valley is that we invest in a violent film but have a hard time investing in real wars around us. I still am not sure how I feel about this. Perhaps I am wrong. I live in relative peace and great comfort. I do not know what a refugee or soldier experiences in this film. My life is not violent, thank God, and I have no need for it to purge myself of violent tendencies, so perhaps I am too sensitive. I know the films are about star “wars” but they were really about good vs. evil. We all know Stormtroopers are terrible shots and we rarely saw blood. The world of Rogue One is dirty, and bloody. …But so is the real world. …But should this world be?

Fan poster art, which kind of explains everything.


Grown Up Fantasy. This film has been dubbed the Star Wars film for grown-ups, and as a grown-up, previous points aside, I enjoyed a lot about the film. My favorite character was Donny Yen’s Chirrut Îmwe. Alan Tudyk as aptly Disney-esque quirky sidekick K-2SO was also enjoyable. This was a great piece of fan-fic. I spent my youth reading Tales From the Mos Eisley Cantina and this was a great version of one of those kinds of stories. It dwelled in a universe I have spent fantasy time in, and I liked this fantasy. The art was beautiful. The costumes and props were great. The worlds were visual feasts (again see the ranch dressing metaphor though, I was over-stuffed at the feast). But that brings us back to this film being made for fan appeal. It had it, but in targeting an audience it may have lost a larger one. Please don’t take your young ones to this film. It is for adults. I remember being eight or so and staying up because I “had to see if they blew up the Death Star.” It was a big moment for me. I got so invested I stayed invested the rest of my life. But it was palatable for all audiences. I don’t think this film was intended to be, or is. If you target an audience and find them, you have a hit, a standard blockbuster (see the 21st Century irony of that statement?). But really great movies are made by telling a good story and letting audiences find it (see the work of Jeff Nichols or, frankly, Lin-Manuel Miranda, for instance). You cannot create an iconic film with a formula. But you can give grown-ups a good time at the theater and ask some relevant questions.

Ultimately, Rogue One is not a true resonant for our troubled time. It divides instead of unifies, because it’s not meant for everyone. (Would that that could be said of elected officials, who, alas, have the job of appealing to us all.) It is, however, a decent side story. Did I enjoy it? Yes, but I’m a Star Wars fan, so I was going to. I was already watching the channel I like, listening to the news provider I trust. How mythic and memorable it will remain only time can tell, but for my part, it remains a high-production value version of side stories like The Ewok Adventure and the original Clone Wars cartoons.

 

*The very idea that our national presidential debate is televised and Twitterized says much about how Americans treat politics, as if we are selecting contestants on a reality game show called Who Wants To Be the Leader of the Free World? Americans treat politics the same way we treat television because what we really want is to be entertained. What we hear someone say once is what we believe, and popularity, which is more important than anything, can be bought with the right performance. What we want from our President is the same thing the British want from the royals: enough drama to make us feel morally superior for choosing the right people and the right side. But whether you side with Pr. Diana or QE2, it’s still more like an episode of Dynasty than all that boring stuff that happens on C-SPAN. We click channels and scan feeds for clickbait. It’s exactly what Neil Postman warned us about years ago.

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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?

finding-dory-movie

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.

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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?

Simple.

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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