Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Mr Christmas

Mr Christmas
Genre: Family
MPAA rating: G
UPC: 858154001004
ISBN: 0-9773287-0-8
56 Minutes
DVD SRP: $14.98
Street Date: 10/24/06
Distributor: Pro-Active Entertainment
Distributor email: videots@aol.com
Distributor tel# 818-632-4200
Winner "Best Feature Film for Kids" 2006 Moondance Film Festival, Los Angeles

My Ratings: Fair

I really hate giving bad reviews. I especially hate giving bad reviews to Christian films. And I really hate giving bad reviews to Christian films which the heartland simply adores. (Yes, I was one of the few Christians who thought Mel's "Passion of the Christ" was not that good a film. Anyway, notwithstanding the fact that Mr Christmas won "Best Feature Film for Kids" at the 2006 Moondance Film Festival, this is not a film I would recommend for anyone over the age of five. And the problem is that any story or sermon that depicts young children there is often a great probability of sentimentality. Mix that sentimentality with poverty and Christmas and well, one has a sentimental mess. In this case, we have a story which purports to teach us about the true meaning of Christmas but which is pretty much about supporting the belief in Santa and the gooey notion of the magic of Christmas.

The story takes place in December of 1941 when Joel, a father more interested in giving in his daughter’s happiness than in his wife’s, his long-suffering must-keep-up-with-the-Joneses wife, and their two daughters are going through some financial disciplines. The children are young so they don’t understand that money is hard to come by. But it doesn’t seem as if they understand much about generosity or self-sacrifice either. These kids are typical American children who have been trained to believe that Christmas is about receiving what they want. Their parents, never seen praying to God, but whose wholesomeness we are to believe in because the story is told in a nostalgic haze when God was taken for Granted, are avidly supporting the cult of Santa Claus. Indeed, the need to support the children’s belief in Santa Claus is so important to this family that the only time we even see Joel vaguely praying – very vaguely– it is because he is afraid his children will be disappointed by the Santa mythos. He even grows self-righteously angry at God at this...as if God owes him.

It is fairly common – though uncomprehensible to me– to set faith/Christmas stories in a nostalgic place and time in the heartland. The perfunctory good black person is of course shown, and I suppose I should be happy for that bit of multiculturalism but somehow the why-is-it-there scenes showing the family’s reaction to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor made me wonder if the filmmakers were trying to echo/link to the Iraqi War. Indeed, this film is so soaked in Americana that it coats Christmas with too much of the worst of the American dream. One of the most telling scenes of the film shows the scary subtext of the film. When Joel and Carolee go out to chop down a tree for Christmas, she chooses the largest tree. He informs her that they cannot fit it inside the house. She assures him that they can. He therefore agrees to do it. I suspect the scene is supposed to show the exuberance of childlike faith, but it just made me think that the kid was imbued with childlike selfishness and needed to think of giving instead of taking. Throughout the film, I found myself waiting for the moment when the sacrificial father stopped giving in to this daughter.

It is strange when a film seems to be saying one thing but in its subtext seems to be saying something else. At the end when the surprise occurs which, we assume, teaches the family the true meaning of Christmas, the analytical viewer leaves the film feeling a bit uneasy. We have been treated to a film about a family divided, where the father considers the wife’s need less important than the child’s, where a child’s desire to receive is satisfied, where God – Santa– comes through for people who hardly acknowledge him except in anger because he has not given. We hardly care that she receives a "better" gift– all we wanted was for her to learn how to give.

All this, plus the nostalgia, makes this film a sad and noble failure but a masterpiece of sentimental kitsch which shows more of the American mentality than the true idea of sacrifice which, I suspect, is the true meaning of Christmas.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Wounded Missionary

Some Christian fiction and secular films often share something in common: a missionary complex. In the one, the Christian book, a missionary (actual or symbolic) goes forth to preach the gospel. In the other, a well-meaning upper-middle class white liberal attempts to save a child from the ghetto. It’s not always this pat of course. Sometimes the do-gooder is a well-meaning middle-class black who wants to "give back" to the neighborhood. Notwithstanding race and other incidentals, the aims are usually pretty clear: someone needs saving, and someone else with the right spiritual or political outlook on life is sacrificial and well-meaning enough to save them. One soul at a time.

Of course, the missionary usually has a little problem himself. A very little problem. It is usually the temptation to give up and the questioning of his calling. But that’s about it. The missionary himself is usually as sane, noble, and emotionally-competent as the God he represents. The do-gooder in the film Half-Nelson, however, is no such symbol of virtue and piety. He, Dan (Ryan Gosling), a white teacher, is not a sinner, but he does engage in illegal activities. He is a crack-addict. And although we don’t quite know who has wounded him and why he would turn to crack, we are faced with his woundedness at every turn of the film, as well as his need to be delivered from it, and to prevent at least one of his students, Dray (Shareeka Epps) a black girl with family problems of her own, from being swallowed up by the industrious-but-illegal machine that is ghetto life...especially the drug industry which brings money, friendship, and respect. Unlike the straight and narrow path.

Throughout the Bible, we are told to be careful of evil because it can contaminate and corrupt us. But we are also told to lift up the weak. This is a see-saw that the average Christian doesn’t usually ride. But the average Christian in a bad neighborhood might very well encounter it everyday. The trouble, of course, is that most Christian fiction doesn’t create a heroic missionary-minded character as self-destructive as this. The baddies might be in deep spiritual morass, but the heroes rarely are. And who is the wounded savior to befriend when all the other saviors are so gosh-darn perfect?

In a world without friends, one cannot be too choosey. When one finds an understanding heart with whom one can communicate, that person may not fall into an acceptable category. A male teacher is not supposed to be hanging around with a female student. A student should not know a teacher’s secret. But Heavens, things often get so lonely and hard in life that even a Maine fisherman could befriend a New York gay photographer if that healing relationship came at the right time!

If there is one thing I don’t like it’s nihilistic movies. I watched this movie with a deep dread rising frequently in my heart and repeated often, "This better not end without hope." Okay, that’s my Christian upbringing. Besides, C S Lewis said a good story should never have a sad ending. When the black moment of the film arrives, and we see a transaction taking place that we hadn’t even dreamed of, I was about to give up. I kept remembering Al Pacino’s character in The Panic in Needle Park. But, yay, hope and truth wins out. And we feel that wounded though he was, this missionary has succeeded in saving someone. Yes, in spite of – and perhaps because of– his shortcomings. Recommended. But not for those who can’t deal with a few harrowing moments.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Little Miss Sunshine

Although Little Miss Sunshine has many flaws, it belongs to the categories of movies I love, movies Christian film-maker would never make. And I’m not talking about the compassionate portrayal of homosexual, although it would be interesting to see...a film about the life of Julien Green for instance.

But what Little Miss Sunshine exults in is the flakiness of a family. Christian movies exult in normalcy, and in propriety. And in most Christian fiction and film, normalcy is the thing one aims to return to. Perhaps because the typical Christian novel is often a slice-of-life story about a lost confused soul who, through the help of a knowing wiser Christian, returns to the joys of a normal life. And this return to normalcy – the rural homestead, the happy suburban lifestyle, the nuclear family– is often seen as a kind of return to the Edenic state. But this very addiction to normalcy is what makes Christian movies so unfulfilling for those of us who have flaky abnormal families.

Little Miss Sunshine is the story of a dysfunctional family which contains a sexual minority (a gay brother who is suicidal) an ethnic minority (Jews), a depressed son, a too-sexually-open old man, and a workaholic dad whose commitment to perseverance and excellence probably hides a wounded soul...the kind of woundedness the average man doesn’t speak about. Although Jesus called us to walk in truth, this kind of truthfulness is not discussed in American Christian movies. And if it is discussed, the people involved in these situations are seen as needing to return to the fellowship of normalcy, common decency, middle-class behavior, racial expectations, and the American ideal of emotional and familial success.

The story is about a contest, the Little Miss Sunshine, which is a little girl beauty pageant dedicated to all that is American. One might even call it a pageant whose very purpose is to show the utter wonderfulness of Purity, Joy, and the various masks of perfection. A true American, in short. By some odd luck, Olive the beloved daughter of the family, has made it into the finals of this contest. The family is not in a good financial position – and they’re none too happy with each other. (And being a good little ethnic family, they don’t have that American trait of keeping quiet.) But because of little Olive, they decide to take the trip to the pageant in their beaten up van. Of course a lot happens on the trip.

Little Miss Sunshine is pleasant, and it is not as funny as it could be. It contains some profane languages and some shots of pornographic materials. This is not a film a Christian should take her family to. And yet it is so much about family values. Those saved Christians who do fit into categories rarely seen in films or novels will like it. It is about accepting one’s family as they are, accepting one’s own oddball behavior, and rejecting those values the American society has trained us to see as the right and true values...those values which we try to fit into but which we inately know to be wrong or at the very least...not for us.

Christian novels and films often equate sanity with holiness, and returning to societal norms as true repentance. In such a state, how can the flaky individual thrive or accept herself or her family? Isn’t there a danger of cookie-cutter Christians and cookie-cutter arts which train people to clamp down on the personality God gave them. No, I’m not saying that God makes people gay. And as I said, there are some things in this movie that a Bible-believing Christian will find offensive. But we should remember that John the Baptist stayed in the wilderness. Far from fellowship. And that Jonah didn’t like the Ninevites, and didn’t seem to like humanity in general, liking only animals and nature.

Little Miss Sunshine is about the dangers of democratizating our souls, about the dangers of trying to belong to a community where a false ideal is raised as the ideal for everyone. It tells us that people are truly quite different in interests, tastes, skills, and education. Again, it addresses elements of earthly pain that Christian art just doesn't: isolation, for one. And the isolation is never healed or judged but understood.
Rated three stars. Many instances of profanity and a frank discussion of homosexuality.

Blog Archive