Giving God the Blue(s) Like Jazz – Part 1

(Get ready for Link Love.)

Did I ever mention I’m a contrarian? Or did you ever notice?

You’d think that someone who likes to namedrop as much as I do would be a little less fickle, but here’s my deal–once things become mainstream popular (or mainstream-for-a-particular-subculture-popular), I kind of lose interest or else get critical. For example, a few years ago a guy named Jon Acuff started a blog (which was a conscious and self-deprecating Christian rip-off of another blog) called “Stuff Christians Like.” TheBro discovered the blog before I did, and then I loved it and told all my blogging friends. I don’t think telling All My Blogging Friends is what made that blog get so popular, but it didn’t take very long before that happened. After that I stopped reading it. It’s still a funny, funny and blog (at least, if you belong or ever used to belong to a particular Christian subculture)–and insightful, too–but . . . well, it was one thing when Jon Acuff was the random funny guy who grew up in the same part of New England as I did whose star happened to be rising and I was part (even in a very, very, very small way) of “discovering” him. But now that he’s famous–even just “Christian-famous” . . . well, maybe I feel like he doesn’t need my readership anymore or something.

Maybe I’m just secretly jealous that he’s a blogger who “made it” and I’m still pecking away at my keyboard at off moments and obsessively checking blog stats. But I really don’t think that’s the whole story. It’s not that I’m proud of this tendency to drop the Popular Kids like I kept imagining they were dropping me in high school (they never really did, probably because they weren’t entirely sure who I was). It’s just that I recognise it. (Come to think of it, that Popular Kid thing may have a lot to do with it . . . )

A few years before the Jon Acuff discovery, a guy named Donald Miller came out with a book called Blue Like Jazz, which was recommended to me by a young teenaged friend. (Well, at the time she was teenaged. I wasn’t.)  On Friday, the book hit cinemas in limited release as a movie. The book itself is excellent, and I think I probably remained a fan for a good long while because I had a crush on Mr Miller’s writing. I probably started to lose interest after I realised that he was never going to notice my comments among the vast numbers of other comments on his blog every day, and that since he was never going to notice those, I was never going to get an invitation to go out for coffee with him in Portland. (It’s okay, because my Paul is also skillful with words and . . . coffee and . . . stuff . . . but all that was before I met my Paul.)

Probably residually on account of the crush, and also because the movie was the brainchild of (not actually Uncle) Steve (of whom I will always be a fan), when the movie almost didn’t happen and some fans threw it up on Kickstarter to keep it from becoming a distant memory, I became one of the “backers.” I haven’t gone all out with hyping it up like I might have done if I were still in college. Hype–both delivered and received–sort of exhausts me these days. But I wanted it to do well, and I was excited (I mean, to the extent that I get excited) about the fact that Uncle Steve (who has always been a Christian-subculture-envelope-pusher) wasn’t going for G-rated, over-sanitised, “family friendly” Christian schlock. So I did my due diligence and went to the show on opening night and brought a friend, too. (I invited about 100 friends but . . . well, one is better than none, right? And easier to talk to about the movie afterward.)

The thing is, I couldn’t go to this movie totally unbiased. There were so many factors playing into my perceptions that night. The contrarian part of me was getting irritated with constant barrage of emails from the Blue Like Jazz movie enterprise telling me to make sure I and all 800-whatever of my facebook friends were at the movie on opening night. The other contrarian part of me was irritated with my more conservative brethren who purportedly (though I haven’t yet heard this directly from any of them) are all up in arms about this movie and calling for boycotts. The other contrarian part of me (it’s tough being contrarian) was tossing around in my head the Rotten Tomatoes review my Paul and I had read that described the characters as “communion-wafer-thin,” and feeling grumpy about those agnostics who smugly use religious allusions to make fun of religious people.

All this, therefore, is a really longwinded way of warning you to take what follows with a couple of really large salt crystals.

I’m not going to say my hopes for this movie were fully realised, and here’s why: I’m not sure it is yet possible for Christians (who are first and foremost known as Christians) to create art which seamlessly crosses over into uncompromised but believable, everybody-accessible art. At least, not movies. This movie may be one more paving stone on the way to that (To Save a Life and Soul Surfer, in different ways, might be recent earlier ones). I heard an interview with Uncle Steve today in which he talked about art with a religious slant often being “earnest” and his not being sure that “earnestness” is necessarily biblical.I’mnot sure I know what that means, but he may be right. However, I don’t think this movie is devoid of earnestness. It has scenes that might shock some Christians because of the topic, and some non-Christians because of the honesty, and I think that’s the effect everyone behind this effort wanted, but there’s still a little bit of a “Christian movie” feel.

Oddly, I think where it came through most strongly was in the beginning scenes, where it felt like they pulled together a whole bunch of really extreme fundamentalist-Christian stereotypes and a whole bunch of really extreme liberal, “progressive” party-school stereotypes and mashed them together. I spent the first 20 or so minutes thinking, “Seriously? Do they expect us to believe that?” Maybe there are churches somewhere that are that blatantly hokey and offensive (I suppose there must be). Maybe there are party-schools that are that absurdly off-the-rails and offensive (I suppose there must be those, too). Maybe I’m just inexperienced and don’t know what I’m talking about, but the feel, for me at least, was a whole lot of Trying Too Hard.

The breakthrough, for me, came with robot-invasion scene (go see the movie and you’ll find out what I’m talking about), in which, incidentally, Donald Miller himself cameos (and self-deprecates) as a Trendy Spiritual Writer (go get the book and you’ll find out what I’m talking about). All of a sudden the characters got personalities and no, by the end of the movie, I did not feel that they were “communion-wafer-thin.” I quite liked all of them actually. (Particularly “the pope.” That actor was fantastic–mostly because he was utterly consistent with a real person–he seemed like a person I might actually know.) Also by the end of the movie, I felt like maybe I had misjudged the beginning. At the beginning, the main character (a fictionalised Donald Miller) is running away from his fundamentalist Christian heritage, and I kind of felt like that’s what the movie was doing, too, until I realised at the end that maybe the reason I was feeling that was because the movie was letting me into the character’s head. Maybe it was supposed to feel all extreme and unrealistic, because pretend-Donald was reacting to his reality that way. I’m not going to give spoilers, but I have to confess that I got a little teary during the last scene, and partly it was because I discovered to my surprise that, in spite of what it seemed like at the beginning, the Boston Globe review was dead right about this movie: “It steadfastly refuses to demonize.” Anything. And yet somehow, it manages to be not wishy-washy, but, as Paste Magazine evidently said, “witty, provocative and life-affirming.” (For a more coherent review of this movie, which is positive but not uncritical, check out the Paste review in full, actually.)

In spite of my initial, “Come on, guys. Really?” reaction, the more I think about this movie, the more I like it. I still don’t think it completely sheds its “Christian movie” background. I still think the real-life book is better than the drama. But I’d see it again. I definitely think you should. I’m curious to know what you think.

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7 thoughts on “Giving God the Blue(s) Like Jazz – Part 1

  1. If it were playing anywhere near me, I’d totally go see it. I haven’t read Blue Like Jazz, but I’ve read Searching for God (Knows What), and I have learned that Donald Miller is awesome.

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