John Ford, pray for us

Entertainment Weekly's Josh Rottenberg (assisted by five other EW staff) has written a well-reported and mostly insightful article about a tension nearly as old as the movie business: that between filmmakers and churches.

Rottenberg opens with a picture of Pastor Rob Seagears of Christ Chapel Mountaintop Church in Manassas, Va., who dressed as various characters last summer, including Heather Ledger's Joker from The Dark Knight, and Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones. "The idea, for Seagears, was not to rail against the corrupting virus of Hollywood, as church leaders have in the past, but to transmute that virus into a spiritual vaccine to inoculate his flock," Rottenberg writes.

Watching the video that tops this post is a good way to gauge whether the experiment worked. I think it amounts to little more than a sermon delivered in a costume.

Rottenberg concentrates on the Catholic League's unsurprising resistance to Angels & Demons, the prequel-as-sequel to The Da Vinci Code. One weakness of the article is its depiction of director Ron Howard as a high-minded victim of the Catholic League's William Donohue. Howard is capable of directing solid films (I count A Beautiful Mind and Frost/Nixon among them), but The Da Vinci Code and its spawn are popcorn movies for the theologically illiterate. Entertainment Weekly mentions a column Howard wrote for The Huffington Post, but it failed to include his most tone-deaf response to Donohue:

Mr. Donohue's booklet accuses us of lying when our movie trailer says the Catholic Church ordered a brutal massacre to silence the Illuminati centuries ago. It would be a lie if we had ever suggested our movie is anything other than a work of fiction (if it were a documentary, our talk of massacres would have referenced the Inquisition or the Crusades).

In other words, I'm too much of a gentleman to go all anti-Catholic on you, but don't push me. Howard's subsequent shots at the Vatican aren't exactly reassuring.

The voice of jaded experience in this article comes from Phil Vischer, one of the few evangelical filmmakers who showed promise of achieving crossover dreams -- until the realities of poor management nearly destroyed his company, Big Idea.

Consider Vischer's words about the market after Mel Gibson's blockbuster, The Passion of the Christ, about The Nativity Story and about misdirected marketing:

"Hollywood thought, 'This is great! We can market movies to pastors and they will get up on Sunday and tell their whole congregations to go see them! It's a new button we can push, and money will fall from the sky!' It was doomed from the get-go."

... "Frankly, [a movie about the Nativity] doesn't sound all that exciting to Christians because we know the story intimately: A baby is born, and there's some animals. We've seen it in church every Christmas. Do I really want to spend 40 bucks to take my kids to watch that with popcorn? Ehh, I'm not so sure."

... "Things have gotten pitched to pastors that don't make any sense at all. Rocky Balboa was pitched to pastors with a devotional guide! It's lunacy."

Rottenberg observes that tensions between Hollywood and the church are likely to continue indefinitely because both sides benefit from the free publicity. That's fair and true. Believers can always hope for the occasional film that shows a basic understanding of faith, or a sympathy for it. The Rocky Balboa devotional guide is a good warning, though: When the church is that easily treated as just another target audience, willing to scarf down whatever junk food is tossed in its general direction, something is wrong -- both with the church and with the art of filmmaking.

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