Beware of cellists bearing prayers

When popular films portray Christians well -- not as plaster saints or as hypocrites with bulging eyes -- they can achieve a near-transcendence. I think of the late great Horton Foote's screenplays for Tender Mercies or The Trip to Bountiful, or the the humanity that director Paul Thomas Anderson gave to a Christian police officer in Magnolia.

When popular films get it wrong, however, the results are painfully funny. Think of the revivalist preacher in There Will Be Blood (also by Anderson) who wears an oversized cross, or faith healer Steve Martin huffing and puffing in front of a huge crucifix in Leap of Faith.

Thus I thank Michael Paulson of The Boston Globe, who sensed there was something off about a character in The Soloist, and wrote about it at his Articles of Faith blog:

I suppose that my work as a religion reporter means I spend so much time with people of all faiths that I find it hard to connect with the knee-jerk hostility some provoke, but I was actually sort of amazed by the gratuitously negative depiction of a Bible-thumping Los Angeles Philharmonic cellist (!) in the film, especially once I learned that, even though the film depicts actual events, the evangelical musician is a fictitious character cooked up in the imagination of the filmmakers. The cellist, named Graham Claydon (played by Tom Hollander) is brought in by the film's hero, LA Times columnist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.), to help a homeless and mentally ill Juilliard dropout, Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), resume playing the cello. The film's press materials say that Claydon's character "was inspired by several real-life musicians,'' but Los Angeles Philharmonic spokeswoman Sophie Jefferies told me, "As far as I understand it the Tom Hollander character is entirely fictional," and Lopez told me, "The character in the movie is fictional. I'm not sure whether it was a creation of the director or the screenwriter."

Paulson, in turn, finds this column by film critic Robert W. Butler of The Kansas City Star:

"Susannah Grant's screenplay presents Claydon as something of a religious fanatic. This fact dawns on us when we see Claydon outside what we assume to be his home, and it has on one wall a huge mural of Jesus done in an airbrushed style usually reserved for motorcycle gas tanks.

Then, backstage before the recital, Claydon insists on praying aloud with Ayers, and that act completely freaks out the mentally ill man. So much so that Ayers cannot face the audience and flees the building.

Paulson also notes that this review at ChristianityTodayMovies.com does not mention the Claydon character. (An accompanying discussion-starter near the bottom of this page asks, "What attitude does the movie take toward the atheistic character it shows? What about Graham [Claydon], who is a Christian? Does the movie treat one more favorably than the other?")

Distortions of faith are common in films. I don't think these distortions invariably arise from hostility to believers. Sometimes, and it sounds like The Soloist is an example of this, they arise from thinking that movie audiences are stupid enough to need a character like Claydon as an example of How Not to Be a Caring Friend (especially important: Don't pray aloud). I wish some of these very talented storytellers would more often learn to trust the story, especially when reality provides enough interesting details.

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