Under fire

September 30, 2008

The following is based on a comment that I left on Shaun’s post and his was based on Ted’s post.  I supposed it should be said that neither Shaun nor I have seen the movie, Fireproof, that we are critiquing.

Shaun said, if I may take the liberty of summarizing, Fireproof does a lot of telling (sermonizing) instead of showing.

The first time I heard the dictum “show, don’t tell” was in my eleventh grade English class.  In that context what our teacher meant was “don’t overuse your omniscient narrator.”  Describe characters by their actions and words, comment on situations by showing their consequences.

I’ve not seen the movie but what I’m assuming Shaun means is that the characters portrayed in the film are given to over-analysis and sermonizing that is unrealistic for who they have been shown to be.  To me that’s less of a problem because it is not a fundamental flaw of the story telling but rather of characterization (like if a pastor gave a sermon we wouldn’t have a problem with it.)  I feel like one can be preachy without messing up their storytelling effort, if the circumstances are right… you have to forgive my over-analysis but I’m a sometimes playwright and amateur dramaturg so I have spent some time thinking about things like this.

Shaun says “Have you ever seen the movie gang member or the mafia guy or the serial killer go to his son and explain his philosophical and moral position on violence in a long chunk of dialogue? Again, heck no.”  But I say that is more a matter of the character’s motivation… if the plot of the story is serial killer dad wants to convince reluctant serial killer son that killing is good I’ll bet there would be some dialogue about it.  Or how about just in real life, my parents do a lot of telling to me.

There is also in my view a difference in saying, “violence is acceptable” versus “violence is good.”  A bunch of movies say, “violence is acceptable.”  It’s a lot harder and uncommon to get a “violence is good” message across.  I think this movie is saying “unconditional love of your wife is good,” a more difficult proposition than say “unconditional love for your wife is sweet when it happens.”   The dad is saying “Please Kirk Cameron(‘s character and also the rest of the world) start acting this certain way all the time.”  That’s his character’s motivation.  I find a movie like The Notebook to be more of the “isn’t it sweet” variety; no one is trying to convince or change each other.  Shaun talked about the filmmakers’ motivation was to motivate the audience to act Jesus-y.  I think there’s the rub… few other movies are trying to motivate anyone to do anything.  Can it be done with more finesse? Definitely, but I think that you’d be hard pressed to find something motivational that isn’t at least a little bit preachy.

So who does write with the “doing this thing is good” message in mind?  Commercial writers.  So in a way I see this movie as a big commercial.  I guess it also could be called propaganda.  And what do I know about commercials? First, some are better than others with better dialog and characterization.  But also… commercials work, they sell things and convince people “candidate X is good.”  Luckily there are more Budweiser purchasers than serial killers.

From the reviews I have read I think most would agree that the insufficiencies of “art” makes the movie a less successful commercial.  But is it bad just for being a commercial? For being Christian propaganda?

Shaun replied to me “A movie is not a commercial.  or at least the audience doesn’t expect it to be.  And so if they get one when what they thought they were getting was a movie, well…”

Yes, most movies are not commercials, they don’t want to make you do anything.  Some do, say Michael Moore documentaries;  I think everyone’s clear they are getting a commercial there.  Most people who go already agree with his slant on things, but I know at least one republican who rethought her gun control postion because of seeing  Bowling for Columbine. …if we only reach one…  Or take Crash, on the other side of the “good art” question, it could be considered an motivational piece don’t you think?  Saying “not being racist is good.”  It’s a bit preachy, but in a good way.

My point is just that if you are making something preachy or telly you probably do have to be twice as good as your commetition who’s offering a take it or leave it message.  But I think that Superbowl commercials prove it’s not impossible to make something both directly motivational and entertaining.

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