The Celluloid Pulpit

When I was in college, I went out a couple of times with a Seventh-Day Adventist who took me one Sunday to a church supper. As we strolled into the meeting hall, she whispered nervously, “Some of us are vegetarians, and you’re going to see some strange stuff here.” Most of the food I saw on the long trestle table turned out to be no stranger than the covered dishes you’d run across at any other small-town potluck dinner. I boggled, however, at the meat substitutes. Some of the all-vegetable preparations were as innocuous as soy link sausages, but others were cunningly crafted to make you think you were eating something tasty and sinful when in fact they were neither. As I raised my first (and last) forkful of mock meat, I asked myself: Isn’t this kind of missing the point?

A like question comes to mind as I watch the American evangelical movement grappling with mass culture in all its myriad manifestations. Short of hewing with fundamentalist literalism to St. Paul’s injunction to “come out from among them, and be ye separate”—which means, among other things, no movies, no television, no radio, and no public schooling—it is impossible for believing parents to completely isolate their children from the effects of the media machine. Kids want to do what they see other kids doing and have what they have. To this end, evangelicals have lately been trying to come up with the pop-culture equivalent of mock meat. So your 13-year-old boy is into Eminem? Let him listen to Christian heavy metal instead!

Now, every church worthy of the name is by definition a church of the multitude, as Karl Stern put it, and must find ways to speak clearly to all men in all conditions. But how far down into American mass culture is it possible to cast your Christian hook without pulling up poisoned fish? Nowadays, nobody in Hollywood would dream of making a commercial movie in which one of the stars is so much as seen going to church on Sunday morning, much less talking about religion other than dismissively. (One of the most surprising things about Kenneth Lonergan’s wonderful You Can Count on Me is that Laura Linney’s character is a regular churchgoer who takes her faith seriously—more so, it seems, than her postmodern let’s-not-talk-about-sin pastor.) Might it be possible, though, for a consortium of independent Christian filmmakers to produce a religiously oriented feature film that had the look and feel of a big-budget summertime flick? Or is there something inherently problematic about the process of translating the gospel of life into the language of contemporary mass culture?

Left Behind: The Movie, based on the first in a series of “Christian” (i.e., evangelical Christian) novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, is not an answer to these questions, though it purports to be. Unless you’re a fundamentalist or something like it, you probably haven’t even heard of these eight books, but they’ve sold 25 million copies to date, making them the hottest thing in religious publishing since The Living Bible. Nor are most readers of Crisis likely to be readily conversant with “premillennial dispensationalism,” an apocalyptic variant of Protestantism that spins out of sundry Bible texts a doctrine according to which true believers will be “raptured” directly into heaven at an unspecified date in the (possibly near) future, thereby ushering in a seven-year time of tribulation for those left behind on earth.

Nevertheless, the rapture is eagerly anticipated by countless fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals. Growing up Southern Baptist in southeast Missouri, I even ran across Christian comic books about it, full of lurid tales of 50-car freeway pileups triggered by the unexpected disappearance of devout drivers. It’s not at all uncommon in certain parts of America to see bumper stickers bearing the slogan “Warning: In case of rapture, this car will be unmanned.”

As its title suggests, Left Behind is all about the rapture. More specifically, it is about Buck Williams (Kirk Cameron), a plucky reporter for a cable news network who is assigned to plumb the mystery of why 142,380,000 human beings suddenly vanished one fine day, leaving behind their cars, clothes, eyeglasses, jewelry, and unchurched spouses. Cloud Ten Pictures and Namesake Entertainment, the producers of Left Behind, released it directly to videocassette, then persuaded 700 churches and businesses to put up $3,000 apiece to subsidize its release in commercial theaters. The movie proper cost $17 million to make, a trivial sum by Hollywood standards but very serious money in the bottom-dollar world of independent film.

Not surprisingly, the reviews of Left Behind have been uniformly awful. (The Washington Post called it a “blundering cringefest.”) Knowing something of evangelical Protestant culture, I had a feeling that the reviewers, for all their secularism, were probably right, but I thought it might be worth seeing anyway. And I was right. For while Left Behind is pure kitsch, it is at least kitschy in an interesting way, since the producers were obviously trying to make a Hollywood-style action thriller of the pulpiest, most predictable kind, only with the spiritual values inverted. One of the characters, for instance, is a jut-jawed airline pilot named Rayford Steele (Brad Johnson) who is having a torrid extramarital affair with a blonde stewardess (Chelsea Noble). We never see them having sex, though, and when Captain Steele’s churchgoing wife disappears into thin air on that great getting-up morning, he instantaneously sees the error of his ways, dumps his girlfriend, starts reading the Bible, and converts his cynical Gen-X daughter (Janaya Stephens) to Christianity. Meanwhile, Miss Blonde Stewardess goes to work for the Antichrist, who turns out to be…the secretary-general of the UN! (That part I liked.)

The problem, of course, is that Left Behind is a sermon disguised as a movie, meaning that it wouldn’t have worked even had it been better written and/or more theologically sophisticated. Movies are art; sermons aren’t. This is no less true when the sermon is secular, as in the case of Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, a 147-minute-long piece of propaganda disguised as a movie about cocaine. The script is by Stephen Gaghan, who evidently believes that hard drugs should be decriminalized and the “war on drugs” abandoned in favor of state-subsidized treatment on demand, not because drugs are a good thing (he is a recovering addict), but because they are so powerfully and insidiously pleasurable that upper-middle-class Americans will pay any amount of money to get them, thus creating an illicit market so rich as to be totally corruptive of all it touches. So as to make this point, Gaghan has woven together four separate story lines set in Mexico, California, Ohio, and Washington, D.C., which purport to show the cocaine business from top to bottom.

The trouble with Traffic is twofold. To begin with, what Gaghan is trying to put on the screen belongs in a thousand-page novel, not a two-and-a-half-hour film. (I wasn’t surprised to learn that his script was based on a five-part British TV miniseries.) To pack all that plot into the limited span of a single sitting, he is forced to resort to the crudest, glibbest sort of melodramatic shorthand, trotting out such absurdities as Caroline (Erika Christensen), an angelically beautiful, straight-A student so enamored of crack that she becomes a small-time prostitute in order to buy it, and who just happens to be the daughter of the new federal drug czar, jut-jawed Judge Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas, who is very good). Merely because this particular set of clichés just happens to be politically correct doesn’t make it any more artful than anything that takes place in Left Behind.

What is undeniably artful about Traffic is the pitch-perfect direction of Soderbergh, who shot the whole picture himself with a hand-held camera. The results are so intensely involving to the eye that you’re briefly fooled into thinking that what you’re seeing is something other than what it is. Alas, Traffic is not a silent movie, and no sooner do its impeccably cast characters start preaching about the futility of the war on drugs than it starts to sputter, then crashes and burns in agonizingly slow motion. As any itinerant evangelist could have told Soderbergh, if God had meant for sermons to last that long, He would have given us better-padded bottoms.


  • Terry Teachout

    Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, culture critic of Commentary, and the author of books on Louis Armstrong, H.L. Mencken, and George Banchine.

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