Sunday, September 2, 2012

Blue Like Jazz

By the close of this year's BLUE LIKE JAZZ, a young man named Don Miller sits in a fake confessional, dressed as the Pope, and finally breaks down and admits that he loves Jesus. He'd spent the past year trying to deny that. Or maybe he just wasn't sure. Of what he believed. Or why. Maybe he just needed to see real faith.

This moment occurs on the campus of Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Not exactly where Miller (Marshall Allman, who sort of ressembles Erhan Hawke), who grew up in a Baptist church in Texas, expected his faith to take flight. He was on track to attend a Bible College, a natural progression from his sheltered world of New Testement verse drills and youth group Wednesday night pizza blasts. Reed is about as far from a Christian environment as you could travel. Downright hostile to someone who believes in Creationism, that the Bible is the undisputed word of God, and that God even exists. A perfect place to test such faith.

His first conversation at Reed is with a lesbian named Lauryn (Tanya Raymonde). Quite the blunt one, she warns that if other students smell any Christianity on him, he's ripe for ridicule. "Stay in the closet," she offers while a "Coming Out" bulletin board is visible behind them. Double standards are not restricted to the godly.

Don also meets a young lady named Penny (Claire Holt), someone who will prove to be quite vital in his walk. They don't exactly become fast friends, and refreshingly, there are no "meet cute" scenes between them (crashing into each other in the hall; she dropping her book, he looking up longingly at her as he picks them up etc.). Penny is a complex person, and also refreshingly real. There's something very different about her, even as she joins her like-minded classmates in activism stunts, like a (in costume) takeover of a corporate bookstore and vandalism of a billboard advertising bottled water. Don likes her, maybe even that way, but recognizes something in her that he can't quite explain, at first. Their relationship rarely falls into cliche, and is fairly believable.

How does Miller end up at Reed? His father, far from being any sort of role model and absent for most of his childhood, secretly enrolls him, knowing it would push him far out of his comfort zone. Don's mother, a churchgoing, professing Christian who also happens to be sleeping with the married youth pastor, is appalled. But who is casting the first stone?

The earlier scenes in BLUE LIKE JAZZ, in Don's church, are very observant. If you grew up in a Baptist environment, you'll recognize the kids' story time at the front pulpit, the cheesy skits (note the "armor of God" scene), the youth group lock-ins. In one hilariously horrifying scene, the children whack a piƱata shaped like a cross!

BLUE LIKE JAZZ, loosely based on Donald Miller's celebrated and reviled book (he co-adapted with Ben Pearson and director Steve Taylor), takes his very personal collection of essays, "non-religious thoughts on Christian spirituality" and fashions it into a more workable coming of age story at college. I was a little disappointed with this choice at first, feeling this distillation would overall limit the examination of the progression of the young man's spiritual and intellectual journey. While I can wonder how a filmization of Miller's post-undergrad experiences (house full of roommates, a lengthy period of solitude) so effectively documented in the book could've been explored, what we have is pretty decent.

And this movie is a vital piece, a preface perhaps, of Don/Donald's true odyssey of belief. As involved and insightful as this BLUE LIKE JAZZ is, I felt the real journey begins for Don when the film ends. If you've read his book, a wonderfully entertaining and revealing grope through the labyrinth of faith reconciliation with a terrestrial mindset, you'll possibly agree. The book and the film reminded me of the quote, "the Christian life isn't difficult, it's impossible."

Theologians and the more rigidly conservative types were all over Miller's tome. They've been attacking him ever since, notably for his prayer at the DNC in 2008. Charges of even a humanistic approach to Christianity have been made. Blue Like Jazz is not a dense apologetic or hermaneutic. Miller is not interested in denominational in-fighting or debates over different interpretations of Scripture. He's searching for Peace. He's also putting this grand notion of faith to several tests. At the same time, Miller is also fed up (as am I) with the increasingly hostile divide among atheists, agnostics, and believers.

“My most recent faith struggle is not one of intellect. I don’t really do that anymore. Sooner or later you just figure out there are some guys who don’t believe in God and they can prove He doesn't exist, and there are some other guys who do believe in God and they can prove He does exist, and the argument stopped being about God a long time ago and now it’s about who is smarter, and honestly I don’t care.”

Miller makes no claim or effort to be theologically sound. He does not spout platitudes or the same worn phrases about Christianity. One of the things that was so unique and welcome about Blue Like Jazz was the honesty in his depictions of his friends and especially himself. People who sought to die to themselves and follow Jesus and be more like Him. Christians aren't all G-rated saints. Some of them cuss. Drink. Enjoy secular entertainment. Have attitudes that may be tolerant of other's beliefs. Like Don's, my Baptist upbringing cast very suspicious eyes on such behavior. Also like Don, I had my own post-bubble period of being amongst those folks the church told me I should avoid. But that's another story.

For all of its qualities, BLUE LIKE JAZZ is far from being essential cinema. For this movie, the script's mainly the thing, the greatest asset. While Taylor very competantly stages his actors and creates compelling scenes, the transitions among them are politely termed, rough. Episodes don't flow together as well as I think they should've. The overall presentation is static and even sterile. I wanted the movie to be more, lyrical. Not overly stylized, but also more than just point-your-camera. And some attempts at symbolism are awkward (like the umbrella scene). Also, if you're going to have a youth pastor utter "who's ready for some Kool-Aid?" to a youth group for a ha-ha, how ironic moment, don't dilute that effect by having a character later in the movie say the same thing in the post-modern sense.

But compare this film to other "Christian" entertainment like, ahem, FIREPROOF, and OMEGA CODE. I don't just mean technically. Thematically, BLUE LIKE JAZZ dares to give its characters depth and treat situations with some realism, with sometimes messy (non) resolutions. Like the very jazz music Mr. Miller initially couldn't appreciate.

So why is Donald clad in a Pope's frock during the climax of BLUE LIKE JAZZ? Take the effort to see for yourself. Even if you're not familiar with the book, there is much for the believer and non-believer alike to enjoy and discuss. In mixed company! Perhaps this film will act as a primer for viewers to seek the book. I'll bet Blue Like Jazz reached many who would've never otherwise thumbed through an Oswald Chambers' writing, or even the Bible. To seek Jesus. To discover more than just an historic martyr documented in a Bible filled with fantastic events.

By the end of BLUE LIKE JAZZ, the character of Don indeed falls in love with Jesus again. I thought on Miller's printed words as the character narrates his thoughts, highlighting Penny, who, in the aggressively secular environment of Reed College, was ironically in the closet herself - about her faith.

Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way.

P.S. This movie almost didn't happen. Thousands of donors, all listed in the credits (on the right hand side of the screen concurrently with the other end titles) came to the rescue after Miller announced on his blog that the movie would fold due to lack of funds.

P.P.S. "Don astronaut" makes a few appearances in the film, but not within the highly effective illustration of loneliness and self-sufficiency that was so memorable in the book. That's regrettable. Instead, we have periodic scenes of spacesuit clad Don floating in space (representing his own life, of course). Don also wears the suit during the bookstore siege. I wish Miller would've just left it out of the movie altogether.

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