Should we stomp Blue Like Jazz because it isn’t some kind of timeless, poetic masterpiece?

It’s been interesting, perusing the reviews and comments provoked by Steve Taylor’s movie Blue Like Jazz.

I posted my thoughts at Filmwell earlier. It inspired some interesting comments.

After you see the movie, let me know what you thought. (Act fast. It probably won’t be in theatres long, with such a mismanaged marketing campaign. If you’re like me, you have to go out of your way to encounter any promotion for this movie.)

I’m grateful to see some very positive, thoughtful responses to the film from the AV Club (“surprisingly nuanced, even-handed,”) and The Washington Post (“It is – somewhat surprisingly, given the heavy-handed subject – neither sanctimonious nor preachy. … Director Steve Taylor, who co-wrote the script with Miller and Ben Pearson, gets the atmosphere of intellectual curiosity mixed with know-it-all-all-ness just right.”). A lot of other reviewers have dismissed the movie, assuming it’s just “come to Jesus” propaganda.

Some Christians dismiss it because it doesn’t airbrush the Christian life into a happily-ever-after experience. They’d prefer to see a movie that pats them on the back for believing the right things, and that sells the idea that finding Jesus solves your problems.

Other Christians who are, admirably, more open to truthful portrayals, and who have high standards for art, seem to be frustrated that Blue Like Jazz isn’t some kind of timeless, standard-setting masterpiece.

I appreciate thoughtful criticism, and the desire to see excellence. But should we sigh and throw up our hands and walk away from an indie filmmaker’s second movie because it isn’t on par with the works of masters that win awards at the Cannes Film Festival? Should we shake our heads in disapproval at a college band’s admirable effort because, well, we’ve heard Radiohead? Should we write off a decent community theatre production because it isn’t as good as a Tony-winning Broadway show?

Considering the extremely limited resources, the learning-as-we-go approach of the filmmakers, and the complicated source material, I think it’s fair to recognize the film’s remarkable accomplishments, and note its rough spots, rather than to complain that it isn’t a transcendent cinematic symphony like The Tree of Life.

Blue Like Jazz was meant to be quirky college comedy, one-part true story and two-parts satire, spinning a rowdy narrative from the nuggets of an insightful memoir. It’s remarkable that the movie was made at all, and I felt relief that it gave me so much to enjoy and discuss, especially since it didn’t have the vast Hollywood production resources that most films about young people, school, and peer pressure (like, say… Easy A) have.

I hope Blue Like Jazz is shown on college campuses and in church basements. I hope it’s discussed far and wide.

And if it isn’t, well, don’t expect to see much support for future attempts to offer honest, thoughtful explorations of faith in the real world. When somebody dreams of telling a truer story than, say, Facing the Giants, people will point to the box office success (or lack of) that Blue Like Jazz accomplished and say, “Seriously, which kind of movie is God blessing?” (As if God’s blessing can be measured by box office receipts.) I suspect that we can expect another decade of Christianity on the big screen that is presented as a glossy commercial for a Christian life that doesn’t exist, a wish-fulfillment fantasy of all your prayers answered and all of your problems solved. It will take a lot of courage and sacrifice to ever make something like Blue Like Jazz again.

As I said in my review, I’d rather see a somewhat-clunky indie that gives me lots of food for thought than a slick, glossy production that doesn’t.

Is Blue Like Jazz the gold standard for films that wrestle with questions about faith and culture? Of course not. But for a low-budget endeavor by people who hoped to get us talking, and who hoped to blaze a different trail than the self-congratulatory path of “Christian moviemaking”, it’s an admirable effort — in my opinion, an important one — a potential turning point, waiting to be discovered.

Here are a couple of the responses to my Blue Like Jazz review, which was published earlier this week at Filmwell:

MannyV:

For me this is a great movie, and personally it feels real. I graduated from a very anti-Christian university; surrounded by strong-headed humanist instructors that always challenged me to question my beliefs. However, they were always harsh and rude when it came to issues of faith. I think this film touches ground on thought provoking questions that we should make ourselves. I will definitely see this movie again.

Rick Rosenkranz:

I’ve always been a fan of your in-depth reviews, Jeffrey, and based upon this one I decided to risk seeing this movie despite my fear that it would be amateurish and dull.

I was absolutely and pleasantly surprised by the film.  I loved the use of the “SCCR” outline and found myself drawn immediately to Don’s reaction to the silly send-off his church gives him. I was also intrigued by how quickly he shed the metaphorical “armor of God” when he got to Reed College.  One could say some of his struggles were because he didn’t continue to “wear the armor”, but then one could argue that what’s the point of “wearing the armor” if it is just stereotypical Christian armor without any of Jesus in it.

I liked how the movie, in giving us a “worldview” and “liberal” point of view on Christians, didn’t necessarily say that the worldviews/liberal views are “right.”  To me, the movie was very fair and realistic in showing the believing viewer, “This is the way some people think of us.”

As some of the people have said here, some of the lines are quite memorable. But for me, the last line is something all believers would be well-served to take to heart. …

How quickly we look for other people to admit their guilt. How quick we are to judge others. To me, the movie served me well in getting me to hold a mirror up to my own face and look at my own Christian walk and say, “Am I showing Jesus to the non-believer in a way that He would want? Am I living a life that one would look at and say, ‘I want to follow the One he is following”?

Very good movie.  Thanks to everyone involved in its production.  Jeffrey, thanks for this review that led me to give it a try.

There’s also a thoughtful discussion, with participants like filmmaker Scott Derrickson and Bob Lamonta, going on at Arts and Faith. At first, it’s speculation. Then, Derrickson’s initial reaction to the film comes at Post #88, and soon after that there are other responses to the film. It’s a discussion worth following.

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