I wanted to like Blue Like Jazz (BLJ). I want to like every movie I pay to see, and since so many Christians lose their faith while in college, it’s a topic worth exploring.
But they really should have consulted with professionals before going into production.
Steve Taylor, the man who gave ’80s Christian Contemporary Music such hits as “I Want to be a Clone,” “Meltdown at Madame Tussauds,” and the Lifeboat song, has created a deeply flawed narrative that tries to be hip and cool, but in reality, partly resembles a late-70s Christian after-school special while also channeling the French cinema cliché of characters musing deep, pretentious thoughts over random events.
Lovers of the book may be disappointed. For writers, there are several significant takeaways:
Know Thy Market
I recently debated friends about what actually makes a Christian movie. Is it the content, theme, creators and their intention, or the marketing? This last element is a tough pill to swallow but it’s hard to get around. I believe that “Jesus porn” movies have long-term detrimental effects for God’s kingdom, yet the Christian subculture embraces them as its own while ignoring brilliant mainstream movies like Lars and the Real Girl for not being Christian friendly enough (or whatever).
But into this mud comes BLJ, which resembles an unfair hit-piece against Christianity up until the last beats of the story.
The average Christian family seeking appropriate entertainment content is NOT going to advocate a story of a kid who, after discovering his divorced mother is sleeping with his youth pastor, flees to a radical college for a year of debauchery, pranks and snooty discussion.
The mainstream audience doesn’t much mind the now stereotypical Christian dysfunction, but they don’t seek out such stories and don’t want the Christian to be right in the end. They might also object to the absurd depiction of liberal colleges.
Consequently, BLJ currently has a Rotten Tomato score of 45% and a per-screen-average lower than many foreign films.
To advance Christian films in our culture, we need to take the craft of screenwriting and market considerations more seriously.
Setting (Step 1 of the movies SCCR steps, pronounced “sucker”)
As mentioned, the opening feels like the early 80s. The style, rhythm, unnecessary voiceover, and then those cartoons and visual asides trying to deliver obvious plot elements, like Don as a bunny chasing a carrot to college and space floating. Is Taylor talking down to his audience or trying to revive a style we left behind with Better Off Dead?
Don’s rusty Pontiac, Jazz records and turntable feel like anachronisms next to the iPods and laptops. These were probably deliberate to show how out-of-touch his background is, but it also makes the audience wonder how many decades it took Don to reach Reed College.
The best advice is, give the audience what they expect: a consistent modern feel unless you’re doing a period piece or homage, and if you’re doing an homage (as 2011’s Drive channeled 1978’s The Driver and 1981’s Thief) go all the way. Don’t get caught half way.
Conflict (step 2 of SCCR)
BLJ is missing a clear external journey. The inner journey, Don’s loss and restoration of faith, is also muddied but the external one keeps the audience focused.
After Don flees to Reed, what is the narrative drive? What is Don hoping to accomplish that the audience can root for? Yes, he’s a nerdy Texas Baptist wanting to fit in, but how far is too far? But then it doesn’t matter as Don quickly abandons his value system, dissolving the tension in every scene.
The reason why most of those opening scenes at Reed feel so random is that they ARE random. Who cares about his extracurriculars, night pranks and bike welding? They offer no moral challenge to Don, so I began waiting for his mother to show up, or for his lesbian/bi-curious friend to push his boundaries.
The only beacon in Don’s journey is Penny, a relatively covert Christian who goes on overseas “crusades” to India after engaging in her own childish anti-bottled-water “crusade” at college. She should have been more active earlier to create more counterpoint to the lesbian, the Pope, and others.
Which brings us to theme. If you fail to create a clear journey, at least unify your story with a strong central idea. The notion that Christians are screwed up but at least we have Jesus is not compelling enough to guide a story. The loss of faith, or “everyone belongs somewhere” doesn’t cut it either.
A theme requires a VISCERAL emotion to connect audience to story. Something connected to sexual violation is a good possibility, since it connects with father figures (Don’s dad sleeping with students, the Pope’s rape) and with other love interests (lesbians, the coming-out wall), but these aren’t connected to Don directly. Remember, it’s Don’s journey.
The best theme is probably “what values are you willing to abandon in order to fit in?” This touches everyone deeply, but Don (and seemingly everyone else) doesn’t go through a series of dilemmas that can make it work. He’s told to muss up his hair, but what if he’s asked to renounce “all religious nonsense” in a public setting? Or dared to haze a Christian student of similar background, like Penny? What if he is pulled into a situation like his mother was, comforting then becoming too intimate with a church worker?
By the time Don’s putting condoms on church steeples, he has no scruples left. It’s too late.
This visceral connection to theme doesn’t have to get seedy, but it must be clear and primal. Visceral.
Climax (step 3 of SCCR)
If you’re going to use this simplistic SCCR thing as story-book like chapters (gimmicky and not recommended even though filmmakers from Merchant Ivory to Wes Anderson use them) get them right. The “climax” chapter of BLJ is NOT at the climax but at the act 2 climax, his total loss of faith.
The story climax involves his conversation with the old pope, making new moral choices as the new pope of Reed College.
Some might argue that being made Pope is the climax since it’s a high point, but in that scene Don is passive, and it doesn’t resolve the central dramatic conflict (which is, well, unclear. I’m sure they have one.).
In any event, Don’s new moral action is confessing to others rather than receiving confessions, and apologizing for being ashamed of the real Jesus. It happens in the last beats of the movie.
Sorry for the spoiler.
Resolution (step 4 of SCCR)
Note that the Resolution step also arrives before the climax, as they resolve various subplots like reconnecting with Penny. On the plus side, generally, you should resolve subplots before the main plot.
Unfortunately these resolutions don’t include restoring the relationship to his mother, his friend that came to visit, or his father. We don’t know if Don’s on his way to being a good writer, or if that relationship with Penny goes anyplace.
The story simply ends, like Jazz, I guess, though I’d still like to hear how he’s going to conflate his personal shame of Jesus and the Christian church with the Crusades and American foreign policy. Good luck with that.