It is perfectly understandable that the myth-factory, Hollywood, generated a lot of myths about themselves.  They range from the story of the dumb starlet (“She was so dumb she slept with the writer.”) to the evergreen, multiply-attributed comment from a studio head about making film with a message.  “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.”  (for the David Hoggs of the world, that’s the f——g old fogeys’ idea of texting, back in the day).

Messages –– most of them deeply unsubtle –– abound in cinema today. Call them tropes, call them stereotypes, or more accurately identify them as lazy writing, they are very hard to miss once you start looking. “Dad as Doofus” has been a favorite since the 60s. “The Other is Awesome!” continues along, just in a different form.  In the past, we had The Magic Negro (which reached its uber-messaging apotheosis in Barack Obama).

It has been updated to the “Happy, Healthy, Incredibly Well-Adjusted Homosexual Who Provides Moral Guidance To the Befuddled Heterosexual Failures.” “The USA government/CIA is never a force for good” remains a dependable favorite, as is the evergreen and never-overlooked “Anybody who claims to be a Christian is a hypocrite.”

This year’s Oscar-winning The Shape of Water applied this “building a story using only good-think legos” method and managed to squeeze a lot of them into one drippy film. Trouser Trout and the Hot Mute Chick­ –– working title –– was able to hit the trifecta of (allegedly) timeless tropes: saintly black woman is heroic, bad guy is a Bible-quoting sexual abuser who loves torture, and the also-saintly gay character is the quiet moral guide and center of the film. But wait, there’s more! Bonus points for the communist spy character who turns out to have a heart of gold.

Amidst all the approved stories that must be told, the voice and authentic experience of observant, nay, even slightly fundamentalist Christians had been ignored when they weren’t being actively slandered.

American Christians are consumers of our culture as well, even if the gate-keepers of the dream factory have already decided that the bitter-clinger niche is beyond the pale.  Much as black Americans grew weary of seeing themselves portrayed as either minstrels or muggers on the screen (delivering us Blaxplotiation), practicing people of faith wanted to see their stories in their local cinema.

And just like Blaxplotation classics such as “Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song,” the early efforts were a mixed bag of ham-fisted polemics like “God is Not Dead.” A well-intentioned mess, it featured the saintly young believer up against an atheist academic only lacked a black mustache to twirl as he demanded the brave lad recant of his heresies against Darwin and the Democrat Party.

Okay, maybe I exaggerated that last bit. But for all the good-intentions the film-makers may have possessed, and no matter how much I agreed with their efforts to present a story about the value of a life of faith, watching the final product was like sitting in a dark room and having someone savagely hurl Jack Chick tracts at me for 110 minutes.

Which brings me to the recent I Can Only Imagine. A retelling of the story of how a beloved pop-Christian ballad was written and popularized, the protagonist (singer/song-writer Bart Millard, played very well by stage actor J. Michael Finley) grows from abused kid to leader of a struggling band. As a young boy being abused his father who was helped but not exactly rescued by Christian faith, Bart is very far from perfect. Psychologically wounded by the abuse, he’s impulsive, with his misdirected anger pushing people away. As the antagonist, Dennis Quaid gives the best performance of his career as a man so bitter at his own failures that simply being a miserable son-of-a-bitch isn’t enough, he has to ensure everyone around him feels a similar sense of misery, beating it into his son if necessary. In spite of the brutal sub-plot, it’s a funny, touching, uplifting film that does happen to be about finding forgiveness (for oneself and others) through following, however imperfectly, the Christian faith.

Note the distinction. It’s a film first, and a message second. Flawed hero and an equally flawed “villain” who remains a recognizable human-being with nary a Jack Chick comic in sight.  No gratuitous bashing of, say, pro-choice supporters as “baby-killers” or gay marriage as “Satan’s Sneaking In the Back Door!”  Those kinds of characterizations were not germane to the story of redemption and so they weren’t in the movie.  Imagine how much more enjoyable film and television would be without the tossed-in, requisite “We Are Of Your Secular Faith” declaimations that are plainly anti-conservative, anti-Republican, or — as is very popular among the creatively constipated and real-life-experience deficient — anti-Trump.

Check out I Can Only Imagine. While it’s not perfect (I have my writerly quibbles with some parts), it is worth full-price, which in my tiny capitalist heart is the highest praise.

Next week: we’ll discuss the book proposal currently being peddled by David Hogg’s people (The Secret Protocols of the Learned Elders of the NRA, which George Clooney has already praised as “the most important piece of writing since Guttenberg invented the Xerox machine,”with dueling forewords by Joe Biden and Oprah) and maybe a word or two about how much of a joiner I am.


Image sources: Telegram — Friendly Commies —  Chick Comic — Shape of Water