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Lighten Up: Searching for Shalom in Film Comedies
With Asher Gelzer-Govatos on February 15, 2016

We are excited to present the second in our 2016 series considering how our watching, writing, and talking about cinema might contribute to God's unfolding shalom in our communities and world. If you are considering responding to our call for submissions for this series, we encourage you to do so. We have only accepted three thus far, so there is still room for your contribution. - Editor

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The Question of Christian Comedy

The renaissance that has been flowering of late in Christian cinema – that is, not those films marketed at the niche market of Christian filmgoers, but those films that engage traditions of Christian theology and praxis with a keen eye for the aesthetic – has been unevenly distributed. Thus the major filmmakers most closely associated with Christianity, the Malicks and Dardennes of the world, tend to direct films most easily classified as dramas. A few outliers practice in less traditionally reputable genres, like Scott Derrickson in horror and Shane Carruth in science fiction. One genre almost untouched by this resurgence, however, has been comedy.

This dearth of comedies infused with Christian concerns makes a certain amount of sense. Film culture has largely bought into the convenient idea of comedy as escapism, a chance to turn off the brain and simply soak in pleasure, an idea certainly pushed by Hollywood marketing. Christian cinephiles, meanwhile, perhaps motivated by the desire to distance themselves from the conception of Christian culture as dominated by kitsch, have tended to place their eggs in the prestige film basket, holding up the work of a director like Terrence Malick as the apotheosis of what Christian film can do. As great as the films of Malick and others of his ilk are, though, this focus has meant a neglect of comedy as a film genre that holds distinct possibilities as a site for theological exploration and practical action.

Considering the particular question of how Christian interaction with film might foster shalom in our communities, the recuperation of comedy seems like an idea whose time has come. The rich comic tradition in Christian literature – stretching all the way from Sarah’s laughter in Genesis and the puns of Jesus, through figures like Jonathan Swift, and into the Twentieth Century with writers like G.K. Chesterton and Muriel Spark – should extend itself noticeably into the world of film. This begins with Christian critics and cinephiles finding the profundity of comedy in the works available to us, but it should also lead to a fostering of the comic that allows Christian filmmakers to consider comedy as a genre worth pursuing.

Satire: Chipping the Paint Off of Whitewashed Tombs

Of the many ways in which film comedy might shape a Christian vision of peace, two stand out. The first springs from comedy’s ability to sweep away false shalom that creeps in when injustice masquerades as peace. The prophet Jeremiah decries the actions of those who declare peace when there is no peace, and that false assurance crops up again and again. Scholars like Douglas Adams have pointed out that Jesus’ parables often contain “A satirical humor revealing injustice” (Adams, 43). The satirical parables contain ideas meant to shock the listener, to rouse the sluggish mind out of its stupor and incite it to action.

Great satire uses humor as a tool to make palatable an underlying anger. Think of Swift’s A Modest Proposal, where the absurd suggestion of infant cannibalism acts as a gateway into the world of the English abuse of Ireland. If there’s a subgenre of film comedy that carries some weight of respectability today, it’s satire, and for that very reason: it very explicitly tackles social and political problems, applying humor as the surgeon’s knife with which to cut away societal cancers. Several recent film satires provide Christians with the opportunity to confront the ways in which injustice may masquerade as peace.

Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop applies its caustic wit to the world of international relations and America’s role as worldwide police officer. Set in the buildup to an impending war, the film follows British government officials as they try to save their own necks in the uncertainty surrounding unilateral decision making by the United States. Hidden beneath the awkward situations and creatively deployed profanity is a trenchant critique of the idea of war as merely business as usual – something that Christians in the middle of a war-addicted society would do well to remember.

Another recent critique of violence, Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq, delves into the causes of inner city murders. Lee writes plenty of anger into his film, an update of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, and spreads it out among many targets: the gun industry, systemic poverty, self-absorbed individuals. It takes a village to kill a child in the street, the film argues, but despite its sober themes the film bubbles with comedy, using its energetic riffing to strip away the pretensions of characters who want life to continue as it always has, from the mayor who wants reelection but not justice, to the rapper too wrapped up in himself to see how he affects others.

Christian critics have not ignored films like In the Loop and Chi-Raq, but enthusiasm for them has not seemed to spread into the broader Christian community. This is no doubt in part because these films, like many contemporary comedies, do not shy away from the messiness of our broken world, and include plenty of subject material that some Christians will avoid at any cost. Matters of individual conscience should not be pressed too hard, of course, but Christians who are willing to work through mature subject material can find a richness in these films (and of course, great Christian comic voices of the past, like Flannery O’Connor, did not shy away from fraught topics like sexuality in their explorations of sin and injustice). Confronting the world as we find it is an essential task for Christians seeking to spread peace, and satire provides a powerful avenue through which to do so.

A greater penetration of satire into Christian conversations might make it possible for Christian filmmakers to utilize the form to speak to communities with precision and humor. Christians often pop up as figures of ridicule in comic pop culture, but usually in a form so distorted as to be barely recognizable to the faithful. Caricatures of Westboro Baptist types hardly contribute to greater Christian self-awareness. Yet a deliberate examination of Christian community through satire that speaks from a place of love is possible. The recent low budget film Believe Me, made by Christian director Will Bakke, represents a step in the right direction. Though not quite sharp enough to be a truly great satire, the film does manage to balance surprising insight into the excesses of star-driven evangelicalism with an underlying affection for the subculture. More films like Believe Me would give Christian communities the chance to laugh at themselves in a way that could prompt serious consideration of the ways in which they fall short of true shalom.

Redemptive Comedy: Green Means Grow

If satire clears the way for shalom by sweeping away false peace, then redemptive comedy can be used to fill those empty spaces. Comedy understood broadly belongs, as Northrop Frye notes, to springtime, to what he calls the “green world” where life flourishes and regeneration rules (Frye, 182-4). While satire is the comedy of breaking things down, this second form of comedy builds them back up again through its unabashed sense of hope. Comedy brings the shalom of what Tolkien has coined “eucatastrophe,” the unexpected resolution of difficult events into harmony and rest.

In the narrative of the Bible this regenerative comedy begins with the story of Sarah and Abraham. Promised an heir by God, the couple doubles over in laughter because of their advanced age. Yet the humor proves true, and their son bears the mark of this divine comedy in his name, Isaac, which means laughter. Terry Lindvall argues that Sarah’s laughter at God’s promise did not spring from a place of mockery. Rather, “it was the sheer surprise that the promise still could come true, the unexpected incongruity of her pickled predicament” (Lindvall, 35). Here comedy flows from the inability to comprehend the action of grace in an apparently hopeless situation.

From certain angles, this incommensurability lies at the heart of the Christian message. Frederick Buechner develops this theme in his book Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, where he plays with the idea of humor as the unpredicted reversal. “The tragic is the inevitable. The comic is the unforeseeable… The comedy of grace [is] what needn’t happen and can’t possibly happen because it can only impossibly happen,” he writes (Buechner, 57). Therefore even the tragedy of the cross finds its renewing comedy in the resurrection. Christians dedicated to practicing shalom must learn to accept not only the reality of tragedy in the world, but also the hope of comedy.

Take the most famous of all redemptive comedies – It’s a Wonderful Life. Frank Capra takes the audience down to the bottom of George Bailey’s life, to the place of greatest desperation, before restoring his life to him through the unexpected generosity of his community. Or consider the chain-gang fugitives of the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?, who escape incarceration to find a hidden treasure, but instead stumble upon reintegration into society – saved not by the work of their devilish hands, but by the angelic sound of their voices. Like the parable of the Prodigal Son, these restorative comedies confront the harshness of life, but show that homecoming remains possible through acts of improbable grace.

Romantic Comedy: The Two Become Wan?

In film, restorative comedy often comes to us in that most maligned subgenre, the romantic comedy. It is easy to regard romantic comedies as mere wish fulfillment, a willful blindness to the hardness of life. There are certainly ways in which typical examples of the genre play into unhealthy fantasy, but, understood differently, romantic comedies might be seen as a last bastion against world-weary cynicism, a hoping against hope in the resolution of our personal struggles into harmony.

Christian critics can find these intimations of the gospel hope for shalom even in unlikely places. Take Peter Segal’s 2004 film 50 First Dates. In many ways it falls short of cinematic greatness, hobbled especially by detours into the gross-out comedy stylings of its star, Adam Sandler (who, despite those detours, actually does fine work in the film). Nevertheless, the core of the film, in which Sandler woos a woman, played by Drew Barrymore, whose brain remains stuck on one day in her traumatic past, captures a sense of the love that hopes all things. Sandler’s dogged persistence in caring for her does not lead to a miraculous recovery on her part, but it does transform him from a callous playboy into someone dedicated to serving with sacrificial love. He pursues peace in an impossible situation, and finds himself finally the recipient of an unexpected grace.

What would it look like for Christian filmmakers to embrace green world comedy as a means of conveying hope? It would require moving beyond the hermetic logic of the “Christian” romantic comedy, where the endings reinforce a didactic purpose, teaching the virtues of chastity or faithfulness or even just reading the Bible. It would take a move toward real hardship, toward narratives that move in unexpected ways, that preserve hope without falling prey to the temptation to resolve every strand of a story. It might also look like transposing the comedy of the green world, wresting it from the control of romantic comedies and placing it in new contexts. Some contemporary films seem interested in the green world of renewal even as they place friendship, not romantic love, at the center of their narratives. Films like Noah Baumbach’s Mistress America and the Cornetto trilogy from Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End) use the typical trappings of romantic comedy to tell stories of redemption wrought through friendship and community. Attention to films like these would help Christian communities explore the redemptive possibilities of comedic grace in new and exciting ways.

A Test Case for Christian Film Comedy

Though the project of Christian film comedy seems in its infancy, others have gone down the road before us. There has been at least one superlative comic filmmaker whose work explicitly reflects his Christian convictions. Leo McCarey’s work as a director during the studio era of Hollywood has sometimes been overshadowed by contemporaries like Preston Sturges and Ernst Lubitsch, but his comic chops are as sharp as anyone’s. His films come deeply, though subtly, imprinted by the mark of his Catholicism. Though some of his later works (Going My Way, The Bells of St. Mary’s) deal more explicitly with Christian faith, I want to examine his romantic comedy The Awful Truth as one last test case in how a Christian dedication to comedy might shape communities dedicated to peace.

One of a flurry of “comedies of remarriage” that sprang up in the 1930’s, the film follows a couple, played by Irene Dunne and Cary Grant, as they endure the waiting period necessary for their divorce to finalize. In the aftermath of their marriage dissolving, they both find solace in new potential partners but find themselves drawn back together despite the contentious nature of their relationship.

On one level McCarey’s film operates at the level of satire, poking fun at the excess of the upper class as they flounder in their moral turpitude. Neither character has many scruples, and their unapologetic selfishness radiates outward, affecting the more naïve people in their wake, like the down to earth Oklahoman who courts Dunne’s character. McCarey takes a sharp knife to the curdled egotism of the pampered New York crowd, exposing the empty center of a life lived only for oneself.

Despite this satirical mode, however, The Awful Truth also functions as a green world comedy, and the characters receive a grace they have no right to expect. In many ways a bold statement of the Catholic belief of the indissoluble nature of marriage, the film nevertheless allows its characters to experience the dark night of the soul as they do their best to run away from the commitment they have vowed to each other. Yet, they cannot quite escape, and in the end succumb to the peace that comes from affirming the other person.

McCarey offers a vision of marriage – and, more broadly, human relationships – that accounts for the seemingly hopeless distance between sinful individuals. It cautions with its satire against the easy resolution of mutual resignation, the settling into a state of truce without love. Instead it argues for the radical hope that, in spite of insurmountable obstacles, peace can break through into the dry, cracked places of our lives and offer redemption. It’s a vision that Christians with a love for film would do well to capture, whether making or simply viewing movies.

Asher Gelzer-Govatos is a PhD student in Comparative Literature at Washington University in St. Louis, where he lives with his family. His writing on film and other culture has appeared at The A.V. Club, Books & Culture, and the Movies section of Christianity Today.

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