Token Problems Of A Token Marriage: Fireproof In Discussion

A few weeks ago, Kanaan Trotter and I watched Fireproof and then discussed the film. FilmFisher has no vested interest in “Christian films,” per se, but rather film criticism written by Christians. At the same time, the “Christian film” industry is a burgeoning industry, and simply ignoring Christian films because they tend to operate with smaller budgets and without well known actors would be no less snobbish than dismissing foreign films, documentaries, independent films and many classic films. That the star of “Christian film” has begun to ascend comes as a genuine shock to me, let alone the names attached to “Christian films.” Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas was one of the most oft-discussed films of last December, and had I been told years ago that James Jordan would get name checked in the credits of a film showing in a theater down the street from my house, I would have laughed out loud.

In the last decade, excepting perhaps The Passion of the Christ, Fireproof (2008) has enjoyed a wider audience than any other “Christian film.” When discussing the lately arisen popularity of “Christian film,” Fireproof is nearly always the first example employed. For this reason alone I was interested in having a look.

I was also interested in the film for the sake of Kirk Cameron, star. Granted, Cameron seems in a much difference place intellectually than he was seven years ago. The two films attached to his name over the last year (the literally attached Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas and Mercy Rule) are about as different in quality and intent as is possible (though both share Darren Doane as a director), but neither has much in common with Fireproof. Despite the dismal review I offered up of Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas, I should say that I find Cameron an intriguing, likable, and somewhat beguiling personality. Late last year, he asked fans to upvote his film on review aggregators and the stunt backfired, sending Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas to the frozen Cocytus at the bottom of the IMDB skunk list. He put his name in the title of a film he neither directed nor wrote, which nobody does, and the film went on to sweep the Razzies. All the while, Cameron seems incapable of giving a damn about bad press or insult. He doesn’t care. He does what he wants. With all the sniveling, camera-seducing scams clogging up red carpet shows and celebrity back-patting marathons, I am intrigued by a man who posts Facebook status updates like: I have some great news: Mercy Rule is now available at Walmart!

Perhaps a needlessly lengthy introduction, though I offer it in a spirit of charity towards Cameron, a fascinating and likable figure whose films I cannot help but to skewer.

Joshua Gibbs: Film is a young medium, and so the conventions of film are still changing quite rapidly. That said, films tell stories, and the conventions of storytelling are ancient and unassailable. When I sit down to watch Fireproof, on the one hand, I want to hold it to the same standards I would hold everything from Die Hard to The Princess Bride. Part of me wants to lower the bar and make excuses for Fireproof, because I genuinely find Kirk Cameron a pretty compelling fellow, and part of me wants to raise the bar much higher because judgment “begins with the house of God” (1 Pet 4:17), and thus Christian responsibility for the nations (i.e. Hollywood) is a primary responsibility.

As a married man, I should be upfront and say watching this film did me some spiritual good. I finished watching the film three days ago and it lingers with me. I have been more mindful, since finishing the film, to help my wife with work around the house. Why did the film affect me this way? Spending two hours watching a man with a lousy marriage struggle to perform works of charity and mercy and hope is good for the soul, regardless of production value. This is the power of an image. You become like what you behold. You desire that which you behold.

After reading that last paragraph, some defenders of movies like Fireproof are going to say, “Case closed. Fireproof has done you some good. Did Lost in Translation get you to wash the dishes even once? And you’ve seen that movie twenty times.”

Fireproof did get me to wash the dishes. Fair enough. I don’t think the effect will linger terribly long. I wish it would, but already the images of the film are passing out of my mind, my imagination.

In the same way, imagine a pack-a-day smoker watching a fear-mongering, scare-tactics anti-smoking commercial. Might those images of diseased lungs or some guy with a microphone surgically implanted in his throat make the career smoker not light up for a few extra minutes? Sure. Is the commercial good simply because it had this effect? Not really.

Fireproof had images, but it had a thin story and threadbare characters. Catherine and Caleb Holt don’t have marriage problems. They have “marriage problems.”

Their problems are not revealed to us in a series of scenes filled with minute observations about desire, longing, virtue and vice. Lines like “Then she starts nagging me and saying that I don’t listen to her… or something like that” suggest the Kendricks have as little interest in the difficulties of marriage as Caleb has in the difficulties of his wife’s life. “Marriage problems,” like people, are generic and can be dealt with broadly and simply with the Bible- that great universal source of truth which blankets and smothers all things, reducing the dynamics and particularity of personhood (and everything else in the world) to pure bloodless object. When Caleb phones his father to give him the bad news, he says matter-of-factly, “I think Catherine and I are done… No, it’s over. She wants out.” Between the claim that he and Catherine “are done” and the corrective, “No, it’s over,” there is perhaps a half second. I’ve tried to imagine what objection or question his father squeezes into that little eyelash of a pause, though, in the end, it’s not a concern of the filmmakers. Whether that pause is long enough for his father to respond doesn’t matter.  It’s a token pause. Caleb’s conversation with his father is a token conversation. They are discussing the token problems of a token marriage in what ultimately proves a token movie about a token human institution.

So I perform a token extra washing of the dishes, a token extra vacuuming of the living, then quickly resume the typical and the habitual.  The film is shallow, which means that a few plants will grow out of it quickly, but also quickly fail.

Kanaan Trotter: You spoke of the characters being threadbare. Spot on. This was quite irritating at points. There’s a philosophical difference between action and description. Use Lewis’ example of pain and describing pain. You can know very clearly what pain is, but only when you’re not remembering what it is. As soon as you are describing the pain, as soon as you are remembering it, you’ve ceased to experience it. I’d say film partakes of this same issue. It is, for example, why you cannot write a film review without sitting down and watching the film. Dissection is worth doing, but not before you’ve seen the thing alive and breathing.

Fireproof, though, wants to do reverse engineer the process. The characters are threadbare because, as you said, they’re only caricature. To put it differently they’re not real people because they’re descriptions of problems, not people. This is part of the overarching issue with Christian literature— with modern, evangelical, mainstream Christian art. It is no secret that Christian movies, books, rock music are sub-par. This is, I think, due to a failure to portray real people or real issues. Rather than depictions of real people, this art portrays problems as people.

Fireproof wants to address real marital problems. I respect that greatly. Not only is it ambitious, such a goal will be met with opposition. Yet people do not relate to stereotypes. Caleb is superficial because his life is superficial. It isn’t real. It isn’t thick and heavy. I found myself, throughout the movie, distracted by the overly-sterilized scenery. Caleb and Catherine’s house is too clean, too normal. The firehouse Caleb works in is too pristine.

Every set has the same excessively-abstracted and overly-distanced reality as the characters. I want the film to be worth something, but it can’t with so much superficiality. There’s something beautiful there, but there’s far too much makeup.

Joshua Gibbs: Agreed on the matter of the Holt’s house and the fire station being unbelievably immaculate. That kind of thing takes me out of a movie quickly, reminds me that I’m watching a movie. At the same time, I feel like that comment needs to be rescued from accusations of pettiness. Someone might respond, “The house is clean… The fire station is clean… The characters talk in a stilted way… Who cares? Are we going to sit around obsessing over realism, or are you going to appreciate the good this movie is trying to do?”

Is it petty to complain about these things? I think not.

In Deep Exegesis, Peter Leithart suggests that, when it comes to a text, meaning is not a kernel hidden inside the worthless shell of details and plot and characters. We cannot strip off the details of a story to get to the truth buried inside it. There may be truth hidden in a story, but that truth is not hidden below the details, but inside the details. The details give us access to the truth, but they do not distract from the truth. As modern Christians have become less attuned to historical methods of textual interpretation (especially the idea that a single text can have eight, nine different true interpretations— I think of Augustine spiraling out different ways of interpreting the Noah myth in book XV of the City), they’ve become more materialist and atheist in their approach to discerning meaning. Fireproof sits neatly in the sad atheistic-Christian art world, where an obvious and thudding message sits at the center of a story which is not meant to be (and can’t be) deeply interpreted. The objects in the story are meaningless. The details are meaningless. The original score is meaningless. The cinematography is meaningless. What is real? An abstract message.

I mentioned earlier that the message of the film hit home to me, though, if I’m being honest, I could also hang around my home images of little blue stick figures giving presents to little pink stick figures with the words, “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church…” beneath, and it would have (from time to time) a similar effect as Fireproof. The movie is sermonic, but movies shouldn’t be sermonic. In an ACCS lecture on poetry several years ago, Doug Jones was lamenting the contemporary Christian need to turn everything into a sermon, and he pointed out that God has not put gold placards which say, See, I’m glorious at the base of mountains. That’s for us to figure out. But neither is a mountain God’s way of saying I’m glorious. The mountain has no textual equivalent. That’s why it’s a mountain. If the mountain had a textual equivalent, it wouldn’t exist. It would be a text instead.

What do you make of the conversions in the film? Is that a separate matter altogether, or are the problems we’ve discussed with the film on display in Caleb and Catherine’s conversions?

Kanaan Trotter: I have to admit that Caleb’s conversion rang in my ears for a while. It seemed to me a much harder thing to make light of than, say, the palm-to-forehead scenes of firefighters playing games with hot sauce. Caleb’s conversion was powerful. But here again, like we’ve both said, the distinction needs to be made as to what was actually powerful about the scene.

We’ve already established that many of the characters, if not all of them, are caricatured beyond reality. This is – I like how you put it – sermonic when movies are not meant to be sermonic. I mentioned an interview with the Kendricks in which they describe their approach to the film. It seemed misplaced to me and perhaps this sermonic style is the reason. Film is not a biology lesson in dissection, but rather a dynamic display of a body in motion. To speak christologically, film ought to be more like Christ’s parables than the Sermon on the Mount.

That is not to say that film is non-confrontational. The parables of Jesus were as insulting to his listeners as his sermons, if not more so. Stories, I would even say, function upon the theological assertions that sermons lay out. It is a natural progression to move from sermon to story. Caleb’s conversion is powerful in the reality it describes, but it falls flat precisely because it’s out of place. His father’s words are pastoral guidance that don’t belong in a film. They belong behind a pulpit it seems.

But what do you think of this distinction? Is it fair to relegate these things to separate uses? Isn’t there something to preaching the gospel in all places?

Joshua Gibbs: Caleb’s conversion was strange to me, as well. In the span of sixty seconds, Caleb goes from denying God could genuinely care about him, to praying the sinner’s prayer. I don’t know that there’s a logic to conversion… I don’t know there’s a logic to pride being broken and confession pouring forth… obviously, this is the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit, and demands for realism fall flat in the face of the divine. Caleb’s father is preaching, though, and the sermon he delivers to Caleb is a rather textbook altar call of the 20th century variety. To be honest, the problem with the scene is that it’s too logical, too tit-for-tat, too obvious. In my experience, conversion is accomplished through odd means, the “still small voice,” and it is batholithic, tectonic, glacial, the long slow encroachment of something sublime and otherworldly upon that which is mundane and sad and at-wits-end. Sure, Damascus Road conversions take place, but such conversion involve the risen Jesus mystically speaking from a blinding light. That’s not really what happens to Caleb. I’ve witnessed more impassioned conversations about Arby’s than the one Caleb has about his soul.

I found it telling that Caleb never goes to church. He does not have a religious impulse. Rather, he is spiritual. He is a person improving himself, reaching enlightenment, attaining his goals through counter-intuitive means. Caleb, not to mention the Kendricks, is goal-oriented. This is a movie about one man’s relentless quest to win his wife back, and wrangling spiritual power merely plays into an essentially material goal. Christian movies are about people getting what they want and God helping them out. Christian movies are not about people failing to get what they want and discovering the vanity of life and material things. No Christian movie hero ends up more broke and suffering at the end of the film than the beginning. Christian movies are not about martyrdom.

I like your claim that film is about “bodies in motion,” which suggests film is not ideal, not platonic, though I think it’s fine for a sermon to have those qualities. The characters in this film don’t seem free, though. They seem like puppets, incapable of autonomy. The creators of the film have not been generous in granting their creatures liberty. Moses says that God was curious about what Adam would name the animals. I don’t think the Kendricks are curious about anything Caleb will do or say. The sermons which Caleb’s father delivers are emblematic of that lack of curiosity. Everything seems predetermined, predestined, foreordained, and in the heaviest and thickest and most entrenched manner possible. If Caleb had a scratch of real freedom, it might have been compelling to see him hear the Gospel.

Kanaan Trotter: Your assessment of the film as goal-oriented is spot on. The Kendrick brothers express this sentiment quite openly, and I agree whole-heartedly that this causes Christian films to be narrowly constructed. It’s not about the telling of any story, as much as hitting the Gospel bull’s eye. But the problem with this is not the fact that it’s an unconvincing story, although that too is true. Rather, it is functioning upon the understanding that the Christian world is entirely alien to the way story works for “the rest of the world,” as if Jesus needs updating. That presupposition is one of the major flaws I find in this film. But, as we’ve already said, it’s entirely unfair to lay criticisms against a film without understanding the good it both set out to do, and actually accomplished.

As I think of conditionals attached to a defense of the film, one of the foremost is the low budget which backed the film. With only something like half a million dollars, what could we expect of Fireproof? Shouldn’t we curb our bloated expectations constructed by the likes of James Cameron and Michael Bay? Excuses based on low budgets, though, always fall flat. Locke, a film with a budget quite similar to this one, delivered not only a powerfully story, but a remarkable film in whole. Christians would do well to watch a film so strong that takes place entirely in a car. Budgets are confining, no doubt, but lack of creativity ought not be excused by dollars and cents. Budgets, high or low, give no creative advantage. Good story does not gravitate towards the possibilities of special effects.

Neither is good story relative. It is a powerfully creative, accurate, and moving account of real characters with real problems. You spoke of the characters being “predetermined”, and I’d agree with you. I’ve been recently convinced that at Creation, God did not platonically elect a pufferfish from the catalogue of possible things he could create. But rather, he took the dark void of earth and, like a potter, drew out the pufferfish, all the while expecting man to do the same.

The work of creating is not checking boxes and fitting within borders; it is to be like God and fashion something new. In this light, in the wild originality of what it means to create, perhaps these criticisms of Fireproof make more sense. It is not that we should be snobbish in our criteria and expectations. It is not an issue of expectations, it’s an issue of correlation to reality. Make a real film. It will always be the most convincing.

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs teaches great books, collects records and jogs to work. He and his wife have two children, both of whom have seven names. He tweets at @joshgibbs and blogs for the CiRCE Institute.

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