Tales From Christian Music III: The Christian Weird Al & Good Charlotte

There are Christian versions of every band. I previously discussed this, but in order to understand the subculture of Evangelicalism that was Christian music you must understand this point. Some are obvious– of course kids who grew up listening to Linkin Park are gonna make their own versions of the band from a Christian perspective and of course Christian labels (some of which are owned by large mainstream companies) are going to try to profit off of any trend (including boy bands).

One of the strangest Christian versions out there though was the Christian Weird Al. Yes there was a band whose purpose was to create parody songs, but rather than turning them into strange comedic bits, they Jesus-fied them. Instead of ripping off a band’s style, why not straight up rip off the song and change the lyrics to make them safe for the whole family? The band was called ApologetiX (a play on the Christian practice of apologetics: essentially a look into the reasons why Christianity is viable and defensible logically).

To their credit, they have been around since 1992, and contain some self-awareness (in their song “We’re in a Parody Band” they admit to being “[part] Weird Al…[part] Billy Graham”). Yet the whole thing feels anomalous–even those deeply entrenched in 90s Christian culture might be a bit embarrassed by their existence.

Yet as a kid that didn’t have a whole lot of access to popular culture, it was easy to latch onto these songs. They were an entry point into songs that were essential to surviving in the world. I couldn’t listen to Kid Rock (this was probably a blessing in disguise) but I could listen to the ApologetiX version of “Cowboy” called “Choir Boy”; this literally became a talking point for me one baseball practice. “The Real Slim Shady” was a pretty explicit song, but “The Real Sin Savior” sanitizes it, opening with the lyrics: May I have your repentance please? Will you tell Him ‘Save me’ and please stand up?. That’s like listening to Eminem without having to feel guilty–really the best of both worlds.

Cut to 2003, my musical tastes had begun to take off a little bit. Pop-punk was starting to hit the mainstream and I had discovered MxPx, Relient K, and Slick Shoes inside of Christian music stores, while hearing Blink-182, Yellowcard, and Simple Plan on the radio. My counter-cultural consciousness was rising and the anti-everything spirit of punk rock had developed in me. At the time Good Charlotte had a hit song called “Lifestyles of the Rich and the Famous”. It criticized celebrity-dom, talking about their shallow complaints and decrying the inequity of a world where celebs leverage their wealth and fame to avoid the consequences of the terrible deeds they commit. This song resonated with me, pointing out the injustice of the world, and exposing the fraudulence of fame.

Then I entered into a Christian book store–one of my favorite places to go growing up because of the vast amount of music and books they had there, all of which were safe for me to consume. In these stores they used to have sample CDs that were already open and you could take to CD players to see if you wanted to purchase it. I saw that ApologetiX had an album and I wanted to check it out. On the album they parodied Eminem, Jimmy Eat World, and yes Good Charlotte’s “Lifestyles…”. The parody version was called “Lifestyles of the Rich and the Nameless” and is a pretty straight forward telling of a parable that Jesus tells of the rich man and Lazarus, a poor beggar. The rich man suffers because of his lack of generosity and ApologetiX uses the parable to say that earthly wealth makes no difference to God.

The themes sort of align with the original, but the band uses these ideas to quote a lot of Scripture rather than to really hammer the point home. I stood there confused as to why they felt the need to parody that song. Didn’t the themes of injustice and the anger at celebrity worship already align with the stories in the Bible? This wasn’t taking some shallow love song or explicit rap verse and changing it to include Christian theology. It wasn’t even sanitizing the song, it was just taking it and adding Bible verses to it in order to present it to a particular market. That’s when I began to see the band, the store, and the culture for what it was–a place scared of ideas, scared of a world outside of certain boxes, scared of things that didn’t reference the Bible. It wasn’t about combating the prejudices of the world that allow the “rich and the famous” to reign, it was about separating oneself from an outside culture. Sacred spaces were built to the exclusion of others, censorship was enacted for the sake of censorship. Outside ideas could be accepted only as long as we could attach a Bible verse to them.

I had always seen these ideas of separatism as generally good. Even if they were consistently embarrassing, I’d rather be ‘not of this world’ in order to hold to ideals that were true (there’s something secretly punk about that) than go along with a hedonistic culture. But what I saw that day is that the lines were arbitrary. I saw the other side and they looked an awful lot like me. There was a false safety in the confines of the Christian book store and that day it exposed itself, laying bare a larger world. I could accept a separation from the world for the sake of truth and better living, but the censorship that existed was not for this reason. I can’t even be sure of the exact reasons they tried to Jesus-fy the world so that culture at large was erased–most cynically one could accuse the Christian music world of trying to make money off of naive youth or maybe they themselves were seeking out the safety that comes from having a side in a grand US VS THEM narrative–it’s hard to tell and to squarely place blame.

That day, like Neo with the pills in The Matrix, like the prisoners in Plato’s cave, I experienced something transcendent. The most perverse part of it all is that it’s all due to a cheesy Good Charlotte song.

Rewatch: The Fifth Element

FifthElement

One of my favorite genres of movies is what I like to call the Sunday Evening Flick. This is a movie that most of the time you don’t think about watching and you probably wouldn’t rave about it very often, but when that Sunday evening comes and you’re presented with various movie choices, this is the one you’re choosing. This can either be something that is playing on television or something that you’ve already bought just for this occasion. I pretty much only buy five dollar movies from Target on this principle alone, otherwise it’s not worth it. I would at times rather buy a Sunday Evening Flick than something that I think is a far superior film (which brings up the debate about which is the actual superior one…). I would rather watch George Clooney and Michelle Pfeifer in One Fine Day most Sunday evenings over Jeff Nichols’ 2007 drama Shotgun Stories though I think the latter is the far better film. It’s a genre (and yes I’m calling this a genre, though it is quite subjective) that defies logic often by pulling at some sort of bias in you–sappy love stories, cheesy comedy, nostalgia, etc…

The film presented in this month’s rewatch is not one that I would usually place into my Sunday Evening Flick category, but it shows just how fickle these things can be. I associate it with Sunday Evenings, because I would watch it on Sunday evenings. I never owned or rented this movie, but several times a year it would appear on some channel playing movies (I’m gonna guess TBS) and if it was on I would watch it. The combination of brightly colored costumes, sci-fi action, and Bruce Willis probably attracted me to it and I grew very fond of it even though I’m not quite sure I had actually seen it from start to finish in one sitting. I probably hadn’t seen it for at least five years and I always wondered whether it would make any sort of impact on my more sophisticated mind all these years later. Was I clouded by bright colors and Milla Jovovich running around in skimpy outfits or is this film actually good?

Let’s start off by saying that this movie is definitely not cool. I talked about how The Matrix retains some of its cool despite its outdated cyber-punk internet age in a previous post, but The Fifth Element does not have any of that despite being released just two years prior (1997). This was a strange time for those releases and The Fifth Element proceeded both The Matrix and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace two of its genre and style compatriots. Element lines up more with Menace, though that is perhaps because Menace turned out so unintentionally campy, while Element brings on the full force camp. This movie is definitely not cool–it’s not trying to be.

I’m not sure if I liked or disliked most of the film. It’s knowingly goofy while showcasing parts that would typically be seen as “cool” action set pieces and sci-fi costuming. It doesn’t take itself seriously (I read someone compare it to Burton’s Batman and I think that is an apt comparison, though I don’t like that movie) and that allows you to distance yourself from the crazy things that are happening on the screen. It’s such a mish-mash of tone, but that doesn’t kill the film and that’s probably why I liked it as a kid (I was someone who would mix all the sodas from the soda fountain in what we called a “Suicide”).


The_Fifth_Element_Bruce_Willis_Chris_Tucker

The performances here are mostly ridiculous from its fairly star-studded cast. Gary Oldman takes on the villain role, sporting a long black comb-over along with high collared suits and a soul patch. He’s the kind of villain that is quite silly in his maniacal ways without ever crossing over into full comic book parody. Ian Holm is a priest–one who has all of the answers–but never seems to be able to put everything together due to his sort of clumsy demeanor. And then there’s Chris Tucker doing Chris Tucker times a million all while dressed in futuristic women’s clothes. It’s hard to say whether his character: Ruby Rhod, an effeminate futuristic entertainment host, is progressive or archaic; unique or embarrassing. He’s somewhat funny–his radio narration of the final battle scenes are charming–but his high pitched ramblings grate. I think that he contributes to a more realized setting, showcasing celebrity life in the sci-fi future. He’s a sideshow that never becomes an interesting character, while still adding to the film.

Milla Jovovich of course stars at the titular Fifth Elementa supreme being who takes the form of a human woman. I remember her character being an epic representation of a dominant female character, from her ability to retain information to fighting off those trying to destroy the earth she was ingrained in me as an action hero. I thought I would love her character once again, but I was left sorely disappointed. For the most part she stumbles around speaking gibberish in a half confused state, while director Luc Besson seems to want to use her for her sensuality rather than her capabilities to dominate (I mean, she is literally the key to saving humanity). It’s disappointing because in my memory I had seen her as a Furiosa-type, but she doesn’t live up to this. I still think she is iconic (mostly due to her costuming and makeup) and she becomes more and more autonomous by the end of the film, redeeming herself and the human race.

The most grounded character and true hero of the film is Bruce Willis. He takes all the hyperbole and brings it back to reality. He’s a former military hero who is now barely getting by as a cab driver do to his brash personality. It’s a character we’ve seen Willis do time and time again, but it’s an essential role to the film. Willis is a charming tough guy and he steadies the movie while surrounded by cartoonish characters. It’s obvious that he will save the world and get the girl–who else is there to do it? But who else would you want to do it?

The plot is semi-convoluted with its ancient mythologies, villains and heroes whose motivations are never quite clear, and lots of pieces that seem to come together out of convenience rather than logic, but none of that really matters. All that needs to be known is that the world is about to be destroyed, this is the person who can save it, this is how they can save it, and that Bruce Willis will ultimately come to be the hero. This isn’t a Christopher Nolan movie where the pieces fit together like a perfect jigsaw puzzle–there’s a bunch of stuff that doesn’t matter, but all of that stuff is the most gratuitous fun.

In the end I think we really have to go back to Phantom Menace. I wonder if it wasn’t a prequel if it would be a more fun experience like this film was for me. Both are frivolous forays into strange fantasy worlds where weird creatures interact with humans and people have strange powers. Element succeeds without the pressure to say much or to contribute to a larger world (it also uses practical effects and CGI better than Menace in my opinion). This brings up questions as to whether Menace would hold up, being erased from the rest of the Star Wars canon, and this is a question that one day I will come back to; for now I’m too busy reeling from the (excuse the cheesy saying, but it a movie like this makes you use awful sayings in complete sincerity, because the movie itself is awfully sincere in the most fun and cheesy way) rollicking good time I had watching The Fifth Element.

Rating: 3.5/5

Rewatch: The Matrix

thematrix I have distinct memories of being the only person in sixth grade who had not seen The Matrix–well actually there was one other girl if we’re being honest–point being this film enraptured everyone entering into the 2000s. I was a sixth grader in 2002 and not having seen the 1999 film was a minor crime and I surely felt it. I don’t remember when I first saw it, but I certainly did enjoy it as well as its sequel (I never saw the third film for whatever reason, I guess it didn’t come on TV at the right time.) Going into this rewatch I wondered if it would be outdated or cheesy; if the mind blowing special effects (which are still talked about whenever somebody does some sort of dodge) wouldn’t live up to our modern CGI or whatever.

I’ll come right out and say it, this film certainly holds up. The action sequences still deliver in ways that are exciting. Though I imagine it (along with Tarantino’s 2003 release Kill Bill) owes a lot to old martial arts films that I am just entirely unfamiliar with, the action here is still some of the most exciting stuff I’ve ever seen. From Trinity’s opening wall running scene to Neo’s bullet dodging lean (which I must point out that though this is the most famous action moment in the entire film, the way this move ends is with him ultimately getting shot. Nobody remembers that this was ineffective, while all the other parts of that scene are fantastic and actually work).

When Neo comes into his calling as “the one” and starts just wiping away bullet after bullet and defeats Agent Smith in slow motion, no lie I had chills. I think this is a testament that the rest of the movie also works, all effects aside. I’ve long been a proponent that action films must have a solid story or ten years into the future they can end up as outdated boring spectacle (looking at you Avatar). The Matrix dodges this problem in two ways, by using inventive imagery and by shoving its standard storytelling devices under layers and layers of post-apocalyptic plot.

I’m a sucker for movie worlds that feel fresh, I fell head over heels for Wreck it Ralph upon first viewing because its real life video game world was the stuff of my greatest childhood imaginings. The Matrix invented an exciting new world–one that wasn’t all that different from previous stories (the computers win story of The Terminator franchis + the chosen one in pretty much any movie), we’ll go into this more later, but the world is built upon both very established rules as well as a repeated aesthetic and this is what ultimately allows it to thrive.

When Neo first chooses the red pill Morpheus guides both him and us through a set of rules for the new world. Our eyes are unveiled, we find out that “the matrix” is a computer system that every human believes themselves to be a part of (also a thought experiment that now gets The Matrix into most Film and Philosophy programs), there is a loading zone where computer programmers can write code to teach them or give them things to take into the new world, they can download Kung Fu into their brains, etc… Even as I was watching it, knowing what was to come and mostly remembering each of the rules, Morpheus’ revelations are exciting.

The rules establishment is met by an aesthetic and a repetition of symbols that fully establish the whole thing. Repeated symbols draw us in and connect us quickly with subject matter. This is why religious liturgies and reality show production design (big leap there, I know) draw us in even when their content isn’t great. The Matrix has its phone booths which are entirely unnecessary to the plot (the way that they get transported back to consciousness in their ship is via telephone booth?!? They have some extremely special way of getting transported into the world, but the way they get out is entirely reliant on a working telephone booth! They could have used anything to get them back!) yet it entirely works because of the aesthetic it adds. Watching characters rush to the phone booth and disappear just before an agent attempts to crush the booth adds something tangible to the film.

Let’s not forget how the actual matrix itself looks either, its green lines of code running down sideways that certain people can read and see exactly what is happening. This is a brilliant image, forever ingrained into my memory as ‘the matrix’, akin to Star Wars‘ light sabers or Storm Trooper costumes (or the Darth Vader Mask or the X-Wing or anything from those films basically!), Terminator 2‘s shape-shifting T-1000, or Jurassic Park‘s ripples in the glass of water. Having creative imagery that viewers can remember, like a liturgy gets repeated, can turn a film into a classic.

The Matrix takes place two hundred years into the future, but its costuming very much feels like 1999. The Wachowskis do their best to create some futuristic world, but as is often the case with trying to create futuristic visions, their ideas get caught up with modern notions of cool. Here, this is very much caught up in a rising internet culture with Neo a part of an internet subculture that existed at the time. It’s strange to think that the internet was barely even a thing upon the film’s release or even better that the Wachowski’s chose a weakly internet hacker to become a sort of super hero. Its cyberpunk, techno loving self does feel very much like a 1999 sort of idea of the future. This was a year in which Britney Spears was huge, Eiffel 65’s “Blue” dominated the charts, and Limp Bizkit was a thing. I think for the most part you can ignore the film’s 1999-ness, unlike what I remember from the sequel which I believe features giant techno dance parties (this is how the world will end, not with a bang, but with a rave!). It’s not 2199 yet, but I somehow doubt future stylings will consist only of skintight leather and long black trench coats, but hey, I am coming from my very 2015 perspective.


dodge The storyline is mostly follows archetypes of those before it, in fact I distinctly remember my sophomore English teacher using The Matrix as an example to teach us what an archetype was (is The Matrix an archetype of archetypes!?!), telling us (and spoiling the ending for me) that it followed the Christ figure archetype. I think this is true and the rest of the movie’s oracles, AI computer enemies, betrayals from trusted figures, and finding redemption upon true belief aren’t really anything new, but then again most stories aren’t. The Wachowski’s put the whole thing under the veil of something exciting and it’s not like it straight up steals whole plot lines like Avatar did with Pocahontas.

On a different note, I was impressed by how much diversity the Wachowski’s place in the film. The Nebuchadnezzar crew features eight members, three of them black and two of them women. The oracle is also a black woman, making four of the film’s featured characters black; I challenge you to try to come up with another film that has that off the top of your head–it’s a rarity.

Even so, the film has not escaped criticism. Last year, Tasha Robinson of The Dissolve, came up with something that she called “Trinity Syndrome”. Essentially the idea was that female characters are being created that at first seem strong, but are still relegated to serving the main character’s (often a male) purposes. It’s interesting that she uses Trinity as the main example, but it makes a lot of sense. Trinity comes off strong right out the gate–she’s a mysterious character who exhibits flashes of action brilliance–running along walls and beating up unknowing policemen left and right. As the film progresses she loses her importance while retaining an aura of mystery, but then the Wachowski’s take her character and turn her into someone whose job is only to advance Neo (literally, the Oracle has prophesied that her life’s purpose is to fall in love with “the one”). The scene where she kisses Neo back to life is no doubt the worst part of the movie on so many levels, taking everything she has built into and turning her into a pretty lame love interest device. It’s so unnecessary, plus Keanu’s Neo is so (soooooooo) much less interesting than Carrie Ann-Moss’s Trinity. She really deserves better.

Overall, rewatching it and doing these rewatches is really to determine whether the films that were cultural touchstones in their time are any good. The Matrix is deserving to be in the cultural canon, referenced here and there, occasionally parodied, and remembered fondly. But now the question, is it any good?

Previously I had given the film five stars on my Letterboxd account, I don’t know if I would quite do that. It isn’t a cinematic masterpiece, not deserving of a spot at the top of the Sight and Sound list of best films. But I do think that within its genre (action/sci-fi) it is one of the best, and excels as a genre picture and a piece of cinema. It may not be a cinematic masterpiece, but it is a very good film. 4.5/5