Ads. Critics. Sideways. Existential Relativism.

Fallen humanity is comedy not tragedy¢â‚¬¦ If this is what you believe, you may enjoy “Sideways”, but if you wish humans to aspire to our highest and best, disregard the critic’s raves and skip this juvenile film which poses as thoughtful commentary on human existence but is in fact evidence of our continued societal decline.

My friend Nigel Goodwin is on town and last evening we decided to take in, “Sideways” the film everybody is talking about. The film’s newspaper advertisement boasts that the film offers “The best of everything” and then documents the claim: “The best comedy, “A comedy masterpiece,” Jack Matthews of the New York Daily News; “The best Picture, Sideways is the most honored picture of the year appearing on over 345 top ten lists;” “the best time,” “The best time you’ll have at the movies this year,” Peter Travers, Rolling Stone.

Indeed critics have extolled the virtues of the film, like central character Miles, a wine connoisseur played by Paul Giamatti, would praise an exceptional Pinot noir. At Rotten Tomatoes the film’s coronation glories in a 96% fresh rating with Manohia Davis, (NYT) saying it is a “reason to maintain hope in the film industry.”

Review after review uncritically celebrates the film’s virtues so I turned to the review at Christianity Today’s movie review site hoping for a word of reason and sanity. Instead the reviewer made an unsubstantiated claim, “Sideways does not condone adultery and/or drunkenness. All things considered, it portrays those acts as foolishness while upholding true love, and the value of building a good marriage.” How could anyone who believes marriage is a sacrament, interpret this film as upholding the building of good marriages? The reviewer provides warnings about the traditional fundamentalist taboos. “Still, a strong word of caution is necessary for Sideways. There’s loads of profanity, and you know you’re in for it when the very first line of dialogue during the credits in the dark is the f-word. There are also two quick scenes of graphic sex and one prolonged scene of full frontal male nudity. And then there’s all that wine consumption, with its expected consequences.”

The reviewer did not analyze the insidious embrace of amoral, relativistic existentialism. I visited other “Christian film critic sites and was amazed at the lack of integrative work related to the themes and message. These critics seem to think their calling is to explore Giamatti’s performance (I do think he is a very good actor) to his other work, or this film to “About Schmidt.” Don’t get me wrong, literacy in film is a pre-requisite for a critic, but what Christian film critics don’t seem to understand is that I CAN get that elsewhere from more experienced critics. What I can’t get from the “secular” critic is serious analysis of a film’s themes explored through the eyes of spiritual literacy from someone perceptive about philosophical and theological worldviews and committed to seek God’s kingdom above all else. In short, I expect a Christian film critic to love film and Jesus, but to love God more and to bring that grid to every film analyzed. I am not a film critic nor do I aspire to be, (and I also do not mean to pick on these Christian critics) but unless the burgeoning crop of “Christian film critics” offers true critique of a movie’s aesthetic and point of view compared to that of our faith, why should I read them? A simple analysis using the good, the true and the beautiful as a starting point would disqualify this film’s accolades. Each Christian should aspire to biblical and cultural literacy so as to discern the times, create better art, critique the existing art and communicate gospel in our time. Film critics who are Christian should do all that and more.

This film leaves the impression that the gospel is unnecessary, because virtually nobody is seeking redemption or even exploring the qualities and nature of a better life. “Sideways” chronicles the escapades of two college buddies spending the final seven days before the marriage of Jack, played by Thomas Haden Church. Jack intends to “get laid” a few more times before his wedding, and the recently divorced Miles wants to golf and enjoy a tour of California wineries, but gets caught in Jacks agenda rather quickly.

Anyone who has read Sartre or Camus, and any child of the sixties, will recognize the “life is meaningless” theme laced through the story. Almost everything about the movie celebrates the mediocre, from the two central characters, to the clumsy “transition boards” announcing what day it is, to the camera work itself. It is not that there aren’t worthy moments, most notably the dialogue between Miles and Maya in which they describe their lives through the qualities of their favorite wines and Maya herself is a more grounded character, who nevertheless is in bed with Miles after their second date. Jack embodies the full embrace of existential immorality and while there are consequences (hit in the face with a motorcycle helmet, running naked from the two-truck boyfriend of a waitress he has bedded), his wedding proceeds with Miles looking on smiling, as if there really are no consequences for the previous seven days behavior. Even the church and the sanctity of marriage are dragged into the muck of their lives, with a shot of a cross laid across the wedding rings at the ceremony where the new bride and her family are, of course, kept in the dark about the week’s debaucheries.

This is an overwhelmingly cynical film with comedy written over the tragedy and little serious acknowledgement that we are witnessing tragedy. As the Roman Empire sank deeper in depravity, vomitoriums were placed in halls of the stadiums so the nauseous crowd could disgorge before returning for more. Today audiences need no such accommodations, for the vomit IS the entertainment, and is splattered onto the screen, receiving accolades from morally numbed critics who call the vomit art, and theatergoers who eat it because they like it.

Last night I witnessed two tragedies. There is the film itself, and there is the sight of the sons and daughters of Seattle laughing uproariously at human fallenness displayed as not only existentially inevitable but as morally acceptable. We are, in the words of Neil Postman, “amusing ourselves to death.”

Yours for the pursuit of God in the company of friends, Dick Staub.

PS. And remember, “these are the best of times and the worst of times, but they are the only times we have.” (For Now).

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    Posted in Staublog in January 18, 2005 by | No Comments »

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