Monday, April 23, 2012

Blue Like Jazz, a brief review

I may come back and add to this review in the future, if you would like to read the original review, click the link at the bottom. 


I'm good at laying my cards on the table, so I will do so right now. I didn't like the book. I generally don't find Donald Miller's writing very compelling, save for Searching for God Knows What. That said, I loved Blue Like Jazz.

Beginning with a surreal (albeit) poorly paced opening of Donald Miller, played with reserve by Marshall Allman, Blue Like Jazz knows exactly where it needs to go. The film starts in Texas, at a fundamentalist church where Miller is content to simply exist without much rigorous thought. After a familial incident, Miller's perfect life is upended and he runs away into the godless Northwest United States to Reed College, where he experiences drinking, drugs, bi-curious girls and social justice. But, he cannot escape his background, or the Deity that seems to follow him.

Blue Like Jazz does not equate itself to being a Christian film. This does not suggest that Christians are not involved or that there is any lack of Christian themes in Blue Like Jazz, but the nature of the film is not sermonizing. Don's encounters with various students, from a dude dressed in a Pope outfit to a girl involved in Christo-centric social justice, showcase the turmoil of a man caught in the whirlpool of messy, post-conservative Christianity in a staunchly secular and hurting world. *For a discussion on "christian films."

I'll confess, I found this to be quite accurate in relation to my own spiritual journey. Having a personal conversation about God at midnight with an agnostic dressed as a beer can comes to mind. Blue Like Jazz touches on this sort of almost transcendental interaction, but also the failure of the church. Not in that the church, as a whole, has failed; rather, in the lives of some people pursuing truth, the church is very capable of providing invisible walls to run into. Blue Like Jazz is honest enough to not avoid the walls, but to show that they can be overcome. We see this in pastors, scholars and parents, both in reality and in this film. Blue Like Jazz never harshly condemns, but rather shows the linger effects of blind trust. 

The style of the film is reminiscent of Garden State, with abstract shots of astronauts in space and on earth. Director Steve Taylor, through his use of music and tone, manages to create a genuinely idiosyncratic film. However, the biggest fault of the film is the pacing, with the introduction running far too long. Not much in the way of character development, though there are attempts, until Don packs his bags for college. Once that picks up, the pacing picks up, but there are still instances that bring the film to a grinding halt. Like Don and Pope placing a giant condom on the church steeple. Funny. Necessary in regards to a certain character. But it takes far too long to set up and execute. 

Blue Like Jazz is a quirky little film that is filled with honest questions and a genuinely humble ending that is as far from an alter call as one can imagine. However, the ending is far more impactful and quiet than I anticipated, leaving me lost in thought for a long time. For a documentary that more actively engages with the idea, check out Lord, Save Us From Your Followers. Its on Netflix instant. 

In many ways, the silence and subtle shift of perspective is far more powerful than an alter call. This is where Blue Like Jazz excels. The point of it is not atonement theory or proclaiming systematic theology. This is not Wayne Grudem or Thomas Oden. This isn't even really Rob Bell or Tony Jones. In some ways, I saw a little N.T. Wright in there. However, the point overall seems to be more towards simply living as one ought to live in order for the gospel to bloom. People see the good deeds other do, and they want to know why. The point is living gospel. Helping the poor. Listening to our enemies. Empathizing with other people's failures. 

Possible spoiler:

Don's final comments about being "ashamed of Jesus" ruffled some Christian's feathers. However, the context is powerful in that Don is confessing to a person who suffered sexual abuse at the hands of a powerful man of God. Being "ashamed" is actually the most telling sign of a truly repentant heart. Shame and guilt often showcase our fears and our reaction in tune with the Spirit. Allowing God to move in most mysterious ways. 

End possible spoiler.

I'm ashamed of Jesus in that I constantly fail to live up to his perfect example. I'm ashamed of my own failure and the failure of those that profess belief in the same God I love. And that is the pinnacle of Blue Like Jazz. It recognizes the failure of humanity in response to the cross, and the example put forth by both king and servant, Jesus. 

The gospel reigns in Blue Like Jazz. 

3.5 out of 5.

TCM/Blue Like Jazz

--Nick

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