Saturday, January 06, 2007

Idiocracy and Jesus Camp

(Absolutely no commentary on the latter title by the first, I swear. Just the way they came up in the DVD stack.)

Mike Judge, such an affable and empathetic artist in such works as Beavis and Butthead, King of the Hill and Office Space, is angry. In Idiocracy, he looks at the world around him and turns it into a world 500 years hence. He could have entitled the film "And, Yea, a K-Fed Shall Lead Them," and it would have been mostly accurate.

That savageness is both the film's greatest strength and its greatest weakness. While that anger allows many of the movie's jokes to hit their targets with stinging accuracy and pinpoint hilariousness, it also obscures the film's characters. Aside from his lead, Judge doesn't seem to LIKE anyone in his movie, and it makes the whole thing tiresome at various points, especially when he gives control of the movie over to someone other than the affable Luke Wilson, who makes a particularly good center as the most average man in America (the role he was born to play, it would seem).

Satire, of course, relies on anger, often, to get its point across. But the best satire turns that rage at institutions, corporations and the other machines that run our society. Judge's premise -- that the faster breeding rate of the less intelligent will inevitably create a nation of morons -- necessarily attacks whole swathes of PEOPLE, and that sits less easily. Of course, like all good science fiction, this isn't really about a society 500 years in the future, but, rather, about our society right now, obsessed with being entertained and involved, unable to focus its attention on anything and only interested in immediate gratification. His rage is palpable, but it thwarts what has been the most potent weapon in his satiric arsenal to date -- his empathy for his characters.

Regardless of how you feel about Beavis and Butthead, King of the Hill or Office Space, each of those works is interested in all of its characters and what they think and feel. These works may not agree with each and every one of them (and, admittedly, Office Space's boss character is a boring cog in a corporate wheel rather than a real human), but they also embrace all they see. King of the Hill, in particular, is a nuanced work, both making fun of and proving right its hero, Hank Hill.

Idiocracy is not, as some have argued, a platform paper on the dangers of dysgenics. It's not a call to arms to the ruling elite to have more babies. It's, ultimately, a movie that argues that the best thing we can do is to help each other out and take a more active role in our communities (the journey of Wilson's character is from a man who gets out of the way to a man who leads). And that's certainly an admirable world view. Still, it takes a long time to get there, and much of what happens on the way is so mean-spirited that it may turn some people off.

The jokes, though, are almost all on-point. The opening montage, showing how the yuppies of the world will go extinct, is right on. Though it's followed by a too-long bit about an Army officer who is fond of the lifestyle of pimps, the movie rights itself by showing the gradual dumbening of society as the name of Fuddrucker's gradually becomes a more obscene phrase. From there, there's at least one solid joke or sight gag in every minute. Judge's vision of the future may be an angry one, but it's also a funny one. Just be prepared for a big side of angry bitterness.

Jesus Camp, a documentary about a camp for evangelical Christian kids in North Dakota, is another hit-or-miss proposition, though it skews more narrowly to the hit column. Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, two liberal non-Christians, the film is actually one of the more unvarnished looks at the lives of evangelicals in America out there -- that is, it's one of the more unvarnished looks at the lives of evangelicals in America except when it's telling us exactly how much we should be afraid of them.

(Full disclosure: The church I attended until I was about 11 years of age was remarkably similar to the churches in this film, and I went to a Christian camp that was like a less militaristic version of the camp featured here. While my family left that church for more mainstream denominations in my late childhood/early adolescence, a lot of my conflicting views on evangelical Christianity were formed in that period of time. Hence.)

That's not to say that, from a purely political sense, liberals shouldn't be afraid of evangelical Christians. Certainly most of the aims of evangelical Christians are very different from those of most liberals, and the evangelical voting body tends to be eager to vote and very unanimous in its voting choices (at one point in the film, since-deposed evangelical leader Ted Haggard assumes a big grin and says that if evangelicals vote, they can decide any election -- more or less true, though that could apply to any number of constituency groups). However, as the 2006 midterms, when unprecedented numbers of evangelicals voted for Democrats, and the success of Barack Obama with said audience show, the temptation to simply write off evangelicals as one, singular monolithic force is one that should be avoided.

Ewing and Grady are pretty good about avoiding that temptation for most of the running time of their film. They present their characters, who would be so easy to caricature, as real human beings. Focusing on four kids who are attending the camp and the woman who started it, Ewing and Grady show just how much evangelical life has grown beyond what it was in the early 20th century (when members completely shunned the outside world, often). The children, who are mostly home schooled, strike an uneasy balance between being of the world and not being of it -- they'll listen to heavy metal music, but only if it's explicitly about Jesus. The layers of insulation they have gotten against their environment (a scene with a science lesson is particularly baffling) are put there from early childhood in the hopes that the world won't get in and rip them down.

When Ewing and Grady are at the camp or attending home school lessons, Jesus Camp is the best kind of documentary -- a film that takes you inside an insular world that can be hard to understand for outsiders. It's easy to see why Becky Fischer, who runs the titular camp, liked the way she was portrayed in this film. Ewing and Grady treat her and her kids fairly, and any biases brought against them are brought by the viewer himself.

But Ewing and Grady, who stated that they wanted to get the film out in time for the midterms in 2006, overplay their hands. The use of horror movie-esque mood music grows more and more prominent as the film goes on, and the film also unfortunately includes a long section about how the kids and Fischer hope to eventually influence American politics. Furthermore, Ewing and Grady frequently cut to Air America radio host Mike Papantonio, who functions as a voice for liberals who see the film to nod emphatically with. While Papantonio has a lot of intriguing ideas about how American Christianity warps the Christianity in the Bible, his rhetoric doesn't feel of a piece with the work -- he's just there to provide a shield for the audience from the central characters.

It's unfortunate that Ewing and Grady felt that there was a need to articulate just how frightening the evangelicals are, because it cuts against the message of the rest of their film, which shows just how human and frail these particular evangelicals are. All of the kids are instantly recognizable, and while Fischer's views are probably not views held by the majority of Americans, her passion for educating her charges is palpable. But Ewing and Grady get tripped up by finding the fear in a movement, while losing sight of the millions and millions of individuals that make up that movement.

(Note: For a similar film on the same subject that's less patronizing, check out the little-seen 2001 documentary Hell House.)

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