Blue Like Jazz: Too Subtle for Its Own Good

It’s a rare thing to be sitting in a movie theater and feel like the film you’re viewing was, somehow, made just for you. I’ve had that particular experience once before. Maybe twice. The first time was with Treasure Planet, because, at the time, nobody but me recognized the supreme awesomeness of steampunk, or of the combination of pirates and space — a pairing far more inspired than chocolate and peanut butter (which I’ve always found to be overrated, but don’t tell my wife). I might count Ratatouille among these as well, but I won’t, since everybody likes Pixar movies, and I have no desire to make myself a cliché.

What you can add to the list, however, is Steve Taylor’s film Blue Like Jazz. I feel pretty alone in really loving this movie, since the theater was deserted when I saw it and it’s currently sitting at a disappointing 48 on Metacritic. But I suppose that’s to be expected. It’s not the sort of movie you’ll love if you walk into the theater with your brain turned off (which, given the massive success of Michael Bay, is apparently what most people do), and it’s not something that will beat you over the head with a trite presentation of the Gospel message (did you hear that noise? it was Kirk Cameron shedding a single tear). What it is, is the story of a single believer being drawn out of the Slough of Despond by the still, small voice of God.

When I got home from the film, I posted this on my Facebook page, along with a link to the trailer:

I just got around to seeing this film, and I was shocked by how much I enjoyed it. I laughed and cried harder than I have in a long time.

It’s not hard to see why the reviews have been so mixed, though. If you’ve never been a part of the church — not “gone to church,” not “read your Bible”; but really been a member of Christ’s body, seen all its quirks and flaws and ugly scars, and seen how Christ truly feeds his sheep despite their best efforts — you won’t understand ‘Blue Like Jazz.’

Which is too bad.

It’s not the most eloquent thing I’ve ever written, but it sums up how I feel about the film pretty well. Blue Like Jazz is a modern-day, evangelical Brideshead Revisited (right down to its queer themes) — a story of a God who relentlessly pursues those he has chosen, drawing them closer even as they try to escape.

But my reasons for loving it are perhaps a bit more personal — and more irrational.

When I first read the original book — a memoir by Donald Miller — I was coming out of a long, dark, spiritual morass, and was finally dragged into the light by an Episcopal church in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. I had been somewhat familiar with the traditional Western liturgy before then, but seeing it lived out at The Church of the Messiah in a way that truly reflected the Gospel switched a light on in my head. I had read Blue Like Jazz on the flight from Nebraska to Boston, and it awakened something personal in me, something I had thought was long dead — a desire to live freely in the grace of God. I got ashes on my forehead for the first time that Lent, and I won’t forget the love of Christ I saw in the eyes of the parish priest as she gave them to me.

Six years later — but, due to my own spiritual wanderings, it seemed like a lifetime — I found myself finally seeing the light at the end of yet another long, dark tunnel, thanks again to the traditional liturgy of the Western church, this time embodied in a Lutheran congregation I had recently discovered in my present home of Tulsa, Oklahoma. (What can I say, except that the paper-thin liturgical practices of my native Presbyterian tradition offer little respite to souls yearning for Living Water?) And the key means of grace in the new film — despite the fact that it had never appeared in the book — was a beautiful Episcopal church.

Like I said, this film was made just for me.

With that in mind, it’s no wonder no one else appreciated it. On the one end of the spectrum, you have David Fear of Time Out New York claiming that it “still leaves behind a sulfuric stink,” evidently because it has the audacity to mention Jesus is not-entirely-negative tones;  somewhere in the middle, John Hurst of Christianity Today gives it a “meh” review because it doesn’t reference the cross explicitly enough; and of course, Dr. Ted “I Still Think Christianity and Reagnomics are the Same Thing” Baehr of Movieguide claims it’s morally reprehensible because it doesn’t go out of its way to defend the Crusades and American foreign policy. But none of these people get it.

I get it, because I watch movies with my eyes open. I get it, because I wasted four years of my life sitting through hours of lectures on film theory and viewing Rashomon and Metropolis and The Third Man. I can’t appreciate giant CGI robots anymore, but I know how to recognize meaningful visual symbolism done on a shoestring budget when I see it. God is present in Blue Like Jazz the same way he nearly always is in real life: as the still, small whisper of 1 Kings 19. The hand of God is shown in bits of color, camera movement, and mise-en-scène. An empty manger. A waterlogged cell phone. The steady hand of a priest, reaching into an overturned porta-john. God doesn’t shout because God doesn’t need to shout; nor does he need Donald Miller or Steve Taylor (or, for that matter, Kirk Cameron) to shout for him. His sheep know his voice.

And if you watch Blue Like Jazz with open ears, and open eyes, you’ll hear it.

7 thoughts on “Blue Like Jazz: Too Subtle for Its Own Good

  1. I appreciate what you had to say. Thank you for reminding me what a film like that means for people like us that…..get those sorts of things. Also reminds me why I can’t wait until I can see it :).

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