Monday, February 20, 2012

That One Holiday Card That Arrives The Better Part of a Week Too Late and Is Addressed to the Wrong Person.

Look well, for this is the face of
the threat to the sanctity of marriage in this country
(...allegedly. I just see an angry ex-child star.)

On a slightly more informal schedule, we return to the Third Row, once again just a little behind a holiday, though hopefully not without a warped sense of how to celebrate it.

After how (relatively) well the Halloween entries went last year (read: they actually got done) I contemplated trying to do reviews for other festive occasions. While Christmas didn't happen this time (though several great targets are lined up for the future) that marked Valentine's Day as the next most likely to try and find something to review., with an event like this one, known by many for its crass commercialization, its overemphasis on the importance of relationships, and the fact it tends to just be a really shit day of the year when you're single, the very nature of this Hallmark holiday lent itself to a lot of REALLY horrible ways I could take this. Bad stalker films. Downright disturbed relationships. Or just go straight for the 'insane exes' style of film making. what some would consider a twist of perverse holiday kismet, and others just some really bizarre timing, the answer came to me actually from an unexpected source...and appropriately enough, while with my girlfriend.

To try and bring this preamble to a close in a nutshell...the both of us are, to differing degrees, cinematic masochists. While we enjoy as great classic from time to time, there's just something to be said for the cinematic equivalent of a flaming train wreck sometimes to really take the edge off a day. It was with this mindset we found a winner.

Without further ado, I submit to you probably one of the most uncomfortable romantic movies I have ever watched - Kirk Cameron's 'Fireproof.'

Now, in starting this I will admit, as far as romance goes, my taste in film isn't exactly the most synced up. If asked to pick my favorite, I can't help but feel I'd opt for Woody Allen's 'Annie Hall' (yeah, the movie is about the couple post-breakup, but in the flashbacks, you really can see what these two see in each other. Plus, even the breakup phase is pretty damn accessible.) So I'll admit, I went into this expecting some schmaltz and with lowered expectations.

...what I got was a film that, the more I think about it, the more I find it to be rather disheartening.

The story itself is part of where the initial problem lies. Cameron plays the main character, Caleb, a firefighter whose marriage is on the rocks... put it lightly. Right out of the gate, these two are at each other's throats. I mean there is some serious venom in this (...or at least as much venom as you're going to get in a film with Cameron as your mainliner. In this case, the most withering putdown he can think to apply to his wife is by calling her a woman. Which feels rather anticlimactic since the buildup to the line leads you to believe he's about to drop a bomb he'll REALLY regret as a sign their marriage needs some SERIOUS help.)

Even the causes of their arguments come across as, honestly, pretty petty. OK, I could understand being upset that, presumably, your husband's looking at cyberporn (the movie tries to address this in a rather tame fashion that mostly just makes it look like Cameron will be enticed by ANYTHING) but the rest of the argument just smacks of two people looking for reasons to rip into each other.

So, right out of the gate, we have quite possibly one of the most loveless couples I've seen in film in a LONG time.

In their own separate social spheres, the two get advice from their own relative circle of friends and family. I'm under the impression that creators of this film don't seem to get out of their own social bubble that much, as many of them don't sound or feel that much like real people, so much as what the writers believe these people sound like. Unfortunately, they sound like archetypes, at best, stereotypes at worst. Most of it's pretty benign at least...though I can't help but feel there's something unintentionally offensive about how the wife's black friends are depicted. Anyway, HERE is where the movie starts getting uncomfortable for me.

With the exception of a couple of the friends who suggest divorce (I DO commend this movie that, despite its obvious ideological overtones, it refrained from vilifying divorce) their friends are all pulling for them. Now, you may be wondering why I would be opposed to that. It's simple - their sole reason comes down to 'God wouldn't like it.' Next to nothing is said for whether or not they were a good couple before, it's either citing the Bible or "relationships take work."

Eventually, at the behest of Caleb's father, a devout Christian, he takes up a 40 day program to 'fireproof' his marriage (it's worth noting the DVD also includes a version of this program for people to use in their own homes...kind of gives you the sense the program was made first with the movie crafted around it...a feeling the film itself just adds THAT much more ground to.) Caleb is understandably dubious, but agrees to give it a shot. You can guess where this is going from the end, Caleb overcomes his demons, restores his marriage, and finds God.

Happy ending, right?

Maybe if we actually cared. Which is probably the biggest problem of the film.
Do I agree that relationships take work? Yes.
The problem here is, the work still needs to have some sort of a foundation to build on. Over the course of the movie, we never really get a sense of what brings this couple together. Much less why they've stayed together (they can't even fall back on the old 'they have a kid and they don't want to put him/her through that' logic.) Not to mention their own interactions feel, altogether, platonic, even when their marriage is supposedly getting saved.

In another set of hands, I can't help but feel this could have been an interesting, if somewhat depressing drama - two people who let themselves get into a marriage born more out of religious convictions than genuine affection and then find, though they don't actually love each other, their beliefs keep either from simply walking away.

...granted, even in its current form, the film still feels that way, albeit likely not by design. Just, at the end, the couple seem to have fooled themselves into believing they've fixed their relationship (this is largely a result of Caleb being less of a jerk and doing an exceedingly selfless act for his wife, Catherine's, mother.)

Does this make him a nice guy? Certainly. The problem is, we still don't get a sense of what these two see in each other. I mean, by the end of the film I could at least see them staying friends after the divorce, but there's not really any sense that their marriage is worth much of anything based on what we see in the film.

It's safe to say this wasn't by least I hope it wasn't. The script is already a strike, emphasizing why marriage in general is worth saving but not why we should care to see THIS marriage saved. It makes the film maker's intentions a bit too apparent for this as a, loathe as I am to normally use this line since I feel it's abused too often, propaganda piece for the sanctity of marriage.

I'm not just jumping the gun or being anti-Christian here, either. Honestly, like almost anything in this world, I feel Christianity used responsibly can be a good thing...keywords being 'used responsibly.' The behind the scenes features (yes, after riding out this movie, we decided to stick out the extras for car crash value) include one of the major backers of the film talking about how marriage is threatened in this country. The propaganda element is definitely deliberate, if not by conscious intent.
Incidentally, I would like to take a moment to thank them for just focusing on the divorce part of the problem. I don't even want to think what would happen if this film decided to take a swing at the gay marriage protests as well.

We learn next to nothing of this couple personality-wise, well, to be specific, there's nothing for them as far as their interaction. We see plenty of them at their respective workplaces and how they interact with their friends/coworkers. The problem is, except for the flaws they're supposed to overcome by the end of the film, there's strangely nothing to them when interacting with one another.
...outside of perhaps Caleb's tendency to resort to violence in his backyard. There's a whole running joke of sorts where his solution to hostilities is to take inanimate objects out to the yard and beat them, only to realize the neighbors are watching...on second thought, maybe THIS is why they don't have a child. Curiously, this is a trait he never actually gets over. In fact, he uses it at one point as a means of dealing with one of his other flaws:
Tempted by cyberporn? Take your computer out back and annihilate it with a baseball bat. I can't help but think two things here:
1) Somehow, calling this an extreme response seems to be underselling it. In terms of 'I can't control my problem' this is like a guy with wandering eye deciding, rather than simply learn restraint, he's going to burn down a local strip club. This isn't so much an act of strength as a man deciding he has no control over himself.
2) To this end, I sure hope they weren't paying their bills by e-banking, or Caleb's inability to keep both hands on the keyboard )may have just done more harm than good.

Which leads to the other fault of this movie - the acting. Now, I know with the general low budget and the general 'propaganda' nature of the movie, I shouldn't necessarily expect high art per se. But even then, the weak acting really undermines the message here. The one strong performance in the film comes from one of Caleb's coworkers played by Ken Bevel, and that's despite his character being used as a mouthpiece for the writers in many of the scenes. Maybe the fact the guy's passionate enough about it in real life helps. All I know is, he gets results for his scenes, so good on him in this.
The rest run from the forgettable, to the laughably bad. Much to his own chagrin, Mr. Cameron tends to fall into the latter category. Especially during scenes of anger.

Even while writing this, the more I look, the more I feel like the very core idea of the film could, with a better cast and writer/director, have been worth something. Hell, with a capable enough writer, they could have even managed to work the Christianity elements in without them carrying the feel of a Chick Tract (minus the hatred for all things non-Protestant, anyway.) Unfortunately, the building blocks that make up the film are all so underwhelming and focused more on what they're saying rather than how it's delivered (and like it or not, how you say it DOES count in a film, doubly so in a film with a message,) resulting in a film that's at best uninspired, and at worst preachy. In the end, we're supposed to feel happy for Caleb and Catherine, but the film's given us no reason to.

Once this went off, I just felt this bizarre sense of discomfort at the fact this program demonstrates its effectiveness to us through convincing two people to stop fighting and simply coexist. Not love each other, just coexist. Even the choice in end song seems to emphasize that unintentional sense of "Feelings are irrelevant here, God wants you to together for life" with lines like 'when you go to step outside, there's an angel stopping you' (paraphrased, mind you.)

I don't know about you, but that sounds less spiritual and more kind of threatening. Like I just picture a strong arm with wings barring the guy's exit, even on errands.

Wow...that was a bit more of a rambler than I expected it would be. Maybe I'm just not cut out for fundamentalist cinema (...won't stop me from trying again in the future.)

So yeah...while I did resist the temptation to try and find something truly tasteless for Valentine's this year (imagine if I'd opted to make good on that promise of revisiting I Spit on Your Grave here?) I, oddly enough, walked away from this more disturbed by what I saw than I had honestly intended. I mean, I expected something that was inadvertently hilarious in its attempts at being serious. While parts of that delivered, I also couldn't help but be let down by the message they delivered with a straight face (albeit I'm sure they may have meant it to be a bit nicer than their execution makes it come across.)

Isn't propaganda supposed to be all about appealing to the emotions, guys?

Anyway, that wraps up for this entry. and speaking of emotions, next week I visit, and attempt to make peace with, an old grudge of film and nerding that, due to recent circumstances, many others have also found themselves re-examining.

Will my conclusions be any different? We'll see when it gets done.

Till then. May you and any loved ones not find you're together simply because the angels won't let you leave.

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