Jun 2, 2014

Nicolas Cage is Left Behind's double-mind

The cliché is, "know your audience." And Jerry Jenkins knew audiences.

When he was first approached about writing a novel dramatizing the theology of the Rapture and Tribulation, Jenkins had a six-figure income as an evangelical writer. That didn't come from not knowing readers and what they wanted. He wrote with an eye to the market. He wasn't about to start a big project if everyone wasn't clear on its commercial prospects, and who the audience was that was going to buy this book. When he sat down with Tim LeHaye to discuss what would become their co-authored mammoth-best-selling series, Left Behind, this was his big question.

The two men met in a hotel near Chicago's O'Hare airport with their mutual book agent, Rick Christian. Jenkins recalled the moment in his 2006 writing-advice book, Writing For The Soul:
'If I were to attempt this,' I said, 'who would be my target audience? People who agree with us and would be encouraged by this, or the uninitiated we would be trying to persuade?' 
'Both,' he said, beaming. 
Charming, but not literarily sound. 'A double-minded book is unstable in all its ways,' I said, parodying a Bible verse that says the same about a double-minded person. I had always written to a single audience at a time. 
Jenkins ultimately wrote the book, despite his reservations. The book was successful on the evangelical market, earning a $50,000 advance and then selling all 35,000 copies of the first printing in Christian bookstores in 1995. Then, in 1999, the fifth installment of the series, Apollyon, broke-through to the secular market, and was stocked in 300 Wal-Mart stores across American. It was successful in that market too.

Today the series has sold 65 million copies. Its mass audience cannot really be easily homogenized, though many critics have imagined that most those 65 million book buyers were basically the same. As Amy Frykholm reported in Rapture Culture, even the readers one expects to read these novels read in more diverse and more creative ways than they are given credit for.

Left Behind has been a cultural phenomenon for nearly two decades, now. With a forthcoming re-boot of the film series starring Nicolas Cage, its cultural presence continues.

The problem that Jenkins pointed out at the very conception of the project has not gone away, though. It was never resolved. The double-mindedness persists.

The first teaser trailer for the forthcoming film was released on Saturday. The problem of the two audiences can be seen even here:

In large part this looks like an action film. The aesthetic is the aesthetic of a popcorn movie made for fun Summer screenings. The images are consistent with the conventions and iconography of a blockbuster: People run from explosions; planes careen out of control; glass shatters, crowds shove, there's a gun, and realizations of the seriousness of the situation are inexplicably whispered, a modern spectacle's short but serious/sonorous soliloquy.

This isn't inconsistent with the source material. As Amy Hungerford writes in Postmodern Belief, "the medium for Left Behind is the television or the action-adventure movie."

All of the imagery of the trailer doesn't fit into this category, though. There are also soft scenes of a well-lit church named New Hope. There's a shot of an evangelical altar, with a cross and three small icons, one of which is a single word, the imperative "PRAY." The concerned voice that opens the trailer is shown to be that of a woman in front of a fern, wearing a Jesus-fish necklace.

She earnestly entreats the audience: "Just hear me out. I have been praying for you to come home and I believe that that is why God brought you here. I just want you to be ready."

On screen at the same time, there are words to similar effect:
These scenes and these messages don't fit into the conventions of the action film. They are, instead, conventions of evangelical conversion narratives. The direct address to the audience, in particular, is a key element of proselytizing speech. The iconography is that of Christian inspiration.

The trailer shows a story that's double-minded in exactly the way that Jenkins worried it would be 20 years ago when the idea for the story was first discussed. It speaks with two voices. It's telling two different kinds of stories. It is aimed at two different audiences.

"Charming," Jenkins writes, "but not literarily sound . . . Most experts agree that you should write to a single audience." In his writing-advice book, Jenkins acknowledge his most well-known success did have this internal contradiction as it was a narrative directed in two different directions at once. Nevertheless, his first writing tip was to be more focused.

"Know where your audience is coming from," Jenkins writes, "imagine someone you know or know of who fits in that audience, and pretend you're writing to that person alone."

Jenkins -- who has always preferred the pragmatic to the artistic -- found a practical, technical solution to the problem of the divided narrative. The solution was the characters: Left Behind would be built around characters that could be action heroes and who then, through the narrative arc where they were persuaded to the truth of the Bible's relevance to contemporary life, would embody the evangelical manliness of circuit riders and revivalists.

Left Behind imagines the super-masculine characters of the action genre converted to characters of evangelical inspiration. A great journalist who is always skeptical of the official story won't stop until he gets the truth ... and becomes a dogged, tireless apologist for the faith. A still-sharp old pilot is grim and determined to save his family ... and becomes the nurturing patriarch instructing his children to trust Jesus. The characters combine the two stories, the two minds.

They begin like Harrison Ford characters from the 1990s, and end up the cinematic equivalent of Billy Graham.

In retrospect, this was a key error in casting Kirk Cameron as the lead in the first film version of this story. Cameron was a child star, just 30 when the film was released. He seemed small and shrill. Worse than that, he was credible not because of his acting, but because of his personal conversion and status as an evangelical celebrity. He wasn't sufficiently double-minded or internally contradicted to speak to two audiences.

He solved the problem, in a way, but that deviation from the source material destroyed the tension of the text, the intriguing way in which it always seems to be against itself.

Nicolas Cage is a very different choice. It has not been without controversy. Part of that controversy has been because Cage -- along with other aspects of this production -- appears so double-minded. Is it a joke? A send-up? A sell-out?

The actor is unsurpassed at embodying contradictions.

Jenkins personally defended the choice of a lead, even though he's not involved in the making of the movie. "Why did they think they needed Nicholas Cage?" he asked on Twitter. "Oh, yeah. The acting thing." On his Facebook page, Jenkins said Cage was selected for his talent, "in the same way you might choose a surgeon or a mechanic."

That talent and that acting are not generic, though. Cage has a specific talent that is often understood as being unstable, which is to say, of two minds.

Which may be why he's the perfect face of the reboot of the cultural phenomenon that has persisted despite (or maybe because) of this unresolved tension.

Know your audience, says the cliché. This movie looks like it will try to push past just knowledge, to actually act out and embody the contradiction that, even after almost 20 years, its audiences are.

The movie is scheduled to be released on October 3.

See also:
The economics of Left Behind, the movie, then and now
Anticipating the tone of the new Left Behind
Metafiction moments in Left Behind
Who reads Christian fiction?