Sep 16, 2014

The Gospel of bad imitations

If you don't like evangelical art, you call it imitative.

Bad evangelical art is designed like the gospel tract that looks like $100 but isn't. On closer inspection, what looks like money is really the message, "DON'T BE A FOOL. You know You are going straight to Hell ..." The imitation is good enough to catch the eye, but also pretty obviously counterfeit.

This is the model: A bad imitation of one thing, it turns out to be something else.

"There is Christian grunge, Christian rap, Christian country," music critic Jon Pareles wrote in the New York Times in 1997, in a classic example of this critique. "Much of it is unabashedly imitative, attempting to counterfeit the sounds and images of a chosen genre while the words proselytize. A child who liked Nirvana, parents are advised by newsletters or store clerks, may also accept DC Talk or Jars of Clay."

The people who hate popular evangelical art -- especially those who once were given a Jars of Clay album when they wanted to hear Nirvana -- hate this art because it's like that. It's not the real thing. It's all fakes and bad substitutions.

The critics are, as philosopher Umberto Eco once wrote of America, people who want the real thing.

Imitation is at the heart of one recent evangelical film. This is not just to say that this film can be critiqued in the way that so much of evangelical art is critiqued, but that, more, this film has wholly embraced as its theme exactly the point that's so often criticized. Where most faith-and-family films attempt to distance themselves from that accusation of imitation, it's the core of "The Identical," which premiered in nearly 2,000 US theaters the first weekend of September.

In a curious way, "The Identical," which has been rejected by audiences and laughed at by critics, reveals how bad evangelical art uses this idea of bad imitation to communicate a gospel message.

The story of "The Identical" is about identical twins born during the Great Depression. They are separated at birth. One grows up to be an early rock 'n' roll star. The other is raised by an evangelical preacher who is opposed to such worldly things. The second brother wants to be a rock 'n' roll star too. The second brother, the protagonist of the film, doesn't know his now-famous brother is his brother, but he's inspired by him to follow his dream: He becomes an impersonator.

The second brother is shown to be an excellent impersonator of his rock star brother. He's almost identical, because actually they are identical twins.

There's another level of imitation going on in the film as well. The pop-star brother sounds and look like Elvis Presley and there are many unmistakable references to Presley's career. Iconic images -- Elvis in the army, Elvis doing Elvis moves, Elvis on a surfboard, Elvis in rhinestones -- are faithfully counterfeited. Since Presley had, in the real world, a twin who was stillborn, the film can be seen as an alternative history.

The film is not paying the Presley estate for rights to the image and likeness of "the King," however, so the fake history is fake in important and obvious ways.

There's another level of imitation going on too. The actor who plays both brothers was not a full-time actor before "The Identical." He was a professional impersonator. Ryan Pelton has made his living performing as Elvis ever since he won the Elvis Extravaganza Impersonator Contest in Columbus, Ohio in the late 1990s. An ad from 2011 notes that tickets for his Elvis show go for $70, and he "has performed all over the world, from casinos to fairs, theaters to festivals, production shows to professional sports arenas."

Pelton had two small film roles before "The Identical." In 2007, he played Elvis in the Dakota Fanning vehicle, "Hounddog." In 2012, he played a preacher in a short film about a heroin addict converting to Christ.

In this movie, the impersonator is playing an impersonator.

Pelton is not credited in the film, though. To add to the doubling of "The Identical," Pelton has taken a stage name, Blake Rayne. In interviews, he has said that he wanted to distance himself from his career as a tribute artist, and needed a distinct name for his acting career. He chose "Blake Rayne" because it sounded like "Bruce Wayne," and Pelton is a fan of Batman in addition to Elvis. His stage name is an imitation of Batman's real name.

This means that in "The Identical" one can see Ryan Pelton under the stage name Blake Rayne play the character Ryan Wade, a would-be rock star, impersonating Dexel Hemsley, the fictionalized Elvis Prelsely, who Pelton also makes a living impersonating in "real" life.

It's unabashedly imitative, one might say.

On his Facebook page, Pelton uses his new name, his stage name. The fakeness is doubled up with the URL: "I think that's funny," he said in a show, recently, dressed in a hawaiian shirt and an Elvis pompadour, standing in front a banner with his stage name on it. "I think that's funny."

Some of the critics have had the same response to Pelton's film.

"With this one," wrote the critic for the Guardian, "we've got that rare thing we always hope for but seldom get -- a movie so bad that you'll want to watch it with all your friends."

Reviews of "The Identical" have been more of less divided between those saying it's bad and those saying it's so bad that it's amazing.

Critic Vince Mancini's writes "I've never seen a film that manages to be both so bland and so bizarre. I call it the ultimate "How did this get made?" movie because it really does inspire you to want to find out."

Bilge Ebiri calls the film a "hot, holy mess," writing that "this is a deceptively strange movie: a faith-inflected mock-rock biopic about an Elvis-like phenomenon and his long-lost twin that turns into something of a religious allegory. It's stocked with clichés, but they're arranged in such weird ways that the end result is both predictable and certifiable."

Alonso Duralde calls the film a "whackadoo spiritual soap opera­-cum-fake biopic" that comes highly recommended. "Connoisseurs of the most wonderfully terrible cinema need to run out and catch this one early and often," Duralde writes. "Flying-Elvis jumpsuit optional."

Evangelical film critics seem to enjoy the failure less, but they still say the film is very, very bad. Sympathy with the message can't overcome the many aesthetic problems.

Christianity Today gave the film one star. The reviewer, Mark Moring, writes that the weirdness of the film is perhaps best captured in the scene where the down-on-his luck impersonator character is given a pep talk by a dwarf in a bar. The dwarf, played by Danny Woodburn, says "You're lookin' for somethin', aren't you?"

Moring writes:
It's lame dialogue, yes. But you won't really care. Because you'll be dwelling on the fact that there was a specific filmmaking choice to have a dwarf, shorter than the barstool, suddenly appear out of thin air, just to give a pep talk to our hero at the film's climactic moment. It's so strange and surreal and startling, it's as if Rhett Butler had said, 'Frankly, my dear, pull my finger.' Or if Darth Vader had told Luke, 'I am your father’s chiropractor.' It's just head-shakingly odd.

Speaking of Vader, if you really want to see a great movie about twins separated at birth, re-watch 'Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.'
At World Magazine, Megan Basham writes that critiquing the film feels like kicking a puppy. She writes:
The PG movie is inoffensive in its intentions to be a lighthearted frolic that honors faith and family while celebrating the beginnings of good ol’ American rock 'n' roll -- so I feel like an Elvis-hating Scrooge for saying it fails on nearly every count. 
. . . 'The Identical' doesn’t seem interested in even the most obvious questions its premise poses, instead expecting a visual trip down memory lane to Graceland to suffice for a real story. Audiences aren’t likely to be won over by the poorly executed impersonation.
The film has a 5 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

According to Box Office Mojo, audiences didn't flock to the film either. "The Identical" earned about $800 per theater its opening weekend. This is the 23rd worst opening weekend for a wide-release movie since 1982.

The film cost $16 million to produce and a little more than $16 million to advertise in a campaign targeted heavily at conservative Christians, the so-called "faith-and-family" audience. The film was promoted at NASCAR racing events and in ads shown during Major League Baseball games. It was promoted by the fast-food chain Zaxby's, by Religious Right commentators Mike Huckabee and Glenn Beck, and by more than 5,000 churches.

On its second weekend in theaters, ticket sales dropped by almost 75 percent. "The Indentical" made $1 million less its second weekend than it did it's first -- it seems unlikely that the film's financiers will even break even, at this point.

More than one reviewer wrote that the message of the movie was hopelessly muddled. Though it clearly had something to do with faith and God, it was hard to hear anything that sounded like Christianity's good news in the mess of a movie.

Those critics, however, were attending to the content of the film, rather than looking at how viewers were moved.

Viewers were moved, even if it was to a place they were uncomfortable with.

The critics' reflections on their own reactions to the film shows that viewers were moved by the compounded imitations -- the portrayal of an impersonator impersonating an impersonator impersonating a counterfeit -- to want something real. Whether they wanted a real work of cinematic art or a great, cult-cinema experience of laughing at a so-bad-it's-good film with their friends, they wanted something real.

Umberto Eco writes that this desire for authenticity characterizes the period called postmodernity. In America, especially, he says, there is this longing for the real thing. The problem of postmodernity, though, is that the desire for the "real" is fulfilled by the "hyperreal."

"The American imagination demands the real thing," Eco writes, "and, to attain it, must fabricate the absolute fake."

That is to say,
To speak of real things that one wants to connote as real, these things must seem real. The 'completely real' becomes identified with the 'completely fake.' Absolute unreality is offered as real presence ... a 'sign' that will then be forgotten as such: the sign aims to be the thing, to abolish the distinction of the reference, the mechanism of replacement.
Eco, traveling through America, finds many examples of this hyperreality, from Lyndon Johnson's presidential library, where the Oval Office has been recreated, to the Coca-Cola slogan "the real thing." He looks at Disneyland and Disney World. He might have added some things to that list: Elvis impersonators, actors with stage names, and even an actor with a stage name hiding his true identity as an impersonator, playing an impersonator of a fake Elvis!

The postmodernist idea of "hyperreality" can be difficult to understand, but the idea is helpful in thinking about how "bad" imitative evangelical art might be something more than a simple mistake.

For Eco, it's like this: In postmodernity, the consumer is caught in the cycle of unmet desire. The desire for something real is stoked until only a heighten reality will seem to satisfy. Then, because the hyperreal isn't really real, but instead is unreality offered, like a sacrament of late capitalism, "as real presence," it doesn't satisfy. The desire isn't sated. It only grows more ravenous, with an ever greater appetite for something really real -- the hyperreal, which is the absolute fake.

This is the "characteristic hysteria of our time," as postmodern theorist Jean Baudrillard has it, "the hysteria of the production and reproduction of the real."

Because it's hysterical, the hyper is becoming ever more hyper and will eventually break. With that break, Baudrillard thinks everything will break free. He hails this as a good thing, a new era to be celebrated. People will realize they no longer need the "real," if they ever did, and then there will be a sort of utopia where there's no reality at all.

For Baudrillard, this is the necessary end of modernity and all Western faith. Hyperreality becomes utopia.

Simple representation, where signs signify, ceases to be believable because of the duplication and re-duplication of imitations, where signs signify only other signs ad infinitum. "It is no longer anything but a gigantic simulacrum," he writes, "not unreal, but a simulacrum, exchanging for what is real, but exchanging in itself, in an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference."

Not all the theorists who get labeled postmodernist go in this direction, but Baudrillard thinks this is something that is happening in society, and something that will lead to liberation. Society is being liberated from its need for the real, which is liberation from God.

Baudrillard writes,
All of Western faith and good faith was engaged in this wager on representation: that a sign could refer to the depth of meaning, that a sign could exchange for meaning and that something could guarantee this exchange. God, of course. But what if God himself can be simulated, that is to say, reduced to the signs which attest his existence? Then the whole system becomes weightless; it is no longer anything but a gigantic simulacrum: not unreal, but a simulacrum, never again exchanging for what is real, but exchanging in itself, in an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference.
There are many reasons to think that Baudrillard is wrong, here. His historical account of the development of production is questionable. His understanding of how signs and signification works is questionable, and breaks sharply from the ideas of the semioticians he's supposedly making use of.  He's also using a version of Marxist dialectics that perverts some key ideas of Marxist dialectics and which most Marxists reject. Non-Marxists aren't likely to find it more tenable. His ideas about America, which are often the evidence for his ideas about hyperreality, are mostly naive and banal. Besides that, one of Baudrillard's English language editors writes that the theorist is "hyperbolic and declarative, often lacking in sustained, systematic analysis when it is appropriate."

The idea of liberation from the real made for an interesting premise for the movie, "The Martix," though there are reasons to question that too, but otherwise, Baudrillard's vision of a utopian simulacrum seem less than promising.

Another way to respond to this version of postmodernism, though, is to think that Baudrillard is right about what's happening, but that his vision is a nightmare.

This is how most American evangelicals responded.

The idea that society was gradually, progressively losing touch with "the real" resonates with a certain Christian social critique. Evangelicals have often linked a moral order and the idea of "Absolute Truth" with a modernist philosophy, where truth is understood as representational rather than relational (or relative). They've connected that to a specific idea of God and a specific theory of the Bible.

They've argued, too, as least since Francis Schaeffer, that this rejection of God and Western faith -- the "Judeo-Christian worldview" -- can be seen in changes in cultural production.

It's in cultural consumption that contemporary people come to accept counterfeits. God-given desire, which is amorphous in the human heart but ultimately a desire for God, is directed away from the real to the hyperreal. The hyperreal doesn't satisfy, though. Instead of teaching the consumer that the desire for a created object is truly the desire for a creator, and the Creator of creators is God, the hyperreal substitutes the sign for the signified. To quote Eco again, it is "Absolute unreality is offered as real presence ... a 'sign' that will then be forgotten as such: the sign aims to be the thing, to abolish the distinction of the reference, the mechanism of replacement."

Contemporary culture leaves people wanting more, but even more perversely, wanting the wrong things.

If one agrees and disagrees with Baudrillard's account of postmodernity in this way, how does one then proceed to make art?

How does one make art in such a way that it moves the consumer to hate simulacra?

What art, in this age of hyperreality and absolute fakes, could move people to want what is real? Maybe "bad" art.



"The Identical."

When the dwarf character in this movie says "You're lookin' for somethin', aren't you?", viewers knew what they were looking for was not here, in this mess of re-doubled imitations, but somewhere else entirely.

By failing, the film succeeded. It succeed in moving viewers to dissatisfaction with hyperreality and showing them, within themselves, this desire for something that's real. World Magazine's critic pointed out that audiences were't likely to be "won over" by "poorly executed impersonation." They might, in fact, be repelled by it. They might demand "the real thing." 

But isn't that the point of a movie made for the purposes of Christian proselytization? 

This is not to say that anyone involved in the making of "The Identical" was interested in making a flop. There's no reason to see intent here. The plan was not to produce a critical failure or a commercial failure or something that was aesthetically bad. Nevertheless, the film is didactic, and the end result can be explained as a result of its didactic aims. The movie can be seen as moving people to want what the film wants them to want, a clean break with the hyperreal and that cycle of unmet desires. Given an evangelical aesthetic theory of postmodernity and this problem of desire, this problem of the perversion of desire in the heart of the postmodern viewer, the "failure" of the film can be seen to make sense.

As the bad reviews show, people were moved by the movie that was made to declare themselves not fools. 

The model, in a sense, is that gospel tract that looks $100. That tract is not simply counterfeit. It's too simple to say the imitation is just bad. If someone simply thought the tract was $100 and it was taken to be legal tender, that wouldn't work. The evangelical purpose can only be accomplished if the counterfeit is recognized. In a way, its very fakeness has to be fake. For where the "real" fake is designed to deceive, this fake is designed to deceive about deceiving, to be found out and revealed and in that, reveal the hyperreality for what it is, a bad imitation of what one really wants.

By being a bad imitation, the imitation can refer to the "depth of meaning" that is abandoned in Baudrillard's postmodernity, bringing one back to the Western faith and the wager of representation that is, the viewer is moved to hope, guaranteed by God.

If you don't like evangelical art, you call it imitative. You want something real. But from one perspective, at least, that art that moves you like that can be understood as a postmodern strategy of communicating gospel.