HOW CHRISTIAN CINEMA DEALS WITH THE APOCALYPSE
As we mentioned a couple of weeks ago, the Apocalypse is coming in a mere five days according to the Biblical calculations of Evangelical math guy Harold Camping and his Family Radio Worldwide media group. With the clock ticking, there’s no better time than the present for us to take a little look at the countless films and television programs generated to feed the evangelical and born again appetite for all things rapture. To help you make sense of the tribulations to come next Saturday, we met up with Christian VHS enthusiasts Harry Merritt and Reid Bingham of Cinebeasts to get the lowdown on the apocalypse as foretold by the Evangelical film and television industry.
VICE: There's a huge audience of people out there for evangelical films and TV. With no advertising or broadcasting through mainstream media outlets, evangelical media still grosses millions every year. Was this segment of the entertainment industry created to sell Hollywood to people who claim to reject "Hollywood values"?
Harry: Yes and no. Basically, there’s a whole magical world of evangelical Christian programming that exists now, but until the 1990s that group was an untapped market. The parents did not let their children participate in pop culture at all. They weren’t buying CDs, they weren’t buying tapes, they weren’t watching TV. Then someone realized that they could appeal to this market. If you go on extended cable today, it’s kind of ridiculous. There are two MTV clones, one called JCTV and the other called iLifeTV, and they alternate between music videos and extreme sports with a Christian twist. So somebody will be surfing and later, back on the shore, they’ll say that they did it for the Lord and cite some Psalm. It’s got a very interesting appeal. There’s also a Christian children’s channel called Smile The Child, which I find to be incredible and brilliant. And then there’s Bibleman, this sort of Batman who fights for the Lord—that show is designed to appeal to young boys. There are Christian film studios that tap into all kinds of different genres, including these adult action movies that tend to focus on the apocalypse and rapture, which is coming in but a few weeks.
Reid: I’m very excited about it.
Harry: People really did a lot of work before arriving at their May 21st prediction. It makes sense if you can embrace a logic where the world only dates back to 5600 B.C.
Reid: This guy, Harold Camping, is 89 years old. He has predicted the apocalypse twice before and was wrong. He’s going to die really soon, and this is his last chance to get it right.
Harry: Another important detail to remember is that after May 21st we will have to deal with three whole months of tribulations, which is a popular backdrop for many Christian action movies. After the rapture, all the really good Christians will be gone, so the people who are left behind have to figure it out and deal with the bad guys. In the movies, they wind up killing each other in a huge bloodbath. This theme has been beaten to death by one studio, Cloud Ten Entertainment, producers of the Left Behind series starring Kirk Cameron. The Left Behind films are among the best known, but there are many other films that work the same themes starring other washed-up Hollywood actors.
The one I’m most familiar with is Judgment, starring Mr. T, which I came across solely because it’s got Mr. T.
Harry: Yep, Judgment is a classic example. It’s from the director of Tribulation, starring Gary Busey, Howie Mandel, Nick Mancuso, and Margot Kidder. If you ever wondered what happened to Lois Lane after the Superman movies, there she is.
Harry: Stephen and Daniel Baldwin also pop up a lot. Another interesting factoid is that Bibleman is played by Willie Aimes, who was the youngest kid on Charles In Charge. There’s an episode of Bibleman where Willie makes an explicit reference to Charles In Charge, which is a small service to the fans who followed him all the way to Bibleman. The character of Bibleman is all about good morals and lightsaber battles—there’s a lightsaber duel in every episode. It should also be pointed out that Bibleman’s villains are almost always effeminate Jews.
Reid: One is called The Wacky Protester, and his weapon is an acronym which spells “A.R.T.” which means that Bibleman has to destroy “art” in order to save the youth from being disillusioned by The Wacky Protester. It’s not subtle.
Harry: Not only are the villains wacky, effeminate, and Jewish, but they are always focused on corrupting just one child from the local church’s youth group. They’ll say something like “I will take this child and make him prideful!” And for that, Bibleman will kill him.
But making a kid act prideful is super easy.
Reid: Not good Christian children.
Harry: Pride is actually one of the deadly sins.
Reid: What you should know about Bibleman is that he’s an amalgamation of everything a Christian kid can’t get because his parents won’t let him watch TV. He is Batman, Superman, Star Wars, and every other forbidden superhero put together in one perfect package designed to brainwash kids into being good Christians.
Harry: Also, Bibleman is not like a traditional superhero in that he doesn’t live in an approximation of New York City. What works for Batman and Spiderman does not work for Bibleman. He lives in a small, middling city that looks like the mid-Carolinas or Western Ohio or something. It’s this really down-home place, and all the action takes place at the local high school or the local church. It’s a very kid-centric world where the community's main project will be getting ready for a church talent show or something. It’s an attempt to take the pop culture stuff kids want and to transfer it to a safer, more identifiably Christian environment.
It’s like there’s an active back alley between Real Hollywood and Christian Hollywood where ideas and talent are constantly passing back and forth.
Harry: There’s also a resentment of Hollywood for failing to embrace or acknowledge right-wing Christian culture. So they’ll hit these touchstones in the villains, like The Wacky Protester, for example. There are all these archetypes and straw men pitted against regular folks from the South and the Midwestern Christian world. In Left Behind there’s an angsty teen daughter who stopped believing, and therefore can't be raptured with her mother, so she must learn to deal with that. The point of her character is to scold teenagers. One reason Left Behind exists is so parents can show it to children and say “and that’s why you’re going to church this week!”
For a brief window of time, let’s say between the success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion Of The Christ and the financial disappointment of the Narnia sequels, it seemed like Hollywood was trying to apply the blockbuster formula to Christian cinema. The idea was to produce big, expensive films with Christian themes and get the churches to commit their people to attending on opening weekend. Those movies seemed like a sure thing, what happened?
Harry: Right, but a Narnia film still costs one hundred million dollars to produce, and may not make its money back, whereas something like Left Behind is comparatively inexpensive and generates a huge amount of money no matter what, because the producers don't need to court an audience outside their built-in market. It’s guaranteed that the church youth groups will take people to see these films. The same formula applies to a lot of right-wing political books and films. They will always be vaguely successful and reach the threshold of profitability. Setting out to make a big-budget film with global appeal is a lot riskier.
Let’s get back to talking about Hollywood actors who slum in Christian cinema when their stock is down. I want to discuss Gary Busey in particular, because he's universally identified as a debauched clown, and yet he’s a fixture in the world of Christian action movies.
Reid: That’s where a company like Cloud Ten Entertainment comes in. Could Ten Entertainment is the net into which washed up Hollywood actors fall and become trapped.
Harry: That said, there’s a huge difference between someone like Kirk Cameron, who is doing this in earnest as a vocation for his faith, and someone like Gary Busey, who is just earning a paycheck by doing whatever. Several years after appearing in Tribulation, he appeared in Valley Of The Wolves: Iraq which is a Turkish action movie about this gang of evil American soldiers who are terrorizing part of Northern Iraq. Gary Busey plays a sadistic doctor who harvests Arab children’s organs and sells them to Israel. I can’t think of anyone else in the world who would agree to play that role, but Gary Busey took it because he will do absolutely anything.
Reid: I think only Gary Busey has the power to go from Christian films to something like that. Billy Zane was also in Valley Of The Wolves: Iraq and it basically ended his career. Gary Busey is just very special.
Harry: Anyway, my point is that there’s a circuit that exists for Hollywood actors looking for work, and Christian media is one of the places they can turn to and make a buck. It’s a form of failed actor welfare, really. Reality TV is playing that role for a lot of actors right now, but when it falls out of vogue they’ll be back.
Only if they're still here next Saturday.
Harry: We’ll see.
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