“Blue Like Jazz”
As a churchgoing Christian, it’s hard to know what to make of “Blue Like Jazz.” It’s an outside-the-box kind of movie that didn’t really have a “mainline” studio sponsoring it, so the writers/director had to scrounge the internet for funds, and wind up with literally thousands of “associate producers,” which they dutifully list during the credits. It literally took them several years to come up with enough money to start filming, and even then, it still has the appearance of low-budget. It’s non-standard Hollywood , also, in the kind of screenplay where it’s ¾ of the way through the movie and you still have no idea where it’s going.
A graduating high school senior, Marshall (Donald Miller, who looks more like 27 because he is), has decided to go to a local bible college in Texas because he’s been very active in a church near there, along with his single Mom. Despite an awkward snippet of a pandering worship service, Marshall seems really committed to his faith, even when his hippie Dad, whom he rarely sees, openly makes fun of religion, saying he ought to go to someplace far away, someplace that is much more open-minded about everything from religion to music, like Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where he happens to know someone in the Admissions Office, and here’s your acceptance letter son, congratulations. Oh, and here’s my Coltrane collection. Listen and learn.
Maybe nothing might have changed, except that the sudden discovery that his Mom is having an affair with the married Youth Pastor at church just rocks Marshall ’s world. He can’t believe the betrayal, both by his Mom and his church, so he impulsively takes Dad’s advice and drives himself to that campus he’s never seen before to enroll for the Fall term, and it’s an eye-opener.
Because he’s from Texas , they assume he’s a hick, and if they find out anyone takes Christianity seriously, they relentlessly satirize the sincerity. It’s not exactly free love, unprotected sex, pot-smoking, and guitar-playing, but there is beer, and people are determined to dress as individualists (though that kind of non-style is itself a style), and professors enjoy challenging naïve students’ prized assumptions. Of course, all this is part of what going off to college is supposed to do. Marshall finds it easy to not do anything about church, because nobody else is, either (also a very typical pattern). He does some crazy stunts and pulls a couple of sophomoric pranks (even though he’s only a freshman). His best friend is a lesbian and the girl he would really like to date, Penny (Claire Holt) seems to only want to be his friend. But he still wants to impress her, and when she finds out he’s not speaking to his Mom (who’s now pregnant with the Youth Pastor’s baby), she chastises him, which he takes to heart. She’s also the kind of person who goes on a mission trip to Kashmir during Christmas break, and, quietly, goes to a traditional church---a place that’s not smarmy, smug, or condescending toward culture, but actually seems to have a likeable, down-to-earth minister who has precocious children. Imagine that.
When Marshall attends one of those “Does God Exist?” debates at a local bookstore (sometimes this thing feels like a 1970’s time capsule), he discovers he’s more in tune with the man who affirms an unknowable God rather than the one who denies even the possibility. And when he participates in a besotted campus tradition and becomes a farcical “Pope” and hears people’s “confessions” as a joke, he realizes that the importance of forgiveness is not a laughing matter. It’s an important life choice. And so is faith.
Well, sure, it could have been done better. But at least “Blue Like Jazz” treats the subject of religious quest and questioning with some sensitivity and earnestness, even if they’re trying too hard to be “hip and cool” while doing so.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Interim Pastor, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving , Texas