Tuesday, April 20, 2010

'Amish Grace': All the Amish You Need, None of the Explicit Amish Pornography You Crave

MARGE SIMPSON: Is it true that we should wait at least an hour after eating before we go in?
POOL SALESMAN: Look, Question Lady, this job is not what I really do. I play keyboards.
The Simpsons, "Bart of Darkness"
About a month ago, with my computer in the shop being fixed, I wrote a hasty recommendation that readers check out the Lifetime Original Movie Amish Grace. I did this for a few reasons. One, a "hey, watch this" recommendation was much easier to type on an iPhone than a 3,000-word response to bad journalism. Two, I'd already written most of it elsewhere and could copy-and-paste the core joke. Three, something about the movie felt compelling.

Ever since I turned old enough to care about things without having to apologize anymore, I also noticed a concomitant decrease in my interest in subjecting myself to art that I knew ahead of time would be terrible. I have gray hair; my remaining days decrease each midnight; yes, I will watch Gymkata, but no I will not watch Mama's Family with you.

Still there was something about this movie that made me spend minutes trying to find the channel it was on and then press RECORD on the TiVo. While it didn't look like it would be good, it didn't look like it would be a disaster either. If anything, it seemed reliably mediocre. The whole thing came with a glaze of tremendously earnest yet engaging schlockiness. With some terrible movies, you can blame a lack of budget, casting demands, cynical cash-in motivations or leaden ideological framing for why they're bad. It's happenstance, or greed or tendentiousness. This movie, on the other hand, appeared instantly to be the kind of project that tripped over its own sincerity, one that invested each scene with so much genuineness that it would make every incidental shortcoming seem watchably weird.

What Is "Amish Grace"? Is It Something Kids Should Know About?
First things first: Amish Grace is not a good movie, but neither is it so off that it demands viewing. The ideal reasons to watch this movie are that your computer is broken, and you are hungover and can't sleep, and you feel like seeing if you can make fun of it, and its pacing is so slow that even your glacial handwriting can keep up with it. After that, I'd say not being able to sleep is a pretty good reason, because its quality will seem familiar to the strange syndicated Canadian TV series your insomnia has caused you to wind up accidentally watching at 1:00 a.m. on Mondays.

The plot is fairly basic. A non-Amish man who delivers goods to the Amish community mourns the loss of his infant daughter. He curses God for killing her and taking her from him. He asks himself, "Who are the holiest people, God's most favored people?" If you're reading this in the West Bank, on your iPhone, while waiting for "mop-up" duty as the auto-pilot on the Big Cat levels a few Palestinian homes on its own, I can safely say the answer will surprise you. It turns out it's the Amish. Yeah, I know.

Anyhow, Angry Guy decides that he can only attain his vengeance against God by slaughtering a bunch of Amish kids with rifles, so he goes to their one-room schoolhouse — convenient! — and does just that before turning the gun on himself. The twist comes when the Amish Elders go to the gunman's house and tell his wife that they forgive him and that they are there to help and condole with her.

This is too much for Ida (Kimberly Williams-Paisley), mother of one of the slain miniature Amish, and she lashes out at her husband Gideon (Who Cares), one of the elders who forgave Angry Guy. Ida renounces the broken system she finds herself in and plans to leave her family and move to the big city to be with her sister, who abandoned a life of Amishing. But, at the last minute, she sees the wisdom of God's plan and the beauty of Amish forbearance. Along the way, some reporters are inspired. There are no buggy chases or even buggy stunts. Barn numbers remain static.

This is bullshit. This is exactly the plot I expected, and nothing like the plot I deserved. Based on my post recommending this movie, what I clearly wanted to see was Witness in reverse. But I would have settled for a women's road-trip movie, with lots of glossy shots of the big, wide, obese American world, great median-divided highways lined with so many chain restaurants that they converged on the horizon into what looked faintly like a ChilOutFriBees, Ida sticking her head out of a convertible and eating bug after bug because her mouth was stuck in permanent wow formation. I would also have settled for a ton of sequences like the F.A.O. Schwartz piano-dance in Big combined with shoe shopping, mani-pedis, and cosmpolitians. Call it Techs in the City. I'd be down.

There are sufficient other things wrong with the movie outside how small and unambitious it seems compared to my own imagination, and some of them actually dovetail with that issue nicely. Take Grace: there isn't anybody in the movie named Grace. I know, I know: they're using the noun form, meaning the complete blessing of God. Whatever. I watched the movie and had to look up the main character's name. Ida? What the fuck is that? They shoulda just named her Grace. The people who were going to get the meaning of the word in the title were always going to get its meaning. Meanwhile, the rest of us would have had the ease of saying, "Who's Kimmy Williams playing? She plays Amish Grace. Her name is Grace and she is like balls-out Amish through this. You will not believe how Amish Kimberly Williams is as Amish Grace."

She's the key. Kimberly Williams-Paisley is beautiful. Not as drop-dead gorgeous as she was as Steve Martin's daughter in Father of the Bride, but she still brings it enough that you forgive her marrying some loser country-music singer in real life. Beautiful people can do stupid shit like that. You also tend to notice that "smoking hot" is sort of antithetical to the reality of the Amish people, who have a limited gene pool and six fingers and women who look like short versions of Richard Kiel. Because Ida (hereafter "Amish Grace," as she should have been called) already takes you out of the plausibility of the movie, you also start to notice that you are having sexual thoughts about Amish people.

This isn't bad. Look, it was bound to happen. It's been 25 years since Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis gave us a steamy barnyard scene of Amish people stripping down to the bare facts and washing themselves with that object Bill O'Reilly thinks is a "falafel thing." This movie had the opportunity to tell its heavy-handed story about forgiveness and also have a totally engorging side plot about adultery and bringing the Amish bedroom into the 21st century. But it just passed on that completely, as if someone said, "Oh, hello, millions of dollars and word-of-mouth and viewers' irresistible desire to watch this movie. Nice to meet you. Now get the fuck out; I've got beards to glue onto people."

In fact, Amish Grace's failure in this respect is so profound that I think only pornography can save us. If there are two forms of pornography I've always felt have been grossly underexplored, they're Naughty Nuns and the Amorous Amish. I spend a lot of time thinking about pornography, mainly because I work from home and no one can stop me, but also because—look, nevermind. There isn't a second reason. But the fact remains that over the years we have come to culturally define the Amish as basically charming novelty people instead of the simmering cauldrons of hot-tomato-and-beefcake stew that they are. I don't really even know why.

With the nun thing, that's easy. There simply aren't enough Catholics in the United States for that first porn genre to have any traction. The Church never dominated our culture and loomed over our psyches the way it did the Italians or French. Those guys spent the 19th century repeatedly kicking the Jesuits out of their countries because of deep-seated paranoia. It's like it was on some kind of anti-reactionary emergency checklist: Step One, outlaw or banish the Jesuits. Once you add Catholic school education and the social power of the Church, suddenly movies where a priest turns the confessional into an old Times Square booth while watching a busty Mother get down to her wimple explains itself.

America never had that because we basically inherited England's antipathy toward Catholics that marginalized them amongst the governing class and relied on 16th and 17th century clich├ęs of treason and Roman espionage. Catholics in government remained such a rarity and so draped in spooky alien garb that even in 1960 John F. Kennedy had to make a declaration to the country that could have been rephrased as little more than:
No, I am not a muslim Jesuit sleeper agent taking orders from my master spiritual and temporal, the Ayatollah Pope, and I will not use nukes to start a new jihad Counter-Reformation on American soil under a dozen mushroom clouds and the laughing face of Osama bin-Laden John XXIII.
With the Amish, though, it's anyone's guess why they haven't been fetishized.

I refuse to believe it's because America isn't perverted enough. I'm willing to bet most of the people I know would go to a website called "BangBuggy," and I'm certain even more would watch a movie called Young, Dumb and Full of Rumspringa. If I started a paragraph with, "When she parted the hooks-and-loops and opened his breeches to receive his bounty, she was at first shocked by the almost salt-white pillar he carried with him. But soon she grasped it with a churning motion and cooed, 'Once we get this raised, I believe you can call me lots wife,'" you'd want to finish it. I bet that right now you're already angry I didn't.

Realistically it's probably a combination of factors. On one hand, we've come to treat them as a kind of bric-a-brac people, this miniature society that gets charmingly photographed and hung on a wall, mentioned at parties as if seeing them was like vacationing in Europe, or involved as the disposable plot of a formulaic TV drama. (The Amish are basically our real-life Tolkein elves. They hang out being useless and thinking about silly stuff — only they do it in barns instead of gazebos.) On the other hand, what this movie trades on dramatically and emotionally probably represents our default sentiments about the Amish: they're already so much better than we are that even hearing their name evokes a sense of natural purity and godliness we'll never understand.

This is another feature that makes this movie at times sincerely terrible and always terribly sincere: that, despite the tests it puts before the main character, its main thesis is, "Damn, the Amish are awesome." We know that. We already feel that immediately. Making a movie about how sweet the Amish are is like making a middle-eastern thriller and loading the first 30 minutes with sinister footage and creepy angles to suggest, "Violent radical islamists are bad people." The story could have been told in the most spartan and disconnected manner possible, and our inherent tendency to fill in the gaps with a perception of the Amish as preternaturally nice people would have taken care of the rest. Instead, the producers drenched an already sweet story in syrupy goodwill, like taking a dozen Cadbury Creme Eggs and constructing a pie around them.

That said, I realize that many of you will doubt these general observations without even more achingly acute detail, so without further ado, a few observations about Amish Grace, in more or less chronological order:

Amish Grace... as It Happened, and as It Could Happen to You
The movie opens with a scene of on-location journalism. There's a redhead you'll recognize as "that redheaded lady who guest stars in everything," but she's not Margaret Easley, "that redhead who's in all those commercials and also sometimes guest stars in stuff." She's a reporter. Next to her is her cameraman, that black guy who plays the "snotty lab dork with no social skills who is somehow snottier and dorkier than all the other lab dorks" on Bones, and who also plays snotty people in other shows that are not Bones. (Note: Bones is also one of those shows that did a pointless "Amish" episode.) The reporter looks really sincere and moved, which is hard for her to do, because her cameraman looks, like, really snotty and everything.
REPORTER: Never had a story hit me so hard.
CAMERAMAN: It's changed how I see everything.
This is the first exchange in the movie, and already they're trying too much to be emotional. As you get into the story, you realize that this lady is a journalist in the greater-Philly region. She's not a rube. Yet here she is bowled over that a few kids died, which is silly, because death-wise journalists are only beaten in the cynicism department by homicide detectives, emergency room doctors and the military's General Buck Turgidson types. They don't get phased by this stuff, certainly not enough to narrate their feelings to somebody they probably spend 12 hours per day with, someone who can observe their feelings as they happen, and someone who certainly wouldn't want or need to hear about them a second time. Also the snotty cameraman guy's line tells you how the movie is supposed to affect you, so, yeah. I've only watched a few minutes of this, and it's like Calgon is taking away all my leprosy.

These are the most beautiful Amish people in the world. I don't even think there's anyone in this who's TV ugly. Every single one of these women is the sort of lady you could put in slightly less modest full-body garb, carve a woodcut depicting her lying on top of a buggy, then hang the woodcut and 11 others in a buggy repair shop.

Amazingly, despite 18th century construction technology, every single board in every house is perfectly symmetrical and aligned flawlessly at right angles on every corner, and everything is spotlessly clean. I mean, I know they make good chairs, but come on.

Literally right after writing that I corrected myself that it's the Shakers who make the awesome chairs. Boy, that was a hell of an idea for an enduring religion: "Let's be Christian and all that, except we'll never have sex. Our numbers are guaranteed to improve!"

Now there's an idea someone should really explore: Shaker Pornography. First of all, like the Amish, you don't have to worry about their ever finding out about it. Second, it's really filthy just conceptually, so there's your selling point. Third, set design is a cinch. Fourth, you go all high-concept with it. You get 30 performers, and they're the only people you ever cast in your Shaker Porn. The first movie is just a 90-minute orgy. Then each movie after that, you reduce the number of performers by one. Twenty-nine movies later, it's just one hot Shaker lady playing with herself and saying, "Where is everybody?" Eventually, she ascends to heaven and does it with God. It's the last film in the genre, and it's the most sacred and the most profane. Holy shit, why am I just giving this idea away?

Ahahahaha the fonts are so fucking terrible. The credits are trying to go for something elegant, but they're a faux-cursive font in white lettering on a black background. It looks exactly as professional as a business card-sized ad I designed for a school newspaper with a copy of FileMaker Pro back when cell phones were still precious treasures brought from the Orient and owned by only the five richest squires in every county.

It's like this movie is America's exhibit at the next World Exposition. Amish Grace is caught reading a letter, and her husband Gideon demands to know who sent it. She admits it's from her sister in the CITY, and he replies:
GIDEON: She's shunned, Ida. You shouldn't open her letters.
I grant that we need to know this for the story down the line to make sense, but if you want to write this efficiently, later all Amish Grace has to say is, "I don't feel right in this community anymore. I don't know if I can believe in this. Maybe I should go live with my sister." Then someone can object to the shunning and the Philadelphianess. As it is, the clunky exposition above is like overhearing this conversation:
ELECTRICIAN: I think I'm going to touch that exposed wire.
PERSON: But an exposed wire is fatal if it's live.
PERSON: If it has electricity flowing through it. You know that, as an electrician, which is the job you have.
Even that analogy seems a little ill-fitting. It's not like you have to take classes or get a certification in "Knowing Things About Your Sister and Your Entire Belief System."

Wow, these Amish hotties sure love wearing lots of makeup and having flawlessly coiffed hair.

Speaking of exposition, the scene cuts to a church service, and the pastor's sermon is basically, "Here Is Why You Are Amish." Who wrote this? After the shooting, there's plenty of time to explain Amishness to all the non-Amish people who are bewildered by Amish people doing Amish shit. At least then the writers would have a natural outlet for discussion on the finer points of the faith. Instead, they've chosen to have a bunch of Amish people sit around listening to someone else describe them to them. I'm trying to think of a more senselessly repetitive and empty pageant of describing an audience to itself in rigid and vacuous ways, and the only example coming to mind is a Republican National Convention, RNC mailers, an editorial program on FOX News or any book published by a conservative thinker in the last 20 years.

At no point does the Amish pastor quote a single line of scripture. "Er, uh, yeah... this guy has probably read one book more than any other, in his entire life, and every other book he's read has likely been a commentary on the one book in particular. Do you think we should Google any lines from it? No? Okay, no biggie."

I get the sense that the director insisted on "happy" from everyone in every shot with the same pained level of family togetherness and positivity that you'd expect from Clark Griswold. They aren't meant to, but a lot of the actors standing in the background bear these rictus grins on their face. Now, I realize that the Amish society is by definition a cult, but there's no reason why this attempt at sincerity has to be so overbearing that the first reaction is, "Good God, these people are trapped in a fucking cult."


I haven't seen a Bad Fake Beard Level this high since Ted Turner tried to film the Civil War.

Despite not seeing any bodies firsthand and instead standing outside a beautiful schoolhouse in a bucolic setting, the hardened big-city reporter breaks down and almost cries because some people she's never met are dead somewhere near her. That's how powerful fireballs of Amish chi are: people weep at the anticipation of being struck by the Amish hadoken, their incandescent St. Elmo's Fire of Amishness. Is St. Elmo a real saint, and do the Amish recognize him? Do you think the Amish could run into Judd Nelson and Andrew McCarthy and smile knowingly because God told them about that movie? Is Mare Winningham Amish? God knows she looks like she could be.

You know, I understand why Amish Grace would be upset at having a child murdered, but by the same token she's probably buried about five babies by now thanks to Amish doctors using 18th century medical knowledge to pull babies out of her crotch with fire tongs.

For no reason at all, I've been singing, "Amish blood/English heart/let's get laid, love" ever since the shooting.

More writing awesomeness:
AMISH GRACE: Oh, that's right. She's shunned. We can forgive the man who murdered our children, but we can't forgive a lonely widow for falling in love.
When I think of Amish people, I think of them sarcastically playing to an audience in their own heads to put down other people. Bitter sitcom dialogue formulations just seem innately Amish. Go up to an Amish guy on barn-raising day and ask him if he wants to totally grind a snowboard down a mountain on the X-Box 360, and I'm sure his reply would be, "Use a piece of modern technology? That sounds like a great idea. Let me do that. Oh, that's right. I'm Amish. I guess you thought I wouldn't even care about barn-raising."

This is the last line of the movie, again in white font superimposed on the screen:
Life changed forever in Nickel Mines.
Yet faith remained.
Here's the thing: I'm almost certain that this moment, the very last second of the movie before the credits, is the first time anyone ever mentions the name of the town. I kind of expect a voiceover to say, "AMISH GRACE DIED ON THE WAY BACK TO HER HOME PLANET" as a lone still of her is lifted up out of the shot leaving only a blank white space.

Seriously, this is the first credit:
Honestly, I don't know what I expected. This shouldn't surprise me. I'd have an identical reaction if the credits read, "PRODUCED BY L. BRENT BOZO III and YOUR FRIENDS AT THE WICKER WAREHOUSE." This whole thing had the vibe that it was brainstormed and greenlit at a Kiwanis meeting, with the minutes being used as the screenplay, but something about the term ORGANIZATION preceded by the name of nobody you'd ever remember just stands out. Well played, Larry, well played.

Can Anyone Achieve Amish Grace?
Evidently not. The intent of the movie is to share a special and wonderful generosity with average Americans, but the Amish come off as just otherworldly enough as to make their attitude seem inaccessible. The wife of the Angry Guy and the reporter are meant to be our escorts into Amish society, but they make for poor hosts. The reporter lady mostly stands back in redheaded character-actor astonishment that these people are just so goddamned amazing, and the weeping widow acquiesces to how nice they are, without becoming like them.

Here's the problem, though: the whole movie exudes this kind of clumsy harmony and goodness about these people, getting in its own way with the ethereality of them. Because their goodness resonates on a single constant note, that element becomes a kind of forgettable hum. What comes through are the incidentals that sabotage it: the laser-perfect lumber, the hair and makeup — the fact that they leave their washing out next to a big picnic and have lots of frippery like vases of flowers, that they don't speak a word of German or quote scripture in their sermons, that they have beards that look sort of like the Burger King's.

But what really undermines it is the fact that not even the actors seem sold on their own product. Hence the quote at the top: "This job is not what I really do. I play keyboards." All acting is necessarily a lie. Whomever we watch has agreed to pretend to be someone else, perhaps for the craft of it, often just for money. If they're good at their jobs, they disappear into the role; they cease to be actors playing a person and instead appear to be the person. Until I'd seen this movie, I don't think I'd ever seen a production where most of the actors seemed to be saying, "Look, I'm pretending to be this guy, but this is me, here, okay? And this is not what I do. I do soaps and sometimes police procedurals."

Kimberly Williams-Paisley is 100% into this, but she has reason to be. She got the biggest check, and she's going to get nominated for some kind of TV-movie Emmy, because she played a mom, had to be in period dress, and had to deal with death and stuff. She cries at times and is silent at others and then yells when she needs to. She probably could have printed her own Emmy invite after reading the script.

For everyone else, though, there's this amazing attitudinal disconnect. The guy who plays Gideon is game for his important scenes, but when he's just background, it feels like he wants to pull the beard down and expose some elastic straps around his ears and maybe wave and mouth, "It's me!!!" Everyone else is just sort of "there" in the same way. Maybe that's why Snotty Black Guest Star guy looks so snotty: he knows he has to say this shit for money.

That said, it isn't a horrible movie by any means. It just has no weight, and many of the people in it seem to have no affect, even if the plot is telling you that spiritual things are happening. It's so earnest in the face of so many little errors and so little motivation for its actors to actually act that I think that's why the pornography idea popped into my head. Take out the shooting and other tense "drama" moments, and what you have is a lot of hamfisted exposition and a lot of people who look really uncomfortable doing this, because this isn't their job. It's exactly like a porn film when nobody on the screen is naked.

In fact, you could take the picnic, the sermon, the shooting, the scene when the elders go to confront the widow, the angry confrontation between Amish Grace and Gideon in their house, Amish Grace's interaction with the reporter and then the climactic group therapy scene, replace them with five gangbangs, one straight scene and one lesbian scene, leave the rest of the plot exactly the same, and come out with pretty much a flawless porn. The direction wouldn't be much different, and the errors in costuming and set design would be immediately excused. The wooden disconnect of peripheral characters would be seen as a matter of course. Best of all, you wouldn't have to change the one-note message pervading the whole: even when you least expect it, these people love everybody.

AMISH GRACE airs bi-weekly on the Lifetime Movie Network for eternity.