The Film: Fall From Grace (2007)
The Principles: K. Ryan Jones (Director). Fred Phelps. The Phelps Family. A handful of talking heads.
The Premise: By now we all know who the Westboro Baptist folks are and what they do. Mr. Jones takes his camera inside the church (and the family) to get their perspective on their “mission” and the controversy surrounding it.
Is It Good: Not particularly. I’ll give Jones credit for getting inside of it all and doing the whole “journalistic integrity” thing and keeping his camera an unbiased third-party, but that’s about all he managed to achieve as a filmmaker. On a technical level, the film is amateurish at best with Jones’ eye for framing and shot composition about as sophisticated as that of a rookie local news photog. The editing is perfunctory and without any real sense of rhythm and poorly-keyframed animations of the by-now-well-known picket signs serve as the only sort of aesthetic accent. At one point he plays us the audio of a recorded phone interview and 95% of it is spent on a shaky-shoulder-shot image of a telephone run through a weird contrasty filter.
But I suppose that’s the inherent safety net of a documentary – filmmaking inadequacies can be forgiven if the storytelling is on point. But if it’s not…
And honestly, that’s the real disappointment here because there is something appallingly fascinating about this little ragtag group of lunatics and the shitstorm they’ve created for themselves. And that’s before you really even begin to dig into the finer points. The fact that Jones had unmitigated access to all the key players (including two of the Phelps kids who fled the family/church and a couple of really thoughtful, insightful, well-educated outside observers) – ALL of whom offered up amazing little nuggets – and still couldn’t manage to weave all of that in with the political and Constitutional intricacies to make a compelling, engaging, through-line is a tremendous let down. Moments are just strung together with no thought to chronology or narrative, or even a basic structure.
And yeah, I know it may seem a little petty or misguided to tear in to the filmmaking so hard when you consider the material, but, well, you have to consider the material. At this point (and hell, even in 2007), the WBC is a known commodity. We’re all familiar with their message, we’ve seen all the picket signs, we know WHAT they do – the real question is why. And if you’re paying attention you can start to piece out an answer, but it’s only through bits of interview dialogue and exposition delivered as an afterthought because Jones bet the farm on the assumption that the more shocking diatribes and behind-the-scenes access to the protests would carry the film. And on a very superficial level they sort of do (especially when he interviews the children because JESUS CHRIST), but there’s a far more textured, rich story here that should have been told and Jones glosses over it for more shots of protest signs.
And I know it’s not the intention, and I know that, in a sense, Jones means well, but when you just offer up these images and these words in an effort to make your audience uncomfortable without having anything to SAY about them (other than the obvious) or without making a serious effort to contextualize or educate then a lot of it just comes across kind of exploitative and tacky and has the added bonus of bolstering Phelps and his followers’ belief that they’re doing the right thing and succeeding in it.
Is It Worth A Look: Perhaps, but not really. Again, it’s obvious that Jones hoisted the runtime up on shock value, and to someone who might be just now hearing about WBC that may very well be enough. Lord knows all we needed was the shock value to get us talking back when we first became familiar with them.
But even if you get past that and give up on the filmmaking aspect, there are still the people to consider. The entire Phelps family is a sight to behold, especially Fred Phelps himself. He’s a vehemently angry little man and his anger makes itself apparent in every single inch of his physical appearance. From his sharp-edged face to his Mr. Burns-esque hunch to the white-hot hate that stabs at you from his beady, squinty, soulless little eyes. And it’s interesting to see him at his pulpit yelling vitriolic admonishments, because to many of us it may very well be the first time we’ve been able to put an actual person and face with the name that we’ve heard countless times.
And there are little moments here and there – poignant moments, at that. Moments that give us insight into who Fred Phelps is as a man underneath all the public hullabaloo. Moments that inject even the tiniest bit of context into a situation that, on the surface, makes absolutely no goddamn sense.
But again – it’s just a tease. It makes you want a story that you’re never going to get – at least in this particular film.
Random Anecdotes: I will give Jones credit for finding what may be one of the only rational Christian preachers in all of America. At one point he says “I’m silent about everything Jesus was silent about. And since he never had anything to say about homosexuality, neither do I. I accept everyone just as they are.” So yeah – one point for Christianity.
He also said something to the effect of “Fred Phelps is the perfect example of someone who needs love the most but deserves it the least.” I kinda love that guy, even if he does have a smarmy voice.
Also, a pro-Phelps documentary came out in 2000 called Fred: The Movie. In 2010 a cute little Nickelodeon film came out called Fred: The Movie. One can’t help but wonder if an absentminded parent ever got their hands on the wrong one…
Cinematc Soulmates: Jesus Camp. Deliver Us From Evil. Judgment Day. Small Town Gay Bar. The Most Hated Family In America.