Saturday, November 22, 2003

LIVE, FROM NEW YORK! IT'S SATURDAY AFTERNOON

I'm in NYC for the second weekend in a row - this time for the press junket for the upcoming release Big Fish and then for meetings about Act One tomorrow. (Much more about Big Fish later. I LIKED it...) I spent most of the afternoon walking all over midtown grinning like a fool because I love being here so much. I lived in NY for two years a decade ago, and I have never recovered. The city seems to me to be like a person. And we are friends.

On Sunday, I'll go hear my sister, Val, sing at Holy Family Church (the UN parish at 315 E 47th) at the 12pm Mass. Then we'll walk around grinning some more and maybe take in a show or just, you know, walk around grinning, before we head back down to the paisans in Little Italy for grinning and eating.

P.S. The 12pm Sunday liturgy at Holy Family Church was wonderful! I give it the coveted four thurible rating! The music was great in terms of selection and performance (mostly paid singers - but that's "the demands of art" as Pope JPII says) , the homily was astute and compelling, the ritual was reverent, and all the supporting cast (ushers, servers, lectors and Eucaristic ministers) were on the spot, well-dressed and prepared. A holy time was had by all. If I lived in Manhattan, I'd be at this Mass every week.

Friday, November 21, 2003

WATCHING BONNIE

My latest on Catholic Exchange...

I have been getting scads of emails from happy people who concur with my take on Bonnie Hunt. That's always nice.

It's particularly nice because I have also been getting hate mail from people who are enraged by an article I wrote saying I really don't like the LOTR movies. One kind and loving Catholic brother sent me the following message in response to my dis of Jackson's films (I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP!):

"Nicolosi - You are a hell-spawned bastard!"

Thank God, I have been at this writing stuff long enough to laugh at this individual - although it does give me the creeps to think he is out walking on the streets.

But really, if this is how we talk to our fellow Christians, how are we talking to Warner Bros? And we wonder why Hollywood doesn't hear us?!?

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

BARB IN DC

Here is info on two talks I am giving in DC that are open to the public:

TALK 1: WHAT HOLLYWOOD NEEDS
WHEN: Wednesday, Nov. 12
7:00pm-9:00pm
WHO: America's Future Foundation
WHERE: Fund for American Studies, 1706 New Hampshire Ave., NW
RSVP to: matthew@americasfuture.org

TALK 2: TOWARDS A CHRISTIAN AESTHETIC OF CINEMA
WHEN: Thursday, Nov. 13
7:00pm-9:30pm
WHO: Kairos (Group of High Church Christians interested in culture)
WHERE: Common Grounds coffee shop (Private room), 3211 Wilson Blvd. Arlington, VA 22201

Monday, November 10, 2003

SIBLING REPORT

My oldest sister, Cynthia, (all bow) is in Rome finishing up her latest degree - this time a doctorate in theology. (Whereas, I am in Vegas, pulling slots and listening to concerts?! rats.....) Afterward, we are all hoping she will come back to the States and teach again. Everywhere I go, I meet some of her faithful former students who basically just come to hear me because I am related to Cynthia. (And none of you better be thinking I sound like a second child here. Don't even think that!.... It isn't fair!!!...Mommmmmmmmmmmmm!?!)

Anyway, a priest reading this blog sent me a message, "It was interesting to read your blog. I have admired your sister's philosophical work in Rome for years." My response: "!???????!?" I asked Cynthia to send me a blurb on what she is working on, as she doesn't tend to share these things with us mere mortals on a regular basis. I thought to post her response here because it seems to me to dovetail, on an theological level, the work we are doing with entertainment storytelling. She writes:

I don't know who that professor is who wrote to you, but I guess I'm starting to have a reputation in some circles concerning narrative philosophy. My license thesis created somewhat of a stir and the dissertation is expected with some enthusiasm in certain quarters (very insignificant quarters in the wordly sense). Basically, I am showing that St. Thomas Aquinas appreciated the narrative element of human life (because human life is of a narrative nature, of course).

[gulp] Of course it is, of course. [ahem] Anyway, we are both obsessed with story. Something genetic perhaps?

I so look forward to not understanding this dissertation. I expect it will motivate me for the next forty years of my life.

Sunday, November 09, 2003

OLD FRIENDS

Coming to you groggy from Vegas, to which a few friends and I came on pilgrimage for the Simon and Garfunkel reunion "Old Friends" concert at the MGM Grand. It was an incredible two hour experience of reliving "the soundtrack of my life" (thanks, Jan!) in the company of 16,000 other folks who felt the same way. Art's once lovely tenor isn't quite what it once was - but Paul's seems almost better so they balance out, I guess. But I was much more focussed on the haunting power of the music.

Many’s the time I’ve been mistaken
And many times confused
Yes, and often felt forsaken
And certainly misused
Oh, but I’m alright, I’m alright
I’m just weary to my bones
Still, you don’t expect to be
Bright and bon vivant
So far a-way from home, so far away from home

I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered
Or driven to it’s knees
Oh, but it’s alright, it’s alright
For we lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the
Road we’re traveling on
I wonder what’s gone wrong
I can’t help it, I wonder what’s gone wrong

And I dreamed I was dying
I dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly
And looking back down at me
Smiled reassuringly
And I dreamed I was flying
And high up above my eyes could clearly see
The statue of liberty
Sailing away to sea
And I dreamed I was flying

We come on the ship they call the mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon
We come in the a-ge’s most uncertain hours
And sing an american tune
Oh, and it’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright
You can’t be forever blessed
Still, tomorrow’s going to be another working day
And I’m trying to get some rest
That’s all I’m trying to get some rest.
(American Tune, Paul Simon)


I have never understood all of Simon's music, but in the same way I don't "get" a lot of Emily Dickinson's poetry. It leaves me with the sense that the fault is in me, not in the artist's work.

What kind of power does music have that it can turn 16,000 strangers into brethren, and set them singing "Lie-la-lie, (drum) Lie-la-lie-lie-lie-lie, Lie-la-lie (drum), lie-la-lie-la-la-lie-lie-lie, la-la-la-lah-lie!" ?

The concert seemed more like a worship service to me, and afterward, I was wondering why the music at Church can't do for us brothers and sisters in Christ, what Simon's music did for a mass of strangers.

Simon has two things going for him, I think: mastery of craft in music and poetry. Most of the music bandied about in the Catholic Church is really bad musically and really, really bad poetry. (Have to pass some of the medicrity around here. Hanging out in Evangelical circles as is my wont, I can say that while they are much better than Catholics in terms of performance - they actually PAY their musicians! - I find most of their "praise and worship" songs really inane. Kind of like kindergarten level in terms of doctrine and meaning. ie 'YOU are WORTHY, WORTHY, WORTHY, FATHER, YOU are WORTHY".... This kind of stuff makes our Gather Us In feel like the Summa Theologica of hymnody. AND IT'S NOT!

Friday, November 07, 2003

ELF

Bob Newhart actually has the best laughs in this new holiday movie. Newhart (who doesn't really ever act, but rather just inhabits) plays the Papa Elf character who raises a human baby that has crawled into Santa's sack and ends up in the North Pole. There are a lot of sight gags in which Newhart's 2 foot tall character strives to parent Will Farrell's 6 foot two character, although neither of them seems to notice the height difference.

But I get ahead of myself.

Elf is a harmless piece of holiday candy. There are a few clever jokes that will make adults barely chuckle. The film will especially appeal to boys from about age 7 to age 11, because all of the protagonists are male, and nearly all the jokes are physical comedy stuff. There is a nice message about being a good Dad, and about believing in Santa, which comes through despite a sloppy script with paper-thin characterizations and no attempt to provide believable motivations.

There is one early reference to the fact that the Will Farrell character was the product of a youthful affair, the existence of which may or may not be something you want to talk to your five year old about. But, sigh, we're just surrounded with this as reality, aren't we? Can't imagine telling Hollywood to keep it out of the movies.

Elf is what it is: a place to take kids over the holidays without fear of damage to their mortal characters or immortal souls.

Thursday, November 06, 2003

PREACHING ON PREACHING

Thanks to all of you who have kindly swamped me with names of priests from L.A. (and as far away as Australia!) whom we could invite to our entertainment industry retreat.

Without seeming ungrateful, I have been somewhat astounded by some of the referrals, because I have heard many of the men being recommended and they, in no way, fit the definition of "really good preacher."

A lot of people recommended preachers with phrases like "he is a very orthodox priest." Well, being a "really good preacher" has little to do with a person's personal orthodoxy. The only relationship I can see is that cleaving to the truth (as opposed to a lie) will bestow a bit more power to move the human heart...but not enough to redeem a bad sermon. (After all, Lenin and Hitler were powerfully compelling speakers. They used to whip their audiences up into frenzies. )

I think the notion of really "cleaving to" something is what conveys power. As one comment-poster noted, if it seems like most priests are lukewarm in their preaching, it is because they are lukewarm in their believing. Their faith is not Jeremiah's "roaring fire that will consume me if I do not speak."

On the progressive/left/liberal side, bad preachers are afflicted with the fact that they believe being Christian is nice but not necessary, and that piety is akin to a kind of fanaticism.

Case in point. On All Souls's Day, the priest informed us that the Church was moving to merging All Saints and All Souls because the emphasis of All Souls on purgatory and death was a thing of the past in reflecting the notion of a "punishing God." He noted that, "I, only a man, am big enough to not exact punishment. Why do we make God less than me?" (I sat there grumbling to myself, "I want to talk to whomever says you don't exact punishment, Father.")

I'm not even going to go in to the bad theology about sin and the effects of sin that seems to have taken hold in this cleric's brain. I just found it emblematic of so many preachers that he just doesn't seem to believe any more, but he doesn't have the courage or wisdom (both gifts of the Holy Spirit that come to those who ask in prayer) to think it through, so it makes him vague and what seems to me to be exhausted/sad/depressed.

Being orthodox too often doesn't make for great preachers because there is just too much fear present. I have heard just as many bad sermons from men who see themselves as soldiers of John Paul II. The desire to appear reverent and serious make them weirdly wooden and completely uncharismatic. And too often, they aren't "cleaving to " something as much as fighting other things off. This is the kind of preaching that reminds me of the basketball coach the nuns hired to teach algebra when I was in the 9th grade. The guy knew his math, but he used to stand at the board and repeat, "SEE?! A + B = C." When we would ask questions, he would keep repeating in a louder and louder voice, "AAAAA plus BBBBBB ==========CCCCCCCCCCCCCC!"

Anyway, several of the men recommended to me in the spate of emails from priests are known to me as really just mediocre preachers. I think that is interesting....and depressing. NOT ALL. Many of them are unknown to me, and we will check them out for our retreat. But several fellows seem to see good preaching where I encounter ennui and irritation, or just damn nothingness.

In response to the emailer who chided me for confusing entertainment with homiletics.... preaching is not oratory, it needs to be more. It needs to be AT LEAST oratory. Oratory is an art form. Art requires talent. Not all of my students who want to be wonderful writers can be. God has not gifted them for the art form. HOWEVER, there is a competency in the arts that can be acquired by many people who have a passion for it. Competency involves mastery of the craft. I am not asking for genius in preachers. I would be happy with competence.

Wednesday, November 05, 2003

ACT ONE AND AMERICA'S FUTURE

I'll be speaking at the America's Future Foundation in Washington, DC on Wednesday, November 12 at 7:00pm. Check here for more info.

Tuesday, November 04, 2003

"MANY A MEANDERING SERMON ONE HEARS, IN WHICH THE PREACHER AIMS AT NOTHING - AND HITS IT." Richard Whately

I promise this isn't "Nark on the Clergy" week, but something happened last night that just begs to be shared, principally because it seems to me part of the reason the Church - at least here in Los Angeles - is in such a slumber.

"The world looks at ministers out of the pulpit to know what they mean when in it." Richard Cecil

So, I was at a meeting of Catholics in Media Associates (CIMA) which is, ostensibly, the official outreach of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to the entertainment industry. We got to preliminary discussions about our annual entertainment industry retreat, and before long I was volunteering to coordinate it (for reasons of being a control freak who just can't stand to take the chance of going to a retreat that I might hate..okay, I said it!).

"I love a serious preacher, who speaks for my own sake, and not for his own; who seeks my salvation and not his own vainglory." Bp. Jean Baptiste Masillion

So, I asked the assembled CIMA members, "Can anybody recommend a priest to be our retreatmaster who is a really good preacher?" I wasn't being facetious. It just occurred to me that in six years in living in Los Angeles, I had yet to hear a very good homily, and it seemed to me that maybe I have just been going to the wrong parishes.

"That is not the best sermon which makes the hearers go away talking about the preacher, but which makes them go away thoughtfully - hastening to be alone." Gilbert Burnet

Twenty people looked back at me blankly. I looked up from my notebook. "A really good preacher. Does anybody know one here in L.A.?"

"If the Scriptures had small-pox, his sermon would never catch it." Tryon Edwards

Deafening silence. Everybody sat there staring and brooding and scratching their heads. There was a collective "Hmmmmmm..." I - half incredulous, but with desperation tinged voice - laughed out loud. "Come on. There has to be one -- in this whole archdiocese! Some priest who people love to see walking up the aisle on Sunday because of his preaching? They knew what I meant: Somebody who can expound on the Scriptures and stir hearts at the same time?

"There are certain things in which mediocrity is not to be endured: poetry, music, painting and public speaking." Bryuere

A few names were thrown out without much conviction. After the meeting, one of my friends at the meeting, who happens to be a producer, recommended one priest to me with the shrug "sometimes he can really be good in his homilies." To which I responded, "If you were casting a project, and this priest was auditioning, would you give him the job?" My friend laughed and then shrugged, "No, probably not. Not if my livelihood depended on it!"

It is very easy to preach, but very hard to preach well. No other profession demands half so much mental labor as the clerical." Nathaniel Emmons

Now, granted, everybody at the meeting is in some sense a professional storyteller, so maybe our standards are higher than the average sheep? But it would seem to behoove the pastorally minded shpeherd to such a flock as this to be at least as good in his preaching, as his sheep are in their nine-to-five activities.

When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things. Mark 6:34
NOTHING FISHY ABOUT FINDING NEMO

My latest reprinted on Catholic Exchange...

Monday, November 03, 2003

MYSTIC SLITHER

Critics have been showering the project with their most pre-Oscarish adjectives like, "Important," "Thoughtful," and "Provocative." A legion of my friends - many of them Christians - have told me, "You MUST see Mystic River!"

Now, in the morning after wake of the film, I'm sitting here shaking my head wondering, has everybody lost their minds?!?!

I am told that the book, Mystic River was great. I haven't read it. The adaptation is a mess. It is a sad squandering of an incredbly talented cast, in a project that ultimately comes down to the thesis: bad things that happen can screw you up. One of my brilliant TV producing friends assures me that the film's flaws come down to dreadful directing by Clint Eastwood. I don't have a trained-enough eye to see those flaws. But I can talk about the script.

The three main characters are all badly conceived and awkwardly developed. I imagine the main character is Sean Penn, only because he is the protagonist of the action that it seems like the movie is ultimately about. The storyline of Kevin Bacon and his wife is incomprehensible and unmotivated. The use of two less than minor characters as the ultimate antagonists is cheap and unsatisfying. The legions of supporting characters - from the Savage brothers to Bacon's despicable cop partner, to Laura Linney as Dr. Sweet Housewife-Mrs. Evil Dominatrix - are all underdeveloped and uncompelling.

The main flaw of the film from a Christian standpoint is the failure to show (as Flannery the Great would say it) "Grace being offered." In the deadly climax of the film, it was fine to have Sean Penn knife and shoot his friend, played by Tim Robbins, in a mistaken frenzy of grief for his own murdered daughter. What was missing was any hesitation in the Penn character, when Robbins' character lapses into confusion due to residue from his abduction and molestation as a child. Robbins character suggests that Penn would be a different man if he had been the one abducted, and this should have been a doorway to some human compassion/hesitation in the scene. The moment could easily have been "grace being offered", which would ultimately redeem the theme of this film. One might also expect that Jimmy (Penn) would have hesitated because he had already murdered one man, and maybe the intervening years have taught him that that was a bad choice. But noooooooooooo. He actually states that he has recovered from the previous murder with no ill effects.

I want to be clear. The film is not bad because it ends with Jimmy killing Dave. It is bad because it doesn't show any deliberation on Jimmy's part. He's like an animal, not a man.

But I don't think the director really had any understanding of the theme of the project, and so the opportunity to actually make this film "Important" and "Thoughtful" was lost.

I also think it would have been a more daring story if the Dave character had not killed the pedophile. That clouds the waters of his own murder, making Jimmy seem less culpable somehow because, in the end, the guy he murdered was a murderer.

As Aristotle said in the Poetics, real tragedy is in bad things happening to good people.

As a New Englander, I also cannot stand movies with actors slaughtering our accent. It always becomes the focus of every scene, which it shouldn't.

So, my ultimate judgment on Mystic River is that it will add nothing to your spiritual journey on the plus side. On the minus side, it will make you more scared of your neighbor and more paranoid for your kids. But if that's what you want, be my guest.

Friday, October 31, 2003

"EVERYBODY CALLS ME JOE."

This has nothing to do with Hollywood, but everything to do with the collapse of the sense of reverence and beauty in the Church.

I have been going through a dark, uncharacteristic anti-clerical phase for the last couple of years, largely because the recent scandals and consequent ecclesial rationalizations used up all of the respectful resignation with which I have been enduring terrible homilies, sloppy liturgies and pastoral sloth for the last quarter of a century. (And, I guess, anger makes me speak in run-on sentences?) I particularly don't have a lot of grace for baby-boomer priests who are still clinging to the license and liberalism that has gotten us mired in all these messes since Vatican II.

So, then, a lot of rancor was stirred up in my otherwise happy consciousness last week when I met a non-clericals wearing Jesuit at a meeting. I saw the SJ on his name-tag so I said, "Hello, Father," to which he replied (in a tone which said, "I'm a grown-up and you're not"), "Everybody calls me Joe."

Here's what I wanted to say.

No. I will not call you "Joe." You are a priest, and that dignity supercedes your Joe-ness. It has very little to do with you. You were called by God, formed by the Jesuits, paid for by the People of God, and now your life is for us. You cannot put your priesthood on and off like a coat. At least, let us call you Father Joe.

This is not my problem, it is yours. You will probably need help to get over the weird “anti-authority” thing that keynotes you baby-boomer priests and religious. You all seem to think that a patronizing gesture is your part in assaulting the mountain of hierarchy that you resent particularly because gen-xers like me DON't resent it. It's Psych 101 that by diminishing your office in the vineyard you seek to magnify yourself as an individual. In fact, diminishing your role in the community of believers is much more arrogant than accepting humbly that “what I have been set aside to be and do is now of greater note than who I was born.”

Jesus Himself preferred some formality from his friends, saying, “You call me Teacher and Lord, and it is fitting because that is what I am.” When Mary Magdalen recognized him Easter morning and called him “Rabboni!” he didn’t say, “Hey Mary, chill. Everybody calls me Jesus.”

You have lost something of value here. Your spiritual father, St. Ignatius had a reverence for the priesthood that is missing in you. Even after his ordination, for which he had spent six years preparing, he could not bring himself to say his first Mass for an additional full year so as to ready himself spiritually for the gravity of it. There have been “multi martyri” among the Jesuits whose sole crime was their identity as priests.

I don’t want to call you “Joe.” I’m not your friend, your family member or one of your brother Jesuits. You, as "just Joe," are basically irrelevant to me, and in fact, kind of creepy, because I'm a single woman not looking to initiate casual friendships with incognito celibates.


But what I actually said was, "Hi. You can call me Miss Nicolosi."

Thursday, October 30, 2003

MORE SPICY (OR COMPLETELY IRRELEVANT) BITS...

Sorry about the sporadic blogging. Blame it on the pneumonia. Or else blame it on the wildfires which just make the pneumonia that much more blameworthy. Or else blame it on the recent proliferation of conferences and trips. Just don't blame it on the insidious computer game Pharaoh - because I'm not ready to give that up yet.

Anyway, here are more bits and pieces of news...

...I saw the upcoming release Resistance last week. The unfortunate piece was written and directed by New Sensation on the Block, Todd Komarnicki, who is pretty public about his Christianity. Resistance suffers from many flaws in its script. Set amidst the terrors of Nazi-occupied Belgium, the film looks lovely but falls flat early on and then just meanders around for another 90 minutes. It has a less than daring message which I would summarize as "Nazis are bad" and a quixotic message about adultery that left me dazed and confused because I know the director can't be advocating adultery, but it sure looked good here... I have been getting a lot of criticism lately for criticizing projects that my brothers and sisters in Christ have been putting out there. So, I'm going to be brief and suggest that the best thing for us all to do about Resistance is pray that Komarnicki figures out what went wrong here and gets another chance to do better next time.

...Steve McEveety, producer of The Passion of Christ, was a featured speaker at the Act One/Reel Spirituality Mere Entertainment Conference last week. Steve noted that the film has been a life-changing spiritual journey for all of the principles engaged in its production. Regarding the distribution, he said that Icon had shown the film as a courtesy to FOX (they have a firstlook deal), but that they had not seriously pursued any other major studios. He said that in light of the firestorm surrounding the project, "it didn't seem fair to ask a major studio to have to take on all that."

...The Discovery Channel aired an interesting, and very respectful, documentary about exorcism tonight. Granted, it's part of their desire to air something creepy for Halloween, but still, the piece presented the priest-exorcist as being successful with demoniacs, where psychology failed. At one point, one of the priests attributes much of the depression and exigencies of life as being the Devil's handiwork. He notes, "There are two spiritual worlds - God and His angels, or the Devil and his legions. We're are all operating in either one world or another all the time." The tenor of the show was that the Devil is a hateful Person. I think it is interesting that an age that more and more seems to want to strip God of His Personhood, has no trouble investing evil with it.

...Judging Amy had an eminently fair treatment of "the scandal" last week. A priest is confronted in Amy's court by a boy who had been abused. The episode at first seemed like it was going to be same old weirdly gleeful pile-on against the Church for the scandal, but then, it became obvious that theboy was mistaken about this particular priest being his abuser. The priest was compassionate, even after having gone through the trauma of being falsely accused. The residue of the episode was that there are good priests out there too.

...My friend and frequent collaborator, screenwriter, Craig Detweiler has just published a book. Craig gave us a taste of Matrix of Meanings: Finding God in Popular Cultureat Mere Entertainment last week - and it was GREAT. Just a heads up for any of you smart people who are wondering what God has been up to lately. Craig knows.

...Somebody asked me today, "In honor of Halloween, what is the scariest movie you've ever seen?" Well, I guess that would have to be The Hours.

...I had the opportunity to have a conversation with Jim Caviezel (The Passion of Christ) and his wife Carrie last week. Jim is an incredibly intense person. One gets the feeling that Jesus is never more than one sentence away from his consciousness.

...The new show, Joan of Arcadia -- from my former RCIA student Barbara Hall - oh, did I let that slip? -- has been picked up by CBS for a full 22 episodes. Joan has won its timeslot every week since its debut. I lurk on a yahoo group of mostly 12-20 year old girls who love the show, and I am very encouraged by the discussion the show incites in their largely uincatechized little souls. The show is particularly good for such as these.

...I'll be in Washington, DC from Nov. 12-16 giving speeches here and there. I'll post particulars as soon as I can find all the info. I'm also going to be in DC scouting the location for our May 2004 Act One program. Yes, we'll be bringing our amazing faculty and program to the nation's capital next year. Applications open in December. Pass the word to any nascent screenwriters you know.

Monday, October 27, 2003

FROM TODAY's HOLLYWOOD REPORTER...

"HBO has signed comedian Doug Williams to a development deal for a darkly comic series about a relationship rocked by domestic violence."

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA
ACT ONE'S ACT TWO IN THE NEWS

The Sunday Los Angeles Times had a very nice article about our Act Two program for advanced alumni. The link is here, but you may have to subscribe to access it. (Hate that...)

Here's an excerpt:

Sitting before an audience of 16 students in the Act Two program for Christian screenwriters, Dean Batali (writer/co-executive producer, "That '70s Show"), Lee Batchler (co-writer, "Batman Forever"), Jack Gilbert (former workshop director of the Warner Bros. Writers Workshop), Ron Austin (writer, "Matlock") and Act Two executive director Barbara Nicolosi are debating the meaning and merits of spiritually charged yet provocative movies like "Magnolia." Although it has a lot of profanity, themes of sexual abuse, family dysfunction and misogyny, the instructors believe the film offers amazing lessons — that it is an example of a film with flawed characters who seek and find redemption and forgiveness.

For an hour, questions and answers fly as the panel discusses such issues as when and how moral ambiguity can be helpful or go too far, and whether spreading a Christian message is better served by writing explicitly Christian characters or by conveying moral values through secular characters. While these debates have raged for years in church circles, Act Two and its parent program, Act One: Writing for Hollywood, have generated a great deal of interest in the past five years thanks to the caliber of faculty members and such bold credos as "it's better to tell an R-rated truth than a G-rated lie."

Despite the sometimes impassioned differences among faculty and students, one thing is clear: A new and savvier generation of Christians is hitting Hollywood, one that's come a long way from making apocalyptic thrillers and "altar call" films that ministries such as Billy Graham's sometimes used to convince people to accept Christ into their hearts.

"We all seek to incorporate the Christian worldview into movies and television, but we discuss how to naturally get our point of view in our work," said Batali afterward. "We don't want our art to be agenda-driven, but we do have a valid worldview that should be part of the cultural conversation."

Act One's voice in that conversation has become louder since the program's inception in January 1999 by members of the Christian entertainment fellowship organization Inter-Mission, which, along with the unrelated Actors Co-op theater group, is housed at First Presbyterian. From the start, the goal has been to offer a monthlong, daily series of interactive lectures on screenwriting by working industry professionals rather than a dry academic approach, to show students that thriving careers are possible for churchgoers worried about anti-religious discrimination in Hollywood.

Nearly five years later, the program has taught 210 students at classes in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. Along the way, a course track focusing on TV writing careers, a screenplay critique service, writers' groups and a thriving online information community also have been established. Applicants for admission to Act One submit a variety of writing samples for consideration, while Act Two participants are selected from writers of completed scripts from the "best of the best" Act One graduates.