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CULTURE DIGEST: ‘Kranks’ follows ‘Passion’ path; Bush speechwriter speaks; lottery winner now in despair

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–“Christmas with the Kranks,” based on John Grisham’s book “Skipping Christmas,” has followed a marketing path similar to the one that proved successful for “The Passion of The Christ.”

Revolution Studios and Sony Pictures Entertainment took the route of promoting Christmas with the Kranks among family oriented movie reviewers such as those connected with Pat Robertson’s 700 Club, FamilyNet and Good News TV.

The New York Times noted that the idea of a movie campaign built almost entirely from religious broadcasters and family advocates appears to be breaking new ground for Hollywood.

“People saw what Mel Gibson did with ‘The Passion of The Christ,'” Peter Sealey, an adjunct professor of marketing at the University of California, Berkeley, told The Times.

Christmas with the Kranks stars Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis as parents who decide to skip Christmas and take a cruise instead to avoid the depression they feel during the holidays since their daughter joined the Peace Corps. The film chronicles their attempts to break the neighborhood tradition of elaborately decorating the exterior of their home and shows Allen’s character learning some life lessons along the way.

While approving the film for families, Phil Boatwright, a movie reviewer for Baptist Press, noted that Grisham’s Skipping Christmas “pokes fun at the commercialization of Dec. 25 yet manages to forgo any acknowledgement of whose birthday the observance was designed to celebrate.”

Grisham could have used the opportunity to hit upon the real reason for Christmas, Boatwright said.

“As Mr. Grisham is reportedly a believer in Christ and a member of a Baptist church, it is disappointing that the celebrated author would not take the opportunity to state what the season represented to him,” Boatwright reflected. “Since the book and now the film focus on slapstick situations and the homily, ‘It’s about friends, family and community,’ it would have at least been satisfying for one of the most successful writers of our time to declare Christmas to be a day we celebrate the birth of our Lord.

“After all, how successful does an author have to become before he feels comfortable enough in relating his perspective on faith? Considering the film in question has Christmas as its backdrop, it seemed to be an opportunity missed,” Boatwright concluded.

SPEECHWRITER DEFENDS BUSH’S GOD COMMENTS — Michael Gerson, the man responsible for writing nearly all of George W. Bush’s major speeches since 2000, defended the president’s frequent references to God and answered critics who say all such references should be banned from presidential speeches.

“As a writer, I think this attitude would flatten political rhetoric and make it less moving and interesting,” he said, according to The Washington Post. “But even more, I think the reality here is that scrubbing public discourse of religious ideas would remove one of the main sources of social justice in our history. Without an appeal to justice rooted in faith, there would be no abolition movement or civil rights movement or pro-life movement.”

Gerson, a former journalist, studied theology at Wheaton College in Illinois. During a conference on religion and politics Dec. 6-7 in Key West, Fla., he held an informal session with reporters to answer questions about the role of faith in the president’s speeches, noting that, overall, Bush’s speeches are within the bounds of traditional American civic religion.

Presidents ranging from George Washington to Bill Clinton expressed trust in God without claiming to understand all of God’s ways, Gerson said, according to The Post.

Some reporters asked Gerson about Bush’s popular line that “freedom is not America’s gift to the world, it’s the Almighty’s gift to all humanity.” Gerson said the president wrote those words himself to deter a notion that God has chosen the United States as His special instrument and also to reiterate Abraham Lincoln’s belief that Americans should try to be on God’s side instead of claiming He is on theirs, The Post reported.

The speechwriter also answered a question about the allegation that Bush speaks in code words picked up by evangelicals, particularly when he quotes hymns or Scripture.

“They’re not code words; they’re our culture,” Gerson said. “It’s not a code word when I put a reference to T.S. Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’ in our Whitehall speech [in London last year]; it’s a literary reference. Just because some people don’t get it doesn’t mean it’s a plot or a secret.”

LOTTERY WINNER’S LIFE WRECKED — In a matter of two years, the winner of the richest undivided lottery jackpot in American history went from a lighthearted, hardworking country man who promised to tithe his earnings to a high-stakes gambler who frequented strip clubs, was arrested for drunk driving and faces lawsuits and criminal investigations.

Jack Whittaker of Scott Depot, W.Va., won a lump sum of $113 million after taxes on Christmas Day 2002. He created a charity to help people find jobs, buy food or get an education, according to the Associated Press, and he split $7 million among three churches.

But problems began to surface in August 2003 when a briefcase of $545,000 was stolen from his vehicle while parked outside a strip club. Several other thefts were reported, including one that coincided with a death at his home. Whittaker, 57, has been sued and accused of multiple accounts of assault and has been ordered to attend weekly meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, the AP reported.

“I think it’s pretty sad, really,” Jerry Medley of nearby Hurricane, W.Va., told the AP. “It just goes to show money can’t always buy happiness.”

FCC COMPLAINTS LARGELY FROM PTC — Indecency complaints filed by the Parents Television Council, which seeks to keep television standards high for safer family viewing, account for 99.9 percent of those received by the Federal Communications Commission — excluding those related to the Janet Jackson Super Bowl incident — during the past year.

Some say those complaints are the cause of the FCC’s recent crackdown on indecency, including a record $3.5 million fine against Viacom for violations dating back to 2001.

“It means that really a tiny minority with a very focused political agenda is trying to censor American television and radio,” Jonathan Rintels, president and executive director of the Center for Creative Voices in Media, told Mediaweek.com.

But the PTC said the source of complaints is not the issue. Violation of federal broadcast indecency laws is the bottom line.

“Why does it matter how the complaints come?” Lara Mahaney, a spokeswoman for PTC said. “If the networks haven’t done anything illegal, if they haven’t done anything indecent, why do they care what we say?”

In an opinion piece in The New York Times in late November, FCC President Michael Powell said the legitimacy of the complaint is not minimized by the source.

“Advocacy groups do generate many complaints, as our critics note, but that’s not unusual in today’s Internet world,” he wrote. “… That fact does not minimize the merits of the group’s concerns.”

Kathleen Abernathy, an FCC commissioner, told Mediaweek the number or sources of complaints do not determine the commission’s indecency rulings.

“As long as you’re following precedents and the law, it shouldn’t matter,” she said.

In other FCC news, Fox is appealing a $1.18 million fine for content aired as part of its reality-based TV show “Married by America.” The broadcasting company contends the government’s indecency rules are unconstitutional because they do not apply to cable and satellite television, according to The Washington Post. The episode in question featured various sexual acts involving strippers, with nudity digitally obscured but recognizable.

Fox’s appeal joins a list also occupied by CBS and NBC, and if the FCC upholds the fines against the companies and at least one takes the case to court, it could mark the first test case against federal indecency standards in more than 25 years. CBS is protesting the $550,000 fine proposed for Janet Jackson while NBC is appealing an FCC ruling stemming from rock singer Bono’s use of an obscenity during a 2003 awards show.

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  • Erin Curry