Rightwing Film Geek

If I’m gonna dis Peter …

I’d better give him a hat tip for this New York Times article by Dennis Lim about SECRET SUNSHINE, based on an interview with Lee Chang-dong. When J. Robert Parks and I discussed the movie, we agreed that Lee wasn’t interested in the sort of easy caricature that comes as second nature to Hollywood and Sundance. Several other Christian critics besides myself have noted this film’s interest (thanks Jeffrey and Peter). But it wasn’t obvious what Lee’s personal religiosity was. Here’s the answer (though the Lim article does note this realism):

Asked about his own religious beliefs, Mr. Lee quoted Ludwig Wittgenstein — “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” — and added, “That’s my position on God and faith.”
“Secret Sunshine” ends on a note at once ambiguous and hopeful. Its limpid, humble approach to suffering and grace suggests something like “Breaking the Waves” stripped of mysticism, or a rationalist version of “The Pilgrim’s Progress.”
“Shin-ae is always looking up and never at the ground,” Mr. Lee said, pointing out a recurring motif. The film opens with a wide shot of the sky and concludes with the camera trained on a patch of earth. “I wanted to show that the meaning of life is not far from where we are,” he said. “It’s not up there. It’s here, in our actual life.”

I think what Robert and I were responding to, and this probably says something about the damage the Kulturkampf in the West has done to artists, was seeing a Korean skeptic/humanist able to suspend his disbelief, as it were, and produce a judicious, if critical, movie that Christians could engage with. I even said in my initial review that there is no way SECRET SUNSHINE can be compared to the Samstopher Dawkinses. But an environment where any manner of silliness, as long as it’s anti-Christian, can pass for deep thinking¹ is the cultural air that Western Christians must breathe. Where adolescent Christophobia is normal, films like SECRET SUNSHINE really really REALLY profit by comparison.

But to respond to something to a point Peter raised in that thread at Arts & Faith above (SPOILER warning henceforth):

How one reacts to the film — and its portrayal of Christians in particular — may depend to a great degree on a particular scene between a man and a woman, roughly halfway through the film (I think). … But what did you make of the fact that the “forgiven” man shows pretty much zero remorse or zero felt need to be reconciled with the woman? I really like that scene and the direction in which it spins the plot, on a number of levels, but there was something about that part of the scene that didn’t feel quite “right”, quite “real”, to me. It is scenes like this that people probably have in mind when they (or should I say, we) point to the “superficiality” of the film’s depiction of evangelical faith (or should I say, the evangelical faith depicted in this film).

I don’t agree that the child-killer shows little remorse or felt need to be reconciled. He’s calm and not playing up the sackcloth and self-flagellation angle, sure. I don’t recall his precise dialogue, beyond thanking her and welcoming her into the “Christian fold” and thanking the Holy Spirit for bringing them together, etc. For me at least, the entire energy of the scene was on her reaction, her shock. She (and I, quite frankly) expected some snarling brute and we didn’t get it; she can’t quite process that, so she takes out her disappointment on God. We have an easier time processing that surprise, and thus “judging her” … because … well, it wasn’t our child, so it’s easier for us to see the principle at stake beyond the personal (aside: this is why I oppose victim-impact statements during criminal sentencings).

That said, I’ve already noted that I see her subsequent reaction is evidence of a certain spiritual immaturity — not in her failure (she was doing something that would try the greatest saints) but in her very attempting it and being encouraged in that by her congregation (“fighting for the title right out of the Golden Gloves”). It is a true test of sainthood: can we be happy for the forgiveness received by those who have wronged us? To take it to the logical end: do we *want* Hitler to be in Hell. It’s hard to say “no” to that, but Christians must. The breadth and depth of God’s forgiveness is not a particularly interesting theological question; the answer is cut-and-dried obvious: “we must be happy for the killer” (and must not want Hitler in Hell). But it’s much more interesting as an existential dilemma: “can we be,” or “can she be.” In fact, the existential questions make for far more interesting drama, though it always has to dance at the edge of orthodoxy, precisely because the acting-out of something is neither the same thing as nor so easy as the affirmation of something (one reason I had no interest in people who dismissed BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN based on the sinfulness of homosexual sex). And this is a far broader and deeper point than the particular extremes of dealing with a child-murderer or of sodomy — in fact, it’s the one that all of us sinners face every day.
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¹ At the E Street Theater in downtown Washington at the weekend, I saw a “Coming Soon” poster for FOR THE BIBLE TELLS ME SO, which looks like a veritable Summa of this sort of stuff. The film (which Peter has apparently seen) is playing at the Vancouver International Film Festival, which describes the film thusly: “The hermeneutics of hate are given a precise translation in director Daniel Karslake’s look at how a literal reading of the bible has been the justification for centuries of persecution, violence and hatred.” I’m almost tempted to see the film just to have the privilege of slamming it.

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October 2, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

New film has Old Testament feel

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USHPIZIN, Giddi Dar, Israel, 2005, 8

“Blessed are all they that fear the Lord: that walk in his ways … it shall be well with thee. Thy wife as a fruitful vine, on the sides of thy house. Thy children as olive plants, round about thy table. Behold, thus shall the man be blessed that feareth the Lord.”
– Psalm 127

To the hero of the Israeli film “Ushpizin,” those are hollow words. His wife is not a fruitful vine. Yet God has made his promises, so, in the classic Deuteronomical view of God’s providence, the fault must be with him. God grants us everything we need and everything for which we pray sufficiently well.

shuliin.jpgMoshe (Shuli Rand) is a member of an Orthodox Jewish group, the Breslau Hasidics, living with his wife Malli (Michal Bat-Sheva Rand) in the group’s own open-courtyard block, somewhat apart from Jerusalem society (e.g., the Israeli police seek explanations and get reassurances from religious elders upon entering the courtyard to answer a call). It’s the harvest festival of Succot, and, in accord with Jewish tradition, each family must build a hut outside their home and offer hospitality to all strangers. But Moshe and Malli are so poor that they can barely even feed themselves.

Then a miracle happens, and they can now build their hut. Thanks be to God. Then two strangers (Shaul Mizrahi and Ilan Ganani) show up, escapees from an Israeli jail and acquaintances from Moshe’s pre-conversion hell-raising life as Bad Bad Leroy Brownstein. Moshe thinks they’re up to no good; Malli says they’re the “ushpizin” (guests) that God has blessed them with and that he’s failing to trust Him, something that would especially sting a man who recently abandoned a dissolute life. A rabbi (Daniel Dayan) warns Moshe that every time you pass a test, God sends a harder one. And while doing his godly duties, he has to leave the two convicts alone with his wife, who knows neither Moshe’s past nor their ties to him.

Taking the form of a comic fable or fairy tale, “Ushpizin” is as clean and simply plotted as Aesop, while being both as gentle in tone and as tough in its subtext as any fairy tale. “Ushpizin” also offers a rare look into a closed and reclusive subculture, but from an insider’s point-of-view. Combined with the setting and the constant invocations of a providential God, the film has the feel of Old Testament wisdom literature. If David or Solomon had been film-makers they might have produced something like this. There are obvious elements of Job, parallels to several Psalms, the basic plot situation of Abraham and Sarah (no Hagar here though), the familiar plot point of the unwelcome guest, the line “we need a miracle” is repeated with variations several times. And if you’re one of those Biblical scholars who has problems with the ending of Job …

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One of the most remarkable things about “Ushpizin” is how “present” God is. There are constant invocations of Him, the movie’s most-memorable sequence is of prayer being simultaneously asked and answered, the dramatic conflict concerns His providence and centers on the role white lies, bets, evil and threats therein play in it. Warm-hearted and austere at the same time, it commands a response to God’s love without sugar-coating its difficulties (what religious man – Jew, Christian or Zoroastrian – can’t associate with that). In sum, HaShem is actually the most important Character in the movie, which fades off into the closing credits with a celebratory psalm being sung … “there is nothing but God.”

In the 90 years since D.W. Griffith had the Klan race against time to save the honor of Lillian Gish, movies have intercut parallel action to build suspense or to unite events separated in time and space. It’s now so cliche, you can even play against it (think of the climax of “Silence of the Lambs”). But “Ushpizin” is the only film I can think of to intercut two characters praying. And a third character doing something unwitting to answer their prayers. And, marvelously, to the same classical effect, of uniting the divided under God’s Providence. Director Giddi Dar cinematically portrays marriage as one soul in two bodies, and prayer to God as what unites. There’s even (I hate to say this so bluntly) an erotic charge to the simultaneous depiction of each spouse’s devotion.

couplecitron.jpgThere’s also a key casting reason for this easy chemistry – Moshe and Malli are portrayed by a real-life husband and wife team of Hasidic Jews (a key requirement to get cooperation from the relevant rabbis). Shuli Rand, an Israeli stage actor before his religious conversion, and Michal Bat-Sheva Rand, a former theater director, are probably the only husband-and-wife Hasidim in the world with significant acting experience. Shuli Rand also wrote the script for Dar, a secularized Israeli Jew.

The great Italian neorealist director Vittorio De Sica once said that everybody can play one character – himself – better than anyone else possibly could. The Rands are not exactly playing themselves in terms of plot events, but in terms of the psychological territory of recent Hasidic converts testing the limits of God’s love and providence, these are roles only they could play. They have an easy familiar love and “screen chemistry” that can neither be faked or nor created by scenes of hot flesh grinding away. Michal Bat-Sheva Rand may cover her hair and wear traditional modest robes, but women in traditional societies are not patsies, something she knows and portrays far better than an outsider.

In presenting a romantic depiction of what a holy, religious marriage looks like, “Ushpizin” joins two other recent Israeli films – “Late Marriage” and “Trembling Before G-d” – in offering some of the cinema’s few serious portrayals of the traditional religious teachings on marriage, family and sex. Perhaps the constraint of avoiding anti-Semitism prevents the kind of vicious caricature of Christians that is par for the course in Hollywood and Indiewood. In the tart dramedy “Late Marriage,” a modern liberated son is shown to be a shmuck when his parents try to arrange a marriage. “Trembling” is a documentary about Hasidic Jews struggling (or not) with homosexuality and the only film I know of about religion and homosexuality that isn’t overdetermined gay propaganda.
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First published at The Fact Is.

November 22, 2005 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

2003 TOP 10 — Number 3

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THE SON (Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Belgium)

“Preach the Gospel always. When necessary, use words.”
— St. Francis of Assisi

THE SON is a European art movie that almost nobody saw (it never played commercially in Washington; I saw it twice at festivals) and it’s still not on video unless your player can read European-coded discs or tapes. This joker compared it to Robert Bresson; when I saw it a second time, with a professor at Howard University, she thought it excruciatingly slow and boring (though she warmed up to it once we started discussing it); the other day, I got a note from a film-buff pal who wondered to me “I’ve watched the first 20 minutes or so of this and I’ve yet to see anything of interest … what should I be looking for?” So I well realize that THE SON, much as I love it, is not a crowd-pleaser.

Still, I can’t get the suspicion out of the back of mind that THE SON could be a crackerjack success among the people at St. Blogs (Barbara? Father Sibley? Mark? Others?) if more people could see it and get the word out on it, because this little Belgian masterpiece speaks to the workings of God’s grace more than any other film I saw last year. In addition, it centers around divine grace and one of Christ’s admonitions to virtue more thoroughly than any film I can think of where the word “God” never appears, the central character never goes to church, and priests or religious figures are absent. Or rather, THE SON preaches grace without ever using words. Oh, there are indications that we’re supposed to understand the film allegorically and theologically all right, the film’s title and the fact that the central character, Olivier, is a carpenter. And he is faced with a moral dilemma of Christ-like proportions. But even if God is present everywhere in the film, He is visible nowhere.

Brother writer-directors Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne spend the first 25 or 30 minutes of the film just following a mousy, pasty-faced character actor named Olivier Gourmet (who won a deserved best-actor prize at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival) as his character goes about his job teaching carpentry to teenage boys at what looks like some sort of apprentice program. We learn the nuts-and-bolts of a profession in THE SON like in few films I recall. For a long time, in fact, the film hardly seems to be more than IF I WERE A CARPENTER and the Dardennes show Olivier’s taciturn, stern, fatherly manner with his charges — a perfectionist teaching and exuding a work ethic and job skills.

And he goes on living alone. And merely existing. And looking. At something. Or someone. For some reason.

thesonavuncular.jpgWhen I say “following Olivier,” I mean that about as literally as one can. The Dardennes use the same close-up-heavy, seemingly hand-held style as they did in ROSETTA — the camera is constantly moving and seemingly permanently perched about a foot behind Gourmet’s head, creating a kind of intimate claustrophobia for us within Olivier’s skin. Some wags complained that the Cannes jury should have give the prize to the back of Gourmet’s neck or his earlobes, and other sane (but wrongheaded) people found the style offputting and/or said it wrecked the film. But I found the camerawork a breathtaking virtuoso act and, although the plot doesn’t obviously kick in until a big revelation at about the 30-minute mark, the Dardennes hide more story-exposition than you’d ever guess until after THE SON is over (the Dardennes’ focus-puller does more story-telling than most Hollywoof scriptwriters). We get a general sense that Olivier is haunted by something he’s been able to put in the past. But he has that … inexplicable interest in one of his students? I usually cannot abide films that go nowhere for long periods, but right when I mentally said to myself “OK, I think they’ve milked this for all it’s worth, something needs to happen soon” — something did. And then I said “thanks dardennebuds.” That plot point constitutes a major spoiler for one of the great pleasures of THE SON (for me at any rate) — the intimate mysteriousness of the opening half-hour. You have been warned

“Then came Peter unto him and said: ‘Lord, how often shall my brother offend against me, and I forgive him? Till seven times?’ Jesus saith to him: ‘I say not to thee, till seven times; but till seventy times seven times’.”
— Matthew 18:21-22

We find out the reason for Olivier’s interest in one of the pupils — a teenager named Francis just released from reformatory. Francis had served five years in juvenile hall for killing Olivier’s son in a car robbery gone awry. Olivier knows this; Francis does not know who his boss is. And the rest of the film concerns the VERTIGO question — what happens when Scotty/Francis finds out who Judy/Olivier is? And what is Olivier’s agenda?

One of the many reasons this film is so great and the last hour so tension-filled is that we never quite know (from the uncertain way Gourmet carries his body and his taciturnity) what Olivier is doing. Is he an ironic criminal out of Poe planning the perfect crime? Is he trying to exercise Jesus’ command to perfect forgiveness, despite its obvious impossibility and the nature of the wrong done him. Not until the very last shot of the film can we be certain. THE SON is a series of temptations put before a Christ-figure on the road to exercising perfect forgiveness, the last of which, perversely, is his own righteousness.

thesonwife.jpgMost of the time, when people “forgive” their tormentors (and I’m speaking of much more than parents of murdered children, which is at the extremities of torment), they generally say a few easy words, and then they leave the sinner at a distance and move on. But THE SON is about a man who has “forgiven” (in that easier sense) his son’s killer at the start of the movie. But then the world, as if guided by an invisible providential hand, conspires to push the limits of forgiveness … by putting the killer in his apprenticeship program, by a scene in which Olivier has to save the boy from a ladder-climbing accident, by Francis’s starting to like Olivier, treat him as a friend and finally asks him to be his guardian. Olivier’s ex-wife (their marriage broke up over the death of their son) finds out and goes batshit — “how can you do this,” she screams. “I don’t know,” he (honestly) answers.

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In the climactic scene, Olivier makes a date with Francis go out to a lumber yard alone. The drive out there makes up most of the film’s third act and it keeps tantalizing us with doubts and hints until I was thinking of the third act of IN THE BEDROOM and of Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado,” with Olivier as Montresor luring a young Fortunato to his crypt for an ironic death. There’s a universe in the smallest snubs and changes in tone of voice. They stop at a pastry shop, and each gets a turnover. Olivier pays for his, leaving a surprised Francis to pay for his. No explicit explanation is offered or sought, but look at the faces. We’ve seen Olivier’s fatherly or avuncular manner with his pupils, but when your father or favorite uncle took you out somewhere, you didn’t go Dutch — and these are Belgians (couldn’t resist). It seemed like such a calculated and particularized snub that I thought it was paving the way for something more. There’s also an element of shame in Francis’ behavior throughout the drive (his evasive answers to Olivier’s asking “why were you in jail?”) and that makes his fleeing a perversely moral reaction to being made to face your wrongdoing.

Martin Luther once said: “Love God, often I hate him,” and Isaiah was terrified by seeing the face of God, and that’s sort of the dynamic here. And then, in a final perverse twist at the end, when Olivier tells him who he is, Francis flees him precisely BECAUSE the boy (quite rationally, I add, since he has seen IN THE BEDROOM) assumes he has been lured out to a murder site.

Has he? See the movie.

February 10, 2004 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Is it ‘It is as it was’?

No … not the latest Bill Clinton rumination on sex and the English language, but a dispute between Mel Gibson’s producers and the Vatican on whether Pope John Paul II gave an endorsement to THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (“It is as it was”), as reported by Peggy Noonan last month in the Wall Street Journal. Now the Vatican is denying it, including the Monsignor and friend of John Paul who was the original source of the quote. Mel’s company is standing by its claim.

noonan.jpgBut both Noonan and my friend Rod Dreher of the Dallas Morning News say they got the e-mails from the Vatican’s chief spokesman to prove that he did tell Gibson’s team that the quote was accurate and encouraged them to use it.

Rod’s column simply says he believes John Paul did say it but Vatican officials are trying to deny it, though his piece gives no motive. But Amy Welborn speculated (and I’m inclined to believe her) that because of Gibson’s reported involvement in some Ultra sects that are in dubious communion with the Church and/or believe the papacy is vacant, officials at the Vatican don’t want John Paul seen endorsing the film. So they’re lying and hanging Gibson, his distributors and some important Catholic journalists (Noonan, John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter) out to dry. That is totally unbelievable in my opinion. There is absolutely zero chance that Church bureaucrats would ever lie or smear a Catholic layman in service of preserving an institutional image of the Church. Only a wacked-out conspiracy nut would believe that.

January 22, 2004 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

A New Testament film with zip about Mel Gibson or the ADL

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THE GOSPEL OF JOHN (Philip Saville, Canada/Britain, 2003, 6)

THE GOSPEL OF JOHN had a marketing strategy that raised eyebrows — it opened weeks ago in a bunch of medium-sized and small markets in the South and Midwest and has stayed away from the blue-state major Metro areas where films customarily open. It only began screening in Washington and Los Angeles last weekend, and best I can tell from the film’s Web site, New York or Chicago runs aren’t even planned. It looked like the kind of marketing strategy an example of what Eve Tushnet calls “Junk For Jesus” would use. Actually though, THE GOSPEL OF JOHN is better than that, much better than it looks. Still, as long as no validly ordained priest said the Eucharistic Prayer over the cans of film, THE GOSPEL OF JOHN is still a movie and has to be evaluated as such.

The basic idea of following John (or any of the other Gospels) word-for-word is unfortunately a very bad one. The Gospels simply are not written like screenplays. There are maybe a couple of characters besides Jesus who get more than one scene. There are no real conversations; there isn’t much description but a lot of narration. They’re mostly “Jesus said X” and “Jesus did Y.” And so THE GOSPEL OF JOHN, even more than most Jesus films that felt free to expand or contract as drama requires, often has Christopher Plummer narrating the action along only to interrupt it by breaking into dialogue, often of not very great detail. The effect is kinda like drifting into and out of song sometimes even within a line, as in Alain Resnais’ SAME OLD SONG. I don’t mean that as a compliment — it emphasizes THE GOSPEL OF JOHN as an illustration rather than as a movie, the “Junk for Jesus” ethic.

But though THE GOSPEL OF JOHN never does overcome the basic misguidedness of its pitch, the film-makers do work well with the grain of the wood and make the best possible film that could have come from this wack idea. Still, I hope that Visual Bible International, which describes itself on the film’s Web site as “having secured the exclusive worldwide rights to develop, produce and market film adaptations on a word-for-word basis, including both Books of the Old and New Testaments,” doesn’t try this trick with … um … Romans or Second Corinthians.

John differs from the other three Gospels, in both tone and content, much more than other three differ among themselves. Relatively speaking:

— There are more miracles and theologytalk in John and fewer parables and practical sayings. For example, His most famous speech and the one most concerned with right conduct, the Sermon on the Mount, is never even alluded to in John. By contrast, the famous opening verses of John are nearly impossible to get your mind around purely in modern English. Plus, in the place the Agony in Gethsemane would occur, John gives us four chapters of prayer and theological exhortation to the Disciples.

johnjesus.jpg— There is more Glory and certitude in John and less Sorrow and doubt. Neither Satan’s temptations nor the Agony in Gethsemane are even mentioned. The Jesus of John is never in doubt as He goes around performing miracles to show Who He is and has an absolute air of knowing what must happen. He nearly has to chase Judas out of the Last Supper — “go betray me now,” practically. The words from the cross in John are “it is finished” rather than “why have you forsaken me?” (as in Matthew and Mark), again emphasizing the playing out of Providence.

But why I think THE GOSPEL OF JOHN is a worthwhile movie is that the filmmakers effectively “roll with these punches,” these particular emphases in John’s Gospel. And know they *are* punches (to overstrain the metaphor). While I’ve said that John is a theology-heavy Gospel, one of the virtues of THE GOSPEL OF JOHN comes in explaining that theology. It happens in one of the few moments when the film discards its literalist premise. On the night of the Last Supper, we get impressionistic flashbacks to various things that we’ve seen, and now Jesus’ words explain what the miracles were all about, bearing witness to the Father who sent Him. The “that they all may be one” prayer is accompanied to half-second shots of all the various sorts of people Jesus encountered.

johntrial.jpgThe film benefits enormously from a quietly excellent central performance from Henry Ian Cusick, one which plays to the way Jesus is portrayed in John. This is a Jesus Who is sure in His skin, often happy and, yes smiling along while trying to enlighten the world that often rejects Him — never either a tortured doubter (the only tears you see from Cusick are when Martha, the sister of Lazarus, weeps at his death) nor a flat icon of good-two-shoesness. He sometimes tosses fire and brimstone as needed (the money-changers in the Temple), but only rarely. In other words, you see why His disciples would follow Him. And that He knows He is the Son of God and the Messiah, and doesn’t find that or his mission remarkable. The film’s portrayal of Jesus’ miracles is particularly fine. They are presented literally, but in an offhand way. There’s no thunder or zapping or wailing or attempts to explain them away. Or even an attempt to awe us. Instead, the wedding partiers pour water into their jugs and a few seconds later, wine comes out. We never see Jesus “resurrected,” as if in the payoff shot. Simply, as the Gospel states, we see Mary Magdelene come and find the empty tomb and then she comes across Jesus outside. The GOSPEL OF JOHN manages to be a low-key, reverent film without slipping into the sort of pious bombast that stifles drama.

THE GOSPEL OF JOHN uses a recent translation, the Good News Bible, that is very understandable though it consequently loses some poetic/ritualistic glory. It took me a few minutes to realize that the reason Jesus kept saying “I am telling you the truth,” is that this is the oath better known in its King James translation as “verily, verily I say unto you.” The Douay-Reims has the (more literal) translation: “amen, amen, I say to you.” Either of the older translations has more artistic merit and probably a greater comfort level, but it’s safer to say the later one is clearest and least (in our terms of reference) adorned.

As for THE GOSPEL OF JOHN’s negative virtues, the foremost is that there isn’t very much (that I recall anyway) bombastic cinematic underwriting of the Jesus’ holiness, beyond what He says and does. It also helps in this vein that the disciples and the other characters are all played by actors unknown to me, avoiding the spot-the-star travesty that was, e.g. THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD (that’s how *great* this story is … every star in town is in it). The score is restrained as Gospel films go. Only in a very few places, e.g. is Jesus is framed in those cliched glowing halos. More often in fact, we look at a plain sun to represent Jesus as a light unto the world. There are a couple of halo shots very early on, but that’s before Jesus has said a word and we’re mostly seeing Him through the eyes of John the Baptist. The film actually shows Jesus’ shadow and feet before we see His face, as the narrator says “and the Word became man.”

johnsandals.jpgYes, the feet. One of the most moving ceremonies to me personally is the Holy Thursday custom for the Pope to wash the feet of 12 Roman parishioners, which most bishops also follow. In THE GOSPEL OF JOHN, the disciples’ feet are shown to be dirty, and this is what a film about the Gospels can offer that even the Gospels themselves cannot — tactility, presentness. To put it bluntly, we see the dirt on the Disciples feet; we have seen the dust in the streets of the Holy Land. Thus when Christ humbles himself before his followers after the meal, we see what it means for the Word to be made flesh — that it rubbed elbows with dirt. Consistent with its offhand manner, THE GOSPEL OF JOHN doesn’t ever rub our faces in its cinematic ability to make us see and feel the things of the world. But it’s there, present, and frankly quite moving.

November 25, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | 2 Comments

The Reel Presence

bresson.jpgA fine generalist article about the life and ouevre of the French Catholic director Robert Bresson is available here from National Catholic Reporter (thanks Amy).

Have to confess though, that Bresson really is not my cup of tea (when it comes to boring/harrowing European religious movies, give me the Scandinavians — Carl-Theodor Dreyer, Lars Von Trier, and Ingmar Bergman — every time).

Among Bresson’s Jansenist-influenced films, only A MAN ESCAPED really sent me, and that’s because it seemed like the only time Bresson’s quiet, deliberately inexpressive and unpsychological style fit the subject matter. The central character *has* to keep his thoughts to himself in order not to blow his cover for the only thing that matters — escape. The retrospective voiceover narration becomes both necessary and thrilling — cuing us in to what he’s thinking and why, so ESCAPED is not so obscure and arbitrary as much of Bresson’s body of work (I defy anyone to tell me the logic of why anything in L’ARGENT happened as it did). Still, I recognize that my opinion of Bresson is a distinct minority view among familiar enough with him to have an opinion.
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blake.jpgA priest has an interesting-sounding book (thanks Kathy) about the influence of Catholicism on the works of six important Anglo-American filmmakers, all of them at least cradle Catholics — Frank Capra, Francis Coppola, Brian De Palma, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock and Martin Scorsese.

It’s not exactly the first time this will have been noted for any of the named directors, but having a theologically-literate priest (named Richard A. Blake, SJ) write such a book could give a new view to these works. I’m already intrigued by the article’s paragraph on THE CONVERSATION. Called “AfterImage: The Indelible Catholic Imagination of Six American Filmmakers,” it uses the metaphor of the “afterimage,” meaning the imprint left even after after the original is gone. Or as the Jesuits (of which the author is one) put it: Give me the child until he is 7, and I will give you the man.

November 16, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 1 Comment

Protestant hagiography

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LUTHER (Eric Till, USA/Germany, 2003, 6)

Circumstances don’t come together like this. I saw LUTHER with a Lutheran friend (Wisconsin Synod) … on Reformation Day. Although frankly, if noting that Reformation Day is the same day as the Satanic holiday of Halloween isn’t enough to make you Catholic, Christ Himself would probably be powerless. Is LUTHER a good film? Yes. Is it a great film? No. You just have to go into it with the right set of expectations. LUTHER is a hagiography, a Protestant “Lives of the Saints” film. Expect that, and the film delivers nicely. But my fellow Papists are advised to have thick skin.

Is LUTHER historically or theologically distorted? Yes, in a certain sense. People more knowledgeable than I have had more severe problems with its history and theology than I could possibly have had. I can forgive it showing none of Luther’s anti-Semitism (neither atypical of the period nor the reason Luther matters). Or passing over his abusive, scatalogical debating style (his rants against Erasmus in “Bondage of the Will” hardly matter any more, though they make for ‘interesting’ reading). In any event, those features of Luther became prominent later in his life than the period the film shows and I don’t think that that focus was a deliberate choice, made to duck those issues. It is simply that the most-important things Luther did, the reason he is important in a way Huss or Tyndale are not, he did early in his life — his break with the Catholic Church on [in part] the grounds of individualism, his [sorta] bucking the German princes into ending the Holy Roman Empire and other features of the medieval system, his lighting the fire of German-ness and thus nationalism in general. That was all early. And the Catholic Counter-reformation and the Enlightenment, which the Protestant Reformation helped spark, are obviously beyond the scope of a Luther biopic.

marty.jpgBut what is not forgivable is the film reducing the Protestant Reformation to questions of indulgences (practices the Church promptly reined in) and Papal authority. These were both prominent issues certainly, but there isn’t even a passing reference to any of the others, like sacramentality or soteriology. In fact, joking before the movie, my Lutheran friend and I devised soccer-fan style incantations to chant during the relevant scenes (“SOH-la-FEE-day, SOH-la-FEE-day …”) Maybe “sola fide” and “sola gratia” might make people’s eyes glaze over today, but that’s precisely why the issues are important. Their absence gives us a Luther comfortably domesticated to Our Virtues. (Yeah, freedom and the individual! Boo, control and authority!) Also, even I knew that the shock the movie’s Luther professed at the peasant massacres and attacks on Catholic churches was a sop to modern-day audiences. Even a Lives of the Saints portrayal has some responsibility in these regards.

Nevertheless, this is a fairly good retelling of the Founding Myth of Protestantism. We turn reverently from one station to the next in the story, though I admit my knowledge of the history here is less than perfect. My Lutheran friend had to tell me after the movie that the story of the lightning storm that begins the film is true, from Luther himself. But the roll call of scenes is gone through — the trip to Rome, the disillusionment, the quarrels with his teachers, his seeing John Tetzel sell indulgences in a brazen manner, the nailing of the 95 Theses on a Wittenberg church door, the condemnation of Luther’s works, the Diet of Worms, the marriage to a wayward nun, the Bible translation, the Augsburg Confession. And so on. The history is also not as anti-Catholic as it could have been — the down side of the Reformation is clearly shown (even if Luther’s attitude toward it is not), as is the worshipful “New-Pope” reaction of the German people; Church figures are shown doubting some of Tetzel’s practices (they would soon be repudiated) and also realizing that Pope Leo didn’t handle everything as well as he might have.

From the outside, Joseph Fiennes just looks like a horrible casting mistake — Luther was a peasant mensch; Fiennes has a fine-fingered white-collar aura. But Fiennes makes it work by playing Luther as tortured. Some critics objected to this characterization, but there can hardly be any doubt that Luther saw himself in the constant shadow of God’s judgment. So when he goes “bonkers” praying in his room the night before his famous words at the Diet of Worms, it recodes in advance Fiennes’ relatively subdued except-when-clearly-stretching performance before his judges. When Fiennes says the next day, before God, and recites the modern man’s credo: “Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me” … well … a chill went up and down my spine. Really … a physical chill.

lutherustinov.jpgThe truly delicious performance in the film though, is given by the great Peter Ustinov as Frederick of Saxony. It has some of the qualities of Orson Welles’ late work as an actor (or even the performance Charles Laughton gave in SPARTACUS, opposite Ustinov himself). There’s something liberating and relief-giving in the total hammy ease and self-confidence Ustinov flashes in playing a cynical, knowing, sly old man. It’s as if Ustinov knows he’s the best actor in the show, the thing you’re gonna be looking at in every scene he’s in, and dammit, he’s gonna have some fun hamming it up, and you’re gonna have fun watching him.

November 5, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

Ataaaaaaaaack of the Papistrightwingers

I was gonna say something about a truly vile article in Sunday’s Boston Globe magazine, but really, I can’t do better than this by Catholic blogger Dale Price.

November 4, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

Dirty white boys (apologies to Lou Gramm)

I’ve refrained from saying anything about the Episcopal Church’s elevation of an open, practicing homosexual to the post of bishop. Partly because others are saying what I would quite nicely. Also, part of me is reluctant to comment on the internal doings of a church I’m not a member of, for reasons of both etiquette and triumphalism (“after all, the other ones aren’t bishops any more than Gene Robinson is”).

But this bit of idiocy was too interesting to pass up and deals with a broader topic near and dear to me, the absolute irrationality of some liberals on the subject of race and an inability even to see the nose in front of their faces. Or the skin.

Episcopal Bishopess Barbara Harris is quoted as saying:

This is a power struggle as to who is going to run the church, the white boys who have always run it, or some different kinds of people. White men see their church being changed and they don’t like it.

akinola.jpg


vickygene.jpgWhat the colorful is she babbling about? Bishop Robinson, the last I looked, was white and a boy/man, which I think makes him a “white boy/man” … although one can never be too sure in these interesting times for pomo theology. The opposition to Bishop Robinson was most vocal among the Episcopal Churches of such “white boy” nations as Nigeria, Kenya and Uganda, and others are from Asia and South America. (The money articles are here in the New York Times, and here in the Daily Telegraph). The Advocate’s news article mentions opposition from US conservatives, of which there is plainly a lot and perfectly fairly noted. But there being a worldwide issue here and the threats of schism coming from The Dark Continent are facts that this article does not tell you. At least one of the overseas Anglican bishops who have taken to consecrating bishops to lead orthodox parishes in the United States came from Singapore. Now, regardless of the merits of Bishop Robinson’s elevation, can liberals even imagine disagreement through any prism or template other than white racism? Even … especially … when it manifestly isn’t.

This is an old habit of racial condescension among progressive Episcopalians — Bishop John Spong dismissed his African brethren as having “moved out of animism into a very superstitious kind of Christianity,” being ignorant of scientific advances, and not yet facing “the intellectual revolution of Copernicus and Einstein.” And damn them, he would think like a 20th century American. Fold in the venom that secular liberals regularly heap on Clarence Thomas (and lately Janice Rogers Brown), and let’s not forget Donna Brazile‘s use of “white boy” as an epithet (Larry Elder has a good roundup of all of it here), and it’s hard to avoid thoughts that, when dealing with black people who don’t agree with them, liberals can be just as racist as they imagine others are.

November 3, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

And now Weekend Update …

Breaking news on several fronts over the last few days (when I was away for a film festival) and on which I have posted here before:

First, Mel Gibson landed a distributor, Newmarket Films, and confirmed the planned release date for the newly titled THE PASSION OF CHRIST as Ash Wednesday. I’ve already made my predictions — a firestorm of anti-Semitism charges (the Lent opening will give another excuse … er … news peg to accuse the Church of anti-Semitism and assorted other bestialities), and a negative critical reception since some critics already have their leads written, and I refuse to believe this is an isolated attitude. Box office, we’ll have to wait and see, but subtitled films just don’t do well in the United States. I think only two, LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL and CROUCHING TIGER, have ever even broken $50 million. (And if it’s not two, it’s no more than three.) Any good? I’ll get back to you.

Second, the screener issue was “solved,” with the MPAA agreeing to lift the ban, but only for Academy members. This solves some of the problems, but leaves critics groups, primarily those for critics working in smaller markets, out in the cold.

Third, Michael “Killer” Schiavo is starting his Public Redemption Tour facing the tough, incisive questioning of Larry King. “My girlfriend supports my stance on Terri because the kind of care I want to give her will remove Terri as an obstacle and we’ll be free to marry.” Or something like that. And of course, the Atheist Press is spinning this story as a “right-to-die” case, when curiously, the person who will die never herself asserted that right.

Finally, on the Canadian tolerance beat, theological liberals in the Episcopal Church prove their open-mindedness, Celebrate Diversity and fight the forces of inquisitorial reaction by threatening heresy trials for those who repudiate the One Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Be Intolerant Of Mine Approved Groups.

October 28, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

‘Twas always thus

If I’m gonna this much space and energy slagging Mark Shea, I should note that he has made a stunning archaeological find.

Apparently, the New York Times or the Associated Press or USA Today (they’re not sure yet; still working on the translation from Old Church Aramaic) were in business 2,000 years ago and producing masterpieces of journalism like this one, which Mark has very kindly translated.

October 28, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Friendly faces everywhere …

I just watched a TV show in which a sympathetic character looks to the screen and says (paraphrasing from memory only a little) “Schools are handing out condoms to kids at a younger age every year. But sex is also emotional and spiritual. Parents should be the ones who teach children about sex. If you leave it up to the schools, you never know who’s gonna be teaching them.”

choksondik.jpgAs an example of the kinds of people who teach school sex ed, the camera cuts to a closeup of a woman whose breasts have sunk to her knees. And is named Miss Choksondik.

I hope you know what show I’m referring to. If you don’t, you really need to check out SOUTH PARK. Caveat: if you are appalled at the last sentence in that graf and can’t imagine ever laughing at jokes that crude (in both senses of that word), you probably don’t. But both forms of crudity are part of what make the show great. For those of you in Pago Pago, the R-rated humor in this very adult cartoon mostly follows 8-year-old kids with mouths like sailors (call it KIDS SAY THE DAMNDEST SHIT). It is *really* over the top and in such calculated ways, that to complain about it as such is to miss the point.

When 8-year-old boys decide they want to be lesbians just like their new teacher Miss Ellen and one of them starts chewing on a rug sample — the joke isn’t just the shock of hearing a locker-room term for lesbian sex, but on the literal-minded innocence of the boys in the midst of it all. It’s as if the show is about G-rated kids souls in R-rated bodies or the different forms that innocence must take in an R-rated world.

Also the show is most merciless on liberal cant. Other episodes have had Big Gay Al (yes, that’s his name … thanks for asking) explain why he *shouldn’t* be allowed to join the Boy Scouts or have the boys learn that patriotism involves love of country even when it’s wrong (and reprises World War II by turning Cartman and Osama bin Laden into versions of Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd).

And Saturday’s episode made the obvious point never made in humorless, wonkish discussions of sex ed — would you have wanted to learn about sex from any teacher you ever had? It also follows the theory of sex ed with impeccable logic, to demonstrating fellatio methods to kindergartners (and it doesn’t shrink from, well … ahem). Flannery O’Connor once made the point that to the hard of hearing, you shout. She also said the time had passed for what she also called “the pious voice.” Social-conservative satire is working its way into the culture through this raunchfest, and while the show will definitely “frighten the horses,” in a world that, so to speak, worships horses, that’s not a bad thing.

August 25, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 1 Comment

This week, I prefer Roeper

It has long been obvious to all who cared that Roger Ebert was a liberal Democrat with radical and counterculture sympathies (yet somehow in the pay of Vast Right-Wing Conspirator Conrad Black and the evil Disney Cultural Megamonster). His reviews of the films of Spike Lee, Oliver Stone and Michael Moore came laced with asides and whole paragraphs that made it clear to anyone with the eyes to see. Fine, whatever.

But the subject of President Bush in the past couple of years has pushed him out of the closet, and his own doors have come a bit unhinged in the process. His review of LUMUMBA, a biopic of the 1960s Congolese radical, began with a rant about Bush’s missile-defense plan. And in his post-September 11 review of ZOOLANDER, he more-or-less said the film could cause Malaysians to kill Americans by the thousands. Or something like that.

Now, that kind of stuff is just funny. And Ebert, the most influential film critic of his era, the man who first lit the fire under practically every film geek of my generation, isn’t even the lefty critic most worth laughing at for that sort of thing. (There’s a whole gaggle at the Village Voice). But he crossed the line in an interview in the latest issue of the Progressive.

Much of it was fine and par for the course, until he began exhibiting a generational and intellectual arrogance that I find utterly breathtaking, but entirely typical for Ebert’s kind of culture snob. I suppose there isn’t really any point in my saying anything since I’m a generation younger than Ebert and therefore never took a civics class. And this is all obviously the same “Limbaugh rhetoric” from “parrots” who “don’t have any ideas of their own.” But reading tripe like that makes me think I was in the first generation that ever took a logic class.

The double standards are appalling and legion. Sean Penn is “probably not dumb” because he’s the greatest actor of his generation. Um, OK. About anyone who would make that argument — who thinks there’s a greater correlation between intellect and acting ability than between intellect and thinking you’d learn the truth about Iraq from Saddam Hussein and Baghdad Bob — that person probably *is* dumb. But let that go. How does this “probability” sit alongside Ebert’s repeated and open contempt for Dubya as stupid? The man has degrees from Harvard and Yale. Yes, he had all sorts of connections and advantages that middle- and lower-class people didn’t, but Harvard and Yale don’t just hand out degrees, even to their legacies, and they don’t graduate dummies. Yes, Bush is not philosophically sophisticated or reflective (very, very few people are), but that’s not the same thing as being dumb, as in the caricature Ebert and the his SDS pals draw. And Ivy League degrees have a far greater “probably” relationship to intellect than acting ability (which is essentially the ability to convincingly pretend, a skill that the uncharitable might note is much closer to self-delusion than to knowledge).

And what’s this born-yesterday piffle about religion and politics? “Religion in the White House has crossed the line between church and state … we finally get a religion in the White House” in the form of Bush? Was Ebert taking so many civics classes that he skipped history classes? In fact, if anything Ebert’s generation, far from being the last to have a civics class, was the first to decide on a new, secular sense of “civitas.” Prior to approximately the time of Kennedy, religion had proudly never left the White House or American politics — the only questions had been what religion and to what ends. Does Ebert think the Puritans were people with funny hats and turkeys who came to America to set up the “shining city on a hill” as a secular republic? Has he read Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, in which he explicitly interprets the Civil War in providential and salvific terms? Or anything by the civil rights movement from *Reverend* King or Fanny Lou Hamer? Or does he know about the Calvinist Woodrow Wilson, who justified U.S. imperialism as God’s civilizing hand (and was far from alone in so doing)? Or Teddy Roosevelt, who justified same as a form of muscular Christianity (James Naismith, the inventor of basketball, was of that school of religion)? Or the Abolitionist movement, which was a product of the Second Great Awakening? Where was he when Jimmy-fricking-Carter was in the White House? Or when Bill Clinton publically set up a counsel of religious elders to look after his soul during the Year of Monica? Or … I could go on and on, but why bother? It’s obvious Ebert is just parroting a set of ACLU talking points because he’s never had an original thought of his own. Doesn’t he even remember from 1959-1960 that the wider-shared objection to Kennedy wasn’t that he’d bring *religion* into the White House, but that he’d bring in the *wrong religion* — Catholicism, the foreign tyranny of the Pope of Rome and all that. Again, prior to Kennedy, it always had been assumed that the president and Congress would come from one or another strain of mainline Protestantism and govern accordingly. Maybe little Rog skipped that day in civics class. Or maybe he was busy praying for the election of Harry Truman (no church-state separation issues or cause for thoughts about the stupidity of a man who thinks God takes sides in politics there of course).

The “civics class” comment is self-righteous demogoguery. And wholly unjustified as an opinion for Ebert to have about his own intellect as demonstrated here. To avoid being one of those who “don’t understand the First Amendment,” one must first have read it, and what it says is “Congress shall make no law …” (This prohibition was later extended to state and local government through the 14th Amendment.) What it says absolutely nothing about, what no court has ever construed it to say, is private action, private criticism, private open-mindedness or anything else private. It’s a restriction on government. The only offenses cited are Fox being a meanie to the brilliant Sean Penn, the refusal of some stations to play the Dixie Chicks and right-wingers’ dismissal of his own political columns as worthless (an entirely justified one; the Florida recount columns are comedies of forensic errors, not excluding lies). Oh … and some people on the Internet keep a list of who they see as U.S. enemies. Big fat hairy deal. What does any of this have to do with government action, the only thing the First Amendment speaks about? Maybe little Rog skipped that day in civics class too.

If you want to argue a policy, you first have to understand and talk specifically about what is happening. And on the most basic of economic concepts, Ebert is just plain all thumbs. Now it could be, in principle, a perfectly reasonable complaint that the tax system is insufficiently progressive or the welfare state insufficiently generous. Or that certain politicians have made it thus and that’s bad. But what is this Ebertish babble about “their money is being stolen” and “a concerted policy of taking money away from the poor and giving it to the rich”? The poor have little or nothing *to* take away or call “theirs” to be stolen … that is why they are called “poor.” What is this “concerted policy” that Ebert is talking about? Tax cuts? All they can do, by definition, is let people keep more of what they have earned in the first place. To the contrary, the Earned Income Tax Credit actually “gives” money (there is no “Negative Income Tax”) to people … but only the working poor. Further, the share of people near the bottom who pay no federal income tax at all has grown in recent years, and will continue to expand under Dubya’s tax cuts. Government spending programs? Leave aside the empirical (and therefore far too complex for Ebert’s posturing) question of whether they have in fact been cut (they have not … nondefense government spending under Dubya is as high as it has ever been). Just think conceptually about what Ebert is saying. Government spending programs give some people money or benefits they didn’t have before. A government might cut such programs, but that could only give the beneficiaries less, and that’s just not the same thing. This might sound like a Jesuitical distinction, but Ebert was too specific and too repetitive in his usage to think he was speaking loosely. Besides, he took all those civics classes that gave him a corner on reason against those who parrot Limbaugh rhetoric and have never had a thought of their own. He genuinely seems to live in a world where the government robs from the poor to give to the rich. And that is just plain nuts, except under some Brezhnev Doctrine of permanent entitlement growth or some absolute objection to any and all private property.

Speaking of Marxism, I also loved the way this millionaire presumes to speak for the poor. Remember how the Progressive’s writer mentioned Ebert’s car license plate, but didn’t say what kind of car it was? That was awesome. He complains that so many “ordinary people” are “voting conservative and thinking that the conservatives represent them” and then haughtily says “they don’t.” Has it ever dawned on this guy that other people might be at least as decent (maybe better) judges of their own interests and who represents them as he is? Or that people’s interests might be broader than economics (e.g., the culture war or foreign policy)? Or that, heaven forfend, he might be wrong about economics. No, Ebert is just so sure, so sure. His certainty doesn’t come from political or economic realities; it comes from apparently on high.

These are acute distinctions, I realize, but I have no patience with them or tolerance for them when they come from someone who so pointedly looks down on other people’s intellects, say they parroting Limbaugh’s talking points because they never took a civics class and have no thoughts of their own and all that rubbish. The reason I suspect that Ebert only gets rude dismissals from conservatives is simply that when he talks politics, he isn’t worth engaging. In fact, as a general rule, the more profound somebody’s distaste for a political view, the less likely he is to address it.

Ebert plays like he wants a civil discussion, why can’t we celebrate people with different opinions and argue with them, etc., but how can one have a civil discussion with someone who wrote a snob-act-masquerading-as-a-column on the presidential daughter’s wardrobe choices, calling her “uncouth” and a “yob,” but exactly what you’d expect from such dumb family stock? How can one have a civil discussion with someone who compared Florida Secretary of State Katharine Harris to Bill the Butcher from GANGS OF NEW YORK? How can one have a civil discussion with someone who says Bush getting caught in the London rain proves that missile-defense is a bad idea [I am not making that up]? How can one have a civil discussion with someone who defends the Florida Supreme Court’s conduct with “I trust that if any of those justices believed in their hearts that their decision was wrong, they would have said so” and yet has no problem with calling the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision a “federal coup” [the double standard stinks to high heaven]?

And why would one want to?

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Ebert icon from Rentertainment.

August 22, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

Not-so-brave heart

Well, Mel Gibson knuckled under. At least somewhat.

Easy for me to be brave about Gibson’s movie, obviously, and for all I know these changes might be for the better. But I can’t say I’m not disappointed. This is starting to resemble (in a much lower-stakes field, it cannot be said often enough) some Union of Soviet Cinematographers self-criticism sessions for artists whose work was considered “bourgeois formalism” or whatever made Stalin’s colon clench that week.

I hope this report is accurate and the only changes Mel makes merely emphasize the Jewishness of Jesus and His disciples — in which case, not only is it theologically unobjectionable, but I’d applaud it as the greatest antidote to Christian anti-Semitism (of which, though any amount is too much, there is blessedly very little today compared to 100 years ago). Though I do wonder what “clearly labeling” Simon as a Jew would mean, since nearly everybody not in a Roman soldier’s outfit will be a Jew. In fact, I wished I’d emphasized this point more the last time I blogged about THE PASSION. In any faithful adaptation of the Gospels, almost all the characters, on both sides of the crucifixion, would be Jews. Only the deranged, looking to stroke a pre-existing prejudice (and they can’t set the standard), could see a Jew being killed, to the grief of His Jewish mother and His Jewish followers, by Romans at the behest of a different group of Jews — and come away blaming the Jews. (By the way, what about the risk of this movie stoking other prejudices? Have the Sons of Italy taken some sort of omerta … oops.)

Still I’m not optimistic. It’s just hard to read these complaints for very long and not come to the conclusion that the ADL, Wiesenthal Center et al, just believe that Christianity is simply anti-Semitic as such. And indeed the Jewish lobby groups aren’t backing off in the slightest (like in the quote from Foxman: “with creative rights come the responsibility to tell history as we see it” or something very close to that). Plus the Reuters article has this delicious bit of “please stop me before I refute myself”:

“Rabbis who have screened the film say it threatens to undo decades of progress between Christians and Jews after the Vatican refuted the deicide charges in the Second Vatican Council from 1962 to 1965.”

Say what? I suppose if Gibson got a papal imprimatur for his 32-part TV adaptation of THE PROTOCOLS OF THE ELDERS OF ZION for family Ramadan hour, there’d be a problem. But a Gospel film made by a Catholic artist in dubious communion with the Vatican and over which the church has no more control than it does over THE MATRIX movies — that can have THAT much of an effect? I hope that’s not true, but if it is true, then let’s just pack in interreligious dialogue and go home. Those “decades of progress between Christians and Jews” then would have produced nothing of value if it’s so superficial and fragile as to be threatened by THE PASSION.

And Gibson knuckling under came shortly after this piece in which a rabbi says his group has gotten more anti-Semitic letters than customary. But then goes ahead and blames … THE PASSION. Is there any oxygen in the house? For one thing, this article does not cite any of the hate mail as citing THE PASSION (and on the “dog not barking” theory, that probably means there hasn’t been any). But there’s an even more fundamental problem in blaming Gibson’s movie. For practical purposes, nobody has seen it. All that people have done is hear the discussions in the press, on discussion boards, blogs and whatnot. Therefore, by definition, unless Rabbi Heir thinks the letters are coming from the goyish putzheads Matt Drudge, David Horowitz or Michael Medved, the film THE PASSION cannot be the cause of anything. The only thing people know of it is the discussion surrounding THE PASSION. And is it not possible, Mr. Hier, that people are reacting (in a contemptible way, certainly) against your self-righteous bawling? And that maybe, just maybe, this is an example of being the cause of one’s own misery (that is possible, isn’t it?)

Anyway, even if Gibson makes no further cuts and the film plays to a firestorm of anti-Semitism charges next spring (that will happen unless the ADL gets final-cut approval — mark my words), the chill will be felt down the line. If one of the most famous stars in the world gets this much grief trying to self-finance and self-distribute a Christ movie without the approval of Jewish pressure groups, what’s a mere studio owned by a conglomerate with 30 other boycottworthy irons in the fire to do? Even if the Jewish groups lose, they win, because the cultural word is out: no more Jesus movies henceforth without the imprimatur of organized Jewry.

August 16, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Mel ruled as not kosher

Well, one day after I advise Mel Gibson not to let the Anti-Defamation League see THE PASSION, the ADL weighs in and the secular media picks it up, both the Associated Press and Reuters. Someone should send Mel a link to my site, though I should inform him that there is a Consulting Fee For Fabulously Wealthy Film Stars.

I obviously haven’t seen the film, so maybe I should hold my fire, but I can’t say I’m impressed with the ADL’s arguments, as presented in its press release. Any reasonably faithful adaptation of the Gospels will show Jesus’s blood being sought by the Jewish authorities and the Jerusalem mob. Whatever the subtle details of what body did what at what hour, where the accounts do differ in minor ways, all four Gospels are united in proclaiming what the ADL is clearly constructing in its first, second and fifth bullets as anti-Semitism. If the argument is that any portrayal of any Jew demanding Jesus’ blood is anti-Semitic, then Christianity as such is anti-Semitic. At this point, I throw up my hands and go home, concluding that ADL wants Christians to apologize ourselves out of existence.

I can understand the historical discomfort of the ADL and reasonable Jews with the deicide charge and its link to passion plays, given what it has “justified” in the past. But the execution of Jesus of Nazareth, whatever its theological meanings, is a historical event, as much a historical event as the execution of, say, Socrates. And the peoples and certain leaders in 1st century Jerusalem and 5th century Athens played significant roles, according to the primary historical documents we have of those events. Blaming contemporary Jews for deicide is absurd and makes no more sense than blaming the execution of Socrates on contemporary Greeks. It is also, in the light of eternity, bad theology — the execution of Jesus, whatever the role certain historical personages played, was required in the economy of salvation by the sins of all men (a point Gibson has made, along with some people who have seen the film). Catholic congregations are reminded of this every year by playing the part of the crowd demanding Jesus’ death. I would definitely agree that Christians, especially Catholics, have an obligation not to repeat past crimes against God’s people. But truth is truth, and at some point, Judaism and Christianity have to part ways on who Jesus of Nazareth was, and that has moral and historical implications that I don’t think the ADL is grasping, and which explains Gibson’s stubbornness and (at least my) skepticism about the ADL’s charges.

As a strictly theological matter, why shouldn’t those Jews of 1st-century Jerusalem not taken in by this new heresy led by this Nazarene nobody (is it necessary to emphasize that Christians generally realize Jesus and all his disciples were Jews), those “Jews who adhere to their Jewish faith” in the ADL’s words, have wanted Jesus’ death? Is ADL speaking from the perspective of Judaism? Jesus was claiming to be the prophesied Messiah, the Son of God and all that. If these claims are not true, and every Jew has to believe they are not true (otherwise, he’s just become a Christian), then the mere man making them is the rankest blasphemer, surely worthy of death under the Law. In addition, God’s people turning away, rejecting Him for this or that false idol — the golden calf, the Egyptian and Babylonian deities during the exiles — is a constant theme throughout the Torah. Caiaphas bloody well should have been concerned about his people following for this latest heretic, and stamping it out as blasphemy. Speaking theologically, some amount of anti-Christianity is inherent in Judaism, and some amount of anti-Judaism is inherent in Christianity. We just have to live with that until God calls a halt to history, and calling any and every reminder of any of the bases for the latter a form of hate doesn’t change that.

August 12, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

The Religion of Tolerance Update

No, this is not about Islam (that’s The Religion of Peace, for future reference). These are some of the latest exploits of the pro-gay yobbos in their tireless efforts to battle homophobic hate.

  • Disagreement over the U.S. Episcopal Church’s ordination of a homosexual bishop inspired a couple of Anglican clerics to give a Kenyan bishop an example of the warmth and hospitality that the English are noted for exhibiting toward Italian soccer fans.
  • Canada’s reputation for Tolerance marches forward, with The Latest Word being that no teacher may, in any public space, express any disapproval of homosexuality (or “two-spirited people” even). If the teacher had been suspended merely for graduating illiterates and innumerates, the union would kick up holy hell. Here, it’s his chief persecutor.
  • At the bottom of the Canada link (and it’s a sign of the times that this is now considered worthy of a mere aside), there is this: “Meanwhile, a Commons committee is considering a bill that would make the reading of biblical injunctions against homosexuality in a church a ‘hate crime’ under the Criminal Code.” This is a spreading phenomenon in the countries that used to be Christendom. Even if everything in THE MAGDALENE SISTERS were holy writ, it should have been long-ago obvious that Ireland is no longer your grandpa’s beloved Erin or the theocracy of Sinead O’Connor’s mind. Yes … the Catholic Church is being warned about the potential criminality of a Church document. We have seen the future.
  • This desecration of a conservative parish happened the night that the Episcopal church ratified Gene Robinson’s election as New Hampshire bishop. Perhaps it was just like ripping up a city block when your sports team wins the title. I should note that there’s no actual evidence that this was gay activists, but the details of the crime have to make that the default assumption for now.
  • At least these demonstrators were peaceful and stayed outside when ordered to (though some of the quotes in story are just sad … “this is my birthright as an Irish Catholic”). But I will never forget serving as a lay communion minister at a parish in Austin, Texas, during the heyday of ACT-UP and having a significant part of the training devoted to “this is what you do if demonstrators come to desecrate the Host.”

Does five in one week constitute something more than anecdotal evidence?

August 11, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment