Keeping up with much of anything is hard to do, given work and commuting schedules. Often a horror movie will pass without even a notice until it’s on the sale shelf or free on Amazon Prime. On an October afternoon nothing feels more appropriate than a moody, ghost driven film. All these caveats are to introduce We Are Still Here, a movie that has received commendable ratings from the critics but which seemed pretty conventional to me. I’m not a fan of gore, and the finale has plenty to go around, still, the pacing is about right and the landscape is vacuously beautiful. I have to confess that I’m not sure of what was happening, although the newspaper shots during the credits were supposed to explain things. Haunted house, check. Townspeople acting badly, check. Spooky presence in the domicile, check. The menace is referred to in several different ways, but what is clear is that it wants a sacrifice.
To me this is what is at the heart of the connection between religion and horror. Sacrifice is wasteful by definition. Gods, who are demanding creatures, ask for people to give up something they could use to propitiate divine displeasure. We’re never really sure why gods have such anger issues, but it does seem like a universal trait. In We Are Still Here the “god” lives in the basement described as “hotter than Hell” and its choice of not slaying the intended victims is never really clearly explained. Perhaps that’s the point. Sacrifice is something that gods want. Reason has nothing to do with it. People in films like this seem to be minding their own business, doing what people do. Then the gods demand death. It is a religious trope older than the Bronze Age.
The film reminded me about the somewhat earlier and scarier Burnt Offerings. Ironically in the latter, there aren’t any burnings as there are in We Are Still Here, but there is a house that thrives on human sacrifice. Both houses demand a family and destroy it. Indeed, apart from sacrifice, such movies tend to be a critique of ownership. The house owns the people, not the other way around. And the house, in some sense, is a deity. We Are Still Here doesn’t give a full explanation. It puts the viewer through the usual paces for a horror movie with appropriate startles and grotesque deaths. Like most members of its genre, it reaches for religious backing to make it all hang together. It has the good grace not to be obvious about it as well.
A few weeks back I found myself on the upper west side of Manhattan. This is a fashionable district in which to live, but back when the Dakota was built, as pictures from that era demonstrate, this was an undeveloped area. The building stands alone against the sky, not surrounded, as it is today, by neighbors. I’ve noticed this in other parts of Manhattan as well. New buildings can grow in seemingly impossibly slim spaces between other structures. Sometimes I wonder how construction workers can get their hands back there to lay the bricks. The city is so overbuilt that it is difficult to get into the Halloween mood of October. Yes, stores, restaurants, and bars do decorate windows, but the enormity of the surroundings makes them seem miniscule. Although New York is a gothic city, it seems to swallow up holidays. Perhaps because of its greater commercial potential, Christmas is much more evident around town. Halloween, however, is a holiday best appreciated outdoors.
While in the neighborhood, we stopped by to look at the Dakota. It was under scaffolding the prevented seeing the entirety of the building, but the famous entryway was unobstructed. I know that it was near here that John Lennon was murdered, and I know other famous people used to live here: Judy Garland, for example, and Leonard Bernstein. To me, however, the visual aspect of that entry always suggests Rosemary’s Baby. Even the doormen still wear the uniforms that they wore in the movie, only today they have to shoo away those who try to wander inside the gates to snap a selfie where the other half live. For me it was once again being in the presence of a place I’d felt I’d been before.
Rosemary’s Baby still stands out among the classic horror films as being particularly effective. The Satanism scare of the late sixties and early seventies has moderated, and we know now that witches are not people to be feared. Nevertheless, the eerie pacing of the film, and the sense of threat forever mark this location as one of caution. Seeing Terry Gionoffrio lying in a pool of blood where John Lennon would, in reality be twelve years later, is prophetic in the worse possible way. Still, the tourists stopped to have their pictures snapped at this infamous location. New York can be like a giant movie set at times. I quite often walk through staging areas for films on my way to work. It is a city where fantasy can be difficult to parse from reality from time to time. Even being in the upper west side, for someone like me, is, I know, pure fantasy.
Posted in Memoirs, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts, Sects, Travel
Tagged Dakota, Halloween, horror movies, John Lennon, Manhattan, New York City, Rosemary's Baby, Satanism, witches
I try, normally, to limit blog posts to one per movie (per viewing), but I’m still thinking about The Apostle, so I thought I’d share a bit more. I can’t get that scene of “tag team” preaching out of my head. The extras on the DVD reveal that the preachers, other than Robert Duvall, were actual ministers. When Duvall comes on the stage, acting, these other men “catch on fire,” preaching to the small congregation gathered under the tent. They’re not acting. This juxtaposition of someone acting as a preacher sharing an actual revival with those who are actually preaching makes me wonder if there was any dissonance felt. Did anyone feel any compunction about really preaching after getting riled up by someone who was only pretending? Where is the line between fiction and fact here? Film and reality blend.
The same kind of question occurred to me after watching The Witness. I’m not a Hollywood expert, but the rumors that circulated then (and I was in college at the time) were that some of the actors were actually Amish. They too, lived their actual faith while in the presence of actors, cameras, and a director. These films that use non-actors certainly score points for verisimilitude. Rev. Charles Johnson, for example, is really “in the spirit.” The scene of him, “coming down from the spirit,” Duvall reveals in the Making of segment, is real. This man, at least, had a spiritual experience in a fictional piece. The same, Duvall suggests, may apply to Sam in the final altar call. This was, he avers, real emotion, not acting. Does being saved in fiction count in real life?
Movies sometimes leave me wondering what is real. I suppose that’s part of the draw. Religious experience, like sex, is generally faked on film. Things that are sacred are felt to be off limits to the eyes of strangers with only voyeuristic interests. I’ve lived long enough to see photographs go from proof positive to Photoshop fantasy. We can’t believe what we see any more. How are we to comprehend films that portray religious experience? Did Robert Duvall actually save any sinners from Hell? Does it make a difference if an ersatz minister is the one who leads you there? What of a real minister who fails to convert the viewing audience? Films are not simple escapism, I know. And as I continue to wonder about saints and apostles, I’m going to have to try to understand what can be caught on celluloid and what can’t.
Our friends were shocked. I don’t even remember the title of the movie, but they couldn’t believe we had gone to see it. Not because of the content of the film, but because it had been shown on a Sunday morning. Why hadn’t we been in church? This was back in Edinburgh when we had very little money—wait, we still have very little money. This was back in Edinburgh, and we had won free tickets to an early screening of a new movie. The showtime was on Sunday morning. So in our own version of weak-willed athletes from Chariots of Fire, we’d skipped church to go see the movie. I don’t remember the title and I remember very little of the film. It had something to do with Richard Wagner and a conductor. An art film. We didn’t really feel too guilty missing church to go, since at the time, it seemed like a rare opportunity and the movie was, in some sense, religious. Or at least mythological.
Movies have a way of really influencing people. Thus it has been since the invention of the art form. We’ve all had the experience, I suppose, of a movie hitting us with a profound impact. It never really occurred to me to ask why. That is, until I read Colin McGinn’s The Power of Movies: How Screen and Mind Interact. I’d always thought that movies were simply a successful form of entertainment, and scholars seldom take entertainment seriously. As McGinn makes clear, there’s a lot more than casual watching going on when we slip into the theater. As a philosopher, McGinn is duty-bound to look beyond the obvious. Time after time in this profound little book I found myself pausing to consider the implications of what he says. Ultimately, he suggests that movies access the same areas of the brain that dreams do, not only giving them dreamlike qualities, but also making films emotional experiences like dreams.
At one point, McGinn draws explicit connections between going to church and going to a movie. Beyond the superficial aspects of a darkened building with a performance meant to impact a person, there are clear parallels between going to the theater and going to church. Both can be transformative experiences. The Power of Movies is a powerful little book. As much as we like to think that we have custody of our minds, the realm beneath the surface—that which gives us dreams and syncs with movies—has more influence on us than we’d generally like to admit. More and more, scholars are beginning to realize that films do have a profound impact on viewers. This is not just entertainment. It may not be worship, but after reading McGinn I think it might not be too far from it. The mind able to dream, after all, is a mind that’s truly free.
Posted in Art, Books, Consciousness, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged Chariots of Fire, Colin McGinn, dreams, Edinburgh, Movies, philosophy, The Power of Movies: How Screen and Mind Interact
I was teaching in a seminary when Robert Duvall’s The Apostle came out. Seeing the favorable reviews, I put it on my wish-list and somehow it never managed to rise to the top. Perhaps it was because I worked at a religious institution 24/7. Seeing a movie about church felt almost superfluous. Many years on now, my wife bought me the DVD (yes, we’re old-fashioned) and we finally sat down to watch it. I realized, as the preaching started, that I didn’t know what to expect. I assumed that Sonny would be a typical Elmer Gantry-type character, cynical and self-centered, but as I kept waiting for the sneering commentary to come, it never did. The movie didn’t valorize Sonny either—he is a flawed preacher who commits murder out of jealousy and flees the state to start a life elsewhere. Landing in rural Louisiana, he begins building a life doing what he does best—preaching. The local people benefit from his presence, so I was waiting for the cracks to appear, but they never did. The movie is amazingly respectful of Holiness, or Pentecostal religion. It left me quite thoughtful.
Having grown up in a non-denominational setting, the scene of the altar call was one that was familiar to me. Fiery sermons were also something I’d seen before. Theological education, of course, causes one to question much of this, which is why many Fundamentalist churches do not hire seminary graduates to be their clergy. Study tends to refine that ability to let go and have emotion become the substance of the service. Recalling my own childhood, steeped in the Bible and fervent fear of Hell, church was primarily an emotional catharsis for me, not an intellectual enterprise. The problem for me was that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. That’s where it often starts to crumble for those who want to understand emotion-driven religion. It doesn’t mix well with rationality.
The Apostle is made all the more powerful for its use of actual Holiness preachers in the movie. When they’re preaching, they’re not acting. They’re preaching on film. Part of the draw, I suppose, for many viewers is that this is a foreign world. Mainstream church services are often subdued, perhaps even dour, by comparison. They are, however, more rationally driven. The substance of any mainstream liturgy derives in some form from Catholicism. Pentecostalism dismisses all of that, retaining the music and the sermon and the Bible. Otherwise, they are practically different species. The storyline of the movie isn’t anything grand. Preacher commits crime, repents, gets caught. Still, there’s an authenticity to it that makes it compelling. No Jim Jones here. No David Koresh. Just a man, in many ways typical, trying to make his way in the world in the only way he knows how. And that can be inspirational.
Posted in Bibliolatry, Higher Education, Memoirs, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts, Sects
Tagged Elmer Gantry, emotion, Fundamentalism, Holiness Churches, Pentecostalism, rationalism, Robert Duvall, The Apostle