Category Archives: Popular Culture

Posts that revolve around modern media and popular perceptions

Terms of Interment

In an early episode of The Simpsons Marge is commissioned to paint a portrait of Montgomery Burns. Angry with him because of his constant treatment of others as beneath him and his glib superiority granted by wealth, she paints him old and feeble, naked as he climbs from the shower. The crowd present for the unveiling is appropriately shocked. Marge explains her motivations for the painting and one of the voices in the crowd affirms, “He is evil, but he will die.” That scene was brought back to mind by an article a friend sent me on Archaeodeath. As someone who’s volunteered on an archaeological dig, I understand that the past is a history of death as well as of life. We read what historians choose to preserve. And, as Professor Howard M. R. Williams points out, the tomb often tells a tale that requires some subtlety in reading.

Never a great fan of the wealthy, some years ago I visited Sleepy Hollow. It was before the television series began, back in an October when the mind begins naturally to turn to death. I’d always liked the story by Washington Irving that had made this quiet town famous and it’s really not hard to get there from New Jersey. While in town we visited the famous cemetery, in search of Irving’s grave. Others are buried there, too. High on top of a hill stands a palatial tomb to some Rockefeller. As Prof. Williams makes clear, all must die and all tombs lie. Those who insist on the most opulent tombs are those who routinely overestimate their personal importance. So it is my mind turns from Montgomery Burns to Cyrus the Great.

There was a time when world conquerors possessed a dose of humility. It may seem strange in today’s world that an Iranian (in the days before there was an Iran, designed as it was by Europeans) would be considered a benevolent dictator. Cyrus reversed the deportation rules of the Babylonians and Assyrians. Subject peoples were permitted—encouraged even—to return to their lands. He even federally funded the building of temples and, to translate, centers for the arts. Cyrus understood that grateful people make good subjects. When Cyrus died, after being king of the world, he was interred in a decidedly understated tomb outside Pasargadae where, according to one account his inscription read, “I am Cyrus, who founded the Persian Empire. Grudge me not, therefore, this little earth that covers my body.” Archaeologists uncover the dead. Those who bill themselves grandly, as the diggers understand, seldom deserve the glory bestowed by their own minds. Marge Simpson, as usual, is a voice of wisdom.

Some president’s tomb

Seeing Belief

Although most of us can recognize it on sight, we have a difficult time defining religion. In the early parts of Film as Religion: Myths, Morals, and Rituals, John C. Lyden discusses this lack of definition and offers some broad categorizations since his thesis depends upon it. How can one assert that film may be understood as religion if religion isn’t identified? Lyden makes clear that this book won’t be about an ideological or theological interpretation of film. It’s more about popular culture and how elements of that culture, such as cinema, may be religion. This leads to the discussion of the topics of his subtitle: myths, rituals, and morals. These all share some conceptual territory with movies, therefore understanding them is important.

To me the most interesting part of the book is the consideration of genres (westerns, gangster movies, melodramas, romantic comedies, children’s movies, science fiction, thrillers and horror) as exemplars of various aspects of this religion. Each genre includes the discussion of a feature film, and some even have two. Of course, Lyden’s book is a few years old now and other studies have shed further light on both how religion and film interact and also on the interpretation of various genres of movie. The hope of the book—that it may be the start of a new kind of discussion about religion—has to some extent been realized, although the analysis has taken off in several directions at once. There can be no doubt that cinema taps deep spiritual needs in a way not unlike a religious ceremony.

It seems that society has come to distrust the usual purveyors of religion. Dishonesty almost as deep as that of the government has been found in it and the responses are remarkably similar—cover-ups and denials and many species of prevarication. Cinema seems downright credible in comparison. What you see is what you see. The big difference between movies and religion, however, is that we’re only too glad to acknowledge the human sources of celluloid. Many religions, especially in the monotheistic tradition, rely on direct divine revelation as their origin. Lyden isn’t suggesting that film substitutes for religion in that way, but on a more practical level it may. It meets our needs. We trust we’ll get what the poster and trailers promise us. We sit reverently in the dark awaiting illumination. And yes, there’s an exchange of money involved for any kind of worship involves an offering. No religion’s free of cost.

Signs and Portents

Horror movies are, of course, more than escapism. Although it’s taken many years academics are starting to pay some attention to them. Because of a conversation with a colleague this past week I felt compelled to watch The Omen again. The current political situation merits such viewing, in any case. Interestingly, the first time I saw The Omen—which was during a spate of unemployment—it didn’t scare me much. Like most classic horror, the scenes that had everybody talking in the mid-‘70s had been described so often that they failed to shock. All that was left was a dispensationalist tale of the end of the world—non-biblical, and the fright only came from belief. This time, however, I could see it as nothing but a film about a political takeover.

Omen_ver4

With the open admission on the part of Steve Bannon that his administration—let’s not kid ourselves here—intends to dismantle the government we’ve had in this country since around 1776, we can see that this election was only an excuse. Knowing that this dark side of human nature (some call it the Devil) won’t be given a chance again—they didn’t win the popular vote this time around and unless they silence the media they won’t win the next one—Bannon’s crew, like Damien, has to deconstruct quickly. The Republican establishment, unless it opens its eyes soon, will find itself locked outside as well. Ironically, it’s the public that can see this, not the elites. It’s as if George III were back from the grave. Power, as The Omen intimates, is incredibly seductive. The GOP, wrongly supposing it will share it, goes along with nominations that have now been openly declared agents of destruction. Where is Revelation when you need it?

The Omen is all about Satan getting a back-door entry to the White House. The politicians are all easily duped. Evangelical Christians have been brainwashed into thinking that only by voting Republican can they prevent abortion and gay marriage—two decidedly non-biblical issues. You see, the Devil works that way. Scripture says he can disguise himself as an angel of light. People who don’t educate themselves are very easily fooled. We’ve followed the script rather precisely. Satan’s greatest tool, it’s said, is that people don’t believe in him. So after you finish reading 1984—which we all should—watch The Omen. Ponder what inviting evil to take over the one remaining superpower might really mean.

Where Arthur?

Arthur Rackham - "How at the Castle of Corbin a Maiden Bare in the Sangreal and Foretold the Achievements of Galahad," Wikimedia Commons

Arthur Rackham – “How at the Castle of Corbin a Maiden Bare in the Sangreal and Foretold the Achievements of Galahad,” Wikimedia Commons

We’re all grail hunters. It doesn’t matter what religion, if any, you claim. We want to find that grail. If I was as rich as Donald Trump I wouldn’t bother with the presidency. I’d spend all day on Atlas Obscura. A friend recently sent me one of their stories, “6 Stops on the Hunt for the Holy Grail” by Meg Neal. As the story points out, the grail may not be real, but many places claim it. We want it not because it’s real, but because it’s magical. Midas’ touch without the consequences. Blessings in this life and bliss hereafter. You can have it all.

Nobody knows where the legend of the holy grail begins. One thing’s for certain: it’s not the Bible. The Gospels merely state that at the “last supper” (not a biblical phrase) Jesus took the cup. That definite article implies a certain cup, not just any cup. While speculation has it that this meal was a Passover seder we can’t be sure even of that. If it were that wouldn’t tell us much about this cup in any case. Since the tale is especially prevalent in Celtic lore (many grail sites are in regions loaded with Gaelic influence) some have suggested that the story comes not from ancient Palestine, but from Hibernian traditions of the caldron. This would send seekers back to the mythology of Bran and his life-giving cauldron. In other words, it would share some roots with a modern kind of grail—that of Harry Potter fame. Bran, I once argued in an academic paper, has echoes of some ancient eastern tales. Scholars, of course, are not convinced.

The grail doesn’t come into prominence until the Arthurian legend. Arthur seems to have been an historical person, but facts about him are as rare as they are about Jesus. How he came to be associated with the grail is anybody’s guess. Both Arthur and the grail share a place in Celtic legend and it is perhaps here that the two were brought together. A more crass form of the cauldron is the pot of gold associated with leprechauns—those Gaelic sprites. The grail represents our wishes fulfilled. It’s seldom the spiritual journey that’s sometimes portrayed. The grail represents power. If Indiana Jones has taught us anything it’s that where there’s power, there’s also abuse of power. Then again, we don’t need fiction to know the truth of that.

In Poor Taste

I remember seeing a television commercial once (not during the Super Bowl) where an older guy, a lawyer, complained at the camera, “It used to be that lawyers didn’t advertise.” He went on to say that he felt uncomfortable promoting himself since it was in poor taste, but since the legal profession had swung that way he was entering the game. I know how that guy felt. I grew up with the firm notion that self-promotion was in bad taste. If my career has taught me anything, it’s that unless you’re born well connected, if you don’t promote yourself nobody else will. Still, it rankles. With that hearty introduction, I would, in poor taste, point out that my latest article has been published. Those of you who keep an eye on this blog will know that I gave a paper about the Bible in Sleepy Hollow to a learned society a couple years back. That paper is now available in the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture.

ichabods_chase_crop

Doing research is difficult when you don’t have institutional support to carry it out, but doing such things as an independent scholar can be kind of liberating. I used to research, write, and get published an article a year, back in my teaching days. Nashotah House didn’t have the greatest library, but they did have interlibrary loan and, towards the end of my time there, internet access. More than that, life wasn’t measured in increments of nine-to-five. Living on campus, commuting could be measured in seconds rather than hours. Although publication didn’t bear the weight there that often pressures academics elsewhere, like that lawyer whose name I can’t remember, I wanted to be in the game. I guess I still do.

In these days of uneducated government, if you don’t do it yourself nobody’s going to do it for you. It’s what I once called “the educational imperative.” We are duty-bound, as conscious beings, to move knowledge forward. How many apocalyptic scenarios are there where, when the powers that be devolve into inanity, the monks in their cloisters have to keep knowledge alive? (The question’s rhetorical.) I’m reminded of Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel since there women do a good bit of keeping the culture alive when society collapses. Or, to put it another way, like Sleepy Hollow. When the forces of evil break into the world, it’s an African American woman who saves it. If your school has access to JSTOR, you’ll be able to find out more in my paper.

By Any Other Name

nakedundeadGood and evil. Well, mostly evil, actually. No, I’m not talking about Washington, DC, but about horror movies. Cynthia A. Freeland’s The Naked and the Undead: Evil and the Appeal of Horror is a study that brings a cognitivist approach to the dual themes of feminism and how horror presents evil. It’s not as simple as it sounds. Like many philosophers Freeland is aware that topics are seldom as straightforward as they appear. Feminists have approached horror films before, and other analysts have addressed the aspects of evil that the genre presents, but bringing them together into one place casts light on the subject from different angles. Freeland begins this process by dividing her material into three main sections: mad scientists and monstrous mothers (which allows for the Frankenstein angle), from vampires to slashers, and sublime spectacles of disaster. Already the reader can tell she’s a real fan.

One of the simplistic views of horror is that these kinds of movies—particularly slashers—are misogynistic by their very nature. Feminists, including Freeland, question that assumption. Horror is a genre with a decidedly checkered history. Some films do feature mostly female victims to male monsters. Not all do, however, and even those that do may be saying something other than the obvious. Looking for the locus of evil in these movies provides a lens that focuses the meaning somewhere other than the surface. This is one of the benefits of philosophy—probing questions may be asked and unexpected answers may result. Along the way you can have a lot of fun, too. Especially if you watch horror movies.

A large part of the criticism probably arises from the fact that film making was, for much of its earliest history, run by males. That’s not to say women couldn’t do the same thing men were doing, but the opportunities simply weren’t there. Most film makers, I expect, have trouble getting out of their heads to think about how someone of a different gender might perceive this kind of movie. Fear, we are told, is “coded” feminine. It seemed natural to such film makers to put the female in peril since both women and men would respond to it. Since then it has become clear that fear isn’t coded for gender. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of modern horror is that we all have cause to be afraid. Fear is no respecter of gender. Freeland’s analysis, now getting on in years, correctly looked ahead in many respects. Especially concerning the ongoing presence of evil.

The First Weak

“Oh, what a tangled web we weave. When first we practise to deceive!” I always thought this couplet came from Shakespeare, but in fact it’s from Sir Walter Scott’s poem “Marmion.” The quote has been in my head all this first week of the new administration as alternative facts, lies, and statistics have flooded out of the White House. Along with gag orders slapped onto federal agencies. I’ve worked for people who rely on gag orders. This obvious lack of transparency signals loud and proud that they have facts to hide. Then they will feed the public alternative facts and later claim they never did. Mission accomplished. Sir Walter Scott may not have been William Shakespeare, but he sure got that web analogy right. At times like this we need our writers. Of course, Trump bragged in pre-inauguration interviews that he didn’t like to read.

Since last weekend sales of George Orwell’s 1984 have spiked. From the first words out of Sean Spicer’s mouth (or any words out of the mouth of Kellyanne Conway}, many of us knew the only thing Orwell got wrong was the date. Frankly I’m surprised the government hasn’t tried to ban 1984 yet. It was required reading when I was in high school and that date was still in the future. The press—what still exists of it anyway—passed along stories that Trump had ordered photos of the inauguration day crowds hung in the White House in his first week. Such pressing matters of state! The photos had the wrong date on them. Facts are cheap. This should be good for the economy. You can get them in any flavor you like—true facts, false facts, alternative facts, statistics. Arachne has returned to her loom.

Although “Marmion” wasn’t written by Shakespeare, I can still say it was because I need a segue to Harold Hecuba. Hecuba was a Hollywood producer who accidentally landed on Gilligan’s Island. After he insulted Ginger the castaways put on a performance of Hamlet to showcase her acting skills. Hecuba, the unelected president of the island, awoke during rehearsal and, like other narcissists we know, took over. He says that Shakespeare was a hack and that if he were alive he’d have him working on a complete rewrite. Of course, he doesn’t know what Hamlet’s about. Or “Marmion.” Actors only mouth the words. They make us believe what is not true. We’re in for a period when we’re going to rely on the authors for the true story. I suggest we all start with 1984.

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare