Write It Down

Those of us with a bookish outlook often wish we could look things up.  This comes to mind because of a recent documentary I watched, but the thought has occurred many times when visiting museums, particularly for special exhibits.  I’m pretty easily overwhelmed by too much information at once.  In a museum I have trouble reading all the placards and remembering how they tie in because there are so many interesting artifacts to look at.  I leave inspired and impressed and wishing I could look up the information I just read.  I’ve often wondered why museums don’t sell exhibition books that have photographs of the objects with replications of the placards describing what they are.  Maybe it’d just be a market of one, but I’d buy them.

The same thing is true of documentaries.  I’ll readily admit I’m poor with names.  It takes many interactions before a person’s name sticks with me.  (It’s nothing personal, I assure you—it’s just the way my brain works.)  When I watch a documentary I often wish a booklet accompanied it with the names, and credit lines of the interviewees and (because I know this is available on IMDb) a full bibliography.  The books mentioned.  You see, those of us inclined to research enjoy looking things up.  In the case of a long documentary (and that’s only if you subscribe or buy it instead of “renting” it for a one-time viewing) it means having to skim through it all again to reach the information that you could easily look up in a book.  Books are wonderful.

For me, one of the benefits of books is their stability.  Electronic resources change.  When you go to cite a website as a source you have to list the accessed date because things may have changed.  The book on your shelf remains reliably unaltered.  The few ebooks I’ve read come with marks in them.  There’s probably a way of turning this off, but I don’t want to see what other people think is noteworthy.  I suppose it’s supposed to make reading a communal experience.  Reading, in my experience of it, is mostly a private things.  One of the great joys in life is talking about reading with others, whether it’s the same book you’ve read, or a different one.  Why not add to that by making books to go with other species of information-sharing, such as museums and documentaries?  Those of us with a bookish outlook aren’t hard to please.  We just like to have it down on paper.

Rusticated Fears

I don’t recommend sick days.  This one was weird with all the symptoms of illness but really having them just be the side-effects of a shingles vaccine.  I don’t recommend it, but I was able to use the day, between dozing off, by watching Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror.  This late 2021 documentary is over 3 hours long and I’d been wondering when I’d have the chance to view such a lengthy movie.  Besides, when you’re feeling utterly miserable, horror is a kind of elixir to make it all better.  Watching the film made me aware of just how many movies I haven’t seen.  Another way of putting it is that I still have my work cut out for me.

Folk horror, you see, has a natural appeal for those of us who grew up away from urban centers.  Much that we did in the small towns of my childhood was, frankly, weird.  As the interviewees make plain, cities are the centers of economic and cultural power.  The big educational institutions are there and those of us from the hinterlands might not obey the rules that city dwellers seem to absorb through their feet.  In reality, I suspect, urban culture largely derives from folk culture.  Those who venture away into the large cities take pieces of their home with them.  Cities tend to blend all this together and transform it into something different.  Those in rural areas, however, have their own way of doing things.

Perhaps it’s embarrassing to center this much, but it was clear to me in watching Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched that much of the fear showcased to city folks (for movies tend to be shown in urban settings) is the weird religion of the country cousins.  Both the words “pagan” and “heathen” are references to those who dwell outside urban areas.  “Pagan” comes from Latin for rustic, while “heathen” means those out in the heath.  Mainstream religion is that of the cities—the Vatican is located in Rome, and the large mosques, synagogues, and cathedrals are in population centers.  There’s no telling what the country dwellers might get up to if left to their own devices.  And religion taken seriously can be quite dangerous to outsiders, as we’ve seen time and time again.  Folk horror never really went away but it is undergoing a resurgence at the moment.  As the documentary suggests, this tends to happen in times of social instability.  At least we have something to look forward to as the world collapses around us.  Folk horror will help us cope, if my experience is anything to go by.

Documenting Horror

Watching documentaries always seems to raise questions.  I recently found A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss on YouTube.  Produced by the BBC in 2010, the set of three episodes is a selective walk through the horror genre through the eyes of an insider in the film industry.  Divided over three segments, he covers early horror (primarily Frankenstein-related movies), British horror, and the American horror revival beginning in the late 1960s.  It occurred to me while watching this that horror is often—but not always—an intellectual genre.  Many of the plots and ideas are sophisticated and puzzling.  At one point Gatiss says it is nearly the perfect genre for movies.  I would tend to agree.  Many of the payoffs of horror are the reasons I go to see a movie.

Of course, documentaries involve interviews.  While discussing religion and horror—the two are closely related—in the third segment, he considers the impact of what I termed the “unholy trinity” in Holy Horror: Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen.  His primary interview for this set was with David Seltzer, the screenwriter for the last of these.  At this point my memory took me back to an interview on one of the extras for my DVD edition of The Omen.  In that interview Seltzer mentions that the antichrist is at that moment (clearly this was shot shortly after the movie came out) walking the earth.  In my mind I compartmentalized this to interpret his stance as that of a religious conservative.  The idea of the Antichrist, after all, is post-biblical, at least in the sense that end-time scenarios are developed.

The Gatiss interview was filmed many years later and he asked Seltzer if he believed in the Devil.  “No,” Seltzer laughed, stating that if he did he wouldn’t work on movies like The Omen.  People’s opinions change over time, of course.  And the Devil and the Antichrist are two separate characters as they develop after the Bible was completed.  Still, I had to wonder if his earlier interview included that comment about the Antichrist being alive now wasn’t intended as a bit of spooky propaganda for the movie.  It’s difficult to know what someone really believes.  Most people mouth what their ministers say, not really considering where said clergy get their information.  For these many years I’ve been thinking that The Omen was considered as some kind of documentary by the screenwriter.  Documentaries always seem to raise questions.

A Little Bit

I don’t know about you, but I have a complicated relationship with genres.  As a fiction writer I have great difficulty classifying what I write, and that shows in the reluctance of publishers to embrace it.  We tend to suppose that some kinds of Platonic types exist out there by which we can map what we find here in the physical world.  These genres, however, are far more permeable than they seem.  My wife and I just finished watching the eight-part Ken Burns documentary Country Music.  Neither one of us is what you might call a fan of the genre but I can say that I learned an awful lot.  My stepfather was a country music fan, so many of the names and songs, particularly of the early years, were familiar.  What became clear throughout the century or so covered by the films was that the dividing line was always a blurry one.

While today we tend to think of country music as a southern phenomenon, the documentary made clear that its beginnings were folk music.  And folk lived most places.  While certain styles predominated in certain ages, across the years it was hard to tell some country music from pop music and rock (especially in the early days of the latter).  Even rock is difficult to classify.  What it often comes down to is self-identification.  An artist or band that identifies as country is country.  It is a distinctly American art form and it quite often identifies with religion.  Like rock, it also has some roots in gospel music.  When it becomes secular, gospel can go into many unexpected places.

Another association—again, a generalization—is country music and conservatism.  Partly it’s the promoting of Americanism, but partly it’s based on a false perception.  Performers are actors, after all.  Many of the “clean cut” examples of country singers struggled constantly with drug abuse (often considered the demon of rock-n-roll) and alcoholism.  It’s often right there in the lyrics.  The listeners, however, tend to think of them as stories.  That was the other great takeaway from the series—people are drawn to the stories.  I think that’s something we all know, but country music often excels at the hard-luck story that resonates with people down on their circumstances.  I’m not about to become a country music fan, but watching this series, like any educational venture, has opened me to a new tolerance for what I previously classified as a genre that didn’t have any appeal.

Beneath the Exorcist

William Friedkin rose to fame as the director of The French Connection.  William Peter Blatty had written the screenplay for the Pink Panther film, A Shot in the Dark.  Now Blatty had a serious project in mind as he considered whom to pitch to direct the film of his novel, The Exorcist.  He wanted, and got, Friedkin.  The two disagreed about the final cut of the movie, with Friedkin winning out.  The movie was a tremendous success.  Several years later the cut favored by Blatty was released, again with success.  Blatty died last year.  The year before that so did Fr. Gabriele Amorth, an exorcist for the Diocese of Rome.  Last night I watched The Devil and Father Amorth, a documentary by William Friedkin about the famed exorcist.

The Exorcist made an impact on the lives of many people, not least Friedkin.  Over four decades after making this film, the director is still mulling it over.  The Devil and Father Amorth is primarily footage shot by Friedkin of an exorcism performed by Amorth.  In general the filming of exorcisms is forbidden, but given his stature as a film-maker, Friedkin was given permission to film without crew, on a small, hand-held video camera.  Although nowhere near as violent as the fictionalized film, it is disturbing to watch.  As a documentary, it includes interviews with doctors, some from Columbia University, who agree that possession is “a thing,” but one suspects they might disagree with the director as to what that thing might be.

Although Friedkin isn’t an academic, society accepts that (at least some) film-makers are intellectuals.  Perhaps lacking subject specialization, they nevertheless read a lot and possess quite a bit of street knowledge concerning psychology.  Friedkin does.  At just over an hour, this documentary isn’t long, but it is provocative.  For me it raises once again an issue that I address in Nightmares with the Bible—the curious laity, due to lack of engagement by traditional scholars, must rely on such efforts to get information about spiritual entities.  The documentary, which deals with a heavy subject, is one that Friedkin tries to lighten a bit at the end by stating that if there are demons then angels must also exist.  This goes back to the idea, discussed more fully in my book, that demons derive from fallen angels.  The “one size fits all” approach of academia has shoehorned belief in one direction.  While The Devil and Father Amorth won’t likely convince skeptics, many who watch it will be left wondering.

Book Me

I’m a reader by nature. I grew up, however, with television. I recall somewhat precisely when reading really grabbed me. Starting in fifth grade I began to stash cheap books in an old duffle bag in the room I shared with my brother. We lived in humble circumstances and bookshelves were a luxury, but I kept my precious books together so that I could always find the one I wanted. Eventually I upgraded to a suitcase made out of what appeared to be cardboard. This fascination with books would stay with me my entire life. So would the television side of my education. When I wasn’t watching cheesy B movies or World Federation Wrestling, I was watching documentaries. A few weeks ago, I posted about a documentary site on the web, and I have discovered another site as well, Documentaryz.

One of the benefits of the web is the access to free information. I regret not having the time to watch all the quality material that can be found with a bit of poking around. Documentaryz has several categories of shows available including, as befits this blog, religion titles. The documentary has clearly become an art form as well as a source of information. The problem with the web, however, is so little material is peer reviewed. I can imagine a better world where political speeches and sermons would have to stand before a board of peers to justify their often phantasmagorical claims. A world where someone can make no claims to special knowledge because an old man laid hands on his head or because he has too much money and wishes to run other people’s lives.

So it is that I come back to my books. On the bus, or in the airport, or train station, I often feel hopelessly outmoded as I sit among people with beeping, chirping, or rhythm-and-blues spewing devices. I sit holding a book. It’s bulky, and sometimes requires both hands to keep open. It doesn’t make any noise. I am the librarian of public transit. Sometimes well-wishers suggest that I might cull the herd a bit, get rid of some of the books I’ve spent a lifetime gathering. I think back to a little kid in a stuffy room with a duffle full of paperbacks and I realize that books are a lifestyle choice. They are a part of me. As much as I enjoy watching documentaries, I begin and end my day with books. It may be a parody or some bizarre irony, but the only room in our apartment without books is the bathroom. They are not the waste products, but the stuff of life itself.

Instruction, through Film

In an increasingly technological world, the acquisition of knowledge often seems like a moving target. For thousands of years the process of research meant lifting yourself out of the chair, or couch, or log, and going to where the written collection of human knowledge resided—the library. Assurbanipal, emperor of Assyria, assembled a great library in antiquity, as did the sages of Alexandria, Egypt. From those days until my own lifetime, if you wanted to learn something you went to where the books resided. The birth of the Internet has changed knowledge storage considerably, but not completely. You might find bits of Assurbanipal’s Akkadian wisdom online (Alexandria’s, unfortunately, didn’t survive antiquity), next to thousands of e-books, blogs, and tweets. And of course, videos. Although many of my blog posts refer to horror movies, one of my favorite sources of information has always been the documentary. Despite the fact that it’s spoon-fed knowledge, there’s nothing quite like watching the experts tell you what you need to know on this or that topic.

Assurbanipal, lion hunter, emperor, librarian.

I was, naturally, pleased to learn of documentary-log.com. The folks from the site were kind enough to contact me since they offer many religion documentaries for free. I suspect that most readers of this blog have some interest in religion since I seldom write about anything else. Documentary-log.com currently has over thirty professionally made documentaries from various producers (including the History channel) available for viewing. Just sit back, click, and learn. I added to my own knowledge-base yesterday. This is particularly nice for those of us who can’t really afford the constantly increasing expense of buying access to television service. If your interests are greater than religion, they have many other categories of documentaries available as well. There are much worse ways to spend an afternoon.

One of the questions that arises in my conversations these days is whether all of the material online is changing knowledge itself. There’s no question that it’s a time saver. Prof. J. C. L. Gibson once remarked, while looking for a passage in class at Edinburgh, “So much of scholarship is turning pages.” He was a man who still did not use a typewriter, up to the day of his death. There is something to the old form of knowledge that stays with me as I watch the world inexorably change around me. There was a thrill to finding a book from 1516 on the open shelves at the New College library of Edinburgh University, to touching its centuries-old pages and marveling. Sitting in John Gibson’s office as he puffed on his pipe and trying to defend my new ideas against his old ones, I felt that knowledge was being hammered into me. There is an arcane knowledge to starting every day with a wee dram and a prayer that the World Wide Web just hasn’t managed to capture yet.