No, Uh

Noah2014Poster

“Give me any two pages of the Bible and I’ll give you a picture.” The words belong to Cecil B. DeMille, according to Stephen Whitty’s weekend write-up about Bible movies in the New Jersey Star-Ledger. The story was inspired by a trio of big-budget Bible films—Son of God, Noah, and Exodus—set to be released this year. While Mel Gibson put me off of Jesus movies, perhaps forever, I’ve been planning to see Noah ever since my wife first pointed the poster out to me in a local theater lobby last month. The flood story has always spoken to me, lasting well beyond the nursery years with all the fluffy animals aboard the ark. One of the points that Whitty is making, however, is that Hollywood knows something the New Atheists do not—there’s big money in religion. People will pay to see it on the big screen. The Bible still speaks to a secular nation.

Noah’s story has been dramatized many times over in the entertainment media. It is often a theme in popular fiction, although well hidden, and reemerges in the occasional search for the lost ark documentaries or Veggie Tales shorts. There’s something timeless about the world-wide flood. For me it seems to go back to the thrill of the impossible. Those first eleven chapters of Genesis teem with the surreal world of lifespans centuries long, primordial gardens full of good food, gods intermarrying with humans, and waters that cover any number of sins. There’s a robust, adventurous air to such stories—they push on the boundaries of human experience and burst beyond them. It doesn’t matter whether Noah’s ark is round, boxy, or extraterrestrial—the flood’s the thing. It appeals to imagination like less mundane disasters simply can’t.

I don’t go to the movies to learn about the Bible. I can do that right at home with a single outlay for a relatively cheap book that can be read over and over again. No, it is these early days of the Bible that give rise to the prepositional phrase “of biblical proportions,” that the movies show so well. I’m not sure that I’ll be able to make the transition from Batman to Moses when Exodus comes out later this year, but next month I do plan to let the waters of the largest event in earth’s fictive history wash over me with all its CGI glory. Seeing is not always believing, but the flood is one of the most powerful stories ever told. Who can resist the calling of deep unto deep? Be warned, the entire theater will be in the splash zone.

Z War to End

World_War_Z_posterWorld War Z is playing in theaters and I haven’t even had time to stock up on water and canned goods. Zombies are everywhere. And we can’t say that we didn’t see them coming. As movie critic Stephen Whitty points out, there are over 900 movies featuring zombies and the vast majority of them are recent productions. Major news corporations have been analyzing this undead interest for a few years now. No doubt the zombie is a populist monster, but why does it have such a potent effect on the modern imagination? Stepping back from the screen a minute, I think perhaps an answer is very obvious.

We live in an essentially programmed society. Philosophically we believe in free will, but economically much of our lives are predetermined. Among the happiest years—speaking strictly from the point of view of what I have been required to do for work—of my life were those of adjunct teaching. I had finally broken into the realm of the major university, and I had class after class of students who wanted to learn. Many disparage undergraduates. I never did. They come to college with what they have been taught, and that teaching comes at the behest of a society that informs them college is all about money. Who needs to really learn to not split infinitives? Or reason out that even if you know that Genesis 1-3 is a myth that evolution is not about religion at all? Who needs to learn to think when your boss will not want criticism? Do what you’re told. Be a good citizen. Be a zombie.

Our children are not stupid. I had many intelligent conversations with many bright young people at our state universities. I learned from them, and I hope they learned from me. The voice of the adjunct instructor, however, is nowhere near the decibel level of higher earnings. Is not the price of being a zombie worth having an adequate home, crippling debt, and access to wifi? The zombie, after all, is the antipode to the life of the mind. Zombies are, by definition, mindless. They carry around a carcass that does only what, in the classical sense, it is told to do. And so, if I loved that bohemian life so much, why did I hypocritically leave it? I have a family that requires healthcare. I have a child to support through college. I have a retirement fund that will not support a modest lifestyle for more than a single year. Yes, I too am a zombie. World War Z is indeed already here.

Silver Scream

Only within the last couple of decades have movies begun to be taken seriously as expressions of the Zeitgeist. An art form not even 150 years old, commercial movies have been seen primarily as an entrepreneurial exercise—money-making ventures with little serious thought. Now students of society recognize that where our wallets are, there our hearts are also. Even in the depths of recession the entertainment industry maintained its draw. The unemployed could at least watch movies cheaply at home. Yesterday’s newspaper contained an insightful entertainment piece on horror movies by film critic Stephen Whitty. Noting that the film industry began when the Production Code largely mirrored pre-1950’s American cultural values, Whitty observes that clergy were left out of movies, or when they appeared they were strong role-model characters. Then, beginning with The Exorcist, the demonic became a huge theme in movies. As Whitty concludes, “Certainly it’s partly a reflection of a growing fundamentalism” that indicates why such movies are now so popular. Many Americans believe in angels and demons and turn to them to explain the serendipitous or contretemps.

Scary, but not necessary.

Social attitudes help to explain what we see on the big screen. Almost from the beginning religious leaders have castigated the entertainment industry as an unholy counterpart to sanctified living. Theater was earthy and evil, movies immoral, and even the desire to be entertained took away from the struggle for salvation. Ironically, however, movies tend to reflect conservative values. At least when it comes to demons. In the current glut of demonic films—which most Americans rate as the scariest kind of horror movie—the church-sanctioned hero is often the only effective tool against evil. A mythology of a Manichean dimension reigns: good struggles against evil and good will prevail. Unfortunately, this Hollywood scenario falls on the side of simplistic solutions to complex problems. Evil is our own doing—we need no demons to tell us how to be bad. Likewise, help often fails to come from on high.

Over the weekend I watched Dogma once again. Severely criticized as immoral and trashy, the overall message is, however, one of faith and hope. No fundamentalist, Kevin Smith certainly takes his pot-shots at Christianity, particularly Roman Catholicism, but in the end God and angels are real, and demons are defeated. Yes, this comedy is intended to be entertainment, but the audience that views it probably agrees with its core values. As Whitty demonstrates, the past decade has flooded the market with Hell-born foes, and there seems to be no imminent slacking of the pace. People are afraid. Our efforts at free-market Heaven have turned out to benefit too few while too many are still without work or adequate security. No, we need no demons to instruct us in the ways of evil. We are fully capable of initiating our own.

Movie by Faith

Yesterday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger carried an article by film critic Stephen Whitty entitled, “Where script meets scripture: Recent films take a leap of faith.” The phenomenon he observes is that mainstream, big studio-backed film-makers are more and more turning to plots and scripts that emphasize faith. It is not always standard, revealed religion-type faith, but a belief that there is something else. Something beyond that with which our daily lives presents us. People are seeking, but traditional religions are having a hard time convincing them that they have the answers.

In a striking contrast, films that present a spiritual danger frequently revert to the stock image of a Catholic priest as the means of deliverance. When is the last time a Protestant exorcist took on a demon on the big screen? Torn though it is with its long and checkered history of imperialism, exploitation, and scandal, the Catholic Church with its obscure rituals is effective where the machinations of the Protestants are not. This too is a leap of faith, one that believes in the efficacy of ritual despite its origin or lack of scientific theory. Science provides a way of understanding the world that many people experience as cold and comfortless. Even many scientists choose simply to trust in what their spiritual guides teach them.

Over the weekend my wife and I watched Sleepy Hollow. It is an annual tradition; it is our October movie. In this film Tim Burton plays off the superstition of Sleepy Hollow – in fact real, in the movie – against the science of Ichabod Crane. In the end, Ichabod has to face the supernatural on its own terms in order to bring the world back to science. Having sent the headless horseman back to perdition, Crane once again returns to a New York City at the start of a new millennium, full of the optimism of science. It is the dilemma of the modern western world. People are tugged, torn even, in two diametrically opposed directions. Our experience leads us to believe in a “demon haunted world” while science placidly informs us that all can be explained. Movies do reflect the human outlook in many respects, and the end sequence has yet to be shot.

Exorcists, Serpents, and Rainbows

Tuesdays are release days for many new media products. I’m not sure why, but I accept it. This past Sunday’s paper ran a couple of stories by Stephen Whitty concerning the Blu-ray release of The Exorcist, counted by some critics as the scariest movie of all time. The press around the original release of the film in the early 1970s was enough to prevent me from seeing it until I was in my forties. I’m done using the word “release.” In an interview with Linda Blair, the iconic Regan MacNeil of the film, Whitty quotes her as noting that the rumors of “curses” on the filming of the movie were without basis. “But other people seemed to be trying to find something that didn’t exist,” she said. That sage statement could refer to considerable aspects of a society hungry for religious answers, but ill-educated on the religious facts-of-life.

Although sorely critiqued at the time by those whose religious sensibilities had been offended (Blatty is no theologian), Whitty nevertheless notes, “It may be a film full of gross obscenity. But in the end, ‘The Exorcist’ is a recruiting poster for that old-time religion.” He correctly observes that beliefs in possessing demons and that challenged social conventions will lead to evil permeate the movie. Traditional Catholicism wins out over that foreign Pazuzu every time. Even for those with more progressive beliefs, the film is difficult to watch. Religion, in addition to criticizing films, also provides some of the best plots.

Not to be counted among those best, but illustrative of the point, is Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow. Ever since my days at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh students have been after me to watch this film. Confused, dream-like, and at times difficult to follow, the movie opens with a claim to have been based on a true story. It isn’t the typical zombie movie either, although it features zombies. More of an attempted scientific thriller, the film explores the dangers of tetrodotoxin, “the zombie drug” when in the wrong hands. Understated in the movie, however, is the religious nature of Voodou. This is perhaps the most obvious failing point in the story. If the movie were to be really scary, the viewer has to believe that this is possible. The skepticism of science blocks the potential for unbridled religious expression. That is perhaps why The Exorcist has retained its power over all the years. Unlike more rational explorations of the world, it allows the audience to believe in personified evil that only old-time religion can cure.

Transformations

Last week my colleague James of Idle Musings sent me a review of Stephen Asma’s On Monsters that I’ve been meaning to incorporate into a post for several days now. Since New Jersey has been buried under more snow than it’s seen since the last Ice Age, I’ve been busy shoveling and navigating icy roads to class and only now am finding the time to respond. (Still, I have to say that the snow we have here now is no comparison to good old lake-effect snow where I grew up. Of course, the population back home was much smaller so the media never made a circus of it. After all, it is just winter!) In today’s paper, however, there was a review of The Wolfman that graciously affords me another opportunity to address one of my favorite, if under-represented, areas of religious studies: the monster.

Local film critics haven’t exactly panned the remake of the 1941 classic, although it is noted that the new version tries to avoid the essential subtexts of “alpha-male dominance, sexual repression, compulsive behavior and father-son feuds” (from Stephen Whitty’s Star Ledger review; Whitty also notes, on the cheerful side, that Universal is trying to revive its monster franchise). The werewolf has always been my favorite monster character. Aside from the negative aspects noted by Whitty, the werewolf also represents transformation from the helpless, lost, and confused Lawrence Talbot to a purposeful, confident, and unambiguous wolfman. The werewolf is everyman/everywoman pressed to the limits by a demeaning, heartless society until individualism breaks out in all its savagery and power.

Apart from the religious elements in all monsters (is the werewolf not a paragon of spiritual transformation?), a political subtext also emerges. While the front page declares the financial woes of the state and the continued trouble trying to pass any healthcare reform, page 3 declares “Top 5 health insurers post soaring profits.” One person’s cancer is another insurer’s boondoggle. Meanwhile the Larry Talbots of the world are being told, “give a little more – everyone’s got to share this burden.” Eventually, however, there will be a full moon and transformations will take place. As a student of religions, I can recognize the werewolf as more than a monster and as containing far more symbolism than a Robert Langdon could ever untangle.

Who's not afraid to look in the mirror?