It looks like 2008 will be the beginning of a new Crusade. Thankfully, it will only be a cinematic one, not a blood-soaked battle waged between fractious warring armies under differing dogmatic flags. Creed will still play a part in it, but not in the heathen/hero manner. You see, sometime in said year, two documentaries will be vying for the hearts and minds of the faithful and skeptic, the saved and the cynical. On one side are the atheists. Bill Maher has been working with Borat director Larry Charles on a yet to be titled film exposing the fallacy that is organized religion. Hoping to use humor and a glorified “gotcha” approach, the host of HBO’s Real Time aims to undercut all fundamentalists as deluded dimwits, using a fractured fairy tale as a means of undermining the civility and safety of the entire world.
Taking up the mantle for the Messiah, among other Christian conceits, is actor/political aid/game show host Ben Stein. The artist formerly known for calling the name “Ferris Bueller” in the seminal coming of age flick and putting speechified words into the mouth of Richard Nixon is spearheading an anti-Evolution effort entitled Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. Focusing on the latest attempts by evangelicals and religious activists to get Darwin out of the classroom and supplement science with a newfangled principle entitled ‘Intelligent Design’, Stein has been quoted as saying, "Big Science in this area of biology has lost its way." He goes on to argue that, as members of academia, any idea should be open to scrutiny and debate, no matter the outcome. Of course, his cause is hoping that the result is more school boards adding the cockeyed Creationists concept to their curriculum.
The Stein film is just the latest effort by Motive Entertainment, a small independent marketing company out of Westlake Village, California, to bring God and all his glory to mainstream moviegoers. Frequently cited as instrumental in the massive returns scored by Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, the company (which also worked on The Chronicles of Narnia and had a hand in United 93 and Rocky Balboa as well) specifically targets niche demographics – usually centering on local churches and faith outreach programs. As a result, it has been unusually successful. Even with titles not noted for their spiritual underpinnings, founder Paul Lauer has been praised for proving that movies with a strong, positive message (with or without a basic Biblical underpinning) can generate big profits, just as long as the right non-secular salesmanship is applied.
Now, Hollywood and the holy have never been productive playmates. Religion has always been viewed as a focus group limiting ideal, appealing only to those who specifically believe, or consider faith an integral part of their life. Besides, when preachers and conservative pundits want a scapegoat for all the sin and inequity in the world, the media usually ends up the Whore of Babylon – with Tinsel Town turning the most tricks. Even well meaning movies that offer only the slightest sense of spirituality are viewed as divisive and insensitive within our mandated multi-cultural community ideal. Unless the message can be made universal without upsetting or supporting any one sect or scripture, studio suits want nothing much to do with it. It’s the kind of outright rejection Gibson received when he pitched Passion. Luckily, he had his own money to funnel into the project. It’s also a good thing that his brand of arcane orthodox Catholicism doesn’t require a vow of poverty.
It was Roger Ebert who once said that no good movie is ever too long, and a parallel rationale can be applied to faith-based films. Spirituality is never the real reason a religious oriented movie succeeds or fails. It’s the quality of the cinema containing the concerns that is of utmost importance. For all its flaws, The Passion is an amazing artistic statement. Gibson may seem goofy in the way he treats the teachings of the Good Book, but he definitely gets the ephemeral depiction right. Looking like a series of canvases right out of the Vatican’s gilded gallery, the iconography offered by the visuals is what is most important. Christianity is heavy with significant symbols, and Gibson’s direction hit each and every one. Deny its power as a drama or as dogma, but The Passion has the kind of undeniable imagery that will easily live on long after any controversy about the violence – or the vileness of the man who made it – can or will.
It’s the same for something as speculative and questioning as Michael Tolkin’s The Rapture. When it arrived in theaters back in 1991, it was seen as a low budget stunt on the part of the man responsible for the bilious industry satire The Player. Many giggled at its mixing of scandalous sex and immovable religious fervor. For those unfamiliar with this minor masterpiece, Tolkin choose to focus his narrative on a bored and cynical telephone operator played by Mimi Rodgers. A swinger in her private life, she finds anonymous trysts and changing partners a kind of compensation for what’s missing in her life. Overhearing some coworkers discussing the return of Christ, Rogers’ Sharon tries to join in. But they make it very clear that, without a requisite Jesus-based epiphany, she will never know God. Even worse, when the title apocalypse occurs, she will be cast out and unable to enter the kingdom of Heaven.
Sharon eventually has a major spiritual awakening. She leaves her lover and ends up married to a man who agrees with her new found fundamentalism. Tragedy changes everything, however. Alone with a child to support, Sharon is convinced that the Rapture is indeed coming. She heads out into the wilderness to await the arrival of the Four Horsemen. What happens next stands as a definitive statement on the requirements of faith, and how strident and strict the concepts of Christianity and Armageddon can actually be. Posing tough questions like “how far would you go in defense of your beliefs”, it remains one of the best meditations on the nature of literal religion ever offered. While it failed to make an impression in theaters, it’s grown into a major artistic and cultural statement on video and DVD.
Where you will often find strong, supportive religious messages are in independent films. In 2002, Joshua offered up a wonderful “what if” narrative, asking the important question about how a community would react if Christ – in this case, in the form of the title town newcomer – actually did comeback. The results were evenhanded and far from preachy. Indeed, it stands as a solid entertainment. That same year, Hometown Legend used the notion of personal conviction and belief in a higher power as the means of moderating a standard sports drama. While the facets of football were fudged significantly in order to drive the plotpoints, the characters – especially Lacey Chabert’s God-fearing gal – were presented in a surprisingly subtle and skillful manner. Granted, both films are so non-confrontational in their stance on spirituality that if you blinked hard enough, you’d probably miss the evangelical message. While some may feel it follows the “Hollywood’s hidden secret” stance, the outsider arena frequently enjoys bringing The Word to those who want it in ways they least expect it.
But once you move into the realm of the real, all bets are off. Fiction is fine as a maker of metaphors for religious meaning, but when you take on the actual tenets of faith, the converted tend to get their vestments in a bunch. And it’s not hard to see why. Recent documentaries like Deliver Us from Evil and Jesus Camp have painted participation in organized faith in fairly large brushstrokes. The common comical conceit that all priests are pedophiles was not helped by the former film’s focus on a disgusting, defrocked pervert named Fr. Oliver O’Grady. In the case of the lamentable latter work, it was the ballsy brainwashing of young converts by Becky Fischer at her Kids on Fire summer seminars that raised a ruckus. Since so few films focus on subjects such as these (and other related topics like suicide bombers and totalitarian theocracy), the audience is given a limited, non-enlightened exposure to the material. This results in the standard social stigmatizing and the notorious kneejerk reaction.
Both Maher’s movie and Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed seem poised to significantly ratchet up this pissing match. Though he claims he will mock and marginalize everyone, the political comedian has a real Jones for the Christian conservative movement, and here’s betting they’ll be the butt of more jokes than some mainstreamed Muslim or brave faced Buddhist. Stein’s effort seems almost unforgivable. Like asking a mostly proven set of facts to share space with someone’s far flung notions of the truth, the notorious non-science of Intelligent Design is desperate to redefine the way children learn the origins of the species. As with any affront to faith, the believer has every right to be upset with science for raining on their procreation parade. But to substitute a new age amalgamation of old school Creationism is like asking for trouble.
Which, of course, leads to the real reason these movies get made. While it’s hard to see the agenda inside something like The Rapture (unless it’s to show the perils of blind faith), the rest of the films mentioned are driven by one simple desire – to convert. In the case of The Passion, Joshua, or Hometown Legend, it’s the promise that belief adds to and advances human existence. It’s the quaint “God supports those who believe in his might and majesty” ideal. In the case of Deliver Us from Evil and Jesus Camp, it’s ‘Secularism Saves’. Rejecting at the very least the organized aspect of religion, they hope to show that they welcomed the power, and the protection, over individuals like Fr. O’Grady and Becky Fischer. Granted, it’s another of those arguments in the extreme, a dispute with no middle ground and very little room for consensus or clarity. The last thing either side wants is compromise. It would show weakness - or worse, wrongness.
Maybe Islam has the right idea. As part of an interpretation of the Qur’an and the accompanying hadiths, they restrict images depicting the Prophet Muhammad (apparently, from research, there is no outright ‘ban’). When the late Moustapha Akkad - producer of among other things, the Halloween series of films - wanted to make a movie about his religion and its international impact, he formally followed the rule. While other members of Muhammad’s inner circle and family were portrayed, the religious leader was not. It made his 1976 epic Muhammad: Messenger of God awkward, but as close to his core concept and beliefs as possible. He hoped to bridge the Eastern and Western worlds with the movie’s teachings, and educate the masses on the many misconceptions in his religion. Oddly enough, he would die in 2005 at the hands of terrorists. He was in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt in Amman when Al-Qaeda blew the building up. His daughter died instantly. He held on for several days before succumbing to his wounds.
Makes the oncoming clash in 2008 seem all the more meaningful…or perhaps, meaningless.