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Film

The Fodder, The Shunned, and the Oily Spirit

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.

Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and Woodstock each did their stint as a lonely Mexican cowboy, it seems. These and other things you didn't know about A Charlie Brown Christmas.

How Would You Like to Be the Director of Our Christmas Play?

It's really a beautiful little movie and has affected my life in numerous ways. For years, especially when we were poor, we always tried to find the littlest saddest Christmas tree possible. In fact, my son Eli has a Christmas tree set up right now that is just one single branch propped up in a juice bottle. And just a couple weeks ago we were at a wedding, everyone was dancing, and me and my wife Amy and my friend Garth started dancing like the Peanuts characters do in the Christmas special.

-- Comic artist James Kochalka.

Bill Melendez answers questions with the sort of vigor that men a third his age invest thousands in herbal supplements to achieve. He punctuates his speech with belly chuckles and comic strip taglines like "Oh, boy!" and "I tell 'ya!" With the reckless abandon that Melendez tosses out words like pleasure, it's clear that 41 years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains one of his favorite topics of conversation. "It changed my life," he states simply, "being involved with this silly little project."

Melendez celebrated his 90th birthday in November. "When I think of my last 40 or 50 years, I can't believe it," he says, capping off his comment with that inevitable one-man laugh track. The curly-mustachioed animator was born José Cuauhtemoc Melendez in Hermosillo, Mexico, in 1916. "I was literally a cowboy," he says. "From there, I crossed the border and started growing up. Just recently I went back, and when I got there I realized where my home was: across the border. When I was a little kid, I would have killed myself had I known such a thing was going to happen. I'm one of you. Whether you like it or not, I'm one of you."

Melendez recalls his blind leap into the world of animation as though the story's end still managed to catch him by surprise. "I was working in a lumberyard, and one of my mates said, 'Hey, I read in the paper that some guy up on Hyperion Avenue is hiring young guys like you who can draw.' So I went to this stranger and said, 'Hey, I understand someone here is hiring young artists.' The man asked me for my samples and I said I'd show them to him tomorrow. I went home that night and made the samples. I brought them in the next day, and he asked me what art school I went to. I'd never been to an art school. He said, 'Well, you have talent,' and he hired me to work in a place called Walt Disney."

Four years later, after lending his hand to Disney canon fodder like Bambi and Fantasia, and after fighting for his new country in World War II, he spent the next decade or so hunched over the drawing board, producing animated commercials and industrials by the thousands, including a number of spots featuring syndicated comic strip characters. Among them were the Peanuts characters.

Of all the Charlie Browns in the World, You're the Charlie Browniest.

I was around 10 when it first premiered, and seeing A Charlie Brown Christmas for the first time was enough to prove even to a young child that a well-written thing is superior to most of what is out there. I'll probably be watching it again tonight or tomorrow, because I have a copy of it and a six-year-old daughter. She loves it.

-- Comic artist Gilbert Hernandez.

By 1959 Charles "Sparky" Schulz's Peanuts kids found themselves at the center of their first print advertising campaign, pushing Ford's new Falcon make of cars. As the story goes, the idea of using Schulz's characters came from a daughter of one of Ford's advertising people.

"I think Sparky was flattered when they wanted to use his characters, says Schulz's widow, Jean, who now is one of the driving forces behind the Charles Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California. "It was a new way of extending his creativity. From the get-go Sparky always said a comic strip is a commercial venture. Newspapers put the comic strip in to sell newspapers. He would then bitterly say, 'No one considered comic strips art in the first place, so why would you get on your high horse about that?'"

When the time came for the characters to make their animated debut in a Ford commercial, Melendez was brought into the fold, and he brought along a cast of unknown child actors to voice the parts. The team reunited five years later, when Lee Mendelson, a filmmaker from San Francisco, requested two minutes worth of animation for a film he was shooting based on a Peanuts story line.

"I had done a Willie Mays documentary in 1963, A Man Named Mays, which had done really well," Mendelson says. "Then I was reading a Charlie Brown baseball strip, and the idea came to me: I've just done the world's greatest baseball player; now I'll do the world's worst." It's an old joke -- the same he used to open his 2000 coffee-table retrospective, A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition -- but it's one for the ages. "Two years later Coca-Cola called, and I thought they were calling to do the documentary," Mendelson explains, "but they said, 'Have you guys ever thought about doing A Charlie Brown Christmas?' I said absolutely. And that's how I got in the animation business." His executive producer role on that film was the birth of a career now well into its fourth decade.

"So Lee called Sparky and said, 'Well, I just sold our Christmas show," explains Jean. "Sparky asked, 'What Christmas show?' and Lee said, 'The one we're going to write tomorrow." Sparky said, 'If we're going to do it, we need to have Bill.'"

Melendez was brought into direct, and as with the Ford commercial, he gave the parts of the Peanuts kids entirely to children, many of whom had never acted. Getting them to learn their roles was a trying task, given that Schulz's script had his characters regularly waxing philosophical and tossing off words like ailurophobia (a fear of felines, for the record). Melendez had to teach the young actors long portions of the script phonetically. "Sometimes they didn't understand a word," he remembers. "They'd say, 'Just tell me how you want it said.' Then they'd say it, and I'd turn to the engineer and ask if he recorded it. The kids were all startled when they got screen credit and happily startled when they started getting royalty checks."

Melendez's also tried to coach a voice actor for the part of Snoopy, whose lines were limited to a handful of non-words. "I recited Snoopy's lines for the actor, and the actor turned to the engineer and said, 'Did you record that? Just use what Bill has done. I don't want to repeat your words.' " This happy accident left Melendez playing the role of Snoopy and, later, his yellow bird companion Woodstock for the next 40 years.

For the film's soundtrack, Mendelson and Melendez embraced Schulz's love of jazz. "Driving back from Sparky's over the Golden Gate Bridge I heard a song called 'Cast Your Fate to the Wind,'" Mendelson writes in The Making of a Tradition. The song was written by Vince Guaraldi, a jazz pianist from the beatnik-dense San Francisco neighborhood of North Beach. It had won the musician a Grammy Award for best original jazz composition in 1962. Guaraldi enjoyed Schulz's script and happily accepted his invitation into the Charlie Brown Christmas fold.

This Doesn't Seem to Fit the Modern Spirit.

The one thing that has always bothered me about the Charlie Brown Christmas special is that the other kids never admit to Charlie Brown that he was right about the little tree. They ultimately accept the tree, but no one ever says, 'Well, Charlie Brown, I guess you were right all along. We were idiots.' However, it's still cool to see a mainstream children's program show that is so stridently nonsecular, which could never be done in this day and age. Linus gets some good face time with all that shepherd talk.

-- Pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman.

Beyond the inclusion of Schulz's cast of wildly popular characters, 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas seemed a production earmarked for failure. The special's small crew was given a mere six months between the film's conception and its maiden broadcast. At his own insistence, Schulz signed up to pen the script, his first attempt at a screenplay. "He said that if he was going to get screen credit for something, he wanted to be doing something," says Melendez. "He was very proud and curious and didn't want credit where he didn't deserve it."

Despite the Ford commercials that gave birth to the collaboration, and Coca-Cola's strong sponsorship presence in the special, Schulz's script centered around a pensive Charlie Brown attempting to find the true meaning of Christmas. "The 1960s were when Christmas first began to start the day after Thanksgiving," says Mendelson. "There was an irony to this, given the commercialization of the comics. That wasn't really his doing. He said, 'If people want to buy stuff, that's up to them. I'm not in the business of making stuff and selling it. I'm in the business of making a comic strip, and if people want products, then so be it.' "

"We're all a little schizophrenic in that way," adds Jean Schulz. "You live in this world, and you despair. If you think at all, you're always wrestling with this. I think that's exactly what Sparky was expressing." The special opens with a characteristically distraught Charlie Brown, speaking to the perpetually blanket-wielding Linus on a snow-covered version of the brick wall, the bald third-grader's preferred location for vocalizing his ever-present inner despair. "I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus," he begins. "Christmas is coming, but I don't feel happy."

In case that wasn't enough to threatren the film's commercial potential, the producers added one final nail to the prime time coffin: Schulz's script called for Linus to deliver a subdued monologue at the film's climax, a word-for-word recitation of Jesus's birth, taken from the Gospel of Luke. "Bill said, 'You can't have the Bible on television!' Sparky said, 'If we don't do it, who will?' By the time that Coca-Cola and CBS saw it, they had no choice but to play it. They had nothing else to put in there."

What the roomful of executives saw upon the first screening was a shock -- a slow and quiet semireligious, jazz-filled 25 minutes, voiced by a cast of inexperienced children, and, perhaps most unforgivably, without a laugh track. "They said, 'We'll play it once and that will be all. Good try,' " remembers Mendelson. "Bill and I thought we had ruined Charlie Brown forever when it was done. We kind of agreed with the network. One of the animators stood up in the back of the room -- he had had a couple of drinks -- and he said, 'It's going to run for a hundred years,' and then fell down. We all thought he was crazy, but he was more right than we were."

I Never Thought It Was Such a Bad Little Tree

That show is probably the closest I've ever come to having any interest in religion. That part where Linus quotes from the bible is extremely touching and very deftly handled. I was raised in a nonreligious household, and that was a moment that actually had some religious significance to it just because Schulz expressed it so well.

-- Comic artist Seth.

Upon its airing, the special received a 50 share. The network immediately ordered four more films from the team. "We watch it every year to make sure that it actually happened. We thought it would be on one time and be gone," Mendelson says. "The message is simple. Schulz wanted to do a show on the true meaning of Christmas. Any good writer like Schulz deals in truisms and things that are timeless. There are themes about unrequited love and bullies. They work as well now as they did in the 1960s, and they'll probably work for another 50 or 100 years as well."

"I think it touches something in the viewer. We didn't do it on purpose, but there's something ethnic about it," Melendez adds. Schulz expressed his own surprise that the film found its way into the canon of holiday classics. "He would say things like, 'I never thought it would be around 25 years later,'" Jean remembers. "One of the reasons that Christmas is so great is that back in 1965 there were no VCRs or DVDs, so you saw that show once, and you had to wait a whole year to see it again. And when it came on, it still held up. It was still charming."

Forty-one years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains a towering if unassuming presence in holiday TV. It's an oasis of sincerity, managing never to be drowned out by its overzealous neighbors' rush to cross-promote themselves. It's a quiet testament to what children's programming could be: introspective, unpretentious and, above all, respectful of the intelligence of its target audience. "Children's programs were held in low regard by everybody -- including me," says Melendez. "But I realized that it wasn't just for kids. I was dealing with adults. They were giving me suggestions and criticism."

For a film with an anticommercial message, A Charlie Brown Christmas produced its own market bonanza. But it still suggests the spirit of its writer, who sensed the real magic of Christmas was not in the spectacle of lights, commerce and big aluminum Christmas trees, but in those fleeting moments of silence, which seem to become rarer with each passing day. "They weren't afraid to have quiet," Jean says. "Most of the time when the kids are walking, it's very quiet. We came out of a new animated movie one day, and Sparky said, 'I missed the quiet places.'"

Over the years, the Schulz-Mendelson-Melendez team created more than 75 half-hour television specials and four feature films, and five Peanuts films have been made since Schulz's death, in 2000, at the age of 77. Outside of the films, Peanuts continues to be an incredibly lucrative license for its owners, United Features Syndicate. "If Sparky had the volume of stuff crossing through the office that we have today, it would have driven him nuts," laughs Jean. "He probably would have walked through the office and said, 'We're cutting all of the licensing off. I don't want to do it anymore.'"

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60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

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