Thursday, July 18, 2019

I Read the Book Month: A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Once, in a sermon, our friend Kate Braestrup mentioned that there are two characteristics that inspire fear in people of every culture of the world: being young and being male.

If there was ever a book -- and a movie adaptation -- that would reinforce those fears, it’s Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange and Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of that novel.

Both the novel and the film tell the story of Alex DeLarge, a young man who lives a life of violence and debauchery. (As the novel begins, Alex is 15 years old, but in the film, his exact age is never given. Though the character is still living with his parents and going to school, the actor playing the role, Malcolm McDowell was 27 at the time of production. He's obviously meant to be much younger.) 

He and his pals Pete, George, and Dim go about the countryside of a future, dystopian England committing random acts of violence, robbery, and rape. One would be quite sensible to look at these approaching youths and consider the worst.

The acclaim the novel and the film achieved isn’t strictly within the purview of Movie Churches. Burgess’ work is in Modern Library’s list of the 100 best English language novels of the 20th Century and Kubrick’s work is on the American Film Institute's list of 100 greatest films, but the works differ in a couple of significant ways.

In the novel, sex and violence are described in a way that allows the reader to be distanced from the events. Alex, the first-person narrator of the story, uses a Russian-influenced slang called “Nadsat." In the film, Alex also uses this slang in the narration, but because it's a movie, we (the audience) witness disturbing acts of sadism and sordid sexuality. The film received an "X" rating upon its release (and I’m pretty sure this is the only X-rated film we’ve reviewed here at Movie Churches.)

The other major difference between the film and the book is the conclusion. Burgess wrote a final chapter for the book that -- for a time -- wasn’t in the American version of the book, though it was in the British edition. In that final chapter, Alex is an older, more mature, and settled man. He observes his friend, Pete, who left his life of violence, married, and is raising a child. The book suggests the grace and redemption that were a part of Burgess’ Catholic worldview. The conclusion of Kubrick’s film is much more cynical, suggesting that Alex will go on as a creature of lust and brutality, but he will also be a pawn of the government.

But here at Movie Churches, we just want to know whether there is a church. And there is, of a kind. Alex is sentenced to fourteen years in prison for murder. There the prison chaplain (Godfrey Quigley) gathers inmates for services. Our first impression of the chaplain is not entirely favorable. He’s preaching a fire and brimstone sermon.“What’s it going to be like for you?" he harangues. "Is it going to be more in and out of institutions like this? Or are you going to attend to the divine Word and realize the punishment that awaits unrepentant sinners in the next world as well at this? A lot of idiots you are, selling your birthright for a saucer of cold porridge.” 

His sermon is continually interrupted by inmates making belching and farting sounds. The guard demands quiet and respect and the chaplain preaches on.

During the service, the inmates sing the hymn “I Was a Wandering Sheep” (one interesting phrase in the hymn is “I will not be controlled”), and Alex himself mans the overhead projector. We find he's taken on the role of chaplain's assistant. As Alex says, “It was my rabbit to help the Prison Chalie with the Sunday service. He was a bolshy, great burly bastard. But he was very interested in me, being very young and very interested in that Big Book.”

Alex is interested in the Bible, but it doesn’t seem an exactly healthy interest. He imagines the crucifixion, but with himself as a Roman soldier, whipping and beating Jesus. He says of the Bible, “I didn’t so much like the later part of the book, which is more like preachy talking than fighting and the old in and out.”

But the chaplain has hope for Alex and spends a great deal of time with him talking in the prison library. He never calls Alex by his name, but always refers to him by his prison number - 655321. 

One day, Alex tells the pastor he needs to ask a question in private. The chaplain thinks he knows what will be asked. “Is there something troubling you, my son? I know the urges that can trouble young men, deprived of the society of women.”

But Alex is asking something very different. The government is testing the “Ludovico treatment,” experimental psychological conditioning to reform criminals. He wants to be part of the program so he can be released from prison. “I want to be good,” Alex says. (But the viewer is confident he doesn’t want to be good, he only wants out.

The chaplain argues the program won’t make Alex "good." He says,  “The question is whether or not the technique really makes a man good. Goodness comes from within, goodness is chosen. When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.” There the chaplain presents the crucial moral question posed by the film. If a person doesn’t choose to do good (or refrain from evil), is it goodness? Alex takes the Ludovico treatment and can no longer commit violent acts (he also becomes impotent). He also loses his ability to enjoy the work of “Ludwig van,” specifically the Ninth Symphony. The chaplain asks whether this kind of “reform” is worth the price.

For asking the right questions, we’re giving the prison chaplain of A Clockwork Orange a favorable rating of 3 out of 4 steeples.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

I Read the Book Month: The Trial

The Trial (1962)
When we're choosing films here, the question we ponder isn't just whether there is a church or clergy, but we especially ponder whether there's enough church and clergy.

Obviously, you have films like The Apostle, Going My Way, or Dead Man Walking that feature clergy as the principal players. Some films with much smaller roles for clergy are of interest to us, too -- we took a full month to write about Friar Tuck in Robin Hood films, though nobody ever thinks those stories are about the man in the brown robe rather than the man in the green tights.)

This happens to be “I Read the Book Month” at Movie Churches, and I read Franz Kafka’s The Trial before I saw the 1962 adaptation of the story written and directed by Orson Welles (Welles also plays the role of the Advocate). Both the movie and the book tell the story of a man, Josef K, a banker who, for reasons never made clear, is arrested and is subjected to the full force of government bureaucracy. (I watched the film through Kanopy, a service of our local library system, which in its summary of the film said that Josef K faces a “Kafkaesque nightmare.” That's wrong, of course: it’s not “Kafkaesque,” it’s Kafka itself.)

In the novel, a chapter called "In the Cathedral" appears toward the end of the book. The chapter features a priest who serves as the Court Chaplain. Josef K meets and spends quite a bit of time with the priest while on a tour of the Cathedral. Josef says that the priest is one of the few people in the court system who expresses any genuine concern for Josef and his situation. Not enough concern to make a difference, but…

The priest’s portion of the novel is small but important. His appearance in the film is even briefer. Josef K (Anthony Perkins) is chased and goes into a cathedral. The priest is in a pulpit, from which he condemns Josef as a guilty man. (Like everyone in the film and novel, he never says exactly what Josef K is guilty of. He’s just guilty.) 

The priest says, “Your guilt is assumed here to be proved.” When Josef denies his guilt, the priest says, “The guilty always talk like that.” (That line comes straight from the novel.)

When the priest descends from the pulpit, he is wearing a robe that looks like a judge’s robe. He tries to persuade Josef he should submit to the will of the court, calling him, “my son.” 

Josef responds, “I’m not your son” and flees from the cathedral.

So the priest (Michael Lonsdale) appears for only about five minutes in a two-hour film. Is that enough to write about? I think it is, because the priest serves as an illustration of the worst thing the church can choose to do in a totalitarian society. It can choose to adapt to the rule of the world. The priest becomes just another cog in the machine that is grinding an individual into dust. And the priest in the film doesn’t even show the compassion to be found in the priest in the novel.

Church bells are heard throughout the film, but the church is really just another part of the dehumanizing system. Which is why the cameos of the priest and the cathedral earn our lowest Movie Churches rating of One Steeple.

Friday, July 5, 2019

I Read the Book Month: The Brothers Karamozov

The Brothers Karamazov (1958)
Is there a more annoying guy than the one who answers the question, “Did you see (movie)?” by responding, “No, but I read the book.” So pretentious. So pompous. So supercilious. 

I guess I should warn you: that is the person I intend to be for the rest of the month. To make things worse, I’ll be starting the month with a movie based on one of Dostoyevsky's novels.

Until recently, if you asked me, “Did you see the 1958 movie version of The Brothers Karamazov?” I would have replied, “No, but I read the book.” Now, I’ve seen the movie as well. 

It isn’t nearly as good. 

Of course, most critics consider Karamazov one of the greatest novels ever written. It’s had admirers as diverse as Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Cormac McCarthy, William Falkner, Walker Percy, and Joseph Stalin. (It’s still a great book, even if it was admired by a mass murderer -- by whom I mean Uncle Joe, not Virginia.)

The novel and film tell the story of a scoundrel of a father, Fyodor (Lee J. Cobb), and his three sons, Dmitri (Yul Brynner) is a partying sensualist, Ivan (Richard Basehart) is a hard-working atheist, and Alexi is a novice in the local Russsian Orthodox monastery. There is also (spoilers for a novel a couple of centuries old) a fourth, illegitimate son, Smerdyakov (Albert Salmi), who works as a servant for Fyodor.

The novel is full of discussions of philosophy, ethics, and theology. The film doesn’t have time for such things, omitting even Ivan's great dream, “The Grand Inquisitor,” which tells the story of Jesus returning to Seville at the time of the Inquisition. The movie does have time for the love triangle between Demitri, Katya (Claire Bloom), and Grushenka (Maria Schell) -- who's also Fyodor’s lover.

Alexi, who Dostoevsky describes as the hero of the novel, gets relatively little screen time. That's unfortunate for us here at Movie Churches, because Alexi is, after all, the clergyman of the family. We’d also love to have more time for the film’s Alexi because he's played by one of the great emoters of our time: William Shatner, Captian James T. Kirk himself.

Alexi is always trying to make peace among his brothers, between his brothers and his father, and with anyone else who's not getting along. He’s generous to a fault, sharing what little money he has with his brother, Dmitri, even though his brother is likely to gamble and drink the money away. So, yeah, in modern parlance it might be said Alexi encourages codependency, but he has a good heart.

One of the most amusing things about Shatner in the role is that with his monk robes and closely cropped monk haircut, he looks very much like a Vulcan

 Alexi is described as a “lover of humanity” who says of himself, “I don’t respect money.” He fervently seeks the salvation of his father and brothers. Dmitri truly loves and respects Alexi, though he constantly takes advantage of him. His father appreciates the respectability a monk brings to the family. Ivan considers his brother a fool.

But Alexi is not the only holy man in the film. Fyodor and Dmitri have, for years, argued about Dmitri's maternal inheritance. Alexi proposes a mediator for the dispute, Father Zossima (William Vedder), who everyone considers a saint. He is trusted to be fair because he has respect for all people, no more respect for rich than he has for poor. When Zossima comes, Fyodor tries to make his case, but Dmitri gives up his claims. Zossima shocks them all by bowing to Dmitri and telling Alexi that his brother is destined for greatness.

Alexi continues to help both of his brothers as much as he can. He is even willing to defy the law when Dmitri is convicted of a crime. Alexi believes in his brother’s innocence, so he helps him flee the country.

Honestly, even though saying it is annoying, the book is SO much better than the movie -- but that isn’t the concern here at Movie Churches. Alexi and Father Zossima are both good clergymen, earning our highest rating of Four Steeples.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

The Last Laugh for Comedy Month

Bernie (2011)
When my wife, Mindy, and I were in Las Vegas in 2016, we found it interesting that the wedding chapels we visited were designed to resemble churches without religious imagery. They had steeples, but not crosses. They had stained glass without saints. Whoever planned those chapels knew that looking like a church was good marketing, but they didn’t want to make people uncomfortable by associating the chapels with God or have the facility mistaken for a Christian church.

Funeral homes take a different marketing approach. In the 2011 film, Bernie, an assistant mortician insists on placing crosses throughout his funeral home so people will mistake the place for a church -- making it all the easier to sell the higher end coffins. The services held in the funeral home are Christian worship services with Scripture and hymns -- but the funeral home is definitely not a church.

Thankfully (for Movie Churches), there is an actual church in the film: Carthage United Methodist Church. There is actual clergy, too, in the church's pastor. I'm extra thankful about this because I'm happy to let people know about this wonderful film by Richard Linklater.

So many filmmakers seem to know only California (Southern California, and the LA area in particular) and New York (NYC, and Manhattan in particular), so it’s good to have a writer and director who knows another place. Linklater really knows his home state of Texas. He has made many films that capture a feel and often the essence of the place (Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Boyhood, Everybody Wants Some!! and others.) Not many filmmakers get small rural small town life right, and hardly anybody understands church life in a small town. Linklater does.

But does this movie really belong in Comedy Month? The film tells the true story of Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), an undertaker in a funeral home who became a small town hero. 

He also shot an old woman in the back and hid her in a freezer. 

Does this sound like a comedy to you? It is described in IMDB as a comedy. It’s structured as a comedy. Most importantly, it made me laugh. Therefore, it qualifies.

In his work at the funeral home, Bernie naturally interacted with many widows. He often checked up on these grieving women and took a particular interest in a bitter old biddy named Majorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). He begins to spend a great deal of time with this very rich woman who had cut herself off from her family and almost everyone in the town. Bernie and Majorie go on lavish vacations, (such as staying at the Ritz in New York City and attending Broadway shows).

Majorie became increasingly dependent on Bernie, leaning on him for advice in all areas including finances. She even grants him power of attorney, but she also demands more and more control over  Bernie’s life, hampering him from pursuing other interests, like community theater and piloting small planes. Eventually, it was too much. Bernie shot Marjorie in the back with a possum gun and hid her body in the garage freezer in her home. 

For the next nine months, Bernie pretends that Majorie is alive, just too ill to see anyone else. He also makes free use of Majorie’s money, buying cars, jet skis, and even a swing set for people he thought were deserving. He donated money to the community theater and local airport. And he gave a significant donation for the construction of a new prayer wing at the Methodist Church.

Real Bernie, Screen Bernie
But Majorie’s stockbroker and her family became curious and found an ally in the local district attorney, Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey). Majorie’s body was discovered, and Bernie was arrested.

With the arrest, the pastor of the Methodist Church faces a number of difficulties. When he includes the incarcerated Bernie in the Prayer for the People, Danny Buck, a member of the congregation, is offended. The Reverend argues that Bernie is a member of the church, and Danny counters that Majorie was also a member of the church. Supporting Bernie, he says, is offensive to her memory.

A more material concern faces the congregation when the government begins to confiscate the cash and goods that Bernie gave with Majorie’s funds. The church must tear down the new prayer wing. I’ve read of other such cases where churches had to give back donated money that was obtained illegally, which is fair and right, but is quite a challenge after budgeting decisions have been made. (But why does a church need a “prayer wing” anyway? After all, Jesus said a closet would do nicely.)

One good thing about Bernie’s arrest: people from the church visit him in jail. It seems to me that Jesus commanded the church to feed the hungry, clothe the needy, and visit prisoners, but many churches have a hard time with the first two commands and ignore the prison visitation entirely. It turns out Bernie organized Bible studies in prison, so he brought some church with him.

I’m kind of relieved I don’t have to give Bernie himself a Steeple Rating. He was a mortician, not a clergyman (though he did read Scripture and sing “Just As I Am”). Linklater and Black obviously have sympathy for the man, though he was a self-confessed killer. The church and Reverend Woodard seem to have tried to do their best in a quite horrible situation, earning a Three Steeple rating.

Friday, June 21, 2019

1980 Was a Good Year for Comedies...and you can quote me on that

Airplane! and Caddyshack (1980)
For a certain demographic of guys who like to quote movies, 1980 was a golden year. It was the year two classic comedies, Caddyshack and Airplane!, were released.

“Surely you can’t be serious.” 
“I am serious...and don’t call me Shirley.”

“Cinderella story! Outta nowhere! A former greenskeeper, now about to become the Masters champion! It looks like a miracle… It’s in the hole! It’s in the hole!”

“Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue.”

“Whoa, did someone step on a duck?”

“Alright, give me Hamm on five, hold the Mayo.”

“Thank you very little.”

Some guys that won’t stop quoting these films, to the distress of most around them. (I hereby apologize to those around me.) Both films also are packed with sight gags and jokes that offended a wide spectrum of folks when the movies were first released (and they can offend even more now). 

Neither movie is very sensitive about religious sensitivities -- which is why both find a place here at Movie Churches. Though neither film has a church, both have clergy.

Airplane! has a nun, Sister Angelina (Maureen McGovern). We see her sitting on the plane, calmly reading Boy’s Life magazine. A few rows away, we see a young boy reading Nun’s Life. The nun has brought along a guitar (don’t know how it fit the carryon size limitations). One of the stewardesses (they weren't called flight attendants in 1980) borrows the nun's guitar to sing a song for a sick girl on the plane, to the delight of everyone except the sick girl.

Since Airplane! is a spoof of disaster films, trouble is sure to come. The film’s creators, Jerry Zucker, David Zucker, and Jim Abrahams, mostly stole the plot from a 1957 film called Zero Hour! In that film, the crew of an airliner gets food poisoning from bad fish in the dinner service. A stewardess must fly the plane, and is later aided by a grief-stricken passenger, a former pilot. The two films even use almost the same name for the former pilot; Ted Stryker (Dana Andrews) of Zero Hour! became Ted Strider (Robert Hayes) in Airplane!.

As the passengers in Airplane! panic when they realize their danger, the nun tries to bring comfort in some unorthodox ways. When one woman gets hysterical, a doctor (Leslie Neilson) tries to calm her, and then slaps her to shock her out of her hysteria. The nun takes over when the doctor is called to another passenger, and she shakes and slaps the woman. A line forms to take over for the nun, and the group carries increasingly lethal weaponry.

The film has other religious figures. A saint statue in the dashboard of the jetliner raises an umbrella during the storm. At the airport, hordes of religious solicitors (no longer allowed by security in this post 9/11 world) hand out flowers. Groups represented include the Church of Religious Consciousness, Hare Krishnas, Moonies, Scientologists, Buddhists, among many others, including Jews for Jesus --  one of the few theologically sound groups represented (in my opinion). In a very funny scene, these religious representatives are slugged one after another by Captain Rex Kramer (Robert Stack) as he tries to make his way through the airport to the airport tower.

Caddyshack has only one member of the clergy, and he's quite a sad figure. “The Bishop” Pickering (Henry Wilcoxon) is from an unspecified denomination, but it's probably Episcopal. We first see him in the locker room of the golf club. A judge (Ted Knight) asks him, “Did you hear the one about the Jew, the Catholic, and the colored boy that went to heaven?” 

The Bishop laughs, “Ya, that’s a doozie, Judge”. I just hope it’s not a joke he used as a sermon illustration.

Bishop Pickering talks about getting his greatest satisfaction working with young men at the “Youtheran Center.” When a young caddy, Danny (Michael O’Keefe), says he’d like to visit the place, he also mentions he’s thought of becoming a priest. The Bishop lets Danny know Catholics are not welcome.

The Bishop has his big moment in the film when a storm approaches. He asks the assistant groundskeeper, Carl (Bill Murray), to take him out to “try to squeeze in nine holes before the rain starts.” As rain pours down, lightning and thunder build, and the music from The Ten Commandments swells. The Bishop is playing his personal best game of golf, and Carl encourages him, “Good shot, Bishop, you must have made a deal with the devil.”

The Bishop doesn’t want to stop playing. “I could break the club record! I’m infallible!” Carl suggests, with the lightning and all, that perhaps they should to a break. The Bishop refuses. “The Good Lord would never disrupt the best game of my life!” But the round doesn’t end well. After missing a last, crucial putt, the Bishop is struck by lightning.

We next see the Bishop at the clubhouse, drinking with the judge and friends. “Another drink, Bishop?”

The Bishop answers, “Never ask a Navy man if he’ll have another drink because it’s nobody’s G** D*** business!”

The Judge tells him, “Wrong! You’re drinking too much Your Excellency!”

The Bishop answers, “Excellency? Fiddlesticks. My name’s Fred. I’m just a man, same as you, Judge.”

The Judge responds, “You’re a bishop, for God’s sake!”

Not long after that the Bishop says, “There is no God!”

But somehow, the drunk, doubting Bishop seems a little more Godly than the man we saw earlier laughing at cruel jokes and enjoying the trappings of power and privilege.

There is certainly something to be said for fearlessness in comedy, and both these films mock people in positions of authority -- even religious authority -- and I think that’s a good thing. But sadly, that means the clergy in both films earn a lowly rating of Two Steeples.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Funny Movie Churches: Kind Hearts and Coronets

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
I’ve preached some boring sermons through the years, but fortunately, no one has threatened my life because of them. In the 1949 comedy, Kind Hearts and Coronets, the Parson was not so fortunate. (To be fair, the killer was already planning to murder the Reverend Lord Henry D’Ascoyne. The boring sermon just “moved him up the list.”) Still, the worst I’ve faced for being dull in the pulpit is a little snoring.

Kind Hearts and Coronets was produced at Ealing Studios, a company that made quite a number of excellent comedies in postwar Britain. The film tells the story of Louis D’Ascoyne Mazzini (Dennis Price), the son of an aristocrat who was disowned by her family when she married an Italian opera singer. When his mother dies, Louis asks the D’Ascoynes if his mother can be buried in the family crypt, according to her wishes. When they refuse, he vows revenge.

He plans to kill off every D’Ascoyne in the line of ahead of him until he takes the inherited title of Tenth Duke of Chalfont. (It should be noted that every member of the D’Ascoyne line -- except Louis and his mother -- is played by Sir Alec Guinness.)

Of course, Dennis knew murder was wrong. He was educated in a British Public School (which would be a private school in the US) where he was taught the Ten Commandments. He knew the Sixth Commandment about not killing well enough, but he grew up to break it (along with the Seventh Commandment).

Eight aristocrats that stand in between Louis and Dukedom, and he first dispatches Ascoyne D’Ascoyne, a man who got Louis fired from his job at a department store. Next, he goes after Henry D’Ascoyne. Louis had befriended Henry (“It’s so hard to kill people with whom one is not on friendly terms”), and so he attends his funeral. The service is conducted by another D’Ascoyne named Henry, the Reverend Lord Henry D’Ascoyne.

Louis describes the sermon commemorating the other Henry as “interminable nonsense.” After opening with the "seasonal" passage from Ecclesiastes 3, he moves on to commemorate Henry.  In the eulogy, the Parson said, “The life cut short was one rich in achievement and promise of service to humanity.” Louis knew that Henry's greatest goal was to sneak a drink while hiding from his wife -- not serving humanity.

Louis believes Henry is part of the English tradition of sending the dimmest member of the family to serve in the clergy (an idea often found in English novels). Louis finds him such a bore, he decides to move the Parson up to number three on his kill list.

So Louis takes on the “garb and character” of a visiting bishop and goes to see the Reverend D’Ascoyne, claiming to be making a collection of brass rubbings in country churches. When Henry greets Louis with, “Good evening, my Lord,” Louis is quite shocked to be addressed by his ecclesiastical title.

Henry happily gives Louis a tour of the church, speaking nonsense, “Have you noticed our cheristry? The corbels are very fine. You will note our chantry displays the crocketed and final ogee, which marks it as early perpendicular. The bosses to the pendant are typical. And I always say my west window has all the exuberance of Chaucer, without any of the crudities of his period.” Some of these are real architectural terms, but Henry seems to have no idea what they mean.

But the thing Parson Henry takes the most “pride” in, is the D’Ascoyne family crypt. “Every member of the family is buried in the vault,” he says, though Louis’ mother was not buried there. “The dead, as it were, keeping watch over the living.”

Quite notably absent in his tour is any mention of God, let alone Jesus.

Henry invites “the Bishop” to dinner. Louis notes that, “Fortunately, he was not one of those clerics who brings his vocation into his private life.” Henry luxuriates in wine and cigars, though his doctor advised him against both. But it gives Louis a good opportunity to put poison in Henry’s wine.

Yeah, murder is bad. But one doesn’t feel that the church will suffer greatly from the loss of the Reverend Lord Henry D’Ascoyne. Therefore, we are giving the Rev. a rather low Movie Churches rating of Two Steeples.

(And if you feel compelled to watch more black and white black comedies from the forties about serial killings, might I suggest 1944’s Arsenic and Old Lace. Directed by Frank Capra, the film has a minister, the Reverend Harper (who's also Cary Grant’s father-in-law). He doesn’t have much screen time, but he if he did, he would be likely to get a higher Steeple rating than Rev. Henry.)

Friday, June 7, 2019

Comedy Month at Movie Churches: Dragnet

Dragnet (1987)
I really hated Dragnet (the motion picture) when I saw it in the theater in 1987. Watching it again, I still found it awful, but for even more reasons. It is, to be kind, a film that hasn’t aged well.

The original Dragnet franchise was the creation of Jack Webb (former altar boy). Stories were taken from the files of the Los Angeles Police Department, and it was made first into an NBC radio drama (1949 - 1957) and then NBC brought it to television. The first incarnation of the show ran from 1952 - 1959. A Dragnet feature film was released in 1954. In these early incarnations, Dragnet was considered fairly gritty and hard-edged. Webb respected the work of the police, believing they worked long hours for low pay in dangerous work to “protect and serve.”

But when a new incarnation of the show returned in the air, Dragnet 1967 (followed by Dragnet 1968, and Dragnet 1969), much of the public viewed Sergeant Joe Friday as a camp figure. His straight-laced approach to law and order became an object of mockery in the boundary-pushing 1960s.

So the 1987 version of Dragnet (made five years after the death of Jack Webb) was a broad comedy. (I’m not going to call it satire, which would imply a more sophisticated take on the subject.) Dan Aykroyd played a new incarnation of Joe Friday --  the nephew of Webb’s character -- a rigid by-the-book veteran LAPD officer. The “laughs” come when he's assigned a hip new rule-breaking partner: Pep Streebeck, played by Tom Hanks.

How cool is Streebeck? He goes to a strip club for his morning coffee and is a regular reader of Bait magazine. In the movie, Friday and Streebeck are led by the trail of the investigation to visit an imitation Playboy Mansion to interview Jerry Caesar (a not very veiled parody of Hugh Hefner played by Dabney Coleman). While Friday tries to keep everything professional, Streebeck acts like a horndog fanboy, pointing out all the former centerfolds by name and staring quite impolitely. In the ‘80s this was “cool,” but in the #MeToo era, one can’t help thinking Streebeck is a creep who, as a police officer, should be more aware of the issues of human trafficking and sexual abuse.

And while Joe Friday follows proper procedure interrogating suspects, Streebeck practices the kind of intimidation popular with screen cops played by the likes of Stallone and Eastwood back in the day. In these days of concerns about police brutality, Friday seems to be an officer more attuned to our times.

When the film premiered, Friday was presented as a man out of his time. Now, his partner, Streebeck, is the real anachronism.

All of this would be quite relevant if this blog was about morality or ethics, but we're talking about churches and clergy here.

The film opens with Friday's narration as the camera pans the streets of Los Angeles. We see places of worship:  a "Jesus Saves" mission, a temple, a mosque, a donut shop. Friday explains, “even in the City of Angels, halos occasionally slip.”

There is a clergyman in the film. Christopher Plummer plays the Reverend Jonathan Whirley, a radio evangelist and the chief villain of the film. He is the founder and director of M. A. A. (Moral Advancement of America) and a great political mover and shaker in the city. His character seems to be modeled after Jerry Falwell, and his organization seems intended to remind viewers of the Moral Majority -- but Falwell was a spokesman for conservative causes and usually for Republican candidates (though, for the sake of tax laws, his endorsements were usually veiled.) It seems odd that such a figure would be a political force in the Democrat-dominated city of Los Angeles (Democrat Mayor Tom Bradley was serving the fourth of his five terms when the film was released.)

We later learn, however, that Whirley is also secretly the founder and director of P.A.G.A.N. (People Against Goodness and Normalcy). He also works with the pornographer Caesar, believing that in order to keep his highly profitable “moral” organization running, corrupt, evil, and powerful organizations need to exist to work in opposition. So he supports both.
As director of P.A.G.A.N., he attempts to practice human sacrifice -- which is not a good look for a man of the cloth. The Rev. Whirley receives our lowest Movie Church rating of One Steeple.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Missionary Month End of the Spear

End of the Spear (2005)
I knew that the missionaries of 2005’s End of the Spear were likely to earn our highest rating of Four Steeples. The film tells the story of Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Ed McCully, Peter Fleming, and Roger Youderian, five missionaries who tried to reach Waodani people deep in the Ecuadorian rainforest and the aftermath of the missionaries' deaths.

Years ago I read their story in Through Gates of Splendor, written in 1957 by Elisabeth Elliot, the widow of Jim Elliot. After Jim and the others were speared by Waodani tribesmen, Elisabeth and Nate Saint’s sister Rachel went to live with the Waodani people in order to show God’s love for them. Their examples of love and self-sacrifice have long been an inspiration to me.

Told from the perspective of Nate Saint's son, Steve (who was a child when his father was killed) and Mincayani, the Waodani man who killed Nick Saint, the film tells the story of friendship that developed between the two.

It's not just that, though. The film makes a point of telling why the missionaries wanted to contact the Waodani at the time they did. The tribe was quite violent, attacking any and all outsiders, as well as fighting among themselves to the point that the tribe was nearing extinction. Ecuador's government was considering taking action. The missionaries decided to reach the people quickly while there was still an opportunity.

They used their plane (which the Waodani called a “wood bee”) to drop off gifts in the remote village, and eventually landed their plane on the bank of the river nearby. Men from the tribe met the missionaries when they landed and attacked, killing all five. Life Magazine did a pictorial spread on the deaths, bringing world attention, but the families of the victims remained to serve the tribe and show God’s love.

The people of the tribe asked why the missionaries hadn't defended themselves. They had guns. They could easily have overpowered the men with spears. Rachel Saint was asked, “Why didn’t the wood bee men shoot us?”

She responded, “They came to tell you Waengongi has a Son. He was speared, but He didn’t spear back so the people spearing Him would one day live well.”

The missionaries (both the murdered and their families) did bring peace to a warring tribe. The film itself is a little cheesy, the music is sappy, and some of the acting is wooden. (Bonus for animal lovers, though: the film has monkeys, parrots, and bats.) But we're writing about the clergy in the film, and I guessed right going in.

As anticipated, the missionaries of End of the Spear earned 4 Steeples.

Every Tribe Entertainment

Monkeys, bats

Can the human heart be changed?

1943 Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Fierceness of Wydonee tribe had brought them to the edge of extinction

I’ve always loved making things with my hands

Their violence was a trap, a prison they couldn’t escape from.

Melanistic leopard

“Maycani is kissing the jaguar”

Will you use your guns? We can’t shoot them

How long until the monkeys get saved.

Anger at missing parrot

We must spear them.

*“Why didn’t the wood bee men shoot us?” “They came to tell you Waengongi has a Son. He was speared, but He didn’t spear back. So the people spearing Him, would one day live well.”

Kimo has fallen under a spell. Just look at his face, every day a spirit possesses you more.

They are all spirits.

The sting ray poisoned you.

“There are some things you never forget.” “You’re right, he’s a boy.”

I follow Waengongi’s carvings, I walk in His Trail.

Polio plague

Kimo used to be a great warrior

Kimo saves girl from great snake

It’s important to do what’s in your heart, Steven.

I hope you will see you are in Waengongi’s place. And we will become sincere friends.

Wadoni Territory - Aunt Rachel died

My wife and children have never lived in the jungle.

Why not live where your family is buried.

Are you not our family?

I saw them, your father saw them too. Your father was a special man. I saw him jump the Great Boa while he was still alive. I speared your father.

My father lost his life at the end of the spear.

Mincayani and his family, Steve and his family

Half of profits of film to indigenous peoples

Friday, May 24, 2019

Missionary Movie Month Continues with a Leper Streak

Molokai (1999)
This month, I set out to write about movies with missionaries, not movies with lepers -- yet for the second week in a row, I'm writing about a missionary who founded a ministry to people with Hansen's Disease. Unlike last week's film (The Devil at 4 O'Clock), this week's story is a true one.  Molokai is the story of Father Damien, a Roman Catholic priest who went to the Hawaiian Island of Molokai in 1864. The island was the home (or, more accurately, the prison) of people suffering from leprosy (Hansen's Disease), which casts a dark shadow even in Bible stories. 

I haven’t written about many Belgian films in this blog -- mostly because there aren’t many. But it makes sense that a Belgian company would want to make a film about Father Damien, a Belgian saint. (The director, Paul Cox, was actually Dutch. The film was made on location in Hawaii with an English-speaking cast. David Wenham, who plays Damien, is Australian. Still, the money that made the film was Belgian.)

The 1999 film begins as governing officials of the Hawaiin islands are discussing what should be done about the problem of leprosy. To prevent the spread of the disease, all those afflicted are to be sent to the Kalaupapa peninsula of the island of Molokai, and they may never leave the island (the disease was incurable at the time). The Catholic Bishop (Leo McKern) of the islands is included in the meeting, and he is concerned about the souls of the diseased. He asks the Prime Minister (Sam Neill) for permission to send priests to the island to administer last rights, and that permission is granted.

Four priests volunteer for duty on Molokai, and Father Damien is chosen to be the first to go. The bishop gives him priest very specific instructions: he is to prepare his own food to avoid infection. He is to keep his distance from the afflicted. He is never to touch anyone with leprosy.

Father Damien is not very good at following the bishop's instructions. At the first mass he performs, a young leper boy asks if he can serve as an altar boy -- as he served before he was sent away from his home because of his leprosy. Damien agrees and asks the boy to shake his hand to seal the deal.

Even though he's not good at following his bishop's instructions, he is very good at following the example of Christ Jesus, who (according to the Apostle Paul in Philippians 2) “being in the very nature of God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness and being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death -- even death on a cross.” Damien goes to serve the lepers, willing to become one of them, even if it means he will succumb to the disease.

Damien looks to serve all who live on the Kalaupapa peninsula, even if they don't want to become Catholic. He befriends William Williamson (Peter O'Toole), an old man who camps on the beach and a confirmed Protestant. Williamson contracted the disease by tending the wounds of lepers, cleaning and bandaging their sores (“I was a medical assistant in Honolulu, and I got the blasted disease myself. Let that be a lesson to you.”) Some of the best dialogue of the film comes from the conversations of these two men.

Father Damien tries to convert the old man asking, “May I give you the sacraments?” 

Williamson replies, “Me? A proper Catholic priest? My father would rise from the grave. Father, don’t be insulted. Come back tomorrow, I may be frightened and have to think about it.”

When Williamson nears death, the two discuss the afterlife. Williamson says, “I suppose it would be easier for you if I just died?” 

Damien responds, “Oh, you can’t die until I convert you.” 

Williamson asks, “Do you honestly believe only Catholics go to heaven?” 

Damien answers, “I’m not absolutely certain, but I know that Catholics can go to heaven.”

Williamson dies, having refused to Last Rites and telling Father Damien, “No. I’m the one that got away. Don’t worry, I’ll say a good word for you on the other side.”

Damien is not presented as a perfect man. He doesn’t believe the church or the government give the lepers the support they deserve, as each institution gives a little and shifts the blame to the other. He particularly is annoyed by the government's refusal to let him leave the island in order to make confession to another priest. At one time, he must resort to going out on a boat and shouting his confession to the Bishop on a ship. (The story of this at-sea confession becomes a scandal in the newspapers.)

In the 1800's, some believed that leprosy was one of the later symptoms of syphilis. When Damien is found to have leprosy, he is accused of being unfaithful to his vows of chastity. He angrily responds that he has never been with a woman, adding, “or a man.”

Father Damien has times of whether God is caring for him or the leper colony. (He’s in good company with these dark feelings -- what St. John of the Cross called “the dark night of the soul.” Jesus Himself cried out, “My God, My God, why has You forsaken Me?”)

The Church is not portrayed as perfect in the film, but when no other organization was willing to care for the lepers of Molokai, the Church stepped in. So we give the Church in this film our highest rating of 4 Steeples. Father Damien himself, of course, also receives 4 Steeples. We just wish we could give him more.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Missionary Movie Month: What the Devil?

The Devil at 4 O'Clock (1961)
Yes, the priest’s drinking is worrisome. As is his violent temper. And his lack of faith. But what really bugged me was his begging.

In this 1961 film, Spencer Tracy plays Father Matthew Doonan, a missionary on the (fictional) island of Talua in French Polynesia. Directed by Mervyn Le Roy, based on a novel by Max Catto (Mister Mosesit's a disaster film with one of the most cinematic natural disasters: a volcano.

Father Doonan has been serving on the island for 16 years. His ministry began well; many of the French transplanted to the island attend his church and he wins many native converts as well. But something went wrong, and when the film begins, his ministry is no longer prospering. We see him wake in the morning and begin his day with a drink. Early in the film, we see him shoving an official. His disregard for the Mass disturbs Father Joseph (Kerwin Mathews), the priest who has come to Talua to take Father Doonan’s place.

But what really bothered me was seeing Father Doonan go from business to business, house to house, begging for things for the hospital. He asks for money, of course. But he begs a woman for clothes. And a barber for dirty magazines. He persuades some to give, but they mock and insult him along the way.

Asking for money comes up a lot when you talk to people about what bugs them about churches and ministries. Jesus received money from people for His needs and His ministry, but we don’t see him pleading for money. George Muller, a famed evangelist who ran orphanages, committed himself to ask only God for money and provisions, never people. 

Father Doonan begs because he really cares about the hospital up the mountain. We learn that the hospital led to the downfall of his ministry in town.

The hospital is for children -- children with leprosy. (The hospital's doctor clarifies that the disease, a dark secret on the island, is properly called Hansen’s disease.) Tourism is one of the island's primary sources of revenue, and leprosy isn't exactly something that draws tourists. When Father Doonan began the work at the hospital, the people in town began to shun the church. That’s when the priest began to drink. And apparently, beg. 

We hear this story about the hospital from the doctor, an atheist who used to argue faith with the priest through the night, but the priest's life has begun to fall apart. He seems to have lost his faith. The doctor says, “I had to watch a good man, not a saint, but a good man, crumple apart at the seems… Drunk, crazy, awful temper… He is a great man.”

Father Doonan tells Father Joseph, “I’ll bring you together with some of the noble Christians of the town, the loyal brethren,” but Father Joseph wasn’t alone on the plane that brought him to the island. Three convicts on their way to prison in Tahiti were on the plane, and because the pilot takes a break on the island to see his girlfriend (he has a different girlfriend on every island), the convicts are available to do work at the hospital.

Did I mention that one of the convicts, Harry, is played by Frank Sinatra? He’s the tough guy who was an altar boy when he was young, before he took to a life of crime. When someone tells Harry, “Go with God.” Harry responds, “Who’s God?” (Another convict suggests, “He’s a way to swear.”)

So what changes things around for Father Doonan? What brings him back to faith? 

All it takes is a volcanic eruption which threatens the children of the hospital. Father Doonan prays for someone to help him rescue the children, and the convicts prove to be the answer to that prayer. The priest apologizes to God for his lack of faith. The journey to save the orphans brings the convicts to faith.
What kind of Movie Churches Steeple rating should Father Doonan get? That drinking and fighting (he nearly strangles Ol' Blue Eyes to death) and begging -- especially the begging -- lose Father Doonan a steeple, but he still earns 3 out of 4 for being willing to sacrifice everything for those leper children.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Missionary Movie Church Continues with Black Robe

Black Robe (1991)
Black Robe has long been one of my white whale films. Some films are exceedingly easy to view -- Charade and Night of the Living Dead no longer have copyright protection, so you can watch them on cable or even on YouTube or pick them up at the dollar store. Some films, though, aren't available on any streaming service and have never been made available on DVD or video. Most films fall somewhere in between.

Black Robe came out in 1991 and was directed by one of my favorite filmmakers, Bruce Beresford. He first reached prominence as a part of the Australian New Wave with Breaker Morantdriving, one of the greatest courtroom dramas. One of his films, Driving Miss Daisy, won the Academy Award for Best Picture, though he wasn’t nominated for Best Director. And he directed what may well be the best film ever made about the Christian experience, Tender Mercies.

Not only that, Black Robe was about a topic readers of this blog might guess would be of interest to me. (I guess you don’t really need to have read the blog, just its title.) This blog was made for stories like this film about a missionary priest, but it's taken me nearly thirty years to watch this film.

When it opened, back in the day, it didn’t play in a theater near me -- and it wasn’t in theaters for long. It hasn’t played much on TV and isn’t available on any streaming services. The DVD has been available for years, but I can only justify so many DVD purchases for this profit-free blog. But as I was getting ready for missionary movie churches month, I found Black Robe at the public library.

Brian Moore wrote the screenplay for this film, based on his own novel. The story opens in Quebec (New France) in the 17th century (1634 to be precise). Father Laforge, a Jesuit priest, came to serve in a distant Huron mission, 1500 miles from Quebec.

Laforge is to be assisted on the journey by Daniel, a lay assistant who knows the Algonquin language better than the priest. They travel with a group of Algonquins who serve as guides and canoe paddlers. Daniel is promised an opportunity to study in Europe in return for his assistance on the mission. 

Daniel says he wants to go on the journey for “the greater glory of God,” but he is unsure about the necessity of the mission. He believes the natives are already “true Christians” who live in harmony and have their own vision of the afterlife. In spite of these doubts, he joins Laforge on the journey.

Laforge is warned about what may be in store on the journey. Previous missionaries have been attacked by hostile tribes. Some were killed and some were mutilated. Traders warn the priest of the dangers. “Priests have had fingers cut off. Or they may cut off something even more useful.” (This statement was followed by lewd snickering).

Before leaving on the journey, Laforge observes some Algonquins in worship. They seem to believe the focus of worship is the clock near the altar. The natives wait anxiously for the chime. “It is alive; it talks,” one man says. We later learn the Algonquins believe the clock is the leader of the Jesuits. They believe the clock gives orders to the Jesuits, whereas the Algonquins receive their direction from their dreams.

The journey to the Huron village is hazardous, with physical and spiritual obstacles. Daniel falls in love with one of the Algonquin women, Annuka. Laforge spies the two making love in the forest. Laforge confronts Daniel and admits that he too struggles with the sin of lust. 

Laforge has wage disputes with his Algonquin guides. The weather and the elements are daunting. But the greatest danger is when the group is captured by an enemy tribe.

There is no doubting Father Laforge's courage. He is willing to put his life on the line for the sake of the Native Americans. Viewers of the film, however, must wrestle with the question of whether the Native Americans need saving. Is Daniel right? Are they already true Christians? Modern viewers are likely to be uncomfortable with the idea that people need the unique Gospel of Jesus Christ.

But if the Gospel is true, everyone needs the Gospel of Jesus. Father Laforge, at times, seems to believe that the Algonquins and Hurons need to become not only Christians but also Europeans. The Algonquins are not impressed when the priest’s description of heaven doesn’t include sex or tobacco. Frankly, his description of heaven seemed rather bland to me as well.

Father Laforge does make it to the mission. He finds one priest dead and another sick, but the Huron people are willing to listen to the new priest if he will baptize them (which they believe will heal sickness).

Father Laforge accomplishes what he set out to achieve. The novel was based on fact, and a priest did indeed reach the Huron Mission. The final title card of the film says this: “Fifteen years later, the Hurons, having accepted Christianity, were routed and killed by their enemies, the Iroquois. The Jesuit mission to the Hurons was abandoned and the Jesuits returned to Quebec.”

I was happy finally to get to see this film, but sadly, I can’t give Father Laforge our highest Movie Church rating. I admire his willingness to sacrifice everything for the natives of North America, but he doesn’t seem to be willing to truly understand them. So we’re giving Father Laforge 3 out of 4 Steeples.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Missionary Movie Churches Month Begins with: The Darjeeling Limited

The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
“The Call" is a term used in some Christian circles. It's generally short for “the call to ministry,” particularly to the mission field. Notice that little word “to,” because it’s important.

It’s a positive word. Going “to” God’s work -- as opposed to running “from” something. People do that, too -- take up missionary work to get away from something else.

Going off to join the French Foreign Legion is an old movie cliche, and not just in films like Beau Geste. Many films and cartoons mention it as a option when a man is besieged by problems, but the Legion was never an option for people who don’t like guns and sand. For most of the institution’s history, it wasn't an option for women. So where else could a person go to get away from it all? How about the mission field?

Becoming a missionary was the escape of choice for characters in both versions of Murder on the Orient Express we watched here at Movie Churches, and it also seems to be the choice of Patricia (Anjelica Huston), the mother of grown sons, in Wes Anderson’s 2007 film, The Darjeeling Limited.

The film tells the story of Francis (Owen Wilson), a troubled man, who asks his two brothers, Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman), to join him on a spiritual journey to explore the holy sites of India. He has quite the itinerary, with stops at such places as the Temple of a Thousand Bulls (“probably the most spiritual place in the world”), but Francis hasn't told his brothers his true goal: finding their mother.

He eventually tells them, “I hired a private detective to track down mom. She’s living in a convent in the foothills of the Himalayas. She became a nun, you know how she is. She’s probably suffered some kind of mental collapse.”

The brothers were quite upset when their mother didn’t attend their father's funeral after his sudden, accidental death. (The brothers didn't attend the service either, which is a story at the heart of one of the film’s flashbacks.) Peter and Jack aren't certain Francis should have tried to contact their mother once the detective found her. And they don't like that he sent her a message saying they're coming to visit her.

Their mother responds with this letter: “Dear boys: Bad timing. This morning I received the details of your travel plans in a document from a man named Brendan. Unfortunately, I cannot receive you now. A neighboring village requires our urgent assistance due to an emergency, not to mention the arrival of a man-eating tiger in the region. You should come in the spring when you’ll be safe. You must know how sad I am to experience this long separation. I hope you’ll eventually understand and forgive me. God bless and keep you with Mary’s benevolent guidance and the light of Christ’s enduring grace. All my love, your mother, Sister Patricia Whitman”

This letter seems to have many religious bells and whistles, but what seems to be lacking is genuine love and concern for her grown sons.

They come to see her anyway, finding her at a convent that also seems to serve as an orphanage. She greets her sons with these words, “Didn’t you get my letter? I told to come back in the spring. Welcome, my beautiful boys.”

We see her teaching children and even worshiping with them (as they sing “Praise Him in the Morning.”) The place is decorated with crosses (interestingly, not crucifixes.) The children play and seem to be happy.

The sons ask her why she didn’t come to their father -- her husband’s -- funeral. She answers, “I didn’t want to. I live here, these people need me.” But she tells her sons they must enjoy the time they have together (“Let’s make an agreement. We’ll enjoy ourselves and stop feeling sorry for ourselves because it’s not attractive.”) She takes their breakfast orders for the next day (actually making assumptions about what each of her sons desire), and leaves them for the night.

And the next morning, the boys find that she's gone. It's a little difficult to believe she was in India because people needed her. She runs so easily.

Paul’s instructions for the qualifications for church leadership discuss handling personal affairs well and being attentive to one's own children. That doesn’t mean having to look after grown children, particularly the annoying grown men that are Patricia's sons. But a leader should be making decisions with honesty, openness, and integrity, which doesn’t seem to be the case with this woman. Instead of being called to the mission field, it seems like she's just running from her family.

That’s why Patricia the Nun received only 2 out of 4 Steeples in our Movie Church clergy rating.