Thursday, August 27, 2015

Blues Brothers (1980)

I was, like most teens in the late 1970s, a big Saturday Night Live fan, so I rushed out to see a film featuring cast members John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd, but when I first saw "The Blues Brothers" I must admit I thought, "What a stupid film!  It was nothing but blues music and car crashes." But I saw it again with friends and thought, "Hmmm, blues music and car crashes." And then I saw it a third time. "What an awesome film! Nothing but blues music and car crashes!"

But the film does have something besides blues music and car crashes. It has churches, which is why I'm writing about it here. As always, we're here to review the churches in the movie rather than the movie itself.

We first see a ministry of the Catholic Church, rather than a church proper: an orphanage.
The Saint Helen of the Blessed Shroud Orphanage was where Jake and Elwood Blues, the Blues Brothers, were raised. When Jake is released from Joliet Prison, Elwood picks him up and takes him there. Jake objects, but Elwood tells him, "You promised to visit the Penguin you got out. You can't lie to a nun." (The Penguin is their nickname for the nun who runs the orphanage, the Sister Mary Stigmata.)

The stairs to the Sister's office are dominated by a rather terrifying crucifix. Sister Mary Stigmata welcomes the Brothers home and soon informs them that the orphanage came up $5000 short in their tax assessment. The Archbishop wants to sell the orphanage to the Board of Education and send the Sister to the mission field.

Jake offers to get the money for her, but the Sister rightly assumes he plans to steal it and hits him with a ruler. Which causes Jake to swear. So she hits him again. Which causes Elwood to swear, so she hits him. Much swearing and hitting ensues. The brothers flee and the Sister yells after them, "Such a disappointing pair, I prayed so hard for you. The two young men I raised to obey the Ten Commandments come back as two thieves with filthy mouths and bad attitudes. Get out and don't come back, until you've redeemed yourselves."

So what do I think of the Church as represented by the Good Sister? She does live up (down?) to the common cliché of nuns as ruthless disciplinarians. She doesn't seem to be living life with a WWJD bracelet. On the other hand, she is one of only two people who cared for the young Blues Brothers, which should count for something.

The other person who cared for them was the orphanage maintenance man, Curtis (played by Cab Calloway).  When the Brothers meet with him, he reprimands them for swearing at the Penguin. He then tells Jake he should, "Get wise. You get to church."

Jake responds, "I don't want to listen to no jive-a** preacher talk to me about heaven and hell."
But soon Jake and Elwood are on their way to the Triple Rock Baptist Church pastored by the Reverend Cleophus (the Godfather of Soul, James Brown.) Elwood tells Jake, "We've got to make that move toward redemption. We've got to go to church."

Jake and Elwood appear to be the only two white people there when they enter the Triple Rock. A neon cross decorates the wall with the motto, "There is Power in the Cross." There is also stained glass and a river painted in the front of the church (the River Jordan, perhaps). The Reverend is indeed preaching about eternal destiny, mourning lost souls and warning that "the day of the Lord cometh as a thief in the night."

Then the music kicks in; loud, raucous Gospel music, exhorting the congregation to "Preach the Word! All the way! Feel it! Know it! Raise your voices!" All are singing exuberantly and many are dancing with abandon.

Elwood looks at Jake who looks shaken, asking, "Jake, are you all right?"

Jake is more than all right. He sees a light from heaven and suddenly seems full of joy. He cartwheels down the aisle and the Reverend asks if he's seen the light. Jake has.

Jake tells Elwood that God has shown them how they can earn the money for the orphanage legally. They can put together the old band. Elwood joins him in praise, proclaiming, "God bless the United States of America!" Both dance.

The Brothers leave the church changed. As Elwood says many times, "We're on a mission from God." Jake puts it another way, "Well, me and the Lord, we have an understanding."

So my evaluation of these churches? The ministry of the Catholic Church doesn't come across as fun exactly, but they do step in to help some kids that no one else cared for. As for the Triple Rock Baptist Church? It's pretty awesome.

Triple Rock gets 4 Steeples.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Mass Appeal (1984)

The young seminarian's shorts (satin, green, and oh so short) are extremely eighties. He wears them when he runs, which is daily, for eight to ten miles. He believes this will help him keep chaste. He's even wearing those shorts when he visits the church pastored by Father Tim Farley, who has the reputation of being the best priest in the diocese (if so, poor diocese -- in spite of the diocese being very rich).

The seminarian, Mark Dolson (played by Law and Order DA Zeljko Ivanek), and the priest (played by the great Jack Lemmon) are the central characters in this film that examines "Current Catholic Crises" (the name of one of Farley's sermon series). Bill Davis wrote the screenplay based on his play (also called "Mass Appeal"), and in the play these were the only two characters.  The film opens things up, letting us see the church's congregants and the monsignor (Charles Durning), who acts as the villain.

 As always, it's the church we are reviewing, not the film, and we get an interesting glimpse of St. Francis Church during Mark Dolson's first visit. Father Farley is finishing up his "Three C's" series with what we learn is "one of his famous dialogue sermons." He says they will be discussing that morning the topic of whether the Roman Catholic Church should ordain women as priests. He asks the congregation to ask questions on the subject. It soon becomes apparent that the reason the priest does such sermons is because they require little preparation. Mark notes that it was women who were faithful to Jesus at His Death through His Resurrection. When Mark asks him substantive questions on the issue, Farley becomes quite irate. He is especially angered when Mark asks for his opinion on the subject. Father Tim doesn't want to do anything as risky as giving an opinion.

Farley goes back to his study to drink wine (one of his favorite occupations) and decide what series of sermons he should begin next week. (Doesn't the church use a Scriptural Lectionary that he could use to plan his sermons?) But then he gets a call from the monsignor about some problems at the seminary (Mark Dolson is one of the problems) which leads Farley to the awesome idea of a sermon series, "The Road to the Priesthood." Why would the average parishioner be interested in that topic?

So, Father Farley is an awful preacher who doesn't look to Scripture for his sermon but relies on lame jokes, but maybe Mark Dolson will prove to be a better preacher? He's a little better, but not much. He wants to preach about the evils of materialism. He condemns those who come to church with "your mink hats and your cashmere coats and blue hair." Farley tells Mark when talking about sin, he should use "we" not "you." This is actually sound advice, but Mark doesn't take it, preferring his own more priggish style of preaching. Also, choosing those three things to condemn makes him sound more than a little misogynistic.

Mark also doesn't seem to feel the need to preach about the Bible. He preaches a sermon about how his family went for jelly donuts after Mass (Farley likes this idea), and another sermon about the death of his tropical fish when he was a child. Both men are useless in the pulpit.

Perhaps though, they are better in other aspects of ministry? Say, in counseling? Well, Father Farley is often seen trying to dodge counseling appointments with "white lies." (Mark constantly confronts the Father about his habit of lying.) He can't avoid seeing a woman whose mother has just passed away. He goes with Mark to see her. As the woman pours out her grief, Farley assures her, "It's all for the best."

Mark later asks why Farley doesn't just listen to people in grief. Farley says it's the job of a priest to spout inanities to those in pain so they will reach a state of "inconsolable grief" that he feels is blessed in some way. He says that if he was counseling a mother who just lost an infant, he's say, "You're young, you can have others" or "Heaven must have wanted another blessing." In other words, he sets out to say the very things that will cause many people to hate the church and leave it.

One interesting thing about the church in the film is the eighties take on controversial issues. It's interesting how the arguments have changed. Mark is bisexual and takes the stand that the church should ordain homosexuals and bisexuals as long as they will remain chaste in ministry. The argument has moved on since then. The question now is whether priests need to remain chaste.
As horrible as the ministry of Father Farley is, Mark takes time to care for the poor, visit prisoners and play basketball with the youth. He singlehandedly saves the church in the film from the lowest rating of one steeple and earns it two.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Last Rites (1988)

Father Freddie (Paul Dooley) stutters. So when he enters the priests' bathroom and sees a woman (Daphne Zuniga of Spaceballs and The Sure Thing) in the shower, it takes him some time to say, "Oh..... m

mmmmmmy..... God!" You would think that his speech impediment might work to his advantage. You might think that as a priest (or even as a Christian), he might use that extra time he takes to get out a sentence to think, "I shouldn't use God's name in vain, like the commandment says." But the priests of this film tend not to think things through, and Freddie is a model of contemplation compared to the film's hero, Father Michael Pace (played by Tom Berenger).

If you recognize Berenger's name, you probably were around for the eighties. He was pretty awesome in the decade, whether he was playing a baseball star (Major League), a cop (Someone to Watch over Me), a TV actor (The Big Chill), a musician (Eddie and the Cruisers) or the world's most evil soldier (Platoon). I suppose it was inevitable he'd also play a member of the clergy.

But Father Michael isn't your typical priest, of course.

He smokes!

He drinks!

He swears!

When in casual dress, he gets hit on by the ladies!

But what really sets Father Michael apart is his family relations: his brother and sister are a part of The Family, the Mob. Now one's family shouldn't necessarily keep one from being in ministry. However, complications from Michael's background do, not surprisingly, ensue.

The film opens with a couple having sex in hotel room. An elegantly dressed woman enters the room, shoots the man, and attempts to shoot the woman. But the woman escapes. The film's R rating is quickly earned. The police arriving on the scene call for a priest to give the dying man last rites. Father Michael arrives and provides the ritual which provides the title of the film. (I found it interesting that the police assumed the dying man was Catholic. In the recent Christian film, Do You Believe, a paramedic finds himself in legal peril for giving spiritual counsel to a dying man. Do police routinely call for a priest anymore?)

But performing last rites is the priestly duty we see Father Michael perform most in the film. There are people who are offended by the idea that absolution of a lifetime sin can be provided in a few moments before death, but Christians correctly point to the thief on the cross, who was promised Paradise as he was dying. I do wonder about the efficacy of the ritual when someone is unconscious or even already dead, but I'll let God worry about that.

Angela, the woman pursued by killers, just happens to wind up in Father Michael's confessional booth. She tells of her plight, and he agrees to protect her from the Mob. This is why she is in the church shower, to be seen by Father Freddie (you were wondering, weren't you?). Almost more worrisome than her complete lack of dress at that time is Father Michael's dress when Angela is  in the rectory. He sports slacks with suspenders and no shirt. Did I mention he gets hit on by the ladies?

Angela asks Father Michael to spend the day with her, but he says, "A priest has to work like everybody else." A montage provides a look at his average day of work: a wedding, a christening, playing basketball with the youth, and giving the last rites to a victim of a traffic accident.

He returns to the rectory to find the woman naked in his bed. Perhaps it is not the height of wisdom for the father to sit next to the bed and wait. We see her wake up, get out of bed, take the clerical collar off the priest and draw him into the bed. Whew! It was all a dream of the priest sitting in the chair next to the naked woman in his bed. Where ever do these ideas in these dreams come from?

(Spoiler: later in the film, the priest actually does sleep with Angela. Billy Graham said it was a practice of his to not ever be alone with a woman who was not his wife or a member of his family. This was to avoid temptation and false accusations. A cool, with it priest like Father Michael could never put such petty restrictions on his behavior.)

(More spoiler territory: it turns out Angela is not exactly who she claims to be. Someone in the film observes that Father Michael seems to be more Mafioso than priest. When he learns certain things about Angela, this indeed proves to be the case. The most telling performance of Last Rites by Father Michael is when the rites are not performed.)

While Father Freddie seems like a perfectly nice guy, and St. Patrick's in New York City, where the priests serve, is a gorgeous place, in the end the ministry of Father Michael Pace earns this Movie Church our lowest rating, one steeple. 

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Footloose (1984)

I should admit this up front; I've had a real grudge against this film.

The first time I went to see it was back in seminary at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
A college girl I had a bit of a crush on loved this film. She thought it had profound things to say about Trinity College's dancing ban. I asked her to go with me to see it, and she agreed to meet me at the theater. But she didn't come. I was stood up.

It was years before I tried to watch the film again, this time on DVD. I only made it a few minutes. The opening credits were pretty fun; a montage of dancing feet accompanied by the theme song by the great Kenny Loggins (with music in this, "Caddyshack," "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," "Rocky IV," "Top Gun" -- Loggins IS the Eighties.)

But then I got to the film proper with John Lithgow as the Reverend Shaw Moore preaching, and I didn't last much longer. The Rev. ranted about "Our Lord testing us" and why God allows the plague of big cities.

Then he turns to the evils of that "obscene rock and roll music and its gospel of easy sexuality." He again asks why God is testing us with this horrible thing when He could easily wipe all this evil from the earth. The Reverend argues that this testing is allowed by God to make us stronger for Him. At no time does he use Scripture to back up his assertions. The Reverend also does not seem concerned about the people in big cities or the makers or fans of rock music. He doesn't seem to consider that God may love these people and that is why He continues to show them grace (II Peter 3:9).

That's when I turned off the film the last time I tried to watch it.

But for the sake of this blog, I set out to watch the whole film. And, of course, I did so not to write about the film but rather about the church in this film.

The sermon I had already seen would probably lead me to choose not to attend this church. It reminded me too much of the days of my youth, attending Bill Gaither's Basic Youth Conflicts Seminar where he spoke of the evils of rock music. It didn't seem true to God's word to me then, and it doesn't now. Certainly, there are rock songs that have lyrics contrary to God's Word. But the argument against the musical genre itself is pathetically weak.

The next sermon Rev. Moore gives is about the glories of small town life. The director of the film,  Hebert Ross, presents this sermon as a montage, as taking place from the pulpit and in conversations with parishioners. He says he doesn't miss the hustle and bustle of the big city, but prefers small towns where everyone is part of a big family. He says he feels safe with his people in the small town. He, of course, doesn't use any Scripture to support his points, because the God of Scripture loves the City. In the book of Revelation part of the New Heaven and New Earth is the New Jerusalem. So obviously, unlike the Rev. Moore, God is okay with the city.

In the final sermon of the film, the Rev. Moore has finally seen the light and allows his daughter and the kids of the church (and, one assumes, the town) to go the dance that Kevin Bacon is staging. He gives the analogy of a new parent that must learn when to let go as well as when to hold on. Again, he uses no Scripture in his sermon.

Which is perhaps why Rev. Moore is won over a bit by Kevin "6 degrees of" Bacon quoting Psalm 149 about dancing and the book of Samuel (he never says whether it is First or Second Samuel) about dancing before the ark, because the young man dancer incorporates Scripture in his city council speeches better than the pastor does in his sermons.

This inability of the pastor to use the Bible is one of the reasons the nameless Movie Church of the town of Bomont in the '80s version of "Footloose" earns only one measly steeple.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Movie Churches in the Eighties

I'm sure that within the readership of this blog there are many areas of disagreement. For churchgoers, some advocate the baptism of infants and others believe in believers only baptism; some are for sprinkling and others are for full immersion. Some would debate the Second Coming of Jesus and others the trustworthiness of Scripture. Probably some reading this blog question the deity of Christ or whether God exists at all.

But one area all reasonable people can agree upon is found in the topic of pop culture. That is the incontrovertible statement that the 1980's were the most awesome era ever for pop culture. For instance, in music there were such diverse talents as Talking Heads, Bruce Springsteen, The Police, Madonna, U2, Paul Simon, Guns N Roses, and Weird Al Yankovic at their peaks. Rap had a voice with groups like Public Enemy, punk with Black Flag, and the elderly could listen to The Rolling Stones.

The music video was born and reached its zenith in the eighties with A-ha's "Take on me," Michael Jackson's "Thriller," and whatever was happening with Bonnie Tyler and those freaky-eyed people in "Total Eclipse of the Heart." The pioneering work of Kenny Loggins hit the greatest of heights in movie soundtrack themes.

Television was having a renaissance of maturity with comedies like "Cheers" and dramas like "Hill Street Blues." War became fun on "MASH" and policing stylish on "Miami Vice." The South arose on "Dallas" and with the Dukes. "Seinfeld" had its start and "The Love Boat" its finish. (There was also a very popular comedy about an African American doctor and his family, but I can't recall its name at the moment, and neither can anyone else.)

Best of all were the movies. The second and greatest Star Trek and Star Wars movies were released in the eighties. Indiana Jones and John McClane, two of the greatest screen heroes, debuted. Ghosts were busted, aliens phoned home, blades were run and breakfasts were clubbed.

But, you may be wondering, what were Movie Churches like in this magical decade? Fortunately, Movie Churches are here to answer that question, starting with the film featuring what Star Lord described as one of the greatest of folk heroes, Kevin Bacon in "Footloose."

Check back tomorrow to see what kind of pastor John Lithgow was in the days of mullets and pixie boots.