Thursday, April 28, 2016

Depression Films: Cabin in the Sky (1943)

May it never be said that we at Movie Churches are afraid of controversy. It may well be true, but feelings might be hurt by accusations of cowardice, so please practice restraint.

First, a minor controversy: I haveCabin in the Sky in the category of Depression Era Churches, even though the film was released in 1943. Yes, history buffs, 1943 is the time of World War II, not the Great Depression. But the movie is based on a Broadway musical that debuted in 1940, so I figure the research and writing of the play took place during the Depression Era.

The second controversy is a bigger deal. Is the movie racist? The entire cast of the film is African American, composed of some of the greatest musical talents of the time: Ethel Waters, Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne, along with Duke Ellington and his Orchestra. But the producer of the film, Arthur Freed, and the director, Vincent Minnelli, were of the Caucasian persuasion. When the film was released, some believed its portrayal of blacks was offensive. Jean Muir, an actress of the time, called the film an "abomination." Muir, it might be noted, was the first person on the infamous Hollywood blacklist of Communists. It might also be noted she was white. It should also be noted that during production, Freed and Minnelli sought council from prominent African American leaders of the time. And MGM  took a great financial risk in making the film, knowing that large portions of the South (and many other areas) would not show a film featuring black performers.

Modern viewers of the film are likely to feel uncomfortable. Eddie "Rochester" Anderson as Little Joe plays a lazy, shiftless gambler, and he's the hero. Butterfly McQueen plays the same type of ignorant young woman she played in Gone with the Wind, causing all kinds of hackles to be raised. The dialects used can be quite grating to the modern ear. And yet with all that, the film preserves performances by great African American playing roles other than servants.

Overall, I think the good outweighs the bad.

Anyway, the film tells the story a Christian woman named Petunia (Ethel Waters) married to a slovenly gambler named Joe. She's finally persuaded Joe to go to church and be redeemed, but Joe is lured away to a gambling den where he is shot. The rest of the film tells about the struggle between Heaven and Hell for Joe's soul.

What concerns us in Movie Churches is found chiefly in the opening minutes of the film; that's where the church is found. We hear church bells ringing and see two men, Reverend Green and the Deacon, greeting the congregation at the door.

Everyone at church is buzzing about Little Joe coming to church that day. Everyone agrees it's quite a special day. I might not be thrilled if everyone at church was gossiping about what a notorious sinner I was, even if they were anticipating my salvation.

Then we see Petunia and Joe getting ready for church. She's outside and he is in the house. Joe says he can't find a tie. Petunia says, "The Lord won't mind if you don't wear a necktie." But what's really delaying Joe is a "wrestling match with the devil." He can't get himself to throw away his dice or his lottery ticket.

Petunia assures Joe he belongs to the Lord because of her prayers (she has been praying against his gambling success and her prayers have been answered). Joe says, "I don't reckon any man can be bad with a wife like you." She also prayed Joe would get a job, and that very day he got a job as an elevator operator.

Meanwhile, back at church, people are concerned back about Joe's tardiness. Someone suggests that the Deacon should go and look for him, but all agree that with a sinner as notorious as Joe, only the Reverend's attentions will do. After the pastor arrives at Joe's they all head off for church.

The congregation is singing "Little Black Sheep" about a lost lamb that Jesus finds. Ethel Waters from the back row of the church joins in with a solo. Waters often sang at Billy Graham crusades (usually singing "His Eye is on the Sparrow"). Considering how Waters' voice filled coliseums, it would be amazing to hear her in a little country church.

The Reverend Green's sermon apparently puts children to sleep, but I'd love to hear his sermon just to hear Kenneth Spencer's sonorous voice. In comparison, James Earl Jones might qualify for the Vienna Boys Choir.

The service concludes with an altar call, the congregation singing "Old Ship of Sorrows." But Joe ducked out of service before the altar call, tempted by his gambling cronies. As mentioned before, Joe is shot and a battle for the man's soul takes place in the heavens. In that battle, the same actor who played the preacher plays the archangel.

SPOILER - It was all a dream. Except Joe being on death's door; that happened. But the Reverend Green can be found at Joe's bedside during the ordeal. The Reverend Green's voice alone earns this movie church Three Steeples, along with the voices of the Hall Johnson Choir which provide an excellent bonus.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Kentucky films on the small and big screen

On the small screen
Okay, so maybe James Bond isn't the first name that pops into your head when you think of Kentucky, but Goldfinger is certainly a Kentucky film. Sure, it starts in Miami and goes back to England. The chase with the AstonMartin (probably Bond's best car and gadget in one) takes place in Switzerland. But the key to Goldfinger's diabolical plan is to break into Fort Knox in Kentucky. And the gold bank isn't the only Kentucky element in the film. The villain has a stud farm near Lexington, and we see the horses being trained. Goldfinger and Bond drink mint juleps. There is product placement when the FBI agents pick up food at Kentucky Fried Chicken. The only thing missing is Shirley Bassey singing "My Old Kentucky Home".

But there are no churches in the film. Especially in the old Bond films, there is not exactly a lot of spiritual depth. As an audience, we are rooting for a violent, sexist, amoral hero. Not that it's ever kept me from watching them.

There is a Kentucky church in the more recent spy film, Kingsman: The Secret Service, a church of the very worst kind. It's not a very good spy film either. (The heroes in the film manage to be more amoral than Bond.)

One of the first things that does pop into people's heads when they think of Kentucky is the Kentucky Derby. One of my favorite racing films is Seabiscuit, based on the bestselling historical work by Laura Hillenbrand. The story of that same horse born in Lexington was featured in The Story of Seabiscuit with Shirley Temple (she did not play the horse). Another film based a real Kentucky Derby winner was Secretariat with Diane Lane (again, not as the horse).

 A Kentucky film that features a decent dramatic performance by Bruce Willis is In Country in which he plays a Vietnam vet. An amazing cast is featured in Band of Angels with Clarke Gable, SidneyPoitier and Yvonne De Carlo (that's Lilly Munster to you) about slavery in Kentucky (it wasn't filmed in the state). You can see Patrick Swayze in action hero mode in the Kentucky hillbilly film, Next of Kin.

Cameron Crowe's Elizabethtown is set in the Kentucky town of that name, but sadly it's not very good. Not nearly as good as the zombie camp classic, The Return of the Living Dead, which is set in Louisville, Kentucky.

There are a number of good historical and biographical films set in Kentucky, even putting aside Daniel Boone. The Insider features RussellCrowe as Dr. Jeffrey Wigand, a scientist who spoke out against the tobacco industry. Woody Harrelson played the infamous Kentucky born porn mogul in The People vs. Larry Flynt.  And Sissy Spacek played Kentucky born LorettaLynn in Coal Miner's Daughter, an acclaimed and excellent film.

On the big screen
The film we saw on the big screen in Elizabethtown, The Jungle Book, had really nothing to do with the state.

We saw it at The Movie Palace, and really, if you were choosing just one name for movie theaters, that name would probably be the way to go. The staff was friendly, and the snack bar was relatively reasonably priced. Sadly, the best show time for us was in 3-D, which was more costly. (At least the glasses are not as annoying as they used to be.) I didn't like the live action version of the film nearly as well as the Disney animated version. The thing I missed from the other film was the omission of the quotation of John 15: 13, "Greater love has no one than this: than to lay down one's life for a friend." It really makes no sense in a story about jungle animals, but I still missed it.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Movie Churches during the Great Depression: We're no Angels (1989)

Jesus said in Matthew 7:15, "Watch out for false prophets. They come in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves." Now admittedly, Robert De Niro and Sean Penn as the escaped cons disguised as priests might not be wolves (they're more like lhasa apsos), but you'd hope the monks that welcomed them into their monastery would have been a little more discerning.

We're No Angels, directed by Neil Jordan (of The Crying Game and one of my favorite werewolf films, The Company of Wolves) and written by David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross and The Untouchables), is a darkish comedy set during the Great Depression.

As usual, we're reviewing the religious institution in the film, in this case The Weeping Madonna Monastery, rather than the film itself. But the film opens in a different institution, a U.S. penitentiary near the Canadian border. A man, Bobby, is about to be executed, and two convicts --Ned and Jim (De Niro and Penn) -- are brought in to be witnesses. A priest is also brought in to hear Bobby's confession, but Bobby scoffs. Turns out, Bobby's got a gun. He escapes, taking Ned and Jim along. Bobby kicks the priest on the way out, which is better than the bullets a couple of the guards get.

Ned and Jim find themselves wandering a country road where they notice a sign for the Weeping Madonna that features Hebrews 13: 2  ("Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it" -- thus the title). They meet a woman who, for some inexplicable reason, mistakes them for priests from the monastery. Jim quotes the verse from Hebrews, which confirms her ungrounded suspicion.

When they meet the Father who runs the monastery, he assumes Jim and Ned are the priests from Arizona the monastery has been expecting: Fathers Brown and Riley, who together wrote the book A New Look at Revelations and are considered "two of the finest thinkers in the world." It's swell that this monk and others apparently value learning, but when they fail to realize these two dim bulbs aren't who they thought, one assumes they would have celebrated the Emperor's New Clothes as well.

When the convicts join the monks for dinner, Jim (now called Father Brown) is asked to say grace. He basically says, "Be nice to people" for grace; a swell sentiment, but the prayer should have been a clue to the other monks and priests that he wasn't really a priest. Maybe if he'd prayed, "Rub-a-dub-dub, thanks for the grub" they might have caught on.

A young monk approaches Jim and asks him to explain something in his book to him. The monk (an early role for John C. Reilly) refers to a verse, 10:19, without saying what book of the Bible it's from (it's Deuteronomy). He asks if, in the book, they were going for a Gnostic meaning in the verse and Jim says, sure that's it. I have real problems here, since half of the New Testament epistles take time to condemn Gnostic teaching (sorry Dan Brown, Gnosticism stinks).

The convicts want to cross the border into Canada. Every year, the monks of the Weeping Madonna Monastery have a procession, taking the statue to a sister church in Canada. Ned and Jim see this as their opportunity to escape. However, the monks must take a sick person with them as part of the procession. They take a young deaf girl, the daughter of a local prostitute (Demi Moore). Spoiler -- eventually a miracle ensues.

Before the procession, a monk or priest is chosen by lottery to give a sermon. Jim wins the lottery. He doesn't know what to say, so he uses a flyer selling a Colt revolver as his starting point. He eventually says that God may be all in your head, and he doesn't know whether God is good or not, but if it comforts you to believe in God, do it. For some reason, this gets a big ovation from the crowd, and the priests and monks love it. I don't think the Apostle Paul would have been so thrilled. He cared about truth. He wrote that if Jesus was not raised from the dead, our faith is pointless.

The monastery is named after a statue on Mary on the grounds that occasionally seems to cry. The priest who runs the place knows that there's a hole in the roof that drips on the statue, making it look all sad at times. The clergy at the monastery seem to think that it's better for the little people to have something to believe in, even if it's not true. I think God values truth much more than the clergy in this film do.

God is pretty big on truth. Jesus called himself "the Truth." But the clergy at the Weeping Madonna Monastery are not particularly concerned about truth, which is why they earn just two steeples.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Tennessee films on the small and big screen

On the small screen
I know Starman seems like a strange choice for our Tennessee film, so I probably should explain about our DVD folder. Before Mindy and I began our 2016 trip through the United States, we had to store or dispose of our belongings, including our DVD collection. We took a folder and labeled each slot with a state name in alphabetical order, then we looked through our collection to find a film for each state. For some states, like Pennsylvania (The Philadelphia Story or Rocky) or Illinois (The Sting or The Untouchables), we had many choices. But for some states, we didn't have an obvious choice in our collection. But with a little research, I found that most of Starman (which we already owned) was filmed in Tennessee. This is strange, because according to the story of the film, a woman is abducted by an alien in Wisconsin, and they travel to Arizona. We could see that they took a path through North Carolina, which makes no sense. This startling lack of respect for geography allowed director John Carpenter (Halloween) to use the home of the Grand Old Opry in place of the Cheese State.

Starman doesn't have a church, but like other films about alien visitors (Superman or E.T.), it can be seen as a parable about the Messiah. This film even has a supernatural pregnancy, where the child will be "a great teacher." It's also just a fun film, with winning performances by Karen Allen (Raiders of the Lost Ark) and Jeff Bridges (The Big Lebowski).

There are many films set in Tennessee that we just didn't have in our collection. For instance, there is the film about the man "born on a mountaintop in Tennessee." Disney used the footage from their television mini-series about the great frontiersman and recut it as theatrical feature,

A couple of films that are based on true stories will be featured in the next few months of Movie Churches, and they're Tennessee films. When we get to Science Movie Churches, we'll feature Inherit the Wind  (a fictionalized telling of the Scopes Trial which took place in Dayton, TN).  The 1960 film version of the stage play is set in Tennessee but wasn't filmed there. In the months to come we'll also be featuring Movie Churches in World War I films, and one of those will be Sergeant York, with Gary Cooper as the soldier marksman from the backwoods of Tennessee.

Another movie based on truth story that will probably never appear in Movie Churches is Walking Tall, the 1973 exploitation film about Buford Pusser, a lawman who singlehandedly cleaned up a small corrupt Tennessee town. The whole movie was filmed in the state.

And if you're looking for a Tennessee aqua double feature, you could watch Elia Kazan's classic
Wild River with Montgomery Clift and Lee Remick, along with The River with Mel Gibson and Sissy Spacek (released the same year as Country and Places in the Heart, making 1984 the year of the farm film).

The quintessential film for the city we were staying in, Robert Altman's Nashville, is a classic 1975 satire that has a place on the National Film Registry. It also the song,  I'm Easy.

On the big screen
We happened to be in Nashville for the start of the 2016 Nashville Film Festival. The films were screened at Regal Theaters (the only theater chain we've seemed to be able to visit the last few weeks). But the movie we were interested in, Whit Stillman's Love & Friendship, was sold out. We were told we might have a chance to see it if we stood in the rush ticket line. It worked; we were able to buy a ticket and got another ticket free from someone who didn't need hers.

Love & Friendship is an adaptation of Jane Austen's unfinished novel, Lady Susan. The film is very funny, with one of the stupidest characters I have ever seen, Sir James Martin. Look for him. The film even had a Movie Church and member of the clergy, but as in most Austen, the clergy are indistinguishable from actuaries.

(There was a red carpet for the Festival, but the only people we recognized on it were ourselves.)

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Movie Churches in the Great Depression: Places in the Heart (1984)

Martin Luther King Jr. once called the time of worship on Sunday mornings "the most segregated hour of the week." Over this last year we have worshiped with congregations with great diversity in race and ethnicity, but we've also been places that were quite monochrome. Sometimes that's okay. If a church is in a small town populated by people of one ethnicity or race, for instance, it would be silly to complain. If I were visiting an underground church in Mainline China I would not say, "How outrageous that I'm the only Caucasian here!"

But in other times and places, that lack of diversity is a sad thing -- as it is in in the United States of King's era and before, particularly in the South. Places in the Heart is set in Waxahachie, Texas, in 1935, during the era of Jim Crow. Segregation was the law of the land, and it carried on to churches as well.

The film tells the story of a woman whose husband, a sheriff, is killed by a young, drunk, black man. The woman, Edna Spalding (an Oscar winning performance by Sally Field), must find a way to support herself and her two children. Edna must face the perils of the Great Depression, alone. Where is the church?

The film opens with images of churches. As "Blessed Assurance" plays over the opening credits, we see a lovely white church as white people file out to their cars and drive home for Sunday dinner, and we see another more dilapidated white church as black people file out to walk home for their Sunday dinners. We see families praying over their meals. The images illustrate the words of King quite clearly.

The next time we see the churches represented is at Edna's husband funeral and at the funeral of the man who killed him. The young black man accidently shot the sheriff and was immediately lynched by the white people in town who know there will be no consequences for their actions.

Both funerals are graveside services with a clergyman conducting the ceremony. There are no blacks at the funeral of the sheriff and no whites at the service of the young black man. At one we hear the crowd singing "In the Sweet By and By," and at the other we hear the clergyman intoning "dust to dust."

But we never see another time when the church or a clergyman provides support for Edna as she faces foreclosure on her home and farm. But a begging black man, Moze (Danny Glover), gives her direction and support to plant and grow a cotton crop that saves her property.

We do see the Church providing a vital service for the community. When a twister strikes, it's church bells that warn the community. We do see another church at the end of the film. We see the outside of a white church and hear people again singing "Blessed Assurance." The pastor, an old white fellow, reads from "'the love passage," I Corinthians 13: 1 - 8.

The camera slowly pans the congregation. We see a husband who was unfaithful sitting next to his wife and daughter, holding hands tenderly. Communion is served, and as the bread and cup are passed the camera pans the pews. As the congregation sings, "I Come to the Garden" we see people we don't expect to see.

Moze, a black man, is sitting in a white congregation in the Deep South of the thirties. An even more unusual sight: we see Edna's husband, alive, passing the peace to the young, living black man who shot him dead. A vision of heaven.

Though the earthly church of the film would receive fewer steeples, we're giving that final heavenly image of the Church 4 Steeples.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

In Theaters Now

God's Not Dead 2
When you start out having theological problems with film's title, you can guess there will be more trouble to come. The first film was, of course, God's Not Dead, which is fine. But for the sequel they added a problematic numeral. Because with Twitter and texting, one might look at "2" as "too" and then one wonders who besides God is not dead. However, it is a much better title than God's Not Too Dead.

But what am I doing even discussing the title? We here at Movie Churches aren't reviewing films, let alone titles; we are here to talk about how the Church is portrayed in films.

We certainly aren't here to discuss how films portray the educational system, because if we were we'd have too much to write about with this movie. You see, the protagonist of the film, Grace Westley, is a high school history teacher. We see her giving her A.P. History class a lecture on Gandhi and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. My daughter, who took A.P. History classes, told me there was a problem already with this premise, because an advanced placement class on World History might be studying Gandhi and a class studying United States history might study King... but why would they studying both?

The plot kicks in when a student asks if the teachings and tactics of these two men have any relationship to the teachings of Jesus. The teacher (played by Melissa Joan Hart, Sabrina the Teenage Witch) quotes the Sermon on the Mount. A student records this with a phone, and there is a furor about Christ being brought in the classroom. Again, my daughters, who are much closer to high school than I am, pointed out that a teacher is much more likely to get fired for not mentioning that a major world religion and religious text influenced history, than for mentioning them. That's the kind of question that tends to end up on Advanced Placement exams. The school board in the film is trying to keep the keep any mention of religion completely out of the classroom, when in the real world educational standards require teaching about all the major religions. So the central issue of this film just wouldn't be a thing. The sad thing is that there are many issues of religious freedom and freedom of speech in schools, but this isn't one of them.

But as I said, I'm writing about churches, not schools. I'm also not writing about the judicial system. In the film, the teacher is suspended without pay for mentioning Jesus in class. The teacher's union, of course, has no problem with this. And yet somehow parents of one of the students sue over this issue. And apparently, the school and the parents are somehow on the same side of the case, because there is so much money to be made from suing a high school history teacher who lives with her grandfather (Pat Boone). One would perhaps think this issue would go to arbitration. Instead it goes immediately to a full jury trial, because they must have run out of civil and criminal cases in this part of Arkansas. There are many cases in the courts these days relating to religious freedom, but the film makers would probably have had to deal with complex issues such as same sex marriage or contraception. They might also have had to show the complexity of two sides that have legitimate concerns rather than Good vs. Straw Man Evil.

But, again, I'm writing about churches, not the courts. I'm certainly not writing about the bizarre travel habits of people in the film. For instance, a pastor, Rev. Dave, is in his office. Without notice, his friend from Africa, Rev. Jude, drops by asking if he can stay while he studies for his doctorate. A similar thing happens later in the film when a father travels from China to see his son in his college dorm. Neither of these men bothers to phone, write, or text before traveling over the seas for a visit.

No. I'm writing about the way the church is presented in the film, and, even more mysteriously, the church not seen in the film. As for the church seen, Rev. Dave is back from the first film, and we are still given no indication of what denomination he is a part of or what he does with his day. We do learn that he preaches, because he receives a subpoena from the city to submit his sermons. He refuses. (This may be the basis for God's Not Dead 3. We are given this clue for a sequel in a post credits sequence. About the only way this is like a Marvel Comics film is that it has a post credits sequence.)

More interesting is the church not seen in the film. We never see a pastor visit Grace, even though her life is upheaval because of this lawsuit. We never see anyone from her church visit. The only spiritual support Grace seems get is from her grandfather, Pat Boone. (Grace says her parents weren't Christians, but her grandfather definitely is. Go figure.) Oh, and that student whose parents bring the lawsuit? The girl just became a Christian, yet she already knows all the lyrics of "How GreatThou Art" and goes to Grace's house to sing on her doorstep.

So we're giving the church we see and the church we don't see in this film an average steeple grade of 2. (Here's hoping that if there is another sequel, it will raise the rating to 3.) 

Saturday, April 9, 2016

North Carolina movies on the small and big screen

On the small screen
Our featured North Carolina film, 1988's Bull Durham, does have a movie church. It's just not Baptist or Catholic or Presbyterian or anything like those; it's the Church of Baseball. The Church's Apostle in the film is Annie Savoy (played by Susan Sarandon of Dead Man Walking), who tried a relationship with Jesus Christ but it didn't work out due to her "rejection of most traditional Judeo Christian values." Annie follows the minor league baseball club the Durham Bulls and "mentors" a new player every year. The film follows her as she decides between a young rookie pitcher (played by Tim Robbins) and a veteran catcher (played by Kevin Costner).

Written and directed by Ron Shelton, the film is often ranked as one of the best sports films of all time. Though filled with ribald language and situations, I was glad that the Christian player on the team, Jimmie, proves faithful even when he marries one of Annie's disciples (it's sort of a Hosea situation.) The film is set in North Carolina with many mentions of travels to a variety of NC cities. It was filmed on location in the state.

Also set and filmed in North Carolina was David Lynch's bizarre classic, Blue Velvet. Legend has it that when filming in a small NC town, the locals flocked to the location with lawn chairs to watch a real Hollywood production. And when a naked Isabella Rossellini arrived on the set for filming, most people packed up their chairs and left.

A different kind of disappointment has been felt by many through the years who have rented Sandra Bullock's 28 Days and discovered it was not the zombie film 28 Days Later. If one is looking for horror films set and filmed in North Carolina, one could watch one of two Stephen King films featuring Drew Barrymore, Firestarter or Cat's Eye. Certainly avoid Maximum Overdrive about killer machines that was written and directed by Stephen King and which King himself admits was a disaster.

Also set and filmed in North Carolina - the Civil War Drama Cold Mountain which was nominated for several Oscars and won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Rene Zellwiger. Another Oscar nominee set and filmed in the state was Jodie Foster's Nell.

Probably the most financially successful movie filmed (but not set) in North Carolina was The Hunger Games. If you're looking for a more family friendly film set and filmed in North Carolina, you could go with Muppets from Space (which was not, in fact, set or filmed in space.)

One of my favorite films that captured the feel of small town life in North Carolina is 2005's Junebug, which introduced Amy Adams to audiences in her first major film role.

For our trip to the movies in North Carolina,we went to the Ruby Cinemas in the "Ruby City" of Franklin. The people were friendly, the snack prices were reasonable (by movie theater standards) and we were surprised to find that one of the preshow commercials was for a church. The film we saw was God's Not Dead 2, which I will write about in another post shortly. I will say I liked it better than the original God's Not Dead. (I really hated that first film.)

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Movie Churches during the Great Depression: O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000) and Emperor of the North (1973)

 Sometimes technique very much matters. For instance, today in Movie Churches we have two movies with scenes of baptisms. We never learn the name of pastors or the churches in either film. But one pastor has an effective method of baptizing, while the other gets so much so very wrong.

Now let’s get some technical details out of the way. We are talking about believer’s baptism here. Many churches, particularly mainline denominations, practice infant baptism, like you see in The Godfather, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. These films show the baptisms of people who choose to be baptised.

There are also different ways that churches apply water in baptism. There is “aspersion” which applies to the sprinkling of water on the head (which is suitable for babies, but surely isn’t a real man’s baptism). Closely related is baptism by “affusion”, the pouring of water on the head; which is closely related to “immersion” when water is poured over the head and body. But the kind of baptism practiced in these films is “submersion” where in a person is completely immersed in a body of water (a lake, river, swimming pool or baptismal tank.)

Submersion baptism has the advantage of being cinematic, especially since both films have baptisms in the open air in beautiful places.

In the Ethan and Joel Coen’s comedy,O Brother, Where Art Thou, three escaped convicts stumble upon a church baptism. A large congregation, all dressed in long, white robes, are in line to be baptized in the middle of the lake. (The scene was filmed on location in Alligator Lake near Vicksburg, Mississippi.) The congregation is singing “Let’s Go Down to the River to Pray” even though, as I mentioned, they’re at a lake.

One of the convicts, Delbert, the least bright of the three (not that any of the three is at all bright) cuts to the front of the line and is baptized. The pastor in the film has good baptismal technique. He covers the mouth and nose of the person baptized. He makes sure the person is secure and lowers the person into the water.

Another of the convicts, Pete, is also baptized. But Everett (George Clooney) doesn’t follow along, calling it all part of foolish superstition.

The event changes life for Delbert and Pete, but especially Delbert. Both are excited about the pastor’s assurances that baptism washed away all their sins. Delbert is excited to be cleared of guilt for the robbery of a Piggly Wiggly that sent him to jail, but Everett gives him the sad news that although he might be square with the Lord, he's not right with the state of Mississippi.

But Delbert does change. When the men meet Baby Face Nelson, Delbert knows he can’t join him on his spree of bank robberies even though Delbert thinks it sounds like good fun. (The famous bank robber says, “Jesus saves, but George Nelson withdraws.”)  And when Everett steals a pie from a window sill, Delbert leaves some cash behind to pay for it.

Though we only see the baptizing pastor and his congregation briefly, his ministry has a real impact on the film’s central characters.

The same can’t be said of the baptizing pastor in director Robert Aldrich’s Emperor of the North. In a situation rather similar to the scene in O Brother, Lee Marvin (as a hobo called A#1) joins a baptism in progress to escape the railroad bulls that are pursuing him.

I was not impressed with the technique of this pastor, who's baptizing his congregation in a river in Oregon. There are dozens of congregants, and Marvin also cuts in line to the pastor. But this pastor dunks his people face forward and doesn’t properly cover their mouth and noses, practically drowning people.

No wonder Marvin isn’t transformed and refers to the congregation as “Jesus shouters”. (As he drags another hobo away from the river he makes the baffling statement that he's doing it to "save [him] from the Presbyterians." It seemed more like a Baptist congregation.)

The greatest problem of baptismal planning in the film is in the matter of wardrobe. One of the women in the congregation is only wearing a thin, white robe. The woman is quite, um, well endowed, and after her robe becomes wet… Well, let me just say her presence is the one part of the service A#1 seems to appreciate.

So, based solely on how they conduct their outdoor baptisms, I’m giving the church in O Brother Where Art Thou three steeples and the church in Emperor of the North one steeple. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

South Carolina films on the small and big screen

On the small screen
Pat Conroy didn't have a home state until he was 15 years old, and that state was South Carolina. He traveled as a Marine brat, but then his family moved to Beaufort, SC, where he attended The Citadel, the Military Academy of South Carolina. He went on to become a bestselling using his own life as material. TheGreat Santini is about his family's life in the state. The novel was made into a film in 1979, orginally under the title, The Ace.

The performance of Robert Duvall as a larger than life Marine fighter pilot earned him one of his many Oscar nominations. Though the novel deals with the family's commitment to the Catholic Church (in positive and less than positive ways); the film leaves this aspect of family life far in the periphery. It's a great family drama. It's not only set in South Carolina, it was filmed there as well.

Other films have been made from Pat Conroy novels, and two have been set and filmed in South Carolina: The Lords of Discipline (a fictionalized telling of Conroy's days in The Citadel) and The Prince of Tides (a fictionalized telling of the adult Conroy's coming to terms with the traumas of his youth).

A less critically acclaimed yet very popular writer, Nicolas Sparks, set one of his most successful novels, The Notebook, in South Carolina, and it was also filmed there. (I'll give the chick flick this: it gave work to one of my favorites, James Garner.) Another Sparks novel, Dear John, was also set and filmed in South Carolina.

Nothing says Boomers like Lawrence Kasden's college reunion classic, The Big Chill. A great cast including William Hurt, Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, Meg Tilly, and Kevin Kline get together in South Carolina (set and filmed) to reminisce about how awesome the sixties were.

On the big screen
The big screen film we saw in South Carolina was not set or filmed there. Risen set in first century Palestine and was filmed in Spain and Malta. It is the story of Christ's resurrection from the perspective of a soldier at the cross -- who Pilate charges to find the body of Jesus. I just don't understand why none of the Gospel writers wrote about the Roman tribune who hung out with them before the Ascension.

Last week, we wrote unkindly about our visit to a Regal Theater in Georgia. This week's experience was better, but nearly $20 for two matinee tickets? One thing that was cool was their use of salt dispensers filled with popcorn kernels to keep the contents from coming out too quickly or clumping in humid weather. And where else but in a movie theater would you look for  black bean dip?