Thursday, March 28, 2019

Small Town Churches 5: The Last Song

The Last Song (2010)
A pastor friend of mine said a congregation should always ask the question, “If our church vanished tomorrow, would the community notice?” His point was that many churches put all their focus on meeting the needs (and whims) of their own people without thinking about the needs of those outside their walls. That isn’t how a church should operate.

So you can at least say that people notice when the church in 2010's The Last Song burns down. Everyone in Wrightsville Beach, Georgia seems to gossip about the fire, but they don’t seem particularly upset about it.

The film was written by Nicholas Sparks but isn’t exactly based on the novel of the same name. He was contracted for the novel and screenplay at the same time and finished the screenplay first. It tells the story of Ronnie (Miley Cyrus), a piano prodigy, who abandons her instrument when her father, Steve Miller (Greg Kinnear), abandons her.

When he asks Ronnie and her younger brother, Jonah, to come and live with him for a summer, Ronnie spends as little time as possible with her father. Instead, she spends her time making friends on the beach. Jonah joins his father on a project, building a stained glass window.

In time we learn that many suspect Ronnie’s father set the church fire. The film’s opening credits show the fire raging, with firefighters pulling a man -- who we later learn was Ronnie's father, Steve Miller -- from the building. Miller tells his daughter he spent much of his time in that church as a child. When he returned to his hometown, he would go to the church to play the piano.

He is suffering from an unnamed but terminal disease, and he takes a variety of drugs that at times incapacitate him. He believes that while in the church, he passed out and knocked over a lamp which started the fire. Everyone in town seems to agree that Miller was responsible for the fire.

But after her father is hospitalized, Ronnie hears another story. Ronnie’s boyfriend, Will (Liam Hemsworth), tells her that his best friend, Scott, started the fire but was afraid of getting into trouble. Ronnie urges Scott and Will to confess to her father, and they do, but her father tells them that since he's dying anyway, they don't need to confess to the police or the press. Steve might as well continue to take the blame for the fire.

As Steve lingers in the hospital, Jonah recruits Will to work on the stained glass window that we know now will replace the window that was lost in the fire. Steve does die. But at his service, the stained glass he and his son worked on is in the church where his funeral is held. The only time we see the church used is at this funeral. (There is a wedding in the film, with a minister, but that service is held in the backyard of a mansion.)

A minister conducts the funeral service, but Ronnie gives the only eulogy we hear from the service. She plays a song her father began to compose and that she completed. After the service, Ronnie has a chance to talk with Will, who she hadn’t seen for weeks, but the minister pulls her away to meet a friend of her father’s. We never see a minister in Steve’s hospital room or caring in any way for these two kids losing their father.

But the church does have fine stained glass. In the real world, stained glass windows are the work of trained artists who’ve spent years perfecting their craft  -- or, I don't know, a very ill man and his preteen son?

We’re giving the burned and rebuilt church of this film, and its nameless ministers, a fairly minimal Two Steeple Rating.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Small Town Movie Churches 4: Fried Green Tomatoes

Fried Green Tomatoes (1991)
I’ve seen pastors do all kinds of stunts to tweak church attendance (or at least, Sunday School attendance). I’ve seen pastors give visitors prizes like chocolate and Starbucks coupons and movie tickets. I’ve seen pastors agree to sit in the dunk tank for hitting attendance goals. Pastors have agreed to shave a beard or even their scalps if all the seats were filled. But until I saw Fried Green Tomatoes I hadn’t seen a pastor willing to commit perjury to get someone to come to church.

Based on Fannie Flagg’s novel, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, this 1991 film (taking just the first three words of the book’s title) is intended to be a tale of female empowerment. The story of Kathy Bates as Evelyn, a woman trying to save her marriage to a negligent husband, bookends the film. She meets an old woman (Jessica Tandy) who begins to tell her about two young women in the small Southern town of Whistle Stop between the World Wars.

Idgie (Mary Stuart Masterson) was a rebel who spends time at the poker hall and speakeasy. Her friend Ruth (Mary-Louise Parker), is a good girl who leads the youth ministry at the First Baptist Church. (Spoiler: we're supposed to be very surprised at the end of the film that when we find out the old woman telling the story was Idgie. Who else would have been telling this story?)

It seems that Whistle Stop, Alabama has something in common with other small towns all over the country -- like Weed, California, and Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

Years ago, I was a groomsman in a friend's wedding in rural northern California. The venue options for a bachelor party were limited, so we ended up in a Motel 6 room, and bottles were passed. I talked to a local, and she said people in the town divided into two groups, the churchgoers and the party people. People pretty much had to choose between being a part of one group or the other. This isn’t true of all small towns we’ve been to. In Texas, we heard many people talk about how you’ll see the same people in the bar Saturday night as you see in church Sunday morning. We heard the same thing at a bar in Oklahoma years later.

Whistle Stop seems to be the same kind of place. Idgie is a regular at the poker hall and Ruth can be found at the church, but their friendship draws them to the other’s territory. As Ruth teaches a Sunday School lesson on Job, Idgie listens in through the window. On Ruth’s birthday, Idgie takes her to the pool hall where she gets her friend drunk.

But the two friends are separated when Ruth leaves Alabama to marry a man named Frank and goes with him to Georgia -- but Frank is an abusive husband. Ingie visits Ruth, and with the help of friends (including George, a large black man) takes her pregnant friend back home.

Ruth has a son, and Frank goes back to Alabama to get this son. Frank goes missing, and Idgie is accused of murdering him.

During the trial, the Reverend Herbert Scroggins (Richard Riehle) is called as a witness. Idgie has known him her whole life, but that's not necessarily a good thing. As a small child, she attended a wedding the Reverend conducted and used a mirror to reflect light into the minister’s eyes. Idgie's brother died, and the Reverend conducted the funeral. And when he preached against the poker hall, Idgie shouted and mocked from the back of a truck as she rode to the poker hall, calling him a snake. Their relationship was, to say the least, testy.

So Idgie is concerned about what he'll say at her trial. He's offered a Bible to swear on, but he says he’ll swear on his own, then testifies that on the night of Frank’s disappearance, Idgie was at a church revival.

The prosecutor questions whether the revival wasn’t two days before Frank’s alleged murder. The Reverend asks, “Have you ever been to a Baptist revival? That revival went for three nights.”

Of course, Idgie wasn’t at the revival. She was at the poker hall, but she was called away because of a disturbance at the Whistle Stop Cafe. Frank had come to steal away his child. He attacked Idgie’s friend, George, and another friend, Sipsey (Cicely Tyson) hit him over the head with a frying pan. Frank was killed. Idgie came to the cafe and helped cover up the killing.

But the Reverend’s false testimony was enough to free Idgie. After the trial, she asked him why he was willing to lie after swearing on a Bible. He admitted the book wasn't a Bible --  it was a copy of Moby Dick, and he committed perjury in exchange for Ruth's promise that Idgie would regularly attend church. Idgie says she would have rather have gone to jail but apparently keeps to Ruth’s commitment.

Now, it’s swell that the Reverend Scroggins cares about Ruth and Idgie, but integrity is essential to a pastor’s call and ministry. He shouldn’t be telling lies of any kind, let alone under oath in a court of law. (And no, swearing on Melville rather than the Word of God is not a get-out-of-jail-free card.)

Still, Scroggins’ compassion does save him from out lowest Movie Church Steeple rating, so he gets a little better than our lowest rating. Two Steeples for First Baptist of Whistle Stop.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Small Town Movie Churches III: Lars and the Real GIrl

Lars and the Real Girl (2007)
You wouldn’t expect a film about a sex toy to be so...well… nice. But “nice” certainly describes 2007’s Lars and the Real Girl. "Nice" is unusual for a film featuring a porn product, but films about small towns don't often do "nice" anymore, either.

Small towns used to be happy places in movies. Who wouldn’t want to live in the Bedford Falls of It’s a Wonderful Life? That used to be a fairly typical depiction of small towns in films: happy places where everyone cared for each other. Small towns in contemporary films tend to be sinister places with dark secrets -- and few small towns have secrets darker than those in another recent film, Get Out.

This change perhaps comes from changes in American demographics that filmmakers reflect. At the beginning of the 20th century, most Americans lived in rural areas. Since the mid 20th century, most Americans live in big cities or suburbs. So when George Bailey was running along Main Street, most Americans could relate. When Chris Washington (in Get Out) leaves Uber and GrubHub behind, a majority of Americans can relate to his feelings. Sure, in Hallmark movies, small towns are friendly places, but in many feature films, they’re ominous.

Even more atypical, the small town church in Lars and the Real Girl is nice as well.

Ryan Gosling plays Lars, a strange young man who has a difficult time relating to people. He's particularly awkward with women. One day he orders a life-size woman doll from an adult website and, once she arrives, introduces her to people as his new girlfriend. Taking a cue from a Dr. Dagmar, a family doctor and psychiatrist (Patricia Clarkson), people in town agree to treat “Bianca” as if she were a real girl in hopes that it will help Lars work out emotional and psychological issues.

An interesting thing about Lars’ relationship with Bianca is that it is chaste. He has his “girlfriend” stay in a spare bedroom at his brother and sister-in-law's house, saying  “She’s really religious; could she sleep at your place?” (His brother, Gus, is played by Paul Schneider -- who also played Mark Brendanawicz on Parks and Recreation, one of the great TV shows about small-town life.)

Lars introduces Bianca to people as a missionary and an orphan raised by nuns. “God made her to help people.”

The really interesting thing, for us here at Movie Churches, the local church, Holy Grace Lutheran Church. Before Bianca’s arrival, we see Lars listening to a sermon by the Reverend Bock (R.D. Reid). He’s talking about how the world is full of books and books of law. But, Reverend Bock says, “There is one law; love one another, that is the one true law.”

We see a meeting of some kind of church board that debates about how they should treat Lars and Bianca. One man at the meeting says they should have nothing to do with Bianca, but a woman on the board points out that another woman in the church is a kleptomaniac, and a man in the church dresses his cats. She says they need to treat Lars with kindness. The pastor says the important thing to consider is “what would Jesus do,” and he believes they shouldn’t judge Lars. Instead, they should treat Bianca with kindness as a way to love to Lars.

So, when the pastor welcomes visitors as a part of the Sunday morning service, he welcomes Bianca. The rest of the service seems rather conventional, with the congregation singing “Holy, Holy, Holy” and a sermon on I Corinthians 13.

The church (and the whole town, for that matter) take Bianca into their lives, and their acceptance seems to help Lars move on with life. Lars informs Dr. Dagmar that Bianca is sick -- in fact, dying. The ladies of the church come to sit with Lars for the “death watch,” bringing plenty of casseroles with them. They make sure Lars eats and rests while he waits. Bianca does “die,” and the church holds a memorial service for her.

And Lars seems to be better, stronger. He even asks a woman in the church choir on a date. 

People talk about “Minnesota Nice,” but I think that "nice" crosses the border into Wisconsin, earning the Reverend Bock and his congregation our highest rating of Four Steeples.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Small Town Movie Churches 2: There Will be Blood

There Will Be Blood (2007)
The church in Southern California where I served my pastoral internship was across the street from an oil field. Most people probably don’t associate the Golden State with black gold, but in Fullerton in 1986, those little derricks were still pumping away right in the middle of Orange County.

2007’s There Will Be Blood, set in the fictional California town of Little Boston at the beginning of the 20th century, has as its central conflict the competition between the founder of an oil company and a church pastor.

Most of the critical focus on this idiosyncratic, epic classic from writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson has been on the character of the “oil man”, Daniel Plainview. Daniel Day-Lewis won an Oscar for his performance as Plainview, a self-centered entrepreneur, a misanthrope who considers himself in competition with every other person. Day-Lewis' Plainview is often found in lists of most memorable movie characters and performances.

But this is Movie Churches, so our focus is on Plainview's foe, the Reverend Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). In the little town of Little Boston, Plainview negotiates (swindles) the locals for the oil rights to their land. When Plainview talks with Eli about his family’s land, Eli, wearing a clerical collar, asks, “What church do you belong to?”

Plainview responds, “I enjoy all faiths. I don’t belong to one church in particular. I like them all.” Eli asks for $10,000 for the oil rights to be directed to his church, Plainview counters with $5000, and Eli agrees. Plainview says, “I’ll happily be a supporter of your church for as long as I can.” That's one of many promises the man quickly breaks.

Plainview builds roads for his new project, and Eli asks for a road leading to his church, The Church of the Third Revelation. Plainview does not build that road. When Plainview christens the new oil well, Eli asks, “Is there anything the church can do for you? I will bless the well.” He asks to be introduced as “The proud son of these hills who tended his father’s flocks.”

Plainview refuses and delivers his own prayer at the ceremony.

When a catastrophe takes place at the rig, an explosion and fire, Eli believes these disasters occurred because he did not bless the well.

The film does give us a glimpse of a service in Eli Sunday’s Church of the Third Revelation. It seems to have a charismatic feel, and Eli is a shouting kind of preacher.

He claims to heal. He says to a Mrs. Hunter, “You have arthritis. You have a devil in you, and I will suck it out. Get out of her, ghost. As long as I have teeth, I will bite you, and when I have no teeth, I will gum you.” He then mimes wrestling with this demon and tosses it out the door of the church. The congregation does sing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” but otherwise Eli doesn’t seem to have much to say about Jesus.

Another promise to Rev. Sunday that Plainview breaks is that promise of $5000. Throughout the film, Sunday pursues Plainview for the money like the paperboy who pursued John Cusack for his $2. At one point Sunday comes to see Plainview on his oil fields, and Plainview mocks him and pushes him in the mud. Sunday is so humiliated and angered that he goes home and beats up his own father.

Reverend Eli gets a chance for revenge when Plainview needs to lay a pipeline across a piece of property that belongs to a member of Sunday’s congregation. To get what he wants, Plainview must go to a service in the Church of the Third Revelation and confess his sins before the congregation and be baptized. Sunday forces Plainview to his knees and humiliates him in front of his congregation.

Plainview remembers this moment and takes his revenge later. At the conclusion of the film, Eli Sunday has moved on, starting a radio ministry. But he's morally strayed (we are spared the details) and is financially hurting. He goes to Plainview for help.

Plainview demands, “I’d like you to tell me that you are a false prophet and God is a superstition. Say it like a sermon, 'I am a false prophet and God is a superstition.' Imagine this is a church, and this is your congregation.”

Sunday does everything Plainview asks. Plainview laughs at Sunday and tells him he will do nothing to help him. Plainview beats Sunday (in every possible sense of the word “beat.")

So Sunday denies God for money (and doesn’t get the money). In the Apostle Paul's second letter to II Timothy 2:12, Paul wrote, “If we deny Him, He will also deny us.” Eli's denial is just a mirror image of the earlier scene in the film when Sunday has Plainview baptized for money. Both actions were cynical acts of idolatry.

Which is why we’re giving the Reverend Eli Sunday and the Church of the Third Revelation our lowest Movie Churches rating of one steeple.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Action Preachers! The Hoodlum Priest

The Hoodlum Priest (1961)
Originally posted at Dean and Mindy go to church January, 8, 2015.

Won't lie, I ordered the DVD of The Hoodlum Priest because, well, it's called "The Hoodlum Priest." Though it sounds like it might be good camp, a quick look at the credits suggests there may be more to it than that. It's directed by Irvin Kershner -- who went on to direct The Empire Strikes Back. One of the star "cons" is played by Keir Dullea -- who played Dave in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The camera work is by Haskell Wexler, one of the great cinematographers (who's also a two time Oscar winner). So even though there are moments of camp (it's hard for modern ears to take seriously anyone, especially a priest, saying, "You dig?" Oh, how those hip people talked back in 1961), eventually you take Father Charles Clark quite seriously. Though the credits say the screenplay is based on an "original story," it's also based on the life of the real Father Clark who founded a halfway house, Dismas House, for ex-convicts.

As the film opens, Clark (played by Don Murray, who also co-wrote the screenplay) is a teacher at a parochial school The priest principal compliments him on his ability to "reach the kids," but you can tell Father Clark is restless in his job. He asks to be excused from a parent/teacher conference because he wants to be with his "parishioners." Which means he's going to a dive bar.

He explains that he grew up in a coal mining town and his father was a union organizer. The police were the strike-busters and, for him, the enemy. (for what it's worth, the St. Louis police were thanked for their support for the film). He talks about how criminals divide the world in "squares" and "cons," and he's always felt more comfortable with the cons.

Father Clark does what some in theology call "incarnational ministry." Just as Scripture teaches that Jesus was God who became man, incarnational ministry is when someone enters another world. Incarnational youth ministry, for example, happens when -- instead of just inviting kids to events or to church -- the youth worker purposely hangs out where kids hang out and spends time in their world.

Since Father Clark's spends most of his times with crooks, people assume he is a crook, just as people assumed Jesus must be a sinner because that's who he hung out with. 

There is a wonderful scene toward the end of the film when Father Clark goes to be with a con facing the gas chamber. Another priest is already there, but the con doesn't want to listen to him. (Father Clark does say, "You should listen to him, those are good prayers.") But Father Clark tells the condemned young man, "You know, the squares think heaven is their territory; that they've got it all sewn up. But Jesus never promised any square he was going to heaven. He only made that promise to a con. Next to him on the cross was a thief, maybe he was a murderer, but Jesus said he'd be with him in paradise. Only to a con." And this, the man hears.

I'd go to Father Clark's church. I'm just not sure he'd want a square like me to come.