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

Comedy 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.