Sunday, July 28, 2019

Bonus: I Read the Book Month: The Legend of the Holy Drinker

The Legend of the Holy Drinker (1988)
I’m throwing a bonus film into “I Read the Book Month” for a rather sad reason -- the passing of the great Rutger Hauer.

Last week the internets were full of this news, with most stories highlighting Hauer's performance as the android Roy Batty in the science fiction classic, Blade Runner (future trivia factoid Jeopardy answer: "2019" "In what year did Batty and Hauer both die?") Sadly, Hauer spent most of the last several decades making B action movies, but they weren’t all bad. I highly recommend 1989’s Blind Fury. Hauer was in some other popular Hollywood blockbusters like Ladyhawke, Nighthawks, and Batman Begins, among others, but much of his best work was done in European art films. And the best of these may well be The Legend of the Holy Drinker.

Director Ermanno Olmi’s 1988 adaptation of Joseph Roth’s 1939 very fine novella won the Golden Bear at the Venice Film Festival and was the most acclaimed Italian film of that year. Hauer plays Andreas, a homeless alcoholic who lives under a bridge in Paris. A stranger approaches him and offers 200 francs.

Andreas responds that he is an honorable man and wouldn't want to take on a debt he can’t repay. The stranger replies that Andreas doesn’t have to pay him back. He owes a debt to Saint Therese. All Andreas needs to do, when he has the money to repay, is to take the money to the statue of Saint Therese in the Cathedral. The remainder of the film is about Andreas' attempts to make it to church. There are many obstacles to attending church, but the chief obstacle is found in wine bottles.

Here at Movie Churches, we evaluate clergy and churches in movies, and this movie has a problem fitting in. Most of the film is about someone not getting to church -- like the story of many of our lives. Nonetheless, the cathedral makes a major, though brief, appearance in the last scene of the last act. We’re giving that cathedral and its priests our best rating of 4 Steeples.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

I Read the Book Month: The Hiding Place

The Hiding Place (1975)
This month at Movie Churches, we’re looking at films made from books -- literary fiction for the most part. The Hiding Place is an exception, since the book, written by a survivor of Nazi concentration camps, tells the true story of Corrie ten Boom's family's attempts to save Jews during the Holocaust.

The book might not have the literary pedigree of other books featured this month. Corrie ten Boom and her co-authors, John and Elizabeth Sherrill, are Dostoyevsky or Kafka. Nonetheless, it’s a powerful story that has challenged many, myself included, for decades. The ten Boom family's examples of love, sacrifice, and forgiveness continue to inspire and convict those who read her story.

Corrie was a middle-aged woman living with her sister and parents in the city of Haarlem when the Nazis invaded the Netherlands in 1940. The family found themselves helping Jews as German control tightened, eventually hiding people in their homes as they made their escape to freedom. Corrie and all her family were eventually arrested and sent to concentration camps. Corrie was the only one who survived the war.

Corrie Ten Boom with Jeannette Clift (the actress who played her)
The 1975 film based on the book was produced by Billy Graham’s production company, World Wide Pictures. It is easily the best film from World Wide Pictures, which sounds a bit like the distinction of being the world’s fastest sloth or the world’s prettiest monkfish, but it is a good film. It has a distinguished cast. Jeannette Clift, who played Corrie, was in few other films, but Julie Harris who played Corrie’s sister, Betsie, and Arthur O’Connell who played Corrie’s father, Casper, were both Oscar-nominated actors, as was Nigel Hawthorne who played Pastor De Ruiter in the film.

Every other World Wide Pictures film made during Billy Graham’s lifetime featured the evangelist, often in an extremely awkwardly shoehorned-in scene The historical nature of this film freed the filmmakers from that requirement, but Corrie ten Boom herself appears at the end of this film.

There isn’t much church or clergy in this Christian film, but the official clergy member doesn’t come off well. Pastor De Ruiter is nervous and critical of the ten Boom’s decision to help Jews in need. He is quite obviously afraid of the Nazis and is quite willing to kowtow to the evil forces.

This distresses and puzzles Corrie who is doesn’t understand how a pastor could act this way. Her father, Casper, explains that just because someone serves in the church doesn’t mean they are serving Christ. He says, “A mouse might be in a cookie jar, but he is not a cookie.” (It should be noted that in the book and real life, the ten Booms' circle included good clergy, doing good work. Corrie’s brother, Willem, a pastor in the Dutch Reformed Church, first brought a Jewish man who escaped from Germany, to be with his family.)

But if you define the church in a less formal way, as people who love Jesus gathered together to worship Him, then there is a quite wonderful church represented in the film. In the concentration camp barracks, Betsie and Corrie meet with other women to read from their miraculously preserved Bible and to pray and sing hymns. One of the reasons they are able to worship freely is because the guards fear the lice and fleas in the barracks. Betsie realizes that pests and vermin prove to be a gift from God.

Because of this, I’m going to split the steeple ratings this week. Because of the difficult circumstances he faces, we will give the cowardly Pastor De Ruiter a perhaps too generous Movie Churches rating of Two Steeples, but to the church meeting in the barracks of Ravensbruck, we give our highest rating of Four Steeples.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

I Read the Book Month: A Clockwork Orange

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 11, 2019

I Read the Book Month: The Trial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 5, 2019

I Read the Book Month: The Brothers Karamozov

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

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

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

It isn’t nearly as good. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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