Thursday, May 19, 2022

Italy (via Moldova and Ukraine)


Black Sunday
(1960)
Viy (1967)

On Twitter, someone recently posted, “I heard someone say once that you can't be a Christian and like horror movies.” 

We take anything said on social media quite seriously here at Movie Churches, so we find this concerning. After all, we have watched quite a number of horror films, and though some have been very bad indeed, we have to admit we’ve enjoyed watching many of them (including some of the bad ones.)


But even more concerning is not just that there are horror film viewers who are Christians, but there are even Christian horror filmmakers! Scott Derrickson, the director of The Exorcism of Emily Rose, argued that  Christians -- as believers in the supernatural -- were best equipped to make horror films. William Peter Blatty, who wrote the screenplay for The Exorcist and the novel on which it was based, considered his work an expression of his faith. And the director of one of today’s films, Mario Bava, was described in his life as a staunch Catholic. (A strange anecdote about the making of Bava’s one sex comedy, Four Times That Night, says that the director left the work to the assistant director when nudity was required on the set.)

So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that in Black Sunday, considered the first Italian horror film and a seminal work in the genre, a priest is one of the heroes in the film.

It should be noted that this film provides several stops for our European vacation. Though the film was made in Italy, it is set in Moldavia, a European principality that is no more. It's based on a short story, “The Viy” by the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol (who was born and raised in Ukraine).

Actually, the tale Bava tells is not even close to the story by Gogol.


The story of Black Sunday begins in the 1630s as a woman in Moldavia is about to be burned for witchcraft. But first, a bronze devil mask is attached to her face with spikes. A storm breaks out and keeps the woman, Princess Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele) from being burned at the stake; instead, she’s just buried alive. Two hundred years later she’s found in a grave by Dr. Choma Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and his assistant, Dr. Andrej Gorobec (John Richardson). Kruvajan accidentally brings Asa back to life and things, needless to say, start to go bad. Asa brings back her brother and lover, Igor Javutich (Arturo Dominici), to help with the mayhem.

Meanwhile, Gorobec meets a young woman, Katia Vajda, who looks just like her ancestor, Asa. The two fall in love, but Asa plans to take Katia’s young body as her own to continue her plans for death and destruction. Gorobec goes to a priest (Antonio Pierfederici) for help. The priest knows that Asa killed Kruvajan and brought him back as one of the undead. The priest also knows the way to kill the undead: a nail through the eye. (I don’t remember any classes on killing the undead in my seminary, but apparently Orthodox priests have a very different curriculum.)

The priest also leads the angry crowd of townsfolk with torches that finally get around to burning Asa to death. Understandably, with the good Catholic Bava telling the story, the priests (even the Orthodox priests) are the heroes.


Priests don’t come off nearly so well in 1967’s Viy, a much more faithful telling of Gogol’s short story. Co-writers/co-directors Konstantin Ershov and Gerogiy Kropachyov needed to answer to Soviet authorities when they made this film, and the government at that time was not fond of religion.

Viy tells pretty much the same story as Gogol told. Gogol claimed it was a folk tale, but there is no record of it existing before he told it.

Three seminarians are lost while on vacation and come to what they believe is a farmhouse, but actually, it is the home of an old witch (Kinolay Kutuzov), who tries to seduce one of the men, Khoma (Leonid Kuravlyov). Instead, she ends up taking him on a wild flight in the air. The man’s prayers, perhaps, bring them down to the ground where Khoma beats the witch with a club.


When Khoma returns to his seminary, the Rector (Pyotr Vesklyarov) tells him he must go to the home of a rich landowner and pray for the man’s dying daughter. But when he arrives, he finds that the daughter is already dead. The father tells Khoma that his daughter asked for the seminarian by name before she died. She requested that Khoma would stay three nights with her corpse, praying for her soul. He calls Khoma a saint, but the young man insists he isn’t (in fact, last Lent, he claims to have snuck off to be with the butcher’s wife).

After promises of gold and threats of lashing, Khoma goes to the church, where he is locked in with the corpse for three nights. On the first night, the young woman (Natalya Varley) comes back to life and taunts Khoma, but he protects himself by drawing a chalk circle on the floor around himself and prays. The second night, Khoma fortifies himself by getting drunk. The corpse comes after him in a flying coffin, but he again survives the night. On the third night, the woman transforms into the witch and summons all sorts of demons, including Viy, a demon who can see all things. Khoma doesn’t survive the night. His friends mourn him but wonder if he might have survived if only he had a little more courage.


The clergy in this film are not heroes. The Rector sends Khoma because he is given a bribe. When the seminarians are on vacation, they get drunk, steal food, and assault women. These characters aren’t too wonderful in the original short story but are worse in the film.

It's an interesting piece of trivia that Black Sunday is considered the first Italian horror film and Viy is considered the first horror film. I believe Christians can learn from both films: to be like the priest in Black Sunday who earns our Four Steeple rating, and to not be like the seminarians of Viy who earn a One Steeple Rating.







Friday, May 13, 2022

A Stop in France: The Last Duel


The Last Duel
(2021)


In 1950, Akira Kurosawa made a groundbreaking film, Rashomonabout a horrible crime. The story was presented from a variety of perspectives. 

Since, unfortunately, Movie Churches is spending this month in Europe, there isn’t time for a side trip to Japan. More importantly, since we focus on Christian churches and clergy, the priest in that film is Buddhist. 

In 2021, director Ridley Scott made Kurosawa's gimmick his own by telling the story of a sexual assault from three different perspectives. His tale takes place in medieval France, so it works for this month's theme, and the priest in the film is Roman Catholic -- so that works too. Of course, Kurosawa’s priest was a kind, thoughtful man and Ridley’s priest is a cynical, corrupt politician. But we work with what we have.


The Last Duel
is based on a true story. Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and Jacques le Gris (Adam Driver) are squires serving under Count Pierre de Alencon (Ben Affleck) after the Caroline War. Jacques becomes the Count’s tax collector and takes the prize property of Jean’s wife’s dowry. But worse is to come. 

Jacques rapes Jean’s wife, Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer) so Jean challenges Jacques to a duel, trusting the outcome will be directed by God and prove to all what is right.

But as I mentioned, this story is told from different perspectives. Jacques doesn’t believe he raped Marguerite. He believes he loves her and she loves him. The only real problem from his perspective is the awkward marriage vows between Jean and Margueritte (after the act he tells her, “We could not help ourselves.”)


Jacques goes to his priest, Le Coq (Zeljko Ivanek), but not regarding the sin of rape.

Jacques: “Forgive me Father, for I have sinned.”

Priest: “ Speak my son.”

J: “I carry a sin that weighs heavy upon my heart.”

P: “What is it, my son?”

J: “I have committed the sin of adultery against a man I once considered a friend.”

P: “You know your commandments?”

J: “Yes, Father. I ask forgiveness.”

P: “My son, Matthew tells us, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

J: “But is love a sin, Father? How can I seek absolution for love?”

P: “This is the work of the devil. This temptress leads you astray. Just as Eve lured Adam from the divine path. That is not love.”

J: “Then what?”

P: “God is faithful. He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.”


Note that the priest puts the blame on the woman. He doesn’t really listen to Jacques about what he has done. He doesn’t consider that perhaps Jacques does have a really significant sin problem here. Not just “lusting in his heart”, but literal adultery -- if he would take take Jacques at his word. Also coveting -- literally -- his neighbor's wife. And, well, rape. But the priest doesn’t really seem to want to have to deal with real sin.

Even worst is to come from this priest.

When Jean accuses Jacques of raping Marguerite, the priest looks for legal loopholes to help Jacques escape responsibility.

Jacques is still under the delusion that his violent act was a consential transaction. He tells the priest, “It’s taken all my strength not to return to her. We knew it was wrong. I confessed my adultery and performed my penance. This charge of rape is false.”

The priest counters, “The common mind is not capable of such nuance.” He argues that instead of going to civil court, he should use his ordination to be tried in the Ecclesiatic Court. “Use the benefit of clergy. There really is no decision to make. You’re a cleric in minor orders. So, you can escape the jurisdiction of the secular courts and be tried by the Church where conditions are more favorable. Men holding church office number disproportionately among those accused of rape. They escape serious punishment by claiming the benefit of clergy, so… We’ll have the church try your case and be done with the matter.”

That a priest is making this argument is quite worrisome, but Jacques wants to make a public display of his “innocence.”

The priest, however, is worried about how Jacques will look when people consider the accusation made by Jean’s wife. He wonders why she was bold enough to make the accusation. "Yet under extraordinary pressure and at great risk to her name and reputation, Lady Marquritte has said that [the rape] did happen. Formally this is not about her. Rape is not a crime against a woman. It is a property crime against a male guardian, in this case Jean… This is not a matter over which a duel should be fought to the death. It should be settled quietly. Take the benefit of clergy.”

Though considering rape as a property crime was the law of the time, a priest's blithe agreement with this position is quite unsettling. 

We see no need for generousity in judging this priest for our Movie Churches rating -- after all the man has been dead for centuries. We give him our lowest rating of One Steeple.

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Movie Churches European Tour: First Stop Ireland


Darby O'Gill and the Little People
(1959)
Directed by Robert Stevenson

Our first stop on this month’s European Vacation is the Emerald Isle which is appropriate, as I am writing from the Emerald City, Seattle.

There's an acknowledgment in the credits of today's movie: "My thanks to King Brian of Knocknasheega and his Leprechauns, whose gracious co-operation made this picture possible. -- Walt Disney." Because this is Movie Churches, we wonder, why no thanks to the priests in the film?

Of course, many people who viewed this Disney live-action classic in their childhood might not ever remember there was a priest in the film. I know I didn’t.

I do have a distinct memory of watching this as a kid. It was made before I was born, but Disney regularly re-released their favorites, and this played at the Park Cinema in Santa Rosa, CA. I went on a Saturday afternoon, and there was a big crowd of kids, and it was raining hard. There was an announcement that the show was sold out followed immediately by an announcement that they would be showing the movie in the second theater. Apparently, they opened the second theater just for Darby, and they moved the reels from one projector to the other. This stuck with me.

What also stuck with me? The banshee, the angel of death, scared the heck out of little me. But the priest? I completely forgot about him.)

Darby O’Gill and the Little People tells of Darby O'Gill (Albert Sharpe), the elderly caretaker of a lord’s estate in a small Irish town. He is a great storyteller whose favorite topic is his adventures with the leprechauns. Darby has a grown daughter pursued by two suitors; Pony (Kieron Moore), a local bully, and Michael McBride (Sean Connery), the man sent to replace Darby as the caretaker. (It is said Connery's role in this film helped him be cast as James Bond.)

I really didn’t care too much about the love triangle as a kid. What I enjoyed back in the day was Darby’s battle of wits with Brian (Jimmy O’Dea), the legendary king of the leprechauns, for three wishes. While telling stories in the local bar, Darby recalls a time when he captured King Brian. When the king tried to wriggle out of granting Darby's wish, Darby warned him, “You give [my wishes] to me or you’ll answer to the church, I’ll have Father Murphy curse you with a blessing that will shrivel you up.” But still, Darby admits that King Brian escaped and didn’t grant his wishes.


While Darby is telling one of his stories in the local pub, Father Murphy enters. The priest apologizes for his arrival, “I didn’t want to interrupt, I just dropped in to tell you the news. My friend Father O’Leary in the town of Glencove has a new bell that was given to him by a lord. They will give the old bell to us. There will be a chapel bell in our town at last. All we have to do is go after it. Now, if I had a horse, which I haven’t, I’d go for it meself, which I won’t, but I thought that perhaps there might be someone here with a horse and cart who’d like to go for the bell.”

Pony first volunteers to get the bell, for a price. “Two pounds, ten bob,” he says. 

The priest agrees it's a fair price, just more money than he has. The priest makes a counteroffer for carrying the bell, “A chore like that might even be enough to absolve a man for using the priest and a church against the powers of darkness for his own selfish ends.”

This offer captures Darby’s attention. “I’ll do it, Father, I’ll do it for nothing." 

But Father Murphy tells him, “No, Darby, it won’t be for nothing. As a reward, you may have the music of the bell… For your seed, breed, and generation till the end of time.”

Darby does indeed find great joy in listening to the bell. When Darby captures King Brian again, on a Sunday, the king urges him to hastily make his wishes. Darby resists because of the chiming, “The bell, listen to the music of it. Father Murphy gave it to me. Would I make the wish on a Sunday with Father Murphy pulling the bell? Listen to the music.” It turns out for the best that Darby waits.

It turns out that he needs his wish when his daughter Katie is at death’s door; Father Murphy comes to read her the last rites, but because of Darby’s wish, those rites aren’t necessary.

Throughout the film, there seems to be a silent struggle between supernatural forces: the underworld of the leprechauns versus Father Murphy’s Heaven. There’s nothing really wrong with the powers the priest represents, they just aren’t as interesting (in the film, anyway) as the powers King Brian represents.

But we’ll still give Father Murphy a Three Steeple rating if just for the music of the bell.









Monday, May 2, 2022

A Whirlwind European Vacation


Top Ten from Europe

With travel bans finally lifted, this month Movie Churches will be taking some European Vacations. On Friday, we'll begin our tour with a stop in Ireland, but before we do that, it seemed like a good time to look back at ten favorite posts about films set in Europe that also had decent Movie Churches clergy ratings. (This excluded some great films such as A Hidden Life and Winter Light that feature less than exemplary ministers and ministries.)

First stop is England for the film #10, The Wolf Man (1941). You might not even remember the church from this classic Universal Studios monster movie, but it was there, as was a minister. They're a worthy contrast to the dark forces at work in the British countryside.

For #9 we head to Spain for a strange little myth about a boy bequeathed to a monastery. From a certain perspective, The Miracle of Marcelino (1955), which seems quite cheerful on the surface, is rather dark. But there are some very fine monks to be found.

Back to England again for #8. I guess we just like not having to deal with translation issues or paying attention to subtitles. This film is certainly a contender for one of the most fun films of all time, what with  adventure right there in the title. The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) has a fine representative of the church in the person of Friar Tuck.

On to Denmark for #7, Ordet from the great director, Carl Theodor Dreyer. One could argue that there is a Jesus cameo in this classic -- you can't beat our Great High Priest as good clergy.  

Germany is the spot for #6 with one of the most important historical figures -- though not everyone is a fan. But we at Movie Churches are great admirers of Martin Luther and the best film about him is called, simply, Luther (2003).

You didn’t think we’d skip Italy, did you? We wouldn't dream of it, any more than we’d pass by Saint Francis of Assisi. There have been many films about this fascinating man, but today we choose Franco Zeffirelli's Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972) for our #5 film.

Of course, for film #4, we need to spend some time in France in one of the world’s great cities -- Paris -- for The Legend of the Holy Drinker (1988), starring the great Rutger Hauer.

Our final stop in England is for film #3 for The Detective (1954), a film starring the great Sir Alec Guinness. The film is based on stories by one of my favorite writers, G. K. Chesterton.

We return to Italy, at the time of the Second World War, for Roberto Rossellini’s Paisan (1946) for film #2.

Finally, we go back to France again for our #1 Movie Church set in Europe, Leon Morin, Priest.

Thursday, April 28, 2022

These Nice Guys Aren't Anywhere Near Finishing Last...


The Hollars
(2016)
This film was directed by Jim from The Office. Okay, the director is actually named John Krasinski, and he's a man who's had a quite surprising career since he left the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company. I don’t think many would have thought of him as an action star (we here at Movie Churches certainly didn't), and yet he starred in a Michael Bay film (13 Hours) and followed in Harrison Ford’s footsteps as Jack Ryan. He directed two of the most financially successful horror films of the last five years, A Quiet Place and its sequel. One of the most extraordinary of Krasinski's career moves was a 2020 web series called Some Good News. At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic as the nation and the world were shutting down in March 2020, Krasinski offered a voice of hope. When public figures seemed to be taking every opportunity to verbally attack other public figures, the tone of Some Good News was unfailingly, well, nice.

In The Hollars, Krasinski’s second feature film as a director, he presented a member of the clergy who speaks and acts in a manner that is almost as nice as Krasinski's seems to be.

Krasinski stars in the film, playing John Hollar, a struggling graphic artist living New York CIty who returns to the small Mississippi town where he grew up when his mother (Margo Martindale) falls suddenly ill and must have brain surgery. He leaves his pregnant girlfriend, Rebecca (Anna Kendrick), in New York when he goes to stay with his father (Richard Jenkins) and his brother, Ron (Sharlto Copley). His brother Ron is the reason we meet the clergy member that gave us here at Movie Churches an excuse to rewatch the film. 

Ron recently left his wife, and he takes his brother, John, along with a pair of binoculars to spy on his wife and two daughters. Ron parks his car across the street from his old house. 


John was not expecting this and is horribly embarrassed by his brother's behavior. A man comes out the door of Ron's former home.

“He’s the new youth pastor at Mom and Dad’s church,” Ron explains as the man heads toward the car.

It's Reverend Dan, and he's played by Josh Groban. Yes, that Josh Groban. The first thing Rev. Dan asks when he gets to Ron's car? “I heard about your mother. How’s she doing?”

“Fine, no thanks to you,” Ron growls. 

“What did he have to do with it?” John asks his brother. 

“He’s supposed to talk to God, isn’t he? Maybe he put in an order for a brain tumor,” Ron tells him.

“That’s not how it works, Ron,” Rev. Dan tells him. 

“How does it work, Reverend Dan? Tell us,” Ron retorts.

“Well, I’m just a youth pastor, so…”

“So, you couldn’t get a job as an adult pastor?” Ron snarks.

“No, I just like kids,” Rev. Dan responds.

“That’s nice,” John says.

“Yeah? That’s creepy. That’s creepy,” Ron says.

“Look, Ron,” Rev. Dan says, “I know you’re going through a hard time right now, okay?”

“Oh, really? You do?”

“I do, I appreciate that very much, however…”

“Yeah?”

“Stacy was wondering if you could stop parking in front of her house and staring at her with your binoculars.”

“Yeah? Well, F you Reverend Dan!” And after a more explicit form of that statement, Ron tries to peel off with a speedy getaway. But something’s wrong with his car. It won't start, and he's stuck..

Rev. Dan says, “It sounds like you have a broken t-chain. I mean, I could take a look at it for you if you want.”

To his great chagrin, Ron must answer, “That would be helpful, thank you.”

Ron says under his breath, “This guy…” 

John tells him, “Shut your mouth.”

So in a very awkward and tense situation, Rev. Dan behaves with humility and grace.

Ron continues to do stupid things throughout the film. He climbs up into his daughters’ room in the middle of the night and asks to be allowed to sleep there. The girls agree, but one of the girls calls Rev. Dan after Stacy (quite rightly) calls the police. 

The police handcuff Ron and escort him out of the house. Dan asks the police to take the handcuffs off Ron (which they do). “What were you doing in the house, Ron?” Rev. Dan asks.

“I don’t know,” Ron says, “I was lonely and didn’t know where else to go. I mean, they’re my kids too.”

“Would you like to talk about it?” Rev. Dan asks.

“No,” Ron says, ‘No. I mean, kind of, but…”

“Hey, come on,” Rev. Dan says, “I’m gonna buy you a cup of coffee.”

Ron asks, “You aren’t going to push any of that Jesus [excrement] on me, are you?”

“No.”

“You promise?”

“I don’t force my beliefs on anyone, Ron,” Rev. Dan tells him.

“Really?” Ron asks, then pauses a moment. “What are your beliefs?”

Now that’s some fine evangelistic jiu-jitsu, Reverend Dan!

Reverend Dan is not a perfect guy. I’m not sure it's wise for him to date Stacy, the mom of two elementary-school-aged children, before she and Ron are divorced. I’ve heard from separated and divorced friends about the difficulties of introducing their kids to people they’re dating. The kids are in a delicate place, and it probably isn’t wise to let kids get attached to a parent figure that might not be around long.

But otherwise, Reverend Dan responds to attacks with kindness, turns the other cheek, and offers help and hope even when he is personally attacked. In short, he behaves in a Christlike manner. He exhibits the fruit of the Spirit -- love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

That’s why the youth pastor gets our highest Movie Churches rating of Four Steeples.


Thursday, April 21, 2022

Stand By Your Preacher Man


I'd Climb the Highest Mountain
(1951
)
Church search committees always say, “We are not hiring the spouse.” 

They are usually so hiring the spouse.

Most job interviews exclude questions about marital status, at least from employers seeking to avoid lawsuits, but churches interviewing prospective pastors are a different matter. It isn’t uncommon for search committees to ask single candidates about their matrimonial intentions. Spouses quite often are a part of the candidating process. While considering a candidate, committees and congregations usually scrutinize the spouse and consider them in their decision.

The scrutiny doesn’t end when a pastor is hired. The spouse and children of a pastor more often than not continue to be under the microscope throughout years of ministry. I've known co-workers for years in secular jobs without meeting their spouse, but some churches come right out and say that the pastor’s husband or wife better be in the front row every Sunday.


While watching 1951’s I’d Climb the Highest Mountain, I realized that in the years (and years) of writing this blog about clergy, I've never specifically written about clergy spouses. 

It’s about time.

This film is based on A Circuit Rider's Wife, an autobiographical novel by Corra Mae Harris, though it’s a much happier story on the screen than it was in real life. Corra had a troubled marriage with Rev. Lundy Harris, who was eventually forced to confess his adulterous sins publicly. The marriage in the film is much happier.

Susan Hayward plays Mary Elizabeth Eden Thompson, the new bride of the Methodist Reverend William Asbury Thomson (William Lundigan). The Reverend has been serving in a small town in the Appalachian Mountains of Georgia. The locals love their preacher and happily welcome his new wife, but she's a city girl who will need to learn to adjust to country life.

As they arrive at their home, her husband says, “I hope you can make good biscuits.” She admits she really doesn’t know how to cook, and that she'd lied about that. He tells her he knew she was lying, which makes her rather cross, “I’m an old hand at dealing with liars here, but don’t worry, we ministers have stomachs like goats.” They kiss and make up.

The Rev. Thompson does have his faults. He races his carriage with one of the town toughs and makes a bet on the race -- but the stakes are holy, “I want to see you in church Sunday, in the Amen corner.” The preacher wins the race and the bet.


Mary’s great trial comes when sickness arrives in the parish. The town doctor comes to the Reverend and tells him he’ll have to close the church because the Fever has come and it would be foolish to let so may people gather in one place. And the Reverend agrees (which might have seemed strange to some viewers in 1951 but not at all to viewers in 2022). Eventually, the Reverend offers the church building as a hospital, and the doctor gratefully accepts.

Mary joins the doctor and her husband in caring for the patients that grow in numbers. When the Reverend tells a grieving lover that his sick girlfriend will live, “The Lord’s not going to let Jennie die. I don’t know how I know, but I know.”

It’s all too much for Mary, “I wish I were dead. Jennie is going to die like the rest of them. I’m not fitted for this sort of life. I don’t pretend to understand your God, I never did and never will.”

Now this talk of “your God” makes me wonder if William and Mary ever talked about faith in their apparently brief courtship. It's helpful for a minister if their spouse shares their faith, especially with the Apostle Paul’s talk in 2 Corinthians 6 about “unequally yoked” partnerships (not a fan of mixed marriages, the man from Tarsus).

Preacher William tells his wife, “I don't think God would fail me in a time like this. You accepted this life of your own free will. If I let you run away, you’ll never forgive yourself.” 

Personally, I think the doctor is a little more persuasive, when he tells her, “It’s too late to give up now. The worst of it is over. Jennie’s fever is broken; she’ll be alright. The Lord’s done His part.”

So Mary assures us in a voiceover that she did stick around, “In spite of my weakness.” And the couple continues to work together in the church for the community, sponsoring projects like a Sunday School picnic (with only one fatality) and Christmas gifts for all the children in the community.


Mary comes to accept her role as the wife of a pastor, even quoting from Ruth, “For where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge, your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.” (Doesn’t seem like many people remember that Ruth wasn’t saying that to her husband, but to her mother-in-law, but no need to get into that here.)

After three years of service, Rev. William is called away from the community (that’s how the Methodists rolled). He tells his congregation, “We’ve been together 3 years, you are the closest of friends, but according to the rules of our church we must move on.” And Mary seems happy to go where he goes. (The film doesn’t do badly in the matter of church polity, perhaps because, as we are told in the credits, they had a “Technical Advisor,” the Rev. Wallace. Rogers, D.D.)

Since this is the first Movie Churches Steeple rating for a pastor’s spouse, we will give a generous Four Steeples to Mary Thompson. 

(This film is currently available on YouTube.)

Friday, April 15, 2022

It's a Free Country Film


The Green Promise
(1949)


The Green Promise has quite an unusual opening credit. After seeing a couple of familiar names in the cast (Walter Brennan and Natalie Wood) we see this: “Introducing the Indiana 4-H Girl Jeanne LaDuke.” I’m afraid this is Jeanne’s one and only credit, and I believe it's the only Hollywood feature film including 4-H, let alone an “Indiana 4-H Girl.”

Now there may be some unfortunate readers out there who know nothing about the 4-H organization, but I was a member as a kid (my projects were woodworking and rabbits). The H’s are “Head, Heart, Hands, and Health,” and the goal of the organization is to aid in kids' development. While STEM, civic engagement, and even space exploration are all part of 4-H these days, the program's roots are in agriculture. The film is very much an hour and a half commercial for 4-H on the farm.


It tells the story of the Matthews family -- a young woman, her widowed father, and her brother and two sisters -- who moved into a farm community to make a new start. Unfortunately, Father Matthews (Walter Brennan) is a stubborn old man who uses outdated farming methods and has very unhealthy control issues. On his new property, he looks to harvest old-growth trees that provide erosion protection for his crops. He makes very poor crop choices. Worst of all, he forbids his children from joining 4-H. (How could any parent say ‘no’ to young Natalie Wood?)

If only Matthews would listen to David Barkley (Robert Paige), the local government agent who knows all there is to know about farming, auto repair, and ecology. He has nothing but sage advice but the old man won’t listen and runs the farm into the ground. Pop also doesn’t listen to the local minister.

There only seems to be one church in town, which everyone attends. Even David Barkley goes and recommends it as a nice friendly place. One neighbor says, “The preacher is less like to preach at us than talk to us.” They have a strange old organ in the church that needs to be pumped in the back room. (The congregation sings “God of Our Fathers” and “Bringing in the Sheaves,” a hymn which for some reason is more popular in movies than in actual churches.)

But the sermon preached contains some of the poorest hermeneutics I’ve ever heard. The Reverend Jim Benton (played by Milburn Stone, Doc from the long-running Western Gunsmoke) quite obviously had a message in mind, cherry-picked a Bible story, and made it fit his message. (Sadly, this is not too uncommon a practice, it’s just more blatant here.)


He begins with these words, “My sermon today is inspired by the story of Moses and the promise God made to him.” Well, at least he says the story “inspired” his sermon rather than saying his message actually comes from the text. “The story is found in the Old Testament in the book of Exodus.” Reminding his congregation that the story of the Exodus is found in the book of Exodus shows he doesn’t think much of the Biblical literacy of his people.

“The story is of those who suffered cruelly under slavery… God made a promise to Moses. God would show them how to be led out of bondage to a land of milk and honey. It was a promise of new life, a green new promise.” (Title drop!) “But the fulfillment had to be earned.” (The Reverend doesn’t seem to be a big proponent of grace.)

“We have the same Green Promise, only we have a different Moses. Our doctors, chemists, scientists lead us… These men are our Moses… This is one true and only road that will lead us to the land of promise. We too are in bondage, by whips of ignorance and the iron shackles of the unknown. We must cross the sea of doubt, the barren sea of illiteracy, the hunger of bigotry, and thirst of incompetence. These things stand between us and our freedom. But we have many Moseses to lead us; our men of science. Seekers of fact and truth, these men are our Moses, turning us from the path of superstition to the path of knowledge.”


So, basically, the Reverend is just saying, “Follow the experts and you’ll be great." There are many things wrong with this sermon, but the first is the idea that Israelites found freedom in following Moses rather than following God. If the Reverend would have gotten this point right, he would be directing his people to follow God rather than look for another Moses.

But can we really trust “science” to lead us where we need to go? In the early 20th century, many looked to the “science” of eugenics, to breed out the unhealthy elements of the human race. It wasn’t just the Nazis in Germany that believed such things, either. The 1927 United States Supreme Court decision Buck v. Bell upheld the rights of states to sterilize people. They were looking to what they thought was science, but which was later discredited not just by scientists but also by theologians, politicians, and philosophers.

We saw in our recent dealings with Covid-19, that “following the science” is not always a simple thing. In the early days of the pandemic, the CDC told people there was no need to wear masks; masks wouldn’t be helpful for average citizens. We later learned they were saying this to protect the supply of masks for medical professionals.

Many virologists advocated lockdowns to protect people from the virus, but many mental health professionals warned that isolation would be harmful for young people and those dealing with addiction. Economists warned about the dangers lockdowns would cause to the economy and a number of industries. Without judgment about whether the decisions the government made were right or wrong, I’m only noting that “experts” differ on policy. We can’t just follow “science,” not just because scientists have differing opinions, but because morals and values also need to be a part of decision-making.

I’m not going to give the church in The Green Promise our worst Movie Churches rating, because it is at least a friendly place, and we only heard one sermon, but that one sermon brings the rating down to Two Steeples.

(The Green Promise is available for free viewing at Tubi.com)

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Thank God I'm a Country Preacher


Angel in My Pocket (1969)
Most people I know don’t particularly enjoy looking for a job. Usually, the search involves quite a process of paperwork and interviews and negotiations. It's frustrating!

Things are much simpler in the world of the 1969 film Angel in My Pocket. (FWIW, the title of the film is never referenced or explained.) Andy Griffith, a recent seminary graduate ordained as a pastor in an uncertain denomination, gets a knock on his door and finds a representative from his diocese there to inform him that he has been called to a church in a different state.

So Rev. Samuel Whitehead quits his job as a bricklayer, packs up his pregnant wife (Lee Meriwether looking remarkably plain), three school-aged children, mother-in-law, and shiftless brother-in-law (Jerry Van Dyke) to move into a church, Church of the Redeemer, and a parsonage -- sight unseen.

Sure, this film takes place before the internet, but the Rev. Andy does absolutely no research about the church or the town where he's going to serve. He makes no effort to telephone the Bishop of his Diocese to find out the history of the church or why they are looking for a pastor at this particular time. He doesn’t go to the local library to find information about the town of Wood Falls, Kansas. (I tried looking up said city and found it does not exist. Surely their AAA TripTik would have warned them about this. They didn't even get a good map).


The Reverend exhibits no curiosity about something most of us think of when considering a new job or position: pay. The film goes to great lengths to avoid naming a specific denomination, but denominations with a bishop who assigns pastors to congregations have a fairly high level of bureaucracy. And with that bureaucracy usually comes rules and regulations about salary and vacation and medical care and educational leave, but the Reverend Whitehead goes to this church without a notion of what he will be paid.

The congregation seems to have the same lack of curiosity about their new pastor. The church caretaker, Calvin Grey (Parker Fennelly), greets the pastor and family on their arrival. (Rev. Andy asks Grey if he’s lived in Wood Falls all his life. “Not yet,” is the response. But the man has a distinct New England accent, rather than a midwest, accent. He sounds like the Stage Manager in Our Town) The new minister and his family arrive on Saturday, the night before the Reverend’s first worship service and sermon.

This is strange for several reasons. For instance, the church sign reads "Sunday School at 9:30 am Morning service at 11 am." One would think, at least on that first Sunday, the Reverend would be a part of the Sunday School time -- at least stop in and say “Hello” -- but he doesn’t. And his wife and children apparently don’t either.


Even as the service begins, the Reverend hides in the back as the choir sings (“Holy, Holy, Holy”) the opening hymn. He puts on his robes as the caretaker tells him, “You better get out there, they’re running out of verses.”) This seems to be a worship service that consists entirely of two parts: hymns and the sermon. Most worship services have quite a few other elements that don’t seem to be a part of the services at Church of the Redeemer in Wood Falls: a call to worship or welcome, some announcements, Bible reading, collection of offerings -- and some awkward transitions between these elements. But not in Wood Falls, where it's just hymns and sermon. Though the robes and bishops and diocese all seem like High Church trappings, the Lord’s Supper (communion, eucharist, the High Sacrament) which is a part of every Sunday worship service in most any high church service is never celebrated here.

Rev. Whitehead had no idea what he would be preaching until the night before the service. He runs through possibilities like “Love Your Neighbor,” “Brother’s Keeper,” “Good Samaritan” until he remembers that he saw men engaged in a political brawl in the town square. So he decides to preach a sermon “Against Violence.” This is a fine sermon topic, though a Christian preacher usually finds a Bible verse or passage to go with his topic. Rev. Sam doesn’t seem to consider it a high priority.

The Reverend then does what preachers do in movies (and occasionally in real life): he waits outside the church door to shake hands as people leave, and they tell him what a fine sermon it was (“Fine sermon, it was short,” one man says.) As the people leave, a man comes to tell the Reverend that he'll be meeting the “Board of Governors.” (This phrase is an odd one for church leadership, though it's rather a common term in connection to private schools) Even stranger, at this meeting, immediately following the pastor’s first worship service, on that Sunday afternoon, they negotiate the pastor’s pay (which the board seeks to make as low as possible).

At this meeting, we also learn that for years the church has been divided into two rival factions represented by two families: the Greshems and the Sinclairs. These same two families have fought to control the mayor’s office and city council for decades. 

I really consider this a miracle. I've known churches that split over the color of the carpeting. If these people have managed to stay together in one church (and on one church governing board) for all these years, that’s a rather amazing thing.

This board is also exceptionally cheap. The previous pastor left because the church wouldn’t buy a new boiler (heating unit) A member of the board says, “We’ve had the same boiler for decades and no one has ever complained before.” They also won’t buy a new organ (the organ in place on that first Sunday is so out of tune that it's impossible to play a tune), so the pastor finds a creative solution. He hears of a burlesque house in another city that has an organ they are no longer using. He goes to the theater to buy it, and he's seen by women from the church, causing a mini-scandal. 

I’m afraid I’m going to have to take a little detour away from the church to the burlesque theater. When Rev. Sam visits the theater, a rehearsal is going on and the women are working on a show featuring "Beauties from around the World." The women are all wearing costumes that look like bathing suits with the flags of countries around the world. These costumes are not really any skimpier or more suggestive than the costumes on your average Bob Hope TV Special of the time -- and this is at the time when grindhouses were showing nudie flicks and art houses were screening I Am Curious (Yellow). End detour.


It seems The Church of the Redeemer has gone through seven pastors in the previous ten years, so one would think the Bishop of the Diocese would realize that the church would be trouble for the new pastor, but when the Board writes a complaining letter to the Bishop, he fires the Rev. Whitehead with no due process whatsoever. This isn’t how denominations do things, but since the denomination is never made clear, it’s all okay I guess.

But then the people in the church decide they want to bring Whitehead back, and they don’t need to go through the Bishop at all this time.

SO if you want to learn anything about how churches work in the real world (or what burlesque theaters were like in the 1960’s), don’t watch this film. BUT, if you would like to see a film with the comic sensibilities of a sitcom of the 1960s with many of the sitcom stars of the time (Uncle Joe from Petticoat Junction, Howard Sprague from Mayberry R.F.D, Mom Peepers from Mister Peepers, along with the actual Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz.)

So what's the Movie Churches Steeple Ratings for An Angel in My Pocket? The Rev. Sam gets 3 Steeples and the Church of the Redeemer gets one for an average of Two Steeples.

Friday, April 1, 2022

April Classics


I have some news to share that might be difficult for you all to take, but I think it's best to come straight out with it. Rip off the bandaid, if you will.

At the end of 2022, we plan to end this blog; Movie Churches will be finished.

I know this is difficult for many of you to take, especially when you consider some of the great films with interesting takes on churches and clergy that haven’t been covered. Even though we might get around to writing about these films as they deserve, maybe, just in case, it's better for you to explore them for yourselves.

Our gift to you today is these three underappreciated classics that feature church and/or clergy. Since they're from several different genres, you should find one to your liking.  


Perhaps you’re a fan of fantasy. You delighted in the humor and romance of The Princess Bride or the passion and magic of Ladyhawke or the grandeur, majesty, and heart of The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

1980’s Hawk the Slayer is all those films rolled into one. It tells the story of warring brothers fighting for possession of a magic sword and stars the great screen legend Jack Palance (the villain in the Western classic Shane and Oscar winner for the Western comedy City Slickers). This film would be featured in Movie Churches because of the convent with kind nuns who care for the sick and wounded. In addition, the Abbot of the Fort of Danesford directs the heroes to the title character, Hawk. Seek out this fascinating parable of faith -- but to really appreciate it, watch it with the scholarly commentary track from the Regents Institute of Fine Films (RIFF).


Perhaps you have a taste for searing family drama like the literate melodrama of Kramer Vs. Kramer or the heart-searing family pain of Ordinary People or the complex perversity of The Ice Storm. Even those great films won’t prepare you for 1944’s I Accuse My Parents, the story of a juvenile delinquent, James “Jimmy” Wilson (Robert Lowell), and the dark road that ended in court charged with murder. In this harrowing tale, there is a moment of hope when a kindly owner of a roadside diner offers to take Jimmy in, but tells him, “There’s one condition. You have to go with me to church on Sunday mornings. I’m an usher and it wouldn’t look good if the guy I’ve got living with me doesn’t go to church.” That moment alone would have qualified this film for a Movie Churches review.


If you love the silent mystery of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey or the complex meditation on humanity that is Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner or the fun adventure of Star Wars, you might want to track down 1997’s Future War. I’m recommending this thoughtful meditation on a future where a slave from a more distant future returns to the past to free his people but first battles cyborgs and dinosaurs. This would have been a candidate for Movie Churches because of the aid he receives from a novice, Sister Ann (Travis Brooks Stewart), who's considering taking vows after life as a prostitute and drug dealer.

Again, it might help your appreciation of these two films if you seek out the commentary of the widely respected Motion Picture Symposium of Theatrics (MST, reference #3000).

One of our great regrets at Movie Churches is that we have never been able to write about any of the works of the master film auteur, Edward Davis Wood. This is because he never made any films explicitly about churches or clergy even though he made films about the gritty issues of faith, war, truth, fate, and even resurrection (in the form of zombies).


His masterwork, Plan Nine From Outer Space, was made with the help of a church, as we learn in a docudrama about the writer/director’s life, Ed Wood. In Tim Burton’s 1994 film, we learn that Wood received financing for his film about grave robbers from outer space from a Baptist church after telling them he wanted to make uplifting films about the lives of the Apostles, once they'd made money through science fiction genre films. All Wood had to do to secure the financing was to have his entire cast and crew baptized in the church.

We really can’t write about these films in full, so you’ll have to seek them out for yourself. I just hope before the year is done we’ll find time to write about some of the real classics, such as The Exorcist II: The Heretic and God’s Not Dead: Part IV We the People.

Sister Ann From Future War


Thursday, March 24, 2022

Best Picture Nominee


Belfast
(2022)


When people want to make the argument that religion is a bad thing, history is sometimes a favorite point of reference. “What about the Crusades?” “What about the Witch Trials?” or sometimes, “What about the Troubles?”

So what about the Troubles? What were the Troubles? The term was used to describe the violent conflicts in Ireland from the late 1960s through the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. The two conflicting groups were “The Protestants” and the “The Catholics,” so it's remembered as a religious conflict. The issues at stake, though, weren’t religious but rather political. Those who wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom tended to be Protestant while those who wanted to break away and be independent tended to be Catholic. The dividing issue was political, but it led to great religious prejudice.

Belfast, a film written and directed by Kenneth Branagh, is a semi-autographical story about Buddy (Jude Hill) and his family in the midst of the beginning of the troubles in the city of Belfast. Though Protestants, Buddy’s parents have no negative feelings against the Catholics in their neighborhood, so when local thugs ask for Buddy’s “Pa” (Jamie Dornan) to help fight the Catholics, the family finds themselves in the middle of the conflict.

Buddy's cousin, Moria (Lara McDonnell), has taken the side of the Protestants (“her gang”) in the conflict. She tries to get Buddy to join her gang as well. Buddy must make some very difficult choices.

And the wisdom to make those choices comes to Buddy in part from going to church.

One Sunday morning, Buddy’s Pa and Ma (Caitriona Balfe) send Buddy and his brother Will (Lewis McAskie) to church. Pa and Ma are looking for some quality, um, “alone time.” On that Sunday the minister (Turlough Convery) at the Protestant church delivers a stern sermon on the need to decide, upon reaching the fork in the road, between the road to Life or the road to Destruction.

The sermon is put in a comic light. Buddy’s cousin has just been telling him that the Catholics were all about guilt and fire and brimstone, and the (Protestant) sermon is presented as being of that type. Buddy obsesses about the sermon, making his own little drawing of the roads to Destruction or Life. Buddy is coming of age, and he soon will have to make difficult moral choices. Like his family, he must decide whether he should join those who want to attack his neighbors; to do what is right or what is wrong. The sermon used for comic effect is exactly the message that Buddy needed to hear.

Belfast
is one of ten films nominated for Best Picture this year. Though I’ve only seen four of the nominees, this film is full of humor, wisdom, and heart, so I’d be happy to see it take the prize. But here at Movie Churches, we're able to award the film in another way. The church and minister in the film earn a Movie Churches rating of Three Steeples.

Postscript In the film, Buddy was born in 1960, making him one year older than us here at Movie Churches. We share with him many of the same pop culture touchstones such as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in the movie theater, Star Trek on the TV, and Matchbox cars. In fact, Buddy has the same Matchbox carrying case that I had as a kid (and still possess). I wonder if Kenneth Branagh has the same carrying case as well.








Monday, March 21, 2022

Best Picture Winners


A number of films that have won the Best Picture Oscar have had another privilege almost as distinguished: being featured in Movie Churches. So which were those double prize winners?

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) One of the great anti-war stories, wherein (sadly) there is little comfort from clergy to be found.

How Green Was My Valley (1941) When this film is remembered these days, it’s usually as the film that beat out Citizen Kane for Best Picture. It’s a warm-hearted story with a kind clergyman whose very Welsh name is Gruffydd.

Mrs. Miniver (1942) Joseph Goebbels, Hilter’s director of propaganda, considered this picture a masterpiece of political persuasion. Even the clergyman in the film seems more concerned about the King of England than the King of Heaven.

Going My Way (1944)  Back in the day, Hollywood was happy to portray priests as Regular Joes who were just (perhaps) a little nicer than other guys. As long as they weren’t too, you know, religious.

On the Waterfront (1954) One of my favorite portrayals of a priest, Karl Malden’s Father Berry, is looking to fight corruption, along with saving souls.

The Sound of Music (1965) In this beloved musical, a wonderful contrast to those nasty Nazis is provided by the spirited nuns of Nonnberg Abbey.

A Man for All Seasons (1966)  Screenwriter Robert Bolt challenges us to consider what we would be willing to sacrifice for our conscience and for our faith. 

The Godfather (1972) Often considered one of the best films ever made (especially if it’s a list of American films), the clergy in this saga is too often comfortable with men who do evil.

Chariots of Fire (1981) Based on the true Olympic exploits of Eric Liddle, whose love of running was only surpassed by his love for God.

Forrest Gump (1994) A very simple man with very simple faith, but the supporting characters, especially Lt. Dan, wrestle with more complex spiritual issues.

Million Dollar Baby (2004)  The second film that Clint Eastwood directed to a Best Picture win deals with the thorny issue of euthanasia. I wish Clint’s boxing manager in the film had listened more closely to his priest.

Spotlight (2015) The church and the clergy don’t come off well in this film, and rightly so, in this story based on true accounts of pedophilia in the Catholic Diocese of Boston. It's a film that brings Jesus’ teaching on millstones all too vividly to life.

We've added four films to this list this month: Patton, Amadeus, Driving Miss Daisy, and 12 Years a Slave. The big question at this year's Oscars is if the Movie Church featured in this week's post will be a winner as well.