Sunday, December 20, 2009

Nothing new about religion in movies

Our local paper, Wyoming Tribune-Eagle, featured an article by Robert W. Butler of McLatchy about the prevalance of religion (even "spirituality") in current Hollywood movies.

He went on to list these films: The Road, Avatar, The Blind Side, and The Invention of Lying. Because the photo accompanying the article comes from The Lovely Bones, one assumes that its imminent Christmas release is what prompted the article.

Baby Boomer Flashback...

I grew up with religious movies: Ben Hur, The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Robe, Ten Commandments, Samson and Delilah. Biblical epics. All of them were based (sometimes loosely) on stories from the Bible. My parents considered it their duty to take us to these films. I am certain that they all had the imprimatur of the Catholic Legion of Decency. There were other films that did not, films that exhibited entirely too much female pulchritude (Marilyn!), explored teen angst (James Dean!), displayed the singer with the swiveling hips (Elvis!) and featured entirely too much violence. Then there were those rotten comic books and racy novels. Entirely too much indecency existed in the fifties. Nothing that a dose of an overlong Biblical epic couldn't cure.

If they seemed cheesy back then, their cheesiness has multiplied with time. The only one of the epics that isn't terrible is Ben Hur. Is saw it recently and the story is pretty good. The chariot race is still thrilling. Even though we remember Charlton Heston more for his NRA lunacy rather than his acting, he's not bad in this one.

There was another batch of movies in the late sixties that tackled religion. Lilies of the Field even took its title from the Bible. Sidney Poitier was the African-American handyman for a convent of traditionalist Catholic nuns. He was old-time religion and they were Papists. Everyone learned something about tolerance and human rights. The nuns at my high school took us to see this one.

...End of Flashback

Religion in movies is nothing new. Spirituality is another matter. Hollywood no longer is restricted to the Bible for its religious-themed movies. Organized religion's endemic intolerance (we have the answer and you don't) takes a shellacking in most recent movies. Doubt is a great example. It's also a good example of life's complications. Kevin Smith's Dogma took on religion in a big way. The image that remains with me is the smiling "Buddy Christ" promoted by Cardinal George Carlin.

Butler's McLatchy article named only one recent film -- The Blind Side -- that actually portrays devout Christians acting on their faith. The others are all metaphor and allegory usually helped along with a dose of sci-fi and/or fantasy. As are so many films that take on good vs. evil. I haven't seen the film version of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. But I've seen No Country for Old Men twice. Tommy Lee Jones' world-weary sheriff is perplexed by the scope of death and destruction that's been unleashed on his county. He can find no redeeming characters anywhere. He asks that eternal question: "Where is God?" And he has no answer.

Avatar is more Celtic mythology and Gaian philosophy than religion. The planet Pandora is a living thing. Earthers attempt to rape and pillage Pandora and she responds. It's an old scenario. Natives are outgunned and outnumbered. The call goes out to Mother Earth and she sounds the trumpet. The animals charge the automatic weapons and battle cruisers and emerge triumphant.

It rarely works that way in the real world. Maybe that's why we like the myth. The underdog wins due to its earth-centered spirituality. And some bitchin' flying dragons.

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