Tag Archives: Religion

CAPSULE: THE BRAND NEW TESTAMENT (2015)

Le Tout Nouveau Testament

Recommended

 

 

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Pili Groyne, Benoît Poelvoorde, Yolande Moreau,

PLOT: God, who’s something of a jerk, lives in an inaccessible high-rise apartment in Brussels; rebelling from his authoritarian control, his 10-year old daughter hacks his computer and leaks humanity’s death dates, then goes to Earth to write a new Gospel.

Still from The Brand New Testament (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: In the earlier days of this site, a movie like The Brand New Testament would easily have been shortlisted as a candidate. But with available slots on the List of the Weirdest Movies Ever Made shrinking, the field grows more competitive by the week. In a way, with two entries already on the List, Jaco Van Dormael is a victim of his own success—and this high-concept comedy is not as weird as Toto the Hero or Mr. Nobody, although the Catherine Deneuve bestiality subplot nearly puts him over the top one more time.

COMMENTS: Since nothing can come from Nothing, God seems to be an ontological necessity. Yet, our fatally flawed world of starving children, male nipples, and Kanye singles argues against the existence of a perfect, benevolent Supreme Being. There is one way to reconcile this seeming paradox, however. What if God exists, but He’s not a pure and loving spirit: in fact, he’s not only imperfect, but a mildly sadistic bastard? Such a God would perfectly accord the necessity for a First Cause with our experience of life on this planet as frequently annoying, sometimes torturous, and genuinely tragic—besides explaining the whole “made in His image” thing.

Jaco van Dormael takes this whimsical philosophical proposition as the basis for his fantasy The Brand New Testament, a congenially blasphemous lark that winkingly rewrites Christian theology to tweak human nature. This God—played with wicked gusto by a perpetually peeved Benoît Poelvoorde in a ratty bathrobe—is a petty tyrant who delights not only in crashing planes but in setting up universal laws of annoyance, such as the cosmic rule that toast must always fall to the floor jam side down. So intolerable is his reign of terror that his eldest son, J.C., ran away from home to slum around Earth, embarrassing his father with his hippie antics. (“The kid said a lot of stuff on the spur of the moment,” God explains to a scandalized priest). J.C.’s sister, Ea, is now set to follow big bro’s example, climbing down to Earth via a magical dryer duct to escape her Father’s wrath after she hacks his computer and leaks the death dates of all of humanity, freeing them to live their remaining days to the fullest. The girl then sets about recruiting six new apostles, each of whom comes with their own mini-story, dramatized in segments like “The Gospel According to the Sex Maniac.”

The Brand New Testament is sprawling and ambitious, but despite a plot that wanders wide, it centers itself with a consistently off-center wit. The more you know your Bible, the more you’ll laugh (“not at my right hand!” objects an angry God when Ea sits down to dinner). The scenario is so absurd, and the underlying message so humanistic, that only the most humorless Bible-thumper could take offense at Poelvoorde’s clearly farcical deity. Van Dormael slips surreal gags into the interstices of the already fantastic film: an ice-skating hand, a chanson-singing ghost fish, and Deneuve’s simian liaison. The ending is a feminist apocalypse where the patriarchal God is sent into exile and the universe rebooted with flowery skies, male pregnancies, and the return of the Cyclopes.

Belgian Van Dormael’s movies are similar to the solo work of , without a giant blockbuster hit like Amelie but with an oeuvre that, overall, has been both smarter and more consistent than that of the more famous Frenchman. With a small body of only five feature films full of philosophical ambition, wit, visual imagination, and thorough weirdness, he gets my vote for the world’s most underappreciated master filmmaker.

Despite having a role that’s no bigger than any of the other six apostles, Catherine Deneuve gets third billing. You can understand why. Her iconic presence dignifies the film, and her support for the project helped Van Dormael recover from the economic disaster of Mr. Nobody.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a surreal comedy whose endless visual imagination matches its conceptual wit.”–Stephen Holden, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: ANGEL’S EGG (1985)

Tenshi no Tamago

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Mako Hyôdô, Jinpachi Nezu, Kei’ichi Noda

PLOT: In a desolate city, an angelic young girl cherishes an egg.

Still from Angel's Egg (1985)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: This haunting animation more or less entirely forgoes dialogue and narrative for a large helping of theistic symbolism and rich visuals.

COMMENTS: It’s often said that we anime fans fetishize the “otherness” of anime—or, put less pretentiously, it’s often said we like stuff simply because it’s Japanese.

To be honest, there’s some accuracy to that. But can you blame us? As one of the only non-Western entertainment mediums to gain measurable popularity here, anime represents, for many of us, the one substantial deviation from our entertainment norms. Hell, for many people, it’s more or less the only reminder that a norm even exists.

Of course, it’d be obscenely simplistic to say that’s what makes a work like Angel’s Egg so deeply engaging—but it’s definitely a factor.

Released in 1985, this 71-minute OVA (non-theatrical video feature) is the brainchild of director Mamuro Oshii (best known, at least around here, for his sci-fi philosophy-fest Ghost in the Shell) in collaboration with artist Yoshitaka Amano. One of the earlier efforts—and his second OVA—on Oshii’s extensive resume, Egg showcases that familiar blend of surrealism, introspection, and distinctly grit-flavored sci-fi that defines not only Oshii’s own work, but also a great deal of anime’s other “weird” offerings (End of Evangelion and “Serial Experiments Lain” come to mind).

Like so many of the movies featured here, Angel’s Egg largely supplants narrative with hefty symbolism and visual indulgence. Set in a grey and empty city of desolate Victorian/Gothic architecture—every single frame of it rendered with almost dizzying artistic excellence—the film follows a young girl who ekes out a lonely existence scavenging among the ruins and, for reasons known only to her, collecting hundreds of glass bottles of water. The girl tends to a large egg, carrying with her everywhere, believing that it holds a beautiful bird within it.

One day, a young man wielding a cross-shaped staff intrudes on the girl’s lifeless world, following her to her lonely abode. Other stuff happens, but really, to try and describe any aspect of this film with words is to sell it short.

Angel’s Egg is—again, like so many of the List’s films—a work of cinema defined by more than what happens on screen. It is defined by its atmosphere; a heavy, heavy atmosphere. The Gothic elements of this animation extend well beyond the architecture. Every frame of this film oozes ghostliness and desolation. The girl and the young man exist in a world of crumbling greyness and deafening silence, and every moment of the film’s striking visuals, ominous choral soundtrack, and heavy, lingering shots ensures that the viewer shares in every bit of the characters’ haunting isolation. Some may Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: ANGEL’S EGG (1985)

LIST CANDIDATE: NIGHT ON THE GALACTIC RAILROAD (1985)

Ginga-tetsudo no Yoru; AKA Night on the Galactic Express

DIRECTED BY: Gisaburo Sugii

FEATURING: Voices of Mayumi Tanaka, Chika Sakumoto

PLOT: In a fictional town in a fictional universe during the annual star-worshiping festivities, a boy and his friend find themselves on a metaphysical train that takes them on an existential journey through space. Oh, and everybody is a cat.

Still from Night on the Galactic Railroad (1985)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Even without delving into the film’s brutally in-depth takes on loneliness, death and depression, Railroad is a tripper’s paradise, filled to the brim with such weirdness as glowing, candy-flavored herons, self-replicating apples, stairways that lead to the center of the universe, and beaches where each grain of sand is a jewel filled with fire. Rich in imagery and philosophy, it treads that always intriguing line between children’s entertainment and adult existentialism.

COMMENTS: A little background is very useful when approaching Night on the Galactic Railroad, else it might sucker punch you into hating it. Based on a 1927 book by Kenji Miyazawa, the film takes many liberties with the foundations of what was a very personal story to turn the novel into something with a distinctly anime flavor. The most controversial of these decision is to have (almost) everybody in the film drawn as a cat, an early indication that realism and logic will be thrown out the window despite the fact the film follows a very human path in regards to its character’s crises. The explanation for this decision has never really been given, but some have suggested it was simply due to the fact that it was easier to animate a cat than a human. Who knows if this is true, but nevertheless this town of star-worshiping felines all have very human characteristics. It isn’t difficult to sympathize with Giovanni, our young protagonist, as he is ostracized by his peers, bullied and insulted; he has no time to socialize due to his commitment to pick up milk for his sick mother.

Esoteric creative decisions lend even the relatively dull first fifteen minutes of the film an undeniable beauty. Tilted camera angles and close ups as Giovanni goes about his work in a publishing house after school turn the mundane into the mysterious, the bland into something otherworldly. The opening scenes’ dedication to create an alien world out of the familiar, along with the stillness and quiet tension on show, is closer to than anything else I have seen within (or outside of) the animation genre.

The film doesn’t stay on this route, though, and soon whisks us out of the medieval town. Giovanni and his only friend, Campanella, leave the occult stargazing festivities (complete with Carnivale-style masks) and find themselves on a train hurtling through space.

While the audience sits in a mild shock at these events, the two cats Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: NIGHT ON THE GALACTIC RAILROAD (1985)

PHILOMENA (2013)

There is a potentially exploitative blockbuster at the heart of Philomena (2013), and as it unfolds we expect, at any moment, to be drawn into yet another example of cinema as propaganda. A film with the theme of abusive nuns in an Irish Catholic asylum lording over unwed mothers is an invitation for at least one audience-as-silly-putty moment, molded by hackneyed writing and line delivery. It never happens. Instead, we are treated to a sensitively written, smartly balanced drama, which never succumbs to overt sentimentality or cynicism.

Such restraint takes a collaborative effort, and Philomena benefits from the directing of Stephen Frears, Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope’s screen treatment of Martin Sixsmith’s book, along with Judi Dench’s astute performance.

Dench’s portrayal of a devout, elderly survivor of convent abuse is one of touchingly nuanced wisdom. Sadistically dehumanized for actually experiencing puberty and having a child out of wedlock, Philomena Lee spends fifty years searching for the son that her religious superiors sold to an American couple.

After a chance meeting with the recently disgraced journalist (and atheist) Martin Sixsmith, Philomena embarks on a search for her son, which leads them both to Washington, D.C. and a heartbreaking discovery.

Still from Philomena (2013)Sixsmith (Coogan), a lapsed Catholic himself, paradoxically (and complexly) proves to be both Philomena’s foil and means to the truth. Aptly, it is not closeted prayer, but aid from a fellow human that manifests Philomena’s invocation.

Although cinematic treatments of religion have traditionally been fodder for mainstream audiences, Philomena somewhat slipped under the radar in its opening run. The reason for that is simple. To quote Paul Gauguin: “In every generation the least cultivated taste has the largest appetite.” However, after receiving a plethora of good reviews and (later) awards, Philomena found its audience and, even with its nonpartisan approach, still managed to provoke a good percentage of them.

Accusations that the film was arty, anti-Catholic, anti-Christian, anti-Reagan, pro-gay, and had a liberal agenda flew fast and furious, despite the fact that the film, like the book, was nonfiction. The “silence is golden” species of nuns serve, albeit unintentionally, as the model for this defensiveness. Upon hearing the confession of the nun Mary Johnson, who had engaged in a lesbian relation, Mother Teresa told her charge: “Talking about the sin is as great as the sin itself.”

In the Washington Post review of Philomena, critic Ann Hornaday describes a portrayal of “unfathomable cruelty.” One supposes she is blessed for thinking so, but it is completely fathomable to anyone who has been subjected to the abuses of organized religion.  In addition to the religious, predatory aggression vented against young, stained, single mothers, a second sin is lensed here: the sin of “not talking about it.”

The offended faction of Philomena’s audience echoes the shadowy nuns here. Any mention of wrong deeds perpetrated in the name of religion, or all spoken criticisms, are a sinful blemish on the pedestaled institution and an insult to the faith.

Even the secular worshipers of the iconic Ronald Reagan jumped into the film’s maelstrom. Outraged that the film made a passing reference to that administration’s cutting of AIDS funds (which it did), the extremists labeled the film as having a liberal agenda, despite the fact that Philomena’s lost son worked for President Reagan and Philomena herself is, primarily, a religious conservative. One is forced to conclude, from said reactions, that the coveted outcome for AIDS victims is “let them die in the streets.”

Hornaday identifies with Martin Sixsmith’s sense of outrage. She is less understanding of Philomena’s tenacious faith and her (seemingly) having turned a blind eye to the vestals’ crimes. In this, Hornaday mirrors the secular world at large in failing to grasp the pulse of many abuse victims who insist that the abusers, the silent elite, or the self-appointed keepers of the flame will not solely own the religious tradition or have access to the Kingdom’s keys.

In sharp contrast, those who desire nothing less than a perfectly polished veneer for the religious establishment will indeed find room for offense, regardless of the film’s inevitably impartial approach. Philomena‘s right-wing critics are predictably hypocritical in their complaints of the film’s nonchalant portrayal of a deceased gay man. These same critics have made no, or damn little, reference to guilty heterosexual fornicators because, in the 21st century, hell, we are all convicted of that.

RELIGULOUS (2008)

The following is not standard for 366 material, but given the controversial nature of the film, we feel it has an off the beaten path place here.

When Bill Maher’s Religulous (2008) premiered, it predictably opened to mixed reviews. Narrated by Maher and directed by Larry Charles, Religulous is a scathing criticism on what the filmmakers see as inherent ignorance and immorality within religion.

Critic Brian Orndorf wrote:

Most of the ammo is reserved for Christianity. Instead of confrontations that shatter myths and raise consciousness, Religulous goes for cheap laughs, manipulating footage to make the participants resemble complete boobs. Maher has the sense to pump the brakes around Islam, treading carefully. Salient points are made about this furiously hot-potato faith, but Maher is noticeably outgunned, challenging the history of Islamic bloodshed from behind the comfort of news clips and sheepish concessions. The way the Middle East rumbles these days, how could anyone blame him?

Indeed, the first third of Religulous concentrates solely on Christianity. However, Maher, who wrote the film, was raised as an American Catholic, though with a Jewish heritage. Often, writing is most effective when it focuses on what one knows, and Maher seems to know Christianity. Yet, what he primarily depicts is a particular variety of fundamentalist Christianity. While polls vary in regards to the percentages of American “liturgical” Christians in contrast to “fundamentalist” Christians, few would argue that the latter comprise the bulk of stereotypes of the faith.

ReligulousMaher’s perspective on Catholicism suggests he believes it resembles a Protestant evangelical faith. Most post-Vatican II Catholics today would not identify with such views. One could even question the extent of Maher’s exposure to Catholic education, even in a pre-Vatican II environment. His portrayal of Revelations as a literal doomsday book is undeniably filtered through an evangelical lens. Yet, from its earliest history, Catholic readings have predominantly interpreted it as a metaphorical work, written in a popular period genre. It is not viewed as prophecy but, rather, as a book of the past, which sounded a warning regarding the first great persecutor of Christians: Nero.

Neeley Tucker of the Washington Post addressed Maher’s rudimentary knowledge of religion:

One of the rules of satire is that you can’t mock things you don’t understand, and Religulous starts developing fault lines when it becomes clear that Maher’s view of religious faith is based on a sophomoric reading of the Scriptures and that he doesn’t understand that some thoughtful people actually do believe in some sort of spiritual life.

While Maher was not writing an academic paper, his film could have Continue reading RELIGULOUS (2008)

CAPSULE: MADEINUSA (2006)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Claudia Llosa

FEATURING: Magaly Solie, Carlos J. de la Torre,  Juan Ubaldo Huamán, Yiliana Chong

PLOT: A stranger from Lima is stranded in a remote hamlet in the Andes where the villagers practice unusual Easter rituals that are definitely not sanctioned by the Pope.

Still from Madeinusa (2006)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s an odd little South American fable about an isolated town, not realist, but not quite magical realist, either. It’s an interesting eccentricity, but not quite weird enough for the List of the Weirdest Movies Ever Made.

COMMENTS: Madeinusa is a drama that’s slow to start, but which gradually drags you in with its rich, imaginary synthesis of pagan and Christian traditions, and with the fate of its quietly sad and oddly named adolescent protagonist. A lower-keyed, Latin-tinged Wicker Man sensibility at work here in the story of an outsider who visits an isolated society where religious traditions have been allowed to breed incestuously without oversight from the civilized world. Painting a portrait of this invented culture and its self-serving indigenous practices is where Madeinusa shines. The movie is set during “Holy Times,” which in the movie’s mythology is the period beginning from Good Friday and ending with the dawn of Easter. The ceremonies indulged in by the villages show the colorful mixture of Latin and Roman Catholic elements that fascinate many first-worlders: maize-colored crucifix mosaics, fireworks during holy processions, a mock funeral procession where pallbearers carry a blindfolded Christ in a glass coffin. The celebration begins with a Virgin beauty pageant, with the town’s adolescent girls dressed like Incan princesses wearing gold crowns, all vying to play Mary in the Easter procession, and gets stranger from there.

Of course, this would not be much of a movie if it were simply an imaginary travelogue documenting an exotic Easter celebration, so there is a darker side to the festivities. When the town’s mayor, who also happens to be 14-year old Madeinusa’s father, catches a stranger in town at the start of Holy Time, he locks him up—perhaps to protect the villagers from the judgmental eyes of outsiders, or perhaps for the stranger’s own good. Young Madeinusa is fascinated by the handsome hazel-eyed wanderer from Lima with the European features, but her father has other plans for the girl. Add in a jealous older sister who has been displaced in Dad’s affections by her younger sibling, and a dangerous sexually-charged dynamic emerges that will only be inflamed by the bacchanalian bonfires of Holy Times. The core cast does well in telling this relatively simple but emotionally weighty story, while the Andean cinematography is sublime.

The origin of main character’s name, “Madeinusa,” is left as a mystery.  It not symbolic of any sort of anti-Americanism (American culture is nowhere to be found in this movie, outside of the title), but instead reflects the villagers’ unsophisticated tendency to misappropriate influences from outside their insular world. “That’s not a name,” explains a distressed Salvador. “You should be Rosa or Maria, not Madeinusa.” One thing is certain, the downbeat, fatalistic ending is not madeinhollywood.

Some Peruvians believe Madeinusa is racist/classist because it depicts poor mountain people of mostly Indian blood as unsophisticated. The idea that weird and dangerous ancient practices persist in remote corners of the world is a common literary tradition, however, and anytime it’s used it’s bound to offend some group that believes they are being singled out for ridicule, rather than appropriated for use in a time-honored plot device.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a classically made yet personally accented fable about the clash between old and new in a strange Andean village in Peru.”–Robert Koehler, Variety (contemporaneous)

173. THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955)

“Dream, little one, dream,

Dream, my little one, dream.

Oh, the hunter in the night

Fills your childish heart with fright.

Fear is only a dream.

So dream, little one, dream.”

Lullaby from Night of the Hunter (lyrics by Walter Schumann)

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Billy Chapin, ,

PLOT: Harry Powell is a self-ordained Reverend during the Great Depression who makes a living by touring Appalachia and marrying widows, who disappear soon thereafter under mysterious circumstances. In prison for stealing a car, he shares a bunk with Ben Harper, a bank robber on death row who has refused to tell the authorities the location of the $10,000 he has stolen. After his release (and Harper’s execution), Rev. Powell finds the robber’s widow, and learns that his young son John knows where the fortune is hidden.

Still from Night of the Hunter (1955)
BACKGROUND:

  • The film is based on a 1953 novel by Davis Grubb. The book was a bestseller at the time of it’s release but has long been out-of-print; Centipede Press is releasing a limited-edition hardcover edition of the novel in July of 2104.
  • Night of the Hunter‘s Harry Powell was based on real-life murderer Harry Powers, nicknamed “The Bluebeard of Quiet Dell,” a West Virginia-based killer responsible for the deaths of two widows and three children.
  • was Laugton’s first choice for Harry Powell but he turned down the role of the serial-killing misogynist preacher, thinking it might damage his career. Robert Mitchum had no such concerns and was eager to play the part.
  • Mitchum’s autobiography contains several inaccurate accounts of the filming, including the allegation that Laughton heavily rewrote James Agee’s original script (an accusation supported by Laughton’s widow Elsa Lanchester). Film scholars who studied Agee’s original script, which was discovered in 2003, reported that the director shot the film almost exactly as written.
  • This was the only film Charles Laughton ever directed. Although the story that he was so stung by the negative critical reaction to the movie that he never directed again is often repeated, Laughton himself claimed that he simply preferred directing theater to working on films.
  • Prior to shooting, Laughton screened silent films by D.W. Griffith to get a feel for the look he wanted for the movie.
  • In 1992, Night of the Hunter was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry.
  • Ranked #71 in Empire Magazine’s 2008 poll of the Greatest Films of All Time. Ranked #2 on “Cahiers du Cinema”‘s list of the “100 Most Beautiful Movies.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Pick a single image from Night of the Hunter? It’s a fool’s errand. As much as it hurts to pass up the vision of the “good” Reverend with his right hand of love wrestling his left hand of hate, or the dreamlike serenity of Willa Harper’s final resting place, we think the most meaningful image must come from the children’s flight downriver—specifically, we chose the shot of the skiff passing before the spiderweb, as John and Pearl (temporarily) float away from their murderous stepfather’s snares.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Night of the Hunter is such a massive achievement that we’re invoking 366 Weird Movies’ sliding scale rule: the better a movie is, the less weird it needs to be to make the List. Not that Hunter isn’t strange, by Hollywood standards (and particularly by 1950s Hollywood standards). Film archivist Robert Gitt called this expressionist/Southern Gothic hybrid “the most unusual and experimental film made in Hollywood in the 1950s.” Perhaps that is why director Charles Laughton decided to bring cinematographer Stanley Cortez, who once bragged “I was always chosen to shoot weird things,” onto the crew. Hunter is packed with shadowy, stagey, artificial shots (contemporary critics complained that the effects—both narrative and visual—were “misty”). Mixing fairy tale menace and Freudian killer fathers while masquerading as a titillating potboiler, Hunter was so unique and unexpected that it slid right under the upturned noses of viewers in the 1950s, that most conformist-minded of decades. Generations since have remembered it fondly—well, in their nightmares, at least—and it has since been elevated into the canon of great movies. And now, of great weird movies.


Original trailer for Night of the Hunter

 COMMENTS: An utterly original blend, Night of the Hunter is simultaneously a melodrama, a fairy tale, a film noir, a Southern Gothic, a Biblical Continue reading 173. THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955)

NOAH (2014)

When it was first announced that Paramount had given  (Black Swan) the green light to tell his version of the Noah story, many familiar with the director’s work wondered how he and frequent collaborator and scriptwriter Ari Handel were going to interpret it.

Still from Noah (2014)The mainstream audience began popping up their heads a few months ago, when all they had heard was that Hollywood had made a soon-to-be-released BIG movie about Noah in the Bible. Naturally, the Bible geeks were shivering with anticipation. The only surprise from the near hysteria which followed was that the pious made so much noise primarily after the premiere, rather than before. Naturally, true to form, there has been condemnation from some without even having seen the film, but not quite to the extent we have seen from evangelical audiences previously. Some have accused Paramount of duping Christians into seeing it with a misleading campaign. Perhaps, or perhaps the studio merely overestimated that faction of the American public.

The cries from a plethora of American Evangelical Christians that Noah is “blasphemous” is, in fact, offensive in itself, but not entirely unexpected. The Noah story does not exclusively belong to evangelical Christians, as it is not of Christian origin. Rather, that version of the universal flood is derived from ancient Jewish and rabbinic writings. Even the writers of Genesis took the Noah account from preexisting narratives, such as the “Epic of Gilgamesh.”

The art of Biblical storytelling is an oral tradition, which predates written scripture. Aronofsky continues in that spirit of oral tradition. Indeed, it is a theme which gives the film its strength and edge. Aronofsky, long obsessed with making Noah (2014), proves erudite, giving his film flourishes of a primordial world not far removed, time-wise, from Eden. It is a world with memories of its Paradise Lost hauntingly intact (i.e. a visual reference to the Edenic river). In the middle of all this is the startling protagonist Noah (Russell Crowe), whom Aronofsky gives flesh, flaws and drama, removing him from the plaster pedestal. That seems to be Aronofsky’s chief offense for the unimaginative, pious masses who wanted a film about a cardboard cutout, rosy-cheeked, bearded old white guy smiling sweetly as he loads happy sheep onto his velcro boat. The rainbow ending is, of course, up for grabs. Aronofsky’s approach is far too serious for that and he creatively reworks scripture and rabbinic writings into a challenging work of art that approaches world literature.

As with all great literature, it has elements of the reflective and the unexpected. The non-canonical “Book of Enoch” is another source he draws on. Aronofsky and Handel write in the spirit of ancient biblical writers, who had no issues mixing myth, parable, folklore, and poetry together with a sliver of historicity into one narrative. They were not bound by our ideas of hyper-realism or linear storytelling. The earliest Church fathers understood this, and did not take scripture as either exclusively literal or historical. They saw it as a collection of diverse literary forms, written by divergent, God-obsessed peoples trying to grasp divine concepts. The resulting efforts were often akin to infinite ideas described in inadequately finite language, which is why we sometimes have conflicting biblical views of God within the same paragraph. Advocates of biblical inerrancy will argue that the ancient writings are Spirit-inspired. Perhaps, but even then it had to be filtered through human hands and, therefore, the Bible is “fallible” in our contemporary understanding of the term.

Aronofsky is not a believer per se, but despite claims of those who are trying to demonize him, he does not take the “religion as the root of all evil” route. Indeed, Aronofsky, of Jewish heritage and education, clearly seeks to express an idea in an admirably classic way that is also overwhelming, confounding and vital for the viewer: God as both maternal and paternal Creator. That is an idea too sacred for the secular and too secular for the pious.

In one sense, it is refreshing that Noah is a challenging enough film to provoke and inspire debate. This makes Noah more than just a chalky Sunday School lesson. We do not have to worry about Aronofsky and Handel succumbing to the status quo (who seem forever intent on proving how little we have evolved in the past few millennium anyway).

Of course, the arrogant assumption that all Christians are evangelicals subscribing to sola scriptura is the foremost offensive reaction to the film by disgruntled audiences. This is actually more of the “either/or” mentality that far too many fundamentalists succumb to: one either approaches biblical stories as history, verbatim accounts that happened exactly as written, or one does not believe. Aronofsky’s Noah is further evidence of the evangelical reaction to anything which veers away from their expectations; reactions which are frighteningly similar to those we have seen from radical Muslims regarding certain films, art, etc. If Aronofsky  proves anything, he proves that one can respond to or be inspired by scripture without subscribing to it as monotone historicity. Aronofsky’s God reaches out to the patriarchal line—from as Methuselah to Crowe’s Noah—via visions. The “God” terminology is provocatively ambiguous, and lest we forget, we do not find God being referred to, in name, until much later in the Bible. The concept of God as YHWH (et. al.) was not yet developed at this time, and the context here would have us see this God simply as the Creator. Projecting any other names onto God would have been sloppy interpretive work on the part of Aronofsky.

Another theme is the fall of humanity and humanity’s subsequent relationship to the environment. Oddly, Aronofsky’s depiction of the Nephilim is one of those “blink and you will miss it” references found in the Hebrew Bible that the literalists actually prefer to be ignored. Perhaps its one of those references that reiterates a little too strongly fantasy elements inherent in the Bible.

Aronofsky’s film indeed is in line with much of Hebrew literature (at least where it matters) and contextually it may be one of the most bravely “accurate” film productions of the Bible to date. If unimaginative fundamentalists have hangups about it, it is, in the end, their hangup. Still, hearing some of the hackneyed protests against this film makes me wonder, what the hell is wrong with religion? Why is it so afraid of challenge and artistic interpretation?

THE RULING CLASS (1972)

When I was halfway through writing this article, actor Peter O’Toole passed away. He serves as yet another example of  how pointless, asinine, vapid, and meaningless the Academy Awards are. Rightfully nominated a zillion times, O’Toole is in the fine company of such Academy Award losers as , , Montgomery Clift, Judy Garland, Richard Burton, Alfred Hitchcock, and . The Academy did eventually give O’Toole its condescending honorary Oscar, as it did to Chaplin, but that’s a mere smokescreen to mask their own artlessness.

O’Toole’s performances ranged from great to quirky and interesting in films like Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Beckett (1964), Lord Jim (1965), Night of the Generals (1967), The Lion in Winter (1967), Goodbye Mr. Chips (1969), Murphy’s War (1971), The Ruling Class (1972), Man Friday (1975), Zulu Dawn (1979), The Stunt Man (1980), Masada (1981), My Favorite Year (1982), The Last Emperor (1987), and Venus (2006) Naturally, as prolific as he was, he had his share of embarrassing bombs: Caligula (1979), Supergirl (1984), and, most of all, Thomas Kinkade’s Christmas Cottage (2008). His last film is the soon to be released Katherine of Alexandria (2014).

The Ruling Class was, almost immediately, a cult hit. It earned O’Toole yet another Oscar nomination, but he lost out to Marlon Brando in The Godfather (1972). Although The Godfather is a better film and Brando’s performance was superb, I would stand with a tiny minority in arguing that O’Toole should have won.

The Ruling Class is certainly one of O’Toole’s weirdest films, thus earning its cult reputation. He plays Jack, the 14th Earl of Gurney. Jack goes by “J.C.” because he believes himself to be none other than Jesus Christ. Jack’s daddy, the 13th Earl (Harry Andrews), pulls an Albert Dekker and hangs himself in a tutu. Paranoid schizo Jack shows up to run the estate in daddy’s place. Jack has had a life-size cross conveniently built in the castle where he can love everyone from the” bottom of my soul to the tip of my penis.”

Still from The Ruling Class (1972)Peter Medak directed from Peter Barnes’ play and, with Peter O’ Toole starring, there is a lot of phallic symbolism afoot. Naturally, being a British movie of the 70s, there is plenty of other symbolism being bandied about as well, including a battle of misfit deities, an assault by an ape in a top hat, Ebenezer Scrooge as a phlegmatic bishop (Alastair Sim), a drunkard leftist butler (Arthur Lowe), a usurping by the Electric Messiah (Nigel Green), and Jack’s miraculous born again transformative “cure” from Jesus Christ (the God Of Love) to Jack the Ripper (the God of Wrath and Vengeance). Society’s acceptance of Jack as the serial-killing deity, as opposed to its rejection of Jack as pacifist god, is about as subtle as it sounds.

Like many British films of the period, The Ruling Class is imbued with psychedelic surrealism. What sets it apart from films like The Magic Christian (1969) is its theatrical ensemble, topped by a bouncing-off-the-walls performance by  O’Toole. Even with the superb cast of Sims and Lowe, O’ Toole walks easily away with the film. Other than T.E Lawrence, J.C. may be his best performance.

The movie is inevitably (and deliriously) dated, with its psychedelic first half giving way to Clockwork Orange territory in the second half. The Ruling Class’ stage origins are keenly felt, and the vaudevillian musical numbers add to the lunacy of this genre-proof film. Medak’s direction is acidic and idiosyncratic. He handles blasphemy in the best “theater of the absurd” type of way. How does flower child J.C. know he is God? “When I pray, I find I am talking to myself.”

The Criterion Collection debatably erred in restoring 20 excised minutes to the film, making The Ruling Class excessive, but perhaps even more bizarre, in its 154 minute version. Apart from that, there is the usual exemplary Criterion extras, including home movies supplied by Medak, excellent commentary tracks, photo galleries, and a beautifully remastered, digital print.

THE BOOK OF DALLAS (2012)

The Book of Dallas, Season One is a 10 episode web series from KoldCast TV. The series comes from the production team of Joe Atkinson, , and Marx H. Pyle. Atkinson wrote the series in response to a crisis in faith. The directing is divided between the three producers.

Dallas McKay (Benjamin Crockett) is a young Catholic atheist (is there any other kind?). Dallas gets into a theological debate at a bar (something akin to theology on tap). His lack of belief offends the self-proclaimed Christians (surprise), then fate takes the upper hand when speeding vehicle meets Dallas on the street.

Still from The Book of Dallas Season1 (2012)Heaven is a coffee shop where Dallas meets a highly emotive St. Peter (David Ross) and a quirky God (Kristine Renee Farley). Yes, God is a girl who likes to eat lots of waffles. I knew it all along. With a mouthful of syrup, God asks Dallas to write a new bible, one which will not inspire people to judge and kill one another. After writing it, Dallas is to go on a book tour and sell it. Real simple.

Now back on Earth, Dallas needs some cash to get started. God gives him the winning lottery numbers. Dallas and his roommate Hank (Clay Evans) are on a mission from God. After finally finding a publisher, Dallas’ book, “The Word,” creates publicity and controversy. The evangelicals predictably hate Dallas, but he does attract a follower named Benjamin (Kevin Roach), who fills in for Dallas after a fundamentalist nut job sends Dallas back to heaven for a spell. Benjamin creates The Church of Unitism. Yes, a new religion.

The Book of Dallas starts off as an overly familiar revisionist look at the state of religion, the likes of which we have seen before (Dogma, Religioulous, et al). The best humor in the series is provided by actors David Ross and Kristine Renee Farley. Aside from these, the comedy is too subdued for this topic. More problematic are the plot solutions, which are too simplistic (a convenient lottery win, miraculous surviving of near-death experiences).

Something more complex would have been more rewarding. The fact that the protagonist survives his ordeals, virtually unscathed, nullifies any real questioning of his supernatural encounters (for Dallas and the audience—the only nonbelievers are the certifiable Christians of the film, which, come to think of it, is probably all too apt).

The biggest issue I take with the series is in “The Word” itself. What does “The Book of Dallas” actually say? We are never really privy to that information. Therefore, Dallas’ actual message is so vague that it fails to connect with us emotionally, intellectually, or theologically. Likewise, the fundamentalist outrage towards the book never quite registers beyond surface. The angry religious mob is merely taken for granted.

The Book of Dallas starts to live up to its complex potential by the 10th episode. Of course, every successful revolutionary movement faces the possibility of becoming  an institution. The Unitist movement veers dangerously close to that fatal error. Upon seeing this, the fire within Dallas is sparked. For the first time, close to the season finale, we sense the prophetic nature swelling within Dallas, along with narrative possibilities for richer, provocative exploration.

Atkinson’s sincerity and effort is to be applauded, despite the occasional “too safe” missteps. The series feels like an opening spark, which may reap rewarding challenges in the second season (and, hopefully, that second season will come to fruition).

Bilinski, a director previously covered here, directs the first, fifth and seventh episodes. The first episode has a texture and pacing similar to elements of his previous Shade of Grey (2009).


. “The Book of Dallas” trailer.