Eugene Jarecki is an intelligent documentary filmmaker who earned his reputation with Why We Fight (2005), Reagan (2011) and The House I Live In (2012). His latest, The King, focuses onas a symbol of the profligate American dream: a xenophobic pop culture phenomenon that remains as potent a seed today in Trump’s ‘Murica as it was in 1956, perhaps even more so. The original title of Jarecki’s film was “Promised Land” and, unwisely, distributors forced a name change. Apparently it was misleading to an audience believing (and hoping) it to be a straightforward biography of the late rock star. The American box office resulted in a whimper (although it has done well overseas). That’s unfortunate, as it’s a compelling, insightful and necessary film. As a contemporary artist, Jarecki is a provocateur. Before we get into that, here’s an insight from a filmmaker who has the pulse of contemporary art, and its audience:
“I like art that challenges you and makes a lot of people angry because they don’t get it. Because they refuse to look at it properly. Rather than open their mind to the possibility of seeing something, they just resist. A lot of people think contemporary art makes them feel stupid. Because they are stupid. They’re right. If you have contempt about contemporary art, you are stupid. You can be the most uneducated person in the world and completely appreciate contemporary art, because you see the rebellion. You see that it’s trying to change things.”–
Damn right. This is ambitious, highly charged, demanding contemporary art as documentary filmmaking. While we might concede that it overreaches, isn’t that better than a spoon-fed, orthodox approach? Some critics have complained that its premise is simplistic and yet paradoxically complicated. One might argue that, given the subject, and ultimately it’s also overly simplistic to dismiss it as simplistic. A thesis simply wouldn’t do, and Jarecki’s aesthetics are grisly and lurid, akin to what Albert Goldman did so brilliantly in his infamous biography of Presley. Like Goldman, Jarecki parallels the Presley phenomenon with the decline of America; but in the era of Donald Trump, Jarecki’s drive ultimately proves even more visceral than that slice of Americana written by Goldman in 1981.
Jarecki gets behind the wheels of Presley’s 1963 Rolls Royce and takes a cross-country tour from Tupelo, Mississippi (Presley’s birthplace and childhood home) and Memphis, Tennessee (home of Graceland) to Hollywood and Vegas (the dual cities that killed him— along with the Army, Presley’s first peddler that neutered him). Along the way, Jarecki picks up commentators such as James Carville, Emmylou Harris, D.J. Fontana (Presley’s drummer), Jerry Schilling (Presley’s best friend),(a certified Elvis fan and the film’s producer), Alec Baldwin, Mike Meyers (startlingly lucid), Ashton Kutcher (the most misplaced), and church folk. The last viewpoint is important, because they’re the very same evangelicals that sacrificed their ethics to vote for Trump (and other morally bankrupt characters, e.g. Roy Moore) to secure their white bread system. We can, of course, succumb to condescending platitudes that the low-informed are easy targets; but it was underestimating their numbers that secured Trump’s ‘Murica.
Yes, The King is devastatingly political. It damn well should be, because we can’t accept the (borrowed) excuse of someone like the WWII-era Berlin Philharmonic conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler, who feebly spin-doctored sitting on his hands with the justification of avoiding politics. Rather, he avoided an ethical backbone. Jarecki’s politicizing of American culture is justified because now, more than ever—in an age where some restaurants require a college degree and 3-4 years experience to get into management—we elected a blatantly misogynistic, racially pandering, trash TV host, with no previous governing experience, to the highest office in the land. We did so in adulation of his (inherited, not earned) money and pop celebrity status. When Jarecki paints a connection between the fat Elvis of casino excess dying on a toilet to the fat blowhard and pornstar-lubbin’ casino baron, in way over his head, retreating to the golf course, it’s done so with the subtlety of a Batman KAPOW!
The composer Gustav Mahler once said, “A symphony, like the world, should contain everything.” That is the inherent, authentic spirituality of Jarecki’s The King. Admittedly, by encompassing everything, it occasionally gets away from the filmmaker, but there is also a refreshingly idiosyncratic sprawling quality that renders it unforgettable.
We hear pontifications on Presley’s place in American culture and how, as a metaphor, he represents the pop culture underbelly of MAGA. In contrast, we also hear positive assessments, making the film a political or social debate. Perhaps the most valuable contribution is from rapper Chuck D. He is surprisingly even-keeled, especially in light of his lyrics to “Fight the Power” Lately, claims are commonplace in accusing Presley of having stolen black music. Chuck D is spot on regarding the American racism that gave birth to Presley’s superstar career, and in his refrain from placing blame on Presley himself. Presley was, after all, raised in a black Pentecostal church. It was the music he knew. I recall an aunt, an Elvis fan, who recollected how Presley listed Mahalia Jackson and Dean Martin as two of his most prominent influences in formulating his crooner-like baritone rendition of gospel music (the music he was probably best at). That makes sense. There is also no denying that in the 1950s, Sam Phillips (of Sun Records), Colonel Tom Parker (Presley’s second manager), and radio stations couldn’t make the dangerous leap of spotlighting black rock and roll artists (Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Little Richard) for racist America, but couldn’t ignore the music’s growing appeal. The solution: find a white man who sounds black. Enter Elvis Presley, at the right time and right place.
It’s less a condemnation of Presley the artist than it is of the American culture that made an idol of him. He is our fabulously successful broken mirror; broken, because there is nothing more provocative than a mirror held up to our hypocrisy and sins. Naturally, the knee-jerk reaction to racism is “Ain’t nobody alive today that was slaves. I ain’t never owned a slave. Blacks got their civil rights now. Racism is a thing of the past and now it’s white man that’s being discriminated against.” The blatant lie in that is the rise of Donald Trump, who was deemed a necessity after we somehow, someway let one of them (Obama) sneak into the WASP power base. It’s also the quintessence of chutzpah in our denial of and refusal to see that approximately 400 years of oppression simply cannot be eradicated in a mere 50 years of not-so-equal “equal rights.”
Trump isn’t the author of all that, but a bloated symptom; an ideological offspring of Strom Thurmond and his Dixiecrats posing as Christians. He and his administration can readily be seen as both RINO and CINO. The Trump caricature is a devolution of the Vegas Elvis parody. At least, Presley played a half-breed (in Flaming Star, the closest he came to a good movie) and even managed the soulful, if hyper-kitschy, “In the Ghetto.” He had a golden voice that could make his worst songs listenable. While he certainly doesn’t rank in the top tier of rock and roll artists, he is undoubtedly one of that dead genre’s greatest singers. Trump, with his 4 million dollar golden toilet, renders Presley, even at his most excessively grotesque, as relatively tame and sinless. Trump has whipped it out and taken a leak on Lady Liberty, and there’s a reason that he and many of his sycophants despise Native Americans (one of Trump’s many long-held demographic targets). Miles Davis (who is to American music what Picasso was to painting) sums it up: “How did Columbus discover America when the Indians were already here? What kind of shit is that, but white man shit?”
Of course, we could ask Trump’s rabid over-generalizing anti-immigrant thugs exactly what legal documents did our (not so pure) Puritan ancestors fill out, asking Native Americans permission to live here? Of course we can’t ask Native Americans that because we committed genocide against them and have no shame, even today. In 1993, Trump unsuccessfully sued to kick Native Americans out of a reservation to make way for his casinos, challenging that they weren’t authentic Indians. As early as last year, he made the same challenge again, attempting to block their access to health care. The Senate blocked him and, for the most part, the media barley covered it. Again, all this is an extension of that mirror without reflection we seek.
“When Fascism comes to America, it won’t even be called Fascism, but Americanism and it will be wrapped in a flag and crying a cross.” So goes the statement attributed to Sinclair Lewis. I kept reflecting on it throughout The King. Yet, through his labyrinth, Jarecki sees a glimmer of potential for America, a potential that requires confession and penance (something that may be enacted by the millennials, another demographic hated on by Trump supporters). Contrary to the trendy automated, yawn-inducing memes that plague social media, we need more authentic religion, not less. The extreme atheistic right-wing brand is inevitably an oxymoron. They don’t call it atheistic, of course, and indeed would deny it, but in failing to actually live the religious values they claim to uphold, they are in a very real sense, atheists.
Our sense of religion in America is predominantly consumerism, as opposed to spirituality. It’s inevitably an embedded theology, informed not by faith traditions or contemplative prayer or contextual knowledge of scripture and Church history, but by the prism of today’s political Western ideologies. We can contrast the portrayal of The King with the message of‘ Pope Francis: A Man of His Word.
The Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote that “the Church is paradoxically traditional and revolutionary.” It’s not surprising then to find Pope Francis recommending the reading of Merton. Indeed, Francis is the first Pope to do so since the monk’s death in 1968. Merton’s astute observation is the brand of Catholicism shared by the likes of Francis, Richard Rohr, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Andrew Greeley, Henri Nouwen, Teilhard de Chardin, Oscar Romero, Pope John XXIII, Saints Francis and Clare, Wim Wenders,, , , Oscar Wilde, Paul Gauguin, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Gustav Mahler, and Fr. Justin Belitz O.F.M. (my spiritual director of the last 30 years).
Like Francis himself, the film has its critics. The dull bourgeois complaint has been that the film doesn’t give personal insight into Francis, the man. An observation by the late Pierre Boulez suggests a counter to that bit of sophism: “I’ll be the first composer without a biography.” Like The King, Pope Francis is not a biography. It’s a homily, and Wenders wisely chooses not to appease shortsighted hollow cravings for personal details or biographical bullet points. It’s what Francis believes, and it’s his art. No Pope since John XXIII has approached his position with such a pronounced interpretation of the Church as sublime paradox.
The most frequently heard criticism of Francis stems from fundamentalists of all varieties: “He should be preaching the Gospel instead of being political.” Despite the fact that, according to the Gospel narratives, John the Baptist was political: he called out hypocrisy of leaders and the sexual immorality of the Trump-like Herod, and it got him killed. Jesus was political: he advised giving the shirt off your back to the poor, welcoming the immigrant, nursing the sick with no charge, educating the young, paying taxes, and he called out leaders for blasphemously transforming the temple into a center for profit. That’s what got him killed. St. Paul was political. Although Francis does indeed preach the gospel, he follows the lead of Matthew 25; living it first, preaching it second. (St. James: “Faith without works is dead”).
Pope Francis’ condemnation of unfettered capitalism (note the unfettered adjective, not capitalism per se), has rendered him ripe for accusations of being a socialist. Trump himself leveled such an accusation. No, Francis takes to heart both the Matthew 25 passage and Luke in Acts 2-5, whose description of the Church community was akin to what scriptural illiterates would deem socialism—albeit socialism almost two thousand years before the birth of socialism.
Unlike his three predecessors (not counting the short-lived John Paul I), Francis has attempted to pick up the mantle of John XXIII’s Vatican II, instead of trying to walk it back. Francis is the antithesis of Benedict XVI, who, probably more than any recent Pope, was the most extreme in ironclad morality (he was called the Vatican Rottweiler, silenced countless theologians, and even had books burned). As the French philosopher Jacques Ellul reminds us in “Subversion of Christianity,” morality is predominantly a patristic invention. Ellul’s patristic morality derives from the Gospel of No. It’s the kind of morality that tries to sell us the asinine idea that Jesus died so homophobes wouldn’t have to sell cakes. Yet, the Jesus of the Gospels forgave an adulteress, hung out with prostitutes and tax collectors, healed a gay man, healed the handicapped (instead of mocking them as Trump infamously did) and only judged two sins: hypocrisy (which extends to anything rejecting love) and greed (his parable of Lazarus and the rich man could be a parable of Donald Trump). With one exception, the film is set in the present—but it is a remarkable exception from a 1999 Buenos Aires homily on love. Wenders also reminds us in much of what Francis teaches that the historical Jesus (or Jesus of the Gospels, if one is skeptical of historicity) did not subscribe to either/or categorizing of liberal vs. conservative. He never heard the terms. Like Jesus and his Mother (whose Magnificat is a blueprint for the beatitudes—yes, he was clearly influenced by her), Francis is a mix of both traditional and revolutionary beliefs, beliefs that are guided by the teachings of Christ as opposed to getting caught up in labels or redemption language as a crutch to justify a lack of ethics. That is why the liberal Francis takes a conservative view on the marriage sacrament and edifies the monastic tradition of poverty and ceaseless prayer.
Francis himself lives modestly, warns sternly against the temptations of materialism, and takes a stand against injustice, which in the eyes of WASP evangelicals renders him a despised social justice warrior (a phrase they will spew with venom, as if social justice is a bad thing). Francis washes the feet of prisoners, tells Catholic women it is okay to breastfeed in Mass (no doubt exploding many Puritan heads), refuses to take the American evangelical route of saying gay sin is worse than our sins, and condemns the ill-treatment of immigrants (both the First and Second Testaments are consistent in echoing Francis’ condemnation, despite what Sarah Huckabee claims). Unlike the past two Popes, Francis has not only acted decisively (although even-handedly) in regards to sexual abuse within the priesthood, he’s demanded the resignation of multiple bishops who covered up for abuses (something neither Benedict nor John Paul II would have dared to do). Francis also is pro-science (he is well educated in science, seeing no contradiction between evolution and faith) and espouses care for the earth, in sharp contrast to the fundamentalist mindset of mantling an almost fatalistic, apocalyptic disregard towards Creation. After all, only a mother cares for Creation and, by God, God is all man—which goes a long way in explaining the almost inherent evangelical hatred of Marian spirituality.
Essentially, Francis is a model of maternal spirituality. His shepherding is in sharp contrast to the raging narcissism of Donald Trump, who idolizes dictators and recommended his supporters rough up protestors in an 2016 rally (he should have been arrested immediately for doing so). Like Elvis, Trump fancies himself as a type of superhero and, for racist American WASPs, he is the messianic figure that Merton once described as a Satanic theology: one in which Christ is so perfect, so elevated, that he is inhuman and unapproachable. Trump is the quintessential Pharisee. Sharing Francis’ theology, Wenders is the right choice of director (his 1987 Wings of Desire certainly helped). When the Pope calls on leaders to be humble, the film intercuts to images of Trump and Putin. Fr. Belitz echoes the teachings of Pope Francis in saying that “Christ never said ‘worship me.’ He said ‘follow me.'”
One flaw of the film is in the reenactment of scenes from the life of St. Francis, but it’s a minor quibble. Wenders poignantly asks: “What’s it going to take to blow a Franciscan breeze into the world again, other than courage and humility?” Like The King, Pope Francis: A Man of his Word is radically contemporary. There is humor in the film, but also a degree of Dostoyevskian pathos, as Francis ponders lack of love and acknowledges that love requires choice. Francis is under no illusions as to the work that needs to be done. Yet, he doesn’t flinch, calling for an end to the gun cult and going so far as to say that Catholic gun makers should quit calling themselves Catholic.
An image to take away is Francis attachment to the legend of Our Lady of Aparecida. For those unfamiliar, she is a black Madonna of Brazil whose statue was discovered by a trio of fishermen who then invoked Blessed Mother for a good catch, which they received. Since then, her image has been venerated, but in 1978, an offended Pentecostal preacher stole the statue from its church setting and whisked it away. He was chased, dropped the statue, and shattered it. Our Lady’s devotees meticulously restored her. Again, in 1995, another Pentecostal preacher vandalized her. Although Our Lady of Aparecida is visibly scarred, she remains a symbolic fixture. We could say the same for Francis, and perhaps even utilize the symbol as a means for self-reflection. That would be in the spirit espoused by both of these remarkable films.
- “Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me.” [↩]
- With due apologies to atheists. This is not meant literally. To quote Pope Francis: “it’s better to be an atheist than a hypocrite.” [↩]
- Cue the NRA response: “should we ban cars because of accidents?” Cars are designed for travel. Guns are designed to take life. It takes a bit of emotional intelligence, honesty, and insight beyond the junior high school level to grasp that. [↩]