Yes, I'm back, and yes, this is a bloody huge entry. The result, no doubt, of bottled-up energies over these last three months of "baptism by fire" fatherhood. I'm hoping to get back to regular updates here, but give me a while to find my legs again. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this. I'll have something on the Mel Gibson furore shortly. Thanks for your patience. - R. McG.
#0145 - HOLY CRAP - I see several hundred movies a year, and I'm resigned to being bored or exasperated by most of them. I expect bad dialogue, unconvincing characters, dismal acting, poor or overly elaborate cinematography, and hypertrophied action sequences that seem gratuitous until you realize that they're the only reason the film got made. I was hardly surprised when The Order contained all of these things, but I was frankly amazed to find myself sitting through a film whose thematic foundation was a motley pile of rancid old anti-Catholic mythology, some of it dating back as far as Luther and King James.
The film - called The Sin Eater, it's original title, for its upcoming English release - hasn't been getting great reviews. "Another dreary horror film," writes Wesley Morris in the Boston Globe, who goes on to call it "a stupendous bore" full of "generic scenery and overcooked screenwriting." "There's a deadly lack of chills or suspense in Brian Helgeland's The Order," writes Sheri Linden in the Hollywood Reporter, who goes on to cite "dialogue that is alternately dull, self-consciously lofty or just plain ridiculous."
Stephen Holden of the New York Times describes "a movie so entranced by its own bogus solemnity that most of what passes for conversation is language warped into the heavy-breathing pontification of prophecy delivered in thudding Charlton Heston-style cadences." There aren't a lot of other reviews to draw on, thanks to the film being released in theatres without critics' previews - a fatal sign of a studio's lack of confidence. Christianity Today Film Forum sums up a few reviews, while Steven Greydanus' Decent Films Guide ignored it altogether.
It would be easy enough to dismiss The Order as just another heavy-breathing supernatual thriller; most of the reviews I've read have been content to describe it as a half-assed genre exercise, "the nadir of a subgenre that produced The Exorcist (at its high end) and Stigmata (at its middle-to-low end)." (Stephen Holden in the Times.) If you wanted to be clever, you could rope in films like Ken Russell's The Devils, and the whole "nunsploitation" subgenre, the cinematic echo of "escaped nun" stories like 1836's Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, which endeavored to tell fearful Protestants titillating stories of life behind convent walls, full of rape and perversion, randy bishops and monks, and which live on today in the "lesbian nun" porn subgenre. It's a prurient, mostly sordid little backwater of junk culture, and it can be ignored more often than not.
I'd have done the same, I expect, if not for the fact that I'm a Catholic, that films about religious subjects have attracted the spillover from the spotlight being shone on Mel Gibson's unreleased but controversial Passion, and because of the heated discussions on the resurgence of anti-Catholicism being tossed about in the circles where I live and read.
If The Order had been content to limit itself to the usual ecclesio-supernatural tropes - violent demonic possessions, muscular, battering exorcisms, demon visions, horrible deaths, satanist covens and far-reaching satanic conspiracies in government and big business intimating an imminent apocalypse - I'd have sighed my way through the sparsely-attended Saturday matinee and submitted a derisive but lighthearted review. But by the second scene, I found myself caught up short by something more provocative, perhaps even ambitious, being attempted by writer/director Helgeland.
After a scene-setting prologue, where an old man living in a fantastic domed folly somewhere in Rome is killed in a burst of blue light by an ominous, shadowy figure, we're taken to a church on a New York City sidestreet and a mass given to a tiny congregation by a handsome, brooding young priest. The scene itself wasn't too much of a departure, given the subgenre's well-defined vocabulary, but the mass being given was.
There was Heath Ledger, in cassock and collar, giving what was obviously a Tridentine Rite mass, in Latin, with his back to the congregation. Latin masses have suddenly become points of contention; in anything you read about Mel Gibson's traditionalist, more-than-faintly schismatic Catholicism these days, writers are at pains to point out that Gibson has built his own chapel in order to celebrate the Tridentine mass, that Latin masses, while hardly proscribed by the Church, have been emblems of reactionary Catholicism since John XXIII and Vatican II made colloquial ritual and strict ecumenicism the mainstream face of Catholicism.
Ledger's order, the Carolingians - an obscure and dying sect barely tolerated by the Vatican - are pointedly called "heretics" by Peter Weller's slick, sinister cardinal, but Weller orders Ledger to Rome to investigate the death of the old man from the first scene, a defrocked and excommunicated Carolingian who was the young priest's mentor. In short order, we learn that the Carolingians' specialty is exorcism, and battle against "demons and the undead"; they are, in a phrase, the Scooby Gang of religious orders.
Most other critics might have glossed over this bit of scene-setting, with the exception of the Washington Times, who describe the Carolingians - with some pointed sarcasm - as "a breakway sect eyed suspiciously by the Vatican hierarchy for - this is hard to swallow - being too conservative and supersitious." It stuck with me, though, for entirely personal reasons.
I was married two years ago in the Latin rite, by the order that administers the local church where I (sporadically, I have to admit) worship. The fathers who run this church, where my daughter was baptized two months ago, bear a more than faint resemblance to Helgeland's "Carolingians". The Fathers of the Oratory were founded by St. Phillip Neri at the height of the Renaissance, at around the same time as St. Ignatius Loyola's Jesuits. The Oratorians are a lot more obscure than the omnipresent Society of Jesus, despite the fact that the most famous member of their order, the Anglican apostate Cardinal John Henry Newman, is among the greatest theological writers in history.
Like the Carolingians, the Oratorians wear black cassocks and collars of a somewhat unusual design. (Before I got to know them, I'd see them around the neighbourhood and assumed they were Lutheran seminarians). They favour a more traditional approach to liturgy and offer Tridentine Rite masses every Sunday at St. Vincent de Paul's, one of the two local churches they administer. While hardly considered heretics by the Archdiocese or the Curia, they have a reputation for revanchist politics among liberal Catholics; a few years ago, I was told confidently but ominously by our local (Catholic) MPP that they were an Opus Dei sect. Not true, as it turns out, but it's a damning rumour, especially (as I've discovered) for Anglicans, both lapsed and observant, who regard Opus Dei as sinister proof of ongoing Papist political conspiracy.
So there you have it - the Oratorians and the Carolingians: basically the same. Except for the heresy thing. And the dwindling vocations and excommunications. And the exorcisms and demon and zombie-slaying. Something to think about next time I'm listening to one of Father Dan's homilies.
The Washington Times sees the film as Buffy-like - "because it so unironically renders a story world where demons and other manifestations of the spirit realm are part of the ho-hum scenery, secondary characters we're supposed to take for granted; where people haven't discarded the idea of demons and Satan and perdition into Max Weber's dustbin of sociology." Now, there's nothing terribly unusual about that - it's the sole article of faith in any supernatural thriller - but it is abidingly strange that Helgeland's story of "Satan and perdition" and sin-eaters has to be understood in the context of a corrupt, despotic church that denies absolution to sinners.
Once Heath Ledger arrives in Rome, along with Father Thomas (Mark Addy), the only other living Carolingian, and Ledger's friend, a pretty young woman (Shannyn Sossamon) who has escaped from a lunatic asylum after trying to kill him during an exorcism, the trio ("The Catholic Pete, Linc and Julie", according to Ms. Sossamon's character) discover that a "sin-eater" is on the loose, lounging about in a nave in St. Peter's, offering freelance absolution to rich and notable sinners, taking on their sins in an SFX-laden rite that seems to involve ectoplasmic squid.
If The Order, as a thriller, has any particular flaw, it's the fact that the whole story hangs on a point of theological practice that's not only absurd, but false. Or, as Bob Campbell in the Seattle Times put it:
"Gradually, it dawns on the audience that this is the entire drama. Someone is offering unearned forgiveness to the naughty! He must be stopped!
"This is a problem? The list of sinners saved by last-minute confession is already endless.
"The Order treats these acts of mercy as the ultimate in apocalyptic horror."
Piqued by the assumption that the church can, and will, deny absolution to sinners or the excommunicated, I e-mailed Father Dan at the Oratory to find out if it was remotely true.
"Anyway, as you suspect: the whole purpose of our Lord in giving us the Sacrament of Confession is so that sinners can be reconciled to God and the Church. In danger of death, this is so important that any priest, even though he lacks the faculty to hear confessions, can lawfully and validly absolve any penitents from any sins or censures. This applies even to a priest who has been excommunicated (Code of Canon Law, Canons 976 and 1335). The general principle about when to give or withhold absolution is expressed in Canon 980: 'If the confessor is in no doubt about the penitent's disposition and the penitent asks for absolution, it is not to be denied or deferred.'
"Which is pretty clear. If he IS in doubt, of course, that's another matter. There may be cases in which he will insist on some public action. For example, a penitent 'who confesses to having falsely denounced to ecclesiastical authority a confessor innocent of the crime, of solicitation to a sin against the sixth commandment...' is explicitly required by Canon 982 to make a formal withdrawal of the denunciation and make good whatever harm has been done before receiving absolution."
The great twist at the heart of The Order is that Benno Furmann's sexy, velvet-suit wearing sin-eater isn't really the villain: it's Peter Weller's slick, power-hungry Cardinal, who presides over some kind of pagan death-cult in the catacombs under Rome, and is the front-runner to succeed the current, ailing Pope. And so the oldest anti-Catholic trope is revived for the sake of a third-rate thriller: Perfidious, covertly satanic Rome, poised to reclaim earthly power and brutalize the world.
It's a piece of propaganda that won't die, the anti-Catholic blood libel. It's especially popular when a Catholic runs for President of the United States; when Al Smith ran for president in 1928 against Herbert Hoover, it was rumoured that Smith was having a tunnel built under the White House that would run straight to the Vatican. In 1960, John F. Kennedy had to answer the charge of "divided loyalties" by declaring that his Catholicism would take second place in any decisions he made as president.
I'm not suggesting that Helgeland has consciously made some sort of anti-Catholic propaganda piece. In an interview with The Guardian preceding the British release of The Sin Eater, he mishears a question and answers it as if he was being accused of being "anti-Pope": "Oh I wouldn't say I was anti the Pope," Helgeland says hurriedly. "But I am anti-power, anti the the idea of one guy taking all the decisions." Which is a rich statement coming from a movie director, if you think about it.
More likely than not, Helgeland needed a nifty twist, and pulled the old "evil Pope" chestnut out from the standard-issue identikit you get when you write a supernatural thriller, the same one that provided him with the demon kiddies, the graveyard scene, and the death cult in the catacombs. I don't know if Helgeland is a Catholic, relapsed or not, but can't help but wonder when, later in the Guardian interview, he opines that replacing the Latin mass makes it "seem like just another twelve-step program ... another thing you can use to get through the day."
Five years ago, Helgeland's film might have been just another spooky thriller, washed ashore on the Blair Witch tide; twenty-five years ago, it would have been just another bad Exorcist rip-off. Today, though, in the wake of the utter mishandling of the seemingly numberless charges of sexual abuse against priests in Boston and elsewhere, and in the media furor building in advance of the release of Mel Gibson's The Passion, even the stalest load of recycled anti-Catholic propaganda can suddenly take on unearned signifiance.
In a recent, and very good, Reason essay, Tim Cavanaugh takes the wind out of quite a bit of a recent wave of percieved persecution of Catholics, in the guise of reviewing Philip Jenkins' The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice. Cavanaugh spends a paragraph examining up the notably anti-Catholic films that Jenkins regards with furious indignation, dismal, hack thrillers like Stigmata and Primal Fear, snoozy, largely forgotten "prestige" films like Agnes of God, and the godawful Godfather III, "a widely reviled stinker that disgraced, and probably ended, the beloved Godfather franchise." In the end, Cavanaugh has a hard time sympathizing with anyone moved to indignation by cultural anti-Catholicism, for one simple reason: "The problem with anti-church sentiment, like the problem of the church itself, isn't that the public is scandalized or titillated; it's that the public has long since stopped caring.
We are, Cavanaugh states, decades away from the days when the Klan could attract a broader net of bigots by making anti-Papist fearmongering the thrust of their platform. The furor over anti-Catholicism, he insists, is largely an internal one, fought between liberal and conservative Catholics. It's an intriguing suggestion, to which I'd like to add a few of my own observations.
Two things hold together most of the young, conservative Catholics I know - dismay at the Church's official embrace of a political pacifism they see as moral spinelessness, and an aversion to anti-Semitism that can sometimes sounds like passionate, no-holds-barred Zionism. That conservative Catholics should profess both of these once exclusionary concepts seems to me like the surest sign that we've quietly turned some political and intellectual corner.
The church's lukewarm oppostion to the war in Iraq didn't surprise me - the fallout from the Pope advocating war in a Muslim country, even if only vaguely and in the most qualified terms, would have been explosive; what other choice did the Vatican have? As Pius XII proved, the Church hierarchy is committed to self-preservation, at any cost. Conservative Catholics, however, equate it with the milquetoast, politically correct, liberal church of groovy felt banners, macrame vestments and "altar girls" that emerged after Vatican II.
The rabid anti-anti-Semitism is more surprising, and has led to a vehement support of Israel under attack by the intifada, a support that's probably the high-water mark of another Vatican II edict - the official rejection of the "Christ-killer" accusation that's been at the heart of a thousand years of Christian anti-Semitism. That it should be wholeheartedly embraced by conservative Catholics is yet another irony that runs through the political seismic shift we've experienced, post-9/11.
On some level, though, I can't help but regard the aggrieved perception of new wave of anti-Catholicism by conservative Catholics as a facet of their identification with Israel, a reaction to the undeniable resurgence of anti-Semitism, both in the Muslim world, and in mostly European, liberal, anti-war and, by extension, anti-American media. There's a need, perhaps, to share the sense of persecution, a desire to create a bridge between conservative Catholics and Jews based on shared enemies - Islamic fundamentalists, far-right nutcases, dogmatic secularists, the media, and the whole of the left, both mainstream and radical. It's an impressive, if unlikely coalition, but on some days it seems like they are coalescing on an organized front.
That there's more than a whiff of paranoia about this vision is undeniable, especially compared to the very real resurgence in anti-Semitism, but Cavanaugh is right - the spectre of resurgent anti-Catholicism is a pretty toothless thing if its most visible manifestations are crap thrillers with unearned pretentions, or even the residual anti-church seethings of apostate Marxists. That said, there's always the old trope/t-shirt slogan: "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you."
(posted 01:19am | 09.22.03)
#0144 - MY, SHE WAS YAR - The death of Katharine Hepburn this weekend is one of those things that will probably only resonate with the passing weeks, as the tributes and biographies march past, and when someone - some decent writer, given the luxury of a few thousand words in a magazine like the New Yorker - finds something interesting to say that goes beyond "screen legend".
It probably won't be me. Churlish though it may be to speak ill of the dead, I have to admit to never being a big Hepburn fan. I probably liked Audrey Hepburn more than the late Katharine the great, and either Claudette Colbert, Rosalind Russell, Myrna Loy or Jean Arthur more than either of them. Hepburn was a fantastic screen presence, and it's hard to imagine a film like The African Queen, The Philadelphia Story, Pat and Mike, Holiday or Bringing Up Baby without her. She was, inasmuch as movies demand an unpredictable mix of charm, talent, beauty, glamour and humility, the model of a movie star.
But I'd never consider her a screen goddess, as she'll no doubt be described by lazy writers over the next week. Dozens, perhaps even hundres of less talented actresses are verifiable screen goddesses, being blessed with far more sex appeal than the athletic, haughty, sometimes even androgynous Hepburn ever had. And it was that lack of sex appeal, not its abundance, that made the roles she made famous work.
For most people, it was her Tracy Samantha Lord - such a tellingly, archly regal name - in Philadelphia Story that defined her. And it was the constant hymns to her, by Jimmy Stewart's Mike O'Connor and John Howard's Kitteridge, as a distant, untouchable goddess, that only faintly reinforced what was already obvious about Hepburn from films like Sylvia Scarlett and Little Women.
That haughtiness, that intimidating, even cold perfectionism, was the key to her characters in films like Woman of the Year and Pat and Mike, and part of the joy of her films with Spencer Tracy was watching him batter and flail against that tower of womanly dignity. Best of all for me was Desk Set - tragically still not on DVD - where Tracy was lent a bit of her perfectionism as the "efficiency expert" sent to computerize Hepburn's pleasantly old-fashioned research department, which she ran like some outpost of a Seven Sisters college. This trade-off of stock personas - a bit of his amiable sloth for a bit of her intimidating elegance - was a masterstroke that prevented Walter Lang's film from being the most forgettable of their onscreen collaborations, happily relegating that distinction to Keeper of the Flame.
The Hepburn of the 50s revealed how perfectly suited she was to play the spinster, and her Bunny Watson was only the best-dressed version of characters she would play in films like The African Queen and Rooster Cogburn. I frankly always saw that spinsterish probity and distance, even in the great screwball films she made with Howard Hawks and George Cukor, opposite Cary Grant, an undeniably appealing actor whose bottomless comic genius came from an unshakable yet indefinable sense that his interest in his leading ladies was only barely carnal. At the end of Philadelphia Story, you can't help but wonder that Tracy Lord and C. K. Dexter Haven are meant for each other, not because of some fantastic sexual affinity, but because they're the only two people who would allow each other the space to be themselves, to be simply, essentially, untouchably fabulous.
Hepburn seemed similarly distant from almost all of her leading men, with the exception of Spencer Tracy, who humanized and even sexualized her, no mean feat. You saw her through Tracy's eyes, a woman who was undeniably feminine, yet in some way enough of a guy, to appeal to Adam Bonner or Mike Conovan, Tracy's awkward yet macho introverts.
It's hard to think of an actress today whose sexual persona is so complicated, even harder to think of one who has maintained as perfect an onscreen partnership as Hepburn did with Tracy. And that's why the death of Hepburn - the finale of a career that, frankly, ended years ago when her famously tremulous voice became more painfully a medical condition - is yet another reminder of the unexpected depth of the abiding stars of the studio era, of which Katharine Hepburn was an undeniable paradigm.
(posted 04:10pm | 06.30.03)