Thursday, March 04, 2004

THE REAL POTC CONTROVERSY: THAT CREEPY BABY?

Christianity Today goes right to the source to get to the bottom of the creepy baby moment in POTC.

"Again," said Gibson, "it's evil distorting what's good. What is more tender and beautiful than a mother and a child? So the Devil takes that and distorts it just a little bit. Instead of a normal mother and child you have an androgynous figure holding a 40-year-old 'baby' with hair on his back. It is weird, it is shocking, it's almost too much—just like turning Jesus over to continue scourging him on his chest is shocking and almost too much, which is the exact moment when this appearance of the Devil and the baby takes place."

At the roughcut screening I attended back in June, THIS was the scene that threw the Evangelical minister also in attendance into a hissy fit. (I went home that night and wrote the conversation down, but some of what follows is paraphrasing.) The minister kept pressing Mel to delete from the film, "Anything in the movie that isn't in the Bible."

Mel said, "Like what? What in my movie isn't in the Bible?"

Mel's confusion here comes from the fact that he, like any devout artist, doesn't see artistic license which is consonant with the spirit of the Scriptures to be "not in the Bible." I think he would say, "What I made is in the Bible - between the lines."

Anyway, the pastor guy said, "It isn't in the Bible that Satan talked to Jesus in the Garden."

Mel responded, "Don't you think Satan was there?"

Minister retorted, to the effect of, "It doesn't matter what I THINK. It matters what is written in the Word of God."

At this point, I burst in to the exchange. "Where in the Bible do God and Adam touch index fingers?" The pastor didn't say anything. I think Mel laughed. I stomped all over my point as usual, "The fact is, that image is one of the most enduring and powerful sacred images in human history." I turned to Mel. "Don't change your movie to please the sensibilities of any particular sect in Christendom. Change the movie if you think you are being somehow untrue to the Scriptures."

The minister was not happy with me. He waited a few cold seconds of silence and then talked past me to Mel. "And that scene with the ugly baby. What was that?"

Mel said, "I dunno. I just thought it was really creepy. Didn't you think it was creepy?"

Minister guy: "But what is it supposed to mean?"

Me: 'Satan brought a friend. He wanted to share it with a friend."

Mel laughed. "Yeah, he brought a friend!"

Minister guy persisted with exasperation, "But WHERE did you get that from?"

In other words, "You DIDN'T get it in the Bible, because I KNOW the Bible."

Mel, at this point was getting just as exasperated, "I dunno. I guess I just pulled it out of my ass."

FABULOUS! It still makes me laugh! The minister was appropriately horrified. I just thought it was perfectly appropriate.

Is there a better synthesis of the experience of the devout artist who stands back and looks at the work of thier hands, very aware that what they have wrought has come from they don't know where. The Pope speaks about artists as being conduits of Divine revelation. I have experienced every so often getting into a zone with my writing - especially fiction writing - in which the words all of a sudden pour out of me, and I only know "afterwords" that I didn't start writing with anywhere close to the ideas/formulations that suddenly appeared on the page.



Wednesday, March 03, 2004

WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

I will be participating in a panel discussion on The Passion of the Christ at USC's Annenberg School of Communications this evening. I have seven minutes to lay out some of my thoughts regarding the project. Excuse me while I collect my thoughts here...

I thought I would work off the question above, distinguishing between what does the project mean to Hollywood, to the masses who are flocking to it, and then what does it mean in itself?

A. WHAT DOES POTC mean to Hollywood?

The industry is shocked by the box-office numbers for the project. The day before POTC opened, I read one of the industry box-office pundits predicting that the film "might actually top $30 mil in its opening week." Talk about misreading the signs of the times...

A lot of people in town were prepared to dismiss the original spike in box-office to an orchestrated campaign by church groups. I don't think anyone can look at the $125 million in five days without the following thought process intruding:

- Either there are a hell of a lot more church groups out there than I knew, or else more likely,
- There are a lot more people interested in Jesus out there than I ever imagined.

There are many in Hollywood who will want to dismiss POTC as a fluke. And they would be right. The primary thing that has powered this film is the fact that it was written, produced, directed and bankrolled by a global movie superstar. We have grown so used to movie stars being preoccupied with saving whales, wearing ribbons and ridiculing religion, that the notion of one of "that tribe" producing a devout consideration of the redemptive Sacrifice of Jesus is truly inconceivable.

People all want to know what the success of this film will mean in terms of future projects. Who knows? It might mean some openness for Biblical epics, but the problem is you aren't going to see another POTC until you have a filmmaker who actually believes and loves the Biblical story. POTC is awesome ibecause of its theological sophistication. This kind of movie could only be produced by a filmmaker who is in awe of God. I don' know that there are too many other A-list directors who could meet that requirement.


B. WHAT DOES POTC MEAN TO VIEWERS?

This is another way of getting around to the two questions, "Does this film make viewers want to go beat up Jewish people"? AND "Is the violence in this film ultimately sickening to the viewer?" The question comes down to, "Is artistic license absolute?" or in other words, "How much responsibility does an artist/entertainer bear in the impact their work has on their audience?"


SOME THOUGHTS ABOUT ARTISTIC FREEDOM...

I belong to a school of thought that sees the arts as having a vital place in human society. Decorating stuff is more than just a private impulse for self-expression. But it is minimally that, and we have to leave room for the artist to make dark and crazy weird things in the privacy of their own studios. The ethical question comes in when the artist decides to take some of that stuff out and put it in the middle of the public square. Some of the stuff that bursts out of the artist is poisonous to human society. It's like vomit. Vomit is very real. But reality isn't virtue enough to allow someone to smear it all over the walls in a room. A lot of the art we have been subjected to for the last century has been tantamount to being smeared with vomit.

The artist can lead people to want to be good. The arts can stretch us to see and experience farther than our normal workaday worlds would take us. They arts can connect us to one another, to our deepest selves and to the transcendent.

The artist's ethical question comes down to, will this work of mine lead people toward the good or away from it? Will it fill them with hope or despair? Will it make them want to be more fully human, or will it validate them in settling for being more like a pig?

Now, the fact is, the artist's responsibility can only be measured according to the standard of a healthy human being. We can't limit the artist, for example, because some wacko out there has a pathological response to the color purple. This is what governments try to do, and it is always wrong. However, suppose MOST people have a pathological response to the color purple. Suppose it isn't aberrant to start frothing at the mouth when you see grape soda, but rather the norm for the kind of beings that we are? Then, the artist who uses purple is being irresponsible.

I don't think POTC leaves most people in a worse place than they were before. I think it leaves most people better off. The fact that it is not a happy film, doesn't say anything about this question at all. Sometime truth is firghtening and being disturbed is a positive, like being wakened from sleep.

Much of the criticism coming against POTC is hugely problematic in terms of the whole question of artistic freedom. Where are the people in the creative community for whom artistic freedom has been their clarion call?


SOME THOUGHTS ABOUT PROPOGANDA...

The anti-Semitism charges against The Passion of the Christ keep coming down to two notions:

--"The POTC is anti-Semitic."
OR
--"The POTC is not in itself anti-Semitic, but some people might find their latent strands of anti-Semitism affirmed by the film."

Regarding the first notion, I think that to be effective, propaganda must in some sense be intentional. Now, if Mel Gibson was trying to make an anti-Semitic work, he did a very bad job of it. In fact, we could go through the film, and find ways in which hatred for Jewish people might have been heightened. There is just too much ambiguity in the film to claim that it has this agenda. So, if this was the agenda of the film, we would have to conclude that it was very sloppily done.

Regarding the second notion. See the argument above about making art for people who have apathological response to the color purple.


SOME THOUGHTS ABOUT ARTISTIC LICENSE...

Mel is getting criticism from theological circles for making a film that is historically inaccurate in its sensibilities. Other people have taken issue with the fact that there are things in the movie that are not in the Scriptures. Mel has been going around claiming that he made a film that was as historical as possible, and faithful to the Scriptures.

This dispute reflects a distance in terms between the scholar and the artist. Mel has made a film that is visually historical. He got the costumes right. He got the production design right. The characters are semitic looking. They don't speak with British accents and have blue eyes and perfect teeth. The scholars want to see a dissertation on the relationship between Rome and its occupied territories and specifically the situation in Palestine. That is the kind of complexity that belongs in books. That is why we have them.

There are three senses in which an artist can be inspired by the Scriptures.

The first sense would be in the attempt to be literal. (Enter Evangelical America.) People tell me the Gospel of John movie is like that. The Jesus film that Protestants love so much is probably also of this type. The second sense would be an artist who is anti-Scriptural. That is, the artist creates a work that is at odds with the fundamental spirit of the work. He is arguing with the hierarchy set up in the Scriptures. Such a project would be The Last Temptation of Christ. Many people of faith find the character of Jesus in that film to be incompatible with the Jesus they know.

The third sense of the artist inspired by Scripture is the one who is functioning super-Scripturally. This involves the distortion of some details, to achieve a new emphasis. The emphasis, however, is fully in concert with the fundmental spirit of the Scriptures. So, for example, the image of God's finger touching Adam's finger is nowhere in the Bible. However, it is absolutely consonant with the sense of the creation narrative. And, borrowing from JPII, it's very distortion itself becomes a source of theology.

The Passion of the Christ is most like this.

On another level, a lot of theologian types are angry at the story that POTC tells. They want to movie to be more about Jesus' preaching, or about the resurrection. The only response to these people is a shrug. That isn't the movie that this artist wanted to make. He has the right to make whatever movie he wants to make as long as it ultimately leaves the viewers better off than they were before. To ask the sacred artist to create a work that encompasses the entire panoply of salvation history and theology is to bind up an impossible burden and to lay it on the artist's palatte.


FOR WHOM DOES POTC TOLL?

Clearly, the film is much more for people who know the story than for those who do not. Were it not, there would be a lot more attempts to give backstory and develop characters. The fact is the film picks up like the Stations of the Cross on the wall of any church. And then it just goes. Some people could stroll in to a church without knowing anything about Christianity and admire the craft of the sculptor or painter who created the Stations of the Cross. Some others might be provoked to learn more about the sotry that the Stations signify. "Why is this man being done to death? Where are his friends? Why doesn't he fight back?" Finally, some will see something in one of the Stations that will strike them at the bone. They will be stopped by one of the images and it will be a moment of grace for them. Mel Gibson's Passion will probably work like that with different groups of non-Christians.


WHAT ABOUT THE VIOLENCE?

The passion of the Christ is not a great film INSPITE of its violence. It is a great film THROUGH its violence. The violence is the principle symbolic device of the piece. Personally, I thought he could have cut some of it out. But maybe, for him, the violence wasn't quite enough to express the horror of sin that he was getting at. The Pope says that the artist will always look at his work and find it insufficient in light of the creative inspiration that has been given to him.



ooops...gotta go to work. Maybe more later...

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

DEATH, TAXES AND OSCAR

They didn't make me sick. That's not something to take for granted because most years the Academy Awards broadcast reduces me to ritualistic flailing and the screaming of epithets at the television.

This year, however, only a few ridiculous actors and one producer tried to tell us what to think about politics while waving their golden statues like scepters. "I'm not just talented - I'm IMPORTANT!" The paucity of "Moore-ishness" this year made for a happily mostly unoffensive evening with only the overuse of the word "AMAZING!" (as in, "Thank you to the most AMAZING cast and crew!" OR "Peter, you are an AMAZING director!") to make my sisters and I sneer. We stopped counting AMAZINGS after eleven in the first hour. ("I don't think you know what that word means.")

The nominations for Oscar should have made this a much more exciting show. They were wide-reaching, in embracing a lot of small movies over the studio projects and big stars. But, unfortunately, the awards were all a 'fait accompli' because at least in the major categories, the Academy voters vote not for the projects in question, but for those individuals whose turn it seems to be. To the amazement of my sisters, who don't live in Hollywood and pore over the trades every day, I predicted every single award all night -- well, except for the doc and shorts but who really cares about them anyway?

Everybody knew going in that this was the year to reward the meandering Rings trilogy. (There was actually a movement in town to award the project an honorary "Thank God It's Over Oscar" in the event the sprawling thing didn't get enough votes to take Best Picture....have to have something for the fans, after all.) Despite the fact that not a single one of the actors was even nominated for best performance, the film had to win Best Picture. Has that ever happened before? To make up for the dearth of strong acting, the film HAD to win every other possible award to justify the foregone conclusion of it winning Best Picture....(yawn...)

I have no problem with this project being rewarded for its scope. I also thought it was a nice touch of Jackson to further celebrate his film by not bothering to wash and comb his hair for Oscar night.

Awarding Penn and Robbins Oscars for Mystic River was disappointingly predictable. The film had won the cherished "important" moniker early on from the industry pundits, so recognizing these two over-the-top performances was fated to be.

Zellwegger was the only somewhat standout thing about the lumbering and expensive Cold Mountain, and the Weinsteins have to get something every year don't they? And besides, everybody likes Renee, so what the heck?

The best part of the night for me was seeing the Coppollas together on stage, and then seeing Sophia get the nod for Best Screenplay. And it's not just because they are Italian. Lost in Translation was the most satisfying and intelligent movie experience of 2003. She deserved a statue.
ALL HAIL THE MAVEN!

Welcome to the Blog-o-sphere friend and colleague, Jan Batchler! Jan and her husband Lee are real live studio screenwriters. Along with being two of the core members of the Act One Board and faculty, they have written features for Disney, Miramax, Paramount, Warner Bros. They were two of the writers behind Batman Forever which grossed a mere $784 million at the box-office.

Check out her blog Quoth the Maven (A title taken oh so cleverly from Edgar Allen Poe and The Tipping Point....rats!)

Jan's a Presbyterian, but she absolutely deserves a pew as "honorary Catholic" in St. Blog's Parish....And, oh, all you beginning writers who want to know how to get a agent, Jan is really the best person to send that genre of question..... (heh heh heh!)

I become redundanter and redundanter...

Sunday, February 29, 2004

PASSION DOMESTIC BOX-OFFICE FIRST FIVE DAYS = $125,185,971


"My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me." (Jn. 10: 27)


For a sense of how huge this opening is, check this comparison with the two previous largest studio releases, ROTK and The Phantom Menace.

Friday, February 27, 2004

THE REAL PEACE BROKERS IN THE HOLY LAND

My friend, Zoe Romanowsky has an interesting piece on Godspy about the Christian community in the Holy Land. Check it out here.
"WHY DO THE HEATHEN RAGE?"

I'm back in CT with my family for a few days. They all saw The Passion on Ash Wednesday, and are still recovering from it. Nobody is ready to talk about the movie yet. They don't want to hear me opine about the film's cinematography and its use of imagery and its editing. They are still in a place of profound sadness.

When I pressed my sister Alison for her experience of the film, she just looked at me and said, "I sat here and cried quietly for two hours." It reminded me of the characters of Mary, John and Magdalen in the film. No screaming, no demonstrating, no spinning, no gesticulating. Just grief without remorse.

I was marveling this morning at the horrific vitriol that some secularists are spewing towards Mel and his film - which is now really "our film" in the way that the Sistine Chapel and the Pieta are ours. I really have to take the Maureen Dowds and the Dominic Crossans, and the Christopher Kellys at their word that this bloodied, tortured Jesus in The Passion of the Christ is no one that they know. Their rage seems to be coming from a sense that their Jesus is one whom we associate with being gentle, curing sick people and admonishing hypocrites. Oh, and yes, the only thing He said that really matters to them is, "Judge not."

My family are of the stock for whom this movie is most meaningful. We are people who have spent thousands of hours brooding over the Sorrowful Mysteries. We are rosary people. We are people who really really DO Lent, and for whom Passion week is the center of the year. We think of the mass as being an unbloody Sacrifice that only has power because it recreates the bloody one of Calvary. We make the stations and holy hours and read the Scriptures and go on retreats and honor the Sacred Heart and offer things up and go to confession pretty much monthly.

The images in The Passion of the Christ are not shocking or new to us. They are pictures we have seen in our minds-eye millions of times. Yeah, we get that this is one artist's interpretation, but it is still incredible to see something you have spent your life trying to "believe without seeing."

Sorry, I just don't believe the protesters. I don't believe the journalistic outrage, the cultural pundits spewing warnings and liberal scholars tearing their theological garments. I don't buy any of it. They are missing the one thing that would validate their claims to authority: quiet tears.

Monday, February 23, 2004

MORE ME ON THE PASSION

Here is a link to more excerpts of the piece I wrote on the movie for the St. Austin Review.

Sunday, February 22, 2004

PREPARING FOR THE PASSION

I don't have any idea what the non-Christian world is going to do with The Passion of the Christ. From the day I saw it back in June, I have been brooding over how much the film could do in the Church. In my most disconcerted moments of watching the unfolding cultural discourse, the film seems to me to be a preparation for persecution. It's like Joan of Arc asking for someone to hold up a crucifix so she could watch it as she was burning at the stake. In other moments, it seems to me that the film is primarily a moment of grace for those of us who believe, to be disturbed back into who we are: People who speak of "nothing else but Christ and Him crucified."

Face it. We are a People who have grown lukewarm and distracted. We are the pathetic People of the Gospel warning who, ignoring the Signs of the Times - or maybe crestfallen, they both result in the same pastoral paralysis - are "busy about many things; eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage..." In the end, we should be defined by the conviction that "only One Thing is necessary." The Passion of the Christ reconnects us to that essential thread of our identity: We are a People of suffering, who follow the Man of Sorrows through this current 'Valley of Tears.' The Church is supposed to be "The Fellowship" that gets us through this sojourn, but our Sign is inescapably the Cross. The Cross is foolishness to the Diane Sawyers of human history and fury to the Dominic Crossan's. And so are we who claim it as our standard.

I remember shaking my head in wonder that The Passion could have come out of this particular moment in history. Beyond even the film's fundamental message of "Behold the Wood of the Cross - Come Let us Worship," the film doesn't seem to have any artistic context. It's like it just plopped out of nowhere. After forty years in the Catholic Church (and, Lord knows, four hundred years in Protestantism) of focussed iconoclasm and the exaltation of sterility and even ugliness, from where does this lush imaging of our most defining story come? It's like, imagine if, after all these years of architectural weirdness, some Bishop showed up in your local diocese and then, well, built Notre Dame. It doesn't seem possible. I remember walking through the towering monstrousness of the $200 million new L.A. Cathedral thinking, "Well, it is large. That sense of 'largeness' is probably the best we can do these days in building churches. We have lost the ability to make something that would convey 'fear of the Lord' (ie. awe/reverence/wonder/sense of the sacred/conviction that this religion must be real if it can make a thing like this). "

So, sidestepping the debate of whether kids should see this film (probably not any real young ones - it's case by case with teenagers...), and whether it will cause a rash of pogroms (give me a frickin' break), and whether it is historically accurate (It ain't. It's ART. ART is the selection and distortion of details....Give me another frickin' break already!), I want to suggest a few ways, that the adult members of the People of God, can approach this film so as to receive the maximum spiritual benefit.

1) Get out your Bible. Read the Passion narratives in the four Gospels. Read through the Suffering Servant prophecies in Isaiah. Spend time praying over some texts like:
- "But I was a worm and no man."
- "Let us beset the Just One...he is obnoxious to us."
- "So disfigured was he that we turned our faces from him."
- "He was despised and rejected among men."

And from the Good Friday liturgy:
- "My people, my people! What have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me!"

2) About the brutality of the film... Keep in mind going in that the film is basically told from two points of view: Jesus' and Mary's. How long would a scourging seem to you if you were the one under the lash? How long would the way of the cross seem to a mother watching her child travel it? The violence in the film is a VISUAL SYMBOL of the following:

A)....how horrible sin is, in that we see its effects on Jesus. All those hidden little sins we think we have gotten away with - that no one else knows...Well, here they are, wreaking horrific suffering on the Innocent One. The truth is, there is no such thing as a sin without consequences.

B)...the Divinity of Christ makes any little flick of disdain against Him an act of immeasurably evil proportions. To scourge God, is an act that has no comparable visual metaphor. How horrible is it to do violence on the One? Go ahead, you try and show the weight of that in art. I dare you...

C) ...the immensity of Christ's love. What makes him get off the ground time and time again? Any of us would have just stayed down there at a certain point and said, "Go ahead. Kill me." How would you show the power of Christ's love?

Read some supplementary literature that will prepare you for the brutality of the film. A Doctor At Calvary or The Day Christ Died might be good.

3) Read a book on the Stations of the Cross. My favorite is the one by Caryl Houselander. Get one of those little pamphlets on the stations that are so ubiquitous in Catholic churches during Lent. Go to your Church on Ash Wednesday, get your ashes and then stay a few minutes and pray through the stations. The Passion of the Christ is much more a living stations of the cross than it is a movie. (By that I mean the film has none of the usual narrative hooks and arcs. )

4) Make an examination of conscience. Have your wounds fresh in your mind. What is it that you are attracted to that also disgusts and repels you? Get your helplessness and your need for a Savior in your frontal lobe.

Then, go buy a ticket. Walk past the popcorn and soda. Plop down in a seat and forget all the controversy. Encounter the film as an act of worship and prayer.

Have a holy Lent.

Saturday, February 21, 2004

LATE TO THE PARTY

I'm adding several sites to the blogroll - basically so I can stop having to go into this sites archives or else Amy's, Eve's or Mark's place list to get there three times a day....Although, any excuse to drop in on Amy, Mark and Eve is always welcome. (ahem.) Notably...

Get Religion, by Terry Mattingly and friends. Very astute and far-reaching -- even for non-Catholics! (heh heh heh heh...I'm funny.)

Friend, Kale Zelden's Unmitigated Blatherskite...I had Kale up on the blogroll once before, but then he went silent for a long period so I took him off. This is the Church of second chances...

Ship of Fools, mainly because I love to read the adventureres of the Mystery Worshippers who go around doing liturgical reconnaissance. I wish they'd come to L.A. and firebomb the preaching.... Oh, and the new IDIOCY o having the sheep stand around, staring and gawking and weaving for fifteen minutes during communion! Oh the humanity! Someone, stop the madness!!!

Domenico Bettenelli's place, because he is mostly right and a paisan. And a New Englander, if I'm not mistaken. Which means he lives in the same torment I grew up in: Orthodox Catholic surrounded by geriatric liberal Church, with losing baseball team to serve as a metaphor for all kinds of misery.

Victor Lams, because he gets Us (That is Church of the Masses referring to herself in the formal...), and because he created a cool Hollywood sounding blog tone for Our Glory, We bestow our Blogostolic Blessing.



Friday, February 20, 2004

THE BIZ STARTS TO FEEL THE RUMBLE....

Yesterday's Variety reports:

Responding to increased demand from exhibitors, Icon and Newmarket said yesterday that they now plan to distribute more than 4,000 prints of Passion, up from the 2,500 previously announced.

The increase reflects the expanding number of theaters that will show the pic on multiple screens. Also, the number of theaters has recently been increased to 2,800 up from the original 2,000....

Newmarket chief Bob Berney, "A lot of what we're hearing from theater chains is that 'instead of two prints, we want four'. They anticipate a much bigger opening, and they want to be able to handle it."


This is HUGE. HUGE. It gives Passion a chance to rake in the kind of numbers of any wide studio release. On 2,500 screens, even if you sold out, you just can't compete with a wide-releae. Now, the playing field has been evened.... "But if this is of God, you can not oppose it without taking on God Himself..."
BIRTHDAY AS THANKSGIVING

Today's my birthday. It's always hard being so far from home on my birthday because our family had so many Mom-centered rituals for making sure we knew we were special and loved.

It seems to me birthdays are mostly backward in the way we celebrate them. They should be days first of all for someone to look at his or her life and give thanks for all the people who have "birthed" some good in the journey. The birthday people should be the ones giving gifts... I have had many, many people love me in extravagant and gratuitous ways in my life, and their kindnesses and solicitude has everythiing to do with me being able to get up out of bed in the morning and take the next best step.

Borrowing from Patty Heaton's first Emmy Award accepance speech, "Thanks first to God for thinking me up and for Mom and Dad for letting me out!"

-Thanks Al and Val for every moment. Spending time with you will always be the best, the most, the point.
-Thanks to the Nanas now in heaven for all the warmth, the welcome, the cookies and the prayers.
- Thanks nuns who taught me over the years --- Sr. Borg for passing me in algebra in an acceptance that failing me would be an insurrmountable obstacle because I was never going to learn that stuff anyway...Sr. Dot...Sr. Maureen...Sr. Eugenia...Sr. Sharon...
- Thanks Dr. Barger - for calling me rambunctious but for not dismissing me - and Mr. Madison and Mr. Fox and Dr. Stanciu -- there are no words for how well my Magdalen education has served me.
- Thanks to my sisters, the Daughters of St. Paul. - Sr. Raymond. Sr. Linda. Sr. Veritas. Sr. Bernardine. You showed me how to respond to the greatest love. And my sisters who became my closest friends, Rosana, Karen, Helena, Bernie, Katherine James, Sean David.
- Thanks to the priests who have witnessed such a strong "in persona Christi" that I have been able to weather all the weirdness of the post-conciliar era, still sure that the priesthood is a special call to holiness - Fr. Don, Fr. Willy, Fr. Trembley, Fr. Maguire, Fr. Short, Dom Julian, Fr. Benedict, Fr. Mark
- Thanks Delle for coming to class at Northwestern believing that one of the cynical, bored faces out there would hear your message about how powerfully good movies and television could be.
- Thanks Enid for your welcome. And yes, Fr. K for your invitation.
- Thanks to the friends who have made it through the years - Mary and Kev, Celeste, Laura, Deidre
- Thanks new friends Zoe, the Lisas, Anne = (the greatest women in the Northern Hemisphere!), Janet, Amy (forgive the presumption!), Susan, Margaret and "the Emily people"
- Thanks to everyone in the Christian community of Hollywood who have become my companions amd collaborators on this current journey. Someone said to me once that, "Christianity isn't a club you join for the members." I beg to differ. Thanks Dean and Beth, Jan and Lee, Chris and Kathy, Charlie and Debra, Karen and Jim, David Schall, Craig, Scott, Chuck, Jack, Rebecca, Myrna, Marianne, Kelly, Zena, Nan, Patt and Jack, Ralph, David, Sibyl, Cheryl, Linda, John, Nancy and Larry, Jonathan, Gerri, Monika,Karen and Barb.... And for my students who have bourne my harranguing and have transitioned into friends - Clare "the monkey woman", Patrick, Kale and the three Seans, Spencer, Pat, Norris, Amy, Corrie, Andrea, Anthony, Clayton, Laura, Erik, Cheryl...

It's a very, very good life when there are so many people to say "Hey, thanks" to.

Thursday, February 19, 2004

NOT TO BE DISMAYED! CATHOLICS AND THE MOVIE

My friend, Matt Pinto, sent me the following good news about a venture with which he is involved. I am glad some Catholics somewhere are finally doing something except "circumspection as an art form" as regards this movie.

Two weeks ago, Catholic Exchange and Ascension Press (my press) launched Catholic Passion Outreach (www.evangelization.com) . The response has been through the roof: 250,000 web visits last week, thousands of Catholics contacting us to express joy, and the ?pre-selling? of more than 75,000 books in exactly two weeks.
WHAT I WOULD DO WITH A LOT OF MONEY

At a dinner the other night, someone (who is probably tired of hearing me whine about the fact that I hate perpetually having to raise funds for Act One) asked me, "If you had a hundred million dollars, what would you do with it?" Like it's a surprise question. Every non-profit with a vision worth its salt spends many bemused hours imagining what it would be like to be a ministry that didn't have to have its start in Bethlehem. Anyway, here's what I would do....

1. Fire me. And hire somebody who would know how to manage $100,000,000 dolars. I have spent most of my life in the non-profit world and have witnessed well-meaning people take in one dollar through the front door and then blow .90 of it out the back door in bad management and business planning. We are very careful at Act One, but basically because we have been so small we haven't had the luxury of discretionary spending errors. But seriously...

2. Build a beachhead for the Church in Hollywood. We've been calling it the Schall Center in our dreams, after our dear departed David Schall who founded so many of the best things the People of God have going in Hollywood. This would be a smart, hip, inter-denominational center to serve the needs of the creative and professional community from a Christian perspective.

One of the things we have learned with our Act One alumni community is that you can not have real community with physical proximity. You also have to have your own house to be free to do what you need to do. As long as we are the tenants of churches, we are held back by what I can only describe as clerical bureaucracy and small-minded pastoral vision. Churches and religious communities are terribly limited in the good they can do, because they are always short-circuited by self-interest and chain of authority issues. "How will a program in Washington help our church here in Hollywood?" "How many people will join our church if we hold this conference?" "What if someone stands up at an event and says something our church doesn't officially agree with?" "We need our community to get the credit for this." etc. etc. etc.

Our Christian beachhead in Hollywood will include;

A) Classrooms for the Act One training programs which will be expanded beyond the Writing for Hollywood program, to include an Executive Program, a Producing in Hollywood program and a Directing in Hollywood program. Maybe eventually something for actors too, although our mandate is to reach out to those who can affect content.

B) A conference center in which the Church can host seminars and forums and think-tanky kinds of things on all the stuff that is important to us (ethics, spirituality, beauty, meaning) and to the industry (craft, marketing, networking). Again, it has to be hip and cool or they won't come.

C) An artists chapel. It would have to be inter-denominational. If we can find some group of religious priests to run it, we can also have the Blessed Sacrament there. The idea is to make a special place of prayer for artists, and for non-artists to come to pray for artists. I already have my muralist chosen to come up with images that express the transcendent power of each of the art forms. Check out painter Lisa Brown.

D) Offices for pastoral counseling and spiritual direction for the people in the entertainment industry.; We're going to need well-trained pastoral counselors by which I mean they combine spiritual direction with psychological insight. So many desperate people in this town are in therapy with people who are essentially materialists. We need to offer OUR KIND of help. Family counseling to those whose career decisions are wreaking havic in their kids and marriages; Vocational discernment to help individuals figure out if they are supposed to be in this biz, and where in the biz they are called; Ethical sounding boards for those who want to talk about business and creative pressures; Spiritual guides to help artists embrace their cross and carry it to holiness. Also, somebody in the Church has to do something for the young artists ravaged by the porn industry. We need a whole bunch of programs to minister to this most dark industry which is bigger than Hollywoodin economic and cultural terms. (Anybody looking to start a new religious community? Do I hear the Brothers of Purity? Please call or write...)

E) Housing for those young people who are transitioning to L.A. who need a place to land when they first get to town. These will also be used to house the students who come from all over the world to attend our training programs.

F) A state of the art 500 seat theater in which to screen, premiere and celebrate projects that the Christian community can get behind. We need to have a place that is fit for premieres to rival the theaters at the industry Guilds and Academies. We can host film festivals. Basically, it will serve as a powerful affirmation tool. Celebrate what is good as a teaching method.

G) A production and script library, a sound studio and creative spaces for our young artists to study, learn and practice. We can rent out the sound studio as a way of making more connections with other people in the industry.

H) Provide office space to the myriad of wonderful Christian ministries in L.A. that are currently operating out of homes, church basements and college closets. Premise, LAFSC, Open Call, Inter-Mission, Hollywood Connect, Hollywood Prayer Network, Actors Co-op, Media Fellowship International, City of the Angels Film Festival, reel Spirituality -- none of these have a real place to get mail and hold meetings. If we could move under one roof, we could stop duplicating efforts. (Of course, we'd have to be careful not to kill each other too. 'When two or three are gathered in my name, there is antipathy in the midst of them.")

I) A coffee shop for people to meet at all hours, to drop in and find fellowship and smart discussions. It could also be a first employment place for those young artists who are just getting off the bus and on their feet.

Okay, that's the vision. You can keep on whining and thumb-sucking and crying foul at Hollywood, or you can show me the money.

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

SOMETIME IN THE NEXT DAY OR SO...

this blog will be visited by its 100,000th visitor! Our staff is working on showering whomever you are with virtual balloons and flowers.

I think that is even better than coming in third in the St. Blog's Awards....yeah, I do. REALLY. WHEE FOR ME!.... Whe........Wh........W...

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

I SO WANTED TO BE 2ND CORINTHIANS...

You Are Romans
You are Romans.


Which book of the Bible are you?
brought to you by Quizilla

But this seemed to fit...maybe this is why I get along with Evangelicals so well?
BACK BY POPULAR DEMAND…

Because it was such a hit last year, here are the following phrase-length movie reviews which were inspired by my TV writing friend who needs to have his prose similarly short and pithy. And, as a good daughter of the Church, I adopt the new Papal model for movie reviewing.

Cold Mountain – It is as it wasn’t.
Matrix Regurgitated – It isn’t what it was.
Lost in Translation - Atakamo gougi eiga - uh, was.
Pieces of April – Its pieces are better than the sum of its parts was.
Mystic River – It isn’t what everyone is saying it was.
ROTK – It is what it is. [And that is not an opinion…heh heh. Screams of glee!]
The Human Stain – It just shouldn’t have been.
The Station Agent – It is as it is…. for midgets….And train followers.
Monster – It is a good bit of too much of a bad thing.
Seabiscuit - It is a nose short of greatness.
Big Fish – It is very like what is.
Spellbound - It is better than fiction is.
Pirates of the Carribbean - It is Johnny Depp is what it was.
Finding Nemo – It is as good as it gets.
House of Sand and Fog – It is more than people are saying it is.
Peter Pan – It is what it always should have been
The Hulk – It isn’t what Ang Lee really is.
In America – It is much more than cinema in America usually is.
Paycheck - It is not as clever as it thought it was.
Gods and Generals – It is much longer than it was.
Kill Bill – What is it?
HATRED MAKES YOU STUPID

Here is a review of Roger Friedman's dreadful and unfounded attack on Mel and Co. Thanks to David Poland for having the courage to stand up and take issue with a fellow journalist for publishing "an unresearched mess."

For his punishment, I would sentence Friedman to 24 hours of continuous viewing of those self-righteous PSA's NBC is always running with TV stars telling him earnestly, "Hate is not a family value" and "When you say something negative about someone else, you are teaching your children to hate."

Monday, February 16, 2004

POSTSCRIPT: MEL AND DIANE

Phew!
PETER PAN FINALLY GROWS UP

Here is a review I wrote of this film. It first appeared in National Catholic Register and I just found it online. I really liked this movie. I can't figure out why more people didn't go see it.

Sunday, February 15, 2004

I KNOW.... WHAT WAS IN THE WATER BACK IN PORTSMOUTH, RI?...[HUMBLE COUGH]

So, my sister Val's website is up and running here. Val is an opera singer and an Act One alumn, which means she will probably eventually start a program to bring artistry, professionalism, substance and spirituality to Christians trying to make it in opera. Lord knows, that world makes Hollywood look easy and straightlaced....

Anyway, if you need a singer for your event, call Val. She's amazing. And yes, the damn hair is really naturally curly and wonderful.
ONE EASY THING TO DO TO FIX WASHINGTON FAST

My friend Jeff Fortenberry is running for Congress as a Republican in Nebraska. Jeff is a fine and thoughtful man and would serve with dignity and dedication. Check out his web site here, and then write him a nice check.

Friday, February 13, 2004

MY LATEST FROM THE NATIONAL CATHOLIC REGISTER

Originally titled: Five Easy Things the Church Can Do to Fix the Culture Fast. Check it out. Send words of praise.
I'M GOING TO.....ESPAGNA!

Every so often I get a speaking invitation that has me hoping the end of the world isn't coming just yet. One such invite just got pinned down this week. I'm going to Spain in May!

Spain seems like a place that is off the radar mostly. Everybody talks about going to Paris, London and of course, Roma (!!!), but you just don't hear that much about people going to Madrid, Lison and Barcelona. But all that is about to be remedied.

I'll be speaking at a conference at the Catholic University of Valencia from May 13-15. Started through a papal bull in 1247, the university was the passion project of St. Vincent Ferrer. Valencia is on the south eastern coast of Spain right on the Mediterranean. Ordinarily, I turn down all speaking engagements during the months of Act One programs, but, as my Assistant put it, "Barb, SPAIN!" "You're right," I said with growing conviction. "Jesus would want this." So, we're squeezing it in.

Anyway, the Pontifical Council for Culture is sponsoring a conference on Cinema and the Moral Imagination (Or something European sounding like that...Europeans LOVE getting just the right title, although then they always seem to be indifferent to whether the speakers match the title. I've learned to go with it.) I haven't come up with a title of my talk yet, but it will probably be a version of the usual schtick -- only this time backgrounded by fiestas!

Thursday, February 12, 2004

A NEAR OCCASION OF OVERKILL

I was at the Four Seasons for a meeting yesterday, coincidentally while the press junket for The Passion of the Christ was occuring. This was a junket that I was told a month ago was not going to happen. Turns out, the junket was for a select group of foreign and domestic press, but not for the usual line-up of legions of reporters that usually get wined and dined whenever there is a studio release. The misinformation about the junket seems to be just one more mess in a roll-out effort that has been remarkable for missteps and confusion. Icon seems to be doing everything wrong in marketing this project -- but the sheep will still find the film, in what will be yet another testament to its worth.

Anyway, a reporter friend of mine was at the junket. She is supportive of the film, and told me with nervous subdued tones, "Mel spent four hours with Dianne Sawyer." As I was picking my jaw up out of my breakfast fruit, I murmured, "What are they smoking?" My friend nodded solemnly, "Yeah. I know..."

Anybody who has ever done any kind of press interviews knows that this is a nightmarish scenario (ref. Michael Jackson's shock over the documentary that came from the all-points access he gave to a journalist once.). I have only met Mel once, and he struck me as someone whose picture might be found in the dictionary under "artistic temperment." I liked him, but he has a "spontaneity" about him that would make me excessively neurotic if I was one of his people.

For example, in one moment after the screening I attended last June, a minister-type was trying to show off his credentials as a Biblical expert, by challenging some of the artistic license Mel used in the film. The minister, a more fundamentalist type, kept insisting that the movie needed to have all of its scenes be rooted in the literal Scriptural texts. Mel went around with him a few times defending a certain scene as having been gleaned out of different texts, and then finally shurgged, "I don't know. I guess I just pulled it out of my ass." I almost fell off my chair with glee (particularly at the minister's resultant HORROR!). It was hysterical. And perfect. But not the stuff of primetime.

Mel is an artist. He's not a diplomat, a scholar, a theologian, or a politician. Hence, the idea of ABC having four hours of him to sift for the most incendiary remarks makes me shiver. I don't think it will affect the turnout for the film, which the industry is already predicting will top thirty million in the first week, but it could pull down more opprobrium on Mel, who has already paid every kind of price for getting this project produced and distributed.

I can't help admiring him for setting himself up for a personal Ecce Homo at the hands of ABC.
ACT ONE, 2004 -- STILL TIME TO APPLY

This is the time of year in which I always panic, because we only have a handful of applications for our summer screenwriting intensives, this year in Washington, DC in May, and here in Hollywood in July. Generally, we get a flood of applications in the last week or so, but still, every year I start to worry that the flood will never come and so extend the application a week or so and throw off our beautifully planned out annual schedule.

So, I just extended the deadline a week yesterday to March 7th. If you know anyone who wants to be a screenwriter and who doesn't want to invest two years in film school, (or maybe who already did, but who now wants a finishing school...), please encourage them to check out Act One.

Too many people hover on the brink of applying, waiting for a sign from God as to whether they should apply. The hovering should come after the application process. The sign from God will be very much IF you get in to what has become a ridiculously competitive program. At least, it has been competitive in recent years....this year we have very few applications which means I will have to end the whole program and fire our staff and just let the Church give up on Hollywood altogther.

[sigh]
PIECES OF A GOOD MOVIE

Pieces of April will not make it to most movie theaters around the country. Written and directed by the talented Peter Hedges (About a Boy, What's Eating Gilbert Grape), this latest film is a strictly arthouse project that would have gone by unnoticed except for a standout performance - and now Oscar nominated - by Patricia Clarkson (Miracle, The Station Agent). A prolific actress with over 40 feature film credits, Clarkson has built a reputation in the industry, but has largely been under the broader mainstream's radar.

Honestly, I thought her performance in The Station Agent was more nuanced and deft than the one here - principally because that project had a better script than Pieces of April. I can't see her winning the statue for her regretful mother dying of breast cancer, seeking a reunion with her rebellious daughter, played flatly by Katie Holmes (Dawson's Creek), but I am glad her overall work has been acknowledged with a nom.

Not sure what to say about this film really. It is a competent, small, slice of life project about a young messed up woman (Holmes) who has invited her family to her dreadful ghetto pad for Thanksgiving dinner. "April" is living in sin with her latest boyfriend, and for some reason unsupported by the screenplay, she has left all her anti-family angst behind her and now wants to make nice with them by cooking a dinner that is absolutely beyond her skills to produce. The film's inciting incident is the breakdown of her stove which precipitates two hours of April carrying her semi-cooked turkey from apartment to apartment, to coax her fellow ramshackle apartment mates to let her use their stoves. The "story" is intercut with images of April's warring family on their roadtrip from the suburbs to the city and scenes of April's apartment building which turns out to be a United Nations depot in which everyone of color is kind and good, and the only cruel and angry person is a white male. Okay, if you have to...

Despite its flaws and almost "home movie" scale production values, Pieces of April has an almost fascinating aspect to it, kind of like seeing a carwreck on the side of the road. (I knew a tragic fellow once who used to love to read real crime stories. It became obvious really quick that his impulse was the same as summed up by Roseanne Barr when people asked her why America loved her show: "Our lives on the show are so extremely screwed up, it makes people feel better about the mess their own lives are in.") While occasionally uneven in tone, and several drafts away from excellence, Pieces of April ultimately bears a good message about the absurdity of alienation in a family. For people who like art films, this film is a shakey thumbs up. For people who like studio films, stay away.

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

JOAN REVISITED

My friend and Act One alum, Dr. Pat Phalen, took me up on my request for a more complete episode analysis of the recent Joan of Arcadia "hate-crime" episode. (I hate the phrase 'hate-crime'. Is there really any other kind? Crime is always about hating the good/God....) I was going to have Pat print her message in the comments for the original post, but that has been so clogged by the seems to me futile argument going on down there that I am going to print her assessment here.

I watched Joan this week...with a group of friends who had
never seen it before. Of course, I built up the show to them to the
point where everyone was looking forward to it. Then, in the first few
scenes, I became very uncomfortable about telling them the show was
"smart." The storyline about the minister, the redneck and the
detective was the same old same old. I immediately started to apologize
to everyone...but we saw it through. The twist was very obvious -- but
it was interesting that the boy had received God's message of love from
the minister. It wasn't the minister who told him that "being" gay was
a sin. Unfortunately, the difference between "being" gay and sodomy was
never introduced -- at least it was left vague rather than denied.
Anyway, my own reading of the redneck was that he himself was not
particularly devout. I had the impression from the show that he didn't
even go to church -- this church was the boy's place of worship...not
the family's. This may be me trying to find the smartness in the
script, or it may have been intended -- I'd have to watch the show again
to know. In any case, I found the storyline development unworthy of the
show overall. I was also disappointed to see the obvious attempt to
start dealing with teen sexuality like every other program deals with it
(teens don't think, they just have sex. All of them. It's fun...Let's
watch.). I was really hoping that the stars of the show would be deeper
than that -- maybe to the point of thinking -- and choosing the smart
alternative. Is diversity too much to ask for from prime time
television? We would not do a program where the stars just do drugs.
All of them. It's fun...Let's watch. Would we?

All this said, I don't think the show was a total disappointment. Joan
had some terrific lines, funny and deep. The people with whom I watched
the show actually liked it and said they would watch it again. But they
were willing to overlook several deficiencies in the quality of this
episode and concentrate just on Joan's lines!

Is it just me, or were there too many versions of God in this episode?
And weren't some of the discussions between God and Joan kind of, as I
guess you Hollywood writers say, on the nose?

Monday, February 09, 2004

JOAN BURNS CHRISTIANS AT THE STAKE

Yes. I did see some of this past Friday's Joan of Arcadia. And, yes, I did think it was an unfair caricature of a Christian of the type that we have all become unhappily accustomed in primetime. And, no, I do not feel any compulsion to defend the show. I haven't felt any compulsion to say anything critical about it up to now, but I'm getting confused and outraged emails, so....

Honestly, I couldn't stomach more than the first twenty minutes of the show, so I switched off, and maybe I missed the fair and balanced twist that the epsiode was going to get to eventually. If I did miss it, please, some of you JA devotees, post here.

The part I saw involved a redneck Christian middle-aged father beating a homosexual minister to a pulp, and then using the excuse that the minister had it coming because he had molested the rednecK's son. Of course, it was a trumped up charge, because AS EVERYBODY KNOWS, homosexuals do not molest children REALLY.

The episode was really badly written and had Joan's police chief father "trick" out of the man's son that he hadn't been molested using a stupid line of questioning that wouldn't have tripped up a four year old...but then, these are Christians and their bigotry makes them stupid...or else they are just innately stupid and so susceptible to bigotry...whatever.

Anyway, it seemed to me like the gist of the episode was to boldly challenge the homophobic notion that homosexuals tend to be attracted to minors. Oh yes, and to remind America that Christians are evil, sneaky, brutal and hypocritical.

Honestly (John...), the writing in the piece I saw was so bad that I didn't need the unfair characterization of one particular religion and the superficial presentation of a complex social issue to make me turn the channel. The problem is, when you are competing with fabulous procedural shows like NYPD-Blue and Law and Order, you just don't have the leeway to put on a sloppy, silly interrogation scene, without looking, well, sloppy and silly. I have a particular disdain for scenes that scream, "Trust us. We know it looks like the scene is obvious and just driving toward a plot-point, but it is really clever and tricky." It was just awkward and embarrassing.

I hate the idea of a show in which God is a character being cloying and easy.

What's probably going on here, is the all-consuming desire on the part of people in the entertainment industry to win the approval of their peers. You do that through the "brave" act of offending the sensibilities and impugning the intelligence of people who love God. It would actually be a much braver act in Hollywood to look the industry's elitism and politics in the eye and spit. But perhaps this would take heroic courage.

Pray for the show.

ROCK THE RED CARPET?

Has anybody else put together the weird synchronicity of The Passion of the Christ opening the Wednesday before the Academy Awards? It's just kind of weird that this is the first year that they moved the Oscars back to February, and then that Lent is late this year.

The result is that if the movie opens huge, it will be in Hollywood's frontal lobe on its biggest night, and hopefully, render all the celebrity preening and posturing that much more absurd. It might even make some of them a little hysterical and frantic, and maybe they'll burst out even more embarrassing statements than usual, about how "scary" it is that Americans are flocking to a, you know, movie about Christianity. I know I'm looking forward to it!

It would be soooo cool if the morning after the Oscars, the news of The Passion's opening overshadowed media discussions of star cleavage.

Sunday, February 08, 2004

MONEY WELL SPENT

For most of my life, I have listened to committed Catholics malign the NEA as the source of a lot of what's wrong with the world. It's been right up there with the iconocalstic "enforcers" of Vatican II for popularity.

More than just greenlighting obscene trash like Mapplethorpe, the NEA in the hands of the mostly leftwing creative community was perpetually spewing unfair radical politics disguised at art on PBS, on NPR, PRI and at the local art museum.

My posture for many years has been to march around opining that government subsidized art was always bad art, and that a constiuent element of the artist's sacrifice was poverty. With all due respect, I disagree with myself.

I just finished serving as a panelist for the new "Gioia-ized" NEA, and I find myself now happily furnished with a new set of predispositions. The truth is, the NEA plays a vital role in supporting the dissemination of many wonderfully creative and beautiful artistic projects. The agency - at least under Gioia - is not about commissioning "important" works (ie. works that exist solely to make social policy statements), but rather about helping the average American have a broader access to the beautiful creative work being done out there. The presumption is that art is good for us, and that the government has a role in facilitating the well-roundedness of its citizenry. The evaluation forms we used in considering grants were all about artistic excellence, mastery of craft, and substance of the work -- standards taken right out of Aristotle for those who have eyes to read.

Gioia's NEA is not afraid of the prophetic role of the arts, but is intent on seeing that the messages inherent in supported projects be "fair." What a great little word, eh? Positively empowering.