Movie Reviews by William Sternman

The House of Mirth

The House of Mirth

 

New York society in 1905 is, at least as envisioned by Edith Wharton, an endless game of cat and mouse. Instead of paws with claws, the players rely on innuendo, ambiguity, archness. The purpose of the game is to get your interlocutor to reveal or commit him or herself, so you can continue to be aloof and unaffected. Nuance and coolness are everything; sincerity and feeling, nothing. Those who play the game well win all the best prizes: brilliant marriages and advancement up the social ladder. No price can ever be too high. Those who have too much integrity, like Lily Bart, live lives of ever increasing quiet desperation. Even a discreetly phrased cry for help falls on deliberately deaf ears. Asking for help, which implies needing help, is embarrassingly infra dig. One must never allow the least chink to mar the artificial façade. One must suffer, even die, in silence rather than reveal the awful truth.

 

Watching this smiling danse macabre is like seeing an elaborately staged ballet. It looks delicately beautiful because you are too far away from the dancers to know or to care that their feet, if not their hearts, are bleeding.

 

This is a movie in which talk—what is said or not said, and how it is said or not said—is of paramount importance. To keep it from being merely talkie, you need actors who know how to use their voices like musical instruments to underpin their seemingly inconsequential remarks with layers of unexpressed significance. Gillian Anderson, of The X-Files, is the last person I would have thought of to play Lily Bart; now I can’t think of anyone else. Her tone of voice, her eyes, her expression, her body movements all eloquently express what is going on in her mind while she tries to play this deadly game of social bluff and counter-bluff. She gets flawless support from Dan Aykroyd, Eleanor Bron, Terry Kinney, Anthony LaPaglia, Laura Linney, Elizabeth McGovern, Jodhi May and especially Eric Stoltz.

 

Writer-director Terence Davies has done an admirable job of adapting the novel and choreographing his large and diverse cast. In his faithfulness to the original, however, he has been forced to give his movie a melodramatic, soap-opera-ish ending that smacks too much of the heavy hand of Theodore Dreiser (Carrie) than Wharton’s more delicate touch. But this is merely the blemish that sets off the beautiful whole.

Save the Last Dance

Save the Last Waltz

 

We all know the drill all too well. The day she meets him, she describes him as an “asshole” (fast replacing “fuck” as Hollywood’s obligatory naughty word; check out Proof of Life for confirmation). In the movies, that always means she’s going to fall head over heels in love with him; and so she does. But they’re from two different worlds, you see. She’s a middle-class gal who comes to live in the ghetto with her run-away father when her mother dies; he’s one of the boys in the ‘hood. She’s a ballerina; he’s a hip-hopper. She’s naïve; he’s street-smart. She’s white (Julia Stiles); he’s black (Sean Patrick Thomas).

 

Since they’re also teenagers, the parallels to Romeo and Juliet are unavoidable. But in this case, it’s not their families that are feuding but their races.

 

Yes, the plot is twice-told, even thrice-told. But don’t forget, the original story had been kicking around Europe for at least 120 years before Shakespeare appropriated it for his own. Not to mention the various film versions, with Leslie Howard, Laurence Harvey, Leonard Whiting, Richard Beymer (West Side Story) and that Leonardo kid.

 

What’s important is not the familiarity or even predictability of the plot but the way Duane Adler and Cheryl Edwards’ screenplay and Thomas Carter’s direction make you feel as though you were seeing it all for the first time. And the way Stiles’s and Thomas’s sincerity and intensity make you suffer through all the ups and downs of their relationship as though you’d never gone through it all on the screen many times before.

 

The milieu is novel too, at least to this white man—not Shakespeare’s Verona but an integrated inner-city high school and an all-black club. And so are the vividly drawn characters—Kerry Washington, as Thomas’s outspoken sister, Chenille; Fredro Starr, as his best friend and worst enemy; Terry Kinney, as Stiles’s father, to name just a few.

 

Equally novel is the way the racial difference is handled: they fall in love as though it were the most natural thing in the world. It’s his sister and friends who resent her intrusion into their world. Even though Stiles is her friend, Chenille resents this white girl taking “one of the few decent men left after drugs, jail and drive-bys.”

 

These days, some people are so terrified of their own emotions that they label any movie that makes them feel—like Save the Last Dance, Chocolat, Billy Elliot or Remember the Titans—corny or sentimental. Ignore them. Feelings are good. They’re what make us uniquely human. Responding to the feelings of others makes us even more human. This is a very human movie.

The Family Man

The Family Man

 

This new Nicolas Cage movie inevitably calls to mind It’s a Wonderful Life. In that 1946 Frank Capra movie, an angel (Henry Travers) shows George Bailey (James Stewart) what life in his hometown would have been like if he’d never been born. It’s all nonsense, of course. I don’t mean the angel or being able to see an alternate time stream—I can accept them as plot devices—but the idea that without George everybody’s life would have been ruined.

 

Take Mary (Donna Reed), the young woman who would become George’s wife. We meet her when George does. She’s pretty, spunky, charming, and she already has a boyfriend. Is it conceivable that if she hadn’t met George, she would have been inexplicably transformed into the dried-up old-maid librarian we see in the fantasy sequence? Not to me, it isn’t.

 

David Diamond and David Weissman’s script for The Family Man is more plausible, assuming you accept the basic premise. Hard-driving, Type A Wall Street tycoon Jack Campbell (Cage) is given a chance to see what his life would have been like if he had married his college sweetheart (the lovely and charming Téa Leoni) after all. Thirteen years before she had begged him not to go to London to take advantage of a one-year scholarship at a prestigious London school because she felt he’d never come back to her. He didn’t. I found it hard to swallow the fact that a guy who was so much in love would just dump his sweetheart without even a Dear Jane letter, but once I got that down, it was smooth sailing.

 

Deprived of his high-living perks, Jack finds himself with two kids, a dog and a job at Big Ed’s emporium. (How this Jack was able to step so effortlessly into the other Jack’s shoes, even to the point of becoming a crackerjack tire salesman in nothing flat constituted another leap into the dark for me. More realistic is Rock Hudson’s faux sales ace in Man’s Favorite Sport?) At first he hates his new life, then he realizes that this is really the life for him. So, of course, the Ghost of the Christmas that Might Have Been (Don Cheadle) yanks him back into his old, now unwanted milieu.

 

Movies like It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol and TV shows like Twice in a Lifetime and even Touched by an Angel appeal to us because they reassure us that it’s never too late to take the regretted road not traveled, to be psychologically, if not spiritually, born again. Director Brett Ratner’s movie is a particularly good example of the genre because its characters are so real and human. We need them to find what we now know they really want, so we can believe that we too can go back to the crossroads and take a turn for the better. When they resolve their dilemma, as we know they will, we not only feel good, we feel uplifted. It really is a wonderful life after all.

AntiTrust

AntiTrust

 

When Clark Gable took off his shirt in It Happened One Night and revealed nothing but his bare chest, sales of men’s undershirts plummeted. When President John F. Kennedy kept appearing bareheaded, men’s hat sales went south. Now that Ryan Phillippe dons glasses every time he sits at a computer (which is very often) in Peter Howitt’s thriller, can we expect contact lenses to also lose their allure? No man can tell.

 

Phillippe, who played the pretty young hunk in 54, is a computer geek who takes a prize job at a Microsoft-like company against the advice of his higher-minded buds and soon discovers that the worm in the apple (pun intended) may very well be the Bill Gates-like president of the company (Tim Robbins). To unravel the mystery, Phillippe spends an inordinate amount of time at the keyboard tapping out incomprehensible (to me, at any rate) code.

 

You’d think all this reading of arcane screen text would have the same turn-off effect as non-English subtitles. But once I realized there was nothing to be lost by not trying, I just assumed that what I couldn’t understand was as earth-shattering as the Rosetta stone and let it go at that.

 

The plot is all too familiar—one lone man trying to save the world from a megalomaniac. (By the end of the flick, Robbins is giving Norma Desmond a run for the money in the eye-rolling histrionics derby.) Of course, he doesn’t know whom he can trust, and, of course, he finds out that the people he thinks he can trust, he can’t. And so on.

 

Familiar, yes. But so is a roller coaster, yet no matter how many times you’ve taken the same ride, it still gets your adrenaline pumping.

 

Not as good as The Spanish Prisoner or The Game, but enjoyable if your expectations aren’t too high.

Dracula 2000

Dracula 2000

 

Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas) puts it this way, more or less, in The Bad and the Beautiful: If you want to scare people, don’t show them the monster; let them imagine it for themselves. What this fictional movie director (based, I believe, on the young David O. Selznick) realized was what we imagine is always more frightening than what we see.

 

Sure, you can scare anyone by jumping unexpectedly out of a hiding place. But once he realizes what happened, his fear evaporates. The fear that lasts is the fear you create in your own mind. (Think of Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird.)

 

Director Patrick Lussier takes the second approach. He scared me again and again by lulling me into a sense of false security, then springing another slavering vampire at me. It worked, but like stereotyped Chinese food, it didn’t stick with me. It was a cheap trick and I resented it, as I would if he had made me laugh at a comedy by tickling me.

 

Even in a horror film, I want characters I can believe in and a plot that, however fantastic, makes sense in its own context. Here we have animated stick figures that even an accomplished actor like Christopher Plummer (another fine mess you’ve gotten yourself into, Chris) or a charismatic one like Jeri Ryan (Seven of Nine in Star Trek: Voyager) can’t bring to life.

 

And the plot. Yes, the plot. There is that to consider, isn’t there?

 

I wonder how Jonathan Shields would deal with something that doesn’t exist.

 

 

Dude, Where’s My Car

Dude, Where’s My Car?

 

 

The great, burning, unanswered question is how the dude who’s looking for his car (Ashton Kutcher) ever got a driver’s license in the first place. We are not talking dumb or dumber here; we are talking hands-down dumbest. To quote Warren William in The Dark Horse: “He's the dumbest human being I ever saw. Every time he opens his mouth he subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.”

 

Kutcher and his bud, Seann (sic) William Scott, are not only dumb (I want to make this perfectly clear), they’re predictable and boring too. Their humor is straight out of a junior-high-school toilet: a man getting hit in the crotch by the baseball bat of a blind boy, for example. (Did I fail to mention that not only are these doofuses dumb, but the first-time script by Philip Stark is every bit as dumb?)

 

And yet—guess what?—Kutcher and Scott are, in addition to being dumb (you get my drift, I trust), so good-natured and high-spirited that you just can’t help liking them. It’s like having a big, lumbering dog that keeps doing the same stupid thing over and over again. The stupider he acts, the more you love him. And these dudes are really…but I think you get the idea by now.

The Emperor's New Groove

The Emperor’s New Groove

 

 

This Walt Disney production has a lot going for it: a cheeky script by Roger Allers, director Mark Dindal, Matthew Jacobs, David Reynolds and Chris Williams; deliciously irreverent and high-spirited voiceovers by David Spade, John Goodman and Eartha Kitt; and lively animation that does justice to the vocals. I wish I could say that I enjoyed it more than I did, but my inner child, for whom this movie was made, obdurately refused to come out of hiding. Like me, he says he prefers sophisticated dialogue (All About Eve), mature plot development (The Heiress), “slurpy” romantic songs (“Long Ago and Far Away”), and, above all, real, live human beings (or, at least, animals) to identify with. Maybe some day, when I’m in my second childhood (he’s still in his first, of course), we’ll join hands and revel in the adventures of a self-centered young monarch who learns humility when he’s turned into a llama. Don’t hold your breath; I’m not holding mine.

Snatch

Snatch

 

The really funny thing about writer-director Guy Ritchie’s British import is that it really is funny, despite the foulest (and loudest) soundtrack and the most sadistically brutal storyline of any movie I’ve seen since I started reviewing current releases again at the beginning of October. Just when I think that the word “fuck” couldn’t be used more often in a script without its becoming incomprehensible or that the word was being phased out in favor of the more delicate “asshole,” Madonna’s husband exposes me for the hopeless naïf I am. And just when I thought that the decibel and the gloating sadism levels couldn’t be cranked up any further, the Brits show up on our shores to prove me wrong again. (The bright side to all this is that putting your fingers in your ears muffles the noise without blotting out the dialogue.)

 

But that’s not all. Ritchie’s plot is so complicated that after a while I gave up trying to integrate the scene I was watching into the whole and just enjoyed it on its own merits.

 

Finally, the British accents sometimes made me wonder whether or not we really do speak the same language. This is especially true in the case of American Brad Pitt, who speaks a pikey (Gypsy) patois that even the Brits find impossible to understand. Oddly enough, even though I hardly caught even a snatch of his meaning, just listening to him and trying to read his good-natured expressions was a delight.

 

All the characters have Runyonesque soubriquets, like Franky Four Fingers (Benicio Del Toro), Bullet Tooth Tony (Vinnie Jones) and Boris The Blade (Rade Serbedzija). Del Toro does an impressive turn imitating a Hasidic rabbi discussing with four other imitators how the mistranslation of the word for “young woman” gave Christ an immaculate conception. I got so involved in the conversation and the novel way it was presented that I was quite annoyed (and startled) when it ended literally with a bang. But don’t go to this movie expecting to see much more of Del Toro: he’s gone within the first half hour.

 

Although the title could be an intentionally sexual double entendre and the “f” word is used more often than almost any other in the English language (except, maybe, by the Gypsies; God only knows what they’re saying), no one actually does it. These blokes are too obsessed with snatching an 84K diamond to have time for a leisurely roll in the hay. Besides, Ritchie’s machine-gun editing doesn’t give them a chance.

 

So what makes Snatch so funny? It’s the characters—they’re almost all doofuses. Even more important, it’s the way they react to the scrapes they get themselves into (even when you can’t quite understand them, like the pikey). I felt as though I was watching a British gangster take on Alice in Wonderland. No matter how serious Alice is, the people she meets respond in an off-the-wall manner that doesn’t seem to have very much to do with reality. As for me, I’m very late for a most important tea party.

The Contender

The Contender

 

Most of the commentary I’ve come across dismissed (and dissed) The Contender as farfetched. Farfetched? I’ll give you farfetched.

 

An American President, with a reputation for sexual harassment, risks his presidency and his much-vaunted legacy in order to get a blowjob in the Oval Office from a White House intern. His semen on her dress clinches his guilt. He is impeached, tried by the Senate and exonerated. His popularity soars.

 

Or how’s this for farfetched?

 

Another American President compromises his presidency and his country by having sex in the White House with the mistress of a Mafia kingpin.

 

And if you really want farfetched, how about the American President who is so determined to win reelection by a landslide that he hires a team of ham-handed bindlestiffs to break into the offices of the opposing party to steal their campaign plans. They’re caught, but he denies having anything to do with them. During a Senate hearing, it is revealed, almost by chance, that the President has been bugging the Oval Office and the tapes haven’t been destroyed. Except that one 18-minute stretch was accidentally erased when his secretary performed a contortion that would have turned Harry Houdini pea-green with envy. Another tape implicates him in the cover-up, and under the threat of impeachment he becomes the first President ever to resign. After delivering an embarrassingly mawkish farewell to the White House staff, he flashes the V-for-victory sign in the doorway of his helicopter and flies away.

 

Compared to those scenarios, Rod Lurie’s political thriller is as credible as the alphabet. Even more important, it is breathlessly compelling. You don’t have time to think as it sweeps you along in its path. Like a nightmare, you’re so gripped by its emotional intensity that the question of believability never comes up.

 

As if that weren’t enough, The Contender features some of the best performances of the year, especially Joan Allen as a Senator whose integrity is more important to her than political advancement, Gary Oldman as a Senator whose political advancement is more important to him than his integrity, Jeff Bridges as an easy-going Clintonesque President, Christian Slater as a naïve beltway newbie, and William L. Petersen as a pol with a Machiavellian secret agenda.

 

What I find farfetched is that so many people were unable to just sit back, suspend disbelief and enjoy themselves.

Mark Ruffalo

Mark Ruffalo

 

While all the world has been praising Laura Linney (and rightly so) for her performance in You Can Count on Me, only perfunctory nods have been given to the even more impressive performance by Mark Ruffalo. Linney plays the sensitive, understanding big sister we all would like to have had (and never did) and her lovely performance warms our hearts right from the start. But Ruffalo has the harder task of making us respond to her well-meaning, irresponsible brother. The process begins with one of the most beautiful epiphanies I’ve ever seen on screen: as he’s telling his sister what he’s been up to since they were last in contact, he unexpected and quietly starts to cry. In an instant, the adult façade melts away to reveal the frightened little boy hiding behind it. In another scene, almost as revelatory, Ruffalo is spouting off to his precocious nephew (Rory Culkin) when the boy asks him what he’s talking about. As much a surprise to himself as to us, he answers, quite simply, “I don’t know.” Not only have we gotten another look behind the façade, but so has he. This astonishing young actor makes his character so transparently human that nothing he does can turn off the love we feel for him. Sure, he’s flawed, but he’s also fine just the way he is.

 

While I’m on the subject of You Can Count on Me, I’d like to pay tribute to another unappreciated performance, that of writer-director Ken Lonergan as a good-intentioned but befuddled priest. In other hands, he might be a figure of fun, but Lonergan is too fond of him to let us do anything but share his affection.

 

 

©2001 William Sternman

 

 

Religion in the Movies

Religion in the Movies

by

William Sternman

 

I didn’t realize until I started writing this article that my favorite movie is also the most spiritual movie I’ve ever seen. That came as quite a surprise to me, because neither I nor anyone else had ever considered this slick product of a big Hollywood studio either spiritual or religious. But it changed my thinking about religion—and my life--forever.

 

The movie begins with this description of its hero, Larry Darrell:

 

“He is not famous. It may be that when his life at last comes to an end he will leave no more trace of his sojourn on this earth than a stone thrown into a river leaves on the surface of the water. Yet it may be that the way of life he has chosen for himself may have an ever-growing influence over his fellow men so that, long after his death perhaps, it may be realized that there lived in this age a very remarkable creature.”

 

Before he went off to fight in World War I, Larry was a typical fun-loving American, but he comes back filled with doubts about the meaning of life.

 

“I don’t think I will ever find peace until I make up my mind about things. It’s so difficult to put into words! The minute you try you feel embarrassed. You say to yourself, ‘Who am I to bother my head about this, that, and the other? Wouldn’t it be better to follow the beaten path and let what’s coming to you come?’ Then I think of a guy I knew. A minute before he was full of life and fun. Then he was dead. It was the last day of the war. Almost the last moment. He could have saved himself. But he didn’t. He saved me—and died. So he’s gone—and I’m here, alive. Why? It’s all so meaningless. You can’t help but ask yourself what life’s all about. Whether there’s any sense to it, or whether it’s just a—stupid blunder.”

 

An acquaintance tells Larry that in India he met “a man I never thought to meet in this world. A saint. People go from all parts of India to see him, to tell him their troubles, ask his advice and listen to his teaching. And they go away strengthened in soul and at peace. But it is not his teaching that is so remarkable. It’s the man himself.”

 

Larry asks him why he went to India.

 

“To escape my pursuer. He followed me there. I’ve wallowed in the gutters of half the seaports of Europe to put him off my track. He was waiting for me. I know that however far I flee, one day he will come up with me and I shall feel the terrible hand on my shoulder.”

 

“Wouldn’t it be better,” Larry asks, “to face the issue and take your punishment?”

 

“Ah, but you don’t know what the punishment is! It’s not prison or the hangman’s rope. I could face that. It’s mercy, forgiveness, love. Didn’t anyone ever tell you that I’m an unfrocked priest? It’s not the police I’m running away from. I’d kill anyone who tried to arrest me. It’s God.”

 

Larry meets the Indian holy man, who tells him that “the path to salvation is difficult to pass over—as difficult as the sharp edge of a razor. But this much we know, and all religions teach it: in every one of us there is a spark of the infinite goodness that created us. When we leave this earth we are reunited with it as a raindrop falling from heaven is at last reunited with the sea which gave it birth.”

 

During a mountaintop retreat, Larry has a vision.

 

“It was just at that moment before night ends and day begins, when the whole world seems to tremble in the balance…. All of a sudden I had a strange sensation. I felt as if I had been released from my body—that I was suspended in mid-air. Then everything that had been confused before became clear to me. I had a sense of knowledge more than human. I felt I had broken away and was free…. I felt that if it lasted another minute I’d die. And yet I was willing to die if I could only hold onto it because for that one moment I had a feeling that—that— [God and I were one].”

 

At the end of the movie the narrator tries to explain Larry to his puzzled former fiancée.

 

“My dear, Larry has found what we all want and very few of us ever get… I don’t think anyone can fail to be better and nobler and kinder for knowing him. You see, my dear, goodness is, after all, the greatest force in the world, and he’s got it….”

 

You can imagine what an effect all this had on a thirteen-year-old boy whose conversations with God always turned out to be soliloquies. I was convinced that Larry Darrell was a real person and I wanted to sit at the feet of this worldly saint. I wanted to become monk. Conversely, the movie The Razor’s  Edge and the Somerset Maugham novel on which it was based, gave me permission to think the unthinkable—that there was, after all, no God.

 

Until 1959, this was the only American movie I ever saw that made me think about the meaning of religion and spirituality. There were, of course, films like The Song of Bernadette, in 1943, about a Catholic saint, and The Keys of the Kingdom, 1944, about a Catholic missionary who is a failure in everyone’s eyes but God’s—but the religiosity of the protagonists was a foregone conclusion and their spirituality was not discussed.

 

Still, they were better than the movies of the Thirties in which priests played by Pat O’Brien or Spencer Tracy were too good to be true. Or movies of the Forties like Going My Way, Come to the Stable and The Bells of St. Mary’s, in which priests were regular fellows like Bing Crosby, singing “Swinging on a Star,” or lovable old codgers like Barry Fitzgerald, and nuns were saints in habits, like Ingrid Bergman, or all-around good joes like Loretta Young and Celeste Holm.

 

A British movie, Black Narcissus, 1947, about English nuns setting up a convent in the Himalayas, did depict its nuns as individuals with passions, including sexual, like the rest of us.

 

If you’re wondering why all the movies I’ve mentioned, except for The Razor’s Edge, are about Catholics, it’s because during the Thirties and Forties Catholicism was the religion of choice in Hollywood, despite the fact that the heads of most of the Hollywood studios were Jews. Occasionally, you’d see a mild little movie about a minister, but I never saw a rabbi in a picture until Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, 1977.

 

The post-World War II period saw a rash of Biblical and quasi-Biblical spectacles which glorified Christianity…sort of. In Quo Vadis? (1951) a Roman centurion converts to Christianity because he’s in love with a Christian. In The Robe (1953), based on Lloyd C. Douglas’s novel, another Roman centurion, present at the Crucifixion, is transformed by his possession of Christ’s robe. In its sequel, Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), Caligula tries to get the robe for himself. Finally, in 1959, we have the incredibly boring Ben-Hur, winner of eleven Academy Awards, in which a Jew sees the Christian light. These spectacles were often entertaining, but their spirituality was pro-forma at best. I’ve never been able to bring myself to see The Ten Commandments (1956), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), or King of Kings (1961), featuring a Jesus with shaven armpits.

 

The only movie of the period that I found inspiring was The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1961), in which Ingrid Bergman gives a luminous performance as an English working girl determined to become a missionary in China.

 

The Brits came through again in 1955 with a film adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel The End of the Affair, in which a woman makes a bargain with God and then has to live with the consequences. The movie discussed man’s relationship with God and had a powerful effect on my religious thinking. So much so that I became a fan of Greene’s novels about tortured Catholics.

 

Then, in 1959, came Fred Zinnemann’s powerful The Nun’s Story, which tried to portray what it was really like to be a nun, including the conflicts and contradictions. When the Mother Superior of her convent orders the novice played by Audrey Hepburn to deliberately fail a test that she knows she can pass with flying colors, Sister Luke begs to be allowed to tell at least one person of her sacrifice. Her superior answers disdainfully that that’s “humility with hooks, a humility that takes something back for the sacrifice.” I’ve never forgotten that phrase, “humility with hooks.”

 

In 1960, Inherit the Wind reenacted the famous Scopes trial of the Twenties, in which the legality of the Tennessee law that prohibited the teaching of evolution in the public schools was attacked. The humanist Clarence Darrow is challenged by the fundamentalist William Jennings Bryant (although they have different names in the movie) to name one thing he considers holy.

 

“The individual human mind. In a child’s ability to master the multiplication table, there is more holiness than all your shouted hosannas and holy holies. An idea is more important than a monument and the advancement of man’s knowledge more miraculous than all the sticks turned to snakes and the parting of the waters.”

 

Although the movie unfairly stacks the deck against the fundamentalist, this humanist declaration still retains its power.

 

1960 also saw the release of Elmer Gantry, based on Sinclair Lewis’s novel about a salesman turned religious con man. Religious people were no longer automatically considered good and clean.

 

In 1961, I was haunted by another British import, Whistle Down the Wind, in which a group of children believe a fleeing murderer is actually Christ.

 

My most spiritual experience in the movies came while watching Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). In the Crucifixion scene, the camera looks down on the people at the base of the cross from Jesus’s viewpoint. Suddenly I was up there on the cross, looking across a vast landscape to the horizon. Instead of pain, I felt exhilaration and a wonderful feeling of detachment. It was the most transcendent experience I’ve ever had.

 

Since I can’t possibly top that, I’m going to end this homily on a more prosaic note, from Bull Durham (1988):

 

“I believe in the Church of Baseball. I've tried all the major religions, and most of the minor ones. I've worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan. I know things. For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there are 108 stitches in a baseball. When I heard that, I gave Jesus a chance. But it just didn't work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me. I prefer metaphysics to theology. You see, there's no guilt in baseball, and it's never boring...which makes it like sex.”

 

©2000 William Sternman

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