It’s not anti-Catholic, because it’s Gnostic.


MTV Movies Blog has posted the second part of their interview with Chris Weitz, writer-director of The Golden Compass. It includes these interesting bits:

QUESTION #5 (from HisDarkMaterials.org):
The potential of the upcoming film has become somewhat controversial, mainly due to the misguided notion that the books are deliberately and vehemently anti-religious and that the aim of the series was to “kill” God. Most notable, The Catholic League recently published a rather overzealous article that has been widely spread across a variety of media. How would you react to the statements made; that Philip Pullman is simply a messenger for a virulently atheist cause and is endeavoring to ensnare as many children as possible with his anti-religious message?

ANSWER:
Hey guys, great website. Well, I agree with you. I think that the charge that Pullman wants to “kill God,” in children’s minds or anybody else’s, is wrongheaded, and has been supported with some really selective cutting and pasting. I think Pullman probably has an issue with a certain view of God – which is to say, as a subject worth killing people over. In that regard, the institution that I think most closely resembles the Magisterium is the government of Iran. I think it’s a shame that people are reacting to a movie they haven’t seen by attacking a book they haven’t understood. I also think that “His Dark Materials” is some of the finest literature written in the last fifty years, whether it be for children or adults, and that anyone who reads it with an open mind is likely to come to the conclusion that the “agenda” of the books, if there is one, is to promote and applaud loyalty, kindness, and the courage to follow one’s inner sense of justice.

The Magisterium — a term fraught with Catholic significance — is now some sort of subtle stand-in for an Islamic theocracy? That’s the subtext? Does this mean we should be looking for Muslim symbols, along with all the Orthodox icons and Catholic mottos that Weitz has already indicated will be scattered throughout the film? Somehow, I don’t think so, but we will see.

It is interesting, though, to see how everyone involved in the making of this film seems to be eager to say that the villainous Christians in this trilogy are actually metaphors for other villains in the real world; author Philip Pullman, for example, has said that one of the worst “theocracies” in recent times was the atheist Soviet Union. If the real point of this story is to oppose the abusive misuse of authority in all of its forms, then why is this series so particular in its use of Christian mythology, for lack of a better word? Where are the overt references to Islam or Marxism? Why can’t the storytellers just say what they mean — whether in the story itself, or in their promotion of it?

QUESTION #6: (from Darren):
You have said that “I will not be involved with any ‘watering down’ of books two and three” whilst Nicole Kidman has been quoted as saying “I wouldn’t be able to do this film if I thought it were at all anti-Catholic.” Without ‘watering down’ the main subject matter of the remaining books, how do you propose to deal with the sensitivities of Ms. Kidman?

ANSWER:
I think the key to your question is whether books two and three are anti-Catholic or not. Some people, for instance Bill Donahue of the Catholic League, think that they are. I do not. My feeling about how some people have approached the intellectual and theological content of “His Dark Materials” is that they’re refusing to deal with its variety and subtlety. If you look at the proto-myths behind books 2 and 3, you come up with the Gnostic idea of a demiurge – a fallen angel who sets himself up as God and rules by oppression. To use this rather obscure early Christian philosophy as a root-myth is to me not specifically anti-Catholic, any more than a film involving a Greek myth would. It sets up an alternate series of events in an alternate world.

Also important is the idea of the “felix culpa” – the notion that the fall of man was not a bad thing but a good one. This is a medieval theological concept, invoking the fall as the opportunity without which the messiah would not have come. In “His Dark Materials,” the “felix culpa” is Lyra’s falling in love with Will. Again, I don’t see how one is more anti-Catholic an idea than the other. It’s true that Pullman takes issue with dogma and with the abuse of religion for political power, but the critique about dogma applies far more widely than Catholicism or even religion; and the last time that the Catholic church directly exerted political power on a state level was during the middle ages.

In other words, I think that an accurate adaptation of “The Subtle Knife” and “The Amber Spyglass” would not be anti-Catholic. What would be anti-Catholic would be to go out of one’s way to attack people’s beliefs, which I sometimes think is what people have in mind when they want to apply their own ideas and glosses of “His Dark Materials,” which have been formed outside of the context of the books, to the films.

At the risk of losing the “subtlety” that Weitz rightly mentions here, I think the early Gnostics would have been surprised if anyone had told them that they were not somehow opposed to, and thus “anti-”, the orthodox catholic Church of their time. The Gnostic creation myths explicitly identify the evil demiurge with the Old Testament God, and there is nothing in traditional Christian teaching that allows us to say that the God of Abraham, etc., was actually evil. Indeed, New Testament texts such as the Gospel of John and Paul’s first letter to Timothy seem at times to have been written with the express purpose of warning people away from Gnostic heresies.

But this is a discussion that could take quite a while, and I haven’t got the time to get into it all that deeply at the moment. Suffice it to say that this is bringing back memories of all the debates I have had over The Truman Show (1998; my review), and whether the manipulative, deceiving Ed Harris character there is a stand-in for God, or the Devil, or both.

Put simply, whenever you cast a god as a demon, or vice versa, you always get some interpreters who say the resulting figure is both divine and evil, and so the story is anti-religious; and you always get some interpreters who say the resulting figure is evil but not truly divine, and so the story is against false religion but in favour of true religion, or at least not opposed to true religion, whatever that might be; and you always get some interpreters who say the confusion of gods with devils is, itself, inherently anti-religious, and so it doesn’t really matter how opposed to devils the story might be, especially if the story is silent or vague at best on what a true religion or a true god might look like.

Matters are confused even further when the god-demon is explicitly identified with existing gods in existing mythologies, and when the heroes of the new story behave in exactly the same way that the villains of those mythologies do — tempting young couples to eat the forbidden fruit, and so on. Are those just superficial elements on a story that, deep down, actually affirms the original mythology? Maybe, maybe not, and so the debate rages.

Finally, re: the “felix culpa”. If, as Weitz says, the fall of man was a “good thing” because it led to the coming of the messiah, and if the Lyra-Will relationship is a re-enactment of this fall, then where is the messiah that follows them in this story? Or would it perhaps be more accurate to say that Pullman’s story posits the Fall as a good thing in and of itself, rather than as an evil thing which paved the way for a greater good? (Perhaps the real “felix culpa” in this trilogy would be something like, say, the murder committed by Lord Asriel — because it opens up a portal into other worlds, through which Lyra is ultimately able to fulfill her destiny.)

Side note: Some commentators, including myself, have made much of the fact that Pullman’s story makes elaborate use of the Old Testament and church history but never says what role Jesus played in getting from one to the other. However, Tony Watkins, the British author of Dark Matter: Shedding Light on Philip Pullman’s Trilogy His Dark Materials, has interviewed Pullman and looked at some of his notes, and he says Jesus plays a similar role in the back-story to ‘His Dark Materials’ that he played in Gnostic mythology, as a dispenser of divine wisdom who opposed the Old Testament God and was misrepresented by some of his followers. In other words, Pullman’s Jesus is “anti-Catholic”, too.

August Rush — the review’s up!

My review of August Rush is now up at CT Movies.

Newsbites: Angels! Nottingham! Denzel! Steyn!

Time for another batch of quick news blurbs.

1. The production of Angels & Demons may have been put on hold for now, but reportedly Naomi Watts has signed on to play Tom Hanks’s Italian love interest. — New York Post

2. While promoting American Gangster in England, Russell Crowe let spill a few more details regarding Nottingham, the revisionist Robin Hood movie he plans to make next year with director Ridley Scott:

Will the sheriff of Nottingham be more than a pantomime villain this time around?
Russell Crowe:
[Smiles] I’m a big Robin Hood fan and have been since I was a little kid. But if you go back into the history of the mythology, you get back to the ballads of Robin the Beheader, who would chop off your head and your hands and take all your money and not give any of it to anybody. So we’ll have a look at that. We’ll have a look at how the mythology morphed over time, who was in power and what was the current church we should all attend – and in this country that changed quite regularly! And then we’ll look at the Hollywood mythology ad how much of that is embedded in the psyche of people when they think of Robin Hood. I tell you this – Richard the Lionheart won’t be bounding up in the last scene and saving the day [chuckles]. I mean the bloke only spoke French and only spent six months of his 10-year reign in England. And besides, Richard Harris is dead.

Harris played Richard the Lionheart in Robin and Marian (1976), which starred Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn in the title roles; he also co-starred with Crowe in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000; my review). — IndieLondon

3. While promoting American Gangster and The Great Debaters in the United States, Denzel Washington talked to at least one journalist about the importance of faith and family in his life. Among his remarks: “I read the Bible every day. I’m in my second pass-through now, in the Book of John. My pastor told me to start with the New Testament, so I did, maybe two years ago. Worked my way through it, then through the Old Testament. Now I’m back in the New Testament. It’s better the second time around.” — Reader’s Digest

4. Mark Steyn argues that current Hollywood films, from the seemingly endless wave of dreary, preachy anti-war flicks to the “amoral fetishization of violence” in the recent remake of 3:10 to Yuma, have lost any sense of heroism, and have in effect declared war on “the very art of storytelling” itself. — Maclean’s

5. Lest people take the movie Awake too seriously — that’s the one in which a man on an operating table experiences anesthetic awareness and is unable to move, despite being conscious of the operation that is being performed on him — doctors in Canada would like the public to know that such experiences are very, very rare and there’s no need to panic if you’re about to have surgery. — Globe and Mail

6. Lest people take the movie Lust, Caution too seriously — that’s the one with the sex scenes that earned an NC-17 rating — doctors in China are warning the public that “Highly difficult sexual positions can cause unnecessary harm to both the male and female body and, hence, people should not be imitating what they see on the big screen.” In other words, the actors you see are professionals, do not try this at home, etc., etc. — London Times

7. Dennis Quaid’s newborn twins, Thomas and Zoe, are in the hospital following an overdose of blood thinner. My thoughts and prayers go out to him and his family, and I have to say that this is giving me a weird case of deja vu, because I interviewed Quaid two years ago, and at the time, my wife — who was 4.5 months pregnant at the time — had been admitted to a hospital only a few days before, because the doctors feared that she might lose our twins, Thomas and Elizabeth. Fortunately, our little guys pulled through; hopefully Quaid’s will, too. — Associated Press

Dutch Christians boot Donald Duck off the Ark


My friend Christian Hamaker, knowing that I am a fan of both Disney cartoons and Bible movies, pointed me to this item that went up today at one of the Reuters blogs:

Donald Duck has been expelled from Noah’s Ark.

To be more precise, a Donald Duck film clip has been removed from a replica of Noah’s Ark in the Netherlands. That came after a local church protested that the film being shown to children visiting the ark strayed too far from the Bible story. . . .

“We must always try to stay as close as we can to the word of God,” a spokesman for the local church, a member of the Christian Reformed Congregations, told the public broadcaster NOS. “But that doesn’t happen in the way this film tells the story.” After a meeting with church leaders, the Ark staff decided to yank Donald for the rest of their stay. . . .

The film clip in question is the ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ sequence from Fantasia 2000 (1999), which I have mentioned here before. It portrays Donald Duck as Noah’s assistant, and Daisy Duck as his girlfriend. (Donald’s, that is, not Noah’s.) It’s certainly not as biblically literate as one or two other Disney cartoons I could mention, but it’s pretty harmless. Check it out for yourself:

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Click here if the video file above doesn’t play properly.

Incidentally, it appears that this cartoon evolved from an earlier idea in which it was the dove, rather than Donald, who helped Noah herd the animals and so on. The following storyboard reel, called ‘Noah’s Dove’, was included as a bonus feature in the three-disc Fantasia boxed set that came out seven years ago:

Click here if the video file above doesn’t play properly.

Newsbites: Trek! Demons! Aquarian! Rowling!

And now for a few smaller items.

1. Ben Cross, who played the Jewish athlete Harold Abrahams in Chariots of Fire (1981), has been tapped to play Spock’s father Sarek in Star Trek XI. Mark Lenard, who played the character in three TV episodes and three movies, was 42 when the original series began, and less than 7 years older than Leonard Nimoy, who played his son; Cross turns 60 in a few weeks, and is thus 30 years older than Zachary Quinto, who is now playing the young Spock. Matters are complicated further, though, by the fact that Vulcans can live for two centuries or more; Sarek himself was 103 when Lenard first played him during the original series. — StarTrek.com

2. Producer Brian Grazer wants Angels & Demons, the sequel or prequel to The Da Vinci Code (2006), to be “less reverential” than its predecessor. Well, that only makes sense, I guess, since the book did give me a good laugh or two. Then again, weren’t some audiences already tittering during The Da Vinci Code as it was? — New York Times

3. The Aquarian Gospel will not only take a peek at the so-called “missing years” of Jesus’ adolescence and early adulthood — it will also be “a fantasy action adventure account of Jesus’s life with the three wise men as his mentors”! And although “the producers say the film will feature a ‘young and beautiful’ princess, it is not clear whether Jesus is to have a love interest.” And it will be “shot using actors and computer animation like 300“. This has the makings of a really tacky camp classic. — Guardian, Bible Films Blog

4. Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling has given one of her most interesting — and most spiritually-inclined — interviews yet, to a Dutch newspaper. A translation is available at The Leaky Cauldron. It covers many bases, but the bits about her beliefs and upbringing are rather interesting. — HogwartsProfessor.com

5. Shantaram is the latest film to have its plug pulled thanks to the writers’ strike. When I mentioned it here two years ago, it was going to be directed by Peter Weir; now, the thwarted director is Mira Nair. One constant, though, has been star Johnny Depp, who was attached to the film under both directors. Whether he will still be around when all the strikes are over, and whether the film will ever get made, who knows. — Variety

6. Big Fox strikes again! Seems they’re getting YouTube to yank reviews of their films that include fair-use clips from their trailers. Bad, bad Big Fox. — The Movie Blog

The Golden Compass — the reviews begin!


My goodness. The Golden Compass doesn’t come out for another two and a half weeks, and already the Daily Telegraph has a review up. A few excerpts:

But an early screening of The Golden Compass in Los Angeles reveals that the investors who put up the £90 million cost of the film can rest easy – though it lacks the impact or charm of The Chronicles of Narnia, the special effects are extraordinary and the film is sure to be a success with young audiences. . . .

Newcomer Dakota Blue Richards was chosen for the pivotal role of Lyra from 10,000 young actresses. She does her best to carry the human portion of the film, despite an unconvincing “cor blimey” accent, but it is the computer-generated animals and rodents which are the real stars – rarely has so much human talent been so overshadowed by digital effects. . . .

The Golden Compass was made by New Line Cinema, the studio that struck gold with its Lord of the Rings trilogy. It is doubtless hoping to attract the same fantasy-loving audience, and while adults may wince at the jumpy editing and stilted dialogue (“We’ll set it right – just let them try to stop us,” declares Lyra), younger audiences are likely to be enthralled at the wonders Lyra encounters on her epic journey through a metaphysical universe. . . .

Now that the Telegraph has broken whatever review embargo this film has, it probably won’t be long before the trades — i.e., Variety and the Hollywood Reporter — post their own two bits. For my part, there have been no announcements yet regarding any screenings in Vancouver, so I may have to wait a bit longer.

Reviews have also begun trickling in for Alexandre Desplat’s score, which comes out on CD in two weeks. Film Music: The Neglected Art is fairly impressed with it, while Ryan den Rooijen at HisDarkMaterials.org has an interesting interview with Desplat himself.

Finally, IGN.com has posted two brief scenes from the film, both of which center on Iorek Byrnison, the armoured bear voiced by Sir Ian McKellen.


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