Shark Boy & Lava Girl


When I was a boy, I had a dream in which some grown-up called me a “kid”, and I, feeling a bit indignant, replied, “So I’m a goat, am I?” And then I sprouted horns, tilted my head down, and rammed the guy in the gut. (I think my dream may have been influenced by the 1936 cartoon Alpine Climbers, in which Donald Duck charges down a hill and head-butts a mountain-goat, but that’s a guess.)

I thought the dream was pretty clever, so I described it to my father, who, as I recall, wasn’t particulary impressed. I can’t say I’m all that impressed by it now, myself, either. But I was reminded of that dream and the pun therein while watching The Adventures of Shark Boy & Lava Girl in 3-D last Saturday.

The film is directed by Sin City‘s Robert Rodriguez from a story developed by his son Racer; whereas the elder Rodriguez merely alluded to the inspiration he got from his kids in interviews when he was promoting the Spy Kids movies (my review; my review), the new movie puts his son’s name right there on the screen, and even introduces itself as “A Rodriguez Family Production”.

And as with my dream, so here: there’s a fair bit of literalistic wordplay that is kind of lame from a grown-up perspective, but could very well keep children entertained. Indeed, on the bus ride home, I overheard three boys discussing the film, which they had not yet seen, and one of them was clearly looking forward to the scene in which one boy says the words “brain storm” and then a bunch of brains start falling from the sky. I had to get off the bus at that point, so I didn’t stick around long enough to discover if the boys also knew that these words are followed by “brain freeze”, which pauses the falling brains in mid-air, and then by the words “brain fart”, which … well, you’d better see that one for yourself.

Dreams, incidentally, are one of the key themes of this film. The main character is neither Shark Boy (Taylor Lautner, in his second film) nor Lava Girl (Taylor Dooley, in her first), but Max (Cayden Boyd, in his seventh), a boy who has dreamed these characters up and written about them in his “dream journal”. One day a bully named Linus (Jacob Davich) takes the journal from Max, handing a “revised edition” back to him the following day; this provokes a fight in the classroom that is interrupted by two things: one, a tornado; and two, when Shark Boy and Lava Girl themselves appear from out of nowhere, demanding that Max come back with them to save their world, Planet Drool, from dying.

Bits of the story reminded me of Tron (1982). Max, like Flynn, has helped to create a universe without realizing it, and some of its inhabitants happen to resemble people in the real world; and Max, like Flynn, is dragged into this world without knowing how or why he got there, but once there, he is expected to discover or develop powers that will aid in the redemption of that world. (One big difference is that Flynn was dragged into his world by its villain, whereas Max is dragged into his world by its heroes.)

Meanwhile, just as Sark was the “point villain” working for the MCP in Tron, the main villain in this film is Mister Electric (George Lopez), who similarly answers to an abstract, computer-generated face. BTW, Mister Electric gets in a few of his own lame puns, too, such as when he greets one of our heroes with the words “Watt’s up!?” or when he promises to do something to his enemies that really “hertz”. And I really liked the plug-hounds and the slithering extension cords that he sends in pursuit of our heroes; they make a nice counterpoint to the Lego blocks and Nintendo Gameboys that populate the “graveyard of forgotten dreams”.

The film also reminded me of The Neverending Story (1984), particularly the way the boy has to save the world from dying — in Tron, the world in question was merely enslaved — and the way that he achieves this with the help of an “ice princess” who bears a striking similarity to the “childlike empress” of that other film.

The film’s artistic or cinematic merits are a mixed bag. I think the story probably holds together, with less internal inconsistencies and “huh?” moments, better than the last couple of Spy Kids movies did. On the other hand, none of the actors has the charisma that the Spy Kids actors did: Lautner, who was into martial arts in a big way before he turned to acting, is especially prone to strutting and posing, and at one point he has to sing a lame hip-hop song in order to stimulate Max’s imagination; and Dooley’s tendency to Smile Really Big gives the impression that she is more of a model than an actress. It is certainly difficult to imagine a trilogy being built around these two the way that Spy Kids was built around Daryl Sabara and Alexa Vega.

What’s more, there is a distinct lack of star power here; in the place of Rodriguez stalwarts like Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Elijah Wood and others, we have, uh, David Arquette and Kristin Davis as Max’s parents, both of whom are compelled to wear rather goofy-looking “cookie giant” outfits at one point.

But however flawed the movie might be, I do really like its central premise — that Max can only bring about the redemption of his world when he becomes a “daydreamer”, capable of dreaming with his eyes open. That resonates with me in a big way.

The life of a married film critic

This Monday, I will have been married for four months. So it’s kind of funny that I recently had to review two different films that are opening tomorrow, both of which happen to put the marital status of their protagonists right there in the titles.

I’ll post links to my reviews of The Honeymooners and Mr. & Mrs. Smith when they go up tomorrow, but for now, suffice to say that I was amused to see that, in both films, the couples in question have been together for six years and are beginning to wonder if the marriage has run out of steam. I have two basic reactions to this: (1) Gosh, I hope it ain’t like that for D and me in 2011, and (2) these are the sorts of moviegoing coincidences I live for. Who knows, I might even be able to pitch a “theme” piece on this.

But that’s not why I’m writing this post.

No, the reason I’m writing this post is that I have decided to stay home and watch something from the video pile or get some more work done or something, instead of dashing out to catch the last matinee of a movie that is finishing its first run tonight.

My reasons for skipping this screening are partly financial, and partly due to time constraints, but it all comes down to my wife, really: She has, shall we say, encouraged me to be more responsible with my money, and I suspect this film will probably come back on a second-run double-bill in the near future; and she is seeing another film with me tonight, at a theatre for which I have a media pass, so I might as well stay put and wait for her to get home from work, instead of rushing around from film to film and barely having time to pick her up between theatres.

On top of this, our marriage hit another “first” last night. Last night I saw The Honeymooners at a theatre just four blocks from where we live, and because the film opens tomorrow, my editor wanted the review by noon today. (Actually, he wanted it by first thing yesterday morning, but since the only preview screening in town wasn’t until last night…) And because there was a screening of another film at 10am this morning that I really, really wanted to catch, I basically had 13 hours between the end of last night’s screening and the beginning of this morning’s screening to come home, write the review, sleep, eat, say a few words to my wife, and go back to the theatre — and not necessarily in that order.

In my bachelor days, this sort of thing would have been no problem whatsoever — I crammed work in between screenings at odd hours of the morning or evening all the time.

But, you see, I share the alarm clock now.

So that was interesting.

Fortunately, D had to wake up around 7am anyway, but I still felt obliged to persuade her to set it for just a little bit earlier, to give me the breathing room I usually need so that I can read the paper and do whatever else I need to do whenever I take brief breaks during my writing. D and I had anticipated this sort of thing and had talked about it before we got married, and we had kind of agreed that, if I needed to work any particularly unusual hours, then I should probably sleep on the couch — but fortunately, we didn’t have to resort to that, at least not this first time.

And hey, it took us almost four months to get to this point. So we probably won’t encounter this sort of thing that often.

Disney wants Christians to work for free

She’s a Narniac, Narniac at your door
And she’s hyping like she’s never hyped before…

Ahem. Sorry ’bout that.

The following item related to the upcoming Narnia movie was recently posted to a SF-related listserv that I subscribe to, and the person who posted it wasn’t particularly happy about it.

:::::: Ground Force Network ::::::

OK, everyone, we’re about to give you the CHANCE OF A LIFETIME. Only a select group of people are being given this opportunity and you’re one of them.

So listen up!

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe

This is the most influential and ground-breaking campaign we’ve ever been a part of since The Passion of The Christ, and we’d like YOU to team up with us from the beginning!

It will be an exciting adventure you’ll never forget…

JOIN THE EXCLUSIVE TEAM

Starting July 11th, Ground Force is going to be working with Disney, Walden Media, & Motive Entertainment to be a part of the grassroots campaign for C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. If you read these books when you were younger, you know they were magical, and the movie will be nothing short of a masterpiece.

We’ll be starting a campaign for The Chronicles of Narnia in July, and WE NEED YOU!

On this campaign, there will be two different roles all field agents can play:

1. “Narniacs” – general field agents for this campaign. These field agents will have anopportunity to receive and distribute movie materials, help with special Narnia events in their city, and be actively involved in promoting the December release of this magical film. We’ll have more information about becoming a Narniac in July.

2. “Narnia Generals” – a.k.a. “City Leaders.” This Field Agent will be the leader of all the Narniacs for their city as well as be trained as the city “expert” on all things relating to the movie. This is a really exclusive position that only 50 field agents will be selected for. Will it be YOU?

Before we can begin bulding the team of Narniacs in July, we need to select our Narnia Generals. This is where YOUR journey begins TODAY…step inside…

To find out how to become a Narnia General, visit the following website, and DON’T DELAY!
http://www.groundforcenetwork.com/narnia.aspx

VIEW THE TEASER TRAILER NOW

Visit www.narnia.com to view the teaser trailer now – YOU WON’T WANT TO MISS THIS!

We look forward to hearing from you soon! This is going to be an INCREDIBLE campaign!

Christine, Susan, & Eric
Your friends at Ground Force Network
narnia@groundforcenetwork.com

Make of all that what you will.

As my friend put it, “Do we want to be known as ‘Narniacs’? Sounds a lot worse than Trekkies.” Personally, I’m quite happy to be a “Trekkie” — and I think those who insist on being called “Trekkers” instead because they think it means they are being taken seriously are just way too anal, but the term itself doesn’t sound so bad — but I think “Narniac” has to be one of the dumbest names I have ever heard. Especially if what it means in the end is “someone who is oh-so-happy to be doing Disney’s publicity work for free”.

And as for whether the movie is a “masterpiece” … well, of course, we’ll just have to wait and see about that. Certainly the trailer making the rounds is inconclusive on this point.

JUNE 10 UPDATE: BTW, does anyone know where or when the word “Narniac” originated? My friend has been Googling this, and so far all she has found is the product description for this book which won’t be out for another three months. Well, that and some other sites of dubious moral stature that have nothing to do with The Chronicles of Narnia. But even if we count those, there isn’t more than a page of Google results. So it would seem this word is nothing more than a marketing term that has been invented for this film’s release. Heaven help us if it actually catches on.

Or, as my friend puts it: “But mostly, fandom is a grass roots phenomenon, and Google doesn’t reference the term ‘Narniac’ on any fan sites. So I resent the marketing machine conjuring its own label for us, not to mention attempting to exploit us…what makes me sad is that there will probably be plenty of church folks ready to jump on this bandwagon because it’s just The Thing to Do…..”

Newsbites: Remakes, sequels, McD’s, G’s

Here are some of the more interesting stories that came up today.

1. Wolfgang Petersen just can’t stay out of the water. Following Das Boot (1981) and The Perfect Storm (2000), he is now working on a remake of The Poseidon Adventure (1972). The Hollywood Reporter says the film will star Kurt Russell as an ex-fireman (not the same character he played in 1991′s Backdraft, I assume), disaster-movie veteran Emmy Rossum (The Day After Tomorrow) as his daughter, Andre Braugher as the ship’s captain, and Richard Dreyfuss as “a gay man whose relationship breaks up just before departure.” No word on whether anyone will be playing a doubting priest, a la the Gene Hackman character in the original film.

2. CNN and the Dow Jones Newswire are following up a Wall Street Journal story, reprinted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, to the effect that McDonald’s intends to “play the field” once its exclusive ten-year contract with Disney expires next year. The contract was forged at a time when Disney had just come off its “renaissance” — the period between 1989′s The Little Mermaid and 1994′s The Lion King, which was the top-grossing cartoon of all time for several years — but since then, Disney has had a string of flops (though the failure of at least one of these, 2002′s Treasure Planet, was blamed at the time partly on the fact that Disney was locked into a certain release date because of its deal with the fast food chain). McD’s is now looking at forging ties with Pixar, whose Finding Nemo (2003) broke the record set by The Lion King, and DreamWorks, whose Shrek 2 (2004) currently holds that record.

3. I saw Sixteen Candles (1984) for the first time last year while preparing for my interview in The Big V. Gadzooks, what a relic of that era it is (you couldn’t get away with two f-words or eroticized nudity in a PG-rated movie, or with calling someone a “fag”, these days). But now comes news, via the Associated Press, that Molly Ringwald is in talks to make a sequel. The story doesn’t say who she’s talking with, though. I’m not sure whether it would be a good thing or not if writer-director John Hughes were involved, given how happy he became to make pure dreck following the success of Home Alone (1990). But let’s just say that, as far as movies that pick up the lives of other movies’ characters a decade or two later go, I’m not holding out any hope for a success on the level of, say, The Barbarian Invasions (2003) or Before Sunset (2004).

4. Reuters and the Associated Press both have stories on the Dove Foundation‘s release of yet another survey claiming that G-rated movies are more profitable than R-rated movies. I’m sure there’s any number of ways to spin these numbers and the calculations that produced them, so make of them what you will.

Brian Flemming — the interview

An edited version of my interview with Brian Flemming, director of the documentary The God Who Wasn’t There — which argues, among other things, that Jesus never existed — is up at CT Movies today. For now, they’ve got the exclusive, but I’ll post a longer version of the interview here a few days from now.

JUNE 10 UPDATE: Here it is, the full unexpurgated interview! Once again, my editor gave me a word count that turned out to be less than a third of what I had in the transcript, so lots of stuff got hacked and trimmed. This is what we started with.

- – -

By Peter T. Chattaway

What if Jesus never existed? How much do Christians know about the origins of their faith? And are we willing to talk about it? These are some of the questions explored in The God Who Wasn’t There, an irreverent Michael Moore-like documentary that premiered in Los Angeles last week and will tour the country at screenings sponsored by humanist groups. (It’s also available on DVD here.)

Director Brian Flemming, 38, attended two Christian schools and says he committed his life to Christ several times before he eventually became a self-described “atheist Christian.” His works include the controversial stage play Bat Boy: The Musical and Nothing So Strange, a mockumentary about conspiracy theories and the assassination of Bill Gates.

In the next few months, Flemming will shoot The Beast, a feature film about a Christian high school student whose archaeologist father gives her evidence that proves Jesus never existed. Flemming, who plans to release the film on June 6 of next year — that’s 6/6/06 — produced the documentary The God Who Wasn’t There to explain the basis for this belief, and along the way he outlines the reasons for his own loss of faith as well.

Flemming spoke to Christianity Today Movies about the film from his office in L.A.

In the press kit, you refer to yourself as an “atheist Christian.” What do you mean by that?

Once you’re a Christian, I don’t think you ever shake being a Christian, and personally I don’t want to. When I realized that the first-century science that Christianity proclaims is basically completely wrong, that didn’t mean Jesus was evil. It didn’t mean Jesus was bad. Jesus is in many ways still a great character. As you see in the movie, when he calls for everybody who doesn’t want him to reign over them to be killed, that’s not the Jesus I’m talking about. But the Jesus that I hold in my mind as the Jesus who taught me my moral values in many ways, I don’t want to lose that. I like Jesus. When I see a picture of Jesus that doesn’t make me feel bad, it makes me feel good. So I consider myself still a Christian, but I basically don’t want to let other people define the word “Christian” as, “You must believe in completely false dogma and believe in a worldview that can’t be proved in any way and that means you’re a Christian.” No, no. “A Christian” means, “You like Jesus,” and I do. I’m an atheist because I only believe those things that can be demonstrated and proved. I don’t believe that faith is a good thing at all. But I’m a Christian in that I love Jesus.

Where did you first come across this idea that Jesus didn’t exist historically? What first turned you on to that idea?

It was probably one of the older scholars, maybe G.A. Wells, who’s written a few scholarly books on the subject. It was probably his work which led me to the more recent authors who have more up-to-date scholarship on the issue, such as Earl Doherty, who wrote the book The Jesus Puzzle, which remains today unrefuted. He has a theory about what early Christianity looked like and why there’s all these odd anomalies with regard to the Christian version of the story, and he explains them all, and I think his theory makes the most sense of any theory I’ve ever heard about early Christianity.

I’ve heard the name Doherty but I haven’t read any of his books yet. Can you summarize briefly what some of those anomalies are?

Yeah, for example — and this is in the movie — why doesn’t Paul — in the documents that can be confirmed or somewhat confirmed as being from Paul, not the ones that were clearly forged later under Paul’s name — in the legitimate writings of Paul, why doesn’t he ever talk about a Jesus who recently lived? Why are there all these points where he’s trying to make an argument and the context he’s in cries out for him to say, “Oh and by the way, Jesus said this,” and that would have settled the argument instantly? Why doesn’t he pull that arrow out of his quiver? There are all sorts of things that don’t make sense that are in the record, that you go, “Why didn’t this person mention Jesus, because he died just a decade or two before this, supposedly, and he would have been in recent memory?”

And ultimately, why is the historical Jesus mentioned more and more as you get away from the historical period he was supposed to have lived? That is the reverse of what we would expect. We would expect all sorts of information right away. For example, in Scientology, there is a big effort under way to document the life of L. Ron Hubbard, because he’s their messiah, and that will probably drift more and more and more into legend as time goes on. But with Christianity, it’s the reverse. The figure is mythical and legendary at the start, and becomes more historical as time passes. And that just doesn’t make sense, if he was a real historical person.

It’s interesting that you refer to the letters that are regarded as genuinely Pauline, because one specific text that you quote on the screen is the book of Hebrews, and I think Hebrews, of all the New Testament epistles, is regarded by most scholars as the least likely to have been written by Paul, if for no other reason than it never even claims to be written by Paul, and Paul was certainly good at announcing himself.

I agree with you, and my voiceover was misleading on that, and that’s been corrected, and I’m glad that you said that. What the voiceover now says is, “The Bible screams that Jesus never existed,” and the notes in the special features do say that Hebrews is not considered genuinely Pauline. And I agree with you. When someone brought that up, I thought, “Oh, wow, I gave the totally wrong impression there with that one.”

I think Paul’s name actually appears on the screen too, and I think Hebrews is quoted specifically to support the idea that Paul did not believe that Jesus died and rose “on earth.” So if that’s not regarded as Pauline any more, then where does that leave your theory?

It shows that the Christians who wrote that didn’t believe that — shoot, I’m trying to call up the movie here, because I don’t believe that I put Paul’s name there, and if I did that would not be right either — ah, shoot, I’ll call that up, I’ll see if the original graphic did say that — but no one who gets the DVD will really have any idea what we’re talking about here, because we will not have given that impression in the version that they will see and the theatrical version that’s going around. It’s clear from looking at that statement that whoever wrote that statement could not have thought that jesus was real, and part of the theory that Doherty, for example, who did that translation and has basically asked “Can somebody please please explain this” and has never gotten an answer from anybody, it shows that early Christianity did not — or let me put it this way. Many of the sects that made up early Christianity — as I’m sure you know, it was extremely diverse back then, and many independent groups before they all got consolidated — many of those sects absolutely didn’t believe that there was a human Jesus. You can’t write that statement if you think Jesus is real.

Many people would argue that Paul does refer to Jesus. For example, when he discusses teachings on divorce, Paul actually distinguishes between the teaching from “the Lord” and the teaching of his own, and he also refers to his personal acquaintanceship with the brothers of Jesus. Does that not point to some sort of historical understanding?

Are you referring to when he says that Jesus appeared to people? Because Paul does say that Jesus appeared to people.

The resurrection appearances, yeah.

Yeah, but of course, he puts it in the same context as Jesus appearing to Paul, so it’s pretty clear that, y’know –

But I’m referring more to other parts where, in Galatians 1 and I Corinthians 9 — sorry to get all textual like this –

That’s all right!

But in Galatians 1, he talks about meeting James the brother of Christ, and in I Corinthians 9, Paul says something to the effect of, “I don’t have a wife but I’m entitled to one just like the brothers of the Lord are.” And in I Corinthians 7, when he’s discussing divorce, he essentially passes on Jesus’s command that people should not seek divorces — he actually specifies that it is “not I, but the Lord” saying this — and then he says, but to those who have been abandoned by their spouses, “I, not the Lord” say this. So he’s making a clear distinction between the teaching he’s received through the historical oral tradition –

Wait, wait, let me stop you there. Teaching he’s received, I agree. I agree that Paul received all sorts of information, and he received it directly from the Lord according to Paul, which of course doesn’t quite make sense because he wasn’t supposed to have met Jesus even according to a historical view of Jesus. But he definitely received information directly from the Lord, but it was by revelation, and so I believe that all those things that you just mentioned could be Paul getting as we know he received the vast majority of his information about Christianity that came from a heavenly source, and that was through visions. It would actually be more inconsistent if Paul claimed those particular bits of information came directly from the historical Jesus, because what does that mean about all the other stuff that he got, via visions or inspiration or revelation from the Lord?

Well, Paul also talks in Galatians about spending two weeks with Peter and James and it’s been said that he would have spent that time obsessively downloading as much information from them as he could about the Jesus that they knew, precisely because Paul did not know Jesus personally. You’re not buying that theory, I guess.

No, I’m not buying the theory that James is necessarily the brother of Jesus or that the Peter that Paul refers to is the Peter who was later declared, not by Paul of course, the Rock of the Church. I would say that that’s doing some real acrobatics to get around a far simpler explanation. Basically, if the theory that Jesus didn’t exist has these four points where, “Wait a second, there’s this other passage that could be interpreted — if we wanted to — as meaning that Jesus existed, and we can create complicated explanations for it,” well, why isn’t Jesus everywhere else where we would expect him to be? I will admit that it is not a matter of absolute certainty that Jesus didn’t exist. I just think it’s overwhelmingly probable, when examining the evidence, that Jesus didn’t exist.

You mentioned that some figures become more legendary as time goes on, but somewhat the opposite trajectory seems to have taken place here, if your theory is correct. Why would the Gospels attach specific historical names to the Jesus story, like Pontius Pilate or Caiaphas — people that we know really existed — if there was not some kernel of historical truth to the story?

Well there is a kernel of historical truth to the story. Pontius Pilate did exist, we have confirmation of that. He didn’t have the title that Tacitus says he had, but we do know many of the general details that are the same as a historical novelist might use if they were writing a Western today. Somebody writing a historical novel today might mention Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War and all sorts of real people who really existed back then, but that doesn’t mean the novel itself is true. Putting a fictional story in a historical setting is not at all unusual. I don’t really think the burden is on anyone to explain why would somebody put a fictional story in a historical setting. That’s been done for a long, long time. It’s not an unusual thing to do.

Why would they want to write an historical novel?

You’re familiar with the concept of midrash?

I’ve heard of it, yeah.

This is not my independent claim here. It is known that the technique, the genre of midrash did exist, and that was recasting scripture in a new way — sort of re-mixing scripture. That people did that is not at all arguable; they did do that, so to say, “Why would they want to create this specific gospel in this specific way?” It doesn’t really demand an explanation. We know that people did stuff like this, and Mark, or whoever wrote Mark, decided to do it this particular way in his particular sect. Not that Mark was necessarily one person.

My impression is that midrash would follow that L. Ron Hubbard trajectory of making things more legendary, whereas here, you say the Jesus story was essentially originally mythical, and then these people were adding historical details later — doesn’t that go in the opposite direction you would expect something like midrash to go?

Paul wasn’t doing midrash, but really Mark is the first example, maybe Q, probably Mark is the first example of that being done that we have. So I mean not really, because that’s the first time that somebody decided to play with the story that way. Taking Paul’s mythical Christ and then starting to put him in an historical setting does fit the trajectory I’m talking about. And then, later, you get other details. Obviously, there’s details of Christ’s biography that somehow Mark forgot about, and they get put in later. It doesn’t make sense that we keep getting more details. Why didn’t Mark know about the nativity, for example? And that sort of thing. And why are these details that get added also present in so many other fictional stories?

Are you familiar with a guy named Tom Harpur?

Yeah.

Did you know about him while you were making the film?

Uh, yeah. I’m not going to vouch for his research, though, I’m afraid.

I live in Canada, and Tom Harpur is Canadian, and I don’t know how widespread his book is in the States, but in Canada it’s made big news.

Ah. You know, I’m not going to vouch for or criticize his research, really, because I’ve read the book, The Pagan Christ, and it was part of my research, but it didn’t come to the forefront in any way, I’m afraid. Earl Doherty is also Canadian, he lives in Ottawa, and I could put you in touch with him or Robert Price if you want to talk to someone who actually has answers to your questions at their fingertips, because they study it all the time. They’d be much better than I. I’m sort of a conduit for some of this research, more than someone who can get down to the specifics of what the original Greek says and that kind of thing. These guys can do that, though.

Yeah, I shouldn’t obsess too much over the history. You are a filmmaker after all, so I should ask some more film-related questions.

Oh no, it’s fine, I’m not trying to cop out at all, I should be held accountable for the facts that I state in the film, and I definitely feel that I can be held accountable and can account.

You talk about contemporary Christians being ignorant of their faith’s origins, and I believe all those people were interviewed outside a Billy Graham crusade, right?

Yeah, they were.

What about, for example, Catholics and Orthodox Christians — because of course, Billy Graham is evangelical and most people who would go to his crusades are Protestants, and Protestantism is only a few hundred years old, and Protestantism has sort of a Bible-only approach where all the history that took place between the Bible and yesterday is kind of irrelevant, almost. What about Catholics and Orthodox Christians who have a much more continuous sense of tradition and traditional history and who all the various characters and movers and shakers were over the centuries. Did you try approaching any of them, or have you found anything similar or different there?

Not substantially. I would agree with you that there would probably be marginally more — if I had done this outside a Catholic church, there would have been marginally more people who would have been familiar, but I don’t think it would have been too terribly significant. I don’t think it can be said that if you take Christianity as a whole, perople are generally aware of Attis and Mithras and the pagan origins of Christianity. I wouldn’t agree with that statement. I would agree that Catholics are probably slightly more aware than evangelicals, though. And I think what’s generally represented in the film is a Christian ignorance of the origins of their faith, which I do believe is, in general, the case.

It’s not only the pagan gods, either. You say “Eusebius” to somebody, and they don’t know. These people are, y’know, just like I was. Their life is ruled by this dogma, this Christian faith, and yet they don’t know who invented it, they don’t know who the people are who designed it, they don’t know what it looked like at the beginning, what it looked like later, and what it looks like now, and how that evolution happened and why it happened and what were the motivations of the people who caused it to happen. And I think overall, there is an astounding ignorance on the part of Christians, and one thing I hope this film does is encourage them to investigate the origins of the Christian religion.

You spend a fair bit of time, yoo, on the Rapture Letters guy. I also grew up going to Christian schools and being surrounded by end-times movies and stuff like that. Just out of curiosity, how old are you?

I’m 38.

Okay, I’m 34, so we’re roughly the same generation, I guess.

Yeah.

And I know that it came as a bit of a shock to me to discover 10, 15 years ago that Rapture theology was only about 150 years old, the whole John Nelson Darby kind of thing.

Yeah, exactly, yeah.

Because certainly in evangelical pop culture, and perhaps backwashing into evangelicalism as a whole, the Rapture has been such a huge, huge thing, that to question that feels like you’re questioning the entire faith, and yet apparently this particular doctrine has only been around for 150 years or so. So I know it can be a shock to the system to actually investigate the origins of things like that.

Yeah, but you find the same thing if you investigate the origins of the Trinity. If you would have mentioned the Trinity to an early Christian, they’d be, “What are you talking about?” And then of course it becomes part of the dogma and gets stamped into the Christian religion. Or even just the four gospels — why four? You might know why it’s four. It’s because there are four pillars under the earth and four winds, and that’s why there are four gospels. But why four and why these four? A lot of what you look back on in Christian history is completely arbitrary in the same way as elevating this word “the Rapture,” which I don’t even think that word is in the bible, and it’s in the Old Testament, not the New Testament, anyway, if I’m right — actually, I won’t claim confidence on that particular one — but I believe Revelations doesn’t mention the Rapture in the extremely detailed way that 12 novels have been written about it. So a lot of arbitrary terms happened in Christianity that are articles of faith now, and you look back and you go, “Wow, that was just somebody’s whim.”

Also curious about some of the footage you found and how old it might have been. Obviously the archival films like The Rapture [1941] and The Living Bible [1952] are pretty old, but I was also wondering about the footage of that guy from the Moral Majority who called for the execution of homosexuals. How recent is that?

1982.

It looked about 20 years old.

And there should be a title that says at the end of that montage sequence that says “US Christian soldiers 1982,” so maybe that doesn’t explicitly date all of it, but I do date at least the rally footage. But all of that stuff is from around 1982. Obviously the Moral Majority isn’t around any more.

What do you make of statistics like the idea that 44% of the American population apparently believes that Christ will come back in their lifetime? How seriously do you take that? Are people just glibly answering pollsters, or do you think that half the country is really expecting that?

I think it indicates how much of a culture of fear Christianity really is. I think people are afraid to say anything but that. I think people, when they answer polls, they do a sort of Pascal’s wager. “What do I have to lose by ansering, ‘Oh yeah, I agree with Christian theology.’” If you say “no,” you know, maybe you’ll go to hell, so why don’t you say “yes,” even if you haven’t really thought about it very much. So I would guess, of that 44%, not a tremendous amount have actually researched the issue and decided, “You know what? This evidence is really pointing in this direction.” Because obviously there isn’t any good evidence that points in that direction. So what I make of it, partly, is that 44% of people are just so willing to identify as believers that the end of the world is coming and it’s going to look like Revelations says it’s going to look. As far as how many of those are hardcore believers in it, I would say the number is significantly less than 44%.

You mentioned the culture of fear, and I have to say that, watching your film, I was continually reminded of Jack Chick comics — the very sort of graphic, sordid, lurid images of Hell and all that. Do you think it’s fair to characterize Christianity as a whole like that? How representative of Christianity, or even just Protestantism, or even just evangelicalism, is that sort of mentality?

Well I think it’s the purest expression. Obviously there exists this thing called moderate Christianity, but it’s really just a watered-down version of the same thing. If you press a moderate Christian and ask, if they have faith that the Bible is at least the inspired Word of God, how can they not believe in salvation? And if you believe in salvation, then obviously you’re being saved from something and the other thing is bad. So it’s all right there. That’s basically what I disagree with. I don’t think there’s any such thing as salvation. I don’t think that we’re doomed and we need to be saved. If you do think we’re doomed and we need to be saved, then everything I present in the film just follows naturally from that. It may be expressed more vividly than you would like, but it is what you believe.

I don’t want to put you in the position of critiquing your own interviewees, so what would you do with someone like Robert Price, then, who actually says he attends an Episcopal church?

He’s an atheist Christian.

Like yourself.

Yeah. He enjoys church in the same way that anyone might go to a play and appreciate the pageantry and drama of a good play or a spectacular play, which is really what I think is the only future for Christianity. I think ultimately this idea that basically the scientific underpinnings — the worldview of Christianity is not going to last — people ultimately will discover that it’s false, and the only thing left will be communities who gather to participate in rituals and drama that mean something to them, and I think if Christianity heads in that direction, it would be a good thing, basically for the world and for Christianity.

Your film has a very sort of Michael Moore feel to it, and you invoke that in your press kit, which refers to Bowling for Columbine right in the top line. And certainly the film has that sense of humour and that very creative use of music, images and so forth. And you even have a sort of Charlton Heston moment at the end there, when your interviewee [Village Christian Schools superintendent Dr. Ronald Sipus] cuts it off. If there’s one thing that’s missing, to draw the Michael Moore parallel, it’s the sort of celebrity gotcha moment, such as the Charlton Heston moment. Did you try pursuing any members of the religious right or anything like that?

I actually did contact Focus on the Family and asked for an interview with James Dobson, and just never heard back. I don’t know if you know this, but James Dobson is now going after my play Bat Boy.

Going after Bat Boy?

Yeah, it’s now at this point where high schools can license it, and high schools are putting on the play, and he’s trying to get high schools to not put on the play. To quote him, he used the word “horrified” as to how he feels about Bat Boy: The Musical.

Why would he do that?

He claims it’s because it has portrayals of incest and murder in it — which it does — but really I think it’s because Bat Boy portrays two different kinds of Christians: good Christians who are tolerant of differences and accepting, and intolerant Christians who are not, and I don’t think he likes the idea of intolerance of differences being portrayed the way it is in Bat Boy because Dr. James Dobson is extremely intolerant of differences. There’s what he says is his problem, and then there’s probably what really is his problem, because plenty of Shakespeare plays are put on in high school, and they contain plenty of incest and murder.

I want to go back to your other question, because I kind of got sidetracked. You were asking me, did I try to get a celebrity gotcha moment. And I disagree with the idea of entrapping people and engineering gotcha moments, and I think that some people think my interview with Dr. Ronald Sipus was that, but it absolutely wasn’t. It absolutely was not that. I didn’t go in there having some secret piece of information that I was going to suddenly spring on him. There’s nothing that I ever said that wasn’t out of the handbook for the school. Sipus also knew that I was going to be asking skeptical questions of him because I submitted a couple of questions, for example, “Why should anybody believe that Christianity is relevant today,” and questions like that. So he knew that somebody who was going to ask him challenging, skeptical questions was coming into his office. I think what he didn’t expect was that, when he didn’t give good answers, I was going to follow up and say, “Wait a minute, that’s not an answer.” He also knew I was an ex-student, and he researched me — and he also apparently researched the film, because he tries to bring up, “Hey, Jesus did exist,” and I wasn’t interviewing him about that because he’s not an expert on the subject, but somehow he found out that fact. So he was completely prepared for me to come into his office and ask him to account for what he teaches children, and that’s just what he looked like when he was truly held accountable. So I don’t think that’s gotcha, that’s not an ambush. An ambush is when you show up with a particular trap you’re going to spring, and really, holding a superintendent of a school accountable for why do you teach children what you teach children? That’s not a trap, that’s not an ambush. So I disagree with the idea of going around and trying to get embarrassing reactions from people, and I don’t do that and did not do that, even with Dr. Ronald Sipus.

Speaking of the school, Dr. Sipus says in the interview that people of all denominations and no denominations get to go. In your experience, as a student at that school, did you have a lot of non-Christian classmates, and if so — where I’m going with this is, you talk about how the school didn’t encourage people to think, but would simply being exposed to these classmates at least provoke some sort of discussion, some sort of thinking?

No. There was one Jew at the school. Everyone knew she was a Jew, and everyone considered her to be an oddity. It in no way made people more open-minded to have a Jewish person sitting quietly in class. I don’t know the explanation for why a Jewish girl went to Village Christian, but she did in fact; I had Bible class with her a couple times, and at no point was she solicited for an opposing view. The portrait that Sipus portrays of this open-minded institution where theological ideas are discussed is absolutely false, it is not that way, and in fact it says in the handbook that any kind of antagonism to the gospel of Jesus Christ may result in removal from Village Chrisitan Schools, and that is far more like it is. I never once witnessed anyone challenge a Bible teacher or anything. Literally. It’s that categorical. Nobody ever challenged any of the Bible teachers on what they were teaching. The Bible teacher spoke, we accepted, and everybody knew what would happen to you if you tried to argue and have independent ideas of your own. Like, why should we believe that Jesus actually resurrected? Isn’t that impossible? A question like that would have just been — we actually would have been afraid that we’d go to Hell for just asking that question. So there is absolutely no academic freedom in any way whatsoever at Village Christian. It is a false impression that Sipus tries to give, but the reality on the ground, I can testify from firsthand experience, is not that way.

Getting to your other film projects, The Beast is starting up in a month or two, right?

Yeah, I’m gearing up right now, and we’re going to production in just three or four weeks, I guess.

And as I understand it, it has to do with a Christian high school student who discovers evidence of some sort that Jesus didn’t exist.

Right.

What can you say about that project now? How secretive are you being with it?

I don’t want the production to be interfered with, so I’m not offering any specific locations or times or people who are involved, actually, but the story as you outlined it is pretty much right. Danielle is the main character and she’s a 16-year-old high school student, her father is an archaeologist, and he disappears while on a dig in the Middle East, but before he disappeared, he sent to his daughter Danielle evidence that, when inspected, utterly proves that Jesus didn’t exist. And so Danielle is targeted by fundamentalist Christians who want to get that evidence rom her and stop it from ever seeing the light. So the movie is about both her peril, when she’s targeted by fundamentalist Christians, and also her own journey, from believing in Christian dogma to becoming an atheist, essentially, and realizing there’s nothing there, and how hard that journey is for her, to lose that particular Jesus.

They say you can’t prove a negative, so what kind of evidence could positively indicate that there is no Jesus?

You know, the thing is, it’s a plot revelation that you’re talking about, and I don’t want to blow it! But you can prove a negative. For example — this isn’t it — but if there was a letter in Paul’s original handwriting that said, “Oh, by the way, I made it all up,” that would be pretty compelling. I actually of course wouldn’t remove the one chance in a trillion that by coincidence there was a guy named Jesus and Paul did accidentally describe exactly that Jesus or something like that. But it is possible to get evidence that at least would get you to a point where nobody would ever believe it. Well, that’s not true, people would still believe it, but it would do some serious damage to the idea.

Why “The God Who Wasn’t There”? Even if you did prove Jesus didn’t exist, there are plenty of people who believe in God without Jesus, and there are plenty of people who believe Jesus existed without believing in God. So why does one necessarily lead to the other? Why does doubting the existence of Jesus or even just the divinity of Jesus lead to “the God who wasn’t there” or Danielle becoming an atheist?

Well, Danielle was brought up to believe in certain essential tenets of the faith. Once she finds out that the entire foundation of Christianity is based on a false assumption, that’s when she starts to investigate other aspects of Christianity. That’s what triggers the exploration, and that’s what causes her to become an atheist, because she realizes that, essentially, one pillar after another just falls, if you actually inspect it. And that’s what I think — I don’t think there’s no God because Jesus most likely never walked the earth. That doesn’t logically follow. But I do think that once you start investigating — was Jesus real? what’s the evidence that he wasn’t? — and with an open mind you actually start exploring these other ways in which Christianity was built, who built it, why they built it, why they decided what they did — the whole idea of faith just starts to look absurd. You realize that this thing you have faith in is something that was created by men who had political agendas, and you discover one thing after another that just utterly challenges the idea of having faith. I think that knowledge is basically the enemy of faith, and so I’m basically encouraging people to seek knowledge.

Andrzej Wajda’s war movies

I lived in Poland for about a year when I was six years old, and I have always made a point of catching whatever Polish films are on offer whenever the film festival comes around, starting with Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours trilogy (1993-1994).

But I have never made much effort to look into the history of Polish cinema, apart from watching a handful of Kieslowski’s other films, such as Blind Chance (1987), which I saw while doing background research for an article on those multiple-timeline stories that were so common a few years ago, and of course the Dekalog (1988). But even that doesn’t take us back very far.

So when the Pacific Cinematheque announced that it was going to run a series of war movies directed by Polish auteur Andrzej Wajda back in the 1950s, I just had to check ‘em out.

Wajda’s first three films are often grouped together as a “trilogy” of sorts, and while they are all pretty good, my impression is that they get better if you watch them in chronological order. A Generation (1955) reportedly marked a significant neo-realist break from the state-approved “socialist realism” that had dominated Polish screens up until then, but it seems to me there is still a bit of pandering to the Communist authorities in this story of Polish youth who join a Marxist group that takes up arms against the Nazis. One of the young resistance fighters is played by Roman Polanski, who would go on to win an Oscar nearly half-a-century later for directing his own version of the Nazi occupation, The Pianist (2002), and I was reminded of that film while watching Kanal (1957), which also features a bit of piano-playing during the Warsaw uprising; however, the second half of this film concerns a dark, miserable, nightmarish trip through the sewers, as the last members of a resistance platoon try to escape the Nazis, and end up getting lost, going mad, or getting caught; the musician even makes a point of quoting a line from Dante’s Inferno about people swimming in “a river of excrement”. Finally, Ashes and Diamonds (1958) takes place the day after the Nazi surrender; the front lines have long since moved past Poland and into Germany, but the struggle continues against the new Communist regime, and the story concerns one nationalist fighter who is ordered to kill a local Communist official but has second thoughts after he becomes romantically involved with a barmaid; of all the films in the “trilogy”, this one may make the most interesting use of religious imagery, plus there is a hilarious subplot concerning a banquet in honour of yet another newly-minted Communist official that goes deliriously wrong when his assistant gets seriously drunk.

Wajda followed these films with another war movie that is not usually grouped with the others — and is thus almost impossible to find on video — but arguably ought to be. Lotna (1959) concerns a white mare that is passed from one cavalry officer to another during the early days of World War II, when Polish cavalry officers went up against militarily superior German tanks. There are some nice character moments; I especially like the way a wedding takes place so close to one of the officer’s funerals, and how the bride’s veil gets caught on a nail in the officer’s coffin; I also like the two conversations between another officer and a teenaged girl, who takes exception to being treated like a “child”, and who then promises to “remember” the officer. There is of course some violence here, but most of the gore is relegated to those moments after the battles, as the camera pans over the bodies of fallen men and horses.

If Lotna is not usually grouped with the other war movies, it could be due to a number of factors: one, it is mostly in colour (the quality of which varies from shot to shot), whereas the other films are black-and-white; two, it takes place at the beginning of the war, whereas the other films move chronologically from before the Warsaw uprising to during the uprising to immediately after the war is over; and three, maybe we just like “trilogies”, period.

I’m definitely interested in learning more about these films and the context in which they were made and received. And I see from the IMDB that Wajda is still working, at least as of his most recent film in 2002 (which also starred Polanski!) — although, oddly enough, I don’t think I have seen any of his recent films, and for that matter I’m not sure that any of them have ever played here.


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