Coming soon to a theater near you: Hollywood Heaven lite

textA comment from an anonymous reader starts with the question of whether “The Passion of the Christ” will receive an attention at the 2005 Oscars. But Mr./Ms. noname ends up somewhere else that is much more interesting.

Money talks. The film may get a costume or cinematography nomination but it probably won’t get a best picture or best director nomination or award because elaborate Hollywood lobbying — often fueled by money — talks louder. And the biggest lobbyists probably don’t like the picture. But now that it is making money they may not want to declare that so loud. …What will probably also happen is release of a spate of other, milder, spiritually themed films. I think Mitch Albom is poised to make a lot of money.

I assume that this reader is thinking of last week’s column by the sort-of-cultural-conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks, in which he asked this loaded question: “Who worries you most, Mel Gibson or Mitch Albom?”

For those of you who don’t read very important small-format hardback bestsellers of fewer than 200 pages, Albom is the Detroit sports columnist who grabbed the male side of Baby Boomer spirituality franchise with his book “Tuesdays with Morrie.” His new book is called “The Five People You Meet in Heaven.” It had to be five people, because if everybody met 10 people in heaven then it would take longer than 200 pages and that would never work.

Anyway, I think Mr./Ms. noname is dead spot on. The Hollywood establishment is going to interpret Mel Gibson’s success as a sign that Red State America needs a large dose of Blue State Religion, which means lovely, loving spirituality with lots of fuzzy, mysterious stories about What It All Means and none of those mean, nasty, ancient creeds and truth claims about Right and Wrong.

Can you say “narcissism”? I knew you could. What Hollyood is likely to do is offer us a God (or gods) who has evolved into a kind of computer-generated Dr. Phil. Here is how Brooks sums up the Albom version of this higher power.

All societies construct their own images of heaven. Most imagine a wondrous city or a verdant garden where human beings come face to face with God. But the heaven that is apparently popular with readers these days is nothing more than an excellent therapy session. … In this heaven, God and his glory are not the center of attention. It’s all about you.

Here, sins are not washed away. Instead, hurt is washed away. The language of good and evil is replaced by the language of trauma and recovery. There is no vice and virtue, no moral framework to locate the individual within the cosmic infinity of the universe. Instead there are just the right emotions — Do you feel good about yourself? — buttressed by an endless string of vague bromides about how special each person is, and how much we are all mystically connected in the flowing river of life.

This is the spirituality that is selling at the great mall called Oprah America. This is half of the spiritual equation of our times. Clearly, this is not the half reflected in the latest box office totals for Gibson’s stark faith of sin, suffering and sacrifice.

There are legions of A-list directors who can explore Albom’s heaven. Are there any other A-list directors who will dare to reach out to the Gibson demographic?

P.S. Mr./Ms. noname is back. Only how do we know it’s the same Mr./Ms. noname? Ah, cyber-mysteries. Actually, the Hollywood Heaven lite trend kicked into a new era with “Ghost,” about the time that Baby Boomers started hearing their clocks tick. I wonder why churches do not talk about heaven as much as Hollywood studios?

this has been a trend for several years now but it needed a movie such as mel’s to really cause it to kick into high gear. one early catalyst was the film “what dreams may come.” at that time (’98) there was buzz that more “spiritually themed” properties would be in the pipeline but an acknowledgement that they were risky and didn’t do well at the box office. mel’s movie changes all of that. i expect he will do a sequel that will end up in competition with other spiritual genre films.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • noname

    this has been a trend for several years now but it needed a movie such as mel’s to really cause it to kick into high gear. one early catalyst was the film “what dreams may come.” at that time (’98) there was buzz that more “spiritually themed” properties would be in the pipeline but an acknowledgement that they were risky and didn’t do well at the box office. mel’s movie changes all of that. i expect he will do a sequel that will end up in competition with other spiritual genre films.

  • noname

    I don’t know the producer of “Ghost” and don’t have time now to research. However I do know that the producers of “What Dreams May Come” formed their company specifically to bring more spiritual-oriented scripts to fruition in Hollywood. And in their early years they were not taken seriously. There is also an interesting group at Hollywood Presbyterian that has a whole scriptwriting program. That, too, is becoming trendy.

  • Ken

    “What Dreams May Come” is to TPOTC as store-brand orange drink is to freshly squeezed orange juice and was nothing but another vehicle for Robin Williams to play – and how many times was this? – a wise, wonderful individual standing up to the System and proving that Love Conquers All. That’s “romantic” love, by the way. God, as I recall, was limited to one reference, in which he was described as “somewhere up there, shouting down ‘I love you’”. The quote may not be exact.

    Now a movie made from St. John Climacus? That could be fun. A little short on plot, but the prison scene would be interesting. How about embedding it in a larger epic based on the Pachomian cenobia of Egypt.

  • http://www.therevealer.org The Revealer

    Mel Gibson and Mitch Albom are flip sides of the same coin. The Passion’s main demographic is men between 21 and 30 (or something close to that; I don’t recall the exact age). Albom’s book is for baby boomer men. Neither of these works speaks any kind of universal truth; rather, they both appeal to the concerns of age. Albom’s audience wants reassurance that getting old — and dying — won’t be so bad, while Gibson’s angry young men want to know that somebody understands how much they suffer. I’d like to claim that I’m not a sucker for either of these, but I’m 31, and I have to admit that I like The Passion more than the insipid Five People. My wife can’t stand either, dismissing them both as male vanity.

  • http://www.joe-perez.com/weblog.htm Joe Perez

    ry,

    You’re may be right about Hollywood may not get that Mel Gibson’s success is in appealing to Blue State Religion and beyond with a movie about Blue State Religion. But who cares, anyway? Hollywood has never been known for their adventurous spirit. Independent producers will continue to make Red State movies and market them to Red State people.

    What I want to comment on is your rather inspid remarks about spirituality and narcissism. I’m not denying that there’s a lot of truth in what you wrote about fluffy, feel-good spirituality. But you lose all credibility by throwing the stone of narcissism where your own house is made of glass.

    Who are the true narcissists?

    Those who recognize that Mystery is beyond their narrow ego-bound dogmatic conceptions, or those who project their own psychological dramas into the universe and announce they alone own the Truth and the Right?

    Those who seek to dissolve their egos through mindfulness or spiritual experience, or those who bolster their egos through a group identity with an Institution that essentially embodies Their Own Identities Writ Large?

    Those who cut against the grain of mainstream culture in their spiritual explorations, or those who are so obsessed with what other people think about them, they must join the conventional and most socially acceptable and prestigous religion the culture has to offer?

    If you want to see a narcissist, you have only to look in the mirror.

    - Joe, self-avowed narcissist (unlike Terry Mattingly, the Right and True and Pure)

  • http://www.tmatt.net Terry Mattingly

    Wow! This is my rare chance to be on the Religious Right, with the New York Times!


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