Pass the popcorn! This movie preview gets faith theme right

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Movie junkets, and the stories that result from them, share a certain predictability — and it doesn’t usually involve any depth of discussion about faith issues.

During my stint as assistant features editor at The Oklahoman in the late 1990s, I went on a few of them. In those days, the studio flew reporters to Los Angeles, put them up in nice hotels near the Santa Monica Pier and herded them through group, round-robin interviews with the movie’s stars.

The individuals on both sides of the table were pretty blasé about the whole ordeal. Questions trended toward the obvious, and answers were usually predictable and clipped, sound bite style. I’m pretty sure Martin Short showed up to one I did on Disney’s dime with a happy hour vibe going on at 9 a.m.

You get the point: The studios and stars are selling, and the moviegoing public generally doesn’t buy into faith, generally speaking.

So I was surprised to read a thoughtful, well-written preview from The Associated Press on “Philomena” that made it clear from the beginning that this film, its screenwriter and stars were embracing the religious tenor from opening scene to closing credits. Further, actor Steve Coogan shared his own faith background, and he, co-star Judi Dench and subject Philomena Lee expounded on some of the more disquieting church doctrine of the era that led to a mother separated from her son:

Steve Coogan and Judi Dench were drawn to “Philomena” by faith.

The British comic and Oscar-winning actress co-star in the film opening Friday, which explores the benefits and costs of faith through the true story of Philomena Lee.

Lee was an unwed, pregnant teenager in 1952 when her Irish Catholic family sent her to a convent in shame. She worked seven days a week for her keep but allowed only an hour a day with her son, Anthony. After three years, the boy was sold for adoption in the United States, and Lee spent the next five decades looking for him.

Despite repeated, insistent visits to the convent, the nuns would tell her nothing. She’d signed away her rights to her son, they said, due punishment for her sinful behavior.

“We were indoctrinated and you believed everything the church told you. If they said black was white, you believed it,” Lee, now 80, said in a recent interview. “I firmly believed, once they’d discovered I was having Anthony, that I had committed a mortal sin, the most awful thing ever done.”

The film focuses on Lee’s quest, with the help of BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith, to find Anthony. Sixsmith chronicled her story in the 2009 investigative book, “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee.”

Coogan came across about the story in the British press and said he began crying halfway through reading it to his girlfriend. He co-wrote the screenplay and starred as Sixsmith. Dench plays Philomena Lee:

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Pod people: Does it matter if celebrities/royals have faith?

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As the old saying goes, Americans don’t have a royal family. We have celebrities.

We even live in a day in which it is terribly important for American political leaders to be perceived as celebrities, with as much cool clout as possible if they want to be successful. Ask Mitt Romney about how that works out in the real world.

Meanwhile, the members of Great Britain’s royal family are now, arguably, the most important, the most popular, the most omnipresent celebrities in the world. The light of the exploding star named Princess Diana still glows hot.

On one level, the subject of this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to listen) was my post the other day in which I argued that there was interesting religious content (gasp) in that baptism service for Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge. I was glad that the online version of the USA Today feature on the rite included a nugget of crucial religious information, yet sad that the version of the story that millions saw in the ink-on-paper edition lacked those crucial paragraphs.

Surprise. The first thing the copy desk cut out of the baptism story, to fit it around the adds, was the factual religious content. The fashion material? In, of course. The gossipy stuff about who made the cut as godparents? In. Plenty of Diana references? In. In. In.

In particular, I wanted to know which version, traditional or progressive, of The Book of Common Prayer was used in the service, so that readers could know — if they really wanted to know — the content of the eternal vows taken by the parents on behalf of their first child. They almost certainly spoke these words or words very similar to them:

Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ?
Parents and Godparents: I will, with God’s help. …

Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
Answer: I renounce them.

Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?
Answer: I do.

Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
Answer: I do.

Does this matter? Well, it matters if you are in any way interested in whether the royals remain committed to Christian faith in any way other than its ceremonial role in British life. The details of the service, the kinds of details reporters can seek out, may have offered clues.

You see, the international press said over and over that this rite made the baby prince a member of the Church of England. That is not what a baptism rite does, in the ancient faith. The rite was the doorway — at first through the pledges of the parents and godparents, backed by the work of the Holy Spirit — into the Christian faith. Period.

Is that content part of the news story?

Meanwhile, by this point readers may have asked a logical question: Why in the world is he bloody conclusion of “Training Day” at the top of this post about the baptism of a royal baby?

Good question.

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WPost examines the demons (and a ghost) in ‘The Exorcist’

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It’s that time of year again, the time when reporters keep trying to reach author William Peter Blatty to talk about pea soup, noises in the night, long flights of stairs and the degree to which human necks can swivel.

Consider this one-liner, drawn from a much better than normal chat with the author just published in the Washington Post:

“As I say, every Halloween I’m dragged out of my burrow like some demonic Punxsutawney Phil,” says Blatty, a hale and hearty 85. “And if I don’t see my shadow, the horror box office is gonna be great. Either that or I’m dead. Nobody has had the guts — or the kindness — to tell me which it is.”

William Peter Blatty is not dead.

Now, this Post interview does have its snarky moments — hang on for its swipe at the legacy of the Blessed John Paul II — but I want to stress that the article at least attempted to take seriously the spiritual, even doctrinal, side of Blatty’s life and work. The sense of fairness breaks down when the Post team moves from a consideration of the themes Blatty wove into “The Exorcist” to his views of his alma mater, Georgetown University.

But first, God and the 40th anniversary of “The Exorcist.”

… Blatty will bear the cross of his mammoth success, which was fused long ago to the kitschy holiday by virtue of its terrifying imagery. Never mind, he says, that the story is more about the mystery and power of faith than the ultimate violation of a 12-year-old girl by evil forces. …

The cuffs on his denim jacket are flipped. Underneath his navy T-shirt is a silver medal etched with the three crosses of Calvary, where Jesus was crucified in the Gospels. The medal belonged to his son Peter, who died seven years ago. One reason “The Exorcist” has endured, Blatty thinks, is because it shows that the grave does not mean oblivion. That there is something after death.

“I’m not sure of what’s there,” he says, “but it isn’t oblivion.”

The story, as it must, quickly covers lots of ground in Hollywood and D.C. On one level this is a common tale, the story of the struggling screenwriter who suddenly finds a source of inspiration that saves his career and changes his life. In this case, we are talking about a comedy pro (best known for his work with director Blake Edwards) who, well, was inspired to spin his career in a totally different direction.

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Still falling for ‘The Exorcist,’ 40 years later

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Long ago, pre-Internet, some researchers tried to find out which movie had the greatest spiritual effect on viewers, in terms of provoking people to think about sin, salvation and life after death.

A Billy Graham movie perhaps? “The Ten Commandments”? “Chariots of Fire”?

Nope, apparently it was the R-rated, scare the living daylights out of audiences classic, “The Exorcist.”

With that in mind, let me state that I really enjoyed that USA Today feature that took director William Friedkin and author and screenwriter William Peter Blatty back to, well, their old Georgetown haunts 40 years after the release of that famous film.

However, I really do think that this story has one serious hole in it — but we’ll get to that shortly.

The key to the story is that, for Blatty, the major themes in his book and in the movie were rooted in his Catholic beliefs and, most of all, in his conviction that life-and-death battles between real evil and absolute truth take place and cannot be explained away. Reporter Brian Truitt made this a key issue in his news feature (which has also been circulated by Religion News Service).

The story of the story starts at Georgetown University, back when Blatty was a student:

It was in White-Gravenor Hall in a New Testament class that Blatty first heard of the 1949 exorcism of Maryland boy Roland Doe, and that sparked his interest in writing about the possession of Regan. And the infamous fall of Father Karras was influenced by Blatty watching one of his physics classmates take a hospitalizing tumble after trying to steal a final exam.

Blatty modeled Karras after his own feelings, he says. The death of Karras’ mother caused him to lose faith in God for a time, while the passing of Blatty’s mother also was deeply traumatic, “a period when my faith was more a hope than a belief.”

Exploring the evidence of his faith in writing “The Exorcist” was “very gratifying because it solidified my belief that I would one day see my mother again,” Blatty says.

Through the years, the film has grown in popularity, but Blatty missed the spiritual aspects from his original work, so Friedkin added 12 minutes for an extended director’s cut that was released into theaters in 2000.

And the bottom line? Why show such torment in the life of a young girl, her mother and the priest who, literally, gives his all to save the child? Blatty explains:

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Tom Clancy: That Baltimore Catholic and his generic beliefs

As I have mentioned many times, Baltimore culture is both historically Catholic and very liberal and the state of Maryland is used to having political leaders who are openly Catholic, yet clash frequently with the church hierarchy on issues of moral theology. Meanwhile, the newspaper that lands in my front yard just off the south edge of the Baltimore Beltway is, if anything, to the political and cultural left of the Maryland mainstream.

Thus, it is safe to say that The Baltimore Sun is not the place readers will want to look today if they are seeking insights into the moral (some kind of pro-life Catholic) and political (solidly Republican) beliefs of the late Tom Clancy, the Baltimore native who died Tuesday at Johns Hopkins Hospital at the age of 66.

For years, I have listened to liberal and conservative Catholics argue about the degree to which Clancy’s novels — which certainly contained a worldview far from the Hollywood norm — reflected moral absolutes that were or were not rooted in his Catholic heritage and education. Are we talking “just war theory” or “just war, baby”? And what were readers to make of that Catholic super hero Jack Ryan and his remarks about Roe v. Wade?

OK, I was idealistic this morning. I thought that the long A1 obituary in the Sun would at least address whether Clancy was or was not an active Catholic. Yes, he was a very private man and there was the matter of his divorce and remarriage. However, there were plenty of churches close to his luxury condo near Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

This is all readers learned on the religion and worldview front:

Thomas Leo Clancy Jr., the son of a mail carrier and an eye surgeon and insurance agency manager, grew up in Baltimore’s middle-class Northwood neighborhood. “I was a little nerdy but a completely normal kid. Mom and Dad loved each other. It was like ‘Leave it to Beaver,’” he told The Sun in 1992.

His education was Roman Catholic, beginning with St. Matthew’s grade school. He went on to Loyola High in Towson, an all-boys school with an all-male faculty and a rigorous Jesuit curriculum. Students took four years of Latin, wore jackets and ties, and began each class with a prayer.

“He was kind of his own man. He was quiet and toward the shy side,” Father Thomas McDonnell, a former Loyola faculty member who taught Mr. Clancy religion, Latin and history in his sophomore year, recalled in an interview with The Sun some years ago.

He described Mr. Clancy as a straight-A student from the standout class of 1965, but unremarkable as a leader or athlete. …

While some of Mr. Clancy’s classmates went on to spend the late 1960s on campuses rife with antiwar activism, he moved to Loyola University Maryland, where the ruling Jesuits had little tolerance for demonstrations.

OK, but what if Clancy’s moral/religious worldview was reflected in some way in all of those bestselling novels? What if the content of the books actually had something to do with his fan base and his popularity?

This is the rare case in which Charm City’s newspaper didn’t even pursue the political side of this matter.

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Spot the ghost in China’s material girls

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Some boys kiss me, some boys hug me
I think they’re O.K.
If they don’t give me proper credit
I just walk away

They can beg and they can plead
But they can’t see the light, that’s right
‘Cause the boy with the cold hard cash

Is always Mister Right, ’cause we are

Living in a material world
And I am a material girl
You know that we are living in a material world
And I am a material girl

Material Girl (1984)

Madonna was not always the frightening figure she is today. Once upon a time she seemed to symbolize the enthusiasm and vitality of the 1980s — that golden age of conspicuous consumption, big hair, shoulder pads, Dallas,  and Thatcherism. An article in the Wednesday New York Times film section entitled “A Film-Fueled Culture Clash Over Values in China” brought those memories back (sans Margaret Thatcher), while also reminding me that I view the world through the lens of Christendom. What I assume to be vice can be celebrated as virtue by others.

The article reports that China is grappling with the consequences of the conspicuous consumption of its gilded youth — the vulgar ostentation of the children of the newly rich as captured in two light, but wildly popular films from director Guo Jingmin. The Times reports the films:

have also made an impact beyond the box office. They have become a lightning rod for this nation’s evolving view of its growing youth culture. Many established Chinese cultural commentators are outraged by these works’ overt celebration of materialism, and this anger has spurred a surprisingly robust counterattack by the movies’ many young fans.

Just as Ian Fleming’s sex, sadism and snobbery spy thrillers of the 1950′s captured the imagination of England as it emerged from the grim post-war years, Guo’s books and films speak to the voracious appetite for luxury in post-Maoist China. Like Bret Easton Ellis’s Less than Zero (without the sex and drugs) Guo’s work chronicles the void — but he does not condemn, he celebrates. The Times article states:

His books are stuffed with English-language brand names like Chanel and Gucci and choice phrases. (“Economy class kills me!” and “I hate Beijing!”) His films show the actual designer goods and include dialogue that has also riled commentators, like this exchange in “Tiny Times 1” between two star-crossed young lovers:

“I like you,” the young man says, “not because you’ve had a driver since you were little, and not because you have designer bags, and definitely not because you gave me expensive boots. Even if you didn’t have a cent, I would still like you.”

The woman then turns on him: “Let me tell you, love without materialism is just a pile of sand!”

How far China has come. The “love without materialism” line could have been spoken just as easily a Red Guard in the 1960s as by a Shanghai sybarite today. Materialism — the philosophical basis for Marxist thought — has been construed to mean economic materialism — the desire for possessions. The article nicely notes the clash of ideologies between the two materialist cultures — between China’s rural past and its urban present — before returning to a discussion of the film’s place in the contemporary Chinese psyche.

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Media MIA: Mother Dolores Hart’s love for Jesus

It’s the question that echoes between the lines of mainstream news features about the life and work of Mother Dolores Hart, the cloistered nun (yes, she gave Elvis his first on-screen kiss) who walked away from her promising future in Hollywood.

The question, stated simply, is this: Why did she do it?

The answer? I’m not really clear on that, but based on reading a number of mainstream press reports on this subject I can say that her decision — if the mainstream media is to be believed — had very little to do with her love for Jesus or his church.

Let’s set this question up, via some material from a new Religion News Service piece (it’s much better than the norm) about Hart:

As if to test her resolve in those weeks before she left Hollywood, Universal Studios offered her a role opposite Marlon Brando, a role she turned down shortly after she broke off her engagement to Don Robinson, a kind and handsome businessman who loved her intensely.

“Even my best friend, who was a priest, Father Doody, said, ‘You’re crazy. This is absolutely insane to do this,’” Mother Delores Hart remembered in a recent interview, conducted 50 years after she entered the Order of St. Benedict. To try to explain her decision to a world that’s perhaps even more enamored of celebrity than it was a half century ago, Hart, 74, has written “The Ear of the Heart,” a memoir of her life on screen and behind the convent walls.

Even though she wasn’t raised Catholic, 9-year-old Dolores decided to convert when she found meaning and comfort in the rituals of her Catholic school. At 24, she quit Hollywood to answer a call she heard from God. “I left the world I knew in order to reenter it on a more profound level,” she writes.

So, a “call from God” and that is that.

Now, the story dedicates all kinds of space to her life before that decision and to her connections to Hollywood. All well and good.

But, again, what was the nature of the life-changing spiritual tug that led her to spend decades working in an abbey laundry room, or roughing up her hands in a wood shop making coffins? She took the divine call. What did Hart hear on the line?

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What, precisely, makes Stephenie Meyer so important? (updated)

I need some help, folks.

My goal is to find that classic Washington Post piece — on A1 or the Style front — about the whole Beltway-women cult that surrounded the “Twilight” series by Stephenie Meyer. The key to this feature was that it focused on how guilty these feminists and hard-charging professionals felt about their desire to read these books. They were hiding them from friends and family. Women could not believe that they were falling for these novels.

Why the guilt? As I remember it, the story argued that liberal women were afraid to be seen reading a book that baptized in old-fashioned Romantic virtues, especially the concept that a man could truly be faithful to one woman — forever. Yes, the story may have mentioned that Meyer is a Mormon and, thus, supposedly on the wrong side of the Sexual Revolution. What if her beliefs were dangerous?

I can’t seem to come up with the right set of search terms to find that story. If anyone manages to reel it in, please leave the link in the comments section.

UPDATE: Well, here it is, care of Naomi Kietzke Young. Here’s a sample from a source more specific than my memory:

This is a story about shame. All across the country, there were women who managed to avoid Stephenie Meyer’s series about a star-crossed human/vampire teen couple. … “Twilight” came for the tweens, then for the moms of tweens, then for the co-workers who started wearing those ridiculous Team Jacob shirts, and the resisters said nothing, because they thought “Twilight” could not come for them. They were too literary. They didn’t do vampires. They were feminists. …

Everyone is vulnerable. One minute you’re a functioning member of society, the next you’re succumbing to the dark side, wondering how deep you’re willing to go — and what that longing says about you.

Now, I bring this up because the Style team at the Post is back with another one of its wink-wink salutes to Meyer and to her tacky fans. This one is written as a series of 13 observations describing a typical book-signing event.

Light some candles and read on.

1. What must it feel like to be Stephenie Meyer? Today, people have driven multi-hour radii — Buffalo, Richmond — to be in her presence. They arrive at 8:45 p.m. the night before the Thursday book signing, and they sleep in pastel comforters outside Politics & Prose on Connecticut Avenue in order to ensure admission. What must it feel like to be on the sponge end of that much devotion? How many pounds of worship can one human body withstand before collapsing under the fervent, pawing weight?

And so forth and so on:

5. Her fans are so pure. When she walks in a room, the fans go — oh, you already know what they go. Everybody already knows what happens at a Stephenie Meyer appearance. The fans go “Eeee!” or “Squeee!” or “Bleeee!”; the fans burst into tears and explain their obsessive love for “Twilight.” Sometimes a journalist who brags that he’s too smart for “Twilight” (even though he’s never read it) parachutes in to write a scene story about these women, and they open up their hopeful hearts because maybe this time he won’t make them look crazy. He always makes them look crazy.

“I do a lot of deep breathing,” Meyer says. This is how she adjusts to the decibel level of a public appearance. She’s grown more used to it now. The public appearances used to make her nervous. She used to pep-talk herself: “I am going to live through this. Nobody is going to kill you today.”

6. Does she realize how polarizing she is? Does she realize that her fans’ love for her work is equally balanced out by — “This passionate hatred that it spawns?” she suggests, in the Georgetown hotel room. She laughs.

This whole hate thing — the “dismissive sneer” offered by critics — is approached at the level of her writing ability, not the content of her writing. But surely there is more to it than that. Right?

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