Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The Passion of the Penguins

Here is an article from Andrew Sullivan about The March of the Penguins. Apparently conservatives are using it to argue for intelligent design and as proof for the nuclear family as a "natural" state of familial relationships. An excerpt:

"Religious right radio host Michael Medved gushed in the New York Times that this was the best movie for evangelical Christians since Mel Gibson flayed the skin off Jim Caviezel. The penguin pic was "the motion picture this summer that most passionately affirms traditional norms like monogamy, sacrifice and child rearing," he argued, explaining its widespread appeal among white evangelicals. 'This is the first movie they've enjoyed since 'The Passion of the Christ.' This is 'The Passion of the Penguins.'' Don't worry. You don't get to see penguins nailed to icebergs. But the message is the same, apparently. Other evangelicals have touted the film's gorgeous story as an example of 'intelligent design,' the pseudo-scientific doctrine that evolution is a myth. To which the sane conservative pundit, George Will, replied, 'If an Intelligent Designer designed nature, why did it decide to make breeding so tedious for those penguins?' Undeterred, one of the chief campaigners against gay marriage, Maggie Gallagher, also hailed the film. '[I]t is hard not to see the theological overtones in the movie,' she wrote. 'Beauty, goodness, love and devotion are all part of nature, built into the DNA of the universe. Even in the harshest place on the Earth (like 21st-century America?), love will not only endure, it will triumph.'"

To put Will's comment more bluntly, what precisely is intelligent about designing penguins to march seventy miles across the harshest terrain on the planet to fuck on an iceberg?

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Exorcising the Facts Out of Emily Rose

To be clear from the start, I am not picky about details when it comes to adapting real life to the cinema. I am perfectly willing to accept historical alterations done in the name of entertainment. Combining characters, collapsing events, or changing the facts may be acceptable within the context of the film is they make for a better story. Ridley Scott's changes to Roman history in Gladiator made sense because they served the story and were mostly inconsequential. Braveheart was a film about the legend of William Wallace, not the historical figure, and some artistic license was perfectly acceptable in that context.

That said, we do need to consider what implications changes have to the presentation of historical events. The Patriot's rewriting American history has been called racist and fascistic for its white washing of slavery and barbaric portrayal of the English.

To those who will say, "Nathan, it's only a movie," I respond, the movies are our history books. They create and recreate how we view our history and ourselves. All forms of artistic expression do this. Tell African Americans that The Birth of a Nation is just a movie. Tell an Israelite that The Eternal Jew is just a movie. Both pieces of cinema, although artistically and historically important, also create a new history that replaces our true past.

Now enter The Exorcism of Emily Rose. If the film was marketed as the fictional piece that it is, I would have no problem with it. The trouble I am having with the film's marketing strategy and the film itself is in its misrepresentation of the events it portrays. The trailers, the website, and the opening and closing of the film announce that the story is based on true events. Well, yes and no. Here is a list of some of the changes from life to screen (SPOILER ALERT):
  • Her real name was Anneliese Miche, and she lived in Klingenberg, Germany from 1952-1976. The film has named her Emily Rose and placed the events in rural Minnesota, USA in contemporary times.
  • In the summer of 1973, Anneliese's parents visited different pastors to request an exorcism and did not have the request granted until 1975. The parents were given recommendations that Anneliese should continue with medication and treatment. In the film, the request is granted almost immediately.
  • At some point Anneliese began talking increasingly about dying to atone for the wayward youth of the day and the apostate priests of the church. The film gives no hint that she had these kind of worldly concerns.
  • Though she had received treatment for epilepsy, at Anneliese's request doctors were no longer consulted. She, her parents, and the exorcists decided to rely completely on exorcism.
  • In the film only one exorcism is performed and it is performed with Emily's permission. Anneliese had one or two exorcism sessions were held each week between September 1975 until July 1976.
  • During the ten months of weekly exorcisms, Anneliese attacks got worse.
  • Anneliese's parents and the two exorcists were accused of negligent homicide. In the film, just a single priest is charged.
  • Psychiatrists who had been ordered to testify by the court, spoke about "Doctrinaire Induction," that the priests had provided Anneliese with the contents of her psychotic behavior and she later accepted her behavior as a form of demonic possession. They also argued that Anneliese's troubled sexual development (possibly a side effect of her strict religious upbringing), along with her diagnosed Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, had influenced the psychosis. This is partly addressed in the film, but it waters down the secular explanation and gives it to a prosecutor whose character is belligerent.
  • Anneliese's parents and the exorcists were found guilty of manslaughter resulting from negligence. They were sentenced to 6 months in jail and probation. The opinion of the court stated that the accused should have helped Anneliese by taking care of the medical treatment that the girl needed. In the film the priest is found guilty but the jury recommends a sentence of time served.
  • A commission of the German Bishop-Conference later declared that Anneliese Michel was not possessed. The film does not mention this.


As I said, I am not someone who demands the factual truth from film but those going into The Exorcism of Emily Rose should be aware that the picture, although based on some facts, is a piece of fiction and should be regarded as such. To say that Emily Rose or Anneliese Michel was proof of possession or other supernatural activity is almost as uninformed and as idiotic as arguing for intelligent design.

Overall, I did actually enjoy this film, but for its fun and scary qualities. Here is my review from Maverick at the Movies:

What Works: For most of the story, the film walks the line between secularism and religiosity. This keeps the interest up and makes the film accessible to a wider audience. Tom Wilkinson gives another great performance as the priest whose firm belief sells the seriousness of the supposed supernatural threat without falling into priest stereotypes. Linney's possible encounters with the supernatural are subjective enough that they are engaging and enhance the creepiness.

What Doesn't: This film is being marketed as though it is The Exorcist but this is more of a courtroom drama than a horror film. Emily Rose has serious problems with objectivity and subjectivity. The exorcism and all events leading to it are told in flashback through courtroom testimonies. The film's visual presentation of the events does not take advantage or even address the issues of point of view or the subjectivity of memory, and instead presents the events through an objective lens . This is gives the viewer a false impression of the nature of the event and makes its conflicts much simpler than they could have be, especially since the story is probing the relationship between facts and beliefs . At the film's conclusion, the evenhandedness that is part of the film's intrigue is dropped and when it is, the film slips into moments of religious proselytizing.

Bottom Line: Despite these problems, The Exorcism of Emily Rose is able to successfully combine the courtroom and horror genres, which makes it unique. Some of its storytelling follows predictable X-Files and Law and Order conventions and in the end it gives up the ambiguity that carries it in the middle, but it is entertaining and should be enjoyed by those who liked The Exorcist or The Devil's Advocate.

Lastly, here is something relevant to Anneliese Michel and relates back to my earlier comments on the impact of art to create perceptiontion of reality. In 1974, just before the final events of Michel's life unfolded, The Exorcist came to the cinemas and after its release paranormal hysteria flooded many Christian cultures, including America and Germany. Psychiatrists reported an increase of demonic ideas among their patients.

Anneliese Michel Links

"The Exorcism of Anneliese Michel" at About.com

The Real Emily Rose

"What in God's Name?" from The Washington Post

Friday, September 02, 2005

The Grid Has Been Shattered

Reading the various reports on the situation in New Orleans has given me an opportunity to consider on of my favorite topics, the relationship between savagery and civilization. I had not watched the footage or read many of the news stories until now. While the damage to people's lives from the storm is tragic, of greater interest to me has been the reaction of those who have been suddenly thrust into refugee status. Several major elements have been introduced into this situation and the combination could be more disastrous than the hurricane:
  • People have no food, no shelter, and no means to get these things on their own civilly.
  • The social structures that were in place to provide basic needs have been destroyed or undermined to such a degree that they cannot help the people.
  • There is no relief in the near future and most means of mass communication have been destroyed, so mobilizing or calming the people is impossible.

This combination is so dangerous because people will do anything to survive and if the social structures have failed the people or appear to have failed the people, then the fragile premise that maintains any democracy or any governing body--that the people will submit to the authority of the state in exchange for its protection--is gone. And once it is gone, forget law, forget order, forget propriety, and certainly forget ethics or morality. These things are only possible in a community that has a collective charter. And in New Orleans that charter has been all but washed away.

I was reminded of one of my favorite observations from one of my favorite storytellers, Wes Craven:
"It seems to me that the things the move us historically, both personally and nationally, are those things that are not on the grid of rationality. Having traveled now in a lot of third world countries, you see that every civilization has its own grid of what it thinks reality is, and what is proper behavior, and what is civilized. And usually what happens is sooner or later that grid is shattered. Something like World War II happens, or we wipe out the Native American population, or Spain invades South America and decimates every living creature there and takes over. And then suddenly the grid is back and we're civilized and we're religious and we're this and we're that but there seems to be a deeper grid that I've tried to find, and that is how the engine of life really works. And I think it works a lot off of violence, like it or not, and it works a lot off of things that are not rational, and are very difficult to perceive, and in some ways can only be adumbrated or sketched and shadow played in horror films. And it's not something I'm terribly happy about. I wish the world did run so there weren't Bosnias and there weren't Rwandas, and there weren't Selmas, but that seems to be the way it goes about its business at significant times."

What we are witnessing is historic. Time will tell if it has the same kind of cultural aftershocks as the September 11th attack. I link the two events because I see a connection. On 9/11, Americans had a taste of war in their own country, something that had not occurred on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor and had not been experienced as sustained violence since the end of the Civil War. It shook our confidence in our security and made us aware and fearful of those on the outside wishing to do us harm. Likewise, Hurricane Katrina reminds us that despite our technological advances, in a matter of hours nature can still destroy all we've built. The violence and lawlessness of those left in its wake reminds us that the horde inside can be as dangerous as the one on the outside.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Turn About is Fair Play

As a follow up to my previous post about Pat Robertson calling for the assassination of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the Latin American leader has offered aid to the Americans affected by Hurricane Katrina. It's understandable now why the political right hates Chavez so much. He's offering the people access to food and health care. The man must be stopped.

I will have further observations about the disaster at a later time. For now, consider this.