No, this isn’t a Criterion post, but it is something that’s been nagging at me since last weekend, and since it is movie-related, I want to mull it over. The topic is religion in movies. Last weekend, I watched Flight and The Master, both of which had actors up for best actor at this year’s Academy Awards (Denzel Washington and Joaquin Phoenix) and had actors up for best supporting roles (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams for The Master). Yesterday, I bought a copy of Life of Pi, my favorite release of last year. All three films explicitly or implicitly have religion at the heart of their stories. But I disliked (hate is such a strong word) two and adored one. They were all competently made with established directors (Robert Zemeckis [Back to the Future series], Paul Thomas Anderson [There Will Be Blood], and Ang Lee [who won best director for Life of Pi, as well he should]). My problem is that I don’t understand religion very well, and what I do understand of it is a mixture of positive and negative (true of most things, actually, but the good and the bad here seem more polarized). So this may be an exercise in flaunting my ignorance, but even though work has been taking up most of my life, thinking about these three movies and how religion factors into them keeps resurfacing in my head all week.
The Master is purported to be about Scientology. I know very little about the religion itself. It seems to get bad press and looked at rather derisively. I haven’t seen the South Park episode that rips it apart but have heard synopses. I’ve listened to the NPR Morning Edition segment on Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief. There’s the now infamous interviews with Tom Cruise that have him attesting he’s never ill due to Scientology. When I was young, my dad read Dianetics and said it was amazing but that he didn’t quite understand it all (which was a mean feat for a book to get my father to admit he didn’t get something – he wasn’t much for admitting personal weaknesses). I haven’t read Slate’s article on this yet, but definitely will. I know the Scientologists were pissed off at the movie being made and tried to block its release. Hoffman’s Hubbard character, Lancaster Dodd, is trying to legitimize his religion to a post-WWII America. It seems he is sometimes sued after someone gives him money, feeling they’ve been “taken” in what sounds like a confidence scam, and that is telling, because faith has a lot to do with believing what you are being told, whatever that may be. He also has an anger management issue that has him exploding at people for perfectly reasonable questions and statements. I’m fairly certain the movie wasn’t trying to explain Scientology, which is probably the best thing about the movie. It was looking at characters and how they exerted their wills upon each other, especially Quell, Dodd and his wife. Control, at least for most organized religions, is vital. Just looking at the dog-and-pony show that has been Pope Benedict stepping down and being replaced by Pope Francis is good enough example of who’s in charge and how information is disseminated. It also has me revisiting the title. “Master” is someone in control. Dodd is attempting to be Quell’s (great choice of name, by the way, as it is something Quell can rarely attain) master. But Quell is too much the “animal” that Dodd insists that humans stand above. Quell is pure instinct and impulse. While Dodd sets himself up to be the thinking man, and that his religion can help those by delving into their past existences, Quell is all about the here and now. But that’s not completely true either, given his almost suicidal regiment of alcohol (some of which isn’t even drinking alcohol, for crying out loud – hair tonic, missile fuel, paint thinner?!?). How is this guy alive? And soused or not, he’ll bang anything in the room, including himself (not to sound prudish, but I can’t recall a film in recently memory with this much … um … self service). Eat, drink, fuck, pass out, repeat. Mix well before serving. Dodd says he likes Quell, so Quell starts an odd allegiance with Dodd. He’ll fight like a dog for Dodd, but eventually, and I’m not sure how this occurs, but Quell realizes that Dodd is not his master. This is prefaced by his flight from Dodd with Dodd’s motorcycle in order to see Doris. When he finds Doris has married and left, instead of going back to Dodd, he goes back to drinking. It is then Dodd who pursues Quell. But Dodd’s ultimatum (stay now or go away forever) while singing “Slow Boat to China” is the final push out the door for Quell. So Quell isn’t the animal after all. He can make a conscious decision, regardless of the motivations, however base they may be. The scene between Hoffman and Phoenix made me think of the scene between Day-Lewis and Dano at the end of There Will Be Blood, but where TWBB rang true for me, the scene in Master felt contrived and meant to tie things up too neatly. Dodd’s whole through line was to help Quell, using the methods of his religion. But he is unable to do so. What he offers isn’t good enough for Quell. Free will – 1, Religion – 0
Flight is also about control and alcoholism. Whip Whitaker is a raging alcoholic with a side car of cocaine. But if one was to float the idea that he was not in control of the situation, ‘twould be heresy. It is made quite clear throughout the movie that his prowess in flying is unmatched. Imagine how awesome he’d be at his job if he was sober instead of blotto every minute of his life? Maybe that isn’t enough of a challenge for him? Whatever the case may be, he pulls an amazing maneuver and saves a great many lives with an insanely high BAC and cocaine pumping through his veins. He decides after such a life-changing experience to go straight, toss all the vices, and be the hero he will soon be hailed as. But, that doesn’t last for very long. What follows degenerates into an after-school special and / or advertisement for AA, complete with the 12 steps, one of the earlier steps being to turn everything over to a higher power, so there are a great many mentions of God and Jesus. Also, peripheral characters like his co-pilot and wife are extremely religious. The girl he met in the hospital who ODed just as his plane crashed shacks up with him and decides to go straight, too. She’s willing to stay with Whitaker if he will clean up his act. However, Whitaker is incapable of doing so (he hasn’t admitted to himself that he has a problem – step 1), so she leaves him just as he is about to be saved by his guileful lawyer, Don Cheadle. When blame for drinking is about to be put incorrectly on a stewardess he banged that morning but who died in the crash, Whitaker suddenly has a crisis of conscious and admits his problems to a federal investigation committee, thus landing his butt in jail for a large chunk of time. This was very by-the-numbers. What is infinitely better is Washington’s portrayal of an alcoholic in Man on Fire, a far superior movie than this one, which was heavy-handed and didactic. The only outstanding part was the intensely realistic plane crash sequence. Unfortunately, I’m deathly afraid of flying, so this movie didn’t do much to instill faith in the airline industry (it was actually concluded that mechanical error in the way of gross negligence on the part of the airplane manufacturer is the culprit and not pilot error). Free will – 1, Religion – 0, ABC’s Afterschool Specials and Driving Everywhere for Vacation – 1
So we have two films, one pushing religion as a means of recovery and the other using it as a sort of backdrop to watching three characters wrestle with each other. One is cast as savior while the other is more a solution set to a problem (apply ideology here). But while there was so much brouhaha about one centering on a religion, that was not the main theme (at least I don’t consider it to be The Master’s main idea – perhaps some do). But Life of Pi clearly states outright that the story we are about to hear is intended to make us believe in God. You have two audiences – the believers (in which case, you don’t need a story, as that is already perceived as fact) or nonbelievers (in which case, does a two hour movie have the capacity to do that?). The protagonist, Pi, is interested in different religions. He’s born Hindu, discovers Christianity, and accepts Islam. I like how James Berardinelli puts that he “cherry-picks various aspects of different religions to create his own iteration.” However, given some of his comments about bookending the story with the Canadian writer talking to the now middle aged Pi cutting all suspense shows he didn’t read the novel. But the movie is about belief and faith. In a situation such as Pi is in, you can either believe and have faith that you are going to be rescued or reach land before you die or give up. For a large part of his ordeal, Pi tells himself that he is staying alive to insure that Richard Parker is alive, because Richard Parker cannot make it out of this situation, him being an animal with instinct instead of wit. Because Pi had helped tend the animals in his family’s zoo, he feels an obligation to keep Richard Parker alive. Richard Parker forces Pi not to give up, at least for most of the ordeal. The tiger is still viciously dangerous, and there may be times that Pi considers leaving Richard Parker to his fate, but he doesn’t. Pi tries so hard for so long and has to use his cunning to keep them both alive, all the while hoping for the miracle that someone will find them. For me, there were three heartbreaking instances in the film. The first is when Pi catches a fish in order to feed Richard Parker. There is an emergency food and water supply on board the lifeboat, and Pi says that while he can eat biscuits, Richard Parker can’t. Pi catches a fish and bashes its head to kill it. Immediately, he starts sobbing and apologizing to the fish for what he has done. His family is devoutly Hindu and vegetarian, so the killing of one being to keep another alive is mortifying to Pi’s sensibilities, and he truly mourns the fish. He asks forgiveness of the fish, even though in the dire position he is in, there is no way Richard Parker can be kept alive otherwise; Pi must become a killer in that sense, or at least a carnivore (and he does eventually eat fish because of an accident that wipes away his food supply). The second is towards the end of the film where the present-day Pi is recounting when the lifeboat finally reached Mexico and Richard Parker goes to the edge of the jungle and disappears, never looking back once at Pi. Pi is devastated by this. The two had gone through so much together, and Pi breaks his father’s rule somewhat of not seeing Richard Parker always as a beast that intends to kill him but a friend that he has helped keep alive (for his own sanity’s sake, much like Wilson in Cast Away, as noted by Berardinelli). This leads Pi to talk about how awful it is that we are not allowed to say goodbye to those we lose forever. Pi never gets to say goodbye to his family as the ship sinks, he cannot say goodbye to the zebra, orangutan or hyena (he probably wouldn’t want to for the hyena), and with Richard Parker’s surreptitious exit, he never says goodbye to the tiger. The viewer gets the sense that this pain is something that Pi feels every day of his life, and even though his life is good now (married, kids, house, Canada), every day of his existence he grapples with the gifts that have been given and taken away. But where there is pain in the taking away, there is love for the giving. Most people can empathize with this condition of human existence. To continue past this pain is akin to waiting to be saved, that there has to be meaning in the endurance. The third, and most wrenching, is when Pi and Richard Parker are near death and no longer have the strength to scrounge food or purify water. They lay listless, together, on the boat (Pi has been spending most of the shipwreck not on the lifeboat but on a fashioned raft, leaving Richard Parker the lifeboat). Richard Parker can’t even pick up his head. Pi crawls over to Richard Parker and lifts his head onto his lap, crying, saying that it is the end, and that he is sorry he couldn’t save the tiger. It is then that Pi looks skyward and says that he is ready for God to take him. He does not feel forsaken. All the horrible things he has gone through, and he still believes. A criticism sometimes leveled at religion is that the rules put in place by a belief system are for people to try to stay in line so that they can have everlasting pleasure in heaven. That promise is meant to keep people following the rules. Otherwise, they would just range uncontrolled without religion guiding them, doing as they pleased (no afterlife = no eternal consequences). It’s that veil of religion that keeps them in check. I don’t accept that is Pi. His giving of his life does not feel like a selfish act to me. And I don’t believe he is giving up. He knows he is going to die. He feels that he has failed. Death isn’t Pi’s key to paradise, nor his opportunity to make the suffering end. What it is for him, I am not sure I can say, but it seems antithetical to what I know of previously hearing and seeing how people perceive heaven and unending paradise.
Pi always believed in God. Does the film make me? I wouldn’t go so far as to say that. But the beauty of this film, from technical, character and theme-related standpoints, yet again reaffirms the assertion I made towards the end of my Third Man post that humans are capable of such amazing feats. To borrow from my non-tiger buddy, the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals. It does make me believe a little more.