Monday, July 20, 2009

Blasphemy Isn't What It Used to Be

Ron Howard's new movie, Angels & Demons, starring Tom Hanks as symbologist super sleuth Robert Langdon, is a follow-up to their 2006 piece-of-shit movie The Da Vinci Code, which was based on Dan Brown's bestselling 2003 pice-of-shit novel of the same name. (Angels & Demons is actually based on an earlier novel that Brown published in 2000, which marked the first appearance of the Langdon character.) I couldn't quite follow the thread of The Da Vinci Code, but I think it had something to do with clues hidden in the Mona Lisa that Amélie is Jesus Christ's great-great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter. (I think there was also something about how "the Holy Grail", legendary for being Jesus's favorite thing to drink from, was actually his pet name for Mary Magdalene, but that's so unbelievably filthy that I must have imagined it. We are, after all, talking about a movie made by Opie, starring Forrest Gump.) The new movie reportedly has to do with the return of the Illuminati, which (in Brown's conspiracy-fantasy mythology) was murderously wiped out by the Catholic church some three thousand years ago for being too scientific and artistic and progressive and all. As before, the new movie is being threatened with organized protests from Catholic groups who take offense at seeing their church portrayed as Murder, Inc. with funnier hats. Faced with these complaints, Howard has done what any serious religious history scholar would do: he's gone to the Huffington Post to deliver his Sermon on the Mount.

Howard's bete noire is William Donahue of the Catholic League, who, in Howard's words, "writes that I and the people who made this thriller 'do not hide their animus against all things Catholic.'" (Apparently all things Catholic include basic grammar.) "Let me be clear," writes the director of Frost/Nixon: "neither I nor Angels & Demons are anti-Catholic. And let me be a little controversial: I believe Catholics, including most in the hierarchy of the Church, will enjoy the movie for what it is: an exciting mystery, set in the awe-inspiring beauty of Rome. After all, in Angels & Demons, Professor Robert Langdon teams up with the Catholic Church to thwart a vicious attack against the Vatican. What, exactly, is anti-Catholic about that?" As to the details, "Mr. Donohue's booklet accuses us of lying when our movie trailer says the Catholic Church ordered a brutal massacre to silence the Illuminati centuries ago. It would be a lie if we had ever suggested our movie is anything other than a work of fiction (if it were a documentary, our talk of massacres would have referenced the Inquisition or the Crusades)...Mr. Donohue's op-ed [in the New York Daily News] and booklet also suggest that we paint the Church as 'anti-reason.' There is plenty of debate over what the Church did or didn't do with Galileo, but I for one do recognize that the Church did much throughout the ages to encourage and preserve education, the arts and the sciences." As Jesus used to say to Pontius Pilate, passive-aggressive much?

Unmollified by these and other valuable points made by Howard (ranging from "And if fictional movies could never take liberties with reality, then there would have been no Ben-Hur, no Barabbas, The Robe, Gone With The Wind, or Titanic. Not to mention Splash!" to "Even the current 'faith vs. science' debate over embryonic stem cells is briefly depicted in Angels & Demons in a balanced way."), Donahue has struck back in his latest press release: “Dan Brown says in his book that the Illuminati are ‘factual’ and that they were ‘hunted ruthlessly by the Catholic Church.’ In the film’s trailer, Tom Hanks, who plays the protagonist Robert Langdon, says ‘The Catholic Church ordered a brutal massacre to silence them forever.’ Howard concurs: ‘The Illuminati were formed in the 1600s. They were artists and scientists like Galileo and Bernini, whose progressive ideas threatened the Vatican.’ All of this is a lie. The Illuminati were founded in 1776 and were dissolved in 1787. It is obvious that Galileo and Bernini could not possibly have been members: Galileo died in 1647 and Bernini passed away in 1680. More important, the Catholic Church never hunted, much less killed, a single member of the Illuminati. But this hasn’t stopped Brown from asserting that ‘It is a historical fact that the Illuminati vowed vengeance against the Vatican in the 1600s.’" Perhaps sensing how many readers stepped out into the hallway for a smoke while he was rattling off dates, Brown adds, "Moreover, we know from a Canadian priest who hung out with Howard’s crew last summer in Rome (dressed in civilian clothes) just how much they hate Catholicism.” Personally, I have no plans to see Angels & Demons, but I would pay half my body weight in gold bullion to see a movie based on the true-life adventures of an undercover Catholic, dressed in a Canadian priest's idea of "civilian clothes"--I'm picturing Disco Stu with a cross around his neck--who hangs out with Opie and Forrest to listen to them express the true, hateful feelings they have about Catholics when they think all the Pope's children are in the bathroom. ("And the rhythm method--what's that all about!? You look at the size of some of these families, I guess maybe Mel Gibson's had a little trouble finding the backbeat, y'know what I'm saying? Cheese it, here comes Coppola!")

Now, we don't really have a dog in this race. And make no mistake about it, we here at the Screengrab are just crazy about blasphemy and try to encourage it whenever we can. What's discouraging, though, is Howard's good-natured, reasonable tone: yeah, we kind of dis your church's history and make your guys look like nut jobs and gangsters, but we don't mean anything by it! It's just necessary to the plot of a good thriller. What are you saying, that you don't like good thrillers? Go dig Hitchcock up and blow shit at him! Some real moviemakers like Bunuel risked their careers, their standing in the community, and maybe even their lives to make blasphemous movies, and somebody like Howard flirts with it, out of commercial necessity--somebody is going to make movies out of Dan Brown's bullshit--and expects everybody to understand that it doesn't really mean anything to him, so it shouldn't give offense to anyone. I myself am no fan of Oliver Stone's JFK, either as a movie or as an historical argument, but I'll give it this much: I'm willing to believe that the murder of John Kennedy is something that Stone is, or was, genuinely freaked out about. it's understandable that Howard would be baffled and even offended by William Donahue's assertion that he's actually a hater and propagandist against the Catholic church instead of a guy trying to make a buck with a pre-sold property, but if he would open his mind up a little, he might be able to see that, in his way, Donahue is paying him a compliment by suggesting that he's a serious enough man to believe in his own crap. As Al Pacino put it in Dog Day Afternoon, if somebody's going to blow my brains out, I hope it's somebody who does it because he hates my guts, not because it's his job.

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