Cinema Dope: Divine Comedy

Religulous
Directed by Larry Charles. Written by Bill Maher. With Bill Maher, Steve Burg, Jose Luis De Jesus Miranda, and Andrew Newberg. (R)

God bless Bill Maher. Not that it would mean much to him; after watching Religulous, his acerbic new film made with Borat director Larry Charles, I'm sure the talk show host and satirist couldn't care less who blesses him. But for people fed up with religion's continuing encroachment into areas of government, this film is a long-needed wakeup call—an instance of "the emperor has no clothes" when our current leader bases his decisions on what he believes God wants. (Who knew God was a Halliburton man?)

For Maher, who grew up Catholic and admits to occasionally falling into old habits (he asks God for help in quitting his smoking habit), religion is a "neurological disorder" that causes as much trouble as it cures. To prove his point, he travels the world visiting all manner of religious people—an anti-Israel rabbi, a Vatican astronomer, and a preacher who claims to be the second incarnation of Christ, among many others—to debate the logic of religion.

Debate, though, is probably the wrong word. Maher is as convinced of his position as anyone he interviews, and his exchanges with them are often less about the worth of religion than the absurdity of it; he gleefully cherry-picks the most outlandish bits—talking snakes, burning bushes, a guy living inside a whale—and mocks those who take them literally. When one of his subjects scoffs at the idea of Santa Claus, Maher can't help but make the obvious comparison. Along the way, he and Charles insert mocking subtitles and over-the-top clips from other sources to make fun of their subjects, a tactic that is at once gut-bustingly funny and occasionally less than useful; once in a while it makes Maher look like a self-satisfied jerk.

But if Maher is sometimes smug, he makes his points. He interviews sitting senator Mark Pryor—"one of the few people actually running our country," as he points out—who is willing to believe that creationist theories might be true. When Maher points out the overwhelming science opposed to that idea, Pryor replies with a smile that "you don't have to pass an IQ test to serve in the Senate." Soon after, the filmmakers are off to visit the Creation Museum in Kentucky, where the dinosaurs wear saddles and the "sounds of a sin-ravaged world echo through the room," before moving on to the Holy Land experience, where Maher interviews Jesus between his dance numbers.

Religulous is at its best when it marshals facts to defend its premise. A comparison of the Christ story to that of the early Egyptian deity Horus is surprising—they're almost identical, despite the fact that (or is it because?) the Horus myth is much older. Similarly illuminating is Maher's conversation outside the Vatican (he was thrown out) with a remarkably frank priest, who derides many of the stories people cling to as "just all nonsense."

Not that it matters much; Maher isn't likely to convert anyone. Instead, this film is a call to arms, with Maher as Moses; by the end credits he's imploring us to take a stand against the increasingly close ties of church and state all over the world. He points out that 16 percent of US citizens declare themselves totally unaffiliated with any kind of religion—a minority, but one bigger than the Jewish or African-American population. Where, Maher wants to know, are his lobbyists?

 

The Exiles
Directed by Kent Mackenzie. With Mary Donahue, Homer Nish, Clydean Parker, Tom Reynolds, Rico Rodriquez and Yvonne Williams. (NR)

Watching The Exiles is like opening a long-buried time capsule. Director Kent Mackenzie's 1961 debut feature was never released commercially, and only came to light when scenes from the film were included in the 2003 documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself. The strength of those scenes—a chiaroscuro vision of downtown L.A. and the young Native Americans who carved out a living in its Bunker Hill neighborhood—re-ignited interest in the film, eventually leading to a full restoration by the UCLA Film and Television Archive. The result is a rich film (visually and emotionally) that documents a vanished era.

The UCLA team was also responsible for the restoration of Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep, and The Exiles shares some of that film's qualities; it's velvety black and white cinematography on the surface, and beneath that, interest in the lives of a minority population still finding its way in the city.

Mackenzie worked with a non-professional cast of actors, Native Americans whose interviews provided the basis for this quasi-documentary and the intermittent voiceovers that allow us into their minds. The first generation to move off the reservation, they've come to the city in search of opportunity, only to get caught up in the usual distractions of city life—the neon draw of cheap drinks and all-night movies—and the marital despair that often follows on its heels.

At the film's heart are Homer and Yvonne, a young married couple who spend next to no time together over the half-day the film covers. When they wed, she hoped that a life in the city would mean that the baby she carried would learn English and go to college; instead it's meant a life of shopping and cooking for Homer and his band of layabout friends, especially the pushy Tommy. As the film opens, she cooks pork chops for the men. They wolf them down, pile into a car, and shove Yvonne out at a movie theater before wheeling off into the night.

This is a California not long removed from Rebel Without a Cause: Homer and his friends sport greasy pompadours and a disdain for what Tommy calls "regular life," instead looking for the cheap thrills they find at low-rent bars and seedy, booze-soaked poker games. (If the film weren't so old, you might suspect Thunderbird wine of product placement.)

As the night progresses, we see-saw between Homer and Yvonne, and it's striking how similar their experiences are despite the differences in detail. She mostly spends the night alone, watching movies and brooding about her life; Homer drinks, brawls, and sings, yet seems to be doing it only because it's expected of a man his age, and if anything broods more than Yvonne. When Tommy proclaims, "We'll do it all again tonight!" it sounds like a Sisyphean verdict.

 

Trouble the Water
Directed by Tia Lessin and Carl Deal. With Kimberly Rivers Roberts, Scott Roberts, and Larry Simms. (NR)

In brief, Trouble the Water is more an important document than a great documentary. It is the story of Kimberly and Scott Roberts, survivors of Hurricane Katrina who shot first-hand footage of the storm as it ravaged their Ninth Ward New Orleans neighborhood. Trapped in their attic—they couldn't afford to evacuate—Kimberly Roberts kept a video camera trained outdoors as the flood waters rose.

In the aftermath of the hurricane, she met Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, who followed the Roberts and their new family—a rag-tag troupe who survived the flood by helping each other—as they tried to rebuild their lives. The resulting film largely treads over familiar (if still shameful) ground: the lack of government aid during and after the levees broke; the absence of a police presence in New Orleans; the continued lack of resources for rebuilding.

There are still moments when the film shocks—in the visceral impact of death, or the oblivious prattle of a tourism board worker who assures us that New Orleans is back. And an already shocking moment—when a Navy base with 700 empty rooms turned away refugees at gunpoint—is made more so when we discover that the officers were awarded a commendation for their actions.

In the end, the film is a bit too scattered and a bit too personal for its own good; with its fractured timeline and jumpy editing, it feels at times like one is watching another family's home movies—which of course we are, in a way. There's no denying the (still ongoing) impact of Katrina, but Trouble the Water doesn't quite capture the enormity of it all.

Also this week: Cinemadope caught up with local arts impresario Bob Lawton to talk about the upcoming Robert Altman film festival. Lawton, who formerly owned Pleasant Street Theater (where I worked with Lawton as manager), continues to bring film to the Valley as a co-presenter of the four-day festival. He worked with Bob Cilman and Diane Porcella of the Northampton Arts Council to fashion a program to benefit both that organization and, by extension, the Northampton public school system, which receives funding for arts programs from the Arts Council.

Running from Oct. 10 to 13 at the Academy of Music, A Tribute to Robert Altman features both the director's better known works (M*A*S*H, The Player) and some of his often overlooked gems (The Long Goodbye, Brewster McCloud). In all, the program features 10 of Altman's films, many screened in newly-struck 35mm prints (Lawton notes, "There's not one damn DVD in the bunch."). He also hints at a possible surprise screening of some rare works from Altman's days as a journeyman TV and industrial film director—in his salad days, the legend directed everything from episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Bonanza to the documentary How To Run a Filling Station.

It wasn't easy, says Lawton, to whittle down Altman's oeuvre to 10 films. He, Cilman, and Porcella debated what to include, but Lawton's only regret is that he voted against the 1976 film Buffalo Bill and the Indians. Starring Paul Newman, it would have been a wonderful big-screen homage to the recently deceased actor, said Lawton, but by the time of Newman's death the schedule had already been set.

To entice filmgoers into checking out some of Altman's lesser-known works, the festival offers a $30 pass that allows entry to all 10 films (an opening night party with music by The Feelies requires a separate ticket). Tickets are available at Pleasant Street Video, the Northampton Arts Council, and by phone at (413) 587-1247."

Jack Brown can be reached at cinemadope@gmail.com.

Author: Jack Brown

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