What Are You Reading for Banned Book Week?

BannedBooks2014

It’s the American Library Association’s annual Banned Book Week, where they focus on frequently challenged and banned books. Everything from Walter the Farting Dog to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been challenged, when our fellow citizens are so concerned about our well-being that they elect themselves would-be censor, to “protect young minds” from stories they find offensive. The latest lists of frequently challenged books can be found here. I’ve always been a fan of forbidden fruit. As a teenager, when I heard that reading The Communist Manifesto got you on a watch list, I checked it out of the library. (Are you listening, NSA?) I found it about as boring as Atlas Shrugged, but I read it because a bunch of self-appointed thought police said I shouldn’t. And I still read books for the same reason; often they aren’t very good, but they are certainly refreshing after the piles of pap we’re delivered as our recommended daily allowance of circuses to go with our bread.

This week I’m going to dust off my old copy of The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis. I need a change, and a religious book is definitely outside my usual comfort zone. I saw the movie on Ash Wednesday, the year it came out. I don’t find the idea that Jesus Christ was a man terribly strange (I am a humanist) but I will read the spiritual side of the book with an open mind.

What are you reading for banned book week?

Grace on Broadway

I took Firecracker to see GRACE on Broadway last week, a play starring Paul Rudd, Michael Shannon, Kate Arrington and the still-fierce Ed Asner. It is a funny but surprisingly dark and thoughtful look at the mechanics of faith, religious or otherwise, and how it changes how we adapt to what the universe throws at us.

Rudd Arrington Grace

It begins with a murder-suicide, so you know what you’re getting into from the opening line. Then it dials back and shows what led up to it. The acting is phenomenal, and made me wish Rudd did more drama. He and Arrington play a couple from Minnesota who move to Florida for a real estate deal, to open a Gospel themed hotel chain. Michael Shannon plays a science geek who has survived what I call an everyday tragedy: the horrible things we hear of, but accept as normal until they happen to us or someone we care about.

Michael Shannon Grace

Once they break through his bitter shell, he’s quite funny and a bit nerdy, not the usual Shannon character. Very refreshing. Ed Asner is a force of nature, and also plays against type. He is a German immigrant who survived the horrors of World War 2, which erased God from his universe. The story reveals how each character came to their faith or lack thereof, and is not about whether there is a God at the wheel of fate or not, but how the characters deal with the worst life has to offer. And yet, it still manages to be very funny between these heartrending epiphanies.

Grace Asner
It’s not DOUBT, but it gives you plenty to think about. Which is stronger armor against the world, optimism or pessimism? If faith is your crutch, what happens when life kicks it out from under you?

GRACE runs at the Cort Theater in Manhattan until January 6th. If you’re a Paul Rudd fan, check the schedule. He has a sub during Hanukkah and I am not sure if he is returning.

Footloose- where the white boys dance


Kick off your Sunday shoes
Oowhee, Marie
Shake it, shake it for me
Whoa, Milo
C’mon, c’mon let go
Lose your blues
Everybody cut footloose

I was 13 when Footloose came out, and I still haven’t seen it. Kenny Loggins had a lock on ’80s movie themes, and I figured “I’m Alright” from Caddyshack and “Danger Zone” from Top Gun were enough. And even in the wake of the PMRC trying to censor “porn rock” in the ’80s, I thought a town banning the rock and/or roll music was unbelievable. But now, seen through the lens of nostalgia, I gave Footloose another look.

“Boy, I’m charging you with inciting to Quiet Riot.”

Kevin Bacon plays Ren, a hip kid from Chicago who moves to some podunk town in Utah with his mom after his Dad bails on them. As the outsider, he takes some crap from the local jocks and smart-asses. He ends up befriending one named Willard (a surprisingly skinny Chris Penn) when he shows that he’s got balls and won’t be bullied. However, one thing he can’t overcome, or even comprehend, is the town’s repressive attitude toward dancing and rock & roll- they’re both banned, and you can get pulled over for playing Quiet Riot in your car. The town’s lawmakers are quite convinced that if you bang your head, the Metal Health will drive you mad. And they don’t want you goin’ mad.

L’il ditty, bout Chuck & Ariel… two American kids livin’ in the heartland

Reverend Shaw (John Lithgow) has the town locked down; his son died in a car accident coming home from a rock ‘n roll dance, and as usual, he doesn’t blame his stupid drunk-driving Darwinian failure of a child, but the music. So he keeps a tight leash on his daughter Ariel (cellist Lori Singer), who in place of rocking and rolling, likes to perform suicidal stunts. Such as standing on her boyfriend’s pickup truck and her friend’s car, while they play chicken with a tractor trailer, or dodging trains at the last minute. Seriously, if Daddy knew what she was doing, he’d toss a pile of Mötley Crüe records and a six-pack in her room and tell her to go hog wild.

She has a thing for big trucks and trains… repressed much?

Her boyfriend is Chuck, and being the douche of the film, has to bully and challenge Ren to a game of chicken with tractors. You know, to give it a country flair. Or maybe it’s because Ren drives a beat-up VW Beetle and Chuck’s truck would go over it like a speed bump? Either way, this is the scene jammed in to make male viewers stay put during a movie about dancing. Ren wins because he can’t find the brakes, and the school gives him a begrudging respect. But more importantly, Ariel decides he’s the big dog now, and starts working her wiles on him. Because she’s a crazy preacher’s daughter, her idea of fun is to meet on the railroad tracks at night, and make Ren save her from being hit by a train. In a normal movie, that would be followed by him dumping the crazy bitch off home, but this being an 80’s Trash of the Week, it makes romance bloom.

“And the Lord did boogie.”

Once enough kids are on Ren’s side, he decides to take his case before the town council, and ask that the school be allowed to have a prom. He quotes from the Bible about David dancing for the glory of God, but still doesn’t win them over. They claim that if kids dance, “one thing will lead to another,” and people will crash it with booze and violence will erupt. Ren decides they’ll have a dance at the Roller mill where he works, outside the city limits. But there’s another problem, his buddy Willard can’t dance, so we’re subjected to a montage of dance training sequences in manly places, like the school gym, and near tractors, and on the wrestling mats. Let’s hear it for the boys- they manage to not look totally gay while doing it, and that’s saying something.

Chris Penn, before he discovered donuts.

Reverend Shaw finally breaks down when he’s butting heads with his daughter, because she won’t tell him where she goes all night. Her comeback is actually pretty good- “you care more about me when I’m not home, than when I’m right here!” But he slaps her a good one anyway. Lithgow doesn’t play him as a monster; he is just misguided, distraught over the loss of his son. Which would mean Ariel lost her brother, but she doesn’t seem to care much. Nor does her mother Vi (Dianne Wiest, looking even more alien than usual). What finally changes Reverend Shaw’s mind is a bizarre shoehorned “message” in the screenplay. He’s in his church, having a final spat with Ariel, when she’s come to confess her sins. She says she’s not even a virgin! Now, I expected him to call forth fire and brimstone, but he’s interrupted by smoke, from outside. Lordy, no! The folks are havin’ a good ol’ book burning! See what we have stooped to and become?

If you think these prom outfits are bad, wait till you see mine

I wonder how many teenage girls in the ’80s tried to defuse there Dad’s anger at finding that his little girl wasn’t as pure as the driven snow, by having their friends stage a book burning outside. I don’t know why they weren’t burning rock records, which actually did happen in the ’80s during the PMRC Witch Trials (when Al Gore’s crazy wife was trying to get the Senate to act on “pornographic rock records.” He didn’t care as much about polluting the air with burning records back then.) When the Rev sees where his intolerance has led his town, he breaks down and supports the dance.

Loose feet at last!

And what a dance! Pink Balloons! Never-ending glitter confetti falling like snowflakes! And prom outfits you’ll never see again. I remember what an 80’s prom was like, mine was in ’89, when Guns ‘N Roses’s Appetite for Destruction wasn’t yet sated. Our theme song was the love theme from St. Elmo’s Fire, a film I have refused watch our of pure petulance. And their prom is actually better than mine was, despite it being held in a mill. Then again, they had Kevin Bacon and a young Sarah Jessica Parker cutting loose. Foot loose. Tearin’ off their Sunday shoes.

Fro-mullet and a genuine Miami Vice tuxedo.

This movie was huge. The soundtrack was inescapable in 1984. I also blame it for the ubiquity of thin ties in the ’80s. I had a powder blue satin one, myself. If someone gave it to me now I’d strangle them with it, but I wore it willingly. In 20 years I imagine we’ll be laughing at goatees and messenger bags. Hell, we can laugh about those now! Footloose is a disjointed film that tries to do a lot. It doesn’t always succeed, but it’s a solid high school story with a decent soundtrack, and some memorable scenes with actors who’ve gone on to bigger and better things. Kevin Bacon, famous for slimeballs in Sleepers and The Woodsman, was almost a prettyboy here. Chris Penn is so far off from his role as Nice Guy Eddie, your go-to guy for “easily enraged fat guy” of the ’90s that he’s barely recognizable. And Sarah Jessica Parker of “Sex in the City” is positively adorable, back when she had measurable body fat. Nowadays she reminds me of a talented giraffe. So if you want to revisit 1984, Footloose isn’t the worst way to do it. It’s popcorn with little nutritional value, but sometimes that’s what you need- trash.

Sarah Jessica Parker, back when she used to eat food.

Beers Required to Enjoy: 3
Could it be remade today? They tried a musical. It failed.
Quotability Rating: Low
Cheese Factor: Provolone (aka smelly feetloose cheese)
High Points: Ariel’s suicidal hijinks
Low Point: You’re not a virgin? Wait, books are burning!
Gratuitous Boobies: Zip! This is Utah, dummy.

Doubt

As a fallen Catholic, I usually avoid movies about the church. Either they are by confused outsiders who demonize or glorify it, or by those who left in bitterness and have axes to grind. Doubt, instead gives us a story of characters, of beliefs, and lets them clash in a working class parish in 1964. You could say it is about Father Flynn, an eloquent young priest, is accused of molesting an altar boy on the flimsiest of evidence.

But the story is not just about whether he did it or not, but the different ways he, Sister James, and Sister Aloysius view their job as religious figures and how they view the world. The movie begins with Father Flynn, Philip Seymour Hoffman at his most charismatic, giving a sermon on how doubt can make us stronger. Sister Aloysius- Meryl Streep in yet another stunning role that makes her Devil Wears Prada character look cute and cuddly- takes umbrage at his unorthodox sermon and asks a new nun to keep an eye on him, and “see what is giving him doubts.” Sister James is played by Amy Adams (Junebug, Enchanted), a meek and compassionate teacher whose students walk all over her.
She feels uncomfortable watching Father Flynn with suspicion; she tells Sister Aloysius so, and she says that when we seek out wrongdoing, “we must step away from God.” Are we allowed to sin to root out sin? Aloysius seems to think so. She believes strongly in first impressions, and we see her find misbehaving children with an almost psychic ability. She uses fear as her tool of correction, and suggests that James put a photograph of a pope- any pope- on the blackboard so she can see what the kids are doing behind her, so they think she has eyes in the back of her head. Father Flynn is more welcoming and compassionate, wanting his students to be comfortable with him, the church, and themselves.

Everything changes when Sister James reports back to Aloysius with suspicious behavior. The one black student, Donald Miller, is upset after a visit to Father Flynn’s office. And he has alcohol on his breath. What could this mean? Aloysius has an idea, and it is not the first time she has taken down a priest for violating his trust with children. She sets her sights on Father Flynn, but Sister James is unsure that the evidence is strong enough. Is her compassionate nature making her weak, or is Aloysius’s nature making her too eager to see sin in others?
In a movie with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep battling it out with strong newcomer Amy Adams on the sidelines, it is surprising that the strongest scene is not their inevitable clash, but when Sister Aloysius confronts the boy’s mother (Viola Davis, in an Oscar nominated performance). Mrs. Miller has a surprising and heartwrenching outlook on the situation, and while Aloysius questions her love for her son, it is as fierce as her cynicism. I can’t remember how long this scene is, it feels almost like a movie in itself, though it only spans a few minutes.

The opening sermon is the overture for the film, and doubt is seeded in our own minds. The film’s ambiguity is its greatest strength. As a play, it was said it was one act, and the second act was when the audience discussed it after the curtain was down. And it still works. I sided with Father Flynn, but I’m not so sure. It’s clear he’s done something, but what?
As a former Catholic I enjoyed seeing the rituals of the church, and how different the nuns and priests lived. The nuns were almost ascetic, while the priests seemed decadent in comparison. I remember youth activities at my parish, and while we a classic fat Irish priest, all the nuns were slim. The period also gave us a peek at how differently sex and race were treated a mere 40 years ago, and I thought it was handled very well. The direction was a bit heavy handed on the Dutch angles and the reaction of lightbulbs and wind around Sister Aloysius, but this is a strong story with four excellent performances, and it is definitely one of the best movies of 2008. I’d give it Best Picture before Frost/Nixon or The Reader.

5 Dukes of Doubt out of 5

Religulous

I’m not the biggest fan of Bill Maher now that he seems to concentrate on politics, but he’s always been a sharp and witty comedian. Now he sets his sights on religion with Religulous, taking the cue from Richard Dawkins to stop being apologetic for atheism and say what you really believe. There are reasons that you don’t talk politics or religion in bars, and this documentary sets out to be offensive, but I didn’t find it as strident as I expected. It’s actually very funny and only gets to be a bit much at the end when he tries to put a message on it.

The movie doesn’t purport or try to be fair; directed by Larry Charles (Borat), it intercuts the interviewee’s words with silly images, clips from hilariously bad religious educational films, soundbites and info-taters. It’s sort of like when Bugs Bunny stands next to someone holding an image of a screw, and a baseball. Screwball. Get it? But it still works, because he chooses his targets wisely. He goes after Jews for Jesus, strict Mormons, pagans, Scientologists, Bible-literalist evangelical Christians, ultra-Orthodox Jews, a man who claims to be the second coming of Christ, and some Fundamentalist Muslims. He doesn’t let anyone off the hook.

Going to the Holy Land with a film crew and asking about religion was already done in this year’s decent Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?, and Morgan Spurlock got kicked out by his Saudi keepers, and chased out by Orthodox Jews threatening violence. Maher doesn’t manage to top that, in fact he walks out on a rabbi so tolerant that he attended Iranian Holocaust denial conferences. In fact, Maher was so angry he barely let the guy talk, so I couldn’t decide whether he was stupid, crazy, or an apologist. That was distressing, seeing Maher lose his cool. But otherwise he’s pretty in control and doesn’t get too snarky when asking people why they believe what they believe.

If you’re on the internet or watch Stephen Colbert or South Park, you know some of the secret and trademarked tenets of the Church of Scientology, and just how crazy they are. I won’t go into it here, because I don’t want to be attacked by lawyers, strangled with cans attached by string called e-meters, or pelted with enormous tomes of L. Ron Hubbard’s space opera sagas. Go to Operation Clambake at http://www.xenu.net if you’re curious. Maher spouts their teachings at the Speaker’s Corner in London’s Hyde Park , where nuts have shouted their imprecations for over a century.

What’s his point? When someone laughs at the idea of aliens nuking our souls in volcanos, he says “yeah, but Jonah living in the whale, that’s perfectly sane.” When he’s talking to the Bible literalists this comes out. “No, it was a very big fish.” Oh, that makes more sense. He speaks to the man who plays Jesus at a Christian theme park- who seems like a nice enough fellow, even as the Romans whip him for the entertainment of the Christians this time around- but he can’t put into words why he believes what he believes, and that’s some of the point. He goes to the Creation museum to see dioramas of the Flintstones, where kids can play with pet dinosaurs.



These are easy targets. Some are valid and scary. Do I want a politician who believes the Rapture will come in our lifetimes, and Armageddon will be soon fought on the fields of Megiddo? I’d prefer if he tried to stave that off. Maher even goes to Megiddo. Looks like a strip mine. Let’s hope it stays untouched. It’s not all fun and games- he goes to where film maker Theo Van Gogh was murdered for speaking out against fundamentalist Muslims. He speaks with rapper Propa-Gandhi, who looks like a nice hipster doofus, but sings about destroying the West. He gets a friendly Muslim to sneak him into the Temple on the Mount where Jews are not allowed. The guy looks very nervous.
If you’re not religious, this is very funny– but sometimes Maher’s pretty strident, and he’s obviously not trying to convert anybody. He may go for easy targets but he’s even-handed, going at it with rabbis and a company that sells products to help observant Jews try to trick their way around violating the sanctity of the Sabbath, by not really dialing the phone. He even goes for the obvious joke about how this is lawyering with God. He gets kicked out by the Vatican and the Mormons. He speaks with Satanists and even pot worshipers. For atheists it’s very entertaining and reassuring, and it’s a good record of the current state of religions all over the world in 2008 from the eyes of an unbeliever with a sense of humor. But there are no revelations here, either.

3.5 atheists in foxholes out of 5