Hollywood and the Fundamentalist

Christopher Karr

 

With very few exceptions, the fundamentalist doesn’t appear flattering on film. Some are avaricious conmen like Steve Martin in Leap of Faith, some are dogmatically judgmental like Piper Laurie in Carrie, and others are violent savages like Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter or, more recently, Michael Parks, who plays a penetrating parody of extremist Fred Phelps in the latest Kevin Smith film, Red State

 

Phelps is the pastor of Westboro Baptist Church, a hate group made famous for picketing funerals and appliance stores with signs that say “THANK GOD FOR 9/11” and “GOD HATES JEWS.” On April 6, 2007, Smith told Joe Utichi from Rotten Tomatoes UK that Red State is “very much about that subject matter . . . taken to the absolute extreme. It’s certainly not Phelps himself but it’s very much inspired by a Phelps figure.” In September 2010 Smith dismissed the notion that his film would  be honored during Academy Award season, describing it via Twitter as “a nasty . . . $4mil horror flick with few (if any) redeeming characters.” Red State is far beyond the comparatively soft-edged Dogma: the film inflates the grotesque ideology Phelps professes into a climactic bloodbath. 

 

 

This is a radical portrait of the fundamentalist, but it  expresses a truth about the destructive nature of hate. Pastor Cooper, who delivers a sprawling sermon of twisted scriptures to his congregation before executing a teenager he thinks is gay, isn’t far removed from Reverend Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter. The towering and sonorous Robert Mitchum plays a criminal who disguises himself as a preacher in order to steal money from widows. Mitchum’s Powell is based on Harry Powers, a Depression-era serial killer of women in West Virginia. It would be easier to disregard such caricatured portraits of fundamentalists if it weren’t for the fact that these stories are borrowed from reality. The radical is only a slightly pale reflection of the devoutly deluded. Almost all are seen as frauds — cheap showmen straining to manipulate the crowd. 

 

Jonas Nightengale, the tent-revival preacher played by Steve Martin in Leap of Faith, is also modeled, in part, on a real-life hoaxer named Peter Popoff who performed a “mind-reading trick” involving a hidden microphone. A similar scam is used in the film by Nightengale and his cohorts, a pack of grifters who make a killing by staging over-the-top spectacles in small, fundamentalist-infested corners of the country. The first revival meeting is hilariously bombastic theatricality. Steve Martin is a Silly Putty preacher whose every gesture onstage seems carefully and cunningly predetermined. He promises “a twelve-gauge, double-barreled, grenade-launcher of love!” “Yakety-yak, God’s talking back!” he says. At best, he’s a circus ringleader -- a slick, one-man band. 

 

It’s the same accusation that Lori Singer’s Ariel hurls at John Lithgow’s preacher in Footloose: “I see the stage, I see the costumes. It’s show business, isn’t it,” she says. Her father’s response is surprisingly candid: “Well, it’s the only way I know to, uh . . . reach people’s emotions

 

Reverend Moore is as interested in souls as Jonas Nightengale. And they both call to mind Burt Lancaster’s Oscar-winning performance as the salesman-turned-tent-revival-preacher in Elmer Gantry. As Gantry, Lancaster (whose nicknames were, appropriately, Mr. Muscles and Teeth) combines the fire-and-brimstone, Revelation-quoting style of Moore with the flashy showmanship of Nightengale. He juxtaposes vacuous niceties (“Love is the morning and evening star”) with furious indictments against his own audience (“Sin, sin, sin! You’re all sinners! You’re all doomed to perdition!”)

As one character says to Gantry after watching him preach, “Every circus needs a clown.” In Leap of Faith, Liam Neeson plays a sheriff who instantly sees through their montebankery. Nightengale is nothing but “a dancing bear,” a “snake oil salesman.”

 

In this he is no different than Daniel Plainview and his nemesis, Eli Sunday, in There Will Be Blood. In an interview with Charlie Rose on December 21, 2007, Daniel Day-Lewis remarked how the characters “transformed themselves from savages to showmen. . . . He’s got his snakebite remedy and he’s gonna sell that whatever way he can from town to town. . . . He’s got to find a voice, a silver tongue that’s going to convince people to . . . invest in him as a man of irrefutable wisdom.” One of the most strikingly funny aspects of Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece is that the crafty businessman is no different than the insincere preacher. They’re two sides of the same coin. 

 

There Will Be Blood presents a Darwinian showdown between the cold-blooded capitalist and the hypocritical fundamentalist. Daniel exploits his son in order to better convince families who live off the land why they should hand over their land to him for drilling and pipelines. Whereas Eli attempts to swipe the souls of the townspeople directly, Daniel goes about ensnaring their souls indirectly. Those listening to Daniel aren’t even aware they’re in danger. They’re distracted by his promise of “new roads, agriculture, employment, [and] education,” ensuring that their community “will not only survive, it will flourish.”

 

Like Eli, Daniel sells himself as a prophet of promise. Anderson suggests that the powerhouse institutions of capitalism and fundamentalism are battling for American souls. (Indeed, the notion that it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God is some two thousand years old.) Daniel concedes that Eli can put on “one goddamn helluva show” in the pulpit, but he can’t stand the fact that the people would rather have their ears tickled by a ham actor like Eli than listen to his plea for industrialization and progress. 

 

Daniel Plainview is merciless malevolence personified. “I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed,” he confesses. “I hate people. . . . I see nothing worth liking.” When Eli finally asks Daniel for money, Daniel realizes he’s won the competition and that’s why he goes slightly insane at the end. “Did you think your song and dance and your superstition would help you, Eli?” Daniel roars. ”am the Third Revelation! I am who the Lord has chosen!”

 

A competition is also at the heart of John Huston’s Wise Blood, a faithful adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s first novel. The always unsettling Brad Dourif plays Hazel Motes, an angry young nihilist who, having witnessed the horrors of World War II, returns home to Georgia and begins a ministry of anti-religion, “the Holy Church of Christ Without Christ,” he says. “Where the blind can’t see, the lame don’t walk, and the dead stay that way.” Motes genuinely believes in his newfound doctrine, and wishes nothing more than to spread it throughout the region. “I don’t believe in sin,” he says. “Nothin’ matters but that Jesus don’t exist.” Despite Motes’ sincerity he has little success: the only followers he accumulates are Enoch, the village idiot, and Asa, the nymphomaniac daughter of a blind preacher played by Harry Dean Stanton. 

 

Stanton’s character turns out to be a lowlife hustler, and the moment Motes begins preaching he’s run out of business by Ned Beatty’s conman with a guitar. Though outraged by their hypocrisy, Motes is forced into accepting that his doctrine of anti-religion is just as cheap and sellable as the religious doctrines of his thieving rivals. Unlike the shameless hypocrites, Motes doesn’t feel the need to perform. He fails to recognize that the crowd just wants to see a good show. They’d rather see a sequinned Steve Martin doing wild dances onstage.

 

While there are seemingly countless caricatures of fundamentalist Christians, Hollywood is reluctant to offer satirical portrayals of fundamentalist Muslims. When they are depicted they are drastically reduced in complexity and assigned the role of the stereotypical terrorist. In the 1920s, The Sheik and The Son of the Sheik launched the career of Rudolph Valentino, who plays the title role of the treacherous, woman-snatching Arab. In most cases, the Muslim fundamentalist is linked with violence: the terrorist in Black Sunday attempts to bomb a stadium during the Super Bowl, "Libyan nationalists" shoot Doc in Back to the Future, and in Executive Decision another terrorist hijacks a plane with plans to bomb Washington D.C.

 

Tinsel Town has a limited understanding of the fanatical Muslim, but its grasp of the radical Christian is more accurate and even perceptive. The audience recognizes Harry Powell and Abin Cooper because they're based on newspaper headlines. Americans are intimately acquainted with hypocrites like Jonas Nightengale and Elmer Gantry and Eli. The audience is drawn to characters that are, at times, reprehensible because they've invariably encountered them in real life.

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