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Liliom (1930)

I saw Carousel (1956) about thirty years ago, and I was surprised to see that it sentimentalized wife beating and child abuse.  Recently, I discovered that Carousel was actually a softened version of the original play Liliom, first seen in Hungary in 1909.  From what I have been able to gather, it was a failure, but this play was nothing if not resilient:  it kept being staged, made into several movies, adapted for radio, turned into the musical Carousel, first on stage and then the movie, made into a ballet, produced for television in different countries, and still thrives to this day.

To try to get a better understanding of the appeal of this story, I decided to watch the 1930 version in which the title character was played by Charles Farrell.  The movie begins with a prologue, which reads:

This play is the love story of Julie, a serving-maid, and Liliom, a merry-go-round barker. Liliom gropes and struggles through life and death, and even beyond death, ever seeking escape from himself, while Julie’s love for him endures always.

That is to say, Liliom is a tormented soul.  It’s a good thing the movie included this prologue, because without it, we would think that Liliom was just a louse and a layabout without ever realizing his existential significance.  At several points in the movie, he refers to himself as an “artist,” probably because artists are often depicted in film as having tormented souls.  And it is good we are informed of that too, because we sure don’t see him painting any pictures.

As we go through the movie, we find out at various points that Liliom has beaten at least one woman in his past, is a gigolo, seduces women with promises of marriage, only to take their money and abandon them later, and doesn’t like to work, so he lies around sleeping it off while he and Julie are supported by her aunt.  But all these faults are supposed to be just part of Liliom’s charm, whose good looks make him a romantic figure.

Julie’s friend Marie has a suitor named Wolf, and they eventually get married. We are supposed to think of Wolf in a negative light, as someone who is funny-looking and a bit stodgy.  And there is a carpenter that is in love with Julie.  Every week he comes by and asks her out, and every week she says no.  At the end of the movie, eleven years later, he is still coming by once a week, and Julie is still saying no.  Admittedly, a man would have to be pretty pathetic to do that.  But that’s the point.  The idea is that being married to either of these two men would be a boring, dreary business.  You see, they do not have Liliom’s charm (if you can call it that) or good looks.

When Liliom and Julie first meet, he loses his job, because the owner of the carousel is jealous, and Julie loses her job, because she deliberately stays out late.  That’s why they end up living with her aunt.  Julie has a pretty face, and that’s about it.  She never really wants to do anything, and she never has much to say.  She just sits there and waits for Liliom to seduce her and get her pregnant.  The carpenter doesn’t know how lucky he is.

When Liliom realizes that Julie is pregnant, he decides he needs money.  But he doesn’t want to work for a living, so he and his friend decide to rob a man carrying a huge payroll.  But the man turns out to be too much for them, and rather be arrested by the police, Liliom stabs himself and dies.

Like so many movies that portray the afterlife, modern technology is involved.  In this case, it is trains.  I guess trains were a big deal in the early twentieth century when the play was written.  And as is usual, we never see God, only some administrator, in this case the Chief Magistrate.  For reasons that make no sense whatever, an exception is made in Liliom’s case about returning to Earth for a second chance.  Perhaps it’s because he is charming (if you can call it that) and good looking.  But first, he will spend ten years in Hell, and then he will be allowed to go back to Earth to try to do something good, to make up for hitting Julie when they argued.

When the ten years is up, he goes down to Earth.  He talks to his daughter.  When she refuses to cooperate in his effort to make amends, he slaps her.  Liliom finds himself back on the train that takes people to Heaven or Hell, and presumably it’s the latter for him.  Liliom says he failed, but the Chief Magistrate says he did not.  They listen in on Julie and his daughter, who agree that sometimes a slap feels like a kiss, that even if a man “beats you and beats you and beats you,” it doesn’t hurt a bit.  The Chief Magistrate says that Julie’s forgiving, undying love for Liliom is touching, even mysterious.

Presumably, this movie and the play it was based on were made at a time in which women were so dependent on men financially that they often had to endure the misery of a bad marriage rather than try to make it on their own, usually with children depending on them.  That is, movies like this tried to make women feel better about the way their husbands beat them and the children, to help them believe that deep down these men really loved them, and so that made it all right.

But those days are long gone.  Women have options today, and we don’t romanticize wife beating and child abuse as expressions of love.  And yet, this story remains popular.  It beats me.

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A Guy Named Joe (1943)

A Guy Named Joe has two strikes against it.  First, it is a combat film made during World War II.  It is painful to watch these movies today, what with all the gung-ho patriotism they exude.  Second, it is one of those Heaven movies, which are even more painful to watch.  The fact that it belongs to both genres makes watching it all the way through a most trying experience.  But I must say at the outset that as far as WWII combat movies go, this one is about average, but as far as Heaven movies go, this is the dumbest one I have ever seen.

The title character of this movie is Pete Sandige (Spencer Tracy).  Early in the movie, a child explains that in American slang, “Joe” refers to anyone who is a “right chap,” and that’s what Pete is.  Pete loves being the pilot of a bomber so much that he is constantly taking risks disapproved of by his commanding officer, “Nails” Kilpatrick (James Gleason), and by his girlfriend, Dorinda Durston (Irene Dunne).  She’s a pilot, working for the Ferry Service, and she takes risks too, for which Pete threatens to put her across his knee and spank her.

Nails and Dorinda both want to take Pete out of combat, either by promoting him or by reassigning him to teach new officers how to fly.  Pete is appalled at their suggestions.  He says he’d go crazy sitting around in an officer’s club when he is not teaching “kids,” whom he hates.  One gets the impression that he will be miserable when the war is over, when he will no longer be able to drop bombs on the enemy.

Dorinda gets a premonition that “his number’s up.”  In a movie, when someone has a premonition that something bad is going to happen, it always does.  She really puts pressure on Pete to accept that teaching assignment and marry her, and he agrees.  But first, there is this one last mission for him to fly in.  His plane is damaged, but instead of bailing out, he flies the plane right over a Japanese aircraft carrier and blows it up.  But then he crashes and dies.

The next see of Pete, he is walking along on the clouds.  He is still wearing his uniform.  Is that the way it works in Heaven?  Must you wear forever what you were wearing the moment you died?  There must be a lot of people in Heaven wearing their pajamas.  Come to think of it, there must be a lot naked people in Heaven too.  Anyway, it’s good Pete is still in uniform, because Heaven appears to be an army air force base.  Another dead pilot, Dick Rumney (Barry Nelson), explains to Pete that he is dead and in Heaven.  Pete says he never played a harp, but Dick says, “There’s not much time for harp playing up here.  There’s plenty of work to do, and good men to do it.”

Work?  In Heaven?  Oh no!  And here I was worried about what I might be wearing when I die.  Don’t tell me I’m going to have to go back to work, doing what I did for a living for thirty-five years.  Of course, Pete loves being in the military, and one of the conceptions of Heaven is that we get to do in Paradise what we were doing on Earth.  He loves being a bomber pilot during wartime, so he gets to continue in that line now that he is in Heaven.  Almost.  The General (Lionel Barrymore) tells Pete that he will be assigned to helping out new pilots, so he will sort of have that teaching job Dorinda was talking about.  Obviously, they won’t be dropping bombs in Heaven, so Pete will have to back to Earth to help out those pilots.  On wonders if dead Japanese pilots go back to Earth to help out their comrades.  We don’t know, because we never find out whether there is a Japanese air force base in Heaven too.

Like most Heaven movies, we do not get to see God, at least not in the form of Jehovah, the exception being The Green Pastures (1936).  In fact, the other Heaven movies never even refer to God.  There is always some administrator, like the title character in Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), who talks about what was meant to be and what must be done.  The people who make these movies probably know that there is something a little frivolous in their depictions of Heaven, and they are afraid that any reference to God might cross the line and move into the territory of sacrilege and blasphemy.  Furthermore, if God did make an appearance, we would expect Pete to ask God why he doesn’t just stop the war himself, thereby plunging the movie into the whole problem of evil that has bedeviled man since the story of Job and the dilemma of Epicurus.

Pete and Dick head back down to Earth, where no one can see or hear them.  So, we wonder, how are they going to instruct anyone?  They do it by planting thoughts in their heads.  Pete is assigned to tutor Ted Randall (Van Johnson), and he gets him to relax by psychically putting the command to relax into Ted’s head.  Pete doesn’t like Ted, in part because he had inherited four million dollars.  “I never did see a guy that inherited a lot of dough that was any good,” he says.

He likes him even less when Ted starts wooing Dorinda and she agrees to marry him.  Then Pete starts trying to sabotage him by putting bad thoughts into his head, making him show off in the airplane, hoping he will be demoted and hoping his hotshot stunts will anger Dorinda.  It doesn’t work, and Pete has to go back to Heaven for a reprimand from the General.  Finally, Joe sees the light and psychically tells Dorinda to forget about him and marry Ted, right after she commandeers a bomber to fly a dangerous mission destroying an ammunition dump so that Ted won’t have to fly it and possibly be killed.  Yeah, that’s right.  The Heaven part of this movie wasn’t ridiculous enough, so they had to throw this absurdity into the plot as well.

Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941)

There are not many movies about Heaven, thank God, but of those that exist, one often senses a feeling of diffidence on the part of those who produced them.  The reason for this, I suspect, is twofold.  First, it is difficult to present Heaven in a way that makes it as appealing as the Eternal Abode is supposed to be.  Second, religion is a sensitive subject, and they don’t want to offend anyone.  To this end, those that produce such movies may attempt to disarm their audiences in a variety of ways.

One such way is to present the story as a dream or hallucination.  For example, in The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945), Heaven is merely dreamt by someone, and in Stairway to Heaven (1946), there is the suggestion that the story we see is the hallucination of a British pilot.  A second way of disarming the audience is through an exculpatory prologue, a disclaimer to the effect that the movie is not being presented as something factual, as if that were not obvious, but as merely a figment.  This device was also used in Stairway to Heaven.  Finally, the movies tend to be frivolous comedies, so silly that no one is likely to take them seriously.  Here Comes Mr. Jordan utilizes the last two of these techniques.  It is indeed a frivolous comedy, and it starts with a prologue, beginning with “We heard a story…,” where the “we” has no antecedent, but presumably refers to those who made this movie, asserting that the story is just a yarn that someone told them, and they thought it was so interesting that they just had to turn it into a movie.

The main character is Joe Pendleton (Robert Montgomery), a heavyweight prize fighter who plays the saxophone as a hobby.  I have never played a wind instrument, but somehow I just don’t think being smashed in the mouth on a regular basis would be good for one’s embouchure.    Anyway, his manager is Max Corkle (James Gleason), the one who the prologue says told this story.  Max tells Joe not to fly his plane to New York, because it is too dangerous, but Joe pooh-poohs his concerns and decides to fly his plane anyway.  I don’t suppose I have to tell you that the plane crashes.

Joe finds himself in Heaven, where the souls of the departed, who are walking on clouds, are boarding a plane that will take them to their final destination.  One would think that no technology at all would be necessary in Heaven, but somehow the technology so envisioned in Heaven is often that presently available on Earth.  We are not too surprised when we find in Revelations that Jesus is going to use a sword with which to smite whole nations, but it is downright ludicrous when Satan uses cannons to fight the good angels in Paradise Lost.  Anyway, the airplane was still a pretty impressive piece of technology in 1941, when this movie was made, so naturally there are airplanes in this movie’s Heaven.

But only a handful of people seem to be boarding that plane.  Now, based on the population of the Earth in 1941, I estimate that about fifty thousand people died every day at that time, so one would have expected teeming masses instead.  Of course, there are those who believe that only a handful will make it into Heaven, the rest being condemned to the fires of Hell, so perhaps that would explain why there are so few people boarding the plane.  On the other hand, Joe is just an average Joe, so to speak, no better or worse than most people, so why he would qualify for Heaven in that case would not make sense.

About this time you are probably thinking that I am taking this movie way too seriously.  But I did this to illustrate my earlier point, that these movies are given a frivolous tone so that either people like me will not bother to analyze them, or that others will dismiss us as being pedantic if we do.  However, I will try not to nitpick.  I will not, for example, ask why people in Heaven wear clothes, and not just any clothes, but those that were in fashion in America circa 1941.  Nor will I question why the soul in charge of things in Heaven is called “Mr. Jordan” (Claude Rains).  Presumably he has been admitting souls into Heaven for centuries, long before the title “Mister” was used.  So, let us leave these questions aside and move along to some of the more serious absurdities.

Perhaps the most absurd aspect of this movie is Joe’s mentality.  That Joe is incredulous when he is told by Messenger 7013 (Edward Everett Horton) that he has died and is in Heaven is understandable.  But when he is finally convinced that he has gone to Heaven, his reaction is incredible.  I mean, I don’t know about you, but I would be awed by my encounter with Eternity.  “So this stuff about God and Heaven is true after all,” I would be saying to myself in amazement.  As an atheist, I suppose it is only to be expected that I would be stunned, but I dare say that even the most devout would be almost in disbelief to find out that their hopes for an afterlife had actually been realized.

Joe does not care about any of this, however.  His only concern is that he was supposed to fight for the title of Heavyweight Champion of the World.  And now that he is dead, his chance at the title bout is over.  Or is it?  No, it seems that Messenger 7013 messed up and removed Joe’s soul from his body before he crashed, thereby not allowing Joe to pull the plan out of its dive.  In fact, Mr. Jordan discovers that Joe was not supposed to die for another fifty years.  Joe is delighted to find that he will be returned to Earth.  Does this attitude not slight Heaven?  It is as if Joe said, “Thank God I won’t have to go to Heaven for another fifty years!”  But that is a common attitude in movies about Heaven, to wit, that notwithstanding the fact that being in Heaven is supposed to be the most perfect form of existence a soul can aspire to, life on Earth is always thought to be preferable, much more preferable.

Because Joe’s body was cremated, a substitute will have to be found.  Joe wants a body that will allow him to become Heavyweight Champion of the World, but they need one that is fresh.  And of those that have recently died or are about to, a Mr. Farnsworth seems to be a good choice.  Mr. Farnsworth is a wealthy man who is in the process of being held under the water in his bathtub by his wife Julia and his secretary, Tony Abbot.  Joe doesn’t much care for the Farnsworth body, however, until he gets an eyeful of Bette Logan (Evelyn Keyes), the daughter of a man who unfairly ended up going to prison on account of Farnsworth’s illegal financial activity.

Joe is torn.  What is more important to him, getting to be Heavyweight Champion of the World, or marrying this woman he has just fallen in love with?  Having just discovered the secret of Eternity, all Joe cares about is love and fame.  Now, you might say that Heaven can wait.  After all, Joe will get there eventually, so he might as well have some fun first.  Or will he?  If I had just found out that there really is a God and a Heaven, I would, as I have already said, be stunned.  But once I recovered from the shock and found out that I was going to have to go back to Earth, my question to Mr. Jordan, asked with much fear and trembling, would be whether there was a Hell, and if so, what I would need to do to stay out of it.  Nothing could be more important than that, certainly not boxing fame or the love of a woman.  In fact, even Heaven would not be all that important, for being the risk-averse guy that I am, I would gladly forgo all chance of Heaven if I could be assured that I would be spared of the fires of Hell.  In any event, I would certainly want to know what the rules are for staying out of Hell.  Do I need to turn the other cheek?  That might be something of a disadvantage in the boxing ring.  Am I already in trouble for looking at Bette with lust in my heart?

But as I said, Joe’s simplistic mentality does not think about such things.  Instead, he decides he can have both love and fame by being Farnsworth, saving Bette’s father from prison, courting her, and at the same time, building up his body to get in shape to enter the ring.  To this end, he gets in touch with Max.  At first, Max does not believe him, but the saxophone convinces him.  In other words, the real function of the saxophone in this movie is to act as an attribute, which is a feature used in art to identify someone.  For example, no one knows what Hercules looked like, even assuming there was such a person, so when we see a painting of a muscular man, how do we know it is Hercules?  We know by his attributes, which in his case are a lion skin and a gnarled club.  Since Joe keeps changing bodies, the only way Max can identify him is through Joe’s attribute, his saxophone.

Unfortunately for Joe, there is another thing he can’t seem to get through his thick head, which is that there is no such thing as free will, for all has been ordained by God in advance.  Actually, that is not quite right.  One of the interesting things about a lot of Heaven movies is the way they never talk about God.  Mr. Jordan and the Messenger keep using the passive voice, saying that this or that was “meant to be” rather than saying, “God meant things to be that way.”  This is another dodge used by those who produce movies about Heaven.  It is so God cannot be blamed.  Or rather, it is so that the producers of this movie cannot be blamed for making God responsible for evil.

The particular evil in question is the murder of Farnsworth.  The first attempt at murder by his wife and secretary failed, but on the second attempt, they succeed.  It is not clear whether Mr. Jordan deliberately misled Joe into thinking he could be Farnsworth for fifty years, or whether Mr. Jordan subsequently found out that Farnsworth would soon be murdered.  Mr. Jordan is always going around with a superior, smug look on his face, as if he knows everything, so one suspects he was being cute about letting Joe think he could be Farnsworth long enough to win the title and marry the girl.

Just before Joe as Farnsworth is to be murdered, Joe is told that remaining in Farnsworth’s body was not meant to be, as if there were some impersonal destiny that ruled the world.  But suppose instead that Mr. Jordan told Joe that he would not be able to continue using Farnsworth’s body because God wants Farnsworth to be murdered. The audience would be appalled.  And yet, that is the implication.  However, what is implied by a movie and what is explicitly stated are two different things.  Therefore, the issue is completely skirted by not referring to God at all.

Fortunately for Joe, a prize fighter named Murdock, whom Joe was supposed to fight, gets shot dead by gangsters right there in the ring during a title bout because he refused to throw that fight.  That way the other guy will win the fight, and the gangsters will get to collect on their bets.  Those gangsters!  They are so clever.  But it’s a break for Joe.  He gets to enter Murdock’s body, come alive at the count of nine, get up and win the fight.  But Joe figures there’s no glory in occupying Murdock’s body for a few seconds, just long enough to win a fight, so he wants another body that he can really call his own.

Mr. Jordan, however, washes away all memory of his being Joe or Farnsworth.  He now occupies Murdock’s body as if he really were Murdock.  He runs into Bette and they recognize each other, not physically, but spiritually as it were.  The only one left with any memory of all this is Max, who tells the police where the murdered body of Farnsworth can be found, and who is the one who was referred to in the prologue as the source for this story.

And so it is that Joe and Bette can live happily ever after, or at least until they die, when they have to go to that boring old Heaven.

The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945)

The Horn Blows at Midnight has four things working against it.  First, it is an explicit dream movie.  By “explicit,” I mean we know from the onset that it is a dream.  Athanael (Jack Benny) plays third trumpet in a band.  Just before the beginning of a live broadcast, he falls asleep and starts dreaming, and he does not wake up until the last few minutes of the movie.  In general, audiences do not like dream movies, presumably because it means that what they are watching is not really happening.  This is something of a paradox, because that is true of most movies, even those without dreams in them.  After all, Hollywood has sometimes been referred to as the “dream factory.”  Nevertheless, the audience can get into a movie they know to be fiction and experience it as something real, but when they know the movie is about someone’s dream, their ability to suspend disbelief is greatly strained.

Brief dreams are not a problem, of course, and they may even enhance our enjoyment of the movie, as in The Manchurian Candidate (1962).  It is the longer dreams that test the audience’s patience.  That is why most dream movies do not let the audience know until the end that what they are watching is a dream, as in The Woman in the Window (1944).  Even so, we feel somewhat cheated at the end.  Laura (1944) was originally intended to be a dream movie, and director Otto Preminger even filmed an ending making the dream explicit, but he wisely left it out of the movie.  In The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), we are never really certain whether the ghost is real or dreamt, and this allows us to tentatively accept what we are watching.

When a dream movie is explicit, the characters in real life usually show up in the dream, as in The Wizard of Oz (1939), where it is fun to see the parallels between the real characters and the ones in the dream.  And this leads us to the second thing that The Horn Blows at Midnight has going against it.  While a lot of characters that Athanael knows do show up in his dream, they do not do so in any interesting way.  The first and second trumpeter, who made sarcastic remarks about Athanael’s trumpet playing, are made to be bad guys in the dream, but that is about the extent of it.  Everyone else is just playing two parts.

A link between reality and the dream comes in some remarks Athanael makes in the beginning.  He tells the other two trumpet players that they will be punished someday for snitching on him.  When Elizabeth (Alexis Smith) tries to console him for having to be just the third trumpeter, saying that at least he is making money and eating, he replies, “I wish I’d never heard of food or money.”  He continues:  “It’s an ungrateful world, Elizabeth.  If I had my way, things would be different.  There’d be a lot of changes made.”

And that leads to the third weakness of this film:  it is a Heaven movie.  Apart from the movies, Heaven is a problem all in itself.  No conception of Heaven ever really sounds all that appealing.  Because it is hard to take Heaven seriously, movies about Heaven tend to be comedies, such as Stairway to Heaven (1947), though I have yet to find any of them very funny.  Even when they are dramas, they have a light touch, as in The Green Pastures (1936).  In Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) and its remake, Heaven Can Wait (1978), as little time as possible is spent in Heaven, because Heaven is boring.  In fact, in the movie Heaven Can Wait (1943), not to be confused with the previously mentioned movie by that name, we never even get to Heaven.  The protagonist spends most of his time in Hell recounting his sins.  Because this is a comedy, we are not supposed to take Hell any more seriously than Heaven, and thus the man who runs the place is not referred to as Satan, but only as “His Excellency.”  In general, Heaven movies suffer the same problem as dream movies, which is that audiences know that what they are watching isn’t real.  So, when the movie is a dream about Heaven, our credulity is really strained.

Anyway, Athanael dreams that he is an angel who plays the trumpet in the heavenly orchestra.  The dream is a wish-fulfilling fantasy, in which the “ungrateful world” he referred to earlier is selected for destruction, owing to its unworthy inhabitants, and he is to destroy it by blowing his horn exactly at midnight.  So, he is sent to Earth, in accordance with the general principle that it is better to move the story out of Heaven as quickly as possible.  As an angel, he knows nothing about food or money, as per his wish while he was still awake.  Actually, he knows nothing about sex either, which does provide for a few of the handful of laughs that this movie has to offer.

The bulk of the movie consists of the two trumpet players, now fallen angels, trying to keep Athanael from blowing his horn.  I suppose it is the height of absurdity to take this dream-Heaven movie seriously in any aspect, but this leads to the fourth thing working against this movie.  We are expected to pull for Athanael, even though he wants to destroy the world, while pulling against the two fallen angels, who are trying to save it, though for selfish reasons, of course.  If a man commits a murder, he is evil.  If he goes on a rampage and kills a dozen or so, he is a horrible mass-murderer.  And if he is like Hitler or Stalin, who were responsible for the killing of millions, he is a monster.  Athanael is trying to kill every last person on this planet, but since his orders come from Heaven, that is supposed to make it all right.  (It is to be noted, however, that the orders do not come from God, as if to hold him innocent, notwithstanding the fact that the Bible tells us that this is precisely the sort of thing God did in the past with the Flood and will do again on Judgment Day.)

I suppose Athanael is redeemed by the fact that in his wish-fulfilling dream, he falls to his death before he can blow his trumpet and end the world, after which he wakes up and starts playing his trumpet in real life.  But for the reasons given above, this movie cannot be redeemed by the few laughs that it affords us.

Movies about Life after Death

The movie Ghost (1990) is only one of umpteen movies I have seen that might have precipitated this essay, but this one is as good a place as any to start.  My objection to movies of this sort is that the discovery that there is life after death on the part of the protagonist fails to make the profound difference in his thoughts and feelings that one would expect.  The number of movies about life after death are far too numerous for an exhaustive survey, so only a few of the better known ones will be discussed as representative.

There are three ways in which the soul can survive the body:  (1) the soul goes to a place for the departed (Heaven or Hell, for example), (2) the soul is reincarnated in another body, or (3) the soul wanders the Earth as a ghost.  And for each of these ways, there are movies in which the protagonist discovers the reality of such.  The perplexing thing is the way in which the protagonist that makes the discovery is remarkably unaffected, except insofar as his knowledge of life after death helps him in matters that concerned him before the discovery.

As for movies in which the protagonist discovers that the soul goes to an afterworld when the body dies, I covered this subject at length in my essay, “Heaven in the Movies.”  In that essay, I noted that in the movies Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) and its remake Heaven Can Wait (1978), when the protagonist discovers that Heaven exists, he is unimpressed.  All he cares about are the worldly pursuits that mattered to him when he was alive.  He never takes a moment to reflect upon Eternity.

I suppose the idea is that they have believed in God and in Heaven all along, so it is no big deal to them to have the existence of God and Heaven confirmed.  In other words, whereas an atheist like me might be expected to stand there in astonishment and to say to himself, upon being sent back to Earth, “I must change my life,” for ordinary people who already believe, it is no big deal.  But that is a facile view of human nature.  Religious people only half-believe what they hope is true, and it is this combination of half-belief and hope that constitutes the essence of faith.  A religious man would be just as impressed by the discovery that Heaven exists as any atheist, and upon being sent back to Earth to continue his life, as is the case in these two movies, this new knowledge would be just as life-transforming for him as for an atheist.

In reincarnation movies, the discovery by the protagonist that he has been reincarnated leaves him similarly unimpressed.  Of course, when people are reincarnated in the movies, they always manage to come back to life as white middle-class Americans in good health, never as untouchables in India who are forced to rummage around in a garbage dump to find something to eat.  Be that as it may, in Chances Are (1989), all the protagonist cares about when he realizes he has been reincarnated is distancing himself from the girl he is attracted to, who was his daughter in his previous life, while hooking up with her mother, who was his wife in that previous life, but who is now old enough to be his mother.  But after an angel gives him a syringe-full from the River of Lethe, he forgets that the girl is his daughter and has sex with her instead.  I guess it doesn’t matter that their souls are committing incest as long as those souls inhabit genetically unrelated bodies.  But the main point of all this is that the only effect the knowledge of reincarnation has on the protagonist is the way it complicates his sex life.

At this point, it might be noted that the movies I have presented as examples have all been comedies, and that I am taking things way too seriously.  Now, if I had laughed while watching these movies, that would be different.  But when a comedy fails to make me laugh, the absurd premises of such a movie become painfully obvious.  I have heard that some people actually did think these movies were funny, however, so I guess for them, these movies worked.  Perhaps the reason they were able to enjoy these movies is that they really do not believe in life after death themselves, and so they don’t expect the protagonist to take it seriously either.

Whereas movies about Heaven or reincarnation tend to be comedies, movies about ghosts tend to be taken more seriously, especially since ghosts take us into the genre of horror movies.  And this brings us to the movie that started this essay, which is Ghost.  In this movie, Sam (Patrick Swayze) is murdered and becomes a ghost.  He realizes his girlfriend Molly (Demi Moore) is in danger, and thus he does his utmost to keep her from being killed as well.  When he finally saves her from Carl (Tony Goldwyn) by fighting with him until Carl is accidentally killed (and dragged down to Hell by demons), he is then able to join the blessed in Heaven, his mission here on Earth having been accomplished.

At the expense of being once again admonished for taking these movies too seriously, I cannot help but wonder why he doesn’t just let Molly die so that she can join him in Heaven.  I mean, if there really is a Heaven in which we dwell in eternal bliss, who needs life on Earth?  Why drag out the misery of existence when the joys of Paradise await?  There are good things about life, to be sure, but not even the best of life could possibly compete with the happiness that awaits.

There is one movie about ghosts, however, that has the transformative effect on a man that we would expect, and that is A Christmas Carol (1951).  A greedy miser is visited by three ghosts who show him the error of his ways.  Seeing his greed and selfishness from the aspect of eternity horrifies him.  From then on he wants to do whatever he can to help others, to bring a little happiness to his fellow man.  This is one movie about life after death that makes sense.

Heaven in the Movies

Because Heaven does not exist, it is purely the product of our imagination. Unlike the world we live in, where we must continually adjust our conceptions to fit reality, resulting in much disappointment, Heaven never suffers the limitations of experienced reality, but is free to realize our every hope and dream.

Of course, owing to our religious upbringing, we are usually provided with a conception of Heaven before we have a chance to imagine one for ourselves, and thus the imaginings of others may impose themselves on us before we have a chance to make a significant contribution of our own.  Those who are independent enough in their thinking to reject the conception of Heaven acquired in childhood and replace it with their own are independent enough in their thinking not to believe in Heaven at all.  And yet, in some way or other, Heaven has been imagined by different peoples at different times, and so, it would seem that in some way or other the different conceptions of an afterlife must be suited to us.

There are four different conceptions of Heaven.  The first is that it is a refuge from the pain and suffering of this world.  All of us have suffered at one time or other, and in such circumstances, relief from that suffering is all we care about. And so, the more suffering there is for a people, the more likely they are to conceive of Heaven in this way.  An example of this is Heaven Is for Real (2014).  In that movie, a family is under a lot of stress, because the husband, a pastor, has several jobs, but they are still in debt and overwhelmed financially.  Their four-year-old son almost dies from a ruptured appendix, and in the hospital, while being operated on, goes to Heaven temporarily.  In addition to describing what Heaven is like visually, seeing Jesus and angels and whatnot, the message is that everything will be all right, that deceased loved ones are there, and they are happy.

The second is that it is place where one exacts an imaginary revenge on those one hates. St. Thomas Aquinas said that the saints in Heaven will be able to witness the suffering of the damned so that their bliss will be more delightful for them.  But most of us do not hate that much, which is why many people who are religious do not have a Hell as part of their conception of an afterlife. At most, they have a Heck. Consequently, Heaven conceived in conjunction with Hell as places where divine justice is meted out no longer appeals to us either.

The third conception is that it is a continuation of the life we presently have. We find this sort of thing in the Elysian Fields of Greek mythology and in the Asgard of Norse mythology.  In the movie Hud (1963), after the funeral service for his grandfather, Lonnie (Brandon de Wilde) says, “He ain’t in any loaf-around eternal life.  He’s the way he always was, enjoying his good horses, looking after the land, trying to figure out ways to beat the dry weather and wind.”  While this conception might be more suitable for those of us who have been fortunate enough to find life worth living, we have difficulty taking it seriously.  In particular, it makes no sense that a rancher would worry about the dry weather and wind in Heaven when there would be plenty of food for everyone, assuming people eat in Heaven, which is unlikely.   In general, most of what we do on Earth makes sense only when done on Earth.  In Heaven, such Earthly activity would be lacking in purpose.  About the only way to make sense of this idea is that his grandfather would be suspended in an ideal state, with no sense that he had died, looking over his land and his livestock in perpetuity.  Perhaps that was the idea behind the river Lethe of Greek mythology, to drink from which would cause forgetfulness.  His grandfather would have no sense of the passage of time, because in each succeeding moment, he would forget the moment that came before it.

But this is a false happiness, which appeals to us and repels us at the same time.  Lonnie may want to think of his grandfather that way, but is it something he would really want for himself?  In any event, Lonnie apparently does not take his sentimental notions seriously either, given what follows. When the preacher tries to console him by saying that his grandfather has gone to a better place, Lonnie replies, “I don’t think so. Not unless dirt is a better place than air,” thereby contradicting what he said just moments before.

The fourth conception is the adolescent’s Heaven, a place where one can party all the time, get drunk, get laid.  This conception is not confined to adolescents, of course, for Islam promises the men that are faithful that they will have seventy-two virgins in Paradise.  And yet, as delightful a sensual afterlife seems to be, it seldom appeals to the mature mind.  Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that such delights are often deemed sinful, and thus there is a disconnect between condemning them here on Earth while praising them in Heaven.  More likely it is the fact that while most of us enjoy that sort of thing once in a while, an eternity of such goings-on seems a little pointless.

In short, none of these conceptions of Heaven really appeals to us. And this is strange, because, as noted above, Heaven can be whatever we imagine it to be. As evidence that these conceptions do not appeal to us, we might note the way movies portray Heaven. Movies, even when they are about life on Earth, are products of the imagination, so all the more so are they suited to presenting depictions of Heaven.

The movie The Green Pastures (1936) is a movie that depicts Heaven as imagined by African Americans, specifically, rural blacks living in the South, and it fits into the third category.  Actually, it would be more accurate to say that the movie depicts Heaven as white people imagined that southern, rural blacks would imagine it. White audiences were comfortable with this depiction of Heaven, because they could smile condescendingly at what they regarded as the naïve notions of the black race.  This attitude is underscored by having the camera close in on the eyes of black children in Sunday School just before Heaven is portrayed on the screen, making it doubly clear that what we are watching is a childlike portrayal of Heaven.  In other words, white audiences were not asked to take this view of Heaven seriously.

To a certain extent, The Green Pastures also belongs in the fourth category, in that Heaven seems to be one long picnic.  Angels fish for pleasure, eat good food, smoke cigars, and go dancing on Saturday night.  There is no explicit mention of sex, but with all the little cherubs about and references to mammies, one gathers that angels get married and have children.  On the other hand, things in Heaven are pretty tame compared to the drinking, gambling, and philandering taking place on Earth just before the Flood, so the Heaven in this movie does not quite realize the adolescent’s conception of Paradise.

My next example is the movie Heaven Can Wait (1943).  This is a comedy in which a man, Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche), dies and is resigned to go to Hell for his sins, all of which are of a sexual nature, such as cheating on his wife.  He is in luck, though, for the Devil (Laird Cregar) is most pleasant and understanding.  In fact, with a Devil like that, there would seem to be no need for a God.  After hearing of Henry’s infidelities, the Devil decides that Henry is not suitable for Hell and will spend eternity in Heaven.  In the original ending, Henry gets on the elevator and tells the operator he is going up.  At the next floor, however, a beautiful woman gets on, saying she is going down.  The operator looks at Henry, who says, “That’s OK. Heaven can wait.”

The implication is that Henry is not in much of a hurry to get to Heaven, where he will probably have to spend eternity being faithful to his wife, assuming they even have sex in Heaven, which is doubtful.  Therefore, he decides to see if he can get a little on the side just one more time before being condemned to Heaven. Unfortunately, that original ending met with objections and was deleted, which not only resulted in a lesser movie, but also left people wondering what the title meant.

This movie is not to be confused, of course, with a movie of the same name made in 1978, which was a remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941).  For simplicity’s sake, I will discuss Heaven Can Wait (1978) only, for the two movies are basically alike.  Joe Pendleton (Warren Beatty) is a professional football player who dies in an accident. But when he gets to Heaven, instead of meeting the traditional St. Peter at the Pearly Gates, he meets Mr. Jordan (James Mason), who realizes that Joe was not supposed to die just yet.  But since Joe’s body has already been cremated, a new body will have to be found for him belonging to someone recently deceased.

What is striking about this movie is that though Joe has just learned that there is God and a Heaven, yet all he cares about is getting a body that will allow him to play in the Super Bowl. Now, if I found out I would have to go back to Earth, the first question I would have asked Mr. Jordan would be, “Is there a Hell, and if so, what do I have to do to stay out of it?”  There is no more important question one could possibly want an answer to than that. And whatever the answer to that question was, I would never again be able to concern myself with worldly goods like football, but would be spiritually transformed.

But that aside, the point is that Joe doesn’t care about Heaven. Granted, when he finally gets the body he needs, his memory is wiped clean of all that took place between the accident and his winning the Super Bowl.  But during the time in between, he is totally indifferent to Heaven (or the Hell that I would be worried about). The implicit message of this movie, as well as the original on which it was based, is that life on Earth is worth more than an afterlife in Heaven.

A movie with the opposite structure is Stairway to Heaven (1946). Whereas in the movie just discussed, a man dies who was not supposed to, in this movie, a man who was supposed to die does not. Actually, the movie begins with a disclaimer, saying that the movie is a story of two worlds, the first of which is that of our life here on Earth; the second, in the mind of a young airman. It then goes on to deny “any resemblance between this imaginary world and any other world, known or unknown.”  But whether the Heaven depicted is the imagination of this British World War II pilot, Peter Carter (David Niven), or is supposed to be the real Heaven as imagined by those who produced the movie, the result is the same:  the Heaven so imagined is the pits.  Not surprisingly, then, Peter does not want to go to Heaven as he was supposed to, but wants to continue to live on Earth, especially since he just fell in love. This results in the need to have a trial to see whether Peter gets to stay on Earth or must go to Heaven.

Heaven is undesirable for four reasons.  First, it is colorless, both literally and figuratively, with only the scenes on Earth being in color. Second, it is lifeless, both literally and figuratively, for with the exception of the new arrivals (who are in such a jolly good mood, they get on your nerves), everyone else in Heaven is lethargic and dull. Third, souls in Heaven are prudish beyond all reason. We all know that there is no sin in Heaven, which is part of what makes it so boring, but in this Heaven, you are not even allowed to say, “Holy smoke!” Fourth, there is no love in Heaven, but there is hate. Conductor 71, having dismissed love as the feeling of the moment, says that the prosecutor in Peter’s case hates Peter’s guts, as part of a hatred for the British that has lasted for two centuries, on account of his having been an American killed by the British during the American Revolution. This hatred turns out to be petty and spiteful beyond belief.

Apparently, Heaven in this movie is really caught up in World War II, because they have a special Aircrew Section just for the pilots of the Allied forces. We never get to see the Aircrew Section for the Axis Powers for some reason. The receptionist, or whatever she is, shows a newly arrived pilot where they keep the files on everyone on Earth: Russian, Chinese, black or white, Republican or Democrat. She doesn’t mention anything about the files of Germans, Japanese, or Italians. Gosh! You don’t suppose they all went to Hell, do you?

Just about the time we have settled into the idea that this business about Heaven is the hallucination of a man who has jumped out of a plane without a parachute, it turns out that his hallucinations are caused by a brain tumor, the symptoms of which began six months before he jumped. So, it is ambiguous as to whether the tumor is the hallucination of a man who is falling to his death, or the leap out of a burning plane is the hallucination of a man with a brain tumor.

Anyway, brain surgery is performed on Peter while his trial is taking place in Heaven. Ultimately, it comes down to a question of which should prevail, the Law of Heaven, or love on Earth. Finally, June (Kim Hunter), the woman Peter loves, is willing to die in Peter’s place, thereby proving that she loves him, the result of which is that they both get to live. The judge quotes Sir Walter Scott’s poem about how love conquers all, the last line of which says, “For love is heaven, and heaven is love,” an assertion that stands in contradiction to all that has come before. At the same time, the surgery back down on Earth proves to be a success.  So, Peter and June will get married and live happily ever after. Or rather, they will be happy until they die. Then they will go to Heaven and have to exist in that dreadful place for eternity.

Regardless of whichever conception of Heaven one imagines or is seen in the movies, one thing that always bothers me is the lack of privacy.  Now, I realize that there is no need for bedrooms or bathrooms in Heaven, since there typically is no sex in Heaven and certainly no need to excrete waste material. But I would still find it maddening not be to be able to get away by myself once in a while.  And yet, in any depiction you have ever seen of Heaven, you never see someone walk into his own little room and close the door behind him.

Because Heaven does not seem to have much appeal, it is understandable that people would turn to reincarnation as an alternative.  That would make sense. If life is so much better than Heaven, then the best thing is just to keep being reincarnated. The movie that makes this point is What Dreams May Come (1998), in which the connection between Heaven and the imagination is even more explicit than the preceding one.

A lot of people used to believe that marriages were made in Heaven.  Today, people speak of being soul mates.  Whatever expression one uses, that is the idea behind the marriage of Chris (Robin Williams) and Annie (Annabella Sciorra).  They have two children who die in a car crash, leading Annie to have a mental breakdown. They almost get a divorce.  A year later, Chris also dies in a car accident.

He eventually makes it to Heaven, which is a wonderful place shaped by the imagination.  But since Heaven is created by the imagination, so too is Hell. According to traditional Christianity, people who commit suicide go to Hell, and New Age philosophy is apparently in agreement on this point, if this movie is any indication, where people do not go to Hell because they are evil, but because they got confused and committed suicide. In other words, life is so wonderful that suicide cannot possibly be a rational act, no matter how miserable one is, so anyone who hates life enough to commit suicide must be confused. When Annie kills herself, she is trapped in Hell by her confusion. Chris manages to rescue her, but all the other suicides remain in Hell for eternity. Too bad for them.

Anyway, Chris and Annie make it to Heaven where they are safe. But Chris suggests that they be reincarnated so that they can meet each other again and experience another life together. Of course, that means taking a chance of becoming confused, committing suicide, and going to Hell, with little likelihood of there being another rescue. Who in his right mind would chance it? But the idea is that life is so wonderful that it is even better than Heaven, even worth the risk of committing suicide and being eternally damned.

Of course, that wonderful life involves such things as having your children die in a car accident, having the marriage deteriorate to the point of almost getting a divorce, and then having a husband die in an accident. Who wouldn’t want the chance to experience something like that again? Who wouldn’t forgo Heaven and risk Hell to experience such misery and suffering once more?

The thrust of all these movies is that life on Earth is preferable to an eternity in Heaven, even if that life turns out to be pretty miserable.  How are we to make sense of this?  I can think of only two possible explanations.  The first is that human nature is suited for life on Earth, which means a life filled with struggle, even if it is a struggle we often lose, causing us misery and pain. Regardless of whether life is worth living, or whether it would have been better had we never been born, it is all we know. We simply are not constitutionally suited for Heaven, and thus the idea of it makes us uncomfortable.  The other reason is that even people who are religious only half believe it, like Lonnie in the movie Hud, and thus are inclined to cling to the only existence they are sure of rather than waste their lives worrying about something that may well be nothing but a product of their imagination.

What Dreams May Come (1998)

A lot of people used to believe that marriages were made in Heaven.  Today, people speak of being soul mates.  Whatever expression one uses, that is the idea behind the marriage of Chris (Robin Williams) and Annie (Annabella Sciorra) in What Dreams May Come.  They have two children who die in a car crash, leading Annie to have a mental breakdown.  They almost get a divorce.  A year later, Chris also dies in a car accident.

He eventually makes it to Heaven, which is a wonderful place shaped by the imagination.  But since Heaven is created by the imagination, so too is Hell.  According to traditional Christianity, people who commit suicide go to Hell, and New Age philosophy is apparently in agreement on this point, if the movie What Dreams May Come is any indication. In this movie, people do not go to Hell because they are evil, but because they got confused and committed suicide. When Annie kills herself, she is trapped in Hell by her confusion. Her husband Chris manages to rescue her, but all the other suicides remain in Hell for eternity. Too bad for them.

Anyway, Chris and Annie make it to Heaven where they are safe. But Chris suggests that they be reincarnated so that they can meet each other again and experience another life together. Of course, that means taking a chance of becoming confused, committing suicide, and going to Hell, with little likelihood of there being another rescue. Who in his right mind would chance it? But the idea is that life is so wonderful that it is even better than Heaven, even worth the risk of committing suicide and being eternally damned.

Of course, that wonderful life involves such things as having your children die in a car accident, having the marriage deteriorate to the point of almost getting a divorce, and then having a husband die in an accident. Who wouldn’t want the chance to experience something like that again? Who wouldn’t forgo Heaven and risk Hell to experience such misery and suffering once more?