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, much in the way Satan used cannons in Milton’s Paradise Lost.  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 economically that they often had to endure the misery of a bad marriage rather than try to make it on their own, especially 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 there is no longer any need to romanticize wife beating and child abuse as expressions of love.  And yet, this story remains popular.  It beats me.

The Pope Steps in It Again

Just as the term “White House” can no longer be taken as a metonym for the President, so too may it be that the term “Vatican” can longer be regarded as a metonym for the Pope. And that is because the Pope keeps saying things, or is reported to say things, that the Vatican denies were ever said, or were misunderstood, or were misreported by the media. First, the Pope seemed to want to go easy on homosexuals and the divorced, and then he was reported to have said that animals go to Heaven.  These statements were later denied or qualified, by the Vatican, of course, not by the Pope.  Now there is a report that the Pope said that Hell does not exist, that the souls that are not saved merely disappear, and this too has been denied by the Vatican.

In an article entitled, “Does the Pope Believe in Hell?” Pat Buchanan gives several reasons why denying the existence of Hell is unacceptable.  First, it would be “rank heresy”:

Had the pope been speaking ex cathedra, as the vicar of Christ on earth, he would be contradicting 2,000 years of Catholic doctrine, rooted in the teachings of Christ himself. He would be calling into question papal infallibility, as defined in 1870 by the Vatican Council of Pius IX.

Questions would arise as to whether Francis is a true pope.

That is an argument primarily directed toward Catholics. However, even Protestants may be persuaded by the need to believe in Hell, inasmuch as its existence was affirmed by Jesus and others in the Bible.

Second, belief in Hell is needed to put a check on man’s wickedness:

Did the soul of Judas, and those of the monstrous evildoers of history, “just fade away,” as Gen. Douglas MacArthur said of old soldiers? If there is no hell, is not the greatest deterrent to the worst of sins removed?

And yet, Judas and all those other “monstrous evildoers of history” were not deterred by the concept of Hell, either because they did not believe in it themselves, or because people have no trouble adjusting their views on religion to suit their purposes. Presumably, Buchanan would argue that the world would have even more wickedness in it were it not for the threat of Hell, but that would be a counterfactual not easily justified.

Finally, Buchanan asks, “What did Christ die on the cross to save us from?”  In general, it is claimed that the death and suffering of Jesus on the cross was necessary to atone for the sins of mankind.  The doctrine of original sin has it that man inherited his sinfulness from Adam, and that he cannot be saved on his own, but only through the grace of God.  Had Jesus not paid for our sins through his crucifixion, we would all be damned to an eternity in the fires of Hell.  Take away the concept of Hell, Buchanan argues, and Jesus died for nothing. He does seem to have a point.  Without Hell to save mankind from, it would seem that Jesus suffered and died because he was not a god, but just a man after all.

However, there is a way to square what the Pope is alleged to have said with Buchanan’s third argument.  We could say that there is a Hell to which mankind would have been condemned, owing to man’s sinfulness, but when Jesus died for our sins, he did so universally and without qualification.  As a result, Hell exists, but it is empty.

However, even the Pope supposedly made a distinction between the souls that repented and those that did not, the former going to Heaven, the latter merely ceasing to exist.  I suppose even for the Pope, universal salvation would be a little too much, as it would be for most people.  The idea that Heaven might be populated by the likes of Adolf Hitler and Charles Manson would be unacceptable. Needless to say, it is deeply hoped by the faithful that Hitler, Manson, and the like did not repent at the last minute, for that would spoil everything.

There is one function of the concept of Hell that Buchanan did not address.  For many people, the idea that those who would otherwise be condemned to Hell would merely cease to exist is not enough.  They need to believe that Hell is full of sinners and atheists.  Otherwise, their salvation will not be as satisfying, for Heaven is thin gruel unless there is the accompanying thought that one has escaped the eternal fire. In the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, in Summa Theologica, III, Supplement, Question 94:

Now everything is known the more for being compared with its contrary, because when contraries are placed beside one another they become more conspicuous. Wherefore in order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned.

Of course, if there really were a God and an afterlife, the ones who would truly deserve a reward in Heaven would be those who had refused to worship a God that condemned people to Hell.

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.

The Return of Torture

President Trump wants to torture people.  Whether he will succeed in bringing back “enhanced interrogation techniques,” black sites, and extraordinary rendition remains to be seen.  Many people are reassured by General Hayden’s remark that if Trump wants someone waterboarded, he will have to bring his own bucket.  I am not one of them.  Trump would be happy to bring his own electrodes.  Only he won’t have to.  There may be those in the CIA, as Hayden claims, that will refuse to torture people the way they did in the Bush administration, fearing that they will be subject to criminal prosecution in the future; but there will always be those willing to step up and take their place, in part because they wish to please their superiors, and in part because they truly believe it is the right thing to do.

Of course, there will be those who willingly engage in torture simply because they like it, because cruelty is fun.  But most need to feel morally justified in what they are doing.  And once that moral justification is in hand, they can inflict pain with a clear conscience.  To that end, torture is justified on either utilitarian grounds or on retributive grounds.  Regarding the former, torture is said to be useful in promoting the greater good.  The phrase “enhanced interrogation techniques” expresses this point of view.  The idea is that information is extracted through torture that will prevent innocent people from being harmed.  As for the second justification, those being tortured are said to deserve it.

Most of the time, both the utilitarian and retributive justifications are assumed to be present.  That is, the person being tortured has information that is useful and that person is evil.  After all, anyone who had information about some imminent terrorist attack would not likely be an innocent.  However, many of those who favor torture believe that either justification may be sufficient on its own. Regarding utility as the sole justification, John Yoo, the author of the “Torture Memos,” said that a child’s testicles could legally be crushed to extract information from his father.  Presumably, the child does not deserve to have his testicles crushed, but the father might decide to talk once he saw what was happening to his son, giving information that would be useful.  And Antonin Scalia believed that only cruel and unusual punishment was unconstitutional, not cruel and unusual methods of extracting information.  In his view, even American citizens convicted of no crime could be tortured for the sake of extracting information, provided the pain was not being inflicted as punishment.  Presumably, therefore, reporters who refuse to name their sources could legally have those names beaten out of them.

By the same token, many favor torture as punishment even if no information is to be extracted.  We find this in the expression, “Hanging’s too good for him,” and in the delight some people take in the idea that a convicted criminal will be ass-raped behind bars.  They want the criminal to suffer more than that which is entailed by incarceration or capital punishment alone.

This last should not surprise us, because the popular concept of Hell is the ultimate expression of the desire to have people suffer for retributive purposes only.  The suffering of the damned was never justified on the grounds that they would eventually tell God what he wanted to know, but only because they deserved to burn forever in the eternal fire.  Living as we do in an increasingly secular society, it is easy to forget that even today, 58% of Americans believe in Hell.

Now, if a person believes in Hell, then he believes that the suffering of the damned is righteous and approved by God.  I suspect there is a strong correlation between people that believe in Hell and people that think torture is justified, although I am aware of no research in support of this intuition.  Nearly two-thirds of Americans believe torture is justified, but whether that group and the 58% who believe in Hell correlate, I cannot be sure.  Of course, if there is such a correlation, the question remains as to whether people approve of torture because they believe in Hell or people believe in Hell because they approve of torture.  I assume the causality goes both ways:  the idea of Hell came into existence because people believed in torture, and then their belief in Hell came to reinforce and sanctify that belief in torture.

In light of all this, with so many Americans believing in torture, in this world and in the next, it would not surprise me if President Trump gets his way in bringing it back.

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?