The Green Pastures (1936)

It is impossible to watch The Green Pastures simply as a movie.  We cannot help but think of it as an artifact, an historical document reflecting attitudes toward African Americans in the 1930s, inasmuch as this movie has an all-black cast.  Furthermore, the movie is religious in nature, reflecting the understanding that African Americans had of Christianity back then; or rather, the understanding that whites had of the understanding that blacks had of Christianity:  for certainly, this is a movie for white audiences primarily and black audiences only incidentally.  This means that our attitude toward Christianity will intrude on our viewing of this movie just as much as our attitude toward representations of African Americans.

The attitude toward African Americans in this movie is that they are a childlike race, holding simple, naïve beliefs.  The movie begins on a Sunday morning, when the children are being rounded up for Sunday school.  The preacher is telling the children about how things all began, and as he does so, the camera closes in on the eyes of a child, just before the movie presents us with a representation of what was going on in Heaven before the Creation.  In other words, what we are seeing is to be understood as doubly childlike:  the conception of Heaven held by a child belonging to a childlike race.  Moreover, the child is a girl, and prejudice against the feminine intellect may also be at play here, further intensifying the idea that what we are about to witness is naïve.

Heaven as imagined by those in the Sunday school is one in which the angels seem to be having one long picnic and fish fry.  Presumably there is sex in Heaven too, because there are little angel children running about and references to mammies.  And there is even dancing on Saturday night.  I know what you’re thinking.  How could there be a Saturday before the Creation?  But this is just one of the many anachronisms and impossibilities in this movie, which goes with the simple faith of the uneducated “Negro.”  In fact, watching the stories of the Bible told anachronistically is part of this movie’s charm.  It is worth noting that even though all the angels are black, their wings are white.  I guess the association between white and goodness on the one hand and black and evil on the other was too strong to be resisted, even in a movie like this.  Angels with black wings would look like demons from Hell.

A more serious question might be the following:  with Heaven being such a wonderful form of existence, why would God create an Earth full of sin and suffering?  But that is a question one could raise without ever having seen this movie.  We cannot expect this movie to solve the problem of evil when theologians have been struggling with it for centuries.  Rather, I prefer to focus on what I believe is a novel answer provided by this movie to a problem that has bedeviled many a Christian.  The Jehovah of the Old Testament is a god of wrath and vengeance whereas the Jesus of the New Testament is a god of love and mercy.  This would make sense if Jesus were literally the son of Jehovah, distinct from his father.  But as we know, Jesus and Jehovah are one and the same.  Of course, in Revelations, the final book of the Bible, Jesus and Jehovah are united in the way they deal out death and destruction, condemning vast portions of mankind to eternal suffering in Hell, more cruel and bloodthirsty than Jehovah ever was by himself in the Old Testament.  But most people prefer a conception of Jesus as being a god of forgiveness.

Well, in this movie, after years of wreaking havoc on a sinful mankind, drowning most everyone and starting over, only to see people degenerate again into their sinful ways, Jehovah gets fed up and decides to abandon mankind to their misery.  However, there is this man called Hezdrel whose preaching is giving Jehovah a headache, so he goes down to Earth to see what is going on.  Hezdrel, in an anachronistic and impossible manner typical for this movie, says that they no longer believe in a god of wrath.  Now they believe in a god of mercy.  Jehovah asks him where he got the idea of mercy from.  Hezdrel answers, “Through suffering.”  Jehovah goes back to Heaven to reflect on the matter.  He realizes that the only way for him to become a god of mercy is if he suffers himself.

You can almost imagine Jesus saying to himself while growing up:  “Wow, this being a human being is a lot harder than I thought.  Life is just full of misery and suffering.  From now on, I’m going to be more sympathetic to these poor creatures that I created a long time ago.”  And then when he gets nailed to the cross and really finds out about the horrors of existence, he becomes even more determined to be merciful in the future.  In other words, Jesus did not die on the cross for our sins; rather, he suffered on the cross so that he could have some empathy.

Now, for all I know, there is some theologian I have never heard of who advanced this theory a long time ago.  But its presentation in this movie is the first I’ve ever heard of it.  Not that I’m buying it, of course, being the atheist that I am, but at least someone has finally tried to explain how Jehovah and Jesus could possibly be the same God.

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When Is a Good Man not a Good Man? When He Is a Family Man.

It sometimes happens in watching a movie that one will be struck by something that others may not even notice, something that had it been edited out and left on the cutting-room floor would never have been missed. So it is with the movie 99 Homes (2014).

The movie is set sometime after the bursting of the housing bubble.  It is a time when there is more money to be made evicting people from their homes than building new ones.  In particular, Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) is a construction worker who can no longer find work building homes, and as a result, he and his family are evicted from theirs for failure to make mortgage payments.  On the day of their eviction, Nash tells Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), the real-estate broker in charge, that he was born in that house. This being said by a man in his twenties, such a house would normally be paid off by that time, which means he probably refinanced the house along the way to help pay the bills.

The Nash family, consisting of Nash, his mother, and his son, quickly put as much of their stuff as they can into their pickup truck and wind up at a cheap motel in the bad part of town.  When he realizes his tools were stolen by the crew that moved his stuff out to the curb, he goes back to his house and gets in a fight. Because Carver needs someone with Nash’s fierce determination to assist him in evicting people, he offers him a job.

At first we believe that Nash will simply be helping Carver do stuff that is legal, however unsavory it may be.  But soon we find that his job also involves scamming the banks and the government, stealing appliances and air conditioners so that Fannie Mae will give them a check to put the stuff back in the house they took it out of.  This makes Nash a little uneasy, as it does us, but bankers have always been fair game in fiction. The idea of the banker foreclosing on the widow with a baby because she is late with her last mortgage payment has been the stuff of melodrama since the nineteenth century, and those who rob banks to get even are romanticized. Nevertheless, when Nash’s mother finds out what he has been doing, she takes his son and goes to stay with her brother, “Uncle Jimmy.”

Eventually, it becomes more than just cheating the banks and the government. When Frank Greene, a homeowner whose family is about to be evicted, threatens to foul up a multimillion dollar deal for Carver by contesting his eviction, Carver gives Nash a forged, backdated document to take to court. Nash really becomes conflicted by this, because this is cheating a family just like his own.  He decides not to deliver the document, but the court clerk, who is in on the deal, snatches it out of his hand and gives it to the judge, who approves the eviction.

This leads to an armed standoff, where Greene fires warning shots from inside his house.  Nash steps out from behind a car and walks onto the grass with his hands up and tells Greene that he cheated him with a forged document. Greene surrenders, and we get the sense that with Nash providing evidence, Carver will soon be heading to prison.

That is the movie in a nutshell.  But an offhand comment made in the middle of the movie caught my attention.  Carver asks Nash why he isn’t married, to which Nash responds that he doesn’t have time for it.  “I don’t trust a man who’s not married,” Carver says.  “Nobody does.”  At first, that would seem to be a preposterous contradiction.  Carver, as we have seen, is not only ruthless in evicting people from their homes, but he is also willing to break the law to do so. He also cheats on his wife.  But then we realize there is no contradiction here. He is not saying that married men are more trustworthy than single men, but rather that they are so regarded.  In other words, a single man might be just as trustworthy as any married man, but it is a fact of human nature that people are more likely to trust a man who is married than one who is not. Carver would prefer that Nash be married, because it is easier for a married man to cheat people than it is for a single man, owing to this prejudice in favor of the trustworthiness of the former over the latter, however misguided that may be.

Well, that would account for the rest of mankind, but why would Carver be more likely to trust a married man when he knows from the example of himself just how misplaced such trust can be?  That leads to a paradoxical distinction between two different kinds of trustworthiness.  Some men can be trusted because they are basically good, and some men can be trusted because they cannot afford to be good.  As Tallyrand said, “A married man with a family will do anything for money.”

If this is what Carver has in mind, that a married man burdened by the responsibilities of a family will not be able to afford the luxury of doing the right thing and therefore can be trusted to do the wrong thing when necessary, then Nash actually is effectively more like a married man than a single one, in that he has his mother and son to support.  (We gather that when Nash was young, his girlfriend got pregnant, had a baby, and then took off, leaving the child with him.) In fact, it is only after his mother and his son go to live with Uncle Jimmy, where they will have food and shelter no matter what happens to him, that Nash is free to do what is right.

In general, whether one is married or has a family without actually being married like Nash, one is not as free as a single, unattached person to do all the things he or she would like, whether for good or ill.  We tend to think of the bachelor as someone who is more likely to indulge his vices or commit crimes, with good reason, I fear, but it is also true that anyone who aspires to be a saint will find family life to be a hindrance.

This is undoubtedly what Jesus had in mind when he said, “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). You are not supposed to divorce your wife, of course (Matthew 19:19), but you are supposed to hate her.  That might be said of a lot of married men, unfortunately, but I doubt if for religious reasons.  In the parable of the Great Banquet, a rich man invites a lot of people to have dinner with him, which I suppose is analogous to Jesus inviting people to enter the Kingdom of Heaven with him. An excuse offered by one man for declining the invitation was, “I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come” (Luke 14:20).  In a pinch, a man might be better off castrating himself:  “For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it” (Matthew 19:12).

Obviously, Jesus was addressing his remarks to men rather than to women, not only because women cannot be eunuchs, but also because he says that a man must hate his wife, not that a woman must hate her husband. Notwithstanding this oversight, women are capable of becoming saints just like men, though there are more officially recognized male saints than female.  On the other hand, from a casual perusal of the movies, it would seem that women make better movie saints than do men.  St. Joan of Arc, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and St. Bernadette get lots of screen time, whereas the only male saint to get that much attention from movie producers is St. Francis of Assisi.  They all pretty much have in common the fact that they are single.  Elizabeth Bayley Seton had been a wife and mother, but one suspects that she would never have made it to sainthood had she not been widowed.

Traditionally, bachelors have always been looked upon as being of doubtful character, in part because they were suspected of homosexuality.  Even when that was not the issue, however, there was the sense that there was something wrong with them.  Of course, by “bachelor” I mean a man who not only has never married but has never lived with a woman as well.  I once knew a couple that had been living together for seven years and had a three-year-old child, but they still counted themselves as being single.  If possession is nine-tenths of the law, cohabitation is nine-tenths of being married, even when common-law status is not invoked.  With women, on the other hand, it has traditionally been different, as if they were more to be pitied than censured.  The “old maid” was usually thought of as a woman unable to attract a man, and the “spinster” was a woman forced to support herself for want of a husband.

The idea of a man being so spiritual that he rises above his sexuality is part of the awe afforded to priests.  The Protestant version of the priest, who likely is married, may strike us as more dependable and down to earth, but he no longer seems special the way a Catholic priest does.  However, it is the entanglements of marriage that really get in the way of one’s spiritual aspirations.  So, what does a man or woman do who wishes to become a saint only after having become married? As a rule, I suppose one gives up the dream of becoming a saint owing to one’s family obligations.  But there are a couple of movies that suggest that abandoning or neglecting one’s family is permissible and even laudable.

In the movie The Boy with Green Hair (1948), Peter Fry (Dean Stockwell) is a war orphan because his parents died during the London blitz of World War II trying to help war orphans.   This is premised on something supposedly noble, but which is in fact quite irritating. When Peter was very young, his parents left him with an aunt so that they could help the war orphans in London. Even if one of his parents felt the need to participate in the war effort, say, the father, we would expect the mother to stay with her son and take care of him; but they both figure they have more important things to do than raise their own child. When the aunt gets word that Peter’s parents are dead, she passes him on to other relatives who don’t want him either. This continues until he ends up with his grandfather (Pat O’Brien).

We are supposed to think of those relatives as being cold and selfish, but after all, they did not bargain on having to raise someone else’s child. It is actually Peter’s parents who are selfish. They are that strange breed of do-gooder who becomes so enamored with the idea of saving the world that he neglects his own family. Without pausing to be sure that Peter would be raised to maturity by a loving relative happy to take care of him if they died in the war, they just dumped him on his aunt and took off.

There is one moment in the movie when Peter concludes, correctly in my opinion, that his parents cared more about other children than they did him, but the movie insists that he is wrong, and at the end Peter is seen as understanding that they really did love him and that what they did was right and good. As insistent as the movie is in this regard, it still leaves us with a feeling of revulsion for parents who would abandon their child so they could devote themselves to some higher purpose.

Another movie along these lines is Magnificent Obsession (1954).  The movie is based on a karmic principle explained by analogy with electricity.  The way it works is that if you do good things for people without letting other people know about it, and you refuse any attempt on their part to repay the debt, you build up a spiritual charge of good karma that rewards you. If you allow them to repay the debt, the spiritual force is discharged. Most people are grounded, never accumulating a charge, because they allow people to return the favor. If you tell other people about your kindness or charity, the spiritual force will dissipate, as with a wire without insulation.

The story begins when the reckless behavior of the rich, irresponsible playboy Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) inadvertently causes the death of Dr. Wayne Phillips, a man who had been initiated into the secret karmic principle. Dr. Phillips was such a good man that he used up all his income and borrowed against all his assets to do good deeds, leaving his wife, Helen (Jane Wyman), and his daughter, Joyce (Barbara Rush), nothing.  You might be appalled that Dr. Phillips did not provide for his wife and daughter in the event of his death, that he was so caught up in the idea of helping strangers that he neglected his family, grabbing up all the good karma for himself while his wife and daughter are left destitute. And yet, the movie insists that we are to admire Dr. Phillips.

Being a good man and being a good family man may be two different things.

San Francisco (1936)

San Francisco is one-third musical, one-third catastrophe movie, and one-third religious movie.  The musical third is just a showcase for Jeanette MacDonald in the role of Mary Blake.  We don’t really relate to this movie as a musical, and so we become impatient with her numbers while waiting for the catastrophe, the 1906 earthquake.  Both the music and the catastrophe, however, must take a backseat to the religious aspects of the movie, which are laid on so thick that the movie is impossible to watch without cringing.

Clark Gable plays Blackie Norton, who runs an establishment catering to vices such as drinking, gambling, and ogling pretty women.  Blackie is an atheist, who, according to his friend, Father Tim Mullin (Spencer Tracy), doesn’t believe in anything, which means Blackie is a cynic as well.  However, we also see that he has a good heart underlying his sneering façade, for he shows concern about people getting out of a burning building, offers to make a charitable contribution, pays for an organ for Tim’s church, and plans to run for Supervisor, a political office that will enable him to enact regulations preventing more fires like the one we see in the beginning of the movie.

Tim tells Mary about Blackie’s good heart, saying in general that no one is all bad, an absurdity on which I will not bother to comment.  The important thing about this conversation he has with Mary in this regard, however, is the smug know-it-all look he has on his face, which only gets worse as the movie wears on.  A lot of people suppose that belief in God and moral goodness are linked together in some essential way, and this was especially true in 1936, when this movie was made.  Therefore, Blackie’s atheism in conjunction with his good heart, we are being guided to believe, is unsustainable.

Mary gets a job in Blackie’s nightclub as a singer.  Her operatic voice seems totally out of place in a joint where people want to indulge their vices, but that is sort of the point.  In listening to her, I noticed that I could not understand half the words she was singing, which is not unusual for these opera types.  That caused me to reflect on the fact that operas are often sung in the original language in which they were written regardless of the native language of the audience before whom the operas are performed.  I concluded that it really doesn’t matter, because you just about can’t understand them if they sing in English anyway.  But I digress.

One of the musical numbers sung by Mary during the course of the movie is from the opera Faust by Charles Gounod.  You know the story.  A man sells his soul to the Devil so he can get laid.  Presumably Blackie’s attempt to possess Mary recapitulates Faust’s seduction and ruin of Marguerite, which is why Tim contends with Blackie for Mary’s soul.  After she breaks off her engagement with Blackie, Mary sings in the opera La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi, about a courtesan who dies from tuberculosis, possibly suggesting the unhappiness that Mary will experience if she goes ahead with her plans to marry a man whom she does not love.

Early in the movie, we see Blackie and Tim in the boxing ring, in which Tim knocks Blackie to the mat, as he usually does, according to Blackie.  It is important to establish that Tim can lick Blackie in a fight, because later in the movie, when Blackie and Tim are arguing over Mary, Blackie punches Tim, who just stands there and takes it with a hurt look on his face, the blood trickling down from his lip.  In other words, Tim is turning the other cheek in spite of his superior ability at fisticuffs.  If the movie had not featured that boxing scene early on, we might suppose that Tim’s reluctance to strike back is out of cowardice and weakness, that he is hiding behind his collar.

Though Mary loves Blackie, yet it bothers her that he doesn’t believe in God.  Blackie responds, “God?  Hey, isn’t he supposed to be taking care of the suckers that come out of the missions looking for something to eat and a place to sleep?”  Some might answer that it is God that inspires the people that run the missions.  But as Mark Twain once noted, “If  you will look at the matter rationally and without prejudice, the proper place to hunt for the facts of His mercy, is not where man does the mercies and He collects the praise, but in those regions where He has the field to Himself.”

This challenge returns to us toward the end of the movie where God indeed has the field to Himself.  In other words, when the earthquake begins, God does nothing to prevent it, and the result is that many people die or suffer crippling injuries.  As Blackie wanders around looking for Mary, he keeps running into people looking for God.  The mother of the man whom Mary was planning to marry says of her son’s death that it is God’s will and that it’s God’s help they both need now.  This brings out the great paradox regarding the connection between religion and suffering.  The more suffering people experience, the more likely they are to turn to God.  And yet, the more suffering people experience, the more we wonder why an all-powerful, loving God would allow it.

Eventually, Blackie finds a place where the injured are being cared for, where Tim is offering them comfort.  One might expect that in the face of all the death and destruction that has befallen the city, Tim would look as grief stricken and overwhelmed as everyone else including Blackie.  But no, Tim has a look of serenity on his face when Blackie sees him, and that look stays on his face right through the end of the movie.  Earlier in the movie, when the Barbary Coast was indulging in all its wantonness—drinking, gambling, carousing—Tim’s facial expression was often grim and disapproving.  But now, with all the misery and suffering around him, Tim is in his element.  As the city burns, as people die before his eyes, as he hears people cry out for the loss of their loved ones, Tim is truly at peace.  This is especially so when he sees Blackie.  Now, at last, Blackie will see.  There must be a God after all.

“Wait a minute!” you say.  “How does this prove the existence of God?”  Well, actually what it proves is that people need God.  And if people need God, then they need priests like Tim.  For years, Tim had to endure all of Blackie’s scoffing and sneering, but now the day of triumph is at hand.  Blackie is truly humbled, confused by all the suffering and misery that he does not comprehend, as he stands before Tim, who has known all along that this day would come, and whose heart is filled with joy.

When Blackie asks Tim if he has seen Mary, Tim takes him to a place outdoors where survivors of the earthquake have found refuge.  There is Mary, singing “Nearer My God to Thee,” accompanied by those around her, while a mother holds her dead child in her arms until others gently take him away from her and she collapses in tears.  It is all so heavenly.

When Blackie sees Mary, he says to Tim, “I want to thank God.”  And then we see it, the spectacle that exceeds even the earthquake:  Blackie Norton, on his knees, tears in his eyes, giving thanks to God, while Tim looks on smiling sweetly.

One has to wonder, though.  Suppose Mary had died.  Would Blackie have taken the same attitude as that of the woman who said the death of her son was God’s will?  Or would he have become even more convinced than ever that we live in a godless, uncaring universe?  Could Tim have maintained that smug look on his face if Mary’s brains had been bashed out by a falling building?

When Mary sees Blackie on his knees in prayer, she comes to him, and now we know that Blackie will finally have Mary’s love.  Just then, someone yells that the fire is out, at which point everyone becomes happy, shouting that they will rebuild San Francisco, marching over the hill, back to the city, as they sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”  When you consider that within less than the length of one full day, husbands have lost their wives, wives their husbands, parents their children, and children their parents, they all seem to be holding up amazingly well.  God be praised.

The Next Voice You Hear… (1950)

In the movie The Next Voice You Hear…, a mysterious voice interrupts the normal broadcast on the radio, claiming to be God.  This happens in Los Angeles every night at 8:30 for six straight days.  People also hear the voice all over the world in whatever language they speak.  Of course, it is a little more convenient for people in Los Angeles to listen to the broadcast, whereas for people in the other parts of the world, not so much.  Those in London must have had to get their butts out of bed at 4:30 in the morning if they wanted to hear what God had to say.  Those of us watching the movie don’t get to hear what God says at all.  We only hear what others say he said.  In fact, as the movie goes on with these God broadcast, it becomes almost laughable the way they figure out ways to keep us from hearing God’s voice.

The effect that God’s voice on the radio has on people is mainly illustrated by the Smith family.  That would be Joe Smith (James Whitmore), his wife Mary (Nancy Davis), their son Johnny, and Aunt Ethel, who visits occasionally to help out because Mary is about to have a baby.  Of course, “Joe” suggests the name “Joseph,” so I guess we are supposed to see some connection with the parents of Jesus, but I have no idea why.

Family life in the Smith household is a bit irritating, primarily because Joe is bossy and thinks he knows what is best for everyone.  We are supposed to believe they basically all love one another, but watching the way they interact is an overall unpleasant experience.  In fact, Joe is no better when he leaves the house.  He is rude to others on the road, and the way he drives gets him a couple of tickets from a policeman.  At work he always seems to be at odds with the foreman, Fred Brannan (Art Smith).

On the first night that God speaks, Joe is the only one in the family to hear him.  He tells Mary and Johnny about it.  Johnny suggests it might be his friend Eddie Boyle, who has a ham radio.  Maybe he figured out a way to cut in as a prank.  Joe says that is ridiculous.  “Would Eddie Boyle’s voice sound like God?”  Johnny answers, “I don’t know.  I never heard God.”  Mary turns to Johnny and says, “That isn’t nice.”

Just before that, Mary had suggested that the voice claiming to be God was part of a mystery contest or maybe an Orson Welles thing, alluding, of course, to that infamous War of the Worlds broadcast that made people believe the Martians had landed.  In other words, it was all right for her to question whether the voice was actually God, but not for Johnny to say, “I never heard God.”  And we do sense there is a difference.  Mary is only questioning whether someone claiming to be God actually is God.  But Johnny’s saying, “I never heard God,” is a little like saying, “I never saw God,” which is just one step removed from saying, “What evidence do we have that there is a God?”  Therefore, it is important for Mom to snuff out little Johnny’s tendency to think critically before it grows into full-fledged atheism.

And that does seem to be what God is worried about.  He is concerned that some people do not believe he exists or that it is really God’s voice they are hearing on the radio.  They want him to perform some miracles as proof.  God says he’ll have to think about that.

This second broadcast begins to make the members of the Smith household fearful.  Johnny even starts worrying about his mother dying while giving birth on account of overhearing Mary talking to Aunt Ethel about the difficulties in having a second child, after which Mary starts crying.  This is an artificial fear, one completely made up for this movie.  Except in special cases where there are complications, a second pregnancy is not more dangerous than the first.  The purpose of this phony danger is to give the Smith family something to be fearful of without making the audience fearful.  No one has ever watched this movie and worried that Mary was going to die.

In addition to that fear, one of the men Joe works with is worried about the miracles that God was talking about.  Johnny accidentally ruins the plug on the radio cord and is afraid to tell his father.  Mary expresses surprise, saying that Johnny was never afraid to tell them about stuff like that before.  Exactly what the connection is supposed to be between all this fear and the voice of God is not made clear.  Maybe it is that people often believe in God because they are afraid, and then they end up being afraid of the very God they turned to on account of their fears.  So, fear is both the cause and the effect of believing in God, the one reinforcing the other.

On the third night, Joe and his family miss the broadcast because of the broken plug, but once the plug is fixed, the radio announcer says they were unable to record the voice.  However, they read a transcript of what God had to say.  God is not only still bothered by all the doubt and skepticism about him, but also all the fear that people are feeling.  Maybe, God muses, people are afraid there will be another forty days and nights of rain.  Minutes later, it starts to rain, accompanied by lightning and thunder.  Johnny says he is afraid, Mary screams, and a fearful Joe tries to reassure them that it is just a coincidence as they huddle in terror.  But it only rains that night, and everyone wakes up relieved to see that God didn’t keep it going for the remaining forty days and thirty-nine nights.

At work, Joe marvels that he didn’t have trouble starting his car that morning, almost suggesting that it is some kind of miracle.  But one of his coworkers tells him that maybe he has been flooding his engine every morning on account of being so uptight, and when he woke up in a good mood that morning, he was easier on the gas and didn’t flood the engine.  Joe has a revelation.  Maybe that’s what God is trying to tell everyone, to just take it easy.

Just as the next night’s broadcast is starting, Mary goes into a false labor, so they miss God.  But the radio announcer reads the transcript later, in which God claims that when he made it rain the previous night, that was a miracle.  In fact, every drop of rain, every snowflake, blade of grass, the sun, the moon, and so forth is a miracle.  Then God enjoins people to perform miracles of their own through understanding, peace, and loving kindness.

Let’s pause here to see what all this is about.  Essentially, the focus of this movie is the discord and anxieties that plague the typical American family, both within, the way they get on one another’s nerves, and without, the way they yell at other people on the road as they drive to work, and the way they grumble about their boss when they are on the job.  You might think God would be telling people to quit fighting wars and to help the starving people of Africa, but this movie is not directed at people in war-torn countries or at people who don’t have enough to eat.  Those people aren’t going to be able to buy movie tickets anyway.  No, this movie is directed at the typical theater patron, the person who lives in a peaceful community where everyone has plenty to eat.  And thus, save for the possibility of death, exemplified by the risk involved when Mary has the baby, all the evils besetting these people are the little frustrations and apprehensions of a domestic life.

Anyway, Aunt Ethel becomes hysterical.  Notwithstanding the benign message from the voice on the radio, she fears the wrath of an angry God bent on punishing all of us sinners.  She says her mother and her sister (i.e., Mary’s grandmother and mother) both died when they had their second baby, and now God will see to it that Mary dies when she goes into labor as well.  Joe becomes angry and starts shaking Aunt Ether violently, causing Mary to start yelling at Joe.

The next morning, with Mary still seething over Joe’s physical abuse of Ethel, Joe leaves the house for some cigarettes.  He walks by Brannan’s house and asks him what he thinks of the voice on the radio.  Brannan says, “People silly enough to believe in God are silly enough to believe God’s talking on the radio.”  Joe tells him he has no right to say that, and Brannan reminds him it’s a free country.  Joe tells Brannan he is a mean, miserable, old man.  Brannan says that Joe is the one who is miserable:  “Posing as a God fearing man.  You’re just hanging around, praying that I’ll die so you can get my job.”  Joe pretty much admits that is true.  Brannan then says that if God wants to answer Joe’s prayers and cause him to die, he can do it right now.  Joe stares at him, almost wondering if a bolt of lightning will strike any minute.  But of course it doesn’t.  Brannan is a typical movie atheist.  Not only is he cynical, but he is grumpy and something of a misanthrope as well.  At the time this movie was made, it was commonly believed that without God, a person would naturally be selfish and mean.

Joe continues on his way to the local bar to get his pack of cigarettes.  When he gets there, he is spotted by his old Navy buddy, Mitch.  Mitch is still a bachelor and is on shore leave with a big wad of cash to spend, in contrast to Joe, who complains that he struggles to make ends meet and that his son Johnny has to have a paper route to buy his own bicycle because Joe can’t afford to buy him one himself.  Mitch is a hedonist.  He tells Joe about all the pleasures of visiting far off places, especially the ones in the tropics.  Unlike Brannan, the grumpy atheist, Mitch is just having too much fun living to worry about God one way or the other.  He laughs at the way people are afraid of living and scared of dying, at the way they are afraid when God speaks to them and they are afraid when he doesn’t.  It’s because they are afraid that they fight with each other.  “As for me,” he says, “I don’t fight with nobody.  I’m just a hundred and ninety-five pounds of true love for my fellow man.”  They sit at a table getting drunk, with Mitch more than happy to pay for all the drinks.  At one point, when he orders another round, a B-girl catches his eye, and he orders a drink for her too, after which she sits down at their table.  She flirts with Joe, but he keeps being rude to her, even though he keeps saying, “No offense.”  Finally, he tells Mitch that he is the voice of evil and that he never wants to see him again, threatening to squash his face if he does.

It might seem a little much for Joe to say that Mitch is the voice of evil and to express his hatred for him.  After all, it is not as though Mitch has ever done anything truly evil, like kill a man or rape a woman.  He’s just a good time Charley who wants to see everyone get drunk and get laid.  But Mitch’s role as someone who is evil is relative to the focus of this movie, which is the ordinary life of middle-class America.  Just as God is mostly addressing his remarks to families dealing with the miseries of domesticity, so too is Mitch, as the Devil’s spokesman, being evil in making Joe discontented with having a family and a boring job.

Joe comes home drunk.  Mary reads him what God said while he was out, something about not doing what he told them, about not creating miracles through love and understanding, much in the way schoolchildren fail to do their homework.  Everyone makes up, even Joe and Aunt Ethel, except for Johnny, who was so upset by what Joe did that he ran away from home.  Joe goes out looking for him and finally finds him at Brannan’s house, where it turns out that Brannan and Johnny have been friends for some time.

It cannot go without mentioning that times have changed.  For a child to have been spending time in an old man’s house without his parents knowing about it would be a matter of concern today.  But no one worried about such things in 1950 when this movie was made.  Anyway, what is strange is that we are now finding out that Brannan is a really nice man.  This contradicts the impression we had of him before as the stereotypical atheist who only cares about himself.  Furthermore, when Joe gets ready to take Johnny home, he says, “God bless you,” to Brannan, who in turn says, “God bless you, Joe.”  Now, in the old movies it was standard for the atheist to crawl at the end, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here.  Brannan’s parting remark to Joe is said in such a way that we do not believe that there has been some recent conversion, but rather that he is just saying that as a manner of speaking.  And this is strange, because lack of belief in God seemed to be one of the things that the voice on the radio was worried about.  Perhaps this was the movie’s way of saying that Brannan really does believe in God deep in his heart, which is why he is also a nice guy deep down.

Joe brings Johnny home, the family is all together again, and they all love one another.  Ethel has written down what God said, which is that he is pleased.  Joe even decides to say grace, which has not been a custom in that house for some time.  The next day, everyone is in church to hear the night’s broadcast, but there is only silence.  The preacher turns off the radio, saying that God has spoken for six days straight, and that since this is the seventh day, God is resting.

Interestingly, this seventh day is a Monday.  So, God rests on Monday now?  Did he take an extra day off somewhere along the way since the Creation?  No, of course not.  Making Monday the seventh day is a way of finessing the question as to which religion God belongs to.  In other words, if the seventh day had been Sunday, the implication would have been that Christianity is the true religion; if the seventh day had been on a Saturday, that would have implied that the true religion is Judaism; and while I doubt that anyone was thinking about Muslims at the time, their Day of Prayer, a Sabbath of sorts, falls on a Friday.  On the other hand, the movie begins with a quotation from the Old Testament about how the word of God had not yet been heard, and it ends with a quotation from the New Testament about how the word of God had been heard, so there does seem to be a bias toward Christianity anyway.

Right there in church, Mary goes into labor.  They get her to the hospital, and in the waiting room where Joe and Johnny sit, we see a picture of a stork on the wall, with the words at the bottom saying, “I’ve never lost a father yet.”  That’s an old joke, of course, and its purpose has always been to make light of a father’s worries and concerns about his wife’s pregnancy.  Indeed, we never really did believe that Mary was in danger of dying while giving birth, that bit about the danger of a second pregnancy notwithstanding.

Had this been a different kind of movie, Mary would have died, and we would have heard that her death is a test of our faith or that we just cannot understand the mysterious ways of God.  But the moral of this movie is that we should not be fearful, for there is nothing to be afraid of, which absolutely precluded the death of Mary or her baby.

The Virgin Spring (1960)

Being an atheist, I have always found it challenging to review a religious movie, because I worry that my criticism will be more about religion than about the movie.  This difficulty is compounded if it is not clear what the attitude of those who produced the movie is toward that religion, whether they intended the movie to be a criticism of religion or a defense of it.  In other words, it is not clear to me whether The Virgin Spring looks upon the simple faith of some fourteenth century peasants in the same way that parents will smile at their child’s belief in Santa Claus, or whether the movie actually shares that faith in God and encourages us to do likewise.

Anyway, as I said, there is this fourteenth century family of Swedish peasants headed by Töre (Max von Sydow).  His daughter is Karin (Birgitta Pettersson), who is a blonde virgin.  Well, her body may be pure, but her soul is not.  She is lazy, vain, and spoiled, smug in the fact that she is so cute and adorable that she can do as she pleases.  She has a foster sister, Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom), who is a brunette, a bastard soon to give birth to a bastard of her own.  The two of them set out for church to do something or other, and on the way it turns out that the other night Karin was flirting with the man that got Ingeri pregnant.  Though there is no hope that he will marry Ingeri, yet Karin’s dalliance with him infuriates Ingeri.  Just to rub it in, Karin taunts Ingeri for no longer being a virgin, while gloating over the way she will someday be married in all her virginal purity.  She really made my flesh crawl.

They get separated, and soon after Karin comes upon three goat herders that rape and murder her.  They strip her body of her beautiful clothes.  Later, they ask for lodging at Töre’s house, not realizing he is Karin’s father.  That night, they present Karin’s clothing to her mother as a gift, saying it belonged to their sister.  She tells Töre about it.  He asks Ingeri what she knows, and she admits that she witnessed the rape and murder and feels guilty because she wanted Karin to get her comeuppance.  Töre then murders the three goat herders, one of whom was just a boy, who had nothing to do with what happened to Karin.  Then Töre feels guilty for having committed murder.  The whole family goes out to where Karin’s body lies dead.  When they find her, Töre raises the ancient problem of evil, asking why God let this happen and then let him commit murder, while at the same time saying that he begs God’s forgiveness.

Now, this is what I was talking about.  Are we supposed to approve of Töre’s attitude or should we be disgusted?  I mean, I’m disgusted.  In fact, it is even a little disgusting that he had to wait until his daughter was raped and murdered before questioning how an all-powerful, loving God could let this happen.  After all, God has been standing by and letting girls get raped and murdered for centuries, and it is only now, when his daughter is a victim, that he takes exception to God’s indifference.  So, am I being disgusted with the movie or with the religion that this movie is premised upon?

It gets worse.  Töre promises to build a church on the spot where Karin died, in hopes of being worthy of God’s forgiveness.  Then, when they lift up her body, water begins to gush from the ground where she lay, becoming a spring.  The family treats the water as if it is a miracle, a replenishing gift from God.  That’s right.  Karin’s rape and murder have been worth it, because now we are going to get a church with a little spring nearby.  Perhaps I should point out that there is no shortage of water in that area, the family having crossed a large stream on their way to get to Karin, so it is not as though the spring will bring needed water to a parched region.  It’s just more water.

Here we go again.  I don’t know whether we are supposed to regard that spring as a real miracle or not.  If it is a miracle, then we have to wonder:  as long as God was willing to perform a miracle, why didn’t he miraculously save Karin instead?  If it is not a miracle, are we supposed to despise or admire the family for thinking it is one?

I give up.  I’ll have to let someone who actually believes in God tell me what I am supposed to make of this movie.

The Believer (2001)

The Believer is based on a true story about a Jew who became an anti-Semite.  His reasons for hating Jews are fascinating but difficult to discuss. Danny Balint (Ryan Gosling), the Jewish anti-Semite in this movie, is able to reveal his reasons for hating Jews and give further reasons for what to do about them because he is a Jew.  But as I am not a Jew, my repeating what he said in a review almost seems to be off limits.  It is a variation on the old principle, “I can criticize my family, but you cannot.”  It is the same as when a black comedian is able to get away with using derogatory words to refer to African Americans because he is one, while a white comedian would be pilloried for using those very same words.  Nevertheless, the ideas advanced in this movie may actually provide insight into anti-Semitism and thus are worth understanding, even if those are ideas are repugnant.

As the movie opens, we see Danny working out with dumbbells, making it clear that strength is important to him.  His head is shaved, and on his arm, we see a tattoo of the triskele, a three-sided swastika.  What we hear, however, is a flashback to a time when Danny was a young boy in school.  The teacher is telling the story of when God told Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac.  The teacher asks the class what the meaning of the story is, and a boy gives the standard answer, that it was “a test of Abraham’s faith and devotion to God.”  Then the teacher calls on Danny, noting, somewhat derisively, that as usual Danny has something to add.  Danny replies that it is not about Abraham’s faith, but about God’s power:  “God says, ‘You know how powerful I am?  I can make you do anything I want, no matter how stupid.  Even kill your own son, because I’m everything and you’re nothing.’”

The scene changes to a subway station, where we see a teenager wearing a yarmulke.  He looks down as he walks, as if he is afraid to look anyone in the eye.  He gets on the subway, sits down, and opens a textbook, with his shoulders squeezed together, as if trying to make himself as small as possible.  He wants for all the world to be left alone.  But it is no good, because Danny sees him.  Filled with hatred, Danny begins stepping on the boys shoes, until the boy gets off the train.  Danny follows him knocks the book out of his hand.  The boy just stands there meekly.  Danny picks up the book and sees that it is a textbook from an institution that teaches Orthodox Judaism.  Danny hits the boy, knocking him down, and then starts kicking him.  As he does so, he alludes to the story of Abraham, asking the boy if he thinks this is a test, if God is going to provide a ram instead of him.

Then he tells the boy to hit him.  “Do me a favor.  Why don’t you fucking hit me.  OK?  Hit me!  Hit me!  Hit me!  Hit me!  Fucking hit me, please!  You fucking kike!”  At first, this sounds like the standard act of a bully, sticking his chin out, daring someone to hit him, after which he intends to beat him up.  But it is more than that.  Danny really wants the boy to hit him.  And that is because what Danny hates about Jews is that they won’t fight.

At this point, we must stop and ask the obvious question:  Is it true that Jews won’t fight?  The answer would seem to be “No.”  The Old Testament is full of stories about Hebrews fighting.  The history of organized crime in America includes Jews like Bugsy Siegel, Arnold Rothstein, and Meyer Lansky, who didn’t get where they were by being afraid to fight.  More respectably, of course, there are the Jews of Israel, whose willingness to fight is beyond question.  However, as important as it is to note this discrepancy between what Danny believes and the facts, let us simply continue with what Danny believes for the moment.

Danny locates a fascist group on the internet headed by Curtis Zampf (Billy Zane), and he and three of his friends attend a meeting, where Zampf is comparing the good old days with the way things are now, which is bad.  He says that is why he is a fascist, because only a fascist government can straighten things out.  When a man asks about race, Zampf says this isn’t the time for that, even though he did make reference to all the black faces one now sees in the neighborhood.  Danny interrupts, saying that race is central to problem, that the modern world is a Jewish disease, the disease of abstraction.  And the solution to that disease, he says, is “killing Jews.”  Zampf objects, saying that it will be Germany all over again.  “Isn’t that what we want,” Danny replies, “Germany all over again, only done right this time?”  Later in the movie, when one of his neo-Nazi friends suggests that the holocaust was a hoax, Danny replies, “If Hitler didn’t kill six million Jews, why in the hell is he a hero?”  As far as Danny is concerned, if Hitler didn’t kill all those Jews, then he was a “putz.”

Danny says that people hate Jews, but then qualifies it:  “The very word [Jew] makes their skin crawl.  And it’s not even hate.  It’s the way you feel when a rat runs across the floor.  You want to step on it.  You just want to crush it.”  So, it’s a kind of hate arising out of disgust.  Danny says, “You don’t even know why.  It’s a physical reaction, and everyone feels it.”  But as we have already seen, from the example of the Jewish boy he bullied, as well as the example of God and Abraham, it is the refusal of the Jew to fight back Danny believes is the cause of that feeling.

In another flashback to that day in the classroom, we hear another student point out that Abraham never killed Isaac, because God provided a ram as a substitute.  First, Danny argues that Abraham really did kill Isaac on that day, just as God wanted, but that the story was changed later to make it more acceptable.  Then Danny points out that even if the traditional story was the correct one, once Isaac raised his hand with the knife in order to plunge it in, he had already killed Isaac in his heart.  Abraham, Danny continues, would never have been able to forget that and neither would Isaac.  Furthermore, he says, the whole Jewish people were permanently scarred.

One of the people at the meeting headed by Zampf was a free-lance reporter, Guy Danielsen (A.D. Miles), who is doing research on right-wing groups.  When Danny started speaking, he could immediately see that there was something special about Danny’s ideas.  He manages to get Danny to agree to an interview.  Guy asks Danny to elaborate on his remark at the meeting to the effect that the modern world is a Jewish disease.  Danny begins, “In this racialist movement we believe there is a hierarchy of races.  You know, whites at the top, blacks at the bottom.  Asians, Arabs, Latins somewhere in between.”

Conspicuous by its absence is the place of the Jews in this hierarchy, even though it is supposedly an answer to the “Jewish disease” question.  It is almost as if the Jews cannot be ranked with the rest because they are qualitatively different from the others.  Guy presses Danny about the Jewish disease.

Danny begins by using sexuality as an example.  He asserts that Jews are obsessed with oral sex because a Jew is essentially female.  “Real men—white, Christian men—we fuck a woman.  We make her come with our cocks.  But a Jew doesn’t like to penetrate and thrust.  He can’t assert himself in that way, so he resorts to these perversions….  So after a woman’s had a Jewish man, she’s ruined.  She never wants to be with a normal partner again.”  When Guy asks if that means the Jew is a better lover, Danny says it does not.  “I said he gives pleasure.  That’s actually a weakness.”

This notion that a Jew is essentially female goes with his views that Jews will not fight, because physical fighting tends to be a masculine trait.  As for this last remark that giving pleasure is a weakness, it is interesting that Danny’s girlfriend, Carla Moebius (Summer Phoenix), whom he met at the Zampf meeting, told Danny she wanted him to hurt her just before they had sex, and the next morning she had a bruise on her mouth.  I guess she is his kind of woman.

Danny continues, saying that the Jews control the media and investment banks, and “they carry out in those realms the exact same principles they display in sexuality.  They undermine traditional life and they deracinate society.  Deracinate.  Tear out the roots.  A real people derives its genius from the land, from the sun, from the sea, from the soil.  That is how they know themselves.  But Jews don’t even have soil.”  Guy makes the obvious objection that Jews in Israel have their own soil, their own country, but Danny responds that the Israelis are not Jews.

If we balked at the notion that Jews will not fight, Danny’s declaration that Israelis are not Jews seems preposterous.  However, this is not the first time I have heard this claim.  Most notably, Robert Ardrey’s The Territorial Imperative is, not surprisingly, a book about the importance that territory plays in the behavior of many animals, including man.  He argues that Jews are not a race the way Caucasians or Negroes are, but are a group of people distinguished by their lack of territory.  Once they acquired territory, the citizens of Israel ceased to be Jews.  According to Ardrey, people in Israel are different in every way from the Jews of the Diaspora:

It is not just physique.  It is posture, a manner of walking, a manner of speaking, a manner of thought.  The “Jewish personality” has vanished, replaced by that of the Israeli, a being as confident, as resolute, and as willing to do battle as a roebuck on his wooded acres.  You go to a party in Tel-Aviv and someone asks the inevitable question, “How do you like Israel?” and you answer, “Fine.  But where are the Jews?” And the party goes off into the greatest laughter, for it is the nation’s joke.  [p. 286]

The fact that Ardrey and Danny are in agreement does not mean they are right, of course.  But the point is that as bizarre as Danny’s claim that Israelis are not Jews seems to be, it is not unique to him.  If it is an instance of the no true Scotsman fallacy, it is apparently a common one.

Danny continues with this line of reasoning: “Notice the Israelis.  It’s fundamentally a secular society.  They no longer need Judaism because they have soil.  The real Jew is a wanderer.  He’s a nomad.  He’s got no roots and no attachments, so he universalizes everything.  He can’t hammer a nail or plough a field.  All he can do is buy and sell and invest capital, manipulate markets.  And it’s, like, all mental.  He takes the life of a people rooted in soil and turns it into a cosmopolitan culture based on books and numbers and ideas.  You know, this is his strength.”

When Danny said at the meeting that the Jewish disease was the disease of abstraction, we may not have understood what he meant, but the above quotation gives us a fuller sense of what he was driving at.  He continues:  “Take the greatest Jewish minds:  Marx, Freud, Einstein.  What have they given us?  Communism, infantile sexuality, and the atom bomb.  In the three centuries it’s taken these people to emerge from the ghettos of Europe, they’ve ripped us out of a world of order and reason, thrown us into class warfare, irrational urges, relativity, into a world where the very existence of matter and meaning is in question.  Why? Because it’s the deepest impulse of a Jewish soul to pull at the very fabric of life till there’s nothing left but a thread.  They want nothing but nothingness, nothingness without end.”

The reporter is awed by the intricate weaving of ideas that Danny puts forth, but then asks him how he can believe all this when he is a Jew himself, something he discovered in the course of his investigations.  Danny becomes angry, threatening to sue Guy if he publishes that.  He sticks a pistol in Guy’s mouth and says he will kill himself if he prints that.  His anger is in part that he is ashamed of being a Jew, but it is also in part that he is still struggling with his Jewishness, with his affinity for the Jewish race.  His threat to commit suicide is a harbinger of what is to come.

In the earlier scene where Danny tried to get the Jewish boy to hit him, I argued that this was more than a bully’s dare.  It was, in a strange way, a desire to help the boy, to get him to fight.  Danny hates the Jew, but he also loves the Jew.  This struggle against his Jewishness becomes clearer as the movie progresses.

After deliberately provoking a fight in a kosher restaurant by making fun of the dietary laws, Danny and his friends are ordered by the judge to undergo sensitivity training.  They listen to some survivors of the holocaust tell their stories.  A man tells of how a Nazi soldier bayoneted his three-year-old son right in front of him.  While Danny’s friends are sitting around with looks of insolence on their faces, we see, just barely, the moisture in Danny’s eyes.  He is clearly distressed by the story.  He berates the man for not fighting back against that soldier.  As he does so, his hands move across his face, as if to surreptitiously wipe the tears away.  A Jewish woman argues back, saying he would have been killed.  Danny replies that death would have been better than surviving with the memory of having done nothing.  Again the woman challenges that, quite effectively, pointing out that it is easy to talk like a hero, but braver men than Danny were broken by the Nazis.  Danny gets up saying that he and his friends have nothing to learn from the holocaust survivors, that they should be learning from Danny and his friends, to kill your enemy.

Throughout the movie, Danny has done more than talk about killing Jews.  He has been planning something, either an assassination or a bombing.  He and his friends break into a synagogue and begin trashing the place.  As they start to plant a bomb, someone discovers a Torah Scroll.  Danny becomes protective of it, while his friends want to desecrate it.  After they spit on it, tear it, and stomp on it, Danny carefully rolls it back up.  Somewhat later, as he carefully and lovingly tapes the torn part of the scroll back together, he fantasizes about being the Nazi soldier who bayoneted the child.  I’d say this guy is pretty mixed up.

When the bomb fails to go off, a Rabbi on television explains that the power cell in the timer gave out thirteen minutes before it was set to explode.  He goes on to say that once again God intervened to save the Jews.  He begins elaborating a kind of mystical doctrine in which God has thirteen attributes, the highest of which means “nothingness without end.”  When we heard Danny say, in the interview with Guy, that Jews want nothingness without end, many of us might have thought this was just part of his strange theory, but this statement by the Rabbi indicates that much of Danny’s thinking is based on his scholarly knowledge of Judaism.

At the Zampf meeting, Danny had talked about killing Ilio Manzetti, a Jewish investment banker.  One of his friends, Drake (Glenn Fitzgerald), who is a sharpshooter, asks Danny if he wants to kill a Jew, who turns out to be Manzetti.  When Manzetti walks out of the synagogue, Danny aims and shoots, but misses.  Drake accuses him of doing it on purpose.  Then he discovers that Danny is wearing a prayer shawl beneath his shirt.  “Fucking kike!” he exclaims.  “I knew it.”  They fight over the rifle, and Danny shoots Drake in the leg and gets away.

There is another flashback to that day in school when Danny gave his interpretation of the meaning of God’s demand that Abraham sacrifice Isaac, which in some ways recapitulates the story of the Jew, his child, and the Nazi soldier.  As noted above, Danny had maintained that what really happened that day was that God did not substitute a ram at the last minute.  And just as Danny insisted that the Jew should have fought back against the Nazi, even if it cost him his life, so too does Danny think that Abraham should have fought back against God to protect Isaac.

Picking up where the last flashback left off, Danny continues, “The whole Jewish people were permanently scarred by what happened at Mount Moriah.  And we still live in terror.”  When a fellow student says that fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, Danny replies, “Fear of God makes you afraid of everything.  All the Jews are good at is being afraid, at being sacrificed.”  Someone asks if he even believes in God, to which Danny replies, “I’m the only one who does believe.  I see him for the power-drugged madman that he is.  And we’re supposed to worship this deity?  I say, ‘Never!’”  The teacher tells a student to go get Rabbi Springer to remove Danny from the class.  He then turns to Danny, saying that if Danny had come out of Egypt, God would have destroyed him in the desert with all those who worshipped the Golden Calf.  “Then let him destroy me now,” Danny replies defiantly.  “Let him crush me like the conceited bully that he is.”  He looks up, as if at God in Heaven, and says, “Go ahead.”  We next see Danny running from the classroom, going down the stairs, symbolically suggesting his descent into the world anti-Semitism, into hate, into Hell.

Carla’s mother, Lina Moebius (Theresa Russell), and Zampf have decided to launch an intellectually serious fascist movement, and they want Danny to give speeches to help with the fundraising, rather than get involved in assassinations or bombings, because, as Lina says, they already have enough thugs.  He likes the idea, but he is disturbed both by the idea that he is an intellectual and by the idea of fundraising, presumably because he thinks of intellect and money as Jewish concerns.  In fact, he is so disturbed that he rushes outside and throws up.

Carla follows him outside, and starts kissing him.  Kissing someone who has just vomited is disgusting, and nothing like it has ever been seen in a mainstream movie before or since.  In the interview with Guy, we recall that Danny said that oral sex was a perversion, and sexual perversion is something Danny associates with Jews.  We have already seen that Carla likes Danny to hurt her during sex, and on a previous occasion, she invited him to her room, telling him to come to her window at midnight.  When he got there, she was humping on Zampf.  While Danny watched, she looked right at him and had an orgasm.  So, we have masochism, exhibitionism, and scatology (of a sort).  Presumably this represents another conflict of emotions for Danny in his sexual relationship with a perverted Gentile girl.

Danny gives a speech in front of a handful of people, most of whom admit to being anti-Semites.  Danny begins by posing a question as to why we hate the Jews.  “Do we hate them because they push their way in where they don’t belong?  Or do we hate them because they’re clannish and keep to themselves?  Because they’re tight with money, or because they flash it around?  Because they’re Bolsheviks or because they’re capitalists?  Because they have the highest IQs or because they have the most active sex lives?”

His audience is undoubtedly confounded by this, because he makes it clear that the reasons people give for not liking Jews are inconsistent.  He continues, “You want to know why we hate them?  Because we hate them.  Because it’s an axiom of civilization, that just as man longs for woman, loves his children, and fears death, he hates Jews.  There’s no reason.  And if there were, some smart-assed kike would try to prove us wrong, which would only make us hate them more.  And really, we have all the reasons we need in three simple letters:  ‘J,’ ‘E,’ ‘W.’ ‘Jew.’  You say it a million times, it’s the only word that never loses its meaning.”  Danny’s views seem to vacillate between giving reasons for hating Jews, such as that they won’t fight or they like abstractions, to saying that the hate is more fundamental than the reasons, which really don’t matter.

In the next scene, we see Danny talking to an investment banker who is willing to give a thousand dollars to the Zampf group, on account of an article that Danny wrote.  He advises Danny to forget about all that stuff about the Jews, not because the banker disagrees with Danny’s anti-Semitism, but because it just doesn’t play any more.  “There’s only the market,” he says, “and it doesn’t care who you are.”  When Danny says that people still need values and beliefs, the banker replies, “No, they don’t.  Not the smart ones.”  The banker agrees to give Danny as much as five thousand dollars, but adds, “When you fall off this horse, come see me.  I could show you how to make a lot of money.”

Danny says, “You’re a Jew.  You may not realize it, but you are.”

The banker shrugs.  “Maybe I am.  Maybe we’re all Jews now.  What’s the difference?”

And so, this banker is Danny’s opposite number.  Whereas Danny is a Jew who has become an anti-Semite, this investment banker is an anti-Semite who has become a Jew.  In a similar way, Carla, who has figured out that Danny is a Jew on account of his obsession with Jews, is becoming Jewish herself, learning Hebrew and wanting to observe the Sabbath.

Danny runs into some old friends of his, who are Jewish, and he is invited to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with them at a synagogue.  When he gets there, he gets into a heated argument with Avi (Judah Lazarus), with whom he used to argue all the time at school.  Avi accuses Danny of being a fascist, saying he thinks “Jews are wimps.”  When he says Danny is a Jewish Nazi, Danny replies that Avi is a Zionist Nazi, that Zionists acts like Stormtroopers.  A woman standing nearby asks, “And you hate them because they’re wimps or because they’re Stormtroopers?”  It is the very thing Danny warned about in his speech, the contradictory reasons people give for hating Jews.  In fact, there are cross-currents of inconsistency running back and forth through this movie too numerous to mention them all.  And the inconsistencies point back to Danny’s more fundamental point, that the hatred of the Jews is irrational, and reasons are something people struggle to come up with to make sense of their hatred.

The speech that Danny gave making this point was to an audience casually dressed, who appeared to be working class.  But following the scene at the synagogue, Danny is back at Lina’s house, which is filled with well-dressed people, “right-wing money,” as Lina puts it.  She has hopes that Danny’s speech will be what it takes to really get the movement going.

Danny gets before the crowd and begins singing a Jewish prayer.  He then explains why he did so:  “Who wants to destroy the Jews?  Who wants to grind their bones into the dust?  And who wants to see them rise again?  Wealthier, more successful, powerful, cultured, more intelligent than ever?  Then you know what we have to do?  We have to love them.  ‘What!  Did he say, “Love the Jews?”’  It’s strange, I know.  But with these people, nothing is simple.  The Jew says all he wants is to be left alone to study his Torah, do a little business, fornicate with his oversexed wife.  But it’s not true.  He wants to be hated.  He longs for our scorn.  He clings to it, as if it were the very core of his being.  If Hitler had not existed, the Jews would’ve invented him.  For without such hatred, the so-called Chosen People would vanish from the Earth.  And this reveals a terrible truth and the crux of our problem as Nazis.  The worse the Jews are treated, the stronger they become.  Egyptian slavery made them a nation.  The pogroms hardened them.  Auschwitz gave birth to the state of Israel.  Suffering, it seems, is the very crucible of their genius.  So, if the Jews are, as one of their own has said, ‘A people who won’t take “Yes” for an answer,’ let us say ‘Yes’ to them.  They thrive on opposition.  Let us cease to oppose them.  The only way to annihilate this insidious people once and for all is to open our arms, invite them into our homes, and embrace them.  Only then will they vanish into assimilation, normality, and love.  But we cannot pretend.  The Jew is nothing, if not clever.  He will see through hypocrisy and condescension.  To destroy him, we must love him sincerely.”

It is clear that this is not something that Danny has believed all along, but has only recently concluded as the last, logical, inexorable step in his philosophy.  If it is the essence of the Jew to be hated, as Danny has claimed, then only love will destroy him, will deprive him of the very thing he needs to be Jewish.  It also represents the synthesis of Danny’s own psychological struggle, the fact that he both hates and loves the Jew.

Danny has always been more than just the typical anti-Semite, has always taken things beyond what his audience is used to, starting when he was just a student in school; but this speech is so paradoxical and confusing to his audience that he starts losing them.  Guy, the reporter, moves forward through the crowd, for he is the one person in the room who is able to follow Danny’s reasoning.  He asks Danny if this destruction of the Jew through love would not make the Jew more powerful than he already is.

Danny answers, “Yes.  Infinitely more.  They would become as God.  It’s the Jews’ destiny to be annihilated so they can be deified.  Jesus understood this perfectly.  And look what was accomplished there with the death of just one enlightened Jew.  Imagine what would happen if we killed them all.”  With that, Danny suggests they accompany him in the Jewish prayer with which he began.  But, of course, the people in the room are leaving bewildered.

Lina is furious with Danny and wants him out of the organization, but she is interrupted by Zampf to come look at a news report that Manzetti has been assassinated.  Danny has been bothered for some time that he only talks about killing Jews but has never actually killed one.  He knows Drake was the assassin, and what really bothers him is that others suspect Danny did it, rubbing it in that it was not him.  And so, he reverts to hate.  And because the newspaper shows a picture of him as a boy and reveals that he is Jewish, his hatred becomes suicidal.

Danny and his friend plant a bomb in the pulpit of a synagogue timed to go off during Neilah, a service for Yom Kippur.  His friend tells him that the pulpit has been reinforced, which will inhibit the outward blast, but Danny says that all that matters is that the pulpit be destroyed.  Because Danny earlier said that he intended to daven, to recite the liturgical prayer at the service, it is beginning to look as though Danny intends a mass-murder-suicide.  When he arrives at the synagogue, he not only sees the people he was arguing with on Rosh Hashanah, but also Carla, who refuses to leave the service.  As he sits behind Carla, he again imagines himself as the Nazi bayoneting the child, but also imagines that he is the child’s father, who then attacks the Nazi, effectively struggling with himself as both Jew and Nazi.

Danny davens as he said he would, but as the clock approaches the designated time, he has a change of heart, telling everyone about the bomb and to get out of the room.  He remains at the pulpit, recalling the day in school when he defied God to destroy him.  And then the bomb explodes.  In the last moments of his life, he sees himself back at school as an adult, only this time climbing the stairs instead of descending.  His teacher tells him that maybe he was right, that Isaac was killed on Mount Moriah, but then was reborn in the world to come.  But Danny keeps ascending without really knowing toward what, toward nothingness.

When Is a Religion Not a Religion?

When is a religion not a religion?  When you are an idealist.

The distinction between idealism and realism can be understood in many different ways, but in its most ordinary sense, an idealist understands the world in terms of how things ought to be, whereas the realist understands the world as it really is.

Let me begin with an example from my youth, the attitude toward rock and roll during the 1950s. I remember a lot of people who did not like rock and roll saying that it was not music. Sometimes they would soften this bald assertion with a qualifier, by saying, “Rock and roll is not really music,” thereby acknowledging that it had some of the features normally associated with music, in that sounds were produced with musical instruments, but that these sounds nevertheless did not rise to the level of actually being music.  At the time, I thought this was rather a strange way of talking.  I wondered why they did not simply say that it was bad music if they did not like it, rather than that it was not music at all.  Of course, one could go further and say that it is just a matter of taste, but that is a tangential point. What is important is that those who said rock and roll was not music were idealists.  They had a conception of music that was more important to them than the particular instances of music one finds in the world.  And if some of those instances did not measure up to that conception, they were not worthy of the name.  Realists, on the other hand, figure that music is whatever they find it to be, and while some of it is good, some of it is bad.

Sometimes the idealist takes the first instance of a thing in his experience to be its essential nature.  The first musicals I ever saw were Oklahoma! (1955) and The King and I (1956), for such musicals were quite popular in the 1950s. As a result, anyone my age who is an idealist is likely to take such movies as defining instances.  Years later, when I watched Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), I could see that this was a different kind of musical, and I subsequently learned that it is referred to as a backstage musical, where the music takes place on stage or during rehearsals, as opposed to expressionist musicals, where disembodied orchestras accompany people singing and dancing in ways never found in real life.  Rather than make this simple distinction, however, I have known people my age who, like me, were exposed to expressionist musicals in their youth, and who insist that backstage musicals were not really musicals.  Had they seen the backstage musicals first, they would doubtless have said that it was the expressionist musicals that were really not musicals.

But first instances do not always determine the ideal.  In matters of love, for example, early instances of this passion are usually short-lived and somewhat painful.  But the idealist does not take this first experience of love to be its essence.  When he gets older, he says it was not really love, not true love, but just puppy love.  In this case, the idealist separates the part about love that he likes from the part he does not like.  Then he purifies it some more by saying that true love never dies, and that it is devoid of all selfish feeling.  By the time he gets through with it, he begins to find that love is rare, and if he goes too far down this path, he will become disillusioned and say that there really is no such thing.  He would rather deny that love exists than forsake the ideal conception he has of it.  A realist, on the other hand, figures that love is what he finds it to be.  The world is full of love, as far as he can see, and while some of it is good, some of it is bad.  Sometimes love is selfless, but sometimes love is quite selfish.  Sometimes love lasts and sometimes it doesn’t.

The perennial question as to whether men and women can be friends breaks along the divide between idealist and realist.  The idealist purifies friendship so much that it scarcely exists between those of the same sex, let alone between the opposite sex, where sexual desire can be disruptive in one way or the other.  As a result, he is likely to conclude that men and women cannot be friends.  The realist, on the other hand, finds a world full of friendships between men and women, and he simply notes that such friendships are a little more tenuous on account of the ways in which sex can intrude.

As indicated in these examples, an idealist is likely to use words like “true” and “really,” to distinguish his pure conceptions of things from what might appear to be counterexamples.  It is the idealist who is most prone to commit the no true Scotsman fallacy.  An example of this fallacy would be a situation in which a person says, “All Scotsmen are thrifty.”  When someone points out that Duncan is a Scotsman but is not thrifty, the person who made the original generalization says, “Well, Duncan is no true Scotsman.”  The person who commits this fallacy cares more about his idea of what a Scotsman is than the actual facts of the matter, and that is characteristic of an idealist.  He reifies his idea of a Scotsman as an essence, which a person must have to be a true Scotsman.  A realist, by way of contrast, would admit that Duncan is an exception to the rule and modify his original claim, perhaps by saying, “Most Scotsmen are thrifty.”

Last year (September, 2014), during President Obama’s address to the nation explaining the need to go to war against ISIL (to use his preferred acronym), he made a point of declaring that ISIL was not Islamic:  “No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim,” he said.  Considering that Obama’s own religion of Christianity has a long history of doing precisely that, beginning with Joshua’s genocidal slaughter of every man, woman, child, infant, and assorted animals in the Promised Land, what are we to make of this claim?

The idealist begins with his own religion, purifies it, and makes this the standard against which all others are measured.  If they do not live up to his ideal conception, then they are not really religions.  The realist looks at history and present variations of religious faith, and he accepts that there are all sorts of religions, many of which he may regard as evil. And so, given this distinction, it is clear that Obama is an idealist.  He prefers to say that the ideology espoused by ISIL is not a religion, that it is not Islam or a sect or even a version of Islam.

But there must be more to it than that.  In an important fifteen-minute speech to the nation as to why we are going to war, he felt it necessary to express his idealist position that ISIL was not a religion, when he need not have brought the subject up at all.  In all likelihood, he wanted to avoid the characterization of this being a religious war, in part to protect Muslims in this country against discrimination and violence, and in part to mollify the nations of the Middle East that might be a little sensitive in this matter.

If so, there may be an unfortunate consequence in refusing to recognize the religious nature of  ISIL.  One of the disadvantages of being an idealist is that the failure to recognize the way the world is can lead to a serious miscalculation.  Let us reconsider an earlier example.  It may not matter much what people say about music and musicals, but in matters of love the idealist is more likely to be made miserable by love than the realist.  When a marriage results in divorce, the idealist may blame his wife or he may blame himself, but he never blames love.  As a result, he only learns that he should never have married her, not that he should never have married at all. Furthermore, by expecting more from love than is actually found in the world, the idealist is more likely to be disappointed.

By not recognizing that ISIL is religious in nature, we are underestimating what we are going up against. It is precisely because the members of ISIL are religious that they are so dangerous.  We may prevail against ISIL in this war simply because we are so powerful, but one thing we lack is their total commitment. I do not know whether Joe Scarborough, the host of Morning Joe, is an idealist, but I suspect he shares Obama’s view about ISIL not being religious in nature from what he has said on several occasions.  In particular, he has expressed amazement at the way these terrorist groups never seem to learn that when they anger Americans by attacking us, we end up destroying them. To me, the answer is obvious. They do it because they believe that they are carrying out the will of Allah. If we kill them, they die as martyrs, and they will be honored in Paradise.

I say this without irony.  They do not only half believe the way most people do, including, I suspect, Joe Scarborough and President Obama.  They believe completely, and with a faith so strong that we here in secular American can scarcely appreciate.

A long time ago, Fox News instituted the practice of refusing to use the expression “suicide bomber,” a policy I assume is still in place.  Instead, people who blow themselves up in a marketplace are referred to as “homicide bombers.”  The first thing that is striking about this is that the word “homicide” really adds no information to the word “bomber,” except perhaps to keep us from thinking about an airplane.  People who use bombs invariably kill people, or at least intend to.  Maybe in a movie like The Fountainhead (1949), Howard Roark can blow up a building without hurting anybody, but that is strictly a fictional fantasy.  The word “suicide” used to modify the word “bomber,” on the other hand, adds a great deal of information.  Someone who is willing to die to in order to detonate a bomb is far more dangerous than someone who is willing to set off the bomb provided he stands a fair chance of surviving.  Presumably, Fox replaced this very useful adjective “suicide” with the redundant “homicide” because they wanted to emphasize the harm that is caused to others, but in so doing, they suppress the much more important fact that these suicide bombers truly believe in their cause, believe that they have right on their side, believe that Allah will be pleased.

I am sadly one of the very small minority that is opposed to this war.  But if fight we must, it would be nice if we were a little more realistic about the nature of the enemy, an enemy who cares more about what they are fighting for than we do, because they are fighting a war of religion.