I'm sure many cineastes had the same reaction to this week's box office list: cinema is now officially dead. The day Jackass: Number Two -- isn't it clever how the title is a reference to fecal matter? -- becomes the most popular film in America is the day each of us ought to give up and become plumbers. I'm talking all film critics, as well as Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, David Cronenberg, Steven Spielberg, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Wong Kar-wai, Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, Charlie Kaufman, etc. Throw in the towel, guys. It's over. It doesn't matter anymore. I'll meet you at the bar, and I'm buying the first round.
It gets worse: At the same time, the esteemed film critic/screenwriter/film director Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, etc.) has published a brand-new film canon in the most recent issue of Film Comment, and the news is not good. Schrader started out writing a book, but realized that film will no longer have a place in the 21st century and gave up after 20 or so pages. He does list his 60 great films for inclusion in the canon but (with the exception of Wong's In the Mood for Love) they're all products of the 20th century.
Yes, film art is gone. All you have to do is perform stupid stunts, point a video camera in that general direction, and you've got a classic.
So what shall we talk about today? I thought I would look at a couple of movies playing on 400 screens or less, two movies that illustrate an interesting concept: the religious liberal. Ann Coulter would have us believe that all liberals are "godless" (the title of one of her books), but the current cinema shows that that's not the case.
The first is Kevin Smith's Clerks II, currently playing on 68 screens with a respectable $24 million gross on its $5 million budget. To the best of my knowledge Smith has never definitively declared any kind of party affiliation or even an interest in politics, but given his love for comic books, poo-poo jokes and his radical questioning of religious issues, we can safely assume that's he's not particularly conservative.
But he is Catholic, and like Martin Scorsese, he has sometimes cinematically explored some personal issues surrounding Catholicism. His most rambunctious and potentially offensive film to date -- and to my mind his best -- is Dogma (1999). In this comedy, he posits a reformation called "Catholicism, Wow!" and suggests that God may in fact be a woman (one who looks shockingly like Alanis Morrisette). His plot also brings up the idea that Jesus may have had brothers and/or sisters (that Mary and Joseph, a married couple, presumably would have continued to have sex and more children during their lives) and that the Bible has purposely excluded certain Apostles because they were black (Chris Rock plays the "13th Apostle").
The very funny Clerks II is less overtly religious, but still enjoys messing around with certain sacred cows. Though the film overall has been very well received critically, some reviewers have complained about the half-formed religious suggestions in the film. Jay and Silent Bob (played by Jason Mewes and Smith) have recently found God, and now when they sell drugs, they also spread the Good Word.
Smith is clearly very spiritual himself, but is wary of the trappings of off-putting church behavior. He looks for other outlets -- funny ones -- to voice his feelings and ideas, but without seeming stiff or square in the process. It's perhaps this reluctance to behave like a religious person that keeps him from seeming like one.
While Smith's struggle either entertains or aggravates some, the reaction to him is nothing compared to what the incendiary new documentary Jesus Camp can cause. Jesus Camp is currently playing on 14 screens, and opening wider this weekend. Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, the film comes across as a vérité study of Pentecostal Children's Minister Becky Fischer and her young flock, who attend an annual summer camp in North Dakota. During the camp, Fischer preaches against the evils of abortion and Harry Potter and the children react with tears, speaking in tongues and cavorting on the floor. On the surface, Fischer claims no political agenda, but she's clearly training her flock to be full-fledged members of the new Religious Right; they even pray to a cardboard cutout of President Bush, and pray for a "lost" America to change its values back into the wholesome ones Fischer and her flock believe in.
But Fischer does not get the final word; Ewing and Grady interview an even more fascinating character, Air America DJ Mike Papantonio. Papantonio seems to embody that rarest of creatures: a spiritual, God-fearing man who also believes in an open mind and in questioning the status quo. He puts his faith in Jesus, and not in the Republican Party; the two do not automatically go together.
Take these two films, and combine them with two more spiritual lefties currently appearing onscreen, Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth (105 screens) and Bill Clinton in Wordplay (20 screens), and we almost have a full-fledged cinematic trend. What a revolutionary idea: God belongs to anybody who wants Him.
Maybe with Him on our side, we can someday get our cinema back.