The Exorcist: Finding Faith And Hope In The Fires Of Hell

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The opening scenes of The Exorcist take place in a pre-Saddam Hussein Iraq, far from the townhouse in Georgetown where the bulk of the movie is set. It’s a curious introduction; all the dialogue is in Arabic, and nothing really happens. A boy runs across an archeological dig and summons an elderly man. The man follows the boy back and unearths a medallion of St. Joseph, the patron saint and protector of the Catholic Church, bearing a Latin inscription that translates as “pray for us” (not the usual thing one finds in ancient archeological digs). Digging further, the old man pulls out a dirt encrusted figurine of a grotesque head. As he clears the dirt from the figure, his expression subtly changes from one of curiosity about the relic to one of dread. It is evident in his eyes that he recognizes what has been uncovered. The rest of this prologue follows the old man through the streets of Iraq. He takes a nitroglycerin pill for his heart, his hands shaking violently, as he makes his way. A one-eyed man hammers at an anvil. An elderly woman, dressed in black mourning clothes, nearly runs him over in her horse-drawn carriage. Finally, he arrives at an archeological site where two men with guns rush out and are dismissed by a wave of the man’s hand. A third man stands to the side, watching him with interest, but does nothing. Two dogs, one white with black spots and the other black with white spots, start to fight, snarling, growling, and snapping at each other in a brutal dance, while a third dog, also white, circles. The camera pulls back to a wide shot of the man standing on a promontory, face to face with a statue of a winged figure that shares the same grotesque visage as the figurine. The winds howls as the old man and the statue face each other like the last two pieces of a chess game. End scene.

It’s a master class in filmmaking, powerful, evocative, and disturbing. It says little (there isn’t a lot of dialogue in these first few minutes), but foreshadows much. These characters will all turn up later in different guises. Father Damien Karras is half-blind to his faith but still relentlessly hammering away as he seeks the truth. Chris McNeil is a helpless passenger in a life that’s careening out of control, mourning the living death of her daughter Regan. Regan’s physician and psychiatrist, and all they represent, rush to the scene but are summarily dismissed because their science is of no use here. Lieutenant William Kinderman, the policeman who is ever watchful, stands apart from the action, separated by his distance from the truth of what is happening in that Georgetown townhouse. Father Merrin, the old man in Iraq, the good man who is stained by sin, fights to the death with the demon Pazuzu, while Father Karras assists.

One of the things that makes The Exorcist so remarkable is this attention to imagery and symbolism. The sound of the demon leaving Regan is manipulated audio of pigs squealing, tying the scene to the Bible, where Christ exorcised a man by sending the demons into a herd of swine. Father Karras is considering leaving the priesthood as he and his bishop sit in a Georgetown bar, while the background music is “Ramblin’ Man” from the Allman Brothers. “I think I’ve lost my faith…I want out of this job,” says Karras as the song of a life on the road is turned into a prayer for understanding: “Lord, I was born a rambling man…/When it’s time for leaving/I hope you’ll understand.” Unsure of his faith and unsure of his role in the Church, Father Karras is literally running in circles, around a track, when he is first pulled into the orbit of the McNeils by Lieutenant Kinderman, the circumstances that will renew his faith and provide his ultimate redemption. But what really sets the film apart is that The Exorcist is a profound meditation on the battle of good vs. evil gussied up with gross out special effects, obscene language, and the most shocking visuals anyone had ever seen in a movie at that time (some of these visuals are still shocking over 40 years later).

Even more unusual for a horror film, or any film made after the 1950s, is that the good is represented unambiguously by the Catholic Church. There’s no ironic detachment, no Christian bashing. The heroes are not non-denominational ministers waving Bibles in the air and reading out-of-context quotes from the New Testament, or New Age clerics combining religions into a “spiritual” soup to defeat a non-specific agent of evil; the heroes are two Catholic priests, reading verbatim from the Catholic rite of exorcism and supported fully by the Church hierarchy. It’s a script that only a devout Catholic like William Peter Blatty could have written. There’s an ancient evil unleashed in the world, the ne plus ultra of evil, and the only thing standing in its way is the Catholic Church, armed with nothing more than an ancient ritual, holy water, communion wafers, and the compelling power of Christ. The parade of demonic horrors that is The Exorcist may be the most pro-Catholic movie ever made. Indeed, in her typically snooty review, the dyspeptic critic Pauline Kael called The Exorcist “the biggest recruiting poster the Catholic Church has had since the sunnier days of Going My Way….”

At the center of the movie is Jason Miller’s portrayal of Father Damien Karras, a Jesuit priest and psychologist. He’s burned out from listening to the confessions and troubles of his fellow priests. He’s racked by guilt because he’s living in Washington D.C. while his elderly mother is alone in New York. Miller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and stage actor in his first film role, plays Karras perfectly. It’s remarkable how tired he appears through the film, as if the weight of the world is on his shoulders. He doubts the idea of possession, at one point telling Chris that to get an exorcism you’d first need to get a time machine. Even when the Church hierarchy asks if he’s “convinced” the possession is genuine Karras responds, “No, not really” before explaining that his conclusion is based on a rational judgement of the criteria as indicated by the Church.

Karras is given the okay to aid in the exorcism, but the main role will be filled by Father Lancaster Merrin, last seen in the archeological ruins of Iraq. Max Von Sydow’s Merrin is quiet and gentle, but spiritually strong. He’s confronted this situation before, in an exorcism that “lasted for months” and “damn near killed him” according to the bishop, and knows what he will be facing. In his first meeting with Karras, Merrin gently but firmly rebukes the younger priest. Karras uses the language of psychology, explaining “the case”, and that the girl “is convinced” there are three entities inside of her. Merrin cuts him off: “There is only one,” he says. When Karras opines that he thinks he should explain the specifics of what he’s seen, Merrin is even more curt: “Why?” Psychology as an aid for the girl is useless. But psychology as a weapon for the demon is not. “The demon is a liar…but he will mix lies with the truth to attack us. The attack is psychological, and powerful.” That is certainly what the demon does to Karras, appearing to him in the guise of his recently departed mother, speaking in her voice, asking sadly why he left her. The appeal is to Karras’s guilt, and it shakes up the priest to the point where he can’t continue.

The battle at the heart of the movie is timeless. The modern gods of science and psychology are useless. The outcome of the fight is never really in doubt. The only question is whether or not the demon can stand long enough to achieve its purpose.

The film also differs from the rest of the genre in the reasons for the possession of young Regan McNeil. Horror films are filled to bursting with ghosts seeking vengeance, demons unleashed to kill as many people as possible and create as much havoc as they can, monsters avenging the destruction of their habitat, self-aware robots looking to overthrow their creators, and mad scientists out to rule the world. The demon’s motivation in The Exorcist is far more subtle, and far more profound. The demon is not seeking world domination. Its purpose is not to kill the possessed girl, though her death is a perfectly acceptable part of the desired outcome. The purpose of the demon is the eternal purpose of the Devil in Judeo-Christian theology: to tempt man away from God. When asked by Karras why this innocent child would be victimized this way, Merrin responds “I think the point is to make us despair. To see ourselves as animal and ugly. To make us reject the possibility that God could love us.” The target of the demon is not the girl; the target is God. The demon’s purpose is not carnage or dominion or, in fact, any earthly desire; it is to plant a voice in your head that makes you believe you are unworthy of God’s love and, thus, to sever the bond between God and His greatest creation. The demon does not seek to gain; it seeks to destroy humanity’s relationship with God. Once the break from God is accomplished, the demon succeeds. By casting people into the sin of despair and the rejection of God, the demon damns souls and undermines the meaning of the Crucifixion and Resurrection. The battle is between God and the Devil here: the little girl and the priests are merely pawns.

Part of the genius of The Exorcist is that it is a genuinely philosophical work about the nature of man and God, yet never fails to deliver all the shocks of a traditional horror movie. Whether it’s the swiveling head, the projectile vomiting, the poignant but still creepy words “help me” that appears on Regan’s torso, the sexualized desecrations in the church, or the demonic visage that intermittently pops into the frame for less than a second, The Exorcist‘s visual language is horrific and terrifying. The infamous scene of Regan masturbating with a crucifix (though a better description would be “stabbing herself repeatedly and brutally”) is one of the most disturbing scenes ever filmed. But even as the horrors escalate and grow closer together the film never strays from the humanity of the characters. Even Regan, devolved from a pretty pre-teen into a barely recognizable nightmare strapped to a bed, remains a little girl who is trapped inside of herself.

The Exorcist ends with hope, also an anomaly among the biggest horror films of the last fifty years, many of which end with evil triumphant (Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen) or with evil merely set back but still threatening (Halloween, The Ring, the endless string of Jason, Freddy, Pinhead, and Jigsaw movies). Too much recent horror fiction, in both books and movies, is nihilistic. Filmmakers and writers come up with ever more elaborate ways of killing off impossibly good-looking twentysomethings. There are three deaths in The Exorcist: one gruesome murder that is discussed but never seen, one natural death (also off-camera, but shown after the fact), and one Christ-like sacrifice that saves a girl and redeems a sinner. Compare this to over 40 lovingly detailed on-screen deaths in the five Final Destination movies, or the nearly 40 on-screen deaths in four Scream movies. In The Exorcist, the deaths advance the plot. In too many other horror movies, the deaths are the plot. It is the firm belief that good will triumph over evil, the unashamed celebration of Catholicism, the philosophical undertones, and the striking attention to imagery and symbolism that make The Exorcist a film of the first rank. Add in the relentless pacing, Oscar-worthy acting (Linda Blair, Jason Miller, and Ellen Burstyn were nominated…the film itself got ten nominations, winning one for Blatty’s script), a director at the peak of his ability, and the idea that even the worst horror can have meaning in the world, and you’ve got a classic.

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Elizabeth Taylor, RIP

The beautiful La Liz has died of congestive heart failure at the age of 79. In a medium filled with larger-than-life characters, Elizabeth Taylor more than held her own. Whether she was going shot-for-shot with Richard Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (and in real life, too) or providing a simple one-word voice for Maggie Simpson, Taylor was always the biggest and brightest star in the room.

She made more than her share of clunkers, and she had a tendency to say some really strange things in her later years, but her presence stands on its own. The headline on the Drudge Report says, simply, “The Last Movie Star.” I think that’s probably true.

Rest in peace.

When You’re Strange: A (Bad) Film About The Doors

For over 30 years, I’ve been a fan of The Doors. I was knee-deep into the band when the book No One Here Gets Out Alive was released and by the time I’d turned the last page I was well over my head. For a teenager, the wild tales of Jim Morrison’s excesses were like nectar. Morrison wasn’t simply a drug addicted drunk like Janis Joplin, he was a poet, a shaman. Or as the beginning of that first bio put it, “Jim Morrison was a god. At least a lord.”

The book, by Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugarman, became the boilerplate for all future Doors releases. And that’s too bad because now that my teenage years are behind me, I think the book is junk.

The problem is not that the book has errors, but that No One Here Gets Out Alive encased Jim Morrison in a mythology that is, at best, half-true.

From every page of the book, you can hear the authors screaming “Look at the tormented genius!” One doesn’t get the impression that Morrison had a really serious drinking problem; instead Morrison is portrayed as a Dionysian shaman who tests the boundaries of existence through a derangement of the senses. Well, no. He was a drunk and a drug addict, but mainly a drunk. He wasn’t testing boundaries any more than the guy I see on Park Avenue in the morning, staggering down the street with his pants around his knees.

But the book was a moneymaker, and it brought a renewed interest in the band…an interest that greatly profited Ray Manzarek, Robbie Krieger, and John Densmore.

Since the publication of Alive, there have been a score of books about the Doors, a boxed-set of rarities, remixed reissues, officially released bootlegs, a full-length feature film, concert films, a VH1 Storytellers episode featuring the surviving members and a rotating gaggle of lead singers, and even a tour featuring Ray, Robbie, and Ian Astbury doing his best, most shameless, Morrison impersonation. Most recently there is a 90-minute documentary narrated by none other than Captain Jack Sparrow himself, Johnny Depp.

Some of this material has been great. I’m very partial to the “Doors Collection” DVD that compiles their videos, Hollywood Bowl performance, and their interview/performance at PBS, along with backstage film footage. I also thought Ray Manzarek’s book Light My Fire and John Densmore’s book Riders On The Storm were both excellent. Stephen Davis’s biography of Morrison, Life, Death, Legend is one of his better books.

But for the most part, the Doors remain trapped in the amber that is No One Here Gets Out Alive, and that’s a pity. Somewhere out there, right at this moment, Ray Manzarek is telling the story of meeting Jim on Venice Beach. He is using the words “Dionysos” and “shaman” without the slightest trace of irony. Rather than the story being a celebration of the Lizard King’s lyrics, vocals, humor, and life it is the story of one man’s descent into alcoholic hell. In recent years, Manzarek has been more forthrightly stating that Morrison had a real problem and that drunken Jim was not a pleasant guy to be around. But all too often he couches his criticism in that No One Here Gets Out Alive myth that Morrison was a dark god testing the boundaries of human experience in his endless quest to break on through to the other side.

Which brings me to When You’re Strange: A Film About The Doors. Among Doors fans, there was a lot of hype around the Tom DiCillo-directed documentary since it promised lots of unseen footage and the cooperation of the surviving band members. It was all a sham.

The only remotely interesting thing about the documentary is the inclusion of clips from HWY, a short film made by (and starring) Jim Morrison. The footage from this film is pristine and oddly fascinating, but it in no way compensates for the fact that this is an otherwise dreadful documentary.

Clocking in at a paltry 86 minutes, the entire history of the band from formation to inglorious end is given less screen time than their incendiary first album gets in the Classic Albums: The Doors DVD (now, that’s worth watching). There are no interviews with anybody in the band or their extended entourage. Almost all the footage has appeared on other Doors-related DVDs and videos. Events are told out of sequence (the story of July 1969’s Soft Parade album is told before the story of the 1968 New Haven on-stage arrest and the March 1969 Miami incident). The narration by Johnny Depp is breathless and overheated, and the script he’s reading sounds like a first draft that was written in one weekend by someone whose only knowledge of the band came from a cursory reading of No One Here Gets Out Alive. Any Doors fan with a working knowledge of the band will be more than familiar with the story as it is presented here. Like their disappointing coffee table book The Doors By The Doors, this is Doors 101, an introductory class for a band that merits so much more. On the plus side, the footage of a hapless flight attendant asking the Doors if they’re a band “like the Monkees” is priceless.

One of these days, somebody will sit down with the surviving members of the Doors and force them to stop regurgitating the mythology. Yes, Jim Morrison was a drunk and a drug addict, but while he may have gone on stage three sheets to the wind, he wasn’t writing that way. Nobody writes good songs while inebriated. This is the Morrison I want to hear about: the poet, the songwriter, the music fan. I want to hear about the man, his sense of humor, his sober relationship with the other Doors. The Doors came out of an explosive era in rock music, but aside from their infatuation with Arthur Lee’s Love, the Doors seem to exist outside of the music scene. It’s almost impossible to get musicians to stop talking about music, but the Doors seem to talk about everything except music.

There’s a real human story behind this great band. It is not a tale of gods and lords, of shaman or Dionysian ecstasy. The story of the Doors is the story of four friends who were exceptionally good musicians, who wrote great songs, who rehearsed, who laughed together, who toured the world. Yes, the tales of drink and drugs, of arrests and outbursts of violence, are there, but these episodes of excess are not the whole tale, just part of the larger, human story. Hopefully there will be a documentary someday that will tell the whole story, not just the salacious parts.

The Dark Knight, Part 2: Holy Christ, Batman!

This will likely be a short entry because my thoughts on the subject are “shower thoughts.” That is, they popped into my head whilst taking a shower this morning and then got set aside by the rest of my day.

Spoilers galore.

It occurred to me that the three main characters of The Dark Knight can represent three archetypes. You’ve got the Caped Crusader as the Christ figure, Harvey Dent as Everyman, and The Joker as Satan.

The Joker is the key to this. Sure he creates plenty of mayhem, kills lots of innocent and not-so-innocent people, but these are red herrings. What the Joker really wishes to do is corrupt. He is the devil on your shoulder telling you that everything is nothing and nothing is everything, that the only truth that matters is what you want. He seeks to bring you down to his level, to prove that you (Man) are worthless, no better than He (Satan) is. He tempts and triumphs when people succumb to his temptation.

He tempts the Batman to kill him, and fails. He tempts a guard to beat him to a pulp and, when the guard succumbs to the temptation, The Joker escapes. He tempts the passengers of two ferrys to kill, and is horrified when the passengers listen to their better angels and do not kill their counterparts. In Jokerworld, the hostages are dressed as criminals, the criminals as doctors and nurses. Innocence is corrupted, evil hidden. Alfred’s line about the Joker wanting to see the world burn is telling. What the Joker wants to see is our world become his world…hellfire, it is.

Enter Harvey Dent as the Good Man. Here is the guy next door. He’s handsome, has a beautiful girlfriend, a great job, and he’s a moral crusader. He is the daytime’s version of Batman. In many ways, he’s a comic book character. Good, pure Harvey Dent.

But Harvey is Everyman, and Everyman has both goodness and evil inside of him. Harvey’s evil is deeply suppressed, but not so hidden that the nickname “Two-Face” doesn’t precede his transformation. Then through a terrible tragedy to his heart and soul (the death of his girlfriend) and an equally terrible tragedy to his physical presence (the searing of his face), he is pushed to the edge of the abyss. Now when he looks in the mirror he sees the two faces of Everyman. He sees his unscarred goodness, and a twisted, rotten visage that is way beyond the reach of plastic surgery. As Everyman would do, he agonizes.

Despite the rage coming from Harvey after his disfigurement, one can’t help but think that some intensive therapy and some reconstructive surgery would give him at least part of his life back. An angel on his shoulder, in the form of Lieutenant Gordon comes to see him and console him, to tell him that his life is not yet over, but Dent’s rage prevents him from hearing the message. Anger is one of the Seven Deadly Sins, and can prevent you from seeing goodness or God. Anger, lust, pride, gluttony, etc…they are spiritual blinders, and when we are spiritually blinded we are confused and weak.

Satan preys on confusion and weakness. Enter The Joker. When the Devil appears to Harvey Dent he does so as an Angel…a nurse. And in direct contrast to the rest of the movie, the Joker’s seduction of Harvey Dent is just that: a seduction, with just a hint of the madness lurking underneath. He doesn’t scream Harvey Dent into submission. He convinces Harvey Dent to embrace evil, to make the spiritual blindness permanent by becoming one with the anger. The Fall of Harvey Dent from a man of grace to Two-Face requires a savior.

Harvey Dent (Man) commits great evil. It is Batman who tells soon-to-be Commissioner Gordon that he (Batman) will accept the blame. Batman takes Two-Face’s sins onto himself and sacrifices his public image in order to give hope to Gotham (mankind).

Regardless (and this may just be an old English major’s rantings), The Dark Knight aspires to be so much more than a comic book movie. It largely succeeds.

The Dark Knight

I’ll get the obvious out of the way first. Heath Ledger was absolutely amazing as the Joker. Compared to Ledger’s performance, Jack Nicholson’s take on the premier Batman villain was a ludicrous showcase of ham fisted showboating, and with all due respect to Cesar Romero, the role of the Joker belongs to Ledger now and, likely, forever.

Also, there will be spoilers in this “review.”

Okay, that’s out of the way, although I’ll revisit it somewhat later.

Director Christopher Nolan successfully restarted the Batman franchise with the excellent Batman Begins a few years ago. He did it the way it should have been done: he pretended George Clooney was still on The Facts Of Life and that Jim Carrey had never been let anywhere near a green suit festooned with question marks. It was a Jedi mind trick of epic proportions: “There were never nipples on the bat suit.” And jeez, it worked. Christian Bale took over the role of Batman as if Michael Keaton was hamming it up in Beetlejuice: The Revenge.

The casting was perfect. For starters, Christian Bale is an actor. Michael Keaton is a character. Liam Neeson played the terrorist Ra’s Al Ghul with all of the understatement that Danny DeVito left in his trailer. The dude who played the Scarecrow was creepy and believable. He was NOT Howard Stern, who was rumored to be the man in the scarecrow mask for the aborted fifth movie in the original run. Not being Howard Stern is usually enough, but in this case the actor was excellent. His name escapes me, which probably means I won’t be on his Christmas card list, but I’m too lazy to go to IMDB right now. I write on the fly, you know.

But the tone of the first movie was darker and more serious. This was a movie based on a comic book, but the cast and crew treated it with respect. There’s the difference. The first series of Bat flicks had melted into an annoying goo of hammy acting and knowing winks at an audience the cast and crew assumed were all like Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons.

Now comes The Dark Knight, easily the greatest comic book movie ever made. The majority of the cast is lifted from the first movie, with the exception of Maggie Gyllenhaal replacing a way-too-young Katie Holmes. I’ll spare you the intricacies of the plot. The mob doesn’t like Batman and hire The Joker to do away with him. That will suffice. At it’s core, it is still a comic book, not Tolstoy.

Enter the Joker, the character that elevates the movie into something more. Unlike Nicholson’s take of the villain as a petty thief who takes a colorful chemical bath and then rises to become a crime boss, Ledger’s version is The Joker as Anarchist. In the original Tim Burton-helmed Batman, Joker wanted revenge against Batman. In Nolan’s hands The Joker wants “to see the world burn” as Alfred (Michael Caine) so eloquently puts it. He is not driven by profit. When he does get his hands on the Mob’s money he burns it.

What drives The Joker is the desire to see the rest of humanity brought down to his level. Ledger’s joker is possibly the most nihilistic villain ever to grace the silver screen. He doesn’t want to kill Batman. He wants to be killed by Batman. He seeks to force Batman to break his pledge against killing. In Joker’s world, humanity is fierce and animalistic, hiding under a thin veneer of civilization. Blow up a few buildings and watch the people turn on each other.

In the case of Gotham City’s crusading District Attorney and all-around good guy Harvey Dent (the excellent Aaron Eckhart), Joker succeeds. Kill his girlfriend, and horribly disfigure a guy while attempting to blow him up…well, you can certainly damage sanity. And by the time Dent ends up in the hospital he is clearly a man in whose sanity has been stretched. But it is when the Joker shows up at the hospital and reasons with Dent that the sanity snaps and Dent becomes the villain Two-Face (you won’t even remember Tommy Lee Jones’s version after this, I promise). In effect, the Joker finds the good guy when he’s seriously down, and convinces him to stay there. Then he blows up the hospital because that’s the kind of guy the Joker is. The fact that he does it while wearing a nurse’s uniform is more chilling. The fact that his remote control has a glitch and the Joker is clearly annoyed (not mad or hyperventilating, just annoyed) as he continuously hits the red detonation button is downright frightening. It is too bad that Two-Face will not be around for the next movie. Eckhart played him with the cool insanity that fits the role, not the leering, laughing hamminess of Jones.

The movie has much to say about humanity. The Joker is thwarted in his schemes but, more importantly, he fails to turn citizen against citizen. He even fails to turn hardened convicts against ordinary citizens. Joker is the Id writ large. He is the badass that many convicts pretend to be. But when face to face with anarchy, when confronted with a man for whom the truth is whatever he wishes it to be, when dealing with true madness, even the worst convicts suddenly realize the benefits of a system of law and order. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s a concept that seems beyond the limited intellect of those who sport the Anarchy “A” on their clothes, or those people who think that there are no objective standards of truth. These are people who have never looked The Joker in the eye.