Sunday, December 09, 2007

U.S. Bishops give Golden Compass a pass, and why we shouldn't.

AMERICAN PAPIST has an excellent critique of the move The Golden Compass

This post is rather long and is divided into two parts. If you want to skip down to my short essay on why I find this movie problematic, scroll down until you see the text bolded in red.

If you want my commentary on an advance review of the movie, read on:

CNS news hub introduces the USCCB's "much-awaited movie review of 'The Golden Compass', which they rate suitable for A-II: adults and adolescents. The story is being marketed primarily to children.

My comments and interspersed with parts of the review, which begins by praising the movie as a "lavish, well-acted and fast-paced adaptation" from "Philip Pullman's much-awarded trilogy, "His Dark Materials":

The film has already caused some concern in Catholic circles because of the author's professed atheism, and the more overt issue of the novels' negative portrayal of his (very much fictionalized) church, a stand-in for all organized religion.

The fact that the church described in the novels is "fictionalized" does not matter so much in this case. Pullman wrongly proposes his caricature of the Church not as caricature but as the actual reality.

Most moviegoers with no foreknowledge of the books or Pullman's personal belief system will scarcely be aware of religious connotations, and can approach the movie as a pure fantasy-adventure. This is not the blatant real-world anti-Catholicism of, say, the recent "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" or "The Da Vinci Code." Religious elements, as such, are practically nil.

Just because this movie is not the blatant real-world anti-Catholicism of the movies noted does not rule out the possibility that the Golden Compass may also be offensive for different, but significant reasons.

(As an aside, it's no surprise to find the "excellent voice work" of homosexual-activist/anti-Catholic British actor Ian McKellen as the the great polar bear. But who knows, maybe it's a slow time of the year.)

Even if Pullman's fanciful universe has a patchwork feel, with elements culled from other fantasy-adventure stories -- most especially "The Chronicles of Narnia" (a work Pullman disdains) -- there's hardly a dull moment, and the effects are beautifully realized, including the anthropomorphized creatures like the polar bears whose climactic fight is superbly done.

"Disdains" is a very sublimated way of describing Pullman's systematic, energetic rejection of C.S. Lewis's art and belief. To use a culinary analogy to make my point: if I only disdained domino's pizza I would not set out to create an alternative pizza that I marketed as better, more appealing and then insult anyone who still professed a preference for domino's pizza. Pullman more than disdains C.S Lewis, that's certain.

Whatever author Pullman's putative motives in writing the story, writer-director Chris Weitz's film, taken purely on its own cinematic terms, can be viewed as an exciting adventure story with, at its core, a traditional struggle between good and evil, and a generalized rejection of authoritarianism.

First of all, Pullman's motives aren't "putative", they are explicit and intentional. The traditional struggle of good and evil, and the rejection of authoritarianism, moreover, are warped in his storyline into an invective against the Church, again falsely attributing to it the attributes of "evil" and "authoritarian." Movies are cultural moments, and those who resist this movie are doing so to build up a culture of respect for the Catholic Church and in so doing militantly oppose those artists who insult and denigrate it. Correctly, I would argue.

There is, admittedly, a spirit of rebellion and stark individualism pervading the story. Lyra is continually drawn to characters who reject authority in favor of doing as they please. Equally, only by defying the powers that be, can a scientist like Lord Asriel achieve progress. Pullman is perhaps drawing parallels to the Catholic Church's restrictive stance towards the early alchemists and, later, Galileo.

Again, Pullman is not "perhaps drawing parallels." This is to grant him an absurdly-merciful benefit of the doubt. And since when do we support drudging up the hackneyed relationship between the Catholic Church and Galileo? Isn't that getting old? Even a cursory analysis of the myriad of circumstances that obtained in that controversy make it clear that focusing on a minor aberration in Church history does a disservice to the Catholic Church's vibrant, pervasive tradition of encouraging the sciences! Fair's fair.
The script also makes use of some of the occult concepts found in the books, such as the diabolically named "daemons" -- animal companions to each person, identified as their human counterpart's visible soul.Again, occult? daemons? visible souls? Such material in a children's book is a serious matter. A child's imagination is a precious thing that should be guarded carefully.

Will seeing this film inspire teens to read the books, which many have found problematic? Rather than banning the movie or books, parents might instead take the opportunity to talk through any thorny philosophical issues with their teens.

Clearly, it's absurd to argue that every child who sees this movie is in danger of losing their faith. Parents, however, are charged with the education and formation of their children. "Thorny philosophical issues" are constantly the proximate cause of genuine crisis among youth, and sometimes it's best to nip them in the bud, not buy popcorn and absorb them in vivid technicolor dolby surround at a theater.

The religious themes of the later books may be more prominent in the follow-up films which Weitz has vowed will be less watered down. For now, this film -- altered, as it is, from its source material -- rates as intelligent and well-crafted entertainment.

Intelligent, well-crafted entertainment is not an end in itself if it betrays fundamental human goods and divorces beauty from truth. The fact that New Line is evaluating the sustainability of these latter, presumably more offensive films based on the ticket sales of this first one further council a prudent consideration of whether one can support it. In essence, there is more at-stake here that artistic integrity.

Let me elaborate:

I've been thinking about the Golden Compass and trying to better formulate why I'm so opposed to it. I have not seen the movie, nor have I read the books. Here's what I came up with that might be helpful.

One could easily argue that movies are the contemporary medium of popular art. Within this medium, there are, I would submit, two great movie series vying for the imagination of the next generation. The Lord of the Rings, clearly, is the greatest. Second to that is the Chronicles of Narnia (the second film in that series, Prince Caspian, will be released in spring of '08). The authors of these two series are both brilliant intellectual Christians who employ fantasy in different ways to communicate transcendent truths about man, the world and God.

The production of these two series have provided a wonderful opportunity for a wider audience to familiarize themselves with stories long cherished by Christians in general and Catholics in particular. They are excellent tools for evangelization (and I don't meant that in a utilitarian sense), just look at the bevy of books they have prompted. Their beauty, and the richness of the worlds they create, lead towards truths concretely realized in the Christian revelation. They are "ours", and we are only too willing to share them with others.

Enter into this scene Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series. New Line Cinema, who is producing this series and also produced The Lord of the Rings, is explicitly in their advertisements attempting to draw a parallel between the two works (I blogged about that strategy here when I first heard about the Golden Compass, and stated my problems with it then). They claim it is a continuation of Tolkien.

Now, while Pullman does share in the same broad category of "fantasy" as Lewis and Tolkien, he is also at-odds with their more fundamental philosophical and religious worldviews. Pullman has been named the "anti-Lewis" for a reason. New Line Cinema may not realize it, but Tolkien and Pullman are not peas in a pod. In fact, they aren't even Jacob and Esau. They are more like Gandalf and Sauron, more like Aslan and Jadis.

The fate of our corporate "movie imagination" balances on the edge of a knife. Catholics, I think, realize without completely understanding why, that Pullman's movie is a danger to what has so fortuitously come about as a result of Hollywood's storyline vacuum - a vacuum filled so-far, and happily, with the accumulated wisdom and beauty of Tolkien and Lewis. Pullman is poised on the brink of entering into what has been so carefully assembled, and blast it to pieces. If I may be permitted a moment of cynicism, I suspected that the avowed anti-Lewis is content to see his series of books become the new cinematic anti-Narnia, and by extension, anti-LOTR.

I remain open to the possibility that I'm making too much of all this, but I can't shake the sense that part of building up a Catholic culture, in this instance, involves sedulously resisting the lure of His Dark Materials.


As a postscript, I am aware of the argument that any attempt to boycott or vocally criticize this movie will supposedly only play into the hands of those who want to see the film do well (a la The Da Vinci Code). At the same time, of course, I think it is important to inform Catholics and Christians about the true nature of this film. Many people simply don't know why it problematic because and it is not overtly anti-Catholic or anti-God. There is already a very large movement to boycott the film, and a brief look at the social networking site Facebook reveals literally hundreds of thousands of folks doing so. In other words, this little post is just a drop in the bucket. And we should also refuse to be marginalized from these public debates. That's a sure path to defeat.


Incidentally, my previous posts on this topic have been receiving a large influx of visitors from search engines who are looking for background on the claim that this movie is anti-Catholic. I've written this post in part as a service to those new readers who might not be aware of the issues involved. Towards that end, you should also consider my previous posts on this topic, which in turn include links to other good commentaries and sources:

*update 2: New Line Cinema uses favorable USCCB review to advertise in Catholic publications

*update: Catholic League slams USCCB for positive review of Golden Compass

*Actor Daniel Craig: "They sell Dan Brown now in the Vatican"

*Golden Compass author Philip Pullman calls critics "nitwits"

*The word is getting out about The Golden Compass

*The Golden Compass is pointing towards anti-Catholicism

*Related: Posts on Philip Pullman and other dark materials

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