Monday, July 5, 2010

The Collection Project: The Infinite

.It would be inaccurate to claim that there's much in the way of aesthetic or philosophical overlap with Mean Streets (d. Martin Scorsese) and The Exorcist (d. William Friedkin) beyond the fact that the driving creative force behind each was raised to be pretty damn Catholic. The force behind Mean Streets is obviously Scorsese, and this film, while the most explicitly religious of his works outside of The Last Temptation of Christ, finds him struggling with his church, to the point where his alter ego, Charlie Capa (Harvey Keitel) kicks things off by saying that prayers and gospels are "just words", and that they don't mean anything to him. Meanwhile, in Friedkin's film, the force is not Friedkin -- though the man does a brilliant job -- but rather William Peter Blatty, author of the source novel and the screenplay. Blatty's the force here because it's his faith up there on screen, and he believes in the truth of Catholicism, and of the power of the words that Charlie can no longer use, enough to cover the cast and crew of both films. Where Blatty and Scorsese/Charlie might agree most strongly is in the idea expressed by Charlie at the very beginning of Mean Streets: "You don't make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets, you do it at home." The concept of making up for your sins at home is one that, in The Exorcist, Blatty positively runs with.
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Both films came out in 1973, which is a coincidence not worth making a hell of a lot from, but this was the post-"Is God Dead?" era (which we're still in, as far as I can tell). That 1966 Time Magazine article found its definitive film just two years later, when Roman Polanski made Rosemary's Baby (from Ira Levin's 1967 novel, to which Polanski was slavishly faithful, so more credit to Levin), which is, of course, like The Exorcist, a horror film. Prior to writing The Exorcist, Blatty was primarily known as a comic novelist (John Goldfarb, Please Come Home!, Which Way to Mecca, Jack?) and screenwriter (A Shot in the Dark). The fact that this life-long practicing Catholic found the best expression not only of his sincere faith, but of his belief in mankind's essential decency, in a particularly shocking and transgressive horror story is, I'm going to say, interesting.
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But that's what The Exorcist is, however many people wish to psychoanalyze Blatty and Friedkin by claiming the film is really about man's (small "m") fear of female puberty and sexuality. By which I don't mean that Regan McNeil's (Linda Blair) age and gender were chosen by throwing darts at a board, but this reading of the film seems to not only want to treat the film's ending as meaningless or abitrary, but to pretend that Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) and Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) have no function in the story at all. The still-shocking obscenities in The Exorcist are meant to show the corruption not only of Regan's innocence, but the natural growth that her puberty is bringing forth, as well. Blatty and Friedkin don't see her pending womanhood as terrifying -- they view the unnatural exploitation of it by the demon as terrifying.
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And, in any case, those obscenities are not, finally, the point. The point -- if you want to boil the film down this small -- is the religious words and rituals that Charlie Capa in Mean Streets no longer finds meaningful. Because in The Exorcist they sure as shit have meaning, and it's Father Karras's realization of this, and the drive to perform the ultimate good that results in this realization, that is the point. (It's worth noting, by the way, that it was a fear of Blatty's intentions being misread that led him to construct the new edit of The Exorcist that hit theaters about ten years ago, a decision which, while I'm sympathetic to Blatty's motives, has to count as one of the worst director's cuts (well, producer and writer's cut, in this case) of a great film I've ever encountered.)
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Sacrifice at the level practiced by Karras at the end of The Exorcist is not something that Charlie Capa has in him. He doesn't even have it within him to go as far as the details of his story might require of him (as a Catholic, at least), which is a good deal less than is asked of Karras. As Christ figures go, Charlie is an interesting one. He doesn't even manage to die, for one thing, but he also is one of the few who actually, almost, sort of literally fancies himself as a Christ figure, or at least a Francis of Assisi figure. His problem, or one of them, is that the Church holds no power for him anymore. He can say the words, he can hear them, he can understand what they mean, and he can even wish they held the power for him they once did, but he knows how little impact they have in day-to-day life. If he doesn't have the backbone to be Karras, he also doesn't have a demon like Pazuzu up in his face, removing all doubt and ambiguity.
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Where Karras had a possessed girl named Regan to protect, Charlie has Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) and Teresa (Amy Robinson). Johnny and Teresa are cousins; Johnny is Charlie's best friend, and Teresa is Charlie's lover. Charlie and Johnny are both low-level gangsters, and Johnny owes three thousand dollars to...oh, let's just go ahead and call them money lenders. Johnny never pays up, and his arrogant, reckless attitude about his situation taints Charlie by association, but Charlie still believes it's his role -- specifically as a Catholic -- to protect him. It's also his duty to protect Teresa, who has not only also been tainted by her connection to Johnny, but is sneered at throughout the neighborhood because she's epileptic. Though she hardly fits the literal definition, Teresa would represent the "lame" of the Bible that Jesus cared for. As for Johnny, I don't know off-hand what term the authors of the Bible used in place of "stupid asshole", but I'm sure there's something in there for him, too.
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The problem is, for all his big talk ("I'm doing my best, Lord"), Charlie isn't actually willing to do that much for these people. He's cagey about his relationship with Teresa, and doesn't defend her when his uncle runs her down. And speaking of which, Johnny frequently points out to Charlie that if he'd just speak to that same uncle, who has the power to quash Johnny's debt, all this would be over. But because Charlie is working to open his own restaurant with his uncle's help, and because his uncle despises Johnny, Charlie won't do it.
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Charlie does small things. He gives Johnny a few bucks to put towards his debt, or -- for the common good this time -- apologizes to a cleaning woman Teresa has just been rude to. Beyond that, though, he has very little to offer. Sacrifice is beyond him. True suffering for the betterment of anybody is something he cannot bring upon himself. How many of us can? But it's still interesting to see Charlie testing his ability to deal with Hellfire -- which he does view as a potential fate -- by sticking his fingers over open flames, only to pull them back immediately, and then watch Father Karras hurl himself through a window, his shattered body tumbling to a rest on M Street. Charlie believes, or at least hopes, he can be a better person, one who walks in Christ's footsteps, but he never really tries very hard. Since the words in church lost their power, it became easier for him to ignore the little evils around him, like Michael (Richard Romanus), the friend to whom Johnny owes his money, or even the little evils of a guy like Johnny himself. Karras had a big evil to face and snap him around, but Charlie could have gotten there, too, in his own way, if he'd only looked a little closer, and tried a little harder.
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14 comments:

Neil Sarver said...

The Catholicism has always kept me from fully engage with The Exorcist. I just don't understand or empathize with it, and the movie so wholly wants me to see it as Real, I just can't suspend my disbelief.

I loved Mean Streets back in the day I was fascinated with religion and religiosity. These days I'm largely indifferent to it. I'm not sure how I'd take the movie in that context.

Greg said...

You don't exorcise Pazuzu in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. You do it in a possessed 12-year-old girl's bedroom. The rest is bullshit and you know it.

bill r. said...

But you don't have to see it as any more real than Dracula, or anything like that. I don't understand why this film should offer up any more of a barrier than other films of its type. Plus, I was raised Catholic, am sympathetic to the film's point of view, and I certainly do NOT believe in demonic possession.

bill r. said...

Hey, Greg, our comments are back! And now I've forgotten what I was going to say to you! OH WELL!

Neil Sarver said...

I've pondered why the Catholicism creates that barrier for me that I can't seem to cross with The Exorcist. Obviously there are many stories about things I find at least as implausible intellectually, such as your "Dracula" example, that I have no difficulty suspending my disbelief for.

In fact, when I wrote the comment, I considered pondering it again within it.

I know that I wasn't raised Catholic. However my paternal grandfather's family was Catholic, so occasionally as a child I would spend time with them over the weekend, which would involve attending mass. I always found it very confusing and off-putting.

In fact, I wrote my feature screenplay "The Hunt" to include a scene at a religious ceremony that I think was basically channeling that feeling. That sequences is basically the core of the (still) unfinished "Lakeside" short. But it's a feeling of being the "other" or among the "other".

However, even that explanation leaves me with something like Fulci's The Beyond, which for whatever reason does work for me, despite also using very Catholic imagery and even mythology to tell its story.

I suspect that there's something about the absolute earnestness of The Exorcist's use of it's Catholicism. I can't help feeling Blatty's belief that all of this makes sense and is plausible in some way.

Or that's what I've come up with so far...

Greg said...

I bet whatever you were going to say, Bill, it was witty as all fuck!

bill r. said...

I suspect that there's something about the absolute earnestness of The Exorcist's use of it's Catholicism. I can't help feeling Blatty's belief that all of this makes sense and is plausible in some way.

But isn't that a good thing? I don't mean that I expect you would or should believe in possession (which I know Blatty believes in, or at least did at the time), but in some ways isn't it better that Blatty is writing about something that truly means something to him, and taking it seriously -- as an idea, not as a fact -- rather than someone using some horror convention that they don't care anything about, outside of as a genre fan?

Greg - It was! As all fuck!

Neil Sarver said...

in some ways isn't it better that Blatty is writing about something that truly means something to him, and taking it seriously -- as an idea, not as a fact -- rather than someone using some horror convention that they don't care anything about, outside of as a genre fan?

This is a very interesting question.

On the one hand, I understand and agree that creating a believable story requires the creators commit to the "truth" of their stories, and this only seems to be more true of stories of the fantastic.

On the other, I can't, off the top of my head, think of an example of a story about a supernatural phenomenon that the creator unambiguously believes in that I like. There could be - probably are - exceptions that I'm not thinking of, but I'm guessing this means there aren't very many.

Perhaps it's that there's an evangelism to that approach where too many of them feel, to me, like they're trying to convince me of their belief outside of the context of reading or viewing experience.

Or maybe I'm jumping to conclusions and there's some other reason I don't connect to The Exorcist, and in my lack of connectivity, it's the Catholicism that I think about in my uninvolved state.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Man, Bill, you're really knocking them out of the park, lately! A great comparison of two movies few have ever thought to compare, but once you point it out, geez, they really do belong together. I especially like your critique of Charlie---much like Spike Lee's heroes, he becomes smaller the more we consider him (deliberately, I think).

bill r. said...

Neil - I guess my point isn't being made that well, and may not be worth making at all. But all I'm saying is, what Blatty believes shouldn't really matter. The fact that his seriousness about it should, though, and that's one of the things I like about it. On the other hand, another film with a similar approach to, say, Scientology, would turn me right off.

Fuzzy - Thanks so much. The truth is, I was talking to a friend about the two movies, because they came up randomly in a broader discussion, but were not otherwise directly related. I mentioned the Catholicism would make the two a good double-bill, and he said, "You should write about it!" I said "Okay", then thought "Oh shit." So I'm glad that rewatching MEAN STREETS actually yielded something, otherwise we wouldn't be here today. And what a tragedy that would be.

In that vein, yes, Charlie does not come off well when you really watch the film through a specifically Catholic filter. He's very weak, and kind of a giant hypocrite.

Bryce Wilson said...

Great post Bill, probably my favorite you've written.

Of course when a single post covers Catholicism, Martin Scorsese, and horror films, I'm pretty much fish in a barrel. Had you found a way to work Pastrami Sandwiches and Shiner Bock in there I would basically never have to read anything else ever.

Blatty actually returned to territory of Theological horror, earlier this year, with a book called Dimiter. Its not perfect, Blatty is many commendable things but a graceful writer he is not. But he has some interesting ideas at work in Dimiter, and its worth picking up. At least when it hits paperback.

bill r. said...

Thank you, Bryce. Also, I think pastrami sandwiches are good to eat, and you should drink Shiner Bock with them.

And I already picked up DIMITER, when it first hit stores. I was under the impression that it was NOT a horror novel, but more of a thriller. Am I wrong? That's what Blatty was saying about it, anyway. He specifically didn't want to mislead his fans into thinking this was a horror story.

Either way, I plan on reading it soon.

Bryce Wilson said...

Well I don't know if you'd call it a horror novel per se. But it definitely involves theological and supernatural on goings (I don't want to give too much away as alot of Dimiter's charm hinges on a few plot twists).

I'd be more inclined to call it a horror novel then a thriller. But its kind of just itself, which is why I like it.

bill r. said...

Then speak no more about it! I'll have a lot of time to read in about four weeks, so maybe I'll put DIMITER on deck.

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