Category Archives: film

Exorcist III: A Lengthy Consideration of Certain Points

(As the title warns, this is an unusually lengthy rumination on The Exorcist and the late William Peter Blatty’s self-directed movie sequel to his original novel.)

There seem to be quite a few misapprehensions about William Peter Blatty’s filming of his novelistic Exorcist sequel, Legion. This essay hopes, as best it can, to re-adjust some of the prevalent distorted takes on the film.

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1. The demon from The Exorcist – both the novel and the film – is definitely still active in the Exorcist III film – “he” is referred to by James Vennamun/the Gemini Killer (played by Brad Dourif) as “the Master…on the other side”, and also as a “certain party” who trapped Father Damien Karras in his own body, thus forcing the priest to watch as the Gemini mutilates and kills people who were involved in Karras’s earlier exorcism.  “…Oh…. Let’s call it revenge”, says the Gemini. All too frequently, viewers claim that they have no idea of who the demon is, whereas the screenplay makes it clear that it is the same demon of the original novel and film. “He” is out for revenge against Father Damien Karras, and others who were involved in the demonic possession of Regan MacNeil.

During the exorcism, the Gemini personality disappears and is fully replaced by the demon itself, who tells exorcist Father Paul Morning, “This time, you’re going to lose” (exactly what the same demon told Father Merrin in Blatty’s original Exorcist novel – and therefore a confirmation that we are dealing with the same demon), and who has been tormenting police lieutenant William Kinderman (played in the original by Lee J. Cobb, in the present production by George C. Scott). The demon indeed actually does emerge as itself alone at the climax of the film to taunt Morning and Kinderman. The demon still remains the supernatural villain of the piece, just as it did in Blatty’s original story and in the Blatty-Friedkin film.

2. Kinderman is always, only, seeing Karras’s/Miller’s face and body. Only the audience sees the Gemini/Dourif as Miller and Dourif alternately perform the role.

We know this because the Gemini asks Kinderman, “Look at me, Lieutenant, and tell me what you see”, and Kinderman replies, “I see a man who looks like Damien Karras”, to which Vennamun furiously replies that he is James Vennamun, the Gemini Killer. This is later confirmed because Kinderman requests a dental records-profile of Karras – whom he can see is the only physical entity in Cell 11.

So the film contains: Only one body, occupied at first by two personalities – Karras and the Gemini – and at the end, after the Gemini personality has receded – only by Karras and the original demon itself. Kinderman can only look on with shock and dread…because,  as the Gemini speaks, he succeeds in convincing the detective that the he, the Gemini, has truly, really, come back to life as a parasite living within Karras’s body … and, even more shockingly, is now forcing Karras’s resuscitated body to “rip and tear and mutilate” various victims.

3a. The ceiling-crawling old lady is not the lady who is lurking behind the door. That lady is actually the Gemini-possessed patient with the bag carrying the wannabe Kinderman-killing surgical shears. In fact, both women are in the same scene: while the old lady ceiling-crawls, the nurse exits the door behind Kinderman, who finds that the “nurse” is possessed by the Gemini, and has incapacitated a real nurse and donned her uniform as a disguise so she can travel to the Kinderman residence incognito.

3b. The individual who attacks the nurse in the corridor is not a phantom, or a Christ statue come to life, as many viewers mistakenly believe. The figure is only one of the hospital patients who the Gemini temporarily possesses, for whatever reason covered by a white bed sheet, and wielding a pair of “missing” (Gemin-stolen) surgical shears.

4. The MAJOR change from the Exorcist and the Legion novels, vs. Exorcist III :

In the both the Exorcist and the Legion novels, protagonist Damien Karras has succeeded in saving Regan MacNeil – and has spiritually triumphed and gone on to his heavenly reward. End of story.

And, consistent with that theme, in the Legion novel, Karras is not at all present as a living personality. Assumptively, he is in heaven. Nor is he possessed, because he is not occupying his resuscitated body in the first place. Rather, it is only that empty carcass which the demon regenerates and which the Gemini inhabits. Karras himself, as a person or as  a soul, is not even there to be possesssed-and-saved.

However, for the Exorcist III film …the studio demanded an exorcism scene, on the principle that because they’re calling the film an Exorcist sequel, of course, it must contain an exorcism. This unexpected imposition caused Blatty to hire Jason Miller – who had recently become free to do the project – to replay the role of Damien Karras. So Blatty re-engineered his original story of Karras’ sacrificial heaven-tending death in the following way:

Instead of having Karras immediately going to heaven, Blatty invented the new scenario wherein the demon caught Karras’s soul while it was still “on his way out” of his battered body, and stuffed him back into his nearly-dead corpse – along with the recently-executed Gemini Killer.

That is the revenge that the Gemini talks about. Thus, the exorcism in the film has a twofold purpose: to expel the Gemini, AND to rescue Karras from the demon’s grip.

In fulfillment of this new scenario, the film’s climax presents two exorcists:

1) the official exorcist, Fr. Morning;

and…

2) the unofficial “exorcist-by-gunshot” Detective Kinderman.

Thus, Karras, the former liberator of Regan MacNeil in the original story, is now himself the victim who needs rescuing. 

5. Regarding the supernatural “church invasion-distrubance” scene at the film’s opening, those flying bits and pieces are not locusts swarming into the church.

First – such a scene would, contrary to both reason and good taste, connect the film to the monstrous John Boorman production, Exorcist II: the Heretic, wherein locust swarms and a preternatural “Good Locust” largely and painfully figure.

Second – the objects in question are not insects, but rather street-and-sidewalk leaf debris, probably meant to be driven by “the Pazuzu wind” which in the first film starts to blow when Fr. Merrin confronts the Pazuzu statue across a rocky chasm.

Third, it is extremely likely that the scene as a whole is not to be taken literally, but rather as part of the opening narration, which itself seems to be an amalgam of the trapped Karras’s and the possessing Gemini’s garbled memories of the night of Karras’s “death”.

It is likely that the viewer is being invited to think of this opening narration as a kind of fever dream that is shared by both of the personalities – Damien Karras and James Vennamun/the Gemini – occupying the same resuscitated body. So it would seem doubtful that we are meant to take the debris-storm and the eye-moving crucifix as literal physical facts. If we do accept them as physical facts, this would be an unlikely case of the demon ineptly giving itself away – and that far too early and publicly by clumsily “outing” itself through an out-of-character, even ham-thumbed self-revelation.

6. Again: In Exorcist III Damien Karras DOES NOT SAVE THE DAY. HE HIMSELF NEEDS SAVING.

The saintly priest’s soul has been trapped inside his own body and is the helpless witness of the Gemini’s depredations. It is Kinderman and Morning who save the day – Morning by attacking the demon via exorcism ritual and brandishing the crucifix at the beast – and Kinderman by providing the means of the merciful death that finally sets Karras free.

7. Father Paul Morning was a tacked-on character, but Blatty was careful to show that this new exorcist doesn’t quite, exactly, “come out of nowhere” as an annoying intrusion into the narrative. Blatty takes care to give Morning a brief, prior exorcistic history, and poetically sketches the aging priest’s character in a gentle, wordless introductory scene that shows that he has been caring for an injured bird; finds that the bird has suddenly died;and then encounters the presence of the old demon when he witnesses a crucifix fall off the wall, the sky darkening, while the demonic “Pazuzu wind” begins to blow through his room.

Blatty also shows Morning praying in the campus chapel – in another wordless scene, except for Morning’s vocalized prayer, which ends with a scriptural citation, “men of violence seek my life …my life…” an explicitly foreshadowing hint that, like Father Lankester Merrin before him, Morning himself “must soon face an ancient enemy”.

8. A final, very important (for those who care about spiritual matters dramatically expressed) theological notation:

Exorcist III is the first and (as far as I know) the only one of Blatty’s religious works in which the formerly hidden deity emerges into the material world to perform an act of divine intervention – for which we have that much-disdained added-in exorcism scene to thank.

This is worked out by showing a mysterious beam of heavenly light shining into the Gemini cell, which awakens the unconscious Father Morning, thereby permitting him to yell encouragement to Karras to break the demon’s hold – which Karras momentarily succeeds in doing – which in turn permits Kinderman the chance to free Karras by a lethal use of his service revolver.

In that final moment of clarity, Karras shouts, “Shoot me, Bill! Shoot now! Kill me now!”. Kinderman swiftly obliges the priest’s request. Karras’s final words are: “We’ve won… Now, free me.” Kinderman delivers a final shot, which permits Damien Karras at last to ascend to the heaven from which the vengeful demon had, for a hellish period, prevented his entry.

By this device, Blatty’s formerly hidden God has finally been permitted to reveal his presence on the scene – still invisible, but at last as a positively active Presence within the world – and this in a manner completely new to Blatty’s former theological contemplations about God’s absence from the world. A hopeful note on which Blatty ended his creative involvement in the Exorcist franchise.

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Exorcist III’s Exorcism

Author William Peter Blatty wrote the novel Legion as a summation of his ideas for a screenplay for a sequel to his novel, The Exorcist. He filmed the story in a way that very closely paralleled the book. However, on viewing the film, the distributor, Morgan Creek Studios told Blatty that if the film was to be a real sequel to the first film and novel, it must contain an exorcist and an exorcism: they demanded a re-write. The understandably disgruntled Blatty went back to the drawing board, and crafted a new story in which the saintly soul of Fr. Damien Karras had been captured by the vengeful demon (“Pazuzu”, if you will) of the original story, and plunged back into his nearly-dead body – along with the recently-executed soul of serial murderer James Vennamun/”the Gemini Killer”. Jason Miller, who had originated the role of Damien Karras, had become available, and Blatty recast him in the role, along with Brad Dourif. The combination of the two very well presented and explicated the notion of Karras’ resuscitated body carrying both the tormented Karras and the venomous Vennamun (with the vengeful demon itself emerging during the film’s climax). All that was left was to invent an exorcism scene and cast an exorcist, who was eventually played by veteran actor Nicol Williamson in the new part of Fr. Paul Morning. The remainder of this post addresses Blatty’s choice in this matter.

By way of preface, it is of course obvious that Morgan Creek Studios should have more or less left Blatty’s version alone. But they didn’t, citing the unmarketability of a possession film – “an Exorcist film!” – without an exorcism, and Blatty dealt with it as best he could under the circumstances. In my analysis, Blatty did an admirable job, given the unpleasant new conditions under which he was forced to re-write his film.

1. It is important to consider that it was not the studio that added the character of Fr. Paul Morning – or the exorcism scene – to the script. The studio only demanded that Blatty rewrite it to include an exorcism. Morning was entirely Baltty’s own creation. And, to my way of thinking, a fine creation it was.

2. For instance, consider Blatty’s poetic, wordless introduction of Morning. First, the camera shows the Georgetown campus area where Morning is living. Doing this immediately returns us to the neighborhood of the Friedkin film, with Dahlgren Chapel (in front of which Karras and Kinderman strolled, talking murder and movies); the beautiful fountain in front of the chapel; and, viewed through Morning’s open window, the residence where Karras was living and where Kinderman parted company with him , making the “you look like Sal Mineo” joke. Thus, Blatty’s camera work deftly places us back in “Exorcist territory” in just two simple shots.

3. The camera lingers briefly on simple personal and religious objects in Morning’s room which indicate his own simplicity and piety – an immaculately kept sink, a small figurine of the angel vanquishing evil; a Rosary on a desk; a photo of what is probably an infant Morning with his parents; an injured bird on the window sill that Morning has been kindly attending to.

4. The bird’s sudden silence lures the Breviary-meditating Morning to the window. Blatty’s camera – as did Friedkin’s when following Merrin from behind as he approached the one-eyed blacksmith – also follows Morning’s shadow from behind as it reveals a wall plaque reading, What We Give To The Poor Is What We Take With Us When We Die – a reference to the original novel, where Karras carries in his wallet a “holy card” featuring the identical words. All of this has unfolded in silence, except for the birdsong, without any utterances from Morning.

5. Morning finds that the bird has gone silent – in death. No sooner does he notice this, than his crucifix falls off the wall “by itself”. Frowning, Morning approaches the crucifix, only to find it mysteriously bleeding. The the sky darkens, the room is plunged into shadow, and “the demon wind” – so familiar from the Friedkin film – begins to howl through the room. Like Merrin, Morning stands stalwart, facing this new surge of the demonic, courageous and alone. This is pure Blatty; pure “Exorcist”.

6. Later, Morning prays alone in a chapel, which includes the line, “men of violence seek my life…”  Morning simply repeats the grim phrase…“My life…” and we realize that he is certain that he, like Merrin before him, “will soon face an ancient enemy”. And the next time we see him, he enters the Gemini’s den in the violent psychopath ward, to do just that.

7. Blatty’s solution to the studio-demanded exorcism was, for many, much too over the top, but it needs to be borne in mind that his style of presentation is completely different from Friekin’s. Friedkin had an entire film to create demonic manifestations and a violent climax in which they were finally put to an end. Not so Blatty, who had to do a hurried rewrite and create his own exorcism scene – and confine it to a period of about five minutes.

As mentioned, Blatty’s style differed from Friedkin’s gritty, documentary “take”. Instead, Blatty focused on the psycho-spiritual-symbolic aspects, which is why he has lightning bolts chew up Cell Eleven’s floor, a symbolic crucified Karras surrounded by tormenting demons rising up through the shattered concrete, Morning, and then Kinderman, “crucified” repectively to the ceiling and the wall, hissing slithering venomous serpents, and hell-fire.

Taken literally, it might seem ridiculous.  But taken metaphorically but as real (real to Morning and Kinderman) visualizations of the demonic and of Karras’ torture, they function well. I suspect that most audiences – expecting a “real-world” set of physical effects – missed this allegorical-symbolic-visionary aspect and therefore found the exorcism not only unnecessary, but embarrassingly garish. However, the opposite is true when consideration is given to the fact that immediately after Karras – with Morning’s and Kinderman’s assistance – throws off the vengeful demon and the Gemini, Cell Eleven returns to normal: all the snakes, broken concrete, and pyrotechnics were real, but mental, phenomena, not physical events – which underscores their metaphoric/symbolic truth, if not their actual, “external world” factuality.

So: yes, the film should not have included Morning and the exorcism at all. But:

Fact: it does so for the simple, stark reason that the studio demanded it.

Fact: Blatty rewrote the script because he was so instructed/coerced, but I, for one, applaud his imagination in working it out on screen, and on his creation of a wonderful new exorcist-figure in the person of Fr. Paul Morning, who is a kind of “silent knight of the Cross” who gladly sacrifices his life (“My life…”) for Damien Karras.

Karras, the hero and rescuer of the first film and novel, has now become the object of rescue, and Morning and Kinderman become his rescuers. To me, that schema – although an unnecessary result of an unexpected, last-minute and perhaps unfair studio demand – falls well within the parameters of Blatty’s already well-established “demon possession and its conquest through redemptive suffering” narrative, and –  even as a post-production appendix – fulfils all requirements for belonging in the “canon”.

Sir Christopher Lee, R.I.P.

Sir Christopher Lee, famous portrayer of Dracula and many other memorable film characters, passed away on Sunday, June 7, 2015. A few words in memoriam:

Dear Sir Christopher:

Thank you for all your glorious performances and your incredible voice and narrative vocalizations.

Thank you for illuminating my youth with the thrills of your sinister characterizations, for your strikingly dark good looks, and for all your appearances in my favorite magazine, Famous Monsters of Filmland (and thanks, too, to the late F.J. Ackerman for that unique publication).

You will be cherished as long as film exists, and people who appreciate the very best in acting and in cultured living.

R.I.P.

The Postponed Redemption of Damien Karras, S.J.

William Peter Blatty’s original Exorcist novel heavily implied that Fr. Karras regained his faith and attained his redemption; and that he, Christ-like, sacrificed his life for the possessed child, Regan MacNeil. A beautiful parable. However, Blatty violated this principle in the film, Exorcist III.

Originally written without demonic possession and without an exorcism, Blatty’s original Exorcist III screenplay – based on his novel, Legion – was deemed incomplete by Morgan Creek Studios, which told Blatty to rewrite the story to include an exorcist and an exorcism.

Shortly after this, Jason Miller, who played Karras in the original Blatty-Friedkin film, became available for the project. Blatty hit on the idea of Miller returning, again in the role of Karras. Blatty achieved this through the idea of having the vengeful demon capture Karras’ soul “on its way to Heaven”, and then stuffing it back into Karras’ body along with the soul of James Vennamun, the Gemini Killer. In this new scenario, an exorcism was required,  1) to put a stop Vennamun’s killing spree and 2) to save Karras from the demon’s grip. This was Blatty’s solution to the studio’s demands.

In one way it’s a poor solution because Karras belonged in, and deserved to go to, Heaven. Taking seriously the premise that the demon prevented Karras’ immediate Heavenly reward falsifies the original premise that Karras went straight to his reward. Blatty went on record very early after the release of The Exorcist that “I don’t want people to think that the Devil won” … but in a sense that’s exactly Exorcist III’s scenario: Karras did initially defeat the demon by taking it out of Regan’s body, but then the demon thwarted Karras’ victory by nabbing his spirit and encasing it in his body, which together the demon and the Gemini Killer gradually resuscitate/heal over a twelve-year period. So Exorcist III is a cheat of the original story.

But in another way, Exorcist III “ups the ante” because instead of just the Gemini Killer inhabiting Karras’ resuscitated corpse (as in the novel Legion), Karras himself is now the endangered soul who must be saved. So we now have the Gemini Killer to hate, but we also – again, for a second time, in a second film – have Damien Karras to cheer for, as the story becomes a tale of the efforts of Detective Wiliam Kinderman and Fr. Paul Morning to solve both problems. Additionally, it was a great asset of the film to have a return of Miller himself as Karras, for even the briefest time. But of course, in a just world ruled by a just God, Blatty’s original destiny for Karras as Heaven-bound is the only morally acceptable solution.

Moreover, all along, it helps to understand the fact that Karras didn’t “get possessed”. Unlike Regan (and assumptively most other possession victims), Karras wasn’t the demon’s passive victim. Rather, he deliberately challenged the demon to a personal fight – which Karras did win, despite Exorcist III’s flawed screenplay. Certainly, in a just universe, Karras would not be punished by capture by the demon or by being taken to Hell, but rewarded. Some say he would go to Hell because he committed suicide, but of course that’s a phenomenally misinformed notion. Clearly, Karras gave his life for Regan, much as a soldier might throw him/herself on a grenade to save the lives of comrades. In a just universe, Hell is simply not designed to hold such noble souls. Come to think of it, in a just universe, Hell probably should not exist in the first place.

“The Exorcist”: addressing one more misconception

Audiences have misunderstood some of The Exorcist’s basic themes and premises, some of which have been addressed on this blog, for example, the egregioiusly misconceived notion that the story’s film director, Burke Dennings, had been molesting Regan MacNeil, the possessed child. In a similar mode, a substantial number of viewers think that the film was a “downer”, that “the Devil won”. This is sometimes expressed in statements such as, “The Devil won: he possessed a priest [Fr. Damien Karras, played by Jason Miller], forced him to commit suicide, and also killed his elderly mentor [Fr. Lankester Merrin, played by Max Von Sydow]”.

The facts, however, are quite the contrary:

1. Damien Karras did not “get” possessed, as is the case in standard possessions. Instead, he deliberately challenges and invites the demon to “come into me…take me…”  To its everlasting regret, the demon responds to Karras’ taunt. Karras is shown briefly possessed, advancing on Regan – who is now unpossessed – and framed within the demon’s would-be strangler’s hands. Karras then imposes his will on the demon, taking it out the window with him, and effectively expelling it upon his impact at the bottom of the Hitchcock Steps. Thus, the demon did not possess Karras, but ironically, Karras possessed the demon and kicked it out, in an act of Christ-like self-sacrifice. Nor is there any entertaining of an idiotic corollary, namely, that Karras “went to Hell”, because in Catholicism, “suicide is a mortal sin”. But of course, Karras’ action was not suicide. It was really a form of demonicide – as well as an act of matryric self-immolation reminiscent of the Church’s earliest heroes. If anyone “deserves” Heaven, it is Damien Karras.

2. Not only did the demon not kill Damien Karras, far less did it kill Lankester Merrin. The demon has two purposes: 1) to make witnesses to a possession feel so “animal and ugly” [updated screenplay] that they begin to despise themselves and to feel that not even God could love them; and 2) to kill Regan while Merrin looks on helplessly. This is in revenge against Merrin for an earlier exorcism in Africa in which the priest bested the demon. Therefore, it is essential to the demon’s purposes that Merrin be alive to witness the demon’s “victory” of killing Regan in Merrin’s presence. The demon has a crucial investment in Merrin LIVING long enough to witness Regan’s demon-caused death.

Hence, any idea that the demon killed Merrin is bound to be automatically still-born. Worse for its adherents, Blatty’s novel is explicit on the point. When the demon has seen that Merrin has died prior to Regan’s planned death, it rages at Karras, referencing the dead Merrin, “you [Merrin] would have lost” – thereby assuring the reader that Merrin’s death itself represented a clear defeat for the demon, who never intended to kill Merrin, but rather to humiliate him and crush his faith.

This viewing of this gem of a film ought always to be accompanied by reading of Blatty’s novel. No screenplay can possibly convey all the subtleties of its originating source, and The Exorcist is an exemplary illustration of this principle. One can much better read Blatty’s authorial intentions in the screenplay by contrasting it to the novel. Only then can one see the screenplay’s brilliancies – as well as the important details that it omitted.

The Director who wasn’t There

In retrospect it is difficult to understand the popularity of Brian Flemming’s “documentary” film, The God who wasn’t There (2005), on atheistic websites that advertise themselves as bastions of education and rationality. Curious about all the hoopla, I finally buckled down and subjected myself to this viciously self-serving little diatribe.

The viewer might intuit that trouble lies ahead when the film asserts that for thousands of years “the sun revolved around the earth” – meaning, of course, that this erroneous idea was held to be true through the ages. No sooner does the film refute this terracentric fallacy than it asks, “If Christianity was wrong about that, could it be wrong about other things?” Missing here, obviously, is the simple fact that terracentrism was a cosmology held by most ancient people, from astronomers, astrologers, philosophers,  to merchants and sailors and emperors and, finally, priest-kings, prophets and other kinds of religionists. To select Christianity out of all of these candidates – and moreover, to ignore Christianity’s resiliency in admitting its incorrect involvement in pre-scientific mistaken identity – is symptomatic of Flemming’s entire approach and indeed the totality of his dysfunctional film.

Flemming soon repeats his folly. Introducing us to various “faces of Christianity” – the literally smiling faces of believers – the director-narrator darkly warns that there is another face of Christianity. The screen immediately cuts to the visage of mass-murderer Charles Manson, whose only involvement with Christianity that I am aware of was that he – and some of his “Family”  – sometimes thought of him as “Jesus”. Frankly, this egregiously nasty and wildly phoney association tempted me to stop watching then and there. But, because the film was advertised as containing interviews with serious scholars, I pressed on, to my chagrin.

Flemming’s main thesis is 1) that Jesus never existed and 2) that Flemming was screwed by Christianity. The film’s tone clearly suggests that point 2) is motivating point 1). Fleming has a chip on his shoulder and an axe to grind, and this personally negative tone falls across the film like a leprous shadow.

Regarding point 1), the film does present some scholarly reasons for thinking that perhaps there was no Jesus of history, that the original Jesus was a cosmic savior-hero whose exploits were only later condensed and reduced to the confines of a single historical human being and his historical life. The theory is intriguing. For instance, it goes some distance in explaining how, early on in the Christian story, so many different images of Jesus and so many varying christologies sprang into existence – and why the figure of Jesus has been reified into almost as many “fits” as there are scholars doing the research. From a certain perspective – the “mythicist” view – it looks as if a mythological being was being brought down to earth and gradually, inconsistently, clothed with human and semi-human attributes.

While this theory is worthy enough, my personal view at this time is based on the scholarly consensus that seven of Paul’s letters are “authentic” – that is, they have their major source in Paul’s own writing (at least his writing as taken down by scribes). In Paul’s letter (epistle) to the Galatians and scattered elsewhere through these authentic texts are Paul’s references to his personal acquaintance with Jesus’ own closest disciples, including James and Peter (Simon, Kephas). Now, unless these disciples completely imagined or invented their Master, it is clear that Paul was in contact with people who 1) knew that Jesus existed and 2) knew him personally. The fact that Paul frequently mentions the Judean disciples in semi-contemptuous terms (unlike them, Paul has a special revelation “not received from men”; the Judeans are mad circumcisers, etc.)  leads most scholars, via “the criterion of embarrassment”, to accept the disciples’ historicity, and therefore by implication, Jesus’ own historical reality. And this is where I place myself: the historical, pre-Easter Jesus was a Jewish mystic, parabolic teacher, and revitalization movement founder; the post-Easter Jesus was the risen, living, angelic, exalted/glorified Christ-Spirit, but still portrayed in primarily Jewish terms.  So, yes, for me, the pre-Easter Jesus was historical. But he doesn’t need to be, and if research should sway the consensus in the mythicist direction, I will need to re-evaluate my position.

As mentioned, this is where the film is best. Its clips of biblical scholar and H.P. Lovecraft afficianado Robert M. Price are informative and help to make a case for a mythicist, non-historical view of Christ. But most of the other interview material is peripheral at best and misleading at worst. The material featuring prominent atheists Sam Harris and Richard Carrier is moderately interesting but is utterly useless in making Flemming’s case for the mythical Christ. Rather, it only serves to unmask the director’s anti-religion agenda, as if to associate mythicism with a necessarily anti-religious and atheistic point of view. On the contrary – as Price himself has said many times – mythicism properly understood is a powerfully spiritual means of understanding world and self. Price has even cited myth-proponent Carl G. Jung’s famous reply to the question of his belief in God, “No, I don’t believe; I know”, as evidence of the psychological value of experiencing one’s own  “mystical, gnostic, inner” deity. But all such positives are ignored or mocked by Flemming’s shallow debunkery.

At the end of the film, Flemming abandons all show of objectivity, going back to his former conservative-Christian school to “interview” one of its chiefs, who requests that the taping be stopped. The problem seems to be that Flemming set up the interview under false pretenses, that the questions he formerly indicated would be asked were very different from the ones he actually does ask during the interview. His interviewee finally walks off-screen, to Flemming’s impotent, whining protests.  One’s sympathy falls toward the apparently victimized school head rather than to the corrosive Flemming.

As a final blow on behalf of Flemming’s self-justification, he finds that the school’s chapel is unlocked, a fortuitous opportunity for him to tiptoe in and make snide remarks about his endarkened, pre-atheistic student years. In his last image of himself, the chapel interior in the background, Flemming triumphantly proclaims that he has committed that famous Gospel “sin against the Holy Spirit” – and is proud of it. Finally, the true motivation of this film emerges: its director is hurt and petulant. And because of this, although he mis-states that he went searching for Jesus (but paradoxically only ended up finding Robert Price, Sam Harris, Richard Carrier and other mere atheistic mortals), the film fatally suffers. Aside from the few segments previously mentioned, this film is not worth watching. It is a shame that it gets so much free publicity on sites whose operators should – and unfortunately, in most cases, probably do – know better.

A “Buddhist” Film Review

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring (2003), directed by Ki-Duk Kim.  South Korea.

This beautifully photographed and exquisitely paced film tells the story of a young monk, raised from childhood by an older monk/priest, in a floating shrine on a mountain lake. The film relates the wisdom of the elder monk and the follies of his young disciple, who has an affair with and impregnates a woman, leaves the shrine and who, like the New Testament’s Prodigal Son, finally returns full of world-sin. His old Master tries to rehabilitate his young charge. By the film’s end, we are to understand that the young monk has finally achieved inner peace, if not Enlightenment. Unfortunately, the film’s ending – spoilers ahead – does not support any sense of lasting merit for the protagonist’s attainments.

We are introduced to the young monk as a child, one of whose major amusements is tormenting various small animals that he encounters in a waterfall-fed stone basin. In this pond, the child finds a fish, a frog, and a snake,  to whom he ties stones fastened with string. The little boy giggles as he watches the creatures wriggle off and struggle with their burdens. However, while this is taking place, his Master, like a tutelary spirit, is watching the boy from a short distance. When the boy returns to the floating shrine and falls asleep for the night, the elder monk ties a heavy stone to the child’s back. The next morning, the old monk directs the boy, carrying his heavy load, back to the waterfall pond. There the boy seeks out the three animals he has wounded. The fish and the snake are dead; he finds the frog and unties the string and the stone, setting the frog free. He has begun to understand, through the imposed discipline of carrying his own stone, the suffering he has inflicted on the innocent.

The film continues, depicting the young monk’s trials and his difficult period of readjustment after returning to the shrine. At one point he is presented with a little boy – his own son, whom he must raise, as he was raised, in the floating shrine. Toward the end of the film, the young monk ties a heavy rock to himself and drags a statue of what appears to be Kwan-Yin (female Buddha of compassion) to the top of a high hill that overlooks the lake and the shrine. By taking on this discipline – imposed on him from without when a child –  as an adult, the monk affirms the value of compassionate understanding, as well as his Master’s truth of vision. One might think that the film would end here on a triumphal note of a soul rescued from egoic attachment to this illusionary samsaric world. But no: the film continues on for a few minutes, a time frame in which its affirmative message is questioned, if not overturned.

The whole thrust of the film is that the young monk learns that just as he has placed senseless, tormenting burdens on animals, so too he has placed burdens on other sentient beings, including himself.

His solitary pulling the stone up the mountain carrying Kwan-Yin reiterates the stone-pulling discipline that  the old monk imposed on the monk as a child. This time, it shows his own adult, mature, ultimate agreement with his Master’s principle that it is wrong to torment beings, and it symbolizes his acknowledgement of guilt. But in the film’s final minutes, the young monk’s own little boy is shown exhibiting exactly the same cruelty that his father had committed as a child so many years before. This is sickening to watch, and even worse to reflect upon.

This is what makes the film’s message unclear and the film itself a “downer”. Our young monk has spent a lifetime trying to learn compassion and the disavowal of power. Then, his own son hastens to duplicate his father’s worst behaviors. Only this time, when the son misbehaves, unlike the case of his father (who had the old monk as mentor), the little boy does not even have the advantage of his Dad following him around to monitor and correct his misbehavior.

Thus the ending scenario is even worse than its original presentation: our young monk had a guiding mentor who knew of, and corrected, his bad behavior. But, as filmed, it is clear that now the young monk’s son has no one watching out for him. This is unmistakably the meaning: had he chosen, in filming the little boy’s father-duplicating misadventures with innocent animals, the director could – as with the earlier scenario where the old monk monitors the young monk – easily have planted our young monk in the near background, the father checking up on his son. This explicit absence of adult-and/or Enlightened watchfulness and supervision in this second, final and significant scenario is glaring and can only be intentional. The director is clearly depicting the unfolding of samsara in the little boy’s life, but this time, without even a glimmer of future redemption. The viewer is unaccountably left with a feeling of “what’s the use?”

Among other things, Buddhism concerns itself with transcending the attachments and cruelties of egoic life. Spring’s final message, on the contrary, almost seems a capitulation to ego, attachment, and cruelty as eternal givens just barely, if at all, subject to human mitigation. It states that our condition of evil and ignorance – samsara – lives on, despite the hard lessons and best efforts of our young monk; despite the self-mastery of someone who has understood samsara’s illusional nature and is now raising his own little boy as a monk. Some might find this statement to simply be a pragmatic depiction of samsara’s prevalence. However, that interpretation does not make much sense in view of all that has gone before it in terms of suffering, guilt, struggle, seeking and attainment.

It is essential to realize – which the film fails to do – that the core Buddhist message is also that samsara can be depotentiated. Instead of expressing the hopeful Buddhist message that cruelty and self-power can be transcended, Spring’s climax practically rubs our nose in samsara, saying in essence: “See? Samsaric ignorance repeats itself in all generations.”  At this point we may justifiably ask: So? We sat through this long movie just to hear that cliched bit of common knowledge? Then why the huge build up of expectation and hopefulness, of struggle and inner peace sought/inner peace found?

In many reviews and on many websites Spring is advertised as some kind of classic Buddhist film, but I feel that this is not the case at all. Buddha said, “I teach suffering… AND the END of suffering.” This film mostly portrays the first half of Buddha’s dictum, leaving the human condition in a perpetual state of suffering, ignorance, and cruelty, while virtually ignoring the liberating second half which concerns liberation. Buddha taught that the Dharma was for all, and was the single Law that mitigates samsara.  But Spring seems to severely limit the universal thrust of Buddha’s intent by the way in which it depicts the “next generation” – in the person of the young monk’s child – as continuing on in an almost genetic line of cruelty.

“Narrow is the Way” seems to be Kim’s message – a way much narrower than the Buddha ever implied. If director Kim wants us to think that all will be well because after all the little boy is our young monk’s son and is being raised as a monk, he needs to think again. Our young monk himself was raised in a holy manner and still threw his life to the winds, even with Master-mentoring. But Spring’s final moments quite deliberately show the young monk’s child alone in the grotto, without a hint of fatherly-Masterly supervision… a dark unfolding with  an even darker implication. And that is what makes this movie a downer.