Saturday, October 04, 2008

Bill Maher's great satire "Religulous"


Bill Maher, who once, as I recall, said he is interested only in the grown-up world, pokes great fun at “religiosity” (or perhaps, “Churchianity” as Rosicrucians call it) in his latest satire documentary “Religulous,” directed by Larry Charles (“Borat”), from LionsGate and Thousand Words.

Most of the film consists of Maher’s interviewing various religious leaders and followers; you wonder how he got in to get the interviews. Well, in fact, he gets thrown out of the Vatican, and there’s background in a couple scenes “don’t talk to that TV guy.” Many of the discussions are sophistic, with Maher, alert and speaking with great comedy, drawing out the contradictions in the way many religious leaders state their positions. The film is punctuated with quick shots of animation, war footage, or demonstrations or anything else to reemphasize his point.

Very early, the talks to Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists. Pretty soon he gets to the gay issue, and quotes Jerry Falwell and, worse, Fred Phelps (from the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka KS). He interviews an “ex-gay” counselor in a low-rise Florida office, with the typical merry-go-round debate on immutability. The counselor leaves the impression that marriage and children make an affirmative moral duty. They actually hug.

He visits the Holy Land Experience in Orlando. He interviews a hippy-haired young man in a robe with a string-tied open shirt who pretends to look like Jesus (with a hairy chest). The young man says that God will wipe out evil soon. But then there is a re-enactment of the Passion, with a real actor, scraped and bloodied (almost like James Caviezel in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”) who has to play the scene live several times every day. Visitors in the audience actually cry. That’s a brutal acting job.

The then visits a museum celebration creation science in Kentucky, with dioramas showing early man living with dinosaurs.

He visits a scientology demonstration in Hyde Park in London, where they talk about audits and ridding oneself of Thetans. There is a one-second cameo of Tom Cruise.

He has a brief interview with ex-Mormons in view of the Salt Lake Temple, and gets into ridiculing some of the stories, such as the idea that native Americans are descendents of lost tribes from the Holy Land.

He even finds a pothead in an Amsterdam "coffee shop" who has made a religious experience out of getting high.

The most telling part of the film occurs near the end, as he examines Islam. The film stresses radical Islam (perhaps unfairly for Islam as a whole), particularly in the Netherlands. In one scene he stands in front of the Grand Central Station in Amsterdam. I myself have taken the yellow and blue double-decker trains back and forth to Schiphol and seen the apartment flats along the rails many times. He visits the spot where Theo van Gogh was assassinated and shows a brief clip from “Submission,” mentions the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy and shows a brief 1989 clip of a violent Muslim demonstration against Salman Rushdie for his novel “Satanic Verses.” Maher gets into arguments why it is so unacceptable to “insult” or blaspheme the prophet. He interviews Geert Wilders, the Dutch legislator who (with Scarlet Pimpernel) directed and wrote the short “Fitna” (reviewed on this blog March 28, 2008).

He interviews an orthodox rabbi who maintains that Jews do not deserve a homeland. He visits the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and goes over the conflict between the three major faiths.

Finally, he takes aim at the attitude behind much of organized religion. He says that “doubt” is good (even if he is no Michael Douglas), and that he sees religion as a childlike need to create certainty (or a “system of certainty”) in a world where hardships and losses cannot be prevented or goals accomplished by one’s efforts alone. I can remember prayers in communions in MCC where the celebrant says, "I am a believer, not a doubter."

The film opened with LionsGate's full musical overture, starting with the machinery of Metropolis, and ending with a view of the real Lions Gate in Greece. This is Hollywood's best trademark. (Sorry, LionsGate is a Canadian company.)

The film nearly sold out in a large auditorium at the 7:40 PM show at an AMC theater in south Arlington, VA, near a Shirlington street fair for the day.

Picture: Outdoor "Freedom of Religion" near a Metro station in Arlington VA: all visitors are welcome.

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