I’ve written several
novels now that deal with the varieties of American religious fundamentalism. I
come by this preoccupation naturally. Born into a strict Southern Baptist
family, I lived for a time on a religious campground run by relatives who saw themselves in the tradition of biblical prophets. In my early twenties,
I spent a few years as a Pentecostal before I finally left the church for good.
The one key insight I gained through this spiritual journey is that religion’s
main selling point is authority. Life itself is hard and often unfair, and its
chaos ends, for all of us, at the grave. We seek out an authority
to guide us because life is so clearly out of our hands. This is why the world
is full of people (professional as well as amateur) claiming to speak for god,
claiming to own some small (or large) share of god’s authority on everything
from life and death to sex and politics. To put it in stark capitalist terms:
religion offers authority and it offers it cheap.
Of course, religious
authorities have long sought to extend their influence into the political
arena. This is as true in America as anywhere else, yet America has always been
notable for its official skepticism of religious authority. “The separation of
Church and State” is not a phrase in the Constitution; rather it is a unifying
idea that runs through the document, from Article VI to the First Amendment.
This separation, it should be noted, was as religious as it was pragmatic.
While the framers — most of them believers in one stripe of Christianity or
another — feared a government controlled by zealots, they also didn’t want to
see their religion reduced to another pig at the public trough. In the
political realm, they knew, religious authority is reduced to a commodity, just
one of many commodities to be bartered or bought in the circles of influence.
Despite the best
efforts of the founders, however, religious political power has always been a
factor in American life. It was used to justify the genocide of the Native
Americans and helped to condone the bondage of African slaves. It began to ebb in the late 19th century, the first victim of modernity,
its authority usurped by science and art. Since marrying itself to the
Republican party under Reagan, however, religious political power has been on
the rise. Christianity hasn’t always made for the most natural bedfellows with
supply side economics and the military industrial complex, but the marriage has
been mutually beneficial.
What political value
does this religious authority have in the age of Trump? If the recent executive
actions taken by the president barring immigrants of seven Muslim nations from
entering the United States (including the barring of Syrian refugees indefinitely) are any indication,
then the answer appears to be that Christianity’s sad duty in the new order is to
aid and comfort white nationalism. Religious authority gives sanction to a philosophy of "us vs. them", and so as walls go up and doors to entry are barred, American Christianity just becomes another guard at the gate.
This is a tragic turn of events. For years, leaders of
the religious right have been major power players in the Republican party. They
haven’t always gotten their way, but their power has steadily increased since
the 1980s. Nevertheless in 2016 their preferred candidate, Ted Cruz, was
trounced in the Republican primaries by a thrice married casino owner with a
history of sexual assault and business fraud. In the general election, this
same candidate – a man who once bragged that he has never needed to ask for God’s
forgiveness — won the votes of religious constituents overwhelmingly. In some ways, this is baffling. Trump’s swagger and
his narcissism, to say nothing of his lecherousness and materialism, would seem
to make him an anathema to anyone who claims to live by the teachings of
But, again, religion’s
main political selling point is authority, and in an age of authoritarianism, religious
authority must rush to catch up. Trump beat them at their own game. He promised
to torture prisoners and target innocent civilians in war zones, explicit war
crimes; he promised to build walls and bar refugees; he promised to abolish an
absolute freedom of religion by banning Muslims from immigrating to America and
by forcing all Muslim citizens to register with the government. He leapfrogged religious
authoritarians not just by promising to act without the constraint of other,
lesser, authorities — like the law, American tradition, and basic common
decency—but by also promising to act without the constraint of the softer
Christian virtues of humility, mercy, and charity. In short, he promised to act
like a man who had never needed to ask for forgiveness. Forgiveness is for
people who make mistakes. Forgiveness is for people who acknowledge a
responsibility to others, an authority beyond themselves.
To be sure, there was some opposition to these neofascist proposals, and to Trump himself, from some
on the religious right. There were tremors of pushback in the halls of Liberty
University and throughout precincts of Mormon America. But it all came to very
little in the end, and now that the religious right has largely capitulated to
Trumpism in theory, we’re seeing how much resistance it will raise against Trumpism
in practice. With Trump’s upsets in the primaries and the election, God-hucksters
like Mike Huckabee, James Dobson, and Jerry Falwell Jr. polished their
brands by attaching themselves to him as publicly as possible. In VP Mike
Pence — a stalwart of Christian politics, whose war on reproductive freedom and
gay rights as governor of Indiana portends bad things — Trump has someone who
can throw red meat to the religious right and speak its language. In all truth,
though, it’s unclear how much work the president will have to do to keep
the peddlers of religious influence satisfied. They’ve already proven they’re
ready to accept the scraps from his table. And for his part, Trump seems to
like the temples as long as they’re plated in gold and run by moneychangers.
Jedidiah Ayres is a smart and witty guy and a hell of a good writer. (Check out his book PECKERWOOD to see what I mean.) He has a new blog post up recounting his favorite crime flicks, and, as usual, it's a list that mixes high end noir and straight-to-Redbox grime. Jed has hipped me to some stuff I missed last year, and it's likely he'll clue you into some fun obscurities, as well. Check it out.
In 1957, William Wyler's comedy-drama FRIENDLY PERSUASION won the Palm d'Or, one of those inexplicable lapses of judgement that help to demonstrate the true worthlessness of movie awards. (That it beat out Bergman's THE SEVENTH SEAL only helps to make this point starker still.) It's a film that I'm fascinated with in large part because of my undying love of its star, Gary Cooper, but the film itself is a muddled mess. It is of interest today to Cooper fans like myself, but in most other respects it has aged poorly. For its director, it is a long, long way from the triumph of THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES in 1946.
Watching it again recently (because it was included in a new set of Cooper films I got for Christmas), I'm struck by the film's lack of a point-of-view. The film tells the story of the Birdwell family, a 1800s Indiana Quaker clan led by a stern-if-loving mother, Eliza (Dorothy McGuire) and a taciturn-if-mischievous father, Jess, played by Cooper. They have three children, the eldest of which is a son, Josh (Anthony Perkins) who longs to go fight in the Civil War. Eventually, the war comes to Indiana and the Birdwells have to decide what to do.
I use the word "eventually" advisedly because FRIENDLY PERSUASION takes a long leisurely amble to get to its central conflict. The war doesn't come home to the Birdwells until the final thirty minutes of the film, which means that the better part of an hour and a half is spent focusing on things like the light comedy of Cooper's attempt to get to church faster than his neighbor and an uninvolving romance for the Birdwells' teenaged daughter. These scenes are meant to establish the Quaker idyll that will soon (or eventually) be shattered by the war.
Here's the problem, though: even in these scenes of gentle pastoral comedy, Wyler and his writer Michael Wilson (whose name was taken off the picture after he was blacklisted) struggle to figure out how to present the Birdwells. The problem, as one might expect, is religious. Wyler and Wilson just don't know what to do with Quakerism. For example, one subplot involves Jess buying an organ to play in the house despite Eliza's stern opposition, in keeping with the doctrine of their faith, to the instrument. After much to do, the Birdwells end up keeping the organ, and then have to hide it in the attic to keep it from the eyes of their church. At the end of the film, the organ's been moved downstairs. What are we to make of this? Are the Birdwells ready to tell the church that the doctrine is wrong? If so, why? The truth is that the filmmakers don't care about the religious implications. The whole subplot is one extended joke, a comedy that springs from the bemusement of the filmmakers.
This disconnect carries over to the main conflict of the film once it finally arrives. Perkins wants to go fight, though his reasons for wanting to fight and the way he relates to the conflict don't seem to have any practical foundation in the life the character would have lived up to that point. Likewise, his younger brother regards the war the way a kid who's seen a lot of TV westerns might regard the war. Neither of them seem to have grown up in Quaker house their whole lives.
FRIENDLY PERSUASION is an excellent example of what we mean when we say a film is dated. Though it purports to unfold in 1862, it feels always and in all ways like something created in 1956. It's reflexively pro-war despite the fact it takes place among lifelong pacifists. Perkins goes to war, his little brother is casually bloodthirsty, and Cooper rides off with a gun to save his son -- all against Eliza's wishes and reprimands. By the end of the film, in fact, the concept of pacifism seems like little more than Eliza's annoying pet project. Eventually, she rejects it herself when she beats a rebel soldier for trying to kill the family goose, a moment that is played for laughs. The staunchest pacifist portrayed in the picture is a member of their church who is presented as a self-righteous hypocrite who throws off the constraints of his faith as soon as the Confederates show up.
I've been interested in how religion is portrayed onscreen for a long time, and it's been on my mind even more of late. FRIENDLY PERSUASION is something of a companion piece to 1941's SERGEANT YORK, which also presented Cooper as pacifist during a time of war. YORK is pure war propaganda, but at least it goes about its task more or less directly. FRIENDLY PERSUASION, on the other hand, wants to have things both ways. It is a film of gentle contempt for its subject.
PS: A quick word about Coop. He's easily the best thing about the picture. While Perkins (in his first leading role in a movie) is too Method for his own good here, Cooper controls the screen with quiet authority. The film came at an odd time in his career when, despite the fact he was in his mid-fifties, he was still resistant to, you know, acting like it. He didn't want to play a father onscreen, and although McGuire was 15 years his junior, by this point he was used to playing with even younger leading ladies. (His next film was the romance LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON in which he played opposite Audrey Hepburn, who was 30 years his junior--younger than the actress who played his daughter in FRIENDLY PERSUASION.) He also didn't like that his character wasn't roused to action sooner, and roused to much more forceful action. Despite all of this, the film gives us an unmistakable hint at the kind of performance Cooper could have given in a good movie dealing with the same subject matter. He's not dated so much as he seems to have come from a previous era, which, indeed, he had.
The 1945 film noir DETOUR is a movie that seems to have been made out of grit and blood. It certainly wasn't made out of money. As the crown jewel of Hollywood's Poverty Row, DETOUR is best known today as the premiere work of slumming master Edgar G. Ulmer, the penurious auteur who has since become a hero to every filmmaker who ever tried to make art on a budget.
With all due respect to Ulmer, though, we would do well to remember the man who wrote the screenplay (and original novel) of DETOUR, the fascinating firebrand Martin M. Goldsmith. A true eccentric who rejected the materialism of Tinseltown, Goldsmith was one of the key screenwriters of Poverty Row film noir in the 1940s and 1950s. He deserves as much credit as anyone for the masterpiece that is DETOUR, but his career, both in films and as a social activist, doesn't stop there.
I wrote about Goldsmith for the Summer 2016 issue of NOIR CITY. You can read a PDF of my article here. And go here to learn more about the Film Noir Foundation and how you can contribute to its effort to rescue and restore America's noir heritage.