Monday, October 06, 2008


When writing film reviews, it's inevitable that at some point you'll hear someone say to you, "Can't you just watch a movie and enjoy it?" The implicit question here is, "Can't you stop thinking so much?" The reason I bring this up is twofold: 1) it annoys me (and I think people should be ashamed of themselves for even thinking such things, much less voicing them) and 2) because I feel Bill Maher's pain. Religulous features Maher talking to various religious figures, asking them questions about their beliefs, and expressing his skepticism, his outrage, and his disappointment at the lack of critical thinking that people apply to their faith. The film is predominently focused on Christian thought in the United States, but makes a cursory stab at discussing similar problems and absurdities in the Jewish and Muslim worlds as well. This is not a film that is likely to convert anyone in any direction, but for fans of thinking, it's an amusing, and even important document of how people deal with matters of belief.

From all evidence, Maher is a bruised cynic of a comedian, the kind of jokester who cares deeply about the "rightness" of the world while despairing that things will ever work out to his satisfaction. He pulls few punches with those he speaks to; he often scoffs and mocks the ridiculousness of their claims as they defend, say, the existence of a talking snake. He's a funny man, and his quick wit and observations are satisfying. But underlying his mirth is a clear desire to understand, to have a reasoned, intelligent discourse on the topic. When talking to Ken Ham, who represents the risible and dangerous Creation Museum in Kentucky, Maher's sense of disappointment at not being able to have an intelligent debate on the topic of "Creation Science" is palpable. He looks positively crestfallen as Ham refuses to engage and evades Maher's questions. In the early portions of the film, I began to fear that the deck was stacked too much in Maher's favor, that he was choosing to debate lightweights so he could emerge victorious. But after his interview with Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the Human Genome Project, exposed this respected, notable scientist's bizarre standard of evidence for a historical Jesus, I realized that any interviewee would suffer. It's not Maher's fault that there are no rational discussions in this film--when it comes to religion, there can be none. For good or bad (and, in case it's not obvious, I'm with Maher that it's bad), religion and faith exist in a realm beyond rationality's reach.

This, of course, is the film's point. It's interesting, and perhaps appropriate, that the the film doesn't develop an argument, doesn't develop point-by-point to its conclusion. Rather, Religulous is an emotional appeal, a screed decrying the laziness of thought demonstrated by religious proponents and the danger inherent in this type of thinking. It's strange, and I doubt it's intentional, but Religulous is almost like a religious experience in and of itself--it stacks up subjective, personal experience after subjective, personal experience until it reaches its fiery, impassioned, and evangelical conclusion. I guess this may be called hypocritical, but I found it exhilarating--if appealing to reason is fruitless for Maher (and it most evidently is), what else does he have left?

The film is unfocused and scattershot, full of wacky, digressive edits to film clips and stock footage that underscore a point Maher's making or reveal the subtext of a particular scene. I passionately hated the cutting at first, but after a time, I got into the film's aggressive editing style. I came to an awareness that more than anything, this is a goof-off film, a comedian's comedy movie. At times it felt like a naive avant-garde film school project, laced with non-diagetic sound effects and smart-aleck subtitles exposing the vacuousness of the subject being interviewed. The kitchen-sink mentality of the film was alarming at first, but as I began to understand the tone of the film, was incredibly satisfying. In Religulous, laughs are valued over fairness, but honesty is valued above everything.

Those of weak faith who feel threatened by having their beliefs challenged would be wise to storm out like the burly trucker at the beginning of the film. Those who cannot see the absurdity in deism will no doubt chafe at the lack of any semblance of balance. But this is an important movie, one whose shelf-life is probably very small, but vital. In this time and place, it is increasingly more important that our leaders have more religion than intelligence, and the standards for basic scientific education are continually undermined by those who would supplant their own mythologies for sound methodology. For good or bad, it is important that these beliefs be questioned, be loudly interrogated in public discourse, if only for the sake of caution. Religulous fulfills this need, and it makes its point in a single shot. During a Las Vegas-style Passion Play at a Florida Bible Amusement Park, an actor portraying Jesus writhes on a cross, casting his eyes toward heaven. The camera tilts up and there, crossing the sky, is not God, but a commercial airplane. The shot successfully argues, all by itself, that the coexistence of these two things is monumentally absurd. It's as momentous in implicit meaning as when the bone becomes a space station in 2001.

Would Be a Good Double Feature With: The Passion of the Christ


The New Blogger 168 said...

Hi, I'm a newbie when it comes to movie ratings but I tried my self to make quality ones. I hope you can drop by and leave some of your constructive criticisms so that i can fix it right away. thanks

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