Just Give Me The Facts

A while back I had a week of documentaries. Too much reality!

JACK SMITH AND THE DESTRUCTION OF ATLANTIS, THE LIFE OF REILLY (both excellent), and at Filmhouse on the big screen, THE BEACHES OF AGNES. Also:

RELIGULOUS. This is satiric agit-prop in sub-Michael Moore mode, sometimes very funny or striking, but fatally compromised as it tries to do two separate things under the mistaken belief that they are one thing.

1) Bill Maher and director Larry Charles (BORAT and BRUNO) want to show religious zealots and fundamentalists up for the maniacs they are, exposing the contradictions, impossibilities and barbarism in the Bible and Koran.

2) They want to dismiss ALL religion as anti-scientific, dumb and dangerous.

The obvious problem is that, while Maher is articulate (helped by the editing) and glib, several of his religious interviewees, the non-extremists, are clearly a lot more rational and open-minded than he is. One zany catholic priest is actually much funnier.

In some interviews, Maher comes across reasonably well, but in others he’s too much like Borat or Bruno, being downright offensive to decent people who are attempting to illuminate him as to their beliefs (without ever trying to convert him). At the start, he says he’s investigating because he wants to understand, but his mind is completely closed and he lectures and insults his interviewees that than listening to them.

Maher’s big point is that none of us know if there’s a God or deeper meaning. I agree with him, but the trouble is that much of the time he contrives to give the impression that he knows there’s nothing out there. And by focussing on loons and extremists and corrupt organized religions he makes his job both too easy (on the surface) and impossible (deep down — because he doesn’t address the more intelligent points — one of the better arguments for the benefits of faith is that it actually increases your chances of recovery from depression!) The horrors caused by extremists deserve to be addressed, but you’re biting off a huge chunk of philosophy if you want to attack all religion, and really the best way to do that would be to find the most reasonable believers you can get. To his credit, Maher finds a few, but then fails to score any points against these genuinely tolerant and open-minded sorts.

The real key moment is when he’s quoting passages of biblical hate-speech to a liberal christian woman, who says she just disregards anything like that she doesn’t agree with. Maher scolds her that “I don’t think people read the Bible that way,” which is unforgivably rude since he’s talking to a person who clearly does. The only sensible way to read the damn thing is by drawing from it what you find useful (which might be nothing).

15 Responses to “Just Give Me The Facts”

  1. Bill Maher and the anti-religious squad are a bunch of bores parroting arguments that are very 18th Century. Reminds me of the point of Godard’s Notre Musique that two opposing sides end up resembling each other rather than striking their own individual viewpoint. Michael Haneke in an interview regarding The White Ribbon displayed more sophistication about religion than most of this lot.

    I saw one fantastic documentary last week. Staub by Hartmut Bitomsky. It’s about dust particles and it’s beautiful, scary and also funny all the while being educational.

  2. http://www.filmlinc.com/fcm/nd09/haneke.htm
    Here’s the interview…

    I’ve never been especially impressed by Bill Maher, he seemed like a demagogue to me as does Christopher Hitchens and that scientist guy Richard something. For me making a documentary about something you have contempt for is a poor aesthetic choice. That’s one reason I dislike the Darwin revivalism going on in Anglo-American culture. It’s more about Darwin’s theories putting a sock to Christianity rather than his theories. Makes me thankful for my science education when we were taught the science without the political grudges and as such evolution was fascinating to learn and it made us think for ourselves.

    In an odd way, Staub(German for Dust) is a film that by being scientific in it’s outlook comes of as both religious and agressively materialist. It’s about existence amounting to little more than a pile of dust. About dust emanating from human existence but needing our absence to accumulate, about the meaninglessness of grand human endeavours and the merit of our smallest strivings to succeed. It’s almost like a reading of the Ecclesiastes.

  3. Maher is indeed too glib by half. As for Hitchens the less said the better. When it comes to atheism give me Robert Bresson — who starts as a True Believing Catholic and by the time Le Diable Probablement rolls around not only rejects the church but defies to do anything about it. The church took him up on it — condemning the film and browbeating its babe-a-licious star Antoinne Monnier (Matisse’s grandson) into claiming he was tricked into doing it.

    Jack Smith and The Destruction of Atlantis is a wonderful introduction to Jack — both his work and his incredibly weird self.

    The Beaches of Agnes is first-rate Varda. In it (among many other things) she finally cops to the fact that Jacques died of AIDS.

  4. Never knew about Bresson’s loss of faith(though L’Argent makes sense in relation to it). Charlie Chaplin is probably my favourite atheist film-maker, the finale of Monsieur Verdoux especially that sardonic line “I’ve made my peace with God!” as he walks to his death a la the Tramp was probably enough to make the right-wing go nuts in throwing him out. It goes further than any of these anti-religious people. Chabrol(another non-believer) noted that the finale of that film was remarkable because the priest was a right sort and treated respectfully which makes Verdoux’s rejection of his platitudes all the more bitter for the believer.

    I haven’t seen the Varda yet. That said her The Gleaners and I is one of the most beautiful documentaries of this decade. And also her sequel Deux ans apres where she summons the manner in which Demy haunts her memories stil.

  5. I was waiting for some kind of admission from Varda, it would have seemed really chickenshit not to have acknowledged Demy’s cause of death (although I’ve never been widowed so who the hell am I to judge?) and I was pleased she was, by her standards, frank about it. Just how enigmatic can you be while making a film self-portrait? Fairly, I guess.

    The documentary on Smith made me wish all the harder you could see his work in decent form on DVD rather than online.

    I think you can make a good film based on anger — anger can be beautiful. But it’s maybe harder to keep perspective.

  6. Not if you’re Rita Hayworth !

  7. Agens and Jacques had a very complicated relationship. As the new documentary reveals he wasn’t the father of her first child — Rosalie. She was the result of a very unhappy relationship that sent Agnes into Jacques’ arms. Mathieu is their only child together. Jaques was an incredibly sweet dreamily romantic man, with one foot in this world and the other in one of his own devise.

  8. >When it comes to atheism give me Robert Bresson

    Ironically, when asked if there’s any piece of evidence that I, as an atheist, could offer to prove the existence of god, I say there’s only one: A MAN ESCAPED.

    Maurice Pialat’s SOUS LE SOLEIL DE SATAN deserves a mention as a deeply complex film about religion as proposed by an atheist; whilst Duvall’s THE APOSTLE fulfills similar criterion, but delivered by a staunch right-winger.

  9. Yes. un condamne a mort c’est echappe is about praying for a boyfriend, and God rewarding you with one.

    Sous le soleil de Satan has the most convincing Satan I’ve ever seen in a movie.

  10. Gotta see some Pialat! That’s my new year’s resolution, I think.

  11. I need to see more Pialat too. His Van Gogh is one of the greatest French films of all time and Jacques Dutronc IS Vincent. Also interesting is his first work, an essay-documentary called L’Amour Existe which anticipates Of Time and the City and also quite an angry work.

  12. david wingrove Says:

    Glad I’m not the only person who dislikes Bill Maher! Even though I’m not religious in any conventional sense, I was hugely offended by his condescending attitude to the religious people in the film.

    Many of them seemed far more interesting and articulate than Maher himself, and I was fascinated to learn more about them and their views – rather than listen to Maher score cheap jokes at their expense.

  13. I saw several of Pialat’s films years ago, starting with Sous le soleil de Satan, and with the Masters of Cinema releases of his work earlier this year I decided that it’s really time to catch up with the rest of his filmography. I watched, and loved, L’Enfance nue a few weeks back and I just got my hands on a DVD of his 1971 TV series La Maison des bois but haven’t had a chance to watch it all the way through yet. Bernanos’s novel Sous le soleil de Satan is worth reading in tandem with the film; a writer with a fascinating biography.

  14. I wonder if Masters of Cinema will help me out here. If not, I shall certainly rent them, and perhaps buy if I’m smitten, as seems likely.

  15. I covet the MoC DVDs very much, but they’re very expensive to get here in the US – the quality is great but my budget doesn’t stretch that far very often – so I think I’ll be making slow progress through his films, or at least the ones not easily available here.

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