February 2000
s m u g
feed hollywood
by Brian Thomas

The general theme of Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia is one of synchronicity - strange coincidences that seem too ironic to be mere coincidence. It concerns a large and diverse collection of characters in Los Angeles. Quiz show champion William H. Macy finds that life's questions don't have such easy answers. He watches as new quiz whiz Jeremy Blackman is about to beat his 30 year old record. Blackman is more concerned about getting through the live telecast without wetting his pants (a sentiment shared by many an audience member during this three hour plus picture). Two dying old men (Phillip Baker Hall and Jason Robards) feel only remorse and regret in their final days, while their children can give them only anger. Tom Cruise becomes a "male empowerment" guru, preaching to a paying audience how to "Seduce and Destroy" all kinds of women (during his spiel I heard a guy in the audience whisper to his date, "He's so gay!"). Honest cop John C. Reilly is lonely, scared, and he's lost his gun. Some are connected very tightly with each other. Others are hardly connected at all, and yet each life impacts, even unconsciously, on all the others. And the lives of all the characters are effected for the better by an Fortean Event of Unprecedented Proportion.

I'd have to say that the overwhelming trend in movies for 1999 was religion (and more specifically, suspicion and paranoia about the inner workings of the Catholic church). This is why, despite the fact that religion is hardly mentioned throughout Magnolia, as I sat watching the Fortean Event of Unprecedented Proportion I had to wonder, "What does God have to do with all this?"

I grew up in the Midwestern United States, and although this winter has been relatively mild (El Nina be praised), we've suffered through our share and more of foul weather here. Last year at this time we were buried under one of the worst blizzards in recorded history. The snow and freezing temperatures combined to cripple public and private business, killed hundreds and caused an incredible amount of damage - some of it even leading to blackouts later in the year. It was as if the Ass of God had sat upon us. Through it all, as I struggled through the seemingly-senseless four hour commute to work, I was proud to note how the citizens had set aside their differences to help each other out in the crisis. One can barely walk down a block on a snowbound Chicago morning without seeing somebody pause to help a stranger shove his car out of a drift. Does that mean people in the Midwest are more spiritually developed than those in more moderate climes, or does it mean that God repeatedly chooses to punish us for our sinful nature?

I was raised Catholic and I had a lot of questions like this one. My church responded to my questions by saying it was the nature of Faith. If there were no divine mysteries then Faith would lose its meaning. In essence, if you believe you believe, if you don't you don't. I learned that God may have all the answers, but his "chosen ones" dealt in guesses, riddles and misinformation. I also learned that the church didn't like those that asked too many difficult questions.

In Stigmata, the Vatican sends a hit squad to kill a young woman who bears signs prophesied in the Old Testament. The same thing happens in End of Days. In Dogma, a powerful bishop's corruption (and plain bad taste) threatens to bring the apocalypse. In The Sixth Sense, the church offers a small boy no refuge from haunting spirits. In The Messenger, the church manipulates, then abandons a young woman of intense faith. In Detroit Rock City, some dudes win tickets to a KISS concert, but lose them to their own stupidity.

Okay, maybe that last one was off topic.

What does all this portrayal of weakness - and outright evil - within one of the world's most powerful religious organizations mean? For one thing, it means that Hollywood is always on the lookout for a source of new villains, and for the first time in history they feel safe enough in attacking the Catholic church. All of these films came into theaters with barely a peep of protest, while a few years ago movies like Jesus of Montreal were met with a storm of anger and controversy.

It also means that a lot of loose talk about the End Times at a milestone in our deeply-flawed-but-what-the-heck system of charting the passage of time had a lot of people rattled. New Years Eve sold more bottled water than Champaign last year, and more people headed for the hills with Y2K willies than headed into church.

But most importantly, it means that more and more people that dig Jesus are fed up with his fan club. They're suspicious about the way that fan club has been collecting dues and keeping the books. They think it's a bit odd that people who preach giving and charity themselves live in palaces among finery. They think maybe Jesus has been misquoted over the centuries depending on what message those in power wanted stressed. And hey, what was that Spanish Inquisition all about, huh?

If we accept popular entertainment as an indicator of public taste, it may be all over for the Pope and his gang, if not for Christianity itself. Despite moans of protest over the collapse of traditional values, I see this as a good thing. Maybe in the Middle Ages the population needed to be told what to do and what to believe, but now most people can read the Bible themselves, thank you - and any other good book they want - and form their own opinions. Maybe, in the 21st Century, the human race is finally starting to grow up a little.



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