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By Sam Poppleton
‘The film so funny it’s been banned in Norway!’ This was how The Life Of Brian was marketed in that most scampish of Scandinavian states, Sweden. Upon its release, the Monty Python troupe’s cinematic summa (allegedly developed from a quip by Eric Idle that their next project would be Jesus Christ: Lust for Glory) caused outrage amongst the Jewish and Christian communities, each clamouring to be most offended and whip up the most fervour. Followers were dissuaded from screenings by a ‘C’ for condemned certificate issued by the Catholic Church (note that neither The Devil Inside, ‘the film the Vatican doesn’t want you to see’, nor The Exorcist received such a label.)
All sorts of fatuous charges were levelled at the former Oxbridge men, mostly during the laughable TV debate between Michael Palin, John Cleese, the then Bishop of Southwark Mervyn Stockwood and the religious commentator Malcolm Muggeridge. The Pythons’ film was blasphemous, portrayed men dressed as women, offended homosexuals (not that the Church wasn’t well practised at this themselves), wasn’t funny, used too much bad language and targeted Christianity unfairly…apparently. Clease and Palin outmanoeuvred their opponents with one clinching line: ‘have you seen the film?’ Of course neither of the religious representatives had. They’d made their assumption based on snippets of information and made an inductive leap to a spectacular conclusion. To be fair it wouldn’t have been the first time a religious leader would fall foul of such irrationalities.
It’s in light of this that my opinion of Scientologists has improved. Harvey Weinstein, the Oscar-generating, Malcolm Tucker-inspiring Hollywood mogul, has been promoting his latest charge The Master, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, on the premise that powerful unnamed Scientologists in Hollywood applied ‘lots of pressure’ to stop the project. Weinstein’s case seems strengthened when the parallels between Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character, Lancaster Dodd, and L. Ron Hubbard are exposed. Both were trained as nuclear physicists and served in the U.S. Navy during World War II before setting up a cult in 1952 and married women called Mary Sue. This has to be more than coincidence. Yet it is Weinstein, not the Church of Scientology, who is trying to generate a ruckus over these similarities. The Church has stated that ‘the movie is a work of fiction…Paul Thomas Anderson is quoted as saying: ‘This is a fabricated story: pure fiction’ and Philip Seymour Hoffman is quoted as saying: ‘It’s not a Scientology movie.’ There is nothing more to say about the matter.’ When pressed on how the famously Hollywood-based Church would react, Karin Pouw uttered those immortal words: ‘We have not seen the film, so can’t say one way or the other’. What perfection. An admission of ignorance and a line so very many critics should remember. The Scientologists are not banishing Anderson and his team on the basis of rumours and supposition. John Travolta has not had to bad-mouth his Ladder 49 co-star Phoenix. Instead they are reserving judgement and acknowledging fiction for what it is. Presumably, they have cast a similar critical gaze on Dianetics – Scientology’s holy text – and not found it wanting.
American amateur film Innocence of Muslims demonstrates the danger of religious hype and the damage it can cause. This week four American soldiers, the American Ambassador to Lybia and countless other civillians have been killed across the Muslim world in reaction to a privately financed, manipulatively edited film called Innocence of Muslims. It portrays the Prophet Muhammed as a madman, philanderer and child molester. Of course, very few of the rioters can possibly have seen this movie. Whilst it is fiction, it does directly contravene many of their religious beliefs and directly insults an icon at the heart of their culture. This is what real anti-religion films look like. Not mild-mannered Brit-Comedy from the late 70s, nor a drama which looks set to fall neatly into Anderson’s back-catalogue (his theme that the search for happiness corrupts us looks set to continue, watch Boogie Nights for the sex and drugs version, There Will Be Blood for the money and power alternative, The Master probably for religious salvation). Trying to equate satire or historically-inspired narratives with a politically motivated religious insult, as the Christian denominations did with Brian and Weinstein is attempting to do with The Master, only invites the kind of tragedies that are occurring across the Middle East. Compared to them, the rational thinking and calm talking of the Pythons and the Scientologists is looking pretty sophisticated.