Monday, February 09, 2009


Here’s a pair of movies by the same name for a comparative religion or sociology class to compare and contrast. The only trouble with it is that you’ll have to watch the newer version, which is hardly worth the effort except for such a purpose or if you enjoy watching Nicholas Cage stagger through various cliff-hangers in an indestructible self-cleaning suit.

If you’re approaching this idea with a film class in mind, the place to start is http://www.steve-p/org/wm/ which will give you an overview of the genesis of the first version of the movie, more inspired-by than based-on a book called “Ritual” by David Pinner. The kernel dynamic is human sacrifice and the elaboration is Celtic vegetation religion in a pastiche from “The Golden Bough” rather than “The White Goddess,” which would have been a little more coherent maybe. Still, the writers did grasp two things: that a compelling religion arises out of response to ecology, in this case an island off the coast of Scotland that is anomalously balmy enough to grow fruit; and that even the most conventional-seeming people can demonstrate appalling behavior if they feel themselves threatened. (Better you than me, mate!) Even the first version of the "Wicker Man" was made as a low-budget horror film, but these were fairly sophisticated people working with perennially intriguing material. After all, “green” is the contemporary catchword for virtue.

Though the first version of “Wicker Man” was controversial in its use of the book, and even that version was made twice -- once as a barebones attempt and then again as a reconsideration of the already shot footage. It was 1973, those hippie days. At the time I wasn’t paying much attention, wasn’t near movie theatres, and didn’t really understand the commotion in the press, which was good for business, I’m sure. The second version of “Wicker Man” in 2003 just fanned old embers without much fire, so to speak, but barely made their money back and because of the cult status of the first film.

Mung Being is an online publication responding to alternative “granola” subjects. It has an excellent “inside” account of the original production, which was ignited by a committee of three men. The second version seems to have been promoted by Nicholas Cage for himself, so it was “self-inflicted.” He evidently had no grasp of the “plate tectonics” of the project. Robin Hardy knew the right stuff.

Like Shirley Jackson’s story “The Lottery,” someone is chosen to be a scapegoat, that person is “different” in some way, so dispensable with no advocates. Two forces stand in opposition -- in the first version “old-time religion in the Celtic mode” is set up against Puritanical Scots Christianity -- but fundamentally these recurring two human forces might be called “Dionysian/Apollonian” or “right brain/left brain” or “Aquarian/Bible Belt.” In fact, Robin Hardy is now using the same dynamics for a movie called “Cowboys For Christ,” this time Texas sincere Christian missionaries who stumble into a nuclear-based utopia. It’s not released yet, but I’m sure it will pick up on the environmental movement. The first movie hit it lucky when it coincided with the Neo-pagan movement, which included a love of Celtic folk music. the cowboy version will include Gospel.

The second version of “The Wicker Man” was directed by Neil LaBute, which seems to be part of the problem. He’s a Mormon from Spokane, which gives you a clue right there. His sophomoric cynicism, expressed in bitter portraits, got him booted by the LDS patriarchs, and I don’t expect he hangs around Spokane much either. Either he or Cage or both made something about deep-rooted human convictions worth martyrdom (The policeman in the first version prays word-for-word the prayer of Walter Scott on his way to execution.) into a shallow little bit of foot-stamping about May Day celebrations as practiced by those vicious feminists, who can’t stand a “real man” like Nicholas Cage. In the first WM the island seems at first to be charmingly rustic but quite obviously Brit and stable: the usual village characters and village lord keep order. Well, maybe that bar keep is a little fey. And all the younger women seem quite Swedish or Polish. (Including their accents.) They refuse to keep their clothes on. (Oddly there’s little or no nudism in the second version and none of the orgy on the lawn of the first.)

Cage is portrayed as a man on the edge of sanity, hallucinating his own family losses. Edward Woodward presents a single man (vaguely engaged but “virgin”) who is absolutely convinced of the righteousness of what he is doing. It would be possible to write a convincing interpretation of the Woodward version as a man who refuses to acknowledge his homosexual true nature, especially since the actor has a kind of prissy, fussy aspect -- though he’s clearly not weak or feminine. The second version would only take one onto the territory of petty man-hating feminist wars in San Francisco in the Seventies. In fact, that is exactly the kind of diminishing and trivializing that refugees from True Belief use to excuse their change of heart -- that all religion is bunk anyway. Just fairy tales.

Joseph Campbell
tried to teach a basic vocabulary of religious concepts but some neopagans keep pushing that down to “bliss mongering.” Mircea Eliade was far more scholarly but the feminists have attacked him as not suiting their definitions. The man who quietly brought me to the light, as well as a lot of his fellow priests, is a private priest and professor named Robert Schreiter whose book, “Constructing Local Theologies,” urges religious leaders to go down into the roots of symbols, to find their deep essential human meanings -- even if it means finding new versions of bread and wine. After all, not every culture is Mediterranean so not every culture considers bread and wine basic to life or even knows what they are. Inuit eat meat. That’s it. Period. Talk about “incarnational.” (Carne means meat, for you folks from Spokane. Check your chili can.)

The first “Wicker Man” speaks to Iraqi prisoners water-boarded to death in American prisons, as well as early Baptist women hanged for non-conforming beliefs, as well as Jesuit missionaries burned alive by Hurons or Iroquois, as well as Joan of Arc and Michael Servetus. It is the sincerity of their commitment that makes the death tragic, not some blundering horrific mistaken intrusion. I’m looking forward to “Cowboys for Christ” and wondering if it will echo Waco.

No comments: