Monday, August 27, 2007

Movies watched, week of August 5 to 11, 2007

A Touch of Greatness, Leslie Sullivan, 2003

A tribute to what is increasingly becoming a rarity, yet so essential to building our capacity for learning: a phenomenal teacher. Albert Cullum, an elementary school teacher in Rye, NY, in the 50s and 60s, was an innovator in American education, emphasizing elements of play in the classroom and inspiring children to channel their “touch of greatness.”

Most memorable is the black and white archival footage shot by Robert Downey Sr. (quite a difference from Putney Swope) of Mr. Cullum’s students putting on Shakespearean plays. The performances transcend the typical grade school assemblies that I remember; these children demonstrate impressively haunting acting skills, especially for fifth-graders with little to no prior experience; the images of children in such serious roles (and taking the roles very seriously) is remarkable. But then, it’s remarkable just to see fifth-graders who are passionate about Shakespeare to begin with, which speaks to the effectiveness of Cullum’s approach.

Jonestown: The Life and Death of People’s Temple, Stanley Nelson, 2006

While this PBS documentary about Jim Jones and the strange, disturbing legacy of People’s Temple may not p
rovide a lot of new information or insight into the tragic massacre at Jonestown, the archival video and audio footage, much of it only recently declassified, absolutely makes it worth seeing. The sounds of Jonestown’s final hours, of children screaming while Jones preaches, chanting “Mother, mother, mother, mother, please” and “Wheres the vat, the vat, the vat...Bring it so the adults can begin” are hauntingly devastating.

Jones is portrayed as a poor Indiana child born into a family of alcoholics and bigots, who
aspired to something greater. He would grow up to be a charismatic preacher promising a utopian community, free of prejudice, where people took care of one another. One was meant to devote their life to the cause, donating every last cent of their earnings (save a $5 weekly allowance) to the church—in return they would (theoretically) never need anything—food, medical attention, camaraderie, spiritual guidance, and so on. But, as we now know, the community was far from utopian—congregants were subjected to physical, sexual, and mental abuse, deception (for instance, Jones planted his secretary in the pews so she could be "healed" before the parishioners), and brainwashing.

One of the film’s most disturbing moments comes when a former member states that the Koolaid massacre had been rehearsed back in California, when Jones served what he falsely claimed to be poisoned punch as a test of his devotees’ faith—really, more of a test of his power, which he exercised on a level that paralleled Stalin’s. Congregants were compelled to turn in their own family members if they showed the slightest inclination towards dissent, essentially slaves to the increasingly deranged Jones.

It might have been interesting to interview psychologists in an attempt to provide more
insight into why people are drawn to cults (although, as one survivor eloquently points out, nobody “joins a cult”—they join a political movement, or a religious organization), and, in turn, how one man could influence people to such an irrational degree that they would put up with such cruelty and abuse, follow him across the world to Guyana, and, ultimately, pour cyanide down the throats of their own children. But then, it may be more effective to leave this for us to ponder, as a question that seems (and may be) unanswerable.

Deliver Us From Evil
, Amy Berg, 2006

As if I hadn’t subjected myself to enough disturbing material for the week, I decided to watch another documentary that takes a scathing look at religious figures, only where
Jonestown focuses on one strange (nut)case, this one takes on the whole Catholic institution. And just as Jonestown is about the abuse of power, this too exposes the corruption that even the Catholic Church, an institution that prides itself on its piousness, can succumb to as a result of its supreme authority and influence.

Father O’Grady, an Irish Catholic priest who relocated to Northern California in the 70s, was known by nearly all who came in contact with him as the pinnacle of godliness, someone worthy of their trust and respect—and yet, O’Grady has admitted to the sexual abuse of dozens of children (including a 9-month old) over the years. Shockingly (although not all that surprisingly when you think about it), after the first incident was reported, the Church hierarchy allowed this behavior to continue by taking every possible step to protect O’Grady and suppress the facts. Instead of de-ordaining him, or at the very least sending him off to a monastery where he would be far away from children, he was simply moved from parish to parish, more or less left to do as he pleased with the poor, unsuspecting parishioners.

The film claims that the rampant cases of pedophilia in the clergy exist largely because of the celibacy rule, which didn't always exist in Catholicism. But O'Grady is definitely another case altogether, as he admits that he's only turned on by children. His extensive onscreen interviews show him to be quite frank about his past activity, and he seems to be taking steps to contend with his unsavory predilections—or at least attempting to—but that does nothing to assuage the years of emotional devastation his many victims are still feeling today.

It’s particularly telling that the church declined to be interviewed for the film, maintaining silence on the issue just as they always have.

Hairspray, John Waters, 1988
Polyester, John Waters, 1981
Desperate Living, John Waters, 1977

More on this to come.

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