Matt Damon Gets Religion

Matt Damon and Emily Blunt think they are about to meet God and are appropriately slack-jawed at the prospect, as I would be. Actually, I'd be snickering while pretending to go along with the prank.

I take movies way too seriously.  I don’t mean the business of filmmaking, that’s too much of a surreal farce, like a performance of Ubu Roi in a never-ending loop with Harvey Weinstein, Scott Rudin and Steven Spielberg alternating in the role of Père Ubu.  I mean the movies themselves.  I’m constantly relating real life to cinematic reality, a sure sign of not-so-latent mental illness.  For instance, I might be in an animated conversation about my landlady, the Wicked Blais, gesticulating like a Roman trying to wiggle out of blame for a traffic accident, and I’ll say something like, “I’m just like Burt Reynolds in that scene in Deliverance when he’s down, his leg is broken, bone jutting out, and the rabid hillbillies are coming after him and he picks up his crossbow and …”  All of this is to say that while I know Matt Damon is only engaged in an extended game of adult Let’s Pretend when he makes a movie, I’m a bit concerned about two of his recent choices, The Adjustment Bureau and Hereafter.

I really loved the first twenty minutes of TAB. And I mean that: I more than enjoyed it, I loved it. I was smiling. I thought, Hmmm, this might shape up to be the intellectual challenge that Inception wasn’t.  Then they brought God into it, and I started fiddling with my Blackberry, itching for a game of poker. (I am way down right now, over a million dollars at the World Series tables, but that’s nothing compared to the fiasco a month ago when the damned thing reset and I lost thirty-one million in a nanosecond.)

Let me jump off the rails a second to talk about Inception.  I was expecting too much from a major summer release, I think.  My expectations were raised even more when I had a brief scene with a showcase Cali couple just outside the Arclight Cinerama Dome in Hollywood.

“Are you going to chain your bike right there?” the She of the couple asked.

“Uh, yes, that’s right,” I replied, resisting a retort like, No, I’m just practicing public displays of light bondage with my buddy Schwinn, here.  You know these Germans, so kinky.

James Killough by Pamela Hanson

Why I can't work for Arclight Cinemas slinging popcorn. (photo: P. Hanson)

“They made us move ours when we chained them there last week,” she explained.

“Ah, well, fuck them.  For fifteen bucks a ticket, I’ll chain it wherever I please.  They’re total fascists.”  Let me explain this last seemingly gratuitous remark about LA’s premier cinema chain.  I understand from a friend that Arclight employees are not allowed to have tattoos on their forearms, and the men cannot have pierced ears, which means I can never work there even if I got the holes in my ears sown up.  Forget my philosophy about tattooing, but if women can have pierced ears, so can men.  I’m suspecting Mel Gibson owns a majority share in parent company Pacific Theaters.

“What are you going to see?” the He of the couple asked.


“Oh!” she gasped.  And she did, she actually gasped.  “We loved that.”

“We’ve seen it three times already,” he added.  Christ, it had only just opened.

“Pay extra careful attention to the details,” she said.

“Yeah,” he said.  “If you don’t, you’ll miss something and it might get confusing.”

I should have known better.  This is, like, LA-LA-land, you know?  I sat there in my seat in the Dome straining to keep track of the “details” until varicose veins exploded across my bald pate.  Of course, there was nothing that couldn’t be followed by a ten-year-old with an average IQ.  This was a summer movie, after all.  But, as I mentioned, I take film way too seriously.

Back to TAB.  What I liked: the performances, and the direction of those performances; the graceful editing; the sets, specifically turning New York into an Escher-esque landscape; the way New York was filmed, indeed most of the photography — there’s a shot in the beginning of the film of an outdoor clock through tree branches that is beautifully composed; in sum, almost all of the production values.  The director, George Nolfi, is a screenwriter making his directorial debut.  Hats off for a job well done.

But.  God?  Why bring that into it?

I won’t throw any spoilers in here.  It’s clear from TAB’s trailer that it is about free will versus destiny, and about outside forces, who have walked in from the Mad Men set, costumes and all, making adjustments to both.  But if I scan the script into my inner screenwriting software and analyze it, I’m pretty sure they could have kept God out of it and not damaged the structure of the piece.  In fact, they would have kept the 15% of the population that is atheist happier; I’ll wager a larger percentage than 15% of the $15 ticket-buyers in mid-March identify as atheist.  And simply ignoring the God factor wouldn’t have offended the religious at all.

The cast of "Mad Men" gang up on Matt Damon. But they are no match for true love. Nor is my patience, I guess.

I insert here a brief statement from the Book of St. James the Menace with regard to religion.  As an orthodox atheist, I agree with Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens that existence is far more enjoyable and magical if you remove the supernatural from it, and behold the wonderment of evolution from the Big Bang on without notes from scriptures or rattle-shaking.  Yes, you have the right to believe what you wish, and I will die for your right to believe it — well, maybe not die, but at least throw a tomato at whomever is denying you that right — but not if what you believe leads to bloodshed and war, which is often the bottom line of “religious diversity,” in itself a contradiction in terms; all juju mumbo jumbo is the same.  And religious institutions, with the exception of those activities that are directly involved with charitable works, should be taxed like any other business.  And stringently regulated.  And communion wafers are gross.  Amen.

Why am I so perplexed that Matt Damon might be getting metaphysical on us?  Forget the usual film financing restrictions that require a film of this budget to have at least one star of his magnitude.  A quick look at the credits indicates he is probably a major driving force behind getting TAB made at all. George Nolfi wrote Bourne Ultimatum and Ocean’s Twelve.  We can assume they like each other.  Therefore, Matt Damon stands by the views expressed in the film.

My own views on free will vesus destiny?  Summed up right here in a New York Times article.  Boom, that’s it.  No more worrying.

The other head-scratcher of an attachment is Damon’s appearance in Hereafter. Now, for all I know he did this because he and Eastwood had such a blast on Invictus they just had to go another round.  For all of my seemingly assured insider-ish opinions, as I’ve said before, I’m just a bit of satellite debris orbiting Planet Hollywood.  In any case, every production has its unique making-of narrative, about which you can at best read the tea leaves from afar based on your own experience.

Hereafter isn’t the complete cack I was led to believe it was from the reviews.  It’s actually pleasantly anodyne, extremely well crafted, the usual Eastwood stately fare.  It asks us to keep an open mind about the possibilities of an afterlife, which is the only cack bit about it.  The one “scientific” opinion expressed in the film is the usual tripe: that too many people who have near-death experiences report the same thing: the light, the weightlessness, the sense of being everywhere at once.  Ergo there is “empirical” basis for belief in the afterlife.  In the world of St. James the Menace this is easily explained.  We are all just walking chemical reactions.  Oxygen or blood being shut off in the brain probably triggers the same corporeal sensation in everyone, just the way that everyone who drops LSD trips, or takes E rolls, or smokes crack … you get the point.

The worst part about watching Hereafter any time during the past week is seeing the hyper-realistic recreation of the South-Asian tsunami of ’04.  I had to stand up while I was watching it just in case I needed to leave the room if it got too bad.  I’m a big pussy when it comes to empathy.  Regardless of how it relates to current events, it is an accomplished sequence, to which nothing in the rest of the film matches up.

Cécile de France being chased by a recreation of the South-Asian Tsunami. I know, too soon, but having watched the recent real-life footage, it's amazing how well they rendered it in "Hereafter."

Matt Damon seems like such a great guy, such a mensch, that I wouldn’t be surprised if he makes a run for high office some day.  Better an actor like him than Reagan (how that dunce ever made the transformation into one of the great political leaders of our time I will never understand, no matter how often I watch Being There).  So I suppose Matt will have to take a spiritual view of some kind, otherwise he can’t be a proper shepherd, and we can’t be properly led.

Veering completely off subject to the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of stand-up, “good guy” actors, Bret Easton Ellis has a fresh take on Charlie Sheen in the new Tina Brown Newsweek, which can be read at The Daily Beast.  Bret’s writing style is at once more cogent and exhilarating than mine, damn him, and I make that comparison because we dance around the same kind of social commentary from the same point of view.  He probably has a deeper love for pop culture than I do.

I am finally allowing myself to bring up Charlie Sheen again after dissing him once when this blog first got started.  It became personal.  Last week, a close friend described me as a cross between Sheen and the emperor Hadrian, references that left me a bit huh? until I read the Newsweek article and realized how that might be one way of seeing me, if you are seeing Sheen in that way.  I was steadfastly ignoring the Sheen scenario to avoid taking umbrage at the comparison.

If I ever wonder why I might be compared to Charlie Sheen, I just have to look at this image, imagine him bald and bearded, a boy in place of the girl in the background ...

Bret says that Sheen’s behavior is a classic, well-earned mid-life crisis played out in public.  I believe I either had my mid-life crisis very early, at thirty-eight/thirty-nine, which catapulted me from LA to London lest my own shadow catch up with me and drag me to hell, or I have yet to have it.  I think the former is the more likely scenario.

I agree with everything Bret says in that article, for once.  Our differences are minor: he says “Post-Empire,” whereas I say fin d’empire coz I’m a Euro-brat what speaks French, ‘n shit.  I grudgingly see now what my friend might mean, especially if I am Sheen tempered by Hadrian.  In truth, when I see unapologetic living train wrecks like that, I do mutter, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

See?  Even I couldn’t resist bringing the Old Charlatan into it.

Comments: 3

  • oldancestor March 17, 20117:14 pm

    The sad truth is a lot of people can’t follow a story. They just don’t realize they can’t follow it. They think the story “doesn’t make sense.”

    When I was in college English, we had been assigned a book that happened to be nonlinear (I forget the title). During a class discussion, one of the students said she didn’t like the story because it was too hard to follow. The professor said, “It’s nonlinear.” She said, “I can’t follow nonlinear stories.” He said, “Then you shouldn’t be in college.”

    She dropped the class, and he still is one of my favorite professors.

    I usually (and perhaps unfairly) assume most actors are airheads, so I’d say maybe Damon didn’t “get” that he was in a god movie. But he seems a lot sharper than the average pretty face in Hollywood.

    I don’t actually mind a religious movie, as long as it doesn’t surprise you with the fact…

    (I once read a Dean Koontz book (I know) and the leader of the alien invaders turned out to be Satan. Cool twist, Dean. Good thing the hero read her bible and was a second-amendment advocate. She saved us all! I guess he never read “Childhood’s End” by Arthur C. Clarke)

    … for instance, Last Temptation of Christ was an interesting approach, and, speaking of Damon, let’s not forget Dogma was pretty Christ-affirming. Alan Rickman stole the show, though, not surprisingly.

    You’ve addressed your resentment at being compared to Sheen, but what about the Hadrian compliment? He was one of Rome’s greatest emperors and an architecture buff, which makes him all right. Plus, he pined for his lost love, Antinous, who died tragically… A good love story for the gays. I can’t believe no one has made a movie about it. It would make Brokeback Mountain look like Godzilla Vs Gigan (a very unromantic movie from 1971).

    One of the stories about Hadrian goes that, before he was emperor, a colleague mocked his taste for domed buildings, claiming his designs resembled “pumpkins.” Hadrian went on to become Emperor, beheaded the guy, and built the domed Pantheon in Rome, which is still standing almost 2000 years later.

    Don’t get me started on Hadrian’s villa a Tivoli, which, like Judge Smails’ wife, must have been something before electricity.

    Here’s one way I win and you lose: I don’t have tattoos or piercings. I can make 8 dollars an hour serving insanely over-priced popcorn on weekends and major holidays to people who can’t follow Inception without getting a headache from concentrating, and you can’t.

    I’m tried to coax a friend of mine from agnosticism to atheism. I told her there are two rooms. One is full of fear, confusion, superstition, magic, illogic, and willful ignorance. It’s dark and crowded and short of oxygen. The other room is home to reason, logic, and and true, unfiltered wonder. It is endless and bright and accessed by the simple act of opening the door and stepping through. It can fit an unlimited number of people and an endless amount of knowledge. The only thing that doesn’t fit in the room is all the stuff in the first room.

    She said she wasn’t ready for that. Oh well. I tried.

    Eh, don’t compare yourself to other writers. You don’t write like they do, but neither do they write like you.

    Dr Suess will always write more clever rhyme than I can; Chuck Palahniuk will always weave surreal elements better than I can; Agatha Christie will always knit together an impossibly clever murder scheme more tightly than I can; Dean Koontz will always find absurd ways to work Christian conservative advocacy into his novels better than I can (probably. I haven’t tried).

    You go, James Killough! No one writes like you, and if you put out a book of commentary/essays, I’d buy it.

    This has nothing to do with your post today, but maybe you can help me with this, since I have a sneaking suspicion that your IQ is much higher than mine:

    Did I create a paradox I cannot reconcile when I decided “There are no absolutes”? Never mind the passive framing of my declaration.

    I can say, “There is one absolute, which is: There are no absolutes.” It’s an even worse paradox, because it’s two absolutes now. The original statement and the statement about it.

    Or are there tons of absolutes, and I just don’t know it?

    • James Killough March 17, 20119:40 pm

      There are tons of absolutes, just speak to a physicist. The Hadrian/Sheen comment was made by my Antinous himself, whom Hadrian might have had drowned, so I told him to be careful. We emperors are capricious; we’ll bump you off, then spend the rest of our lives deifying you. Matt Damon dropped out of Harvard, he’s very smart, and won an Oscar for screenwriting at 24 or something. I’d answer this wonderful comment more, but I have to catch the 9:55 showing of the fodder for tomorrow’s blog. Big hug.

  • oldancestor March 18, 20116:26 pm

    Damn physicists. Always dismantling my ruminations with one law of thermodynamics or another.

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