March 1, 2009

Bill Maher And Simon Cowell

Today, I went to see Religuous, the anti-religious documentary with Bill Maher. It was a lot like seeing it in the theater because the house we saw it in has a home theater, with a big screen and a sophisticated sound system -- complete with theater seating, which was pretty awesome.

I think a lot of people who give up their religions go through a phase in which a movie like this would have them righteously pumped up. Maher's approach -- finding people who engage in extreme and silly variations of religion, confronting them with piercing questions, and letting the camera capture their bewildered looks -- comes off looking like a bunch of cheap shots. For the most part, these are basically good folks who are not armed with data or quips to protect themselves from humiliation, and they have never given their behavior much deep thought.

On American Idol, when someone shows up to the auditions who has no, none, zero, zilch talent to do what they're doing, they tunelessly croak out mis-remembered words in monotone, uneasily shifting their weight from one motionless foot to another in nothing approximating a rhythm of any kind, they really need to be told that before they embarrass themselves even more. That's when Simon Cowell says something like, "Look. You can't sing. You're really terrible at it. Just give it up, it's never going to happen for you, and go and do something else with your life because you're never going to succeed at this." When they protest and say, "Well, maybe you don't like my singing but I know in my heart I'm really good and sooner or later I'm gonna break in to the big time," Cowell says back, "Okay, listen carefully. Your singing is physically painful and you need to not do it again when anyone can hear you, even your mother."

It doesn't seem like it to the auditioner at the time, but Cowell is actually doing these people a service. He is forcing them to shed their delusiosn of grandeur and talent. They can move on and do something else with their lives; they can go and form a new dream to chase because there is no way they can really acheive what they dream of. But the "service" is painful to receive, and uneasy for the audience to watch being served up. On the one hand, it's exquistely amusing to watch someone be forced to confront their own shortcomings for the first time. But on the other hand, it's difficult to not have empathy for them, to feel their mental pain and anguish at realizing that something they've treasured and value is really worthless.

That's how most of the interviews in Religuous wind up feeling. It becomes painfully obvious that the deeply religious people that Maher is interviewing have never once given a moment's reflection into exactly how strangely they are behaving. Maher, like Cowell, may well be the first person in their lives to actually confront them about what they are saying, doing, and believing.

Now, to Maher's credit, he does not only lampoon easy targets. Yeah, the guy who tries to invent machines to let Jews use their household appliances on the Sabbath winds up looking awfully foolish when he evades the question, "Aren't you just trying to trick God with His own rules?" But Maher also gets some reasonable-sounding interviews from a reform-minded Catholic priest at the Vatican, and the head of the Vatican Observatory. When believers say they want to pray for him, Maher is genuinely appreciative of the good intentions behind the prayers.

And Maher does not limit his rapier to Christians. He finds a number of Muslims -- in America, Israel, and the Netherlands -- and confronts them about the illogic of their religion and, tellingly, about the violence perpetrated in the name of Islam. Here, rather than being met with the blank and uncomprehending stares of avowed Christians who have no answers to simple-seeming questions, he gets glib denials of things that are obviously true. Here, the documentary editing process becomes most effective -- when a Muslim apologist tells Maher, "No, Islam is about peace; the word Islam means peace," you get about one second of Maher looking back at the guy in astonishment that he just said such a thing, followed by a cut to a video of the explosion of a suicide bomber.

The tactic of simply explaining what religious beliefs are and letting the ridiculousness of them speak for themselves is particualrly effective when Maher takes on Mormonism and Scientology. Because the movie is, from beginning to end, an exercise in avoiding subtlety, he uses of the many cut-sequences in which he is filmed driving or sitting as a passenger in a car, talking to someone off camera to drive the point home -- why should we think that Scientiology is more worthy of ridicule than any other religion?

At times, the movie is genuinely funny. Maher's interview with the Muslim gay bar owners in Amsterdam is priceless. At other times, it threatens to veer off the tracks -- Maher cannot resist making pot jokes while sharing a joint with the head of the Amsertdam Church of Cannabis.

But at other times, and indeed for more of it than the extremely preachy last five minutes, it is heavy-handed and didactic. For those who already are not believers in religion, it becomes repetitive. For those who are firm believers in religion, they simply won't make it through the movie without shutting down mentally and putting up all of their defenses. The use of ridicule as a tool of persuasion strikes me as ultimately counterproductive -- ridicule polarizes rather than convinces. This is the ultimate failure of Religuous: although many of the subjects of the movie may well richly deserve to be mocked, the act of actually mocking them will entrench, rather than soften, the belief of the faithful in their delusions.

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