Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Golden Pompous

I watched two silly movies yesterday, the delightful 1937 soap opera extraordinaire titled "Between Two Women" and the visually stunning 2007 valentine to anti-Christian sentiment, "The Golden Compass."

In "Between Two Women," Franchot Tone plays Dr. Allan Demarest Meighan. The women he loves and is loved by are the angelic nurse Claire Donahue played by Maureen O'Sullivan and beautiful but too party-loving socialite Patricia Sloan, played by Virginia Bruce. Nurse Donahue is married to an alcoholic lunkhead who hits her and wealthy Patricia loves Dr. Meighan but loathes his work and she's not too crazy about Nurse D either. The doc and the socialite will later marry. When I say soap opera, I am sincere -- the inconvenient hubby dies on the operating table; the inconvenient wife is facially disfigured in a train wreck -- the works! The atmosphere at General Hospital is somewhat unorthodox. Dr. Meighan and socialite Pat smooch, drink champagne, and smoke cigarettes in Pat's hospital room, all while she is wearing a fab low-cut negligee. In another scene, her maid (yes, wearing a maid uniform, tends to her). Later, the doc and nurse eat sandwiches and drink alcohol in another room. Wow! This is the kind of hospital even a patient could love -- but maybe not for surgery. And this is the kind of movie that is such fun to smile and just plain laugh out loud through, it is not possible to feel guilty about undone housework and an unfinished novel. Erich von Stroheim wrote this story. Who knew Erich von Stroheim had a sense of humor? My favorite moment in this adorable nonsense film is when Dr. Meighan says "I've had five surgeries today" and this was after the champagne. So, would that be approximately one surgery per hour? I don't know, I'm not a member of the medical profession or a 1930's screenwriter.

"The Golden Compass," the film adaptation of the first story in Philip Pullman's fantasy series titled "His Dark Materials Trilogy (The Golden Compass; The Subtle Knife; The Amber Spyglass") very deservedly received the 2008 Oscar for Best Achievement in Visual Effects. Settling comfy on the sofa, almost in disbelief that my cable company was actually showing a movie other than "Sleepless in Seattle" or "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three," I was ready to enjoy this film starring Nicole Kidman as Marisa Coulter, Daniel Craig as Lord Asriel, and Dakota Blue Richards as the heroine Lyra Belacqua. I recalled all the hoopla when this film was released in 2007, much of it about the presence of demons which, in my view, turned out to be simply a variation of the "shadow" or dark side Carl Jung believed each of us has. Because the film is so beautiful to watch, at first, it's easy to disregard the obvious hatred of organized religion -- you'd have to have a tangerine for a brain to not recognize the "Magisterium" as Catholic, Episcopal or other Christian churches. No matter how erudite this work seems (the book title "His Dark Materials" is from John Milton's "Paradise Lost") or imaginative it is -- polar bears duking it out and magic dust the color of rainbows, all in a parallel universe, its central premise is that witchcraft is good and Christianity, foolishness.

What possible link can there be between these two very different movies separated by almost eight decades of thought and technology? Stereotypes. "Between Two Women" has the ever popular noble physician and the fun shallow wealthy woman. I've known unethical doctors and generous and caring wealthy ladies. "The Golden Compass" is peopled with more stereotypes -- the usual good guy, a saint-like scientist and the always favorite Hollywood villains, an evil church hierarchy. What about St. Francis of Assisi, Mother Teresa, and the thousands of social workers, lay and religious, Catholic and Protestant, who devote their lives to improving the lives of the poor and injured in this country and in developing nations? The problem with Christianophobia is its smugness and pomposity in doing the very thing it accuses church leaders of doing -- telling others what to think.

I live in a time of extraordinary sensitivity to the feelings of non-Christians and this is certainly as it should be since hopefully, all thinking people desire fair thought. Ideally, this intellectual courtesy would also extend to Christians. I recall a friend who is an atheist confiding that she cringed every time someone said "God bless you" when she sneezed. Apparently, she had forgotten I'd been God blessing her for years. And there is the member of the book club who, no matter what book is being discussed, always manages to bring up the Spanish Inquisition as if it happened yesterday. One would think he was personally and continually tortured by ghost Inquisitors. To my credit, I have not handed him a copy of "The New Anti-Catholicism" by scholar Philip Jenkins (with pages 185-187 dog-eared).

In "The Golden Compass," the magical compass always shows the truth. I imagine the young heroine Lyra flipping it open like a starlet with a shiny compact and seeing"The Chronicles of Narnia" by C. S. Lewis is eons better, in this universe or any parallel ones!"


  1. I don't think it is a situation that applies to the Catholic Church because it is the Catholic Church. I just think that within any hierarchical organization that has grown a lot and become important, people at different levels of the hierarchy have a tendency to become insular and take actions within the hierarchy or bureaucracy even in detriment to its founding principles. This is part of what led to the current scandal with regards to the child-abuse by priests. But this happens to all sorts of organizations all over the world and then others pile up on them. It's the human condition.

    As to saying "God bless you" after somebody sneezes, I think this is a very ancient custom. It has to do with the belief that if you sneeze hard enough you can expel your soul from your body and if the devil is around he will snatch it. So then you say "God bless you" (in Spain and Latin America they say "Jesus") to keep the devil away long enough to allow the soul to get back in. I always make a distinction between religion and the cultural values or practices that have their roots in religious ideas. The latter can be accepted by everyone including atheists.

  2. Hi Phanto, Yes, your comments apply to any large organization whether a church, school, boy/girl scouts, etc.

    That's interesting about "God bless you" being an ancient custom. I remember hearing that your heart stopped when you sneezed and that's why people asked a protective blessing.

  3. I love the way you love film and story and yet can remain critical (in the best sense of the word) as you think about specific films or stories.

  4. Excellent reviews, Barbara. I'm not too tempted to take a break from my steady diet of B westerns at the moment to watch either film, though.