Tuesday, April 07, 2009


Across from the grocery checkout, DVD’s are up for rental. One of them is “Doubt.” Black background, head shots of a woman and man. Never heard of it. I know what it’s about, though. You know too. Sure you do. Follow my reasoning, and you’ll see that I’m not doing any magic here.

The “doubt” is going to be about religious faith. That’s a 90%+ given. There’s some slim chance it’s about the woman doubting the company she works for, a la Erin Brockovich, or doubting a conservative politician, but then the movie would probably be named “Betrayal” or something like that. So… it’s ultimately about doubting God. It may stop short of that in the narrative, and be only about doubting the religious authorities. It will certainly not start by doubting God, but focus on some more worldly doubt as a vehicle to be driven toward doubting the authorities/God/everything certain.

It will emphatically not be about doubting feminism, or whether this middle-aged lesbian has really been straight all along, or Buddhism, or union membership. We are not allowed to doubt some things, you see. It is an absolute lockdown certainty that this is not about doubting a youngish liberal politician who promises hope and change. There was a time when a science-fiction writer could have written a story entitled “Doubt” and it would be about doubting reality or scientific assumptions. Asimov could have done it. It is even occasionally possible in the modern era for the doubt to be about some crime, with falsely-accused people, district attorneys, and an unorthodox investigator. But then it would have been called “A Reasonable Doubt.” A spy thingy, with a double agent? Maybe. But then it would be guy versus guy. Nope. It’s about religion.

Literary digression: the objection will be raised that doubt is more artistically interesting than certainty, and doubt about existential questions most interesting of all. I am tempted to concede that, as I am literature-and-drama trained and tend to agree. But is that true for everyone, or only for a narrow group? If you dropped down in geography and history to interview the widest variety of human beings, would you actually find this groundswell of assent that “doubt” is so flipping interesting? The association of skepticism with being Smart and Deep is fairly rare in human history. It is mostly a 20thC western idea, confined to an elite that considers itself smart and deep because of its skepticism. They…we… find such things interesting. The reasoning becomes circular. It is impossible not to slide from there into the idea that doubt is a mark of intelligence, belief a mark of foolishness. That is half-true. Skepticism about prevailing values takes some thought, while going along takes little. But all skeptics believe in something, all believers are skeptical of outside values. Doubt and faith per se are not intelligence markers.

Among the people who go to thoughtsy movies or modern drama, religious doubt is a value they believe in wholeheartedly. Thus the movie named “Doubt” has the deliciously ironic effect of reinforcing the values of the people who will watch it rather than challenging those values. That is rich. If y’all like doubt so much, why don’t you try some?

The DVD cover does not show their bodies, not even their top halves, so this isn’t going to be about babes. Thus it’s probably not modern, either. It’s not set in a cool historical era with splendid costumes and atmosphere. Between the Great Depression and Woodstock, then. Maybe up to 1980 if it’s about some rural backwater. I think the man and especially the woman are older (they have a familiarity about them. I’ll bet even I would recognise them).

Black background. Secrets. Abortion? Homosexuality? Adultery is so 1970’s. Her secret? His secret? Hmm, I can’t parse that one. Perhaps he is from her past – either that or they are dissimilar people thrown together by circumstance.

What specific religious belief is going to be doubted here? Not Judaism. Someone might do the movie about doubting Jewish customs or Israeli policy, but it would have a different title, a different feel. Non-theistic religions are no fun to doubt. It will be some traditional Christian belief. Eastern Orthodoxy is too obscure…if it’s based on a true story then it might be a Lutheran or Methodist…but most likely, it’s going to be either Baptist or Catholic. Maybe Amish, though that’s been done. Everyone knows that those beliefs are not doubted nearly enough, and we can always use some more skepticism about them.

If Baptist, then she’s a missionary or worker among the poor, and he’s…he’s a bad deacon. In the old movies, he would’ve been a Mysterious Stranger, but that’s no fun anymore. That would mean that it’s her secret, probably something about sex, because everyone knows that those fundie women are roundheels (Faye Dunaway in “Little Big Man”), while the men are sexually repressed bastards who hate faggots.

If Catholic, then she’s a nun and he’s a priest*, and it’s his secret that drives the plot, while she’s the repressed, hateful one. His secret will of course be homosexuality or pedophilia, because everyone knows

I just get so tired of the utter predictability masquerading as pathbreaking.

Let me hedge my bets both ways here. I still think the above two choices are most likely, but a switcheroo isn’t impossible. I suppose it could be possible that it’s the nun with the secret, probably an abortion, because y’know, Catholics. Abortion. Tee hee. But I doubt it. Nun sexuality on the screen is either extremely underplayed – Sound of Music, The Flying Nun, Sister Act – or really rank – Cheech and Chong, Rocky Horror.

I can’t decide between my final two choices. Maybe something will come up as I go along.

I imagine that the movie is very well done. If it’s a non-action conflict piece, it’s only going to be sold next to the groceries if it’s very good. That also suggests that there will be some actual moral curveball that makes this an adult movie instead of a cartoon. Some character is going to show up about three-fourths of the way through and upset the applecart of the moral conclusions the audience has drawn to that point. That’s probably a good thing, because otherwise this film has the moral complexity of Veggie Tales or Davey and Goliath. Once you remember that doubt is the religion being sold, all the supposed nuance and complexity is revealed to be as entirely didactic as any Sunday School Jesus film or a Stalinist agitprop about happy workers.

So I give the scriptwriter and the director credit for some actual complexity, but feel obliged to point out that it will come much too late in the show to have much effect. What people will take away will not be this last twist, but the reinforced prejudice confirming their previously-held beliefs that make up the bulk of the movie.

I admit I’m lost as to what that final twist is, and still can’t decide if it’s my Baptist scenario or my Catholic one. In the end, it doesn’t matter, because the message given is that organized religion is populated by dangerous, sick people, which implies that God probably isn’t any good either. Doubt is the proper stance to take about anything religious. That way you can be conflicted and can’t ever judge anyone else’s actions, but you can still be a sensitive thoughtful good person and not have to commit to anything as solid as unbelief.

They are transparent to us. We are opaque to them.

*There are other logical possibilities, but I won't bore you with the step-by-step of how I eliminated them.


Gringo said...

Most likely on the money, AVI. While the closest I ever got to a church was membership in LRY when I was a youth, I would agree that the media slant has long been that of the knuckle-dragging yahoo churchgoers and the enlightened others. Given the track record of what atheists have done the last century, courtesy of Marxism, one would think that would give some hesitation about gratuitous condemnation of churchgoers. Not in the sense of fearing to offend churchgoers- we still have freedom of speech, even if there are increasing attempts to abridge it in favor of special interest groups- but in the sense of accuracy.

There was a poll some months ago which purported to show that some 60% of Obama voters thought that the Republicans had controlled Congress before the recent election. Unfortunately, some 25% of McCain voters thought the same.At least there were fewer ignoramuses on the McCain side. It would be interesting to break that poll down in terms of churchgoers/ non-churchgoers. My bet is that more churchgoers than non churchgoers were aware that it was NOT the Republicans who controlled Congress before the recent election.

Gringo said...

As many of LRY activities involved visiting different churches, somewhat like comparative religion field trips, I got a fair amount of exposure to churches when in LRY. Just not exposure to the UU church.

But not all churches. One speaker we had at LRY was a newspaper person who had been one of the few US POWs in Korea who chose to go to the PRC. Fortunately for him, when he decided several years later he wanted to return to the US, they let him.

Suffice it to say that at the time of the Cultural Revolution,this speaker called Mao "a poet," contrasting with the "bureaucratic" Liu Shaoqi. That statement was perhaps the best argument against having artists as rulers, though the speaker didn't intend for us to reach that conclusion.

Alan said...

Excellent analysis AVI!

I just checked out the movie at IMBd, and you nailed it.

Catholic - BTW.

Ben Wyman said...

Okay, I'm not going to give you any props about this, because while your Catholic theory was dead-on correct, naturally, you somehow managed to miss the fact that it definitely was about a nun and a priest, despite the fact that the two people on the cover are dressed up as a nun and a priest, and you missed that the "familiar" individual on the cover was in fact Meryl Streep. I think, if you're gonna post on a DVD cover, you should at least close to the DVD for a second or two as a fact-finding mission. The likable priest is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and the apple-cart-upsetting individual is newcomer Viola Davis, who was nominated for an Oscar for her short scene in this movie as the mother of the possibly-abused child who responds to the accusations in an unusual way.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Ben, you have seen through it. If I had gone one step closer, I would have had to raise the bar. I knew that would get me into territory where I could no longer show off.

Meryl Streep - I may have intuited that without achieving full recognition. Faye Dunaway has some similarity, and my impression that it must have been well done may not have been entirely from the context.

TomG said...

Indeed they've pretty much touched the whole gamut of secretive, hypocritical topics within Christiandom (the hidden abortion nun way back in the 70's, and Dogma a few years back too - everything's a rehash now). Did decide to watch Religulous last month - and it didn't disappoint my expectations ... mostly about the contradictory and unquestioned faith of Christian (and given his own background, Catholic) adherents. Why waste $6 bucks? I was curious - but it became more of the same, of course (I get fooled yet again). Cheers