March 12, 2008

Golden Compass resurrection

With a worldwide gross closing on $400 million, The Golden Compass has been hugely successful by any cinematic standards. This article in Variety confirms that a series of bumbling business and marketing decisions, including New Line's decision to sell off the foreign rights for pennies on the dollar, doomed the film domestically. The overseas distributors proved a lot smarter.

Says Italian distributor 01's Gaelle Armentano,

By having a dialogue with the Catholic press we were able to limit the controversy and all that anti-clericalism that was so devastating in the U.S. The Americans got started a bit late. We got an earlier start and really pushed all channels.

This is a problem that reaches well beyond the boardroom. The U.S. press corps in general doesn't really understand religion and so can't talk about it except in political terms, where agendas are to be exploited, with one side "winning" while the other side "loses." The concept of "dialogue" gets turned into a synonym for half-hearted compromise that no real believer wants to be associated with.

And the religious rabble-rousers at the other end of the spectrum are equally invested in exaggerating the threat and the stature of the enemy and preaching no surrender.

Two sets of contradictory values are at work here. First is to shift the blame for the sorry state of the world to somebody other than ourselves. In other words, we have met the enemy, contra Pogo, and the enemy is THEM. It is much more comfortable in this light to presume that Hollywood is corrupting us, rather than the other way around.

But if Hollywood (as a symbolic stand-in for all mass media) really can corrupt us with its art and its ideas, that must mean that our art and ideas could achieve similar ideological traction. We elevate the power and threat of the weapon wielded by Hollywood because we wish such a weapon for ourselves.

Hollywood filmmakers want to believe the same thing. If their ideas can change the world, it must follow that the ideas of other people with contrary inclinations can do the same. A superhero is boring without a supervillain. While dramatically true, I don't buy it. The truest thing Rush Limbaugh ever said was that he doesn't tell anybody what to think. He only articulates what his listeners already believe.

Didn't the huge popularity of The Da Vinci Code turn most of the population into a bunch of Opus Dei-bashing, first-century Gnostic followers of the Priory of Sion? Oh. It didn't? You mean, absolutely everybody who saw the movie would have a hard time now explaining what it was about except that Tom Hanks was in it and it had something to do with that Da Vinci guy?

As a life-long geek who finds theology as fascinating as physics, I must confess that what attracted so many people to Dan Brown wasn't religion but story. Philip Pullman is honest enough to confess that fact:

I'm a great admirer of [Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens], but I wouldn't want to be part of any movement that had an agenda. [Groucho Marx: "I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member."] I'm not arguing a case. I'm not preaching a sermon. I'm not giving a lecture. I'm telling a story. Any position I take is that of a storyteller who says, 'Once upon a time, this happened.'

Or as Sam Goldwyn famously said, "If you want to send a message, use Western Union." Either tell the story or don't tell the story. But don't look for a "happy medium." The Bible puts it even better: "Because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee out of my mouth." I think God would enjoy a good argument with a convicted atheist, and a good Christian should to.

I can't see heaven being filled with the sillier and more excitable twits of either persuasion.

UPDATE: More Philip Pullman commentary here, here, here and here.

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# posted by Blogger Tatiana
3/13/2008 12:44 AM