Category Archives: Religion

Link Dump: #27

Oh, that poor kitty from Drag Me to Hell. Clearly Alison Lohman just cannot be entrusted with animals. At least it got to spend its last moments on earth bein’ all cute and lying around in a laundry basket. Sorry that the Link Dumps have been MIA for the past two weeks, but between a lack of Internet access, moving back and forth, and preparing frantically for MoCCA Fest, it’s been hard to sit down long enough to post them. So here you go, as compensation: a compilation of the best (non-Rebecca-Black-related) Internet stuff from the past two weeks.

  • Here’s a fucking brilliant piece by Michael Dwyer of PopThought all about Blue Valentine, the MPAA, and American attitudes toward sexuality. This is sophisticated cultural commentary.
  • We all knew the Phelps family (of Westboro Baptist Church fame) was more than a little fucked up. Now we have proof, from the mouth of Fred Phelps’s son Nathan, who explains some of the disturbing but unsurprising secrets behind his family’s behavior.
  • Did you know that the anti-choice movement is also the Thought Police? A woman in Iowa was  jailed for thinking about having an abortion.
  • In less ragey news, what’s a collaboration that we’ve all always fucking wanted? Tom Waits and David Lynch.
  • Empire Online has the “Ultimate Shirt And Tie Picture Quiz,” wherein you match the suit to the movie. I got 8; how well can you do?
  • Todd Brown of Twitch has a pretty sophisticated piece about the effect of the PG-13 rating on movies for kids ages 10-13.
  • Rue Morgue offers up “100 Alternative Horror Films,” with some fun, relatively obscure additions like The Changeling, Martin, and Wait Until Dark.
  • Courtesy of our friends at Dead Homer Society, we have Fredrik Larsson’s medley of Simpsons song covers. He has a great voice and does wonderful segues; definitely go watch that video.

We had the occasional bizarre search term over the last few weeks. Some highlights include “pretend rape goes wrong”—I don’t even want to think about how it went wrong—and “Эмбер Хёрд,” which Google Translate informs me is Russian for “Amber Heard.” Someone was obviously very confused about the concept of pussy; how else to explain “pussy-???.???.???.???” Someone else was just confused in general, asking “what to do with myself”? Finally, I’m kind of honored: someone actually searched directly for “black swan andreas stoehr.” Hopefully they found the words of wisdom they were (presumably) looking for.

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Link Dump: #18

See? Even the unnamed couple from Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) loved kitties. They probably also loved links to cool things on the Internet, too… or at least they would’ve, if they were alive today. Anyway, here are those links:

  • Letters of Note has some cool documentation of Kubrick’s attempts to make his Napeoleon movie in the late ’60s, including his invitation to the semi-retired Audrey Hepburn to have her play Josephine.
  • If you’re like me (or, you know, not a fundamentalist psycho), you probably hate Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church. Here’s a documentary about them and their Lady Gaga-hating ways, as well as an article about an Arizona law banning them from protesting funerals after last week’s shootings.
  • What’s better than Criterion-style covers for new releases by a Criterion cover designer? Nothing. They’re just beautiful. Especially Toy Story 3 and Black Swan.
  • Shakesville has a well-written piece on the media’s treatment of work discrimination complaints.
  • The Advocate has an article on the gayest cities in America… and #1? Minneapolis! Yay, Twin Cities pride.
  • Vulture has the worst movies of 2010 – but really, Black Swan‘s on there? Vocal minority or not, that’s a stretch, especially in a year that saw Yogi Bear and Devil.
  • Holy fuck, there’s a plant that eats rats?!

Alas, we’re short on good search terms this week, but here are two vagina-centric ones: “niece wet cunt,” which I hope was a misspelling of “nice wet cunt,” because the other option is just kind of gross and weird, and “stolen pussy comics.” I’m not sure if that refers to comics about stolen pussy, or pussy comics that were stolen. Either way… weird.

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Link Dump: #8

[Via Nordenwald]

I’m not shy about my love of George Sanders. His worldly, acerbic presence was the cherry on top of many great movies. And hey, since it’s October, why not think about all the great scary movies that got the George Sanders treatment? Like Rebecca (1940), The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), Lured (1947), Village of the Damned (1960), and many more, especially toward the end of his career. Sanders was always witty, even with bad dialogue, and wit is one of my favorite traits in a horror movie. Plus, he voiced worldly, acerbic kitty in a Disney movie. What’s not to love? Now, for this week’s links…

  • Last week was Banned Books Week, but don’t forget that some library books are just awful. This hilarious website shows some of them. (Of course, even the most awful books shouldn’t be banned; that’s just silly.)
  • To follow up on our coverage of Satoshi Kon’s passing a few weeks ago, here’s a piece from Filmwell discussing his all-too-short career.
  • Look! Weird Danish comics!
  • This is truly incredible: the theme from Psycho played on a church organ.
  • In the last Link Dump, I mentioned Dan Savage’s It Gets Better project. Well, it’s inspired a flood of responses. Here’s an article on Jezebel defending the project against criticisms from within the LGBT community; a new project called Make It Better that takes Savage’s one step further; and two very powerful, touching pieces on the film blogs Billy Loves Stu and I’m Not Patty.
  • If there’s anything we love to hate, it’s wacky fundamentalist websites. Movieguide.org is like Jack Chick writing movie reviews; I can’t recommend it highly enough. It gave me hours of lolz. Princess Mononoke is “demonic”? Palindromes is “putrid”? Oh yes, and there’s more ahead! (Hint: If a movie has any queer content… outlook not so good.) Alas, their web design is not as immaculate as their souls, so the site’s pretty hard to navigate.
  • Speaking of fundamentalist wackos, here’s a satirical piece about the evils of Glee. Best line: “Sports are essential for keeping fit, strong and attractive!”
  • And still speaking of fundamentalist wackos, here’s a story about a teacher who was driven out of her job by censorship done, you know, in the best interest of the children.
  • Jezebel has the scoop on the smutty side of Edith Wharton.
  • Everybody loves gendered stereotypes, right? Here’s a Twitter feed full of them called GuysTruths! Sample tweet: the classic “Fellas, when you see a girl cry, just hug her.”
  • Super Punch had a Calvin and Hobbes art contest, which includes awesome Let the Right One In and The Sandman parodies; the last entry on here (reading “Playtime is over”) is by a friend and former classmate of mine.
  • Finally, do you like webcomics? Do you like them funky and sexy? Scott has what you need with Funky Sexy Jazzmen, updated weekly.

On the search terms front, the last couple weeks haven’t seen anything especially exciting. I think I’ve seen “nipple masturbation” and “pregnant gore” juxtaposed so often that I’m officially desensitized to all the words involved. However, one search did manage to weird even me out: “fire extinguisher pussy.” That phrase has unpleasant implications I don’t want to explore. Somebody searched for everyone’s least favorite kind of hipster, the “public masturbation hipster.” I hate those hipsters so much, always masturbating in public! Some cool news: Pussy Goes Grrr is officially the #1 hit on the search “emilie karsunke,” which is the real name of Mieze from Berlin Alexanderplatz. And lastly, someone posed the all-important question, “how big is a whales pussy”? I’m stumped on this one. But, for some fascinating whale pussy-related trivia, I turn to Spencer Tinker’s Whales of the World, page 96:

A very unusual structure called the vaginal “plug” is found in the vagina of some toothed whales (Odontoceti), but does not occur in any known species of whalebone whales (Mysticeti). This puzzling structure is formed by secretions from the wall of the vagina and is composed in part of hard, calcareous substances. The purpose of this “plug” is doubtless related to reproduction, possibly copulation.

Thank you for reading.

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Perfectly Cromulent Analysis: Bart Sells His Soul

Just before the month ends, here’s July’s analysis of The Simpsons‘ brilliant, multifaceted artistry. (All previous entries can be viewed here.) Perhaps The Simpsons‘ most dazzling feat was its ability to emanate such crusty cynicism while retaining a core of profound sincerity. And I’m not referring to the saccharine sincerity of sitcom “very special episodes,” either; I’m talking about moments that disclosed what the show’s writers really believed in. They were moments of vulnerability suggesting that the Simpsons weren’t just cartoonish punching bags, but real people with real beliefs, desires, and fears. “Bart Sells His Soul,” which hails from the beginning of the seventh season (and with it, the Oakley/Weinstein era), is 20 full minutes suffused with this same vulnerability. It’s about a young boy’s spiritual self-discovery through “suffering and thought and prayer,” as Lisa puts it. Even for a show as adventurous and groundbreaking as The Simpsons, that’s pretty heavy stuff.

The show, however, acquits itself impressively with an unflinching gaze into the essence of Bart. Yes, Bart: he of the chalkboard gags, the skateboard, and the mouthy t-shirt slogans, the envy of every kid alive in the 1990s. But, of course, beneath the too-cool-for-school posturing, Bart has always been just another 10-year-old, and “Bart Sells His Soul” even-handedly interrogates the disparity between image and reality. The episode opens with a brazen prank as Bart hands First Church of Springfield parishioners the lyrics to a “hymn” entitled “In the Garden of Eden” – really Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” a 17-minute relic of psychedelic rock. The disarming audacity with which he deceives the congregation epitomizes, as the French would say, the “Bartesque.” He tricks the churchgoers into eating his shorts, and then tells them not to have a cow, man.

Reverend Timothy Lovejoy, however, does nothing but have a cow. He’s Springfield’s envoy of tradition-bound organized religion and therefore a major figure of patriarchal authority. He’s also, in keeping with the show’s anti-authoritarian satirical outlook, ridiculously incompetent. From the outset, he’s gullible and out of touch. “Wait a minute,” he opines to himself, an eyebrow raised, “this sounds like rock and/or roll!” After his flock has been humiliated and exhausted, he takes the church’s youngsters aside and feeds them a Mad Libs-style script of fire and brimstone so as to force a confession.1 But Bart repeats the lines right back with an air of blasé disinterest. To Bart, Lovejoy’s threats of eternal damnation are just as impotent as Principal Skinner’s threats of detention, and it’s both because he’s an untamable rebel, à la Brando in The Wild One, and because these patriarchs are so neurotic and hypocritical.

As voiced by Harry Shearer, Lovejoy is a model of Middle American self-righteousness. His every sentence has the same pompous intonations, rendered ineffectual by his slight lisp, and his face is usually furrowed in the same disapproving frown. He mechanically advocates an impersonal brand of Christianity; it’s not hard to see why Bart dismisses his sermons and, with them, the adult world’s belief in the soul. Bart, a veteran trickster, is too sharp to be so easily duped.2 Milhouse, however, is just sheepish enough to give in, and Bart is outraged when he lets faith trump friendship. The two of them have an argument that brings questions of personal identity down to a 10-year-old’s level – to hell with the mind/body divide; what if you die while in a submarine? Incensed at his friend’s willingness to swallow adult lies, Bart exclaims, “Listen: you don’t have a soul, I don’t have a soul, there’s no such thing as a soul!” And to demonstrate his prioritization of money, a pragmatic, real-world concern, over religious dogma, which he regards as nothing but a collection of fairy tales,3 Bart strikes the titular bargain.

The first challenge to Bart’s cynical materialism comes from his sagacious sister. Unlike Lovejoy, Lisa doesn’t have any hypocritical motivations to espouse the concept of the soul, and unlike Milhouse, she doesn’t confront him with a mess of folk beliefs and fear-driven superstitions. Instead, she has her faith in the soul’s symbolic value, which is deeply rooted in her sense of self rather than any specific belief system. Bart and Lisa’s conversation in the driveway is really the kernel of the episode’s deepest philosophical exploration: here are two children in the America of the ’90s, where all traditional authorities (government, businesses, media, schools, churches)4 have been thoroughly discredited. So what do they put their faith in, and how do they define themselves as human beings? Whereas Lisa has her own simple, functional theory of the self,5 Bart has pranks and cold hard cash – his is a reactive ethos, as he prefers to beat society within its own system rather than formulate one of his own. He comes to regret his hubris, however, after the rest of the episode delivers a concussive wallop of spiritual horror.

Ashley told me that she once thought “Bart Sells His Soul” was a Treehouse of Horror episode, and it’s understandable given the events that round off the first act. Santa’s Little Helper and Snowball II growl and hiss at Bart, respectively, with no apparent motivation; the Kwik-E-Mart’s automatic door admits the pious Rod and Tod Flanders, but not him; and he can’t even fog up glass with his breath. It all plays out very ambiguously, with only the subtle, subjective implication that these are the consequences of selling one’s soul. Its primary effect isn’t outright fear, but more a feeling of unsettledness. As Bart grumbles when his face smacks against the door, “This is getting weird.” The final, unsettling straw is when Bart loses his ability to enjoy Itchy and Scratchy. Lisa quotes Pablo Neruda: “Laughter is the language of the soul.” I love Lisa’s role in this episode: she’s at once the precocious, argumentative little sister and the voice of reason, sincerely worried about her brother’s well-being.

She tests Bart’s capacity for laughter by making Homer trip and get his head caught in the stairs. While Bart would normally be the one causing such mischief, he’s now incapable of enjoying it, and Lisa concludes, “I think you really did lose your soul.” As before, in Lisa’s reckoning it doesn’t matter if the soul is “physically real,” or if Bart’s sense of humor is merely a psychological (and therefore not “real”) casualty of his exchange. The point is that Bart’s mistake, in giving up a part of himself, has left him unable to properly interact with the outside world. He returns to Milhouse, who’s undergoing no such tribulation but is instead carrying on with his childhood; unsympathetic to Bart’s angst, he offers to sell the soul back only at a wildly inflated price. Facing a potentially permanent existential quandary, Bart can now see beyond the petty, childish dealings that were once his métier.

In a scene that’s at once touching and disturbing, Marge detects something “off” about Bart’s hug. She considers the usual diagnoses for a troubled 10-year-old – “it’s not fear of nuclear war… it’s not swim test anxiety…” – but when Bart suggests a missing soul, she blindly dismisses it: “Aw, honey, you’re not a monster.” These dead-on mother/son interactions are some of those vulnerable moments I was speaking of: Marge does her best to assuage her son’s very palpable fears, but inadvertently exacerbates the situation. Here, The Simpsons is speaking to a very critical youth/adult disconnect. It’s not the jaded mistrust that characterizes Bart’s relationship with Lovejoy or Skinner; it’s a painful breakdown within the core of the family. And it has none of the mawkish sentiment that abounds in some of the weaker family-centric episodes. It’s just a moment of very real emotion and very dark humor, as Bart’s mother implicitly but unintentionally calls him a soulless monster and turns out the light.

Then we get one of the series’ great dream sequences, complete with pink, Seussian landscapes, green skies, and eerily sweet music. All the other children are playing with their souls, as represented by phantasmal blue outlines of themselves; they jump into rowboats and head toward an Oz-like emerald city on the horizon. Bart, however, is left alone – so here, the loss of a soul becomes the loss of a friend, and Bart is condemned to be left behind. This dream really crystallizes the episode’s child’s-eye-view of the soul. It’s not about what adult authorities think the soul is; it’s what Bart learns for himself, through his anguish. His long nightmare lends him insight into the soul’s true meaning: it’s about identity, belonging, humor, companionship. As the third act confirms, “Bart Sells His Soul” is really about how Bart earns his soul.

Like “Homer’s Enemy,” this episode has a much, much lighter subplot to complement the main story’s existential heft. In it, Moe converts his once-dank tavern into a tacky family restaurant. The two storylines intersect when Homer takes the family to Uncle Moe’s Family Feedbag. Lisa says a spiteful grace in which she emphasizes the word soul, prompting Bart to run off into the night, and he enters the final stage of his grueling spiritual odyssey. There’s little real analysis to be done on the Moe subplot; suffice it to say that it’s a much more expected sitcom story, and its easy jokes definitely alleviate some of the episode’s overall bleakness. As it approaches its climax, it gets very bleak: Bart faces one terrifying anomaly after another as he descends into Springfield’s desolate urban depths,6 from an exterminator clad in a Vader-like suit to a cackling street cleaner. Finally, he runs into Ralph Wiggum and begs desperately for Ralph’s soul. It’s so bizarre, albeit strangely plausible, that it’s easy to miss the frighteningly real portrayal of a babbling schizophrenic in the same scene.

Bart’s attempt to track down Milhouse proves pointless, however, as Milhouse has already resold Bart’s soul so as to purchase the most ephemeral, meaningless toys of all – ALF pogs. Bart visits the buyer, Comic Book Guy, who reports that an unnamed party bought it, and that they “were most interested in having possession of little boy’s soul.” Here, the languages of preteen consumerism and spiritual self-identification are oddly but seamlessly mixed. Rather than being just the product of obsolete superstitions, Bart learns that the soul is surprisingly relevant even in a world where the al-ighty ollar7 is the end goal of all transactions. Finally, he resorts to a long, earnest prayer: “I just want it back. Please? I hope you can hear this…” and with that, Lisa gives him back his soul. Note that I don’t say “gives him back his sheet of paper.” By this point, that paper has been so imbued with meaning that, as far as the viewer’s concerned, it is his soul. The episode ends with Bart dreaming again – but this time, he has his soul as a rowing companion, and they ram Martin’s boat. Bart has fought and prayed, and now he has his self back, prankish and rebellious as ever.

“Bart Sells His Soul” is both a child’s fable of loss and retrieval and a mature rumination on postmodern spiritual bankruptcy. With Bart, we see adult hypocrisies as ripe for skewering, but we also endure an episode’s worth of self-inflicted suffering, culminating in a newfound humility, and a gratitude for one’s own identity. It’s cathartic without being melodramatic, instead attaining its considerable emotional pull in the traditional Simpsons way: through nonstop jokes, which are sometimes brutal and dark, but still spot-on. The episode is also a tour de force for Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart, who shows impressive range and accuracy in capturing the scope and detail of a 10-year-old’s worldview. “Bart Sells His Soul” is unequaled in the rest of the series for its fearlessness in stripping away the façade and revealing to us who Bart truly is, soul and all. And that ain’t not bad.

So, what do you think of this episode? And which one should I tackle next? Leave any suggestions in the comment box below.

1 I especially liked the “murderers and single mothers” line as a jab at Lovejoy’s outdated but indignant worldview.

2 Unless, of course, the religious authorities lower themselves to his level, as with the Li’l Bastard Brainwashing Kit in “The Joy of Sect.”

3 They’re lies and fairy tales, however, with very pragmatic, real-world rewards, as the episode bitingly demonstrates when Milhouse asks, “What would [religions] have to gain?” and we cut to Lovejoy dumping collection baskets into a coin-sorting machine.

4 Read: Quimby, Burns, Brockman, Skinner, and Lovejoy.

5 This presages her conversion to Buddhism, but her beliefs are stated so much more elegantly (and less stridently) here than they would be “She of Little Faith” and subsequent episodes.

6 The episode’s writer, Greg Daniels, says that Bart’s nocturnal trials were partially inspired by Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, and it shows, including just a touch of the same manically black comedy.

7 See “Team Homer.” I couldn’t resist.

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One Hour Mark: Häxan

During the witchcraft era it was dangerous to be old and ugly, but it was not safe to be young and pretty either.

Horror can be a powerful tool in the hands of the right director. Take Benjamin Christensen’s bizarre Häxan (1922), aka Witchcraft Through the Ages, which was probably 50-60 years ahead of its time. Using all manner of grotesque iconography, Christensen makes his film simultaneously a collection of vignettes, a documentary, a twisted satire, and one hell of a spectacle. This is an image from 1:00:00 into the film, as the nameless sister of Anna, wife of the late printer, crouches by the table. It’s far removed from the film’s infamous shots of gore, torture, and taboo-splattering debauchery, yet it’s still seeping with creepy potency. It still speaks the film’s dark messages about religion, sexuality, and ignorance. It’s rife with the same real-world horrors that are unveiled in Christensen’s more explicitly demented fantasies.

When I showed Ashley this picture, she was quiet at first; when I mentioned, “There’s a person in the lower right,” she immediately cried, “Eww!” and had to stop looking at it. Taken as a still, there’s definitely something off about it – how Anna’s sister is so far from the center and so low to the floor, almost hidden behind the table and its contents. She’s just witnessed the inquisitors hauling off her sister and mother, who are merely the latest casualties in an ongoing cycle of small-town treachery. (They had earlier named their accuser, Maria the weaver, as a witch.) She herself has been shoved to the floor, and will momentarily rise, only to faint. So this scene is of a 15th century Danish household in crisis, with all of its matriarchs about to be interrogated and killed; this imminent catastrophe is embodied in the maiden’s anomalous position within the frame.

There’s subtle irony in this particular framing as well. Christensen uses shots identical to this one several times earlier in the film to present the activity in Anna’s house through long, static takes. It’s through this perspective that we’re introduced to her family, and this is how we see Maria the weaver dragged away by the inquisitors. Using the same angle to view the abduction of Anna and her mother, and her sister’s subsequent anguish, links the series of events both causally and morally, but also connects the family’s downfall to its earlier complacency. After all, this isn’t just a room – it’s also the space that connects the bedroom with the outside world (background), and the site of eating (foreground). It’s a spacial representation of domestic existence.

Granted, repeatedly viewing areas from the same angle was pretty standard in early silent films, going back to the fixed camera of the Lumières. But Christensen’s mise-en-scène here directly adds to his broader arguments about hypocrisy and resentment as the roots of witch hunts. For him, the persecution of witches starts in the home, aided by religious fervor, and eventually returns to destroy it. Despite all of the film’s graphic depictions of occult behavior, it ultimately takes a very Enlightenment stance, debunking its own gruesome images and replacing them with a model of “witchcraft” far more sinister: as a self-destructive way for the town’s women to express their petty grievances. This is a totally natural form of horror, the fruits of malicious human selfishness.

This is the conclusion of Christensen’s documentary and his satire, which operate side by side throughout the film. Witch hunts are located with a larger institution of violence and oppression whose processes are curiously gendered. The women are the accusers and, in turn, the accused – the witches whose sexuality is equated with a satanic pact. The men are the monks, totally puritanical and militantly resistant to the possibility of sexual desire. They are distinct from the home; their realm is the church. The story sees the two spheres as attached in a self-sustaining loop of accusation, arrest, and confession. And it’s in the torture/confession that both genders express their hatred and lust. The visualizations of satanic rites are just projections of the hidden urges that motivate the witch hunt in the first place.

That was a slight digression, partially inspired by Carol Clover’s reading of The Exorcists Father Karras, which I’ve been reading recently, but my point is that this single frame contains a number of threatened values (womanhood, motherhood, family, home), and implies the existence of their opposites. Häxan is an audacious and intelligent film that functions at once as delirious horror cinema and as sober historical inquiry. This image is a rich example of Christensen’s multi-tiered imagination feverishly at work.

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