(Not) preaching to the choir
September 25, 2008
ASPEN ” As a key writer on “Seinfeld,” Larry Charles helped take narcissism to a level probably never before experienced on network television. Charles also has had a hand in further perfecting the art of narcissism as a director of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
As director of 2006’s “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” Charles assisted the film’s star and writer, Sacha Baron Cohen, put the mock in mockumentary. The satirical hoax, in which Cohen passed himself off as an earnest Kazakh journalist traveling in the “U.S. and A.,” was an equal opportunity insulter, drawing the ire of gays, Arabs, feminists, Jews, Gypsies and not a few regular Americans. (It has also pulled in a reported $260 million ” without the help of Muslim countries, most of which banned it ” a Golden Globe Award, an Oscar nomination, and numerous rave reviews.)
So one can only wonder whom Charles can infuriate, and to what extent, with his latest project, “Religulous.” The documentary, directed by Charles, follows comedian/commentator Bill Maher to the world’s holy spots to talk about people’s deeply held religious beliefs and practices. Given Maher’s knack for attracting controversy ” and his critiques of President Bush, right-wing politics, America’s eating habits, 9/11 conspiracy theorists and organized religion, generally delivered with a condescending smirk ” one might brace for a firestorm from the world’s faithful.
But “Religulous” might not set off the predictable calls for boycotts. Charles says that in preview screenings, the film, which shows Saturday at Aspen Filmfest and has a limited national opening on Wednesday, Oct. 1, has drawn overwhelmingly positive remarks ” “and usually from the last people you would expect,” he said by phone, from Los Angeles. So maybe the movie itself has less mocking tone than the trailer, which plays the Gnarls Barkley hit “Crazy” behind clips of people speaking in tongues, claiming to be Jesus and engaging in other colorful worship rituals.
It probably comes as no shock that Charles doesn’t align himself with any mainstream religion. But it is surprising that the 52-year-old almost wishes he was. Growing up in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, Charles wanted to be a rabbi. (That desire might show semi-consciously in his appearance ” with his signature long beard, Charles can look rabbinical in the right clothes.) But his parents were secular Jews who wanted only to break away from the Old World traditions and assimilate into the American mainstream.
“My parents said, ‘Do the bar mitzvah, get the gifts, and get out,'” said Charles, whose writing credits include the “Seinfeld” episode “The Bris” (the bris is the Jewish tradition that removes the foreskin from a baby boy’s penis) and, as director, the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episode, “The Bar Mitzvah.” “Because the rabbis were like the nuns in Catholic school ” they shut down the dialogue. Which is a shame, because there definitely are cool rabbis out there.”
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Charles basically took his parents’ advice; as an adult, he follows a strict regimen of skipping synagogue. But he has cultivated an interest in matters of the spirit, and man’s reasons for being on Earth.
“I am a seeker,” he said, “and there are questions we need to ask: where we came from, where we’re going. We need to explore things to learn our place in the universe.”
I note here that Charles’ past gives me reason to pause, and consider whether I should take it on faith that he isn’t pulling a hoax on an unsuspecting dupe naive enough to believe that he actually is the spiritually guided being he claims. For “Borat,” Charles had to help perpetuate the movie’s fictional foundation. But when I ask whether he is an atheist, he takes exception, and it seems genuine.
“That’s a word we’re trying not to use in an unexamined fashion,” he said. “Bill and I, we’re saying, ‘we don’t know.’ We know there are a million questions we don’t have the answer to. Neither one of us believes there is nothing out there, and no answers to anything.”
“Religulous,” Charles swears, is an extension of opening up the dialogue that his parents, and the rabbis of his youth, didn’t want him to explore. At the sites he and Maher visited ” the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, the Vatican, various churches in the Southeastern U.S., the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City ” people were more than willing to engage them in the conversation, he said.
“People want to talk about their religion,” he said. “They like to proselytize. So there was not a lot of need for subterfuge. I just told them we’re doing a movie on religion. They wanted to talk.”
Interestingly, the people who were reluctant to speak were those at the top of the racket. “The people who are hard to get to are the people in the real echelons of power,” said Charles. “We couldn’t get the Pope, or the head of the Mormon Church or the head of the Church of Scientology. They’re hidden behind many layers of obfuscation, and it’s hard to get them.”
Charles said the most surprising moment in making the film came when they were talking to a pair of high-level Vatican priests. “They were the most rational people we spoke to,” he said. They said that “evolution is a fact, that Jesus’ birth is a fairy tale. We were taken aback.”
The incident, however, confirmed for Charles that Catholicism was something of a scam. “You realize the perpetuation of the church is one thing, and the beliefs are another,” he said. “Their doctrines are surprisingly revelatory. [The priests] are all highly educated people, and much more rational than the masses and the followers. You can’t disseminate this doctrine to the masses; they have to perpetuate these myths to keep the masses mollified and keep the institution intact.”
As much as “Religulous” might begin a dialogue, it is also meant to challenge people. From what Charles reveals, and from the trailer to the film, it seems likely some people are going to have their feathers ruffled.
“Absolutely,” said Charles. “If you know Bill’s work, he’s a challenger. And he’s one of the most fearless commentators. He’s not afraid to alienate people, to say the unspeakable. So absolutely, he challenges people’s beliefs. He asks questions they’ve never imagined they’d be asked.”
In this, Charles thinks the film serves a vital public service: “The belief system is kind of set. It’s not allowed to expand, no matter how absurd he doctrines and beliefs are. It thwarts what needs to happen in this modern world.”
Charles says a bigger motivation behind “Religulous” than forcing a re-examination of entrenched beliefs was to provide a good night of entertainment. “My conceit in making it was, ‘can I make a Saturday night date movie about religion?'” said Charles, who began his film career with 2003’s “Masked and Anonymous,” the enigmatic Bob Dylan vehicle directed and co-written by Charles. (A more recent project, with rapper Kanye West, for HBO, has been put on hold.) “So it’s fun. It’s quick-paced. I want it to be like a road movie, with me and Bill on the road.”
That road, however, has proved to be an enlightening one, and one that Charles could see following farther. Speaking about religion and life’s big questions fits right in his domain.
“I could make ‘Religulous’ for the rest of my life,” he said. “Because it puts me on the ultimate journey, to find out what we’re doing here. I have a million questions, and it put me in dialogue with people who are thinking about these things. It’s so complex on so many levels, politics and philosophy. It confirmed my journey.”
“Religulous” shows at 10:15 p.m. Saturday at the Wheeler Opera House as part of Aspen Filmfest.
Other weekend highlights at Aspen Filmfest:
Sneak Preview 2 (Today at 6:30 p.m., Isis Theater): All we know is it’s in English, and features some recognizable names.
“Stranded: I’ve Come from a Plane that Crashed in the Mountains” (Today at 5:30 p.m., Crystal Theatre in Carbondale; and Sunday at noon, Wheeler Opera House): A documentary about the survivors of a 1972 plane crash in the Andes Mountains focuses on the questions of life, faith and solidarity, rather than the horror of the incident.
“Ballast” (Tonight at 8:30 p.m., Wheeler; and Sunday at 5:30 p.m., Crystal): First-time feature director Lance Hammer earned the Directing Award at Sundance for this drama of a troubled family in the Mississippi Delta coming together after a suicide. New York Times critic Manohla Dargis focused on “Ballast” in a recent story on independent cinema, calling it “an elegiac, rapturously lovely story.”
“I’ve Loved You So Long” (Saturday at 5 p.m., Wheeler): Kristin Scott Thomas has earned acclaim in this French drama, portraying a woman reconnecting with her family after a long prison sentence.
“Peter Pan” (Sunday at 3 p.m., Wheeler): Filmfest has the exclusive Colorado screening of the 1953 animated classic, being shown from a new print in celebration of the film’s 55th anniversary.
“Lemon Tree” (Sunday at 5:15 p.m., Wheeler): This sympathetic Israeli drama explores the Israeli/Palestinean conflict, and reveals the personal and political sides of the issue.
For full program details, go to aspenfilm.org.