Saturday, October 11, 2008

Religulous (2008)

You know, Bill Maher is a smarmy, egomaniacal asshole, a complete jerk. I wasn't going to bother watching this movie when my brother called me about wanting to see it. We almost never see movies together, maybe every five-years-or-so. What did I have to lose?

So I went, and my brother showed-up about five-minutes-in claiming it took a flying saucer to get him there--something like that. Then he started shouting at the screen unintelligibly, throwing popcorn everywhere like a Hunter S. Thompson sidekick. Anyway, I would have been missing-out had I not taken him up on seeing this very provocative movie.

I can't say that I expected much: Maher's HBO shows like "Politically Incorrect" and "Real Time," are reasonably popular but also tend to showcase Maher's egocentricity and brand of reactionary assholism. The comedian frankly reminds me of his personal friend Dennis Miller whose long-lost career as a comedian caused him to go begging around at Fox News for a job at...being who he really was all-along, an arch-conservative, reactionary asshole. Maher strikes me as different, but with tendencies towards the same direction as his pal Miller. It's isn't that I don't agree with him much of the time; it's how he tends to come-off, which is as a cocksure materialist Hollywood asshole.

And yet, here in his film "Religulous," he's correct again and a much more restrained kind of asshole.

The film is a kind of documentary with more than a few nods to Michael Moore's style, interspersing the interviews with rapid-fire retorts from Maher and company in the form of excerpts from cruddy Hollywood biblical epics (think Cecil B. Demille), dorky religious "educational" films, and from news archives. It's a very effective style, especially when Maher goes as far as to have text-comments responses and observations on the screen when he's sparring with various religious idiots of various persuasions. This makes for a very funny approach that gets a lot of well-earned laughs for their wit and concision. At times, Maher competes with Lenny Bruce in how astute and unique his observations are, but like Lenny, he has similar limitations.

But how can you beat those Christian creationist-themed museums and amusement parks? One can imagine hipsters running-roughshod over each other to get into the places to experience them in an "elevated" state of consciousness...

One might call the film's approach to its subject unfair, but this is also entertainment, let's face it. It's hard to say how much input the oddly-attired director Larry Charles (Borat) had in all of this, though it appears that most of the time all he and Maher had to do was to concoct a few meetings and scenarios, write a few questions, and let their camcorders record what happened after that. This is a simple and economical way of film-making in many respects since the comedian has a decades of improvisational experience. Several reviews have stated that Maher picked straw-man opponents who were easy targets for a man who's done stand-up comedy and media appearances for 30 years, yet you don't tend to get this impression watching the film. That's a red herring argument. He approached believers, the main criterion. It's about faith, stupid.

Yes, sometimes one could say that Maher's "rude" and even "pointed" in his interrogations (sorry, couldn't pass on that one), that he's "unfair" and "biased" in his sense of "superiority," but they're simply missing-the-point. It's doubtful that very many religious thinkers and fundamentalists were going to talk to him at all, so he took a more "populist" approach and went out to talk to the rank-and-file, really the most important part of religion as a problematic part of human life and culture.

One specific interview with a UK Pakistani rapper
Aki Nawaz (aka Propa-Gandhi) who extols religious intolerance and war makes a good argument for the renewal of Paki-bashing, though his his subject does a much better job at undermining his arguments than Maher does. Nawaz is clearly an idiot and a hypocrite, but you have to show these people for what they are. Some have written that Maher won't let the bizarre rapper get a word in edgewise, but when you see the lyrics to his raps on a split-screen, it's forgivable. It's one of the few times he does it in the entire film.

This is what's so impressive about the movie itself: Maher is generally known for being much more hyperbolic and confrontational than this, and he tends to let his subjects skewer themselves, often just posing a few reasonable questions and listening to the absurdities flowing from them. Granted, when he hits, he hits hard, but he's not being unfair here. The man has certainly grown and I'm impressed.

But then, there's the faults in the film (though they're few): Maher does a strange thing and trots in Jewish Rabbi
Yisroel Dovid Weiss of the Neturei Karta sect who's against the existence of the state of Israel (an "anti-Zionist") on theological-grounds. This is where Maher strays badly, as there's an inverse to the rabbi in the far-right Israeli and international Jewish community's--and strongly religious--reasoning of a sole Jewish stake in Palestine. This is just one example of the comedian's arch-conservatism inside and outside of the film. Indeed, Maher shows us how truly bizarre and wrong Judaism and most other major faiths are, but he makes an exception with the rabbi, exposing his own very slanted bias about the Palestinian question. This isn't to say that he's "wrong"--his very strong opinions for a Jewish state are valid after the Holocaust. They ring true, as Western history has amply illustrated. As a matter of fact, the core of his own reasoning here is more-than-valid, and Jews have good cause to aspire to statehood for logical security reasons. But he's making a very odd exception here that's troubling, and like most Jewish statists, he goes too far, just as Yisroel Dovid Weiss and his inverted opponents. When Maher walks-out on him, it's unsurprising, and I don't support his views here at all.

Yet, with 1 billion Muslims in the world, and 14 million Jews, his opinion is not unwarranted. What he misses, however, is that Israel is still being used a client state to control, destabilize, and divide the Middle East for geopolitical aims. Once it was the Romans, now it's the Americans and the rest of the West, hungry for cheap oil. In some ways, he misses his own point underscored at the end of the film. Whether his omissions are intentional or just a matter of running time, or just too many roads to go down, is the question. One could go on-and-on about the Palestinian question, and Maher probably saw a real quagmire in his section on Judaism and so just stuck to more superificial-aspects of how wacky the Orthodox version of the faith really is (trust me, it is). For the record, this writer believes that Israel has the right to exist, as does a Palestinian state and that it should be brokered diplomatically rather than through violence by all parties.

Even with its problems, Maher and Charles have made a very accessible argument for why religious belief is a "plague" (stated not by Maher, but by a Vatican astronomer) infecting humanity.

One of his finest-points is about Islam: like Christianity, it's undeniably a conquest faith that nowadays has very little tolerance for the beliefs of others on almost any level, and that's coming directly from the Koran. Judaism is essentially the same these days in its statist incarnation, but a quick look at the Torah (the "Old Testament" to Christians) offers-up numerous examples of conquest and even genocide by the tribes of Israel.

What's so interesting and enjoyable about Religulous are the gaggle of morons he interviews and just how obviously hypocritical (and possibly nuts) many of them are. His interview with Senator Mark Pryor, a faux-Democrat from Arkansas, must be seen to be believed. At one point, Pryor admits, "There's no I.Q. test to be a senator." No shit? There should be, even trumping election results if they don't pass. While we're at it, how about a mandatory psychological examination for office-holders as well? The audience I watched the film with all laughed very heartily over Pryor's statement, their chortles coming from the news of our current economic crisis and the last eight years of misgovernance. Hey, people still went to the movies when the Great Depression was on, so why can't we?

Perhaps the biggest hole in the film is the exclusion of other major religions, though they're tapped by the film by-implication. Surely, though, we could have seen how ridiculous many Eastern religions are, especially Hiduism with its castes and absurd rules and laws dictating behavior. There are so many other examples as to be dizzying, and that's part of the answer. Maher goes after the "worst offenders," the major world religions. He might have included Buddhism, though it really does struggle to match the absurd credulities required to be a follower of Islam and Christianity.

Maher's most successful accomplishment is in illustrating that religion has enslaved humanity to the few for millenia, and he deserves a great deal of credit for stating it where he states it. The majority of us know about the Inquisition, the witch hunts, the crusades and Islamic holy wars that spread the faiths across the globe, and violently more often than not. We all know this. Truisms don't need repeating. That's one of the main messages of the film itself--the toxic-effect religion has had on humanity is well-known from the historical record, and talking with biblical scholars isn't going to shed much more light either as they tend to agree generally with Maher on the oddness of literalism and fundamentalism in religion rather than a symbolical or allegorical reading of the "sacred texts." No film--even one five-hours-long--could adequately address all of this. Good job, and we "non-believers" have a lot of work to do.