Bad Lieutenant and the Cacophony of God

Bad Lieutenant is ninety-six minutes because there’s no way you could stand it being any longer. It’s a horrible film, and frequently hard to watch. It’s not a descent into hell; descents have forward momentum. If you’re descending into hell you can envision ascending out if it. But in Bad Lieutenant, you’re already in hell. You’re so trapped that you wonder if hell is all that’s ever existed.

If I described the plot of Bad Lieutenant, it sounds like classic noir. Not completely – the sin and vice that would have been left implicit is rendered in full detail – but almost. Harvey Keitel plays the (unnamed) bad lieutenant, all hard liquor and harder drugs, and a hardened exterior unaffected by the crimes he investigates. He’s the cynical antihero, alienated, disaffected and corrupt. He’s hardboiled. He makes bets on a baseball match at the scene of a double murder.

Then a nun is gang-raped on the altar. The sequence is lit in red, like the fires of hell, and we see Christ on the cross, his screams of agony mixing with the young nun’s. The bad lieutenant is on the case. You imagine that he’ll devote himself to solving it, maybe going too far and bending the rules, stumbling towards some kind of redemption. That’s the plot Bad Lieutenant sets up, but doesn’t set in motion. It’s driven by the bad lieutenant himself – pulled in strange, painful directions – and he’s not a good enough person to be that kind of bad cop. He is, as Desson Howe described him in the Washington Post, just “a notch nicer than Satan.”

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Saint Lady Bird of Sacramento

I have a very hard time articulating why I’m (still) Catholic. It’s a question that other people ask me not infrequently – it’s a “do you mind if I ask you a question?” question, an inexplicable part of myself that does not seem to vibe with my weirdo androgynous socialist persona – but nowhere near as often as I ask myself. The Church has committed legions of crimes, and besides, preaches lots of things I don’t believe – that I find positively repugnant, particularly when it comes to teachings around gender and sexuality. Of course gay people should be allowed get married; of course trans people are the gender they say they are; of course women should be ordained as priests. Traditionalist Catholics and the non-religious alike are quick to write off my Catholicism as more or less bullshit: maybe it’s a lie I tell to please my parents, maybe it’s a lie I tell to please myself, a pathetic refusal to admit that all it amounts to is a cultural affiliation. But it’s not bullshit, I know it’s not. I’ve tried not being Catholic, but it’s something I can’t shake, something deep down in the bones of me.

The only answer to the question of why that feels like the full truth is a tautology: I’m Catholic because I am Catholic. My religious feelings – that seem to resonate right in my core, that seem as real as any part of me – are so hard to articulate, even to myself, that I don’t know how to even begin to express them to someone else. And so the best I can do is a kind of scrapbook religion, pointing to other people’s articulations in the hope that a collage of all of them will make me understood: Franny and Zooey and how everyone is Christ; Leo Tolstoy and the Christian imperative of nonviolence; how deeply, impossibly I believe that ‘Anarchy, My Dear’ by Say Anything is a hymn. Most of the best and brightest entries in my scrapbook, the ones that set my heart on fire, are Catholic – more or less. Liberation theology, St. Francis, St. Joan of Arc, St. Oscar Romero, The Exorcist and The Omen, Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, Brighton Rock, Gerard Way scrawling Catholic across his neck and his arm, Dogma, The Blues Brothers, stained glass windows and Gregorian chanting and what Stewart Lee once described as Catholicism’s love of inane seaside tat. Hitchcock for guilt, Ford for redemption, Rossellini for saints. That I think making fun of transubstantiation is hack when it is so much funnier to make fun of consubstantiation. My favourite director is Martin Scorsese, and a big reason is that no artist’s work has ever resonated quite so strongly with the religious part of my heart: felt Catholic in all the ways that I am Catholic, saturated in everything from The Last Temptation of Christ down to his most secular-seeming genre pictures.

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Notes on Mary Magdalene

This article is part of the Notes on Failure series, which discusses interesting cinematic failures. Previously, notes on Hamlet (2000)


I was looking forward to Mary Magdalene for like a year. I liked Lion, director Garth Davis’s debut film, and Rooney Mara has an outsized place in my heart thanks to her work with David Fincher. But mostly, I love religious films. It’s hard to say that when Pure Flix have made a cottage industry out of crap like God’s Not Dead, films designed to reassure Christians that of course you’re better than everyone else, don’t worry. But great religious films can wrangle with all the messy complications, can be free to be more art than indoctrination. A lot of the best ones are made by atheists – usually Marxists from Italy. Great religious films are great films that focus thematically on something I care intensely about, and they inevitably mean a lot to me.

But you’re always rolling those dice. Christianity is an extremely loaded thing, and it often seems like reviews are written in code: I’m pretty sure Martin Scorsese’s Silence didn’t get its due because secular audiences didn’t or couldn’t fully engage with it and religious audiences found it uncomfortable, challenging viewing, but then it’s hard to know what the reviews would be like if it really was a dull slog.

So I was excited to see Mary Magdalene, even if the reviews were pretty mixed. I love religious films, and I love unorthodox Gospel retellings, and I’m a feminist, and I’d been looking forward to it for like a year.

It was a disappointment. Here’s why.

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What Is It You Like About This House So Much?

When I saw mother! in the cinema, I could feel the discomfort of people around me. Shortly before the film ended, I heard a woman declare at the full volume, “Well, that was crap.” It was a big chain cinema in a screen with rows going back to Q or something ridiculous, and it was almost empty.

mother! was given about as wide a release as is possible, and it was buzzy and controversial and starred Jennifer Lawrence, one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood, and besides, it’s a horror film, which are virtually guaranteed to make a profit. But most people will not like mother!, and lots and lots of people hated it. It’s a brave, strange thing, that made me think I can’t believe what I’m seeing in a way that I thought was kind of impossible in the internet age. Every swing it takes is big. And it couldn’t give less of a shit if you don’t like it.

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The Anxious Christianity of Scott Derrickson

Scott Derrickson is a frustrating filmmaker. Since his 2005 breakthrough with The Exorcism of Emily Rose, he’s had a string of commercial successes, some of which were even good movies. There was his terrible remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, his excellent horror film Sinister and his addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Doctor Strange, which, like most Marvel movies, was good, but not particularly so.

On paper, there are a lot of directors like Scott Derrickson: variably good, but consistently profitable, making films that millions of people see, but almost none of those people know their name. Horror and comedy are full of these directors. Sure, tens of millions of people saw Annabelle: Creation and Central Intelligence, but who amongst us can really say we know who made them? Usually, I’m dimly aware of these financially-successful mid-tier directors and don’t super care about them. But I make an exception for Scott Derrickson. That’s partly because his best films are sincerely great, but mostly it’s because he’s one of the few successful and influential Christian directors working in mainstream cinema.

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God Allegedly Has Bigger Plans for Me: Religion in Lost

When Michael Schur was coming up with The Good Place, he asked Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof for advice. “[Lindelof] told me, ‘Here are the pitfalls. Here are the traps you can fall into. Here’s the problem you’re going to hit’…” Schur said, “He actually I think said to me, ‘You just need to know where you’re going.’”

Lindelof’s advice was presumably drawing from experience, because Lost absolutely did not know where it was going. For the six full-length seasons it ran, it was an incredibly messy show, narratively convoluted and incoherent, brimming over with set-ups that were never paid off – and not in a David Lynch way, where it’s meant to be surreal and not intended to be “solved”. It only took Lost until its second season to do a “what if this character is in a psych ward and this is all in his head” episode, something Buffy managed to stave off for six years. The finale of Lost aired eight years ago to a polarised reception, and its reputation has only depreciated in the interim. It regularly makes lists of the worst finales of all time, and is practically synonymous with “all the mystery-box shit turning out to be nonsense” and “wasting years of your life on a show that turns out to be crap.”

So here’s the thing: Lost was a great show, finale and all. And I think that those who came away from the finale scratching their heads kind of missed the whole point of the show – because Lost was always a show about religion.

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Cancelled Too Soon: The Booth at the End

Two weeks ago, I sat down to start writing an article about one of my favourite TV shows, The Booth at the End, for a new recurring feature called Cancelled Too Soon. Just like every other article I write for this blog, my first stop was Wikipedia, to refresh myself on the basics: the names of all the actors, writers and directors; who produced and distributed it; how high were its ratings or box office; what was the general timbre of contemporary critical reception. I always check this stuff first because it’s the stuff I’d be most embarrassed to get wrong, especially since I routinely see professional writers get them wrong, and my second-hand embarrassment on their behalf is so intense that I’d probably throw up if I experienced it first-hand.

Most of this information does not exist on the Wikipedia page for The Booth at the End.

The very first line of the article says it was “originally produced for the US cable channel FX”.

That’s not true. Very little of the information in the article is true, and some of it is contradictory – it claims that it first aired on Canada’s City TV network in one part of the article, and that it first aired on FX in another. I spent hours searching for contemporary reporting on The Booth at the End and it was even more contradictory and confused. So, I decided to do some primary research of my own.

Two weeks later, I have a pretty good grasp of the true story of The Booth at the End. Most of it came from a Twitter conversation with its creator and writer, Christopher Kubasik, and an email exchange with Doug Miller, the media contact for the show’s production company, Vuguru. I don’t have all the fine details, but I’m reasonably satisfied I know enough to tell you the mysterious tale of this strange, ground-breaking and now tragically-forgotten show, cancelled before its time, its history rendered opaque thanks to shoddy reporting by contemporary news sources.

The Booth at the End is the best TV show you never knew existed.

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Harvey Keitel praying in Mean Streets

Martin Scorsese’s Violence of Grace

In the stories of Flannery O’Connor, grace is violent. It overpowers. Baptisms are drownings. It is only with a gun pointed at her that a grandmother can recognise the humanity of her murderer: she would have been “a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

This violence of grace is often represented by human violence, but it isn’t the same as human violence. Grace is beyond human comprehension, and so is impossible to represent literally. Any religious text is filled with metaphors, because metaphors are the only way to communicate about the divine. Using violence to represent grace, art can express how grace strikes: dramatic, overwhelming, painful. It is painful because it is transformative. Like violence, it is destructive, but it destroys only evil.

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Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor in I Love You Philip Morris

Written in the Stars or Some Crap Like That

I Love You Phillip Morris is the lost film of the noughties, a masterpiece of filmmaking that no one remembers less than ten years later. Everyone who loves film has a movie they champion in the face of an indifferent world, and I have several, but none so much as I Love You Phillip Morris. Wikipedia calls it a “black comedy drama” but I Love You Phillip Morris is one of those rare multi-genres films that layers each element so perfectly the result is pure alchemy, a work of art so inexplicably magical that even an accurate label can only ever be a reductive one. I Love You Phillip Morris is a biopic, a caper, a black comedy and a tragedy, but if it’s any kind of film, it’s a romantic comedy, and not just a romantic comedy, but one of the greatest romantic comedies of all time.

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