Movies

The 120 Best Film Soundtracks

Going to the trouble of making a list such as this may seem trivial to some, but, in fact, the tradition of musical scoring for cinema should be considered the ‘classical music’ you’ve liked but didn’t know it was ‘classical.’

Let me explain. I will assume you, like I, enjoy an immediately rapport with great film music, that the main themes to movies like ‘Jurassic Park,’ ‘Gone With the Wind,’ and ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ I will assume you find them ‘beautiful’ and that, if you have given it any thought, that you know they are composed for and played by a full symphony orchestra. In other words, the same orchestra that plays Beethoven at Carnegie Hall on Friday night may be in the studio the next day recording the next John Williams soundtrack.

Let’s go even further: Not only does the film composer employ all the potencies of the modern symphony orchestra, and often vocal soloists and a chorus, the composer draws upon the entire development of Western music (and sometimes non-Western) in creating a 90 to 120 minute musical narrative to accompany the action and dialogue on the screen.

But here there’s an even more important point to make: At the very time that film music was emerging as a developed art form, the mainstream of classical music took a wrong turn towards atonal and twelve-tone compositions. The late Romantic musical tradition, as represented by Mahler, Bruckner, and Richard Strauss, was carried forward by film composers like Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Max Steiner, Franz Waxman, Miklos Rozsa, and Bernard Herrmann. Both Korngold and Rozsa had been established classical composers before arriving in Hollywood, so they literally embodied the bridge I am describing.

As chronicled superbly in Robert R. Reilly’s Surprised by Beauty: A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music (Ignatius, 2016), the rejection of traditional tonality dominated the concert hall well into the 1980s before composers like George Rochberg and David Del Tredici began to realize the mistake.

If my argument holds, the list below represents a classical music tradition that never broke with the development of tonality in the Western music tradition. In other words, an appreciation for film music is, necessarily, an appreciation for ‘classical music,’ that is, music reflecting the legacy of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Mahler, Bruckner, and Strauss.

Many American composers who never took that atonal turn, such as David Diamond, Paul Creston, Howard Hanson, Vittorio Giannini, Nicolas Flagello, but for decades their compositions were rarely played or even mentioned in surveys of contemporary music. Conductors like Gerard Schwartz and Leonard Slatkin have been at the forefront of rediscovering their music as well as other composers who refused the break with tonality.

It’s not too far-fetched to say that film music has been the ‘classical music’ for far more listeners than the music played symphony halls around the world for the past fifty years. The time has come to claim to not merely admit it, but to celebrate the music and musicians who have continued to minister to the human ear, and the human heart.

-1. City Lights, Charles Chaplin (1931)
-2. King Kong, Max Steiner (1933)
-3. She, Max Steiner (1935)
-4. Modern Times, Charles Chaplin (1936)
-5. The Charge of the Light Brigade, Max Steiner (1936)
-6. Anthony Adverse, Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1936)
-7. Alexander Nevsky, Sergei Prokofiev (1938)
-8. Gone With the Wind, Max Steiner (1939)
-9. Sea Hawk, Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1940)
-10. Thief of Bagdad, Miklos Rozsa (1940)
-11. 49th Parallel, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1941)
-12. Citizen Kane, Bernard Herrmann (1941)
-13. The Uninvited, Victor Young (1941)
-14. That Hamilton Woman, Miklos Rozsa (1941)
-15. Now, Voyager, Max Steiner (1942)
-16. Kings Row, Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1942)
-17. The Song of Bernadette, Alfred Newman (1943)
-18. Mr. Skeffington, Franz Waxman (1944)
-19. Henry V, William Walton (1944)
-20. Laura, David Raksin (1944)
-21. Spellbound, Miklos Rozsa (1945)
-22. Forever Amber, David Raksin (1947)
-23. Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Bernard Herrmann (1947)
-24. Red River, Dimitri Tiomkin (1948)
-25. Scott of the Antarctic, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1948)
-26. The Red Pony, Aaron Copland (1949)
-27. The Heiress, Aaron Copland (1949)
-28. All About Eve, Alfred Newman (1950)
-29. Quo Vadis, Miklos Rozsa (1951)
-30. A Christmas Carol, Richard Addinsell (1951)
-31. A Place in the Sun, Franz Waxman (1951)
-32. Scaramouche, Victor Young (1952)
-33. The Bad and the Beautiful, David Raksin (1952)
-34. High Noon, Dimitri Tiomkin (1952)
-35. The Quiet Man, Victor Young (1952)
-36. Shane, Victor Young (1953)
-37. I Vitelloni, Nino Rota (1953)
-38. Around the World in 80 Days, Victor Young (1954)
-39. Prince Valiant, Franz Waxman (1954)
-40. On the Waterfront, Leonard Bernstein (1954)
-41. Richard lll, William Walton (1955)
-42. Love Is A Many Splendored Thing, Alfred Newman (1955)
-43. Night of the Hunter, Walter Schumann (1955)
-44. Diane, Miklos Rozsa (1956)
-45. Peyton Place, Franz Waxman (1957)
-46. Raintree County, Johnny Green (1957)
-47. The Bridge Over the River Kwai, Malcolm Arnold (1957)
-48. Vertigo, Bernard Herrmann (1958)
-49. Ben Hur, Miklos Rozsa (1959)
-50. North by Northwest, Bernard Herrmann (1959)
-51. Journey to the Center of the Earth, Bernard Herrmann (1959)
-52. The Nun’s Story, Franz Waxman (1959)
-53. The Magnificent Seven, Elmer Bernstein (1960)
-54. Exodus, Ernest Gold (1960)
-55. Psycho, Bernard Herrmann. (1960)
-56. The Alamo, Dimitri Tiomkin (1960)
-57. Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Henry Mancini (1961)
-58. King of Kings, Miklos Rozsa (1961)
-59. El Cid, Miklos Rozsa (1961)
-60. Lawrence of Arabia, Maurice Jarre (1962)
-61. To Kill a Mockingbird, Elmer Bernstein (1962)
-62. Taras Bulba, Franz Waxman (1962)
-63. The Pink Panther, Henry Mancini (1963)
-64. Charade, Henry Mancini (1963)
-65. The Leopard, Nino Rota (1963)
-66. Goldfinger, John Barry (1964)
-67. The Fall of the Roman Empire, Dimitri Tiomkin (1964)
-68. Doctor Zhivago, Maurice Jarre (1965)
-69. Sylvia, David Raksin (1965)
-70. The Greatest Story Ever Told, Alfred Newman (1965)
-71. A Man and a Woman, Francis Lai (1966)
-72. Sand Pebbles, Jerry Goldsmith (1966)
-73. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Ennio Morricone (1966)
-74. Casino Royale, Burt Bacharach (1967)
-75. Two for the Road, Henry Mancini (1967)
-76. Far from the Madding Crowd, Richard Rodney Bennett (1967)
-77. The Lion in Winter, John Barry (1968)
-78. Romeo and Juliet, Nino Rota (1968)
-79. David Copperfield, Malcolm Arnold (1969)
-80. Anne of a Thousand Days, Georges Delerue (1969)
-81. True Grit, Elmer Bernstein (1969)
-82. Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Miklos Rozsa (1970)
-83. The Last Valley, John Barry (1971)
-84. The Godfather, Nino Rota (1972)
-85. Lady Caroline Lamb, Richard Rodney Bennett (1972)
-86. Antony and Cleopatra, John Scott (1972)
-87. The Wind and the Lion, Jerry Goldsmith (1975)
-88. Jaws, John Williams (1975)
-89. Superman, John Williams (1978)
-90. Death on the Nile, Nino Rota (1978)
-91. A Little Romance, Georges Delerue (1979)
-92. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, John Williams (1980)
-93. Somewhere in Time, John Barry (1980)
-94. Body Heat, John Barry (1981)
-95. Krull, James Horner (1983)
-96. Once Upon a Time in America, Ennio Morricone (1984)
-97. Splash, Lee Holdridge (1984)
-98. Out of Africa, John Barry (1985)
-99. The Mission, Ennio Morricone (1986)
-100. Untouchables, Ennio Morricone (1987)
-101. Cinema Paradiso, Ennio Morricone (1988)
-102. Time of Destiny, Ennio Morricone (1988)
-103. A Summer Story, Georges Delerue (1988)
-104. Born on the Fourth of July, John Williams (1989)
-105. Henry V, Patrick Doyle (1989)
-106. Glory, James Horner (1989)
-107. Dances With Wolves, John Barry (1990)
-108. Dracula, Wojciech Kilar (1992)
-109. Gettysburg, Randy Edelman (1993)
-110. Jurassic Park, John Williams (1993)
-111. The Age of Innocence, Elmer Bernstein (1993)
-112. Sense and Sensibility, Patrick Doyle (1995)
-113. Apollo 13, James Horner (1995)
-114. Far From Heaven, Elmer Bernstein (2002)
-115. Love Affair, Ennio Morricone (1994).
-116. Hamlet, Patrick Doyle (2009)
-117. Kingdom of Heaven, Harry Gregson-Williams (2005)
-118. Patton, Jerry Goldsmith (1970)
-119. Midnight Cowboy, John Barry (1969)
-120. The Lives of Others, Gabriel Yared (2006)
—–

Passion, Not Prejudice-Mel Gibson’s Christ

By Deal W. Hudson

Mel Gibson’s Passion is finally in movie theaters. Now people can see for themselves what all the hubbub is about. Most, I believe, will leave the theater shaken to the core by the terrible beauty of Gibson’s masterpiece. The media-driven expectation of an anti-Semitic portrayal of the Jews will be swept away by the spectacle of a man of peace abused, scourged, crucified, betrayed, and abandoned by all but a few of his family and friends.

When the ridiculous charges of anti-Semitism have finally passed, two questions will have to be asked. First, why was the attack on Gibson so pro-longed, so vicious, so multifaceted? Second, why did none of the liberal crowd who joined in the public hounding of Gibson ever concern themselves with his artistic freedom?

It was not that long ago when Andres Serrano was dipping a crucifix in urine to the delight of the New York Times and the anti-Catholic elites of the art world. Catholics who were offended at such vulgarity on display in an exhibit funded by public dollars were accused of censorship and the Philistine refusal of artistic license. Indeed it has been a virtual calling card of the left to place unflattering portrayals of Christianity in the arts beyond criticism. How, they ask, can the imagination of the artist be measured by the traditional religious creeds?

But what happens when an artist puts the central fact of the creed—”He suffered, died, and was buried”—on a movie screen? Apparently, concern for Gibson’s freedom as an artist no longer applies. When a major movie star employs all his talent and celebrity to put a conventional Passion play on film, everyone from seminary professors to movie critics and liberal pundits forget their defense of film director Martin Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ a generation ago.

Once we acknowledge that the intelligentsia defends anything religiously heterodox, it then becomes apparent why Gibson’s film has drawn so much heavy fire. It’s perfectly fine if the meaning of Christianity is seen through the humanist vision of a Martin Scorcese or a Martin Sheen. Soon we’ll have a film version of The Da Vinci Code with its preposterous thesis about the marriage of Jesus to Mary Magdalene and about which liberal scholars and critics will say nothing.

But a film about Jesus Christ by Mel Gibson simply cannot be allowed. First, he’s a genuine celebrity, a mega-star whose film will be influential for that very fact. Second, he really believes Jesus Christ is the Son of God, that his death was not simply an example of love for his fellow man but the redemption of humankind. Third, as witnessed in Braveheart, Gibson is capable of making a classic film sure to be admired as long as film endures.

All this adds up to a movie that will be a powerful witness to the truth of traditional Christianity, precisely the force that liberal elites have been trying to still for decades. It’s Christianity—and especially orthodox Catholicism and evangelicalism—that denies them their total victory in the culture wars. Proponents of abortion, gay marriage, radical feminism, multiculturalism, and postmodernism all harbor a deep fear of the truth claims of Christianity about the fixed nature of God’s creation.

Gibson surely knew that making a film about Christ was scandalous to the unbelievers in Hollywood, but I doubt if he realized the threat it represents to the intellectuals who employ a neutered Christianity for their own ideological enterprises.

One final word on the question of anti-Semitism (an ugly and destructive force both here and in Europe): It’s possible that some bigots may have their prejudice reinforced by Gibson’s film. But that doesn’t make the movie anti-Semitic, nor does it justify the attacks on Gibson. Films are released every week that exacerbate the sick tendencies of child molesters, rapists, murderers, and Rambo wannabes. We can’t censor ourselves just because some nut somewhere may be influenced negatively by our work.

I thank Mel Gibson for his film and for all he was willing to endure in making his faith public. His life and career will never be the same—would it were that more men had such courage.

Addendum: Subsequent events in Mel Gibson’s life did reveal his anti-Semitism. His film, however, does not, in my opinion, express an anti-Semitic point of view, an opinion I am prepared to defend as I have in the past (June, 2016).

Published in Crisis Magazine, March 1, 2004

100 Best Movies for Christmas

By Deal W. Hudson

As with my list of Catholic novels, I am not following any rigid theory of the “Catholic film” in making these recommendations. Rather than advance a thesis about what constitutes an “authentic” or “orthodox” Catholic film, I’m hoping that you, the reader, will discover on this list some films that will bring you enjoyment. Perhaps you will find some inspirational or edifying and be moved to a renewed aspiration toward the source of all beauty.

It’s regrettable that Catholic educators have yet to regard cinema as an important artistic tradition, one that should be studied along with literature, painting, theater, and music. The advantage of studying film is its relative youth, having been born only a little over a century ago. The other, more obvious, advantage is that students will have spent literally hundreds of hours watching films of various kinds, as opposed to their time spent with books, or much less in a museum with the masterworks of painting and sculpture.

Here’s the good news: It’s still not too late for the diligent and perhaps obsessive student, with a few years of study, to gain a satisfactory overview of film history.The “Catholic film” is actually a good place to start on such a journey, since both Catholic filmmakers and Catholic subjects have been a part of film’s history from the beginning of the “silent” era to the present. (Remember, there were very few silent films since musical soundtracks were used in films since 1920. And, to add a curious side note, the capacity for “talking” films had been available for several years prior to the 1928 Jazz Singer but was considered unnecessary to film as a rapidly developing, and primarily visual, art form.)

You will see below my list of 100 Best Catholic Films in chronological order. The only difference between this list and the book list is that I am not insisting that the author be Catholic. My choices are made film qua film, not by any reference to the faith of the producer, director, or writer. Given that any object of art should be enjoyed and understood in itself, apart from its creator, I regret somewhat not using this criterion in making my list of 100 Best Catholic Novels, but then, what is done, is done.

Thus, I ask the reader not to take me to task if the director of a particular film is a notorious this-or-that, as is definitely the case with a number of the films listed below. And, after all, how do we know under what inspiration, or whose inspiration, an “unbelieving” director brought a film into being.

Unlike the 100 Best Catholic Novels, I have not added links to all my recommendations. The reader can easily search them out at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or any of the many film vendors on the Internet. If you don’t wish to buy them, you can find out the basic information on any of the films by making use of the International Movie Database at http://www.imdb.com.

1.Carl Theodore von Dreyer, The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928.
2.Cecil B. DeMille, King of Kings, 1927.
3.Frank Capra, Lady for a Day, 1933.
4.John Ford, The Informer, 1935.
5.Frank Borzage, Strange Cargo, 1940
6.Henry King, The Song of Bernadette, 1943.
7.John M. Stahl, The Keys of the Kingdom, 1944.
8.Leo McCarey, Going My Way, 1944.
9.Leo McCarey, The Bells of St. Mary’s, 1945.
10.Frank Capra, It’s a Wonderful Life, 1946.
11.Robert Bresson, Au Hasard Balthasar, 1966.
12.Michael Powell, Black Narcissus, 1947.
13.John Ford, The Fugitive, 1947.
14.John Ford, Three Godfathers, 1948.
15.Leo McCarey, Make Way for Tomorrow, 1947.
16.Vittorio De Sica, The Bicycle Thieves, 1948.
17.Roberto Rossellini, Stromboli, 1950.
18.Roberto Rossellini, The Flowers of St. Francis, 1950.
19.Gordon Douglas, Come Fill the Cup, 1951.
20.Robert Bresson, The Dairy of a Country Priest, 1951.
21.Akira Kurosawa, Ikiru, 1952.
22.Vittorio De Sica, Umberto D, 1952.
23.Alfred Hitchcock, I Confess, 1953.
24.Elia Kazan, On the Waterfront, 1954.
25.Raffaello Matarazzo, The White Angel, 1955.
26.Carl Theodore von Dreyer, Ordet, 1955.
27.Alfred Hitchcock, The Wrong Man, 1956.
28.Luis Bunuel, Nazarin, 1959.
29.Fred Zinnemann, The Nun’s Story, 1959.
30.William Wyler, Ben Hur, 1959.
31.Robert Bresson, Pickpocket, 1959.
32.Mervyn LeRoy, The Devil of 4 O’Clock, 1961.
33.Richard Fleischer, Barabbas, 1961.
34.Nicholas Ray, King of Kings, 1961.
35.Otto Preminger, The Cardinal, 1963.
36.Peter Glenville, Becket, 1964.
37.Pier Paolo Pasolini, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, 1964.
38.Carol Reed, The Agony and the Ecstasy, 1965.
39.Luis Bunuel, Simon of the Desert, 1965.
40.Fred Zinnemann, A Man for All Seasons, 1966.
41.Robert Bresson, Mouchette, 1967.
42.Michael Anderson, The Shoes of the Fisherman, 1968.
43.Franco Zefferelli, Brother Sun, Sister Moon, 1972.
44.William Friedkin, The Exorcist, 1973.
45.Anthony Harvey, The Abdication, 1974.
46.Joseph Hardy, The Lady’s Not for Burning, 1974.
47.Franco Zefferelli, Jesus of Nazareth, 1977.
48.Robert Bresson, The Devil Probably, 1977.
49.Ermanno Olmi, Tree of the Wooden Clogs, 1978.
50.John Huston, Wise Blood, 1979.
51.Francesco Rosi, Christ Stopped at Eboli, 1979.
52.Hugh Hudson, Chariots of Fire, 1981.
53.Charles Sturridge & Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Brideshead Revisited, 1981.
54.Ulu Grosbard, True Confessions, 1981.
55.Martin Scorcese, The Age of Innocence, 1982.
56.Paolo & Vittorio Taviani, Night of the Shooting Stars, 1982.
57.Jerry London, The Scarlet and the Black, 1983.
58.Robert Bresson, L’argent, 1983.
59.Norman Stone, Shadowlands, 1885.
60.Alain Cavalier, Therese, 1986.
61.Roland Jaffe, The Mission, 1986.
62.Wim Wenders, Wings of Desire, 1987.
63.Gabriel Axel, Babette’s Feast, 1987.
64.Rodney Bennett, Monsignor Quixote, 1987.
65.Maurice Pialat, Under the Star of Satan, 1987.
66.John Huston, The Dead, 1987.
67.Krzysztof Kieslowski, The Decalogue, 1988.
68.Krzysztof Kieslowski, A Short Film About Love, 1988.
69.Ermanno Olmi, Legend of the Holy Drinker, 1988.
70.John Duigan, Romero, 1989.
71.Denys Arcand, Jesus of Montreal, 1989.
72.Bruce Beresford, Black Robe, 1991.
73.Stijn Coninx, Daens, 1992.
74.Nancy Savoca, Household Saints, 1993.
75.Mel Gibson, Braveheart, 1995.
76.Liv Ullmann, Kristin Lavransdatter, 1995.
77.Lee David Slotoff, Spitfire Grill, 1996.
78.Marta Meszaros, The Seventh Room, 1996.
79.M. Knight Shyamalan, Wide Awake, 1998.
80.Joe Johnston, October Sky, 1999.
81.David Lynch, The Straight Story, 1999.
82.Agnieszka Holland, The Third Miracle, 1999.
83.Patrice Leconte, The Widow of Saint-Pierre, 2000.
84.Jim Sheridan, In America, 2002.
85.Alexander Payne, About Schmidt, 2002.
86.Bruce Beresford, Evelyn, 2002.
87.Denys Arcand, Barbarian Invasions, 2003.
88.Mel Gibson, The Passion of the Christ, 2004.
89.Tommy Lee Jones, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, 2005.
90.Christian Carion, Joyeux Noel, 2005.
91.Pavel Lungin, The Island, 2006
92.Alejandro Monteverde, Bella, 2006.
93.Jean-Pierre Dardenne, L’enfant, 2006.
94.Martin Provost, Seraphine, 2008.
95.Mark Pellington, Henry Poole is Here, 2008.
96.John Patrick Shanley, Doubt, 2008.
97.Klaus Haro, Letters to Father Jaakob, 2009.
98.Xavier Beauvois, Of Gods and Men, 2010.
99.Philip Groning, Into the Great Silence, 2007.
100.100. Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life, 2011.

Published at Catholic Online, December 12, 2014.

I Am About to Snap!

By Deal W. Hudson

I am 66 years old, and I am about to snap. Do you even need to ask, “Why?” As I watch our nation engrossed in a debate over the morality of bathroom selection, I cannot recognize the place where I was born, raised, lived my life.

I feel that I’m living in a foreign land, though I haven’t reached the point of weeping (Psalm 137), possibly because I am too angry. But if the “stages of grief” hold true, it won’t be long before I acquiesce to depression and tears. But I will refuse the final stage, acceptance, and will choose to snap instead.

What form will my snapping take? One well-known model is the character Howard Beale, played by Peter Finch, from the film “Network” (1976). His rampage still resonates in our cultural memory, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore. . . .”

The continued relevance of Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay is uncanny:

Mad prophet is not my style, though watching the elegant Peter Finch devolve into a rain-coated Jeremiah (Jeremiah 33.10-16) has proven, to me anyway, unforgettable.

Another model, perhaps not so therapeutic, is the character, Bill Foster, played by Michael Douglas in “Falling Down” (1993), who “has passed the point of no return. . . .” (The screenplay was written by Ebbe Roe Smith.)

My form of snapping would not be violent, though I understand the rage of man barred from seeing his daughter on her birthday. Mine would be triggered by an overloaded sensibility under constant assault by our corrupt culture, where the standard of morality has been reduced to an individual’s view of whether biological males, who consider themselves female, can use the ladies bathroom.

I recently had a discussion with a gentleman from North Carolina who considered my support for the “bathroom bill” tantamount to racism. My response was laughter, simple laughter. This was spontaneous, not pre-meditated. The absurdity of defending gender specific bathrooms just started me giggling, then came full throated laughter.

Nietzsche’s Zarathustra spoke of the laughter that kills, but my laughter was closer to what the playwright Christopher Fry had in mind in “This Lady’s Not for Burning” (1948).

The main character Thomas Mendip is asked why he said, “For God’s sake, shall we laugh?”

He answers,

“For the reason of laughter, since laughter is surely
The surest touch of genius in creation.
Would you have thought of it, I ask you,
If you had been making man, stuffing him full
Of such hopping greeds and passions that he has
To blow himself to pieces as often as he
Conveniently can manage it… would it also
Have occurred to you to make him burst himself
With such a phenomenon as cachinnation?
That same laughter, madam, is an irrelevancy
Which almost amounts to a revelation.”

As Fry wrote in his widely anthologized essay on comedy, “Comedy is an escape, not from truth but from despair; a narrow escape into faith.” Comic overcoming, as opposed to Nietzsche’s laughter that kills, requires the kind of faith that transforms tragic circumstances.

When the Jews found themselves tragically ensconced in the “foreign land” of Babylon, they hung their lyres on willow trees. When they were asked by the captors to sing the songs of Zion, they answered, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137.4).

Perhaps my impulse to snap is another form of hanging up my lyre, refusing to sing the Lord’s song? Or perhaps I will snap through the “narrow escape into faith” and find myself laughing and singing on the other side? If laughter can be an “irrelevancy/ Which almost amounts to revelation,” then, I say, bring it on!

Perhaps my laughter in the face of being called a racist was an act of faith. Why try to defend the absurd? Why try reasoning with unreason? It’s like trying to convince Dostoevsky’s Underground Man that 2 + 2 does not equal 5!

Perhaps I have already snapped and didn’t recognize it in the sound of my laughter.

The Exorcist Author Learns Death Is a Lie

Published April 29, 2015 at The Christian Review

A Book Review:
William Peter Blatty, Finding Peter: A True Story of the Hand of Providence and Evidence of Life after Death
Regnery Publishing, March 30, 2015
256 pages, $27.99

Honesty is rare, and when it’s found in a book such as this the effect is quite arresting and compelling. I rarely read a book at one sitting, as I did Blatty’s Finding Peter. The author amazes me for several reasons, the foremost being his ability to engage the most religiously skeptical reader to reflect on the possibility of the supernatural.
Blatty accomplishes that, in part, by not talking directly about the supernatural or the theology it belongs to. Rather, his book is a memoir of a distinct kind — a recounting of the providential moments in his life and the tragic death of his teenage son, Peter, who continued to communicate with his parents from beyond the grave.

Thus, it’s not an accident that the narrative begins with a hilarious and touching homage to his Lebanese mother, Mary, or that he casually mentions the copy of St. Augustine’s Confessions he carried in his “battered old G.I. footlocker” on the train from NYC to Georgetown University for his freshman year.

The book’s subtitle, A True Story of the Hand of Providence and Evidence of Life after Death, tells the reader what Blatty intends to convey, but how he conveys it is never didactic or sentimental. In fact, Finding Peter can aptly be called humorous because every story Blatty tells he tells with a kind of wide-eyed wonder, as if thinking, “How can this be happening to me?”

His memoir begins with his impoverished childhood in New York City, where he helped his indomitable mother sell quince jelly on the steps of the Plaza Hotel. From there we follow Blatty as he adjusts to the upscale surroundings of Georgetown; heading the Policy Branch of the U.S. Air Force Psychological Warfare Division; his years working in Beirut, Lebanon, for the United States Information Agency; and the chance beginning of a writing career, which led him to Hollywood and the life of a successful screenwriter, novelist, and, eventually, film producer.

Blatty talks about his Hollywood years, and especially The Exorcist (novel 1971/ film 1973), with some reluctance. His stories about friends Shirley McLaine, Danny Kaye, Grace Kelly, Peter Ustinov, Blake Edwards, J. Lee Thompson, Darryl Zanuck, Johnny Carson, Jack Paar, Dick Cavett, among many others, are told by a master of comic writing but with the purpose of revealing “only so much of it as I think may be needed to convince you of my truthfulness and credibility.”

In other words, the reader learns William Peter Blatty was a successful man of the world, succeeding in one of the deepest shark pools of contemporary existence, Hollywood’s film business. Blatty, the reader is assured, is not “some gullible New Age wacko who wasn’t born on this planet but, in point of fact, landed here with the manuscript of The Exorcist tucked under his arm.”

The heart of this book is Blatty’s account of the life, death, and afterlife of his Peter, who in 2006 was found dead sitting in front of a television with a remote still in his hand — a victim of viral myocarditis, an inflammatory disease of the heart muscle.

Peter was the first child of Bill and Julie Blatty, born on May 17, 1987, in Stamford, CT. He was a child who seemed infused with the love of God. At age three he said to his mother, “Mommy, do you know why I came here . . . I came here to help people.” Other comments followed, such as the question, “How do you learn? I learn from the sky, God teaches me.” But the most touching of all is what he said to Julie Blatty at age 5:

“You know, Mom, when God was making me I was a little bit sad and a little bit scared. But then I saw you.”

In the year before he died, Peter was diagnosed with Type One bipolar disorder, which led to drugs and other self-destructive behaviors. But things were looking up for Peter when he was found lifeless in front of the TV. Blatty doesn’t shy away from describing the agonizing pain visited upon him and his wife. However, in the midst of that suffering, very quickly things began to happen that could not be explained, until enough of them happened that they realized Peter was communicating to his parents that he was alive, happy, and loved them.

Among the many “paranormal” events Bill and Julie experienced was the lost, and then found, miraculous medal that once belonged to Peter. Bill had taken the medal and worn it around his neck after Peter’s death, only taking it off to get through airport security. One morning he woke up to find the medal was missing, and only the chain lay around his neck. He and Julie scoured the house, paying special attention to the shower, going over and over the small space several times.

A few days later, Bill got in the shower very nervous about a speech he had to give to a large audience. He saw something shiny on the floor and reached down to find Peter’s miraculous medal.

“Let’s go over it again: the glassed-in, brightly-lit shower stall measured a little less than four feet by four feet. Julie and I had separately entered the shower and meticulously searched it in broad daylight at least three times, in my case at least five.”

Here’s another: Julie went to meet a friend for lunch in downtown Bethesda. Seeing a homeless man on the sidewalk across from the restaurant, she told her friend that Peter, with his bipolar disorder, could have ended up like that. At that very moment, the homeless man shouted, “My birthday is May 17!” Julie froze, that was Peter’s birthday. Bill later went to talk to the man, got to know him a bit, and learned that his name was Pee Wee. Pee Wee’s birthday was May 17, but he didn’t remember shouting it out to anyone.

Then there were other surprising experiences involving cats, stuffed dolls, dreams, light bulbs, a lost rosary, a dried-out sunflower, and a recently planted tree. These went on for eight years after Peter’s death. Some of them were experienced by friends of Peter.

William Peter Blatty is by nature a skeptical man, and it was his own skepticism he had to overcome before accepting the meaning of these unusual events. At a certain point he could no longer hold out against the insistence of the son who was determined to touch him from the afterlife. He knows now that all the unexplainable happenings were, in fact, explainable because they were caused by Peter. As Blatty told me in our radio interview, when these things happen so regularly over such a long time “it’s not rational to conclude otherwise.”

In recounting these stories in Finding Peter, Blatty hopes to provide comfort to parents who have lost children or other loved ones. He is telling those who grieve, “They are not dead, talk to them, they will hear you.”

Writer’s note: All proceeds from the sale of this book will be donated to a special fund at the high school Peter attended — The Heights School in Bethesda, MD.

Who Cares If We Know the Ending?

Deal W. Hudson

Why are we able to enjoy a movie that we have already seen, or tell a well-known story whose outcome we already know? Cyprian and I sat down over the weekend to watch the 2004 film, Miracle, starring Kurt Russell, about the 1978 victory of the US hockey team over the Soviets at the Lake Placid Olympics.

I had seen this movie at least two times. I knew the ending and several of the key plot points along the way, but I was completely absorbed watching all of it for 2 hours and 15 minutes. So was Cyprian, who knew the US was going to win because I had told him, and we both were disappointed when there were no “extras” to watch on the DVD.

Much of the reason we were enthralled by the film was because it was extremely well-made, with Kurt Russell as the US coach, Herb Brooks, taking on the entire hockey establishment with his commitment to beat the Soviets, perhaps the greatest hockey team of all time. Not only was the story of the 1978 victory familiar to us but also the narrative trope of the underdog winning in spite of the odds, in spite of the resistance against him. In this case, it was Herb Brooks and his college hockey players overcoming the resistance of his own colleagues as well as the Soviet hockey team.

We knew everything that was going to happen in that film, but for two hours we were completely in the grasp of the storytelling, skillfully directed by Gavin O’Connor. It must be the case that our appreciation of art, whether a film, a novel, or a painting is not found in its presentation of the new, per se. All art, with the exception of kitsch, offers its audience something new in the way the familiar is represented on stage, on the movie screen, on a canvas, or in a book.

When the human form was contorted in cubes by Picasso in his 1907 painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, his audience, no matter how shocked or delighted by the new cubist style, still recognized the human figures, the Young Woman, i.e., prostitutes of Avignon. Indeed, it would have been a superficial critic who applauded Picasso for the stylistic invention if it had not succeeded in revealing something interesting about the young woman it depicts. In other words, we know in general what a young prostitute might look like, that’s not new. But Picasso succeeded by his new style in depicting the harsh realities of a prostitute’s life. One might say an artist employs the new, his creativity, to re-imagine or re-present what we are already familiar with, and in doing so offers us insight, or greater clarity, into the subject of the work. (Obviously this description would be amended in the case of totally abstract works.)

Once we have it that art reproduces the human, nature, and the spiritual we can appreciate how Aristotle in his Poetics captured the aesthetic experience with his description of Greek tragedy involving the “catharsis of pity and fear.” What we can tease out of this highly compressed statement is important for two reasons: first, the viewer undergoes an experience called a catharsis, and, second, that catharsis has something to do with “pity and fear.” Thus, even without defining precisely what Aristotle meant, we know that for him tragedy was about the human experience, about what we all face along the way, from the impact of misfortune to the consequences of our own mistakes, especially the mistake of pride.

Allow me to use Aristotle’s discussion of tragedy to apply to the arts in general, especially those that employ narratives such as film, novels, and paintings. What Aristotle meant by the “catharsis of pity and fear” is precisely what answers my original question: how we can enjoy a story we’ve already been told. First of all, the human stories we meet in art are very finite. Somewhere in my studies I came across an author who had created a list of all possible human narratives, and it wasn’t very long. Secondly, these narratives are familiar, along with the emotions and worries that accompany them. Aristotle’s “pity and fear” represent the common thoughts and emotions we all have when, for example, a son rebels against his father, or young lovers disobey their parents, and so on.

We can enjoy, even be riveted, by the retelling of these human stories because their artistic representation, if skillfully made, provides us greater clarity, i.e., catharsis, about the dynamics of that story, our story, thus allaying our predictable emotions and worries about being faced with that situation ourselves. Catharsis is not an emotional purgation, it is an experience of clarity, of insight, that in making sense of the human condition allows us at least a moment of relief from the anxieties that we bear from day to day. In fact, we welcome the retelling of traditional stories because we are always seeking both to understand and endure the stories we inhabit and ultimately the narrative which is our entire life.

Why else would both the main characters in Casablanca, played by Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart, ask for the same song to be played over and over? The subtext of “Play it again, Sam” is, “I am still trying to understand, to put the pieces of my life together.”

Noah Meets the Transformers and Pretends to Be Abraham

Deal W. Hudson

The very talented writer director Darren Aronofsky would have been well advised not to entitle his movie, Noah. This name raises reasonable expectations in a viewer, such as the movie be placed within a Judeo-Christian cosmology and to portray the chief spiritual struggle of the main character.

“Aronofsky’s Noah” — a more suitable title — has its virtues but they are not enough to justify the huge effort that went into its production and marketing. “Aronofsky’s Noah” will definitely not live to be regarded as a Biblical epic that parents pass onto their children.

“Noah” suffers in comparison with epics such as DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” (1956), Zefferelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth” (1968), and especially Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” (2004) from its lame script, insipid music, surprisingly pedestrian camera work — Aronsofsky’s last film was the lustrous “Black Swan” — to the wooden performances from most of its principle characters.  The only character coming fully alive on screen is the villain, Ray Winstone’s Tubal-cain, the king of the descendants of Cain. Poor Jennifer Connolly, usually a welcome presence in any film, looks distressingly anorexic as Noah’s wife Naameh and employs only one modulating facial expression for her dramatic moments.  Of Noah’s four children only The teenage Ham of Logan Lerman displays a genuine rage against his overly-demanding father.  His scenes with Winstone are among the most convincing in the film.

Russell Crowe gives the best performance he can given his drab dialogue and a contrived narrative that turns his Noah into another Biblical character altogether, a kind of pseudo-Abraham. Evidently the spiritual challenge facing Noah in building an ark because of God’s command was not compelling enough to Aronofsky and his co-screenwriter Ari Handel. Noah’s seeming madness in contracting his ark was given minimal attention because the really big issue for Aronosfsky’s “Noah” is his interpretation of God’s command including the end of the human race. When his eldest son Shem, played by Douglas Booth and his adopted child Ila announce they are expecting a baby, Noah declares that a female child would be “cut down” at the moment of birth. A son, he concedes, would be allowed to live on as “the last man.”

The last half of the film depicts Noah as a kind of John Brown religious fanatic who has vowed to enact God’s judgement on the human race. Of course, at the moment of decision, when Noah faces the newborn sisters, it’s not God that holds back his dagger but the love he feels for his grandchildren. Thus, even as a cinematic take on the Abraham-Issac story, Aronofsky misses the point.

The biggest problem with Aronofsky’s “Noah” is the director’s decision to use a theology and cosmology that can’t be found in the book of Genesis. The fallen angels become rockbound Transformer figures whose condition is a result of their attempt to help Adam and Eve after the Fall — God punished them for their good deed making them earth creatures and vulnerable to human violence. God is revered by Aronofsky as the “Creator” but portrayed as an unyielding, unforgiving tyrant as “God.” Did Aronofsky notice he has transposed Christology to these “Watchers,” the fallen angels? The subject of love only arises when Noah is challenged by Ila to reconsider his judgement on her newborns.  To put it bluntly, by choosing the way of love Noah believes he has not carried out God’s commands, which leads to his drunken dissolution and years of alienation from his family.

Nonetheless, I wish Aronofsky’s “Noah” well, though I don’t believe it will have much of an afterlife after its initial release. The task of bringing a movie of this scope to the screen is immense, as is the financial risk: Paramount put $300,000,000  into production and marketing costs. If nothing else, the film’s initial success proves once again the potentially large audience awaiting well-made films on Biblical and religious subjects.

But one nagging question remains: how could such a mediocre film have been made by such an established talent as Darren Aronofsky — Requiem for a Dream” (2000), “The Fountain” (2006), “The Wrestler” (2008), and Black Swan” (2010) established his credentials as a major filmmaker. Was Aronofsky dealing with material that he didn’t understand, or didn’t want to embrace on it own terms?  Was Aronofsky simply trying to become a major commercial success? His previous films were well-reviewed and well-received but not intended to be mass market products and potentially huge money makers.

Another excellent director who could not meet his own standard of filmmaking when he took on a Biblical subject was Martin Scorsese. His “Last Temptation of Christ” (1988), a film that still sticks out like a sore thumb in a very distinguished career. I know “Last Temptation” has its defenders, including Scorsese, just as “Noah” will, but what these films have in common is a rather risible subtext that reflect, I assume, the respective director’s own personal struggles with the faith into which they were born, Judaism and Catholicism.