‘Son Of God’ is Terrible, But ‘Horns of Pan’ Would Be Too

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  March 4, 2014 — 47 Comments

Last night, I went and saw “The Monuments Men,” a dramatization of the very real efforts to save Europe’s art and cultural history from Nazi looting and destruction.  As a fine art lover this is a historical event (an ongoing one) that has me riveted, so I am right in the target market for this film. However, while I love to see Bill Murray and George Clooney mugging for the camera as much as anyone, I left feeling disappointed and manipulated (and I wasn’t alone). It was so propagandistic that it could have been made in the 1950s, and you wouldn’t have had to change much. Meanwhile, the art itself takes a back seat (often literally, there are many scenes of crated art being pushed onto trucks), so the characters have to airily expound about the importance of art without, you know, showing people why it’s so important.

I bring this up because I believe most thinking Christians going to see “Son Of God,” currently in theaters, would feel much as I felt leaving that film. Because when you already believe in something, you become immune from many of the tricks of art used to get people to identify with a character or cause. You recognize it as a tool of evangelization, and you leave disappointed that you weren’t surprised, challenged, or shown some new way of seeing something you know intimately. As one secular critic put it, it’s a film about Jesus that makes you almost long for the over-the-top horror-show that was “Passion of the Christ.”

“Gibson’s barking mad Passion of the Christ at least had vigor, vision, madness — something to say, even if that thing was just “more wounds!” and “Jews!” Son of God is a narrative shambles, more thudding than thunderous, shot with no spirit or distinction, always feeling like a sprawling TV miniseries cut up to fit into theatrical running time. That’s no surprise, considering this is a distillation of The Bible, the basic-cable event from 2013. At the opening we see flashbacks, with voiceover, to the stories of Noah, Moses, and Abraham — surely the first time that the New Testament has kicked off with a ‘previously on . . .'”

Truly good religious films are difficult, because they are usually made by believers. Believers want to be accurate, they want to be true to the text, they want their protagonists (largely) unsullied and the villains clearly evil. That’s great when you’re making films about comic book characters, but it’s terrible when you want to strike for something deeper. Films about religion, by their very nature, promise to strike at something deeper. So when a film like this, quote, “treats the audience like first-timers, all but having a pastor step on screen to explain the meaning of every re-created parable — and the smugness of a parent serving broccoli” you know you’re making a disposable product (albeit one that will no doubt make a lot of money thanks to the millions of Christians in the United States).

All this said, I didn’t come here to pile on about the badness of “Son Of God,” but to serve a warning: A Pagan equivalent will no doubt be just as bad. Such a film, let’s call it “Horns Of Pan,” would no doubt fall into the same trap. Now, Pagans and polytheists have seen a growing number of fantasy films and television series that allude to gods, the occult, or religion in the ancient world, and there are more coming (at least if you believe Neil Gaiman). Eventually, enough points will converge, and a “real” Pagan film will roll into production. Will it be Starhawk’s “The Fifth Sacred Thing”? Or perhaps an adaptation of one of the many Pagan-themed novels that have done moderately well? I can’t say, but I feel fairly confident in my ability to predict its reception outside our interconnected communities (unless something truly remarkable happens).

Two of my favorite films about religion weren’t made for true believers: Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire,” and Robin Hardy/Anthony Shaffer’s “The Wicker Man” (though I love both for very different reasons). If either of these much-lauded classics had to run a gauntlet of pleasing a religious community, they would have either never been made, or would have turned out so different as to be unrecognizable. They certainly wouldn’t be picked up by new generations of film-lovers and held up for their artistry or ability to move us. So, as much as I love my religious community, I fear the day I have to watch and review a film of “ours” that’s “made it” to wide distribution.

For every good religious film, and I’ll leave you to make your own list, there are countless pious messes. When film stops being an artistic medium guided by visionaries, and instead starts serving a cause, you end up with movie goers attending out of duty, to prove some point instead of holding up excellence (or even entertainment).

“Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church is one of many religious leaders urging churchgoers to become moviegoers. ‘In fact, I told my church, ‘If you have to choose between church and movie, go see the movie this weekend,” he told CBS News’ John Blackstone. ‘Let’s send a message to Hollywood,” he said. ‘Not every movie has to be a Bible movie, but when they do come out, let’s support that, for sure.'”

That isn’t art. That’s activists mobilizing their purchasing power to enshrine a cultural product that doesn’t deserve it, and ten years from now, no one will be singing this work’s praises. No matter how rich the producers of “Son Of God” get off of Christian dollars, it won’t make much of a difference in the world of film, or in the world of Christianity. So I urge Pagans to be careful what they wish for, and what they work for. Let Pagan filmmakers craft their own visions, and if their work rises up to the mainstream on merit, then celebrate it. But let’s not fall into the “Son Of God” trap, because nobody wants to see “Horns Of Pan,” no matter how great the special effects are. I don’t want “Pagan” films, I want good films, great films.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • John W. Morehead

    A Mormon friend of mine asked me last weekend if I was going to see this film. I deflected the question. As an Evangelical, I don’t like squeaky clean and overtly evangelistic films done in the name of Christianity that remove all of the messiness of the ancient Roman and Judean context, and the subversiveness of Jesus. So I’ll sit this one out.

    • paganheart

      This. Coming from a fundamentalist, evangelical background, my experience has been that many fundamentalist Christians–like the sort whom this film is aimed at, no matter how much they want to believe otherwise–do not do “messy” very well. They want everything to be “squeaky clean” and very simple: good/evil, right/wrong, black/white. There is no room in their worlds for complexity and messiness and subversiveness and shades of gray. But great art often is great because it resides in the shades of gray and the complexities and messiness of real life, and it forces us to think, rather than just spoon-feeding us simplistic answers to our complex, messy problems. I don’t appreciate (metaphorically and otherwise) being hit over the head repeatedly with simplistic, moralistic, cartoonish messages, and too often, so-called “Christian” books and movies do that. They treat their audiences like they are mental six-year-olds, rather than fully mature adults with functioning brains.

      And I agree with Jason, that the same thing can happen in “pagan”-oriented movies made for a mainstream audience, if we are not careful. Not just because the community insists it be “Pure,” but also because too often the message is dumbed down in the interest of appealing to a wider audience. In some ways it’s already happened. The first thing that came to my mind was the mediocre-to-terrible TV miniseries adaptation of “Mists Of Avalon” from a few years back. Or Nicholas Cage’s horrid remake of “The Wicker Man.” (If you’ve never seen it, don’t. 102 of the worst minutes of my life that I’ll never get back.) Even the “Game Of Thrones” series seems at times to subvert the more pagan elements of the books to T&A and mindless violence, in the name of drawing a broader, non-pagan audience.

      IMO I’d rather see Pagan (and Christian, for that matter) films made respectfully and thoughtfully, even if that means they never draw a broad audience. Let the audience find their way to them, rather than dumbing them down to simplistic stupidity in the name of finding a broader audience.

      • Northern_Light_27

        I’ll completely dispute that on GoT. Not the T&A, HBO syndrome is
        what it is (although Martin’s sex scenes were pretty creepy on their
        own, so idk), but the violence is hardly worse than the books. I seem to
        recall many, many pages on the torture of one character that I really
        could have lived without. The show does the one thing that Martin’s
        publisher won’t subject him to IRL, edits the material. Some of the
        changes, particularly Arya and Tywin’s scenes, were completely
        brilliant. It absolutely doesn’t belong in a list of “dumbed down to
        simplistic stupidity” screen material.

        • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

          The graphic novels are better. :p

    • Hecate_Demetersdatter

      Oh, please.

      • Alyxander M Folmer

        Will you lay off? Good gods he hasn’t even done anything yet!

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    I don’t know, Jason…I’ve always thought The Bithynian would make an awesome film (as would The Hound of Ulster!), but casting would be difficult in both cases, and likely as not the amount of nudity in each (which would be contextually appropriate) would garner it the dreaded NC-17 rating, and thus it would tank at the box office…or not…!?! ;)

    • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

      I’d go see it!

  • SurferJesusInMyPants

    More to the point, how would a pagan version compete with boy-toy Surfer Jesus in the main role? Maybe Maksim Chmerkovskiy for our side?

  • Lily Taylor

    There is already a pagan religious film. I haven’t seen it, but I have heard good things about it (I had thought that I first heard about it from The Wild Hunt, but not sure now). Spirit of Albion?

    • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

      Yes, I know about that. There are, in fact, many films out there made by Pagans. But, all of them, to this date, are strictly underground/subcultural affairs. None of them have distribution deals that would see them land in actual movie theaters.

      • Faoladh

        The Secret of Roan Inish did fairly well. Though it was not made by a Pagan-identified person, it certainly deals with themes and concepts that are appropriate to polytheism.

      • Lily Taylor

        Oh, right, I see your point :) Sorry, that aspect of what you were saying completely passed me by.

  • http://quakerpagan.blogspot.com/ Cat C-B

    “I don’t want ‘Pagan’ films, I want good films, great films.”

    Yes, please!

    I’m often aware, when I’m with Christian friends, of the advantages that come with being a cultural outsider, a demographic nobody caters to. The books and movies that allude to our myths, our gods, do so because they sang to somebody, and even if it turns out that somebody has a tin ear and gives us some bad art or a garbled version of our religious truths, that’s so much less cringe-worthy than the treacle that’s often pumped out in praise of majority religion.

    I grew up on evocative stories and poems that made me hunger for Paganism; how much sweeter than growing up on the blandly wholesome fare that you’re talking about, Jason!

    Good art is numinous. Bad art can make even the most sacred Mysteries seem offensively dull.

    I don’t want “Pagan” films, I want good films, great films. – See more at: http://wildhunt.org/#sthash.BqXWm0na.dpuf
    I don’t want “Pagan” films, I want good films, great films. – See more at: http://wildhunt.org/#sthash.BqXWm0na.dpuf

  • Henry

    If you wanna send a message–call Western Union, we’re makin’ pictures here!—attributed to Louis B. Mayer

  • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

    Rather than overtly “religious” films I’d rather just see a more sympathetic, and accurate, portrayal of Pagans and Paganism in historical films.

    • http://www.forgingthesampo.com/ Kauko

      Instead of all of these movies like the upcoming 300 sequel that seem to be dominating films about the ancient world, I’d love to see more stuff done à la HBO/BBC’s Rome.

      • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

        I actually had “Rome” in mind when I wrote that. And also “Gladiator”.

        • http://www.forgingthesampo.com/ Kauko

          I just remembered that one of the co-creators of Rome, John Milius, is behind an upcoming show called Pharaoh, which will be set during the reign of Queen Hatshepsut. I’m hoping that the show will have the same attention to an accurate portrayal of every day life, especially religion, as Rome.

          • http://www.forgingthesampo.com/ Kauko

            Err wait, I googled it to see what was going on and apparently that show got axed. Damn it.

          • http://saffronrose.livejournal.com/ A. Marina Fournier

            Drat.

            I paid a hefty sum for Eloise Jarvis McGraw’s HATSHEPSUT–not Mara Daughter of the Nile!–and I’m slogging through it. Not written as well as Mara, but a much more thorough coverage of her.

            I hadn’t known of this book until a couple of years ago.

          • lyradora

            Wait, McGraw wrote a book about Hatshepsut? And I totally loved Mara, too! I must have read it a dozen times through my teens. :)

  • http://www.forgingthesampo.com/ Kauko

    I have to admit that I’m somewhat curious to see the upcoming Aronofsky film on Noah precisely because it doesn’t look overly pious or like it’s pandering to Christians.

    • Franklin_Evans

      I saw a “Noah” trailer on TV, and admitting that my knees may be jerking the first thing I thought of was the movie “2012” and how ridiculous it was.

      • http://www.forgingthesampo.com/ Kauko

        Oh I don’t deny that it looks completely overblown, but Bible meets disaster movie has potential in a mindless kind of way.

  • http://sarenth.wordpress.com/ Sarenth

    I would add Agora to the list of excellent films Pagans should look for. It is messy, has a love of art ad science, and does not flinch from the history in which it finds itself.

    • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

      Actually, Agora is pretty horrible when it comes to the actual substance of the story that it purports to tell. And this is especially the case when it comes to the portrayal of ancient science in the film, which Amenabar gets completely wrong.

      • http://sarenth.wordpress.com/ Sarenth

        Ah. That section of history is not one I know very well, so from the outside it was a well presented story to me.

        • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

          I hear people say much the same thing about the TV show “Vikings”…

          • http://sarenth.wordpress.com/ Sarenth

            *nods* Pretty-much.

          • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

            I admin a group on FB called “Vikings”. The consensus amongst those knowledgeable of the period describe the show as fantasy.

          • http://www.xkcd.com/285 Eran Rathan

            I watched about two minutes of the first episode before turning it off… and I was twitching the entire two minutes from how badly done it was.

  • JasonMankey

    I think I could write a pretty fine treatment for a movie called “Horns of Pan” (and I’m surprised there’s not already an X-rated “Horn of Pan” film somewhere). When that never happens, maybe someone will turn “Jitterbug Perfume” into a film? That would be a Pagan movie without explicitly being a Pagan movie.

  • Alyxander M Folmer

    “When film stops being an artistic medium guided by visionaries, and instead
    starts serving a cause, you end up with movie goers attending out of
    duty, to prove some point instead of holding up excellence (or even
    entertainment)”

    -Welcome to why I went to see Marvel’s “Thor” movies. :)

    • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

      Marveltru do my nut. Have to watch the movies, just so I know what errors I will be correcting.

  • Franklin_Evans

    In 2005 I produced an adaptation of “Electra” by Eurypides. The writer (also director) paid close attention to the parts where the characters speak to the gods. A Pagan friend’s first remark, upon seeing it, was “that looked real.”

    That should be all it takes, an honest expression of what the characters are thinking, feeling and believing.

    My wish-list is topped by the desire to see a faithful adaptation of Mary Stewart’s Myrddin/Merlin stories to the screen.

  • Charles Cosimano

    Like all propaganda, religious films generally only work on those who already know the story and believe the story. To everyone else they are either incredibley boring or unutterably funny. The Passion was the exception because everyone who was not a believer was throwing up from all the gore.

    • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

      Even propaganda can be done well, although it rarely is. Leni Riefenstahl was a genius. An evil genius, but a genius nevertheless.

  • Eric Schwenke

    And this is why I dislike “Pagan” music. I like music that moves me regardless of lyrical subject matter.

  • Raksha38

    Would ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ maybe qualify as a mass market Pagan movie? Guillermo Del Toro has stated several times that Ofelia’s world and worldview is entirely Pagan.

    And that was a brilliant movie. Loved it so much.

    • Ember

      I was just thinking the same thing. It’s a hard movie to watch, but I think it does do a god job of portraying a worldview grounded in Pagan folklore, even if in a Catholic culture.
      –Ember–

      • Ember

        God job… GOOD job. Telling slip, perhaps… -E-

  • Northern_Light_27

    I think your concerns are justified, particularly given how Pagan novels went. Anyone else remember the little mini-boom in novels in the ’90s, some of them Pagan written and some not, about the plucky witch eluding the evil Catholicesque inquisitors to keep alive the flame of the Wiccan religion through the Burning Times (and all of the many secondary-world fantasies clearly based on this, er, fantasy)? One was more horribad than the next. I’d take “Thor” over that in a heartbeat– at least it doesn’t think it’s based on actual history.

  • http://saffronrose.livejournal.com/ A. Marina Fournier

    I saw Tim’s Vermeer before I saw The Monuments Men. I was paying more attention to the art in the latter than any storyline. I have a gut-wrenching reaction to art and books being destroyed.

    Tim’s Vermeer was a how-dunnit, btw, interesting for me, nearly boring for my MiL, who is a watercolorist. She felt it would have benefitted from better editing. I’ve just realized there are some loose parallels between TV and Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore, which takes the reader on the path of another how-dunnit. I can’t see that ever getting filmed, but it was a fun read, covering quite of few of my favorite subjects–and there’s a secret society.

    However, I saw The Wind Rises tonight. Miyazaki has always done the most beautiful background/scenery of any animation I’ve ever seen. I know little of Japan in the 20th C. before WWII, so I need to do some reading.

  • Bob_Knows

    “Thor” was pretty good as a film for all the reason stated.

  • Danielle Amourtrance Verum

    Here’s what movies are…platforms. That’s it folks. People who make movies have one goal in mind, to get their message in front of an audience. And if you’re Christian, your goal is to win converts. So let’s just be clear here. No one this movie is aimed is is ignorant of the message of Christianity. What they may not know is the brand of Christianity that is being marketed, yes marketed, by this film. So no, I do not want to see films about the gods because they will no doubt be to vie with Christianity because a tragic thing has happened. A huge chuck of the Pagan movement has decided that being mainstream and doing like the others is the right way to go about things. One major reason why I’ve dropped the Pagan label, because it’s just becoming a word that means, “People who may worship other gods, including the Christian god but some how that doesn’t make them Christian, but really no one says anything definitive about what they believe so as not to offend anyone else and uses generic words like The Sacred or The Source to describe…who knows what but it’s something they worship/serve/honor and no one really ever defines what that means.”

  • http://www.cernowain.com/ cernowain greenman

    I so enjoyed reading The Fifth Sacred Thing. I think it would adapt to a movie fairly well. As long as they don’t overdue the special effects, and keep the plot moving the way it does in the book, it should hold up. Who will see it outside of San Francisco? Not many, I’m afraid.