Scott Cawelti

About Scott Cawelti -

Scott Cawelti was born and raised in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He taught writing, film, and literature at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) from 1968-2008, and has written regular opinion columns and reviews for the Waterloo / Cedar Falls Courier since the late 1970s.  He played for years in a folk duo with Robert James Waller and still regularly performs as a singer/guitarist/songwriter. Scott continues to teach as an adjunct instructor at UNI.

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  • Jesus Video a Slick, Predictable Depiction

    • Posted on Nov 15, 1997 by Scott Cawelti
    11/15/97

        Last week I received my free “Jesus” video.  It’s one of the 41,000 gift videos bought and distributed by a large group of Protestant and Catholic churches in the Cedar Valley.
         One wonders why those churches decided to spend their parishioners’ cash on this particular video when there are so many other causes worth supporting.  I suspect they thought it would convent a few heartens, which is one of the teachings of Jesus:
         “Go therefore and teach all nations …”
         In fact, as though justifying the film’s existence, Jesus intones these very words at the film’s end.
         The “Jesus” film was made in 1979, and originally ran 117 minutes.  This free version lasts only 83 minutes, so someone cut 34 minutes, probably to make it easier to watch at one sitting.
         Still, it’s worth the price, with professional actors and high-quality cinematography.  
         Most heathens, though, will require more than an 83-minute film based on the New Testament book of Luke version of Jesus’ story.  That’s the version that most of us know from Sunday school, and the film follows it faithfully, with Jesus dressed in flowing white robes that miraculously grow whiter after he rises from the dead.
         He certainly never looks at women other than as creatures to be ministered to, and of course he was born of a virgin, in a lowly manger.  Oh, yes, and all the disciples are there, from the denying Peter to the traitor Judas, looking for all the world like an Arab terrorist.
         He never experiences any serious doubt, never wonders about a God who would kill an innocent son to “save” the world, never suggests that people might look inside themselves for miracles instead of to an external divinity.
         Music is omnipresent, with soaring violins in all the right places and a glowing light appearing whenever God needs to deliver a message.
         Thus the “Jesus” film offers an entirely predictable story, reinforcing all the standard images and beliefs, and thanks to the power of film, making it all appear to be literally true.
         This offers comfort to believers, helping them visualize Luke’s story just as they hope it happened.
         Years ago, I gave up on organized religion, mostly because so many believers seemed so certain and smug about their beliefs that they stopped questioning.  Moreover, their piety came easily on Sunday, but Monday through Saturday they did what they pleased, since Jesus’ teachings would inconvenience them terribly.
         As Coleridge on wrote, “Those who begin by loving Christianity more than truth, proceed to live their sect more than Christianity, and end by loving themselves most of all.”
         So, this video did nothing for me.  However, I’m not lost to religion, and certainly not to spirituality.  If some church gave me either of these two videos, I’d probably show up the following Sunday, curious to know their approach to worship:

    “The Life of Brain”
         This is an absolutely hilarious parody of religiosity, poking fun and how easily some people become believers.  It’s Monty Python’s finest satire, and one can never take religion quite so seriously again.  Pharisees would have this film, but Jesus would love it.
      
    “The Last Temptation of Christ”
         I watched this film years ago and was struck by the conflict that the man Jesus must have felt between his humanity and his divinity.  Willem Dafoe plays Jesus with memorable force, and raises questions about the pressures all of us feel to become more than human.  Not a great film, but at least a challenging one that does more than retell the typical story.
         Beyond these eye-opening videos, though, there’s a great new book about Jesus that deserves serious attention: “Honest to Jesus” by Robert Funk.
         Funk is a Biblical scholar and discusses what must be done to re-energize Christianity, to make religion more than a Sunday comfort.  He begins by searching for the historical Jesus, examining a variety of translation problems, and asserting that only about 20 percent of Jesus’ sayings are authentic.
         He suggests that Jesus needs to be liberated from the “scriptural and creedal and experiential prisons in which we have incarcerated him” and that the “pale, anemic, iconic Jesus would suffer by comparison with the stark realism of the real article.”
         The real Jesus, he suggests, was irreligious, irreverent, and impious, and paid little attention to organized religion – the Pharisees who eventually called for his crucifixion.  This Jesus, in other words, would not have joined a Christian church.
         Indeed, Funk asserts that to worship Jesus is to practice idolatry, the same idolatry of the first believers.
         Thus we need to “demote” Jesus from his current position as Christianity’s version of Superman to his proper status as a guide to true spirituality, as a means of understanding divinity and humanity.
         Funk’s book offers an opportunity to rethink Jesus, religion, and spirituality, as do “The Life of Brain” and “The Last Temptation of Christ.”
         The “Jesus” film, unfortunately, only repeats and reinforces smug religiosity and idolatry.      

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  • Want Better Movies? Here’s How

    • Posted on Nov 10, 1997 by Scott Cawelti

    11-10-97

    Looking back over our century, we can probably agree that art and artists have not fared well.

    If you were called to write, or paint, or act, or dance, or make films, you had a hard row to hoe. Parents thought you really ought to try something useful, teachers discouraged all but the occasional genius, and the “real” world offered nothing but scorn unless you quickly found fame and fortune from selling your art.

     Of course, you were always at the mercy of the marketers and their blood kin, the accountants.

    That’s essentially the story that filmmaker Robert Weide told at UNI recently.

    Weide produced and wrote the screenplay for a remarkable film, “Mother Night,” based on Kurt Vonnegut’s equally remarkable novel of the same name. Weide’s screenplay follows the novel faithfully, and he wrote it out of sheer love for Vonnegut’s ironic vision of the world.

    As I mentioned last Sunday, Weide’s film (directed by his friend Keith Gordon) has several earmarks of a hit: Nick Nolte, a “bankable” star, along with Alan Arkin, John Goodman and Sheryl Lee.

    It’s well directed, with a memorable plot concerning a powerful Nazi propagandist who is really an allied agent. There’s also intrigue, suspense and a useful message about being careful about who you pretend to be.

    In other words, “Mother Night” is a work of film art that deserved a wide audience. Instead, it was consigned to video distribution within a few months of its release; only Vonnegut’s hard-core fans even know it exists.

    Weide told the sad story. The backers of the film, Fineline Cinema, use the standard marketing tools. The company’s marketers first viewed the finished film and decided how to advertise it.

    With “Mother Night,” marketers didn’t quite know what to make of it, but pushed Nolte’s familiar image and the Nazi angle.

    Then they advertised in selected cities and watched the first night’s box-office receipts.

    Based on that piece of information, they decided to cut back on advertising, since it didn’t do as well as it should have given their profit projections. The next weekend they barely advertised at all.

    Naturally the box-office take dropped, giving the marketers reason to stop marketing the film altogether.

    The chances of making even that paltry $5.5 million back grew slimmer by the day. As Weide mentioned, “While big films will open on several hundred screens on major markets, our opened on two, and the most we ever played on was eight at one time.”

    Fineline also decided by then that “Shine,” another of their products, was going to be a hit, so they put most of their advertising eggs in that basket. Sure enough, the money began flowing in.

    Then both the Germans and the Israelis looked at “Mother Night” and decided not to back it as a big-screen release in their countries. And that pretty much ended the film’s possibilities as anything more than a video store rental.

    Filmmaking and distribution, in other words, have become almost purely commercial enterprises, run by marketers for the specific purpose of profiting on investments.

    And what’s wrong with that? Isn’t that the American way, after all?

    From accountants’ and marketers” perspectives, that’s true. Making money is the name of their game, and if they don’t play it well, they lost. But what about those of us who love films and want better ones? What about artists who want to make better films and get them before a wider audience?

    What about future audiences, who will look back and wonder that so much of our artistic and entertainment lives were run by marketers and accountants?

     Sooner or later, we’re going to have to admit that money is only a means. Making money for itself is a perversion, an obsession that deadens one to the reasons for having it in the first place.

    What does it profit anyone to have piles of money when there’s nothing good to spend it on?

    The current system does allow for independent filmmakers, and a few good films get before the public occasionally in spite of all the roadblocks. But filmmakers like Weide and dozens of others know that the deck is heavily stacked against them.

    That’s why some of the greatest films come from countries that offer filmmakers and other artists extensive grants to practice their art. The Swedish government, for example, supported Ingmar Bergman’s films for years, and that resulted in some of most remarkable films ever made.

    Over time, Bergman’s films have indeed done well, but it took years, since they’re not opening night blockbusters.

     Am I talking government subsidies for the arts? Of course. And private foundations as well, not to mention the Ted Turners of the world, who might offer a billion here and there to combat the rampant commercialization of nearly everything.

    Until more of us start avoiding the mind-numbing generic junk that now fills most movie theaters, it won’t happen.

    Meanwhile, marketers and accountants reign.

    Go comment!
    Posted in
    • Movies
    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
    • Reviews
    • Hot Button Issues
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