Writing Right with Dmitri: Getting the Religion Right
Preamble on Media
You can learn a lot from what other people do right – and their mistakes, too.
The other night, I was watching this movie on Netflix…
Wait! I hear you say. This is a writing column. And you're always talking about TV and movies. How come? And why should we listen to somebody who is so intellectually deprived as to be spending the evening staring at moving pictures, when he should be staring at the printed word? Don't you know that's mental impoverishment?
Okay, I'm going to explain why I do that. I grew up with a ten-book-a-week recreational habit. It was considered a mildly bad habit by my relatives. I didn't much care. I loved to read. I still do. However, I am old, people. And I've had my cataracts removed. After that, I'm stuck with a fixed focal point and eyes that get tired. After 8-12 hours of research and writing, the peepers are beat. But movies and TV, I can watch – and read. See, before those actors get to emoting, somebody has to WRITE what they're going to do and say.
So I watch – selectively – and I read as I watch. You know, sometimes, in my mind's eye, I can even see the script. And as I watch, I notice: how is this story put together? What makes it work? What doesn't work? Why?
So, as I was saying, the other night I was watching this movie on Netflix. It was called In & Out. It made me laugh, and it made me think. But I noticed something about spirituality there that I'd like to share as a tip.
The Ins and Outs of In & Out
First, a bit about the film, which is from 1997. It's a clever, clever screwball comedy romp in the grand old style of the 1940s. Elektra didn't notice this until I pointed it out, however, because the theme was so contemporary. The storyline concerned a beloved, but somewhat quirky, English teacher whose life is turned upside down when his star pupil outs him in an Oscar speech. The problem was: not only did his small town not realise that the teacher was gay – neither did the teacher. The results are side-splittingly funny, and ultimately, of course, heartwarming.
I was a bit worried about the plot synopsis – this could have been tacky – until I saw Paul Rudnick's name on the credits. Paul Rudnick is an amazing writer – and he's gay, so I knew he'd know what to do with the material. The result was very satisfying, particularly as Kevin Kline played the lead. Kevin Kline is not only a talented actor, but he dances really well, too. So the finale, to the tune of 'Macho, Macho Man', was all one might have wished for in a holiday evening's entertainment. So far, no complaints.
My complaint is about the scene in the confessional.
In the film, as part of his search for clarity on the sexual identity issue, the protagonist seeks spiritual counsel. Since this is a comedy, of course the advice is supposed to be bad. No problem. But the film has the character, Howard, go to talk to a Catholic priest in the next town. In a confessional. He does this, although he is not Catholic. The priest tells him he should go to bed with his fiancée – before they're married.
The person watching the film with me was raised as a Catholic. She yelped. This is not because she has an exaggerated respect for the clergy. It is because there is no way this would happen. Yes, we know the story is a farce. We now that nothing in the story makes sense. But that is exactly the place where a writer needs to get the psychological moment just right. And no Catholic priest would sit inside a confessional booth – a sacred place – and give casual advice to an outsider. Particularly not casual advice which violates dearly-held tenets of his own belief system. Worse, the actor playing the priest was the sort of tallow usually hired to play Anglican clergymen.
Now, an Anglican clergyman might be imagined to give this sort of advice to a stranger. Over tea. In his study. On the quiet, so to speak. The writer seems not to know this – possibly because this writer could easily imagine such advice coming from a rabbi of his acquaintance.
The moral of the story: get the religion right. You may not be very interested in religion. Fair enough. You may have limited experience with religious practices. Fine. Then ask somebody.
Don't put silly jokes in the mouths of Buddhist monks, just because you think it's cute. That's rude. Don't make up evil clergymen without checking out how clergymen in that particular group might go wrong. Don't confuse Zen with the Tao. And don't misquote the Bible without reading it first.
There are two ways around this issue. Either stick to your own experience – or better, go learn something. Believe it or not, religion is not a dangerous drug. Reading about it won't addict you to a belief system. Of course, you want to avoid talking about it to the kind of people who show up on your doorstep with tracts and a collection plate. But hey, why not watch a film?
Uh-oh. Films again. Well, the understanding of film is also a form of literacy – or at least, so I would argue. And if you want more people to read what you write, put some thought into the plausibility of your scenarios.
Don't know what the Buddha said about that? Go look it up.