Hail, Satan?


Freedom of religion means ALL religions.

(2019) Documentary (Magnolia) Lucien Greaves, Jex Blackmore, Nicholas Crowe, Malcolm Jarry, Michael Wiener, Stu DeHaan, Jason Rapert, Anton LaVey, Megyn Kelly. Directed by Penny Lane

As a general rule, we as a species are pretty dense. You can talk until you’re blue in the face using unassailable logic and still the rest of us don’t get it. It’s not that we’re that dumb, it’s just that we don’t listen very well. Sometimes to get our attention, you have to shake things up somewhat.

In 2013, Malcolm Jarry, Lucien Greaves and a few other interested parties founded The Satanic Temple. Utilizing imagery and iconographies designed to shock people out of apathy, the group initially was formed to combat what the founders saw as increasing Evangelical Christian presence in government. They did it with humor and intelligence, linking Florida governor Rick Scott to legislation that would allow Bible passages to be used in public schools.

Although the spokesman for the Temple was initially an actor playing Greaves, it became evident to Greaves he would have to become the face of the group in order to be more effective. Before long, he was attracting a lot of like-minded people to the group, many of them self-identifying as outsiders and misfits, some of them from the heavy metal community and others from the goth community (such as Jex Blackmore from the latter).

The group came to major notoriety when they opposed monuments at state capitals in Oklahoma and Arkansas by suggesting that since Christian monuments were being erected, they should be allowed to erect an 8-foot tall bronze statue of Baphomet, a version of Satan, on the same ground. Christians of course didn’t take kindly to it but one had to admire their pluck and their logic.

The documentary gives us an intimate look at the Temple and those who are part of it, particularly the articulate and charismatic Greaves but also Blackmore, a fiery and passionate feminist who led the Detroit chapter of the Temple. Acclaimed documentary director Lane pulls no punches in a falling out between Blackmore and the Temple recently over remarks she made supporting violence against the current ruling party.

However, that’s more of a distraction. The ongoing legal fights the Temple have going and their stated goal of religious plurality (which is what the founding fathers envisioned originally) and their absolute opposition to attempts to turn our republic into a theocracy are very much the focus here. Lane allows Greaves, Jarry, Blackmore and others to make the Temple’s case in a calm and sober manner – but not without a sly wink and twinkling eyes. However, it should be noted that many of the Temple members interviewed here use assumed names and hide their identities in other ways so as not to cause their families any unnecessary discomfort. People look upon Satanists as evil and vile; while that perception in the case of the Temple isn’t correct, the stereotype persists.

Incidentally, despite the name the Temple does not literally worship Satan or evil. They see Satan as the ultimate rebel (the famous Byron quote “Better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven” is applicable here) against the status quo. While they borrow the iconography of devil worship as depicted by the “satanic panic” news hysteria of the late 80s and 90s (horned goat masks, robes, nudity and so on), they aren’t about sacrificing babies or animals or anything else. For my part, I wonder if their usage of such symbols isn’t providing free advertising for evangelicals.

One of the things that is telling about the differences between the Satanic Temple and Christianity is that while the basic laws of the Christian church tell you what you shalt not do, the Seven Tenets of the Satanic Temple tell you what you should do – treat others with respect and compassion, to use scientific understanding as a foundation for belief, to forgive the mistakes of others because humans are fallible, to not impinge on the freedom of others, to render inviolate the bodies of others, and to inspire nobility of thought and compassion despite the often contradictory nature of the written and spoken word. Fine concepts to live by if you ask me.

=The movie played the recent Florida Film Festival and is likely to show up again at the Enzian or perhaps some other local theater. Don’t mistake this for a film promoting hedonism, excess and corruption; in seeing a movie about a group who might appear shocking and anathema to you, you might just find your own point of view changing for the better.

REASONS TO SEE: Greaves is a charismatic spokesman. A serious subject is tackled with some humor.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some where their misfit badges a bit too stridently.
FAMILY VALUES: The is some profanity and graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Shortly after the documentary came out, The Satanic Temple was granted religious exemption status by the IRS.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/25/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews: Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: J.R. “Bob” Dobbs and the Church of the Subgenius
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Red Joan

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The Most Hated Woman in America


Madalyn Murray O’Hair does her thing.

(2017) Biographical Drama (Netflix) Melissa Leo, Josh Lucas, Juno Temple, Rory Cochrane, Adam Scott, Michael Chernus, Alex Frost, Vincent Kartheiser, Jose Zuniga, Brandon Mychal Smith, Sally Kirkland, Anna Camp, Ryan Cutrona, Andy Walken, Devin Freeman, Peter Fonda, Anthony Vitale, Ward Roberts, David Gueriera, Danya LaBelle. Directed by Tommy O’Haver

 

Madalyn Murray O’Hair was a polarizing figure. Notoriously profiled by Life Magazine as the Most Hated Woman in America, her lawsuit against the Baltimore School System – which eventually made it all the way to the Supreme Court – marked essentially the end of mandatory Bible passage reading in schools after mandatory school prayer had been abolished a few years earlier. She founded American Atheists and was a gadfly arguing for complete separation of church and state.

Her disappearance from her Austin, Texas home along with her son and granddaughter in 1995 raised nary an eyebrow. She was notorious for her publicity stunts and was known to take off mysteriously for weeks at a time. However, there was something about this particular occasion that just didn’t sit right. A San Antonio reporter, enlisted by concerned friends of O’Hair, looked into the affair and eventually came up with a former employee with an axe to grind.

It’s hard to believe but there have been no cinematic biographies of the notorious O’Hair until now. Melissa Leo, one of the more versatile and underrated actresses of our generation, takes on the role and does a bang-up job of it. O’Hair was an acerbic and abrasive personality who had a tendency to alienate those around her, not the least of which was her own family – her son William, played here by Vincent Kartheiser, was completely estranged from his mother by the time of her disappearance and these days spends his time trying to undo the achievements his mother made in the name of secularism.

The movie is mostly centered on her disappearance, kidnapped by former employee David Waters (Lucas), an ex-convict who discovered that American Atheists had off-shore accounts worth millions that could make him a very nice severance package. With thug Gary Kerr (Cochrane) and his friend Danny Fry (Frost), he kidnapped O’Hair and her family and stowed them in a seedy hotel until the end.

The narrative is interspersed with flashbacks covering the highlights of O’Hair’s life and career. The story flow is often disturbed by these flashbacks; I think the filmmakers might have been better served with a more linear narrative here. There are re-creations of her frequent talk show appearances (she was a favorite of Carson and Donahue for her combative nature and acid sense of humor) as well as essentially fictional accounts of what went on during the days she was kidnapped.

There are really several stories being covered here; the life story of O’Hair, the story of her bumbling kidnappers which is handled in something of a Coen Brothers style, and the reporter’s story which is more of an All the President’s Men kind of tale. The three styles kind of jostle up against each other; any of the three would have made a fine movie but all three stories tend to elbow each other out of the way and make the movie somewhat unsatisfactory overall.

The kidnapping scenes have a certain dark humor to them that actually is quite welcome. There’s no doubt that the kidnapping was a botched affair that didn’t go anything close to how the kidnappers hoped. I also appreciated the history lesson about O’Hair’s life; in many ways today the details of what she accomplished have been essentially overshadowed by emotional reactions to her perceived anti-religious views. Most of her detractors don’t understand that O’Hair wasn’t after abolishing religion altogether; she just didn’t want it forced on her kids in school, or on herself by her government (she also led an unsuccessful charge to have the words “under God” removed from the Pledge of Allegiance). In that sense I can understand and even appreciate her vigilance but it seems fairly certain that her personality alienated people and in many ways overshadowed her message. You do win people over more with honey than vinegar.

REASONS TO GO: Melissa Leo channels Madalyn Murray O’Hair, warts and all. An interesting mix of historical and hysterical.
REASONS TO STAY: The violence, when it comes, is shocking and tone-changing. The movie kind of jumps around all over the place.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, some shocking violence and a scene in which rape is implied.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the film depicts David being hired on as an office manager, in reality he was hired as a typesetter and later promoted.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/10/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 43% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bernie
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Lazar