George Harrison: Lost and without a shepherd

George Harrison: Living in the Material World
Directed by Martin Scorsese
HBO, 2011, 208 minutes, available on Netflix

I was driving to work this past week, listening to (c)hristian radio, and Greg Laurie (not recommended) mentioned he had recently watched “Living in the Material World,” a documentary about ex-Beatle, George Harrison, on Netflix. So I set aside some time to watch this 3.5 hour documentary.

My five older sisters were big fans of the Beatles and I grew up with their music playing constantly from the family phonograph from 1964 until 1970 when they disbanded. Harrison (1943-2001) was the shy, quiet Beatle who eventually embraced Hinduism (particularly the Hare Krishna sect) with a passion. See my earlier post on Harrison and his influential Hare Krishna song, “My Sweet Lord,” here.

Scorsese’s documentary is an interesting and entertaining look at Harrison’s journey. He was brought up in a Roman Catholic family (as was fellow-Beatle, Paul McCartney), but finding no fulfillment in that impersonal, ritualistic religion, he got mixed up in Eastern “spirituality” through the music of Ravi Shankar. Of course, he didn’t find any real fulfillment in Krishna Consciousness either and regularly fell back into substance abuse and marital infidelity. After having been run ragged by the Beatles’ celebrity steamroller, Harrison sought “spiritual peace” and meaning in all the wrong places.

I enjoyed the many archived photos and videos of the “Fab Four,” along with the interview clips from Harrison, Pattie Boyd, Eric Clapton, George Martin, Paul McCartney, Tom Petty, and Ringo Starr, along with many others.* But in the the end, this is a sad story of an unbeliever desperately trying to find spiritual meaning outside of Jesus Christ.

“I was brought up in the kind of Catholic situation up until I was about eleven years old, which was that God is this thing that we’re never going to see, we’re never going to meet, but you still have to believe in what we say. It’s like this blind faith in something that they can’t show you.” – George Harrison

The impersonal and ritualistic religion that Harrison grew up in was/is not Christianity. But you CAN know God through salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit!

“And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” – John 17:3

“When (Jesus) saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” – Matthew 9:36-38

*I learned from this documentary that Harrison was a major financial backer of Monty Python, the British comedy ensemble. There are times when Christians can be overly dour and humorless, but I found the clips of Monty Python’s satire of Jesus’ crucifixion and a mocking reference to His sermon on the mount in this documentary to be repulsive. It’s understandable why ex-Catholic and passionate Hindu, Harrison, would have found this anti-Christian humor attractive. It’s also obvious why Monty Python never filmed a skit goofing on backer Harrison’s Hare Krishnas with their shaved-heads and saffron robes, chanting incessantly and begging for money at airports.

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Netflix’s “The Polka King,” an unlikely-but-fact-based dark comedy

The Polka King
Directed by Maya Forbes and featuring Jack Black, Jenny Slate, Jason Schwartzman, and Jackie Weaver
Netflix, 2018, 1h 35m

This dark comedy is based on the tumultuous life of Polka band leader, Jan Lewan(dowski) (photo right).

Plot

Polish immigrant, Jan Lewan (Jack Black), struggles to achieve the American dream. His Pennsylvania-based polka band and Polish gift shop teeter on insolvency, but Lewan has BIG plans and devises a pyramid investment scheme in order to finance them. Many of his polka fans are lured by promises of a 12% return on investment. Lewan’s “empire” appears to be on the rise, but cracks soon appear in the foundation. Try as he might, Lewan can’t seem to satisfy his wife’s (Jenny Slate) insatiable expectations that come with their nouveau riche lifestyle. As some investors begin to cash out, Lewan finds it harder and harder to make ends meet. Federal agents finally topple the house of cards and Lewan is imprisoned for five years. During that period, his throat is slit by his disturbed cellmate and his wife divorces him. Lewan was released from prison in 2005 and is still liable for the $5 million dollars taken from investors.

Commentary

This film is both comical and sad. Director/writer Maya Forbes and writer Wallace Wolodarsky have done a great job of translating this unlikely-but-true slice of Polish-Americana to the small screen. Jack Black’s performance may seem a bit “over the top” to the uninitiated, but those familiar with the Lewan story will agree that he catches the essence of the naively exuberant polka band leader. “The Polka King” premiered on Netflix on January 12th.

Additional thoughts from a believer

Covetousness is a sin we don’t hear too much about, but it drove Lewis into prison and it drives us as well. There may not be a European American ethnic group that’s more Catholic than Poles. This movie is saturated with symbols of Lewan’s and Polish Americans’ ritual Catholicism. As part of his growing financial “empire,” Lewan began conducting tours to European cities and Rome/the Vatican. An example of the band leader’s naiveté is when he arranges his first excursion to the Vatican and pays off a church official with a suitcase full of cash to secure an audience with pope John Paul II for his customers. Maybe he wasn’t so naive after all.

List: The Nineteen Films of Elia Kazan with Reviews

Over the last year, I’ve had the pleasure of rewatching and reviewing all nineteen films of one of America’s most influential directors, Elia Kazan (1909-2003). Whew! That was a fun as well as challenging project. Thanks to all of you who accompanied me on this “journey.” Below is a handy listing of all of Kazan’s movies and links to my reviews.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)
A hopeful young girl grows up in a poor family racked by alcoholism.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2016/12/09/elia-kazans-first-film-a-tree-grows-in-brooklyn/

The Sea of Grass (1947)
A tyrannical rancher withstands the onslaught of homesteaders.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2016/12/14/kazans-sophomore-stumble-the-sea-of-grass/

Boomerang (1947)
An honest DA must fight the temptation of an easy conviction.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2016/12/25/director-elia-kazans-third-film-boomerang/

Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)
A journalist discovers anti-Semitism permeates American society.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2017/01/01/gentlemans-agreement-moves-elia-kazan-to-the-top-of-the-directors-list/

Pinky (1949)
A bi-racial nurse confronts bigotry in her small corner of world.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2017/01/05/kazan-examines-racial-bigotry/

Panic in the Streets (1950)
A medical examiner has only hours to stem a city-wide epidemic.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2017/02/05/nobody-in-the-streets-ever-really-panicked-but-it-made-for-a-catchy-title/

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
A harrowing game of cat and mouse as a Southern belle descends into madness.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2017/02/11/i-thought-you-were-straight/

Viva Zapata! (1952)
The politically oppressed must resist the temptation of becoming the oppressors.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2017/02/18/%e2%99%abyou-say-you-want-a-revolution-%e2%99%ab/

Man on a Tightrope (1953)
This Red Scare propaganda piece was Kazan’s penance for having been a member of the American Communist Party.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2017/02/26/i-might-have-been-a-commie-when-i-was-young-and-stupid-but-see-now-im-all-about-the-red-white-and-blue/

On the Waterfront (1954)
Longshoremen rebel against their corrupt union and Kazan defends his HUAC testimony.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2017/03/21/you-dont-understand-i-coulda-had-class-i-coulda-been-a-contenduh-i-coulda-been-somebody-instead-of-a-bum-which-is-what-i-am-lets-face-it/

East of Eden (1955)
Two very dissimilar sons compete for their father’s affections.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2017/04/11/east-of-eden-the-gospel-according-to-two-atheists/

Baby Doll (1956)
Everyone’s seeking justice in this Southern black comedy.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2017/04/25/baby-doll-sometimes-big-shot-you-dont-seem-to-give-me-credit-for-very-much-intelligence-at-all-ive-been-to-school-in-my-life-and-im-a-magazine-reader/

A Face in the Crowd (1957)
A “ne’er do well” transforms into a populist Pied Piper.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2017/06/06/demagogue-in-denim/

Wild River (1960)
An elderly matron stands up to the federal bureaucratic steamroller.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2017/06/27/pushing-aside-the-little-guy-for-the-greater-good/

Splendor in the Grass (1961)
Young love disintegrates under family pressures.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2017/10/16/elia-kazans-splendor-in-the-grass-hit-me-hard-when-i-was-a-young-teen/

America America (1963)
Kazan retraces his uncle’s journey to America.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2017/10/25/i-believe-i-believe-that-in-america-i-believe-i-will-be-washed-clean/

The Arrangement (1969)
A successful but frustrated advertising executive tries to find happiness.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2017/11/13/talk-about-a-mid-life-crisis/

The Visitors (1972)
The horrors of the Vietnam War come home to America.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2017/12/24/kazans-look-at-vietnam-on-a-shoestring-budget/

The Last Tycoon (1976)
A cutthroat movie studio executive meets his match.
https://excatholic4christ.wordpress.com/2017/12/28/kazans-fade-to-black/

Star Wars’ quasi-spirituality: Everybody worships something.

My wife and I were blessed to have our youngest son, son B, stay with us the last ten days. He’s an Air Force sergeant stationed down in Texas, so we only get to see him once a year. Both of our two sons are atheists, but son B is an especially hardcore scoffer.

Our oldest son, son A, who lives about 5 miles from us, planned a few family activities while his brother was in town, including all of us going to the movie theater this past Saturday night to see “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” Argh!!! Some of you may think I’m a big movie buff because of my reviews of films directed by Elia Kazan, but going to the movies is actually one of the last things I want to do, ESPECIALLY to a “Star Wars” movie. Ach! I’d much rather watch paint dry on a wall than go see a “Star Wars” movie. Several times I privately shared with son B my strong reluctance to see the movie.

So Saturday morning, my wife and I, our two sons, and oldest granddaughter had breakfast at Donuts Delite, Rochester’s legendary donut shop (see here for my review). I had the usual; a cup of joe, two giant slices of breakfast sausage pizza, and a vanilla crème-filled donut. The best! Son A then announced he and son B would go Christmas shopping and then call my wife and I to meet them at the movie theater later that evening. Argh! I definitely didn’t want to go and deliberated in my head how I was going to get out of it. The only hiccup was that my wife and I had previously asked son B to attend church with us Sunday morning, not exactly something at the top of his hit parade. Would son B strategically use my refusal to see “Star Wars” as an excuse for him not to go to church the next day? Yes, he certainly would. Time passed and it was getting late and I thought I might be spared “Star Wars” torture, but son A called at 6:40PM to say he had bought tickets for the 7PM show. Ach! Double ach! But I bit the bullet and drove to the theater without voicing an audible complaint.

Once at the theater, we sat through several previews and I noticed some of the upcoming movies had a pronounced “spiritual” theme including “A Wrinkle in Time” starring New Age high priestess, Oprah Winfrey. Then came “Star Wars.” Ach, “Star Wars!” It’s a cultural phenomenon! People soak it up like religion. And it is religion for them. There’s lots of references to good versus evil and the hazy “force.” People will willingly subject themselves to every new chapter of fictional “Star Wars”-spirituality but cannot sit still for one second under Gospel preaching. But I don’t get freaked out by “Star Wars” and its quasi-spirituality. The lost flail around trying to make sense of the Universe. The never-ending conflict between bad-guy First Order villains and the good-guy Rebels aided by the nebulous “force” appeals to them much more than the Biblical way of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone. The lost definitely worship at the altar of entertainment. It’s spiritual blindness. After 150 very long minutes, the final credits thankfully rolled.

Yes, son B did attend church with us the following morning without nary a protest and he got to hear an excellent message on salvation in Christ. Thank you, Lord! Was there a crack in his hard heart? We pray the Lord continues to work in the hearts of our two boys.

Postscript: If you’re a Christian and a casual “Star Wars” fan, my apologies. I can enjoy and even cull spiritual lessons from the films of atheist director, Elia Kazan. Perhaps you can do the same with “Star Wars”?

Kazan’s sophomore stumble: “The Sea of Grass”

The Sea of Grasssg
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn, Melvyn Douglas, and Robert Walker
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1947, 131 minutes

Bud Lighton, the producer of Elia Kazan’s debut, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” persuaded the young director to consider “The Sea of Grass” for his second film. Kazan was impressed by Conrad Richter’s 1936 novel and imagined the wonderful adventure he would have filming on-location on the Western prairie. But when he arrived at the fabled MGM Studio in Hollywood, producer Pandro Berman told Kazan the script, casting, and wardrobe were already complete. In addition, massive amounts of outdoor footage had already been shot. Kazan was told he would film entirely at the studio using the previously-filmed footage as rear-projection background. So much for shooting on location!

Plot

Lutie Cameron (Katherine Hepburn), a St. Louis high-society woman travels to New Mexico to marry cattle baron, Col. Jim Brewton (Spencer Tracy). Brewton’s disdain for homesteaders and his devotion to the prairie eventually drives a wedge between him and his new wife. Lutie turns to Brewton’s bitter rival, liberal crusading attorney, Brice Chamberlain (Melvyn Douglas), for comfort which results in pregnancy. Lutie abandons her newborn son and a daughter and returns to St. Louis while Brewton raises the boy as his own. With questions about his legitimacy constantly floating around town, Brock Brewton (Robert Walker) grows up to have a boulder-sized chip on his shoulder, eventually running afoul of the law and dying in a shootout. Returning to New Mexico for a visit, Lutie learns of Brock’s death and reunites with Brewton and daughter Sara Beth (Phyllis Thaxter).

Commentary

Kazan was extremely critical of “The Sea of Grass” and often referred to it as his worst film. Tracy’s performance is cinematic sleepwalking and he’s thoroughly unconvincing in the role of a rugged outdoorsman. From today’s perspective, Brewton treats Lutie more like his child than his wife. My, things have sure changed in 70 years, right ladies? If Tracy wasn’t bad enough, the viewer is also asked to accept Connecticut blue-blood, Hepburn, as a happy transplant to the sleepy cattle town of Salt Fork, New Mexico. Her flamboyant costumes in such a setting border on the comical. Kazan later qriped that Hepburn’s constant retreats to the movie set washroom to freshen up drove him up a wall until he finally gave up on both of his pampered stars. The only likeable performance in the entire film comes from Edgar “Uncle Joe” Buchanan as crusty cook, Jeff. This is the first of Kazan’s films to feature the “progressive crusader” character, a mainstay of many of his early movies.

After his dismal experience with the “The Sea of Grass,” Kazan would insist upon artistic control in subsequent films. Going forward he would generally avoid spoiled marquee headliners like Tracy and Hepburn and shooting in the studio. Unlike his first effort, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” there are absolutely no distinguishing features in this movie that would characterize it as a Kazan project. In his 1988 autobiography, Kazan warned his readers not to see the movie. I have, several times, and I second the motion. “The Sea of Grass” was released on DVD in 2011. No special features were included.

Triva note: Tracy and Hepburn are one of film’s most fondly remembered acting teams. They made nine movies together but “The Sea of Grass” was amazingly the highest grossing.

Additional thoughts from a believer’s perspective

Just a couple of things. The viewer will be struck by Colonel Brewton’s complete devotion to the prairie. The grassy plain comes before his wife and before the lives of the squatters who threaten it. We would call Brewton a pompous fool but how often do we put the idols of our life ahead of the Lord?

Lutie has an affair with Chamberlain, resulting in the birth of Brock, and then leaves Brewton, abandoning her two children. Wow! It’s hard to have any sympathy for such a character, especially back in 1947. Audiences must have been absolutely scandalized at the time. But we’re all sinners and none of us can gloat about our goodness.

Elia Kazan’s first film: “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”

A Tree Grows in Brooklyntgb
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Dorothy McGuire, James Dunn, Joan Blondell, and Peggy Ann Garner
Twentieth Century Fox, 1945, 128 minutes

Elia Kazan’s growing reputation on Broadway came to the attention of Hollywood studio mogul, Darryl. F. Zanuck, who tapped the 35-year-old to direct “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” which was based on Betty Smith’s popular 1943 novel.

Plot

Thirteen-year-old, Francie Nolan (Peggy Ann Garner), and her younger brother, Neeley (Ted Donaldson), live in a Brooklyn tenement in 1900. Their mother, Katie (Dorothy McGuire), struggles to keep the family afloat as their father, Johnny (James Dunn), an alcoholic, squanders his sparse paychecks at the corner saloon. Johnny still dreams of being a famous singer but only finds irregular employment as a singing waiter. But he and Francie have a loving bond. In addition to having to deal with her alcoholic husband, Katie tries to shield her children from the influence of her free-spirited sister, Sissy (Joan Blondell). Officer McShane (Lloyd Nolan), the neighborhood flatfoot, assists the Nolans on a several occasions and takes a private shine to Katie.

Katie loves Johnny but has become hardened and embittered by his failures. She finally confronts him and brings his pipe dreams crashing to the ground. When Francie, a bright girl, desires to attend a better public school in a nicer neighborhood, Johnny makes the arrangements by telling school officials she has moved in with relatives. It is the one thing Johnny can do for his daughter even if it is dishonest.

When Katie becomes pregnant, she moves the family upstairs to a cheaper, less desirable apartment to save money. Johnny is so distraught he sits down at a piano left behind by the previous tenant and sings a tearful rendition of “Annie Laurie,” acknowledging the broken promise of his marriage.

The Nolans enjoy a few festive moments on Christmas Eve before Katie informs Johnny that Francie must drop out of school and go to work to help support the family. Crushed by the thought of Francie having to give up her dreams, Johnny walks out into the frigid winter night in search of steadier work.

After Johnny goes missing for a week, the family discovers he died of pneumonia after working as part of a subway tunnel digging crew. Although he was a drunk and a failure, the neighborhood deeply misses the affable Johnny, much to Katie’s amazement. The saloon keeper offers the Nolan children part-time jobs, enabling Francie to stay in school. While in labor, Katie reaches out to Francie and makes amends for her past coldness. Francie and Neeley graduate from grammar school and Officer McShane proposes to Katie, offering the security Johnny was never able to provide the family.

Commentary

“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” is a thoroughly enjoyable film and a remarkable directorial debut for Kazan who relied heavily on renowned cinematographer, Leon Shamroy. The cast is top-notch. Peggy Ann Garner is a complete delight in her Oscar-winning portrayal. Jimmy Dunn was also awarded a well-deserved Oscar. Dunn was a washed up alcoholic in real life and was basically playing himself in the role. Kazan did Dunn a favor by offering him the part but demanded he abstain from booze during the shooting. Dunn’s “Annie Laurie” scene is extraordinary. Dorothy McGuire gives a fine performance as the tough-as-nails matriarch although Kazan later complained the convent-raised actress was too refined for the part. McGuire had a reputation for being a bit of a diva on the set as Peggy Ann Garner reflected much later; “Kazan had a marvelous quality. He even knew how to handle Dorothy McGuire, and there was a certain way you had to handle that lady.” Joan Blondell is an audience pleaser as the coquettish Sissy, who nags her sister to cut Johnny some slack. Even young Ted Donaldson is enjoyable as the grumpy Neeley. The settings and the performances are thoroughly realistic and evoke the rough and tumble environment of 1900 Brooklyn with its immigrant enclaves. Writers Tess Slesinger’s and Frank Davis’s script also received an Oscar nomination. Although Kazan later dismissed “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” as sentimental corn pone, the young director did a wonderful job telling a heart-warming story, which appealed to war-time audiences and was the studio’s third-highest grossing film of the year.

“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” amazingly is not available in the USA as an individual DVD but it is included as one of the fifteen films in the Elia Kazan Collection box set (2010). An interesting commentary is provided with analysis from Richard Schickel, Kazan, Ted Donaldson, and Norman Lloyd. Special features also include “The Making of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn” documentary along with “An Appreciation of Dorothy McGuire.”

Additional thoughts from a believer’s perspective

“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” pays homage to human determination and perseverance despite adverse circumstances, symbolized by the tree growing through the cracks of the tenement’s courtyard. But attitude and ambition don’t always guarantee worldly success. The Irish/Austrian-American Nolans seem to have a certain amount of religion in their lives; there’s nightly perfunctory Bible reading (an unusual practice for a Catholic family), Francie’s prayers for her father, and a pious Catholic ceremony at Johnny’s grave side with the priest offering prayers for a merciful judgement. But Jesus Christ is not present in the hearts of these characters. When Francie’s teacher proclaims Keats’s, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” the girl wonders out loud if her father’s love (beauty) compensates for his egregious faults (truth). The teacher is befuddled by the question, leaving the viewers to decide the answer for themselves. The film insinuates that Francie will grow up to be a successful writer. But then what? In God’s great plan, worldly success is as short-lived and as unfulfilling as Johnny’s tragic life. The Nolans, director Kazan, screenwriters Slesinger and Davis, and author, Betty Smith, are all searching for truth and beauty outside of life in Jesus Christ. It is only in Christ that we find everlasting happiness, beauty, and truth.