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Faith or Action in a World Hurtling Toward Oblivion?

Still from “First Reformed.”

For most film buffs, the movie “Taxi Driver” and the name Martin Scorsese are inextricably linked. But for me, the essence of a film is the screenplay. It all goes back to Aristotle who in defining tragedy in “Poetics” placed plot and character at the top of the six necessary ingredients (the other four are diction, thought, spectacle, and melody). Martin Scorsese did not write the screenplay for “Taxi Driver”. It was written by Paul Schrader, who also wrote “Raging Bull”. If there is anything that defines these masterpieces, it is the brilliant storytelling (plot) and character development of the screenplay (think Travis Bickle and Jake LaMotta). Scorsese deserves credit for helping Robert De Niro fully realize two memorable characters and creating the spellbinding background against which they stand (think of spectacle as cinematography and melody as film score) but without Schrader’s screenplay, it would have been all for naught.

In addition to being a screenwriter, Schrader was also a director—sometimes with mixed results. I am pleased to report that his latest film that opens nationwide today is not only his greatest achievement but one of the great American films of the decade. “First Reformed” tells the story of Toller (Ethan Hawke), the grief-stricken pastor of the eponymous upstate N.Y. Protestant church who delivers sermons to less than ten people on an average Sunday. The drawing card for the church is not spirituality, but its status as a landmark building that draws tourists, including some that can be persuaded to buy a coffee cup, baseball cap or t-shirt from the church’s tiny souvenir shop.

Toller is a reclamation project for Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer) who runs a nearby megachurch called Abundant Life. In contrast to the austere life led by Toller and the threadbare church he serves, Abundant Life—as the name implies—is one of those prosperity gospel outlets that comfort the abundantly wealthy. Jeffers has taken Toller under his wing because he felt sorry for him. As a one-time army chaplain from a family with deep roots in the military, Toller encouraged his son to enlist. Not long after his training is complete, he is sent to Iraq where he died in combat. Toller has never forgiven himself for being responsible for his son’s death and drowns his sorrows each day in whiskey.

Among the sparse attendees at First Reformed is Mary (Amanda Seyfried), the young pregnant wife of an environmental activist named Michael (Philip Ettinger) who only sits beside her out of a sense of matrimonial duty. His faith is not placed in an invisible and evidently non-existent deity but in the sanctity of nature. So deep is his conviction that he has spent time in jail for a recent protest.

Mary has contacted Toller to help counsel her husband who is in such a state of despair about the planet that he is putting pressure on her to have an abortion. He simply does not want to bring new life into a dying planet. In a scene that epitomizes Schrader’s bold defiance of Hollywood convention and his commitment to serious art, we see Toller and Michael in a conversation that lasts at least ten minutes, about five times longer than the average scene in a commercial film.

But that is barely the time that is needed for two men to discuss the big questions of our day. What can future generations, including the life taking shape in his wife’s womb, expect from a world that his hurdling toward oblivion? All Toller can do is repeat the importance of choosing life as a way of standing against evil. For Michael, such advice rings hollow since it is action rather than faith that will block the polluters that are destroying all life on earth.

Some days later, Mary calls Toller with a desperate tone in her voice. He must come immediately to see what she has discovered. Upon arrival in his dusty and aged sedan, she ushers him into the shed behind their house and opens a box concealed beneath others. Toller is shocked to see a suicide bomb vest of the sort that jihadists use. It is obvious that Michael has become so angry and frustrated about the corporate rape of the planet that he is ready to die for the cause, including the men who profit from that rape. He tells Mary that he will take the vest with him and to leave it to him to minister to Michael.

A day later, he receives a message from Michael to meet him at a nearby park to discuss matters but when he arrives, he sees his dead body. He has taken his life with a hunting rifle and left Mary to fend for herself. As he draws closer to Mary in her time of need, Toller begins to obsess over the same issues that Michael did and to even think about ways that he can take action on behalf of God’s creation even if that involves abandoning his priestly ways. A combination of long-suffering guilt over his son’s senseless death and anger over corporate despoliation of the environment is driving him toward nihilistic conclusions.

Made forty-two years after “Taxi Driver”, “First Reformed” depicts the inner turmoil of men upset with the state of the world, at least the world that confronts them respectively. For Travis Bickle, New York was a Sodom and Gomorrah that impelled him to rain down destruction on its sinners since it was clear that no supernatural being could do much about 13-year old girls working as prostitutes. For Father Toller, it a different kind of degradation that must be confronted. At one point, we see him looking balefully at a lake polluted by the toxic waste flowing from Balq Industries, the largest donor to Abundant Life. The incestuous ties between corporate mammon and the prosperity gospel are staring Toller in the face.

Now seventy-one, Paul Schrader has made a film that is not only the pinnacle of a long career but one that reflects his deepest worries about the future of the planet–the same ones of his characters. In an interview with Variety, Schrader explained why he chose to make a film about the environmental crisis:

We have this contemporary crisis of ecology, which takes all the historic, philosophic questions of meaning and puts them in boldface. Man has always wondered whether life has any meaning and what comes after death. Now that we can sort of see the end of the role in the physical world the questions have an added urgency.

A follow-up question is about Hurricanes Irma and Harvey. His reply:

I wouldn’t isolate these events. They’re part of the new normal. It’s not just hurricanes. The icebergs are falling into the seas. California’s on fire. It’s an accelerating process.

I would think that homo sapiens as we know them will not outlive this century. When they create a great museum of the animal world, hopefully the filmmakers will get a room.

Don’t expect any pat answers from Paul Schrader who is pessimistic about our future. Indeed, Toller’s redemption has much more to do with love than it does with exemplary action. The director’s primary interest is in how men and women can live ethical and fulfilled lives in an epoch when the entirety of social and economic relations militates against that.

One of the keys to understanding Schrader’s worldview is the fleeting reference to Toller’s fondness for the writings of Thomas Merton, a Catholic monk who had much more of a presence in the 1960s as a peace activist and advocate of spiritual universalism. His autobiography The Seven Story Mountain evoked the lives of both Travis Bickle and Father Toller, as well as St. Augustine whose Confessions I read as an undergraduate in the same spirit I read Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf. This was a time of deep political and spiritual reflection, after all.

Like the sixties radicals, Merton lived a life of excess in the 1930s. When he was at Cambridge University, he spent more time getting drunk at pubs than studying. Later on, he enrolled at Columbia University and joined the Communist Party but only long enough to figure out after one meeting that it wasn’t for him. (I wish I had been as smart when it came to joining the Trotskyist movement.)

But that did not limit his activism. In October 1935, Merton joined a picket of the Casa Italiana to protest Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia. Funded by wealthy Italian-American businessman and the Italian government, Casa Italiana, was just another sign of my former employer’s friendly relations with fascism. In a 1962 letter to the priest and future Sandinista leader Ernesto Cardenal, Merton wrote: “The world is full of great criminals with enormous power, and they are in a death struggle with each other. It is a huge gang battle, using well-meaning lawyers and policemen and clergymen as their front, controlling papers, means of communication, and enrolling everybody in their armies.” This sounds like it was ripped from this morning’s headlines, doesn’t it?

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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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