Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Open to Truth: Fearless

Every day, I see headlines proclaiming that all is lost, each side claiming the other side is evil and the cause of all ills.   Because of my social media settings, many of these lamentations come from those who are Catholic.    And I've grown weary from it.   I can always find relief in scripture and prayer, but recently, I've found hope for literature, television, and film from some secular sources.    I watch the films of Steve McQueen who explores what it means to be human and how our actions affect others.   I read the reviews of stand-up comedian, writer, and actor,  Brett Goldstein, whose show, Contains Scenes of an Adult Nature, chronicles his addiction to pornography and his journey as he gave it up and continues to heal in the way he deals with women and relationships.   There are people out there searching for answers, for truth.   They are asking us to think.   We Catholics may have access to the source of truth, but are we really living that way?

A few weeks ago, I watched a new series on Netflix, Derek, created and written by Ricky Gervais.   I have since heard, from multiple sources, that he is supposed to be an atheist who has made anti-Catholic remarks.   For some, that makes any of his work off-limits.  I haven't taken the time to investigate those claims because for me, the show itself outweighs what I might find.   *Stop reading this blog today if you need perfection or conformance to an idealized image in the sources of all your reading or viewing.*   Derek is the story of Derek Noakes, a fifty-year-old caregiver in a home for the elderly.   Since the death of his mother, the residents of the home and his fellow staff members have become his only family.   And he considers himself the luckiest man in the world because he is surrounded by his favorite people every day.  

There was no period of warming up to these characters for me.   From the first few minutes of the pilot episode, I was hooked and I loved the characters, especially Derek and Hannah.   Hannah, played beautifully by Kerry Godliman, is the manager of the home.   She loves the residents and Derek.   She has sacrificed a personal life in order to take care of the residents.   While she admits to loneliness, she is not bitter, nor does she regret those sacrifices.   Derek's other close friends are his best friend Dougie, played perfectly by Karl Pilkington and Kevin, well-portrayed by David Earl.   They all wish the world was filled with more people like Derek.  And they all wish they could be more like Derek.

The elderly are some of the most vulnerable members of our society and Gervais portrays them as unique individuals, each with a past and a valuable future, regardless of the days or years they have left.   Pilkington's character, Dougie, whose outward appearance is all grouch, is often the voice of what many people think of the elderly.   In one exchange, he questions the logic of replacing a hearing aid battery for a resident who he thinks may not even notice the difference.   Derek counters by asking Dougie to think if it was himself and would the effort be worth it then?    Then, there are the other characters, Derek, Dougie, Kevin, Hannah, and Tom.   They are all outsiders in their own ways.   Gervais has described them as being on the fringe of society, where they are dismissed and ignored.   He wanted to give them a voice and by the end of the series, you see them more fully.   They are more than the simple person you might decide them to be based merely on appearances.   By the end of the series, your heart even warms to Kevin, and you understand a little more about why he is this way.  

The format is a familiar one for Gervais, who created both the UK and US versions of The Office.   A documentary crew is filming the home and the characters often speak to the camera as part of their interviews.   It is not just re-hashed material and the format adds to the real feel of the characters.   That reality keeps the show from becoming sentimentalized or saccharin.   The show is British, with comments and jokes that may offend delicate sensibilities, those who, I suppose, must also avoid all Shakespeare, for the sort of humour that can be seen there.  I cried at least once during every episode of the series and I have watched every episode at least twice now.   As one of my friends said, "It just makes me happy and gives me faith in the goodness of people."   It also makes me think.


In an interview for the special, The Making of Derek, Gervais explains how he created the look of Derek:

Despite how he looks and he's perceived, he's kind and sweet and sincere.  He's perfect.   He's just perfect.
 
And that's why I had to make him look odd.   I didn't want anything to confuse you.   I wanted everything to be a juxtaposition to what he was really like, so he's got to be scruffy, he's got to walk funny, he's got to have bad hair.   He can't be that bright.   Because then, kindness comes along and trumps it all.


 


As I watched his explanation, I thought there was something slightly familiar about it.   It reminded me of something I had recently read.   In The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O' Connor, Jonathan Rogers shares the story of O'Connor's encounter with a group of nuns from Atlanta.   Rogers writes that the Sister Superior of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cancer Home contacted Flannery to see if she would help them publish the story of a little girl who lived in the home.   Mary Ann lived there nine years before she died at the age of twelve.   The sisters felt her effect upon all those she encountered needed to be told in novel-form by a writer such as O'Connor.   But, oh, how O'Connor disliked sweet, pretty little sanitized tales of holy people.   She wanted nothing to do with the project.   However, Sister Evangelist had included a picture of Mary Ann with her request and O'Connor couldn't stop looking at it.   She wrote:
 
Her small face was straight and bright on one side.   The other side was protuberant, the eye was bandaged, the nose and mouth crowded slightly out of place.   The child looked at her observer with an obvious happiness and composure.   I continued to gaze at the picture long after I had thought to be finished with it.  

Rogers writes, O'Connor made good on her commitment to help the nuns complete the manuscript.   She also wrote an introduction, a meditation on the beauty and deformity that coexisted in the face of that little girl.   It is perhaps O'Connor's best articulation of what the grotesque meant in her fiction and in her whole worldview.  We are familiar enough with the face of evil, O'Connor argued, in part because we so often see it grinning back at us from the mirror.   When we look at evil, we expect to see grotesquerie.   But what of good?   What does the face of good look like?
 
O'Connor wrote:
 
Few have stared at [good] long enough to accept the fact that its face too is grotesque, that in us the good is something under construction.   The modes of evil usually receive worthy expression.  The modes of good have to be satisfied with a cliché or smoothing down that will soften their real look.   When we look into the face of good, we are liable to see a face like Mary Ann's, full of promise.
 
 
Ricky Gervais was considering the face of good.   So, Gervais is not a practicing Catholic.   From what I understand, he has said some things about Catholicism.  A Brit with anti-Catholic sentiments?!  Well, gee, there's certainly no historical precedent for that.   And yet, Gervais has written one of the most beautiful programs about the dignity and value of every person I have ever viewed.   In Derek and Hannah, we have characters who are contributing to a Culture of Life with their daily actions.   They do so because of a real belief--not theory, but real actions-- in the dignity of every human being, from resident Lizzie, who suffers from Altzheimers, to Kevin, who often assails the senses, but still manages to stir empathy and kindness.   Every person has a right to life, with all its sorrows and pleasures.   No one should be excluded.   No one has to be made-over to make them more bearable as company.  Derek explains this simply as "Kindness is magic."   He sees the ripple effects of kindness in the world.  


Flannery O'Connor was a student of theology throughout her life.   Every violent story, full of freaks, which she wrote was firmly grounded in her unshakable faith as a Catholic.   But what she and Gervais seem to share is an openness to exploring truth and a belief that reality is the best--and only-- means for portraying the truth.   Gervais may not identify God as the source of the truth he has found, but he has beautifully portrayed that truth and huge numbers of viewers are watching it.  What percentage of Catholic writing today is written for audiences who already agree with the author?   How much Catholic writing is still all halos and traditional beauty, lest anyone be offended or question the goodness or orthodoxy of the author?   And what about the publishing houses who prefer the sweet and sanitized?
 
O'Connor wasn't preaching to the choir, or rather to those who congratulated themselves for being part of the choir.   She was writing for the wider audience, readers who were living in a post-Christian or a "Christ-haunted" world.   She and Catholic writers she respected, like Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, were formed by their faith, but also honed their craft as storytellers.   They didn't pound their beliefs into their readers.   Because they were Catholic and not word-only- Protestants, they used sign and symbol.   They allowed their readers to participate and discover truth within the stories.   We need more of that today.   We find it in modern fiction writers like Alice McDermott, whose work is grounded in Catholicism, but appeals to the mainstream audience.   Writers like Heather King are writing true, honest memoir to which readers can relate and take stock of their own lives.   One doesn't have to compromise faith to write for all people.   Catholic readers and viewers, however, might need to adjust their sensibilities and leave their fears behind.   

In an interview, Derek cast member Brett Goldstein, was asked how he thought Ricky Gervais could combine comedy and tragedy so well.   Goldstein replied, "He's fearless."   As a Catholic, shouldn't the same thing be said of me.   With grace, I'm working on that.   When Jesus walked the earth as a man, he sanctified the earth and when he died upon the cross, He conquered fear, along with sin and death.   When we are grounded firmly in our relationship with Christ, we don't have to fear the world.   We may explore truth without being shocked or frightened at where we find it.   I am grateful to Ricky Gervais for making Derek.   He has given the world a great gift.   And when Catholics start producing television series which portray truths like Derek does for the whole of the viewing audience, I'll happily watch those, too.
 
From Flannery O' Connor, in her first letter to Betty Hester, one of her readers who became a friend and confidante:
 
I write the way I do because (not though) I am a Catholic.   This is a fact and nothing covers it like the bald statement.   However, I am a Catholic peculiarly possessed of the modern consciousness, that thing Jung describes as unhistorical, solitary, and guilty.   To possess this within the church is to bear a burden, the necessary burden for the conscious Catholic.   It's to feel the contemporary situation at the ultimate level.   I think that the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed.   It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it, but if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time you struggle to endure it.   This may explain the lack of bitterness in the stories.


 
 A related great read: Heather King's Letter to a Young Blogger

 
This post is Part One of Two: next post will be about the films of director Steve McQueen

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