(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2009)
I wrote a few weeks ago, reviewing The Reader, about my disappointment that cinema hasn’t served us better. So many “serious” movies, I said, focus on the past, or on contrived emotional dilemmas purportedly illustrating the universal triumph of the human spirit (or something like that) or else on foolish, often violent melodramas only capable of being interpreted as serious-minded within a degraded set of cultural criteria. After writing that, I moved on to Gran Torino, which without Clint Eastwood’s unique sensibility and inbuilt resonance could easily have fallen into that second category. And now to John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, another heavy presence in the year-end awards race. It’s based on Shanley’s own Pulitzer-Prize- and Tony-winning play (which I never managed to see on stage), and is only the second film he’s directed, after Joe Versus The Volcano, almost twenty years ago.
Lost and not alone
The film, set in a Catholic school in the Bronx in 1964, is essentially a showdown between the martinet school principal, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) and the parish priest, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Younger by at least twenty years, he has a reformer’s instincts, manifested through discursive sermons, a casual way with the pupils (especially the boys), and a willingness to include Frosty The Snowman in the annual Christmas pageant. She thrives on the church’s inherent authority and difference, consciously operating through fear and intimidation. The school has its first and only black pupil, and a younger nun (Amy Adams) confides in Aloysius her fear that something improper may have happened between Flynn and the boy. Seizing on this either from intuitive certainty of its truth, or for ideological reasons, or both, Aloysius moves quickly to confront the priest. He denies it, not unconvincingly, but although she has no proof, she has her certainty, and refuses to let it rest.
Doubt, then, is as tangible an ingredient to the film’s fabric as were Gold or Zombie Strippers to the movies of those names. The film’s first scene has Flynn preaching on the potential virtues of not being sure of yourself or your beliefs (“when you are lost you are not alone”) and its climax turns on an unexpected confession of doubt. In between, of course, there’s much debate on conflicting beliefs, impressions and value judgments. It’s all fairly meaty and engrossing material, and the two stars are in barnstorming mode. But at least in this form, it seems to me like minor material at best.
There’s nothing inherently bracing or illuminating about the central structure, which is merely a dressed-up version of he said/she said procedurals. Any theological resonance seems grafted on, and Dr. Shanley’s operating procedure has an eye-rolling propensity for such metaphorical snake oil as the thunderstorm accompanying the ultimate showdown, or “significant” moments underlined through light bulbs spontaneously breaking, or a cat catching a mouse. Unlike say Mamet’s Oleanna, which could legitimately posit that the alleged transgression (sexual harassment) might be in part a matter of perception or cultural misunderstanding, our society defines child abuse as objectively definable and identifiable (maybe it shouldn’t, I don’t know, but that’s a different argument). If the movie withholds certainty about what happened, that’s merely how this particular machine is calibrated. Stephanie Zacharek in Salon said the film “has an insurance policy built right into its title: Have no earthly idea what point Shanley is trying to make? It's all good -- you're just having Doubt!”
Uncertainty, no doubt
The film does profit from a subject lurking in the sidelines – the Catholic Church’s fraught recent history. Aloysius may be old school, but she’s clear-eyed about the evil that men can do; it’s clear that Flynn’s notion of a more fluid relationship between the church and the community will at the very least inadvertently contribute to the scandals in the decades to follow, and at worst may be little more than self-serving facilitation. But it’s equally as true that any movie set in the Catholic church of the last few decades would need only to juxtapose a boy and a priest for that subject to come rolling off the screen.
Long before I had ever seen any Robert Bresson movies, I read David Thomson’s essay on the director in his Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema, which I’d always remembered as ending this way: “Uncertainty there is in his work, but no doubt.” Actually, I just looked back at it, and Thomson wrote “mystery” rather than “doubt” – I was so sure, beyond a doubt, that my recollection was right. Anyway, I was always intrigued by the distinction (in my misremembered form). Later on I learned a bit about accounting, where it makes perfect sense, albeit not exactly in a Bressonian way. Uncertainty is central to measuring a business’s condition and performance, because future events can always undermine how you estimate value today: obviously a lot of people understand this now more personally and vividly than they did a year ago. The main mistake people make about corporate financial statements and results is probably to overstate their accuracy and overlook how much estimation and variability is inherent in there. Uncertainty is a commodity you can grapple with, illuminate, disclose. But the accountant strives for certainty in how he or she deals with the inherent uncertainty; he or she is allowed no doubt.
Illuminating a valley
Beyond that, of course, what visibility we have about our future has clouded terribly. Virtually no one predicted what would happen this past year, and there is no consensus about the coming one, other than that it will be worse than we hope. And that’s just the short term. Our public discourse remains full of longer-term policy landmines that no one should realistically expect to stay dormant forever (government debt; infrastructure; climate change; global famine; etc.). For me, the most depressing aspect of our current situation is that while our leaders rail at past mistakes, and stridently insist on the propriety of this step or that, it hardly ever surpasses the merely reactionary; we’re always dealing in tactics rather than strategies. We overestimate the recent past’s validity as a guide to the likely future; we behave as if knowing the road we’re on (albeit yielding occasional unexpected bumps) rather than acknowledging the GPS gave out miles back.
No doubt we have the leaders we deserve, and let’s assume fear and fuzziness, rather than malevolence, is often what drives our missteps. It all leads to the same place. Uncertainty and how we manage it is one of the great topics of our time. But Doubt helps with this about as much as a candle illuminates a valley. I ask again: where are the serious films we deserve?