the priceless lunatic
by Douglas Messerli
Bill C. Davis (screenplay, based on his own play), Glenn Jordan (director) Mass Appeal / 1984
I come from a church-going family. Both my mother and father were Elders in their local Presbyterian church (the ecclesiastical equivalent of the local version of the US government’s Congress) and two of my mother’s male siblings became ministers, one Presbyterian and the other Methodist—which might suggest something about the Lutheran Church in which they grew up. As the first born child in a family which would eventually produce something like 36 first cousins, I used the bannister of my grandmother’s staircase as a pulpit where I pretended to sermonize at family gatherings to the joy and laughter of several aunts and uncles. I dreamed of becoming a missionary—not because, I soon realized, I had any desire to spread religious doctrine but rather because I imagined it as an opportunity to travel to all sorts of exotic places throughout the world. I still love to travel, although long voyages no longer love me.
My parents were not particularly religiously-inclined in our home, but we did attend church nearly every Sunday, and I sang throughout my high-school years in the church choir. Even during my first couple of years of college I continued to attend the campus religious center because I loved to sing chorale music and had a fairly-well trained tenor voice, participating in university chorale groups as well. But I had long since lost all interest in the sermons and other aspects of the service. Ministers, I had concluded, spoke a language to their congregations that invoked clichéd words of consolation and repeated moral homilies that had long ago lost any real meaning. I was convinced that many students had delivered better talks in my Speech 101 class. And soon after, when I realized finally that I no longer shared any of my fellow attendees’ religious beliefs, I stopped church-going altogether. As a humanist agnostic I have never since entered a church except for weddings and funerals.
Last night while I was thinking about our three C’s series [Current
Crises in Catholicism]...and I fell asleep. No, I was straining over the
most recent crisis that has faced our church today. and consequently
I dreamed that Bette Davis was ordained a priest. ...Of course I
remember when the big moral question was should we chew the
host or let it melt in our mouths.
Meanwhile, a young man (Željko Ivanek) on his daily jog through the neighborhood who has dropped into Father Farley’s sermon turns the priest’s comedic toying on its head by pushing the priest’s postulations into a straight-forward challenge: “What do you think of women becoming priests?” Once more Farley attempts to deflect the question at the heart of his moral dialogue: “What do I think....I wouldn’t want to sway anybody’s viewpoint, so I’ll plead the fifth.”
Farley’s nasty response summarizes his anger for this stranger having upstaged his act (which is later compared by the same man as being somewhat like a nightclub comedy routine): “You really should invest in a portable pulpit.”
So we recognize in this interchange that beneath whatever large tale this story might wish to tell, the real focus of Mass Appeal is the crisis soon to be faced by this popular priest, who, after some bitter times, worked hard to transform himself into someone his parishioners love through white lies, pleasant banter, “stupid” consolation (Farley’s own words, arguing “Consolation should stupid. That way a person in grief can realize how inconsolable their grief really is.”), equivocation, and escape (often through the wine he regularly consumes in his church office, giving Lemmon an opportunity at moments to reprise his role in Days of Wine and Roses).
But before that issue, the Monsignor has called a meeting to discuss the fate of two other soon-to-be deacons, good friends of Dolson’s, who are suspected of having a homosexual relationship. We never meet these seminarians, nor are we given any evidence of their relationship (although Dolson does attempt to defend them by suggesting that Christ may have had a “loving” relationship with John), but we are assured that, when ordained, they were committed to living celibate lives.
One is tempted, obviously, to wonder how a church that has so long hidden and supported hundreds of gay men who later abused children could be so troubled about a possible homosexual affair between the two grown students studying to become priests. But that, in fact, may explain, in part, Burke’s position; he cannot abide any sexuality to exist within the confines of the church, which anyone might argue is at the heart of the problem with which the Roman Catholic Church is faced. People are born (a religious person might say “created) as sexual beings; and despite church desires, people are seldom saints. To deny them any sexual expression is a kind of sin of omission one well might argue.
Yet, Jordan and Davis’ film, in the manner of the glib priest Farley, makes no attempt to truly explore these issues, instead putting any more level-headed considerations in the mouths of the ineffectual Farley and the rabidly righteous Dolson. as, against his inclinations, the Monsignor allows Dolson to become a Deacon on the condition that Farley make him over within the small time-frame of one month.
Indeed the film turns its full attention, soon after the presumably gay seminarians’ dismissal, to the interchanges between the older and younger, affable and irascible opponents, Farley and Dolson. At first it appears to be a study in annoyance, as each of the two refuses to bow to the other’s demands; but obviously in such a structural set-up we know that both men will gradually discover values in the other from which they can benefit. From the beginning the more experienced Farley perceives Dolson as a “priceless lunatic” which, he argues, the Church needs in order to survive, while recognizing that such lunatics have little ability to sustain their own survival.
Farley attempts to re-frame and refine a written sermon that Dolson has created, explaining the tactics of delivery and strategies of communication: when the listeners begin to cough, he warns his pupil, it is a sign that the sermon is not going well. Dolson’s first sermon results in nearly a contagion of coughers and hackers, but instead of retreating he moves frighteningly forward with passages that Farley had previously asked him to cut. The result is a near revolt from Farley’s parishioners with complaints filed to Burke.
The intolerant Monsignor now suspects that in his support of and friendship with the two expelled seminarians, Dolson himself might be gay, in short arguing not just without evidence but positing guilt simply by association. Finally, Farley is forced to recognize the injustice of the situation, the priest, in turn, indirectly confessing to his disciple that as a child he had been beaten by his father who left his family, his mother remarrying a man he hated which resulted in his inability to show his mother any love until, to late for him to express it, she died.
For his part, Dolson admits that before he entered the seminary he had explored love with both sexes, but unable to find the kind love he was seeking took refuge in his commitment to the God.
Both men, in short, have failed in love. And Farley gives the young man an opportunity to explore that topic in a final sermon in his church which he believes will convince both his congregation and the Monsignor of Dolson’s abilities.
The sermon—in which the young Deacon reveals his failure for having lost the ability to hear the voices of those to whom he most sought to speak, namely the audience to whom he is presently presenting his message—is finally a successful one, with many of Farley’s congregation highly evaluating it, proof Farley believes that will convince Burke to change his mind.
But it is already too late. Ignoring his mentor’s advice to keep his previous explorations of love a secret, the naive “lunatic” openly tells Dolson that he has had sex with both men and women.
By the time that Farley helps him to perceive that he has sealed his own fate but possibly endangered Farley’s own future in the parish he loves, Dolson has returned to his seminary bedroom to pack up his clothes, another victim of the Monsignor’s and perhaps the Church’s homophobia.
Visiting him in that room, Farley admits that he has been ineffectual because of his inability to give up what he has worked all his life to achieve, being loved and admired. “I need them,” he admits. “I really do.” Dolson assures him that he truly understands and consoles him (not so different from Farley’s own attempts at consolation) that he will find another place where they might take him—perhaps even in Iowa, the standing joke that Farley has made about where Monsignor Burke may relocate him. Actually, Iowa, my home state, might be a good place for an outspoken lunatic like Dolson; maybe he might convince younger versions of me that religion is not simply a dangerous farce.
As a wizened, hopefully wiser old queer, I can only wish that all the Dolsons might return to the everyday human race to search out the love they never found. If the church is in need of such “priceless” lunatics so are our secular cities and towns.
If nothing else, this young runner has jogged some sense into his head: “During those 3 years [when he was exploring love] whenever I was with someone I loved loved me, I did everything I could to keep it constant. Bit by bit I learned all the rules. What to say, what to give, what to withhold so I could keep that love constant. ....I found out that the constant was up to me. Promises are broken. Friends will be fickle and love goes its own course. And all of it has to finally not matter. [Shifting the conversation to the priest] What you believe has got to be more important than what your congregation thinks of you.”
The problem lies, as Farley reiterates, in knowing what you believe.
I believe this well-meaning film is not as profound as it believes itself to be.
Los Angeles, January 11, 2021
Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (January 2021).