First Reformed
Produced and distributed by A24 
Written and directed by Paul Schrader 

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Produced by Tremolo Productions 
Distributed by Focus Features 

Fashionable reviewers have brought out the heavy artillery to praise director Paul Schrader’s latest film, First Reformed, calling it transcendent, uncompromising, soaring, etc, etc.  Maybe they saw a different film from the dank, pretentious one I did.

It seems to me that these good folk have avoided the fact that whatever other excellencies Schrader possesses, he’s a pornographer, literally.  His films rigorously dwell on moral turpitude, portraying the twin hells of sexual exploitation and commercialized violence.  In 1976 he and director Martin Scorsese made Taxi Driver, in which Jodie Foster, then 12 years old, plays the part of a prostitute working the streets of Manhattan.  In one scene she’s shown unzipping Robert De Niro’s fly preparatory to fellating him.  I guess we can be grateful that the act is not shown; nevertheless, one wonders what effect its simulation had on Ms. Foster’s life thereafter.  In 1980 Schrader and Scorsese made Raging Bull, the story of boxer Jake LaMotta’s career in and out of the ring in which we get to watch De Niro pummeling opponents in slow-motion close-up, blood spraying loopingly from their mouths and noses.  More recently, Schrader wrote and directed The Canyons (2013), in which Lindsay Lohan has on-screen sex with pornographic “star” James Deen.  The film is, I understand, a miserable piece of work even by the abysmal standards of the corrupt industry that profits from the activities of young and often drug-addled exhibitionists.  It’s been reliably reported that when Miss Lohan had second thoughts about coupling with Deen before the camera, Schrader used the contract she had signed to compel her participation.

D.H. Lawrence famously distinguished between the teller and the tale, arguing that when it comes to art, we must judge the work, not its maker.  I usually agree with this distinction, but not here, not when a 67-year-old director compels a 27-year-old actress to have herself sexually violated.  Whatever the contract said and however foolish Miss Lohan was to have signed it, this falls into the category of crime—perhaps not legally, but certainly morally.

Schrader is fond of saying that he was raised a Calvinist in Michigan and wasn’t allowed to see movies as a child.  He seems to think his audience needs to know this.  And I agree.  Calvinism, traditionally understood, emphasizes human depravity.  And so does Schrader.

Protestant apologists have recently attempted to rehabilitate the sect’s founder, John Calvin, arguing that his fulminations from the pulpit were meant to awaken his flock to their moral responsibilities.  This may be so, but Schrader doesn’t seem to be all that interested in awakening morality in his audience.  His mission has been to entice them in the cause of making a profit.

So what does all this have to do with First Reformed?  Quite a lot, I would say.  We should know the depths to which a filmmaker is willing to go to earn his money.  It seems to me that Schrader’s appeal to his Calvinist background is his attempt to apply a veneer of respectability to the display of depravity he insists on putting on-screen.

Calvin famously argued that mankind is naturally depraved and can only be saved by the virtue of God’s gratuitous grace.  In First Reformed we meet a profoundly depressed Calvinist minister, Ernst Toller, who has succumbed to this perverse vision of human life.  Some years earlier, he had been an Army chaplain and encouraged his son to join the service.  The boy was subsequently killed in Iraq, a loss that brought on the dissolution of Toller’s marriage.  What’s more, Toller is suffering from a stomach disorder that he medicates with whiskey liberally laced with Pepto-Bismol.  Things really begin to implode when Mary, one of his parishioners, asks his help in defusing the suicidal aspiration of her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), a young man who’s concluded that God can’t forgive us for our treatment of the environment.  He’s been planning to do something about this.  What better than to don a suicide vest and blow up as many of his neighbors as possible?  But before doing so, he’s demanding that Mary abort the baby she’s carrying just in case his explosive vest doesn’t take care of the kid.

Michael subscribes to the current moral fashion.  He substitutes environmentalism for traditional faith.  It follows that his intentions must be good, and, further, he must be amenable to reason.  So, rather than having this self-important nitwit institutionalized before he can unleash homicidal mayhem, Toller agrees to counsel him.

Toller’s judgment, however, is so compromised by his own woes that he finds himself increasingly persuaded that this looney’s cause must be just.  Matters come to a fateful head when he discovers that his own dwindling congregation has been suborned by local moneyed interests who are poisoning the land on which Toller’s church stands.  This 250-year-old structure is descended from Dutch Reformed believers, and it’s now little more than a fossilized adjunct of the nearby money-making megachurch, ironically named Abundant Life, an establishment presided over by Joel Jeffers, a glib businessman-like pastor convincingly played by Cedric Kyles.  These two men of the cloth could hardly be more unalike.  Toller is all angst; Jeffers is all bonhomie in the cause of grabbing the main chance.

As Toller increasingly descends into his dark night of the soul, Jeffers fears the consequences of his own cheerful enterprise.  Even Jesus wasn’t always in the Garden of Gethsemane, he reminds the tormented minister.

But it’s of no avail.  Schrader has decided that’s where Toller must stay, grappling with depravity.

As the film crawls to its climax, a last act-agent of grace appears suggesting, unconvincingly, that Toller may recover his moral balance, but this feels like a calculated add-on to counter the nihilism that’s gone before.

Also calculated is Schrader’s substitution of environmentalism for faith.  He evidently wanted to charm his secular audience and judged they couldn’t possibly entertain traditional faith as the motive force in the film’s struggle.  He needed a new, more convincing god for our enlightened age.  This seems to be of a piece with his cynical, not to say pornographic, exploitation of young women.  To be blunt, my strong suspicion is that Schrader is a phony.

I have to say, watching this painfully slow film was like swallowing a particularly noisome medicine.  Whatever good it’s supposed to do, it’s deeply unpleasant.

Turning from Schrader, I found relief in Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, a documentary about another minister.  This one is the real and impressively sane Fred Rogers, the man who created Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, a television program designed for children aged two to five that ran for 38 years on public television.

NPR radio correspondent Susan Stamberg appears in the film to discuss her acquaintance with Rogers.  She had interviewed him in the 1980’s and subsequently joined him for on-air discussions of how divorce affects children.  She found him, as so many others did, utterly genuine and quietly wise.  As for his show, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, she explains it succeeded because it was everything conventional children’s television was not: quiet, unhurried, genuine, and always focused on the needs of its young audience.  Rogers employed the simplest of hand puppets for the “make-believe” segment of the program, my personal favorite being the pompous King Friday, voiced by Rogers in a drawling timbre quite unlike his own.  The king insisted on formality in all things, including song.  Accordingly, his rendition of “Row, Row Your Boat” became “Propel, Propel Your Craft Down the Liquid Solution.”

I recall being surprised that my own children liked the show as much as they did.  I was too dense and too under the spell of commercial television to understand its appeal.  My wife finally explained it to me.  Our kids were responding to an adult who took them seriously and talked to them honestly.  In one episode, Rogers discovers a dead fish lying at the bottom of his aquarium.  After looking at it for a moment, he quietly explains what’s happened.  Then in silence, he lets his audience know that this is sometimes the way things are.  In another show, he asks the children if they’ve noticed that parents don’t always get along, that some even choose to end their marriages.  He doesn’t gloss over the sadness such adult behavior can visit on a child’s life.  Instead he reassures them that, should it surface in their families, they will be able to deal with it.

Rogers succeeded because he had done something brilliant and necessary.  He had invested his shows with his Christian respect for others.  No cartoons, no shouting, no hawking of toys.  The shows always began with Rogers coming into his television living room, taking off his blazer, and putting on a cardigan and soft-soled sneakers.  He was visibly discarding his formal self so that he could talk comfortably, personally, and, above all, honestly with his audience, assuring them that he always wanted to have neighbors just like them.  “You’ve made this day a special day,” he’d continue, “by just your being you.  There’s no person in the whole world like you, and I like you, just the way you are.”  His speech was measured, and he never rushed anything.  In one episode he holds up a clock to illustrate how long a minute takes to pass.  After setting the timer, he looks on silently as the hands move through the allotted seconds.  Once they do, he smiles at his audience, and that’s the lesson.

Rogers’ faith fortified him in his dealings with both powerbrokers and professional wise guys.  When public television was being threatened with a budget cut in 1968, he patiently explained to Sen. John Pastore’s Subcommittee on Communications that his mission was to let children know they were unique, and that their feelings, including anger, were “mentionable and manageable.”  Pastore realized he was facing a principled man dedicated to what was best for America and so withdrew his effort to cut the budget.

When Johnny Carson began to tease him on The Tonight Show, Rogers wouldn’t rise to the bait.  He looked at Carson for a silent moment and then explained why it was of the utmost importance to meet children on their own ground if we wanted to have a worthwhile future.  Carson was visibly chagrined and began to listen closely to his wise and gentle guest.

What’s most important about Neighbor is the way it enables us to see Rogers’ faith in action.