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Main | The Narrative Arts as Substitute ~ Message and Meaning on the Stage »
Monday
Feb202012

Narrative Imagination and Religious Expression

 by Dale Rominger

The Narrative Arts as Challenge ~ Life and Death on the Waterfront

Joey Doyle, thrown from the rooftop of his tenement building by longshoremen thugs, lay dead on a waterfront street. His arms are outstretched, as if seeking a cross. A newspaper covering his face and chest acts as a death shroud. Joey had been lured to the rooftop by Terry Molloy, who had not known Joey was to be killed. A crowd gathers around the body, Joey's sister Edie kneeling by his side. Father Barry enters the scene:

CLOSE ON BODY OF JOEY. TENEMENT LANDING. NIGHT.
FATHER BARRY prays. A police SERGEANT turns to POP.
SERGENT: You're Pop Doyle, aren't you, the boy's father?
POP (Angrily) That's right.
SERGEANT: He fell over backwards from the roof - like he was pushed. Any ideas?
POP: (Aggressively) None.
MRS COLLINS: (Coming forward) He was the one longshoreman with guts enough to talk to them crime investigators. Everybody knows that.
POP: (Wheeling angrily and pushing her away) Who asked you. Shut your trap. If Joey'd taken that advice he wouldn't be - (Starts to crack up.)
MRS COLLINS: (Protesting) Everybody knows that...?
POP: I said shut up!
SERGEANT: Look, I'm an honest cop. Give me some leads and I'll (POP stands silently, choked with grief.)
KAYO NOLAN: Listen - don't bother him. Right, Moose?
MOOSE: (Nodding) One thing I learned - all my life on the waterfront - don't ask not questions - don't answer no questions. Unless you...(Looks at the body and stops.)
LUKE: (Reverently) He was all heart, that boy. Enough guts for a regiment.POP: (In a bitter rage) Guts - I'm sick of guts. He gets a book in the pistol local and right away he's gonna be a hero. Gonna push the mob off the dock singlehanded...
FATHER BARRY: (Comfortingly) Take it easy, Pop. I know it's rough but time and faith are great healers...
CLOSE: ON EDIE. TENEMENT LANDING. NIGHT.
Joey's sister, a fresh-faced, sensitive young Irish girl who has been kneeling over the body. She looks up and round at the Father in bitter grief.
EDIE: 'Time and faith'...My brother's dead and you stand there talking drivel about time and faith.
FATHER BARRY:(Taken aback) Why Edie, I -
EDIE: (Plunging on) How could anyone do this to Joey. The best in the neighbourhood - everybody said it, not only me.
FATHER BARRY(Embarrassed) I wish I knew, Edie, but - (Starts to turn away as if appealing to the others.)
EDIE: Don't turn away! Look at it! You're in this too - don't you see, don't you see? You're in this too, Father.
FATHER BARRY: (Defensively, sincerely) Edie, I do what I can. I'm in the church when you need me.
EDIE: (Bitingly) 'In the church when you need me.' Was there ever a saint who hid in the church? (She turns from him angrily, towards the covered form of JOEY.)
CLOSE SHOT: FATHER BARRY
FATHER BARRY stands there, jolted and troubled.[1]

The above, taken from the shooting script, is an opening scene in the film On the Waterfront (1954) by Budd Schulberg. The film was a popular and artistic success, winning eight Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay. Today it is considered a film classic.

From the above text we learn much: The waterfront local union is run by the mob; Joey Doyle, a longshoreman, was going to testify to expose the mobsters; Terry Molloy (Marlon Brando) sets Joey up for the kill, but was also set up himself; everybody knows who killed Joey and why, everybody, that is, except Father Barry. As the scene ends, Father Barry (Karl Malden), is "jolted and troubled," perhaps more by Edie's (Eva Marie Saint) passionate and direct challenge then by the actual death on the waterfront.

While Father Barry represents the church, Joey Doyle hints at something else. It would be wrong to suggest Joey is a Christ-figure, however, his courage to confront evil, his goodness as recognized in the neighbourhood, the crucifix-like position of his body in death, and the very effect his death has on individuals and the community, all encourage us to see "Christ-ness" in the character and his death. Father Barry offers platitudes to Pop Doyle and would have gotten away with it if not for Edie Doyle kneeling at her brothers side.

Edie accuses the priest of "talking drivel" in the face of death and social injustice. Confronted with the tragedy of personal loss and the injustice of the good being murdered, she asks Father Barry who would do such a thing, that is kill a decent man and her brother. While the small gathered circle can answer Edie's naive question, Father Barry is at a loss, is embarrassed by his obvious ignorance, and begins to turn away from a young woman in grief and in need of answers. He looks to others for help, but Edie blatantly, surprisingly, calls him back. Her words are painful to hear: "Don't turn away! Look at it!"

The "it" is, we will learn, not just the dead body of her brother, but the situation in which they all live: injustice, insecurity, fear, relative poverty, and powerlessness. She continues to push the limits of acceptability, crying: "You're in this too - don't you see, don't you see?" She demands the priest, who represents the church, take his place in the world and, in language that echoes the gospel relationship between blindness, seeing, understanding, and discipleship, to "see!"

Father Barry instinctively retreats to his own safer world and defends himself, weakly to be sure. He tells Edie he is in the church and can be found there when she needs him. In other words, she is not to seek him in the world. In essence he is saying "I am not in this too." Even in her grief, she will have to go to him, to the church, for help. He will not, or perhaps cannot, come to her, in the world.

Amazingly, Edie does not bow to church tradition and ordained authority, but mocks the priest with his own words and in one breath damns him for hiding in the church and judges the character of those who do. We should not be surprised to read (see) that Father Barry is "jolted and troubled." It is this encounter, this jolting, this disturbance, which eventually leads to Father Barry's transformation in the story. He comes to realize that his "parish" is the waterfront community and eventually fights for justice alongside the people of that community.

This transformation is signaled in many ways, perhaps most powerfully in the sermon Father Barry delivers in the hole of the ship after the death of Kayo. That sermon moves Terry to "confess" his involvement in the death of Eddie's death and sits in a confessional booth: "Father help me, I've god blood on my hands. Bless me, Father, for I have -" Father Barry closes the shutter of the confessional abruptly and leaves the booth. Terry follows after the priest who his leaving the church. He pleads to be heard and Father Barry says: I don't want to hear it in there…Tell it to me in there and my lips are sealed. But if I dig it out myself I can use it where it'll do the most good."[2] The message seems uncompromising. If justice is to be done, it needs to be done outside the Church. 

On the Waterfront is not an overt condemnation of religion in general nor Christianity in particular, but it is challenge to both. Though the film was released in 1954, this opening scene is still painful to watch. The representative of the Church at a loss for how to respond to a situation everyone else sees as obvious. An almost instinctive turning away from that situation. Embarrassment and awkwardness. And the final retreat from the streets (the world) and back into the security of Church walls. Institutional religion can still be accused of distance, or even alienation, from the world, turning away and hiding away from the context of peoples' lives.

The Church still expects people to come in to it, instead of it going out to them. The simple truth is, people will not humbly go to the Church that seems naïve about the realities of their living. Nor will the search for life's meaning simply stop, but will be done elsewhere. The film On the Waterfront is a challenge to religious sensibilities and practices that find it difficult to enter into the world (and popular culture).

It is fair to say that today the narrative arts challenges the "interpretive monopoly" of religion. In society we no longer "get our informing images from the walls of the churches as historical Christians did; we get them from the media culture in which we live…"[3]

Copyright © 2012 Dale Rominger


[1] Schulberg, Bud. On the Waterfront. Faber and Faber: London and Boston, 1980, pp.10-12.

[2] Ibid., pp.63-64.

[3] Miles, Margaret R. Seeing and Believing: Religion and Values in the Movies. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996, p.3.

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