Tuesday, April 26, 2005

The Ur-text of AmChurch Hipsta Sistas' Drive towards Habit Liberation

"If you're in old habits,
Set in your old ways,
Changes are a'comin',
"Cause these are changin' days!
And if your head in is the sand
while things are going on,
What you need, What you need,
What you need...is a Change of Habit!"

-Elvis Presley, "Change of Habit"

There are narratives of liberation and then there are narratives of liberation that reek of the most insipid Whiggery imaginable. Elvis Presley's final film is certainly one of the latter. In 1969's "Change of Habit," Elvis plays a doctor at an inner-city medical clinic. Mary Tyler Moore plays the role of a nun who, with her two fellow sisters, is sent out from her convent "undercover," meaning in typical late '60s women's garb without a habit--hence the title. Bad Cliches I thought weren't even invented until the '70s ensue. Fortunately, Jabootu.com has watched the movie and catalogued its hilarity-inducing craptitude in detail so that nobody else has to. Here are some of Jabootu critic Ken Begg's comments, which I'll intersperse with my own:

"The Women head over to their new apartment, swarmed by the local Hispanic teenage girls, who all look like refugees from West Side Story. They all have crushes (of course) on Doc Elvis and are checking out the "competition" (hey, another zany result of the "undercover nuns" plot line!). The Women, attired in ridiculously modest dresses, are immediately taken for hookers (!) by their uptight old Irish busybody neighbors. Just to make sure we understand that these are the kind of people who are "the problem," one of them shouts out that Irene "is as black as the Ace of Spades!" And yet, if these old biddies only knew that they were nuns, they would have treated Our Heroines with respect (hey, another zany result...oh, never mind). Wow, it really makes you think, doesn't it?
After presumably putting their rooms in order, the Women go to check in with Father Gibbons at the local church. Michele is dismayed to find the doors of the church are locked, as the film provides us with another example of how the Old Establishment "Order" is out of touch with The People (wow!).
Of course, Father Gibbons is an old fuddy-duddy, who locks the church at night due to somebody having stolen some church property. Unsurprisingly, he can't "relate" to The Women's with-it mission. Gibbons is portrayed as an absolute jerk, in inverse ratio to our almost comically perfect nuns, who are not only socially conscious, but wise, respectful, and presumably thrifty, clean and kind to small animals. Gibbons, threatened by the "new order," stalks off in distaste as our pious nuns pray (wow!)."


Barbara, back at the apartment, is in a jam. The Women's furniture has arrived, but was dumped out on the sidewalk in a huge heap. How is she to get the furniture inside? To excruciating "comedy" music, she begins to carry the furniture inside piece by piece. Then, just to prove that, no matter how bad it is, it can always get worse, the music segues into that awful "la-la-la-la" kind of stuff that plays over Danish '70s sex flicks late-night on Cinemax. This is because Barbara has noticed that the loafing men across the street jump to help a "foxy lady" when she drops her purse. To the surprise of no one, Barbara has a zany light bulb moment. In a comic "highlight," Barbara prances around, using her body to get the horny, mindless males to help her out, as the busybody neighbors look on. Hey, I think those old biddies are actually hypocrites. I mean, they act offended and all, but really they're eating it up. Wow, what a subtle piece of characterization!


Anyway, on to plot #847. Barbara is at the local grocery, the Ajax Market, and doesn't like the prices. She calls the owner a "walking social injustice," and the women in front of her moans about how the high prices keep her from saving money to buy her kids toys (!). Of course, the owner is a big, rude White Guy who's exploiting The People for his own Evil Personal Gain. Hey! Just like the mobster guy! He even tries to cheat the woman out of her change, but the ever alert Barbara catches him out. The woman profusely thanks her. Thank goodness for the good white people who keep the bad white people from stealing from the poor minority people, who are too oppressed to ask for change. Maybe now that woman can buy her kids some toys.

Barbara announces her plans to hold a block party in honor of some patron saint or another, with Irene against the idea. Oddly, she states they're "here to do a job, not to get involved," which seems to contradict everything we've seen up to now. And of course, if you don't "get involved," well, you might as well be some White Guy exploiting The People for his own Evil Personal Gain. Barbara retorts that "Happy people are closer to God," which, not to get into a big theological debate or anything, seems to run counter to much of the Bible.

Walking home that night, Irene sees yet another guy getting beat up by the Banker's men. Meanwhile, as they arrive home, Michele informs Barbara that she intends to go consult with Father Gibbons, due to her inappropriately tender feelings for the hunky Elvis. Barbara, aware of how, well, stodgy and uptight Father Gibbons is, warns that he'll "burn you at the stake." When Michele agrees that Gibbons isn't exactly "an apostle of the Ecumenical movement," Barbara quips "No, more the Inquisition." And who can argue with her? Gibbons is the kind of priest who thinks it's his job to tell everybody what's right and what's wrong! Oh, wait, that is a priest's job, isn't it. Still, Barbara is no doubt correct in comparing a strict priest who yells with an organized movement that used torture to force people to act correctly. Certainly the filmmakers agree with her.


Next we travel to the office of the local Bishop. Father Gibbons is attempting to have the Sisters kicked out of his parish, and generally just acting like a jerk in as broad a fashion as possible. The mod nuns respond that maybe he could try "bringing more people back into the church" with masses in Spanish, or a (ugh!) "folk mass". Actually, in the twenty-five plus years since this movie came out, it's been established that it's the local churches that have done the least to "update" themselves that have best maintained their parishioner base. Apparently, the concept that people attend church to come into contact with something Eternal, something that transcends the here and now, that doesn't change to stay "relevant," is beyond the way-hip Sister Michele, as she goes babbling on about "new methods, innovations," yakada, yakada, yakada.

The Bishop (who reminds me of Phil Hartman) allows the Sisters to proceed with their work, and to go ahead with the Festival, but orders them to resume their habits. Michele worries that there's so much they haven't accomplished "as women," but is overruled. Our Heroines are devastated, as wearing their habits will somehow compromise their grand scheme to save the world from hatred, bigotry and being overcharged for peanut butter. Still, to lighten the mood, we see the Bishop's secretary flash Barbara the peace symbol as they leave the office.

HAHAHAHAHAHA! "Peace, Sista!"

Sister Barbara, despite orders, goes to the evil grocer's establishment. There, in a gesture so ironic, yet so apt, she buys a mop handle from him that she proceeds to make into a sign protesting that his store is "unfair to consumers" (wow!). Then she sits on the floor and obstructs traffic.


At the apartment, Barbara, who has found politics more important than religion, has decided to leave the church and become an activist. Strangely, one of the reasons she gives Michele was their "victory" at the evil Ajax Market, although just what they accomplished was never explained.

Next, in a scene of incredible poor taste, we see that Julio is hiding in Michele's closet as she undresses for bed. Julio jumps out with a knife and attempts to rape Michele. She screams, and Elvis, who just happens to be walking down the street, runs in and (accompanied by "action" music) manages to subdue Julio, who runs off. The is really repellent and sleazy stuff, and exactly what point the filmmakers were trying to make is anyone's guess. Yuck!!

At the end, we're back in the convent, sometime after the above events. Michele herself is considering whether to leave the order to be with Elvis.

The movie's last bit has Irene taking Michele back to Father Gibbon's church. The newly cool cleric has now introduced mod innovations, like letting Doc Elvis lead the parishioners in a rockin' gospel tune (Right on!). We also get one last dig in on old fashioned, non-"relevant" religion. The old biddy ladies, in the pews, remark "give me the old days when you would go to mass and not think about a blessed thing." Ha Ha, that nailed 'em.


After dinner, our various hero(ine)s engage in a "serious" political discussion, making the modern viewer really, really, really glad the '70s are over with:
Barbara, to dinner guest Elvis: "Tell me. As a doctor do you diagnose what's happening today...the riots, the student unrest, as...not really the death throes of an old order, but the birth pangs of a new one?"
Doc E.: "I didn't know I was making a house call!"
Barbara, blathering on: "Well, I mean, don't we all, each in our own way, have to man the barricades..."

Tough Black Radical No. 1, to Irene: "There's no room down here for innocent bystanders. You're either part of the problem, or you're part of the solution."
Tough Black Radical No. 2: "We've got a feeling you're neither!"

Cheering on the with-it Michele, we cry "Tell it, Sister," which can be taken in many groovy contexts:
Mean old Father Gibbons: "Don't instruct me, Sister. I've preached more sermons then you'll ever hear!"
Michele: "Yes, I'm sure we can rely on you to tell is as it was, Father!"

I can't believe an Elvis movie actually rips off the end of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, where the novice(or was it postulant?) Isabella must choose whether to marry the aristocrat or stay a nun! Shakespeare doesn't answer the question either, but at least he has the decency to make Isabella a woman who hasn't made her final vows.

This movie should be classified as Traditionalist Top Secret. It must never be shown to any liturgist, the St. Louis Jesuits, or the Oregon Catholic Press hymnal compilers. Keep it away from whoever distributes songs for LifeTeen, too. It'll only give them ideas with which to persecute those who have more than miniscule capacities for liturgical and aesthetic judgement.

The Elvis Movie Database claims "The film was originally to have been directed by Evangelist Billy Graham but for some reason he pulled out of the picture." That has to be a joke masquerading as a fact, since it was in fact directed by a different William Graham. "Billy Graham to Direct Elvis in Nun Picture" is a headline right out of satire.

One of the writers of the film, Richard Morris, actually has minor musicals to his credit, having written both The Unsinkable Molly Brown and Thoroughly Modern Millie. The rest have been completely lost to the River Lethe of forgetability that is pop culture.

Despite its sixties mentality, the film does have one scene that provokes nostalgia as well as cringes: Elvis, mistaking the three nuns for wealthy suburban women who came to him for abortions, "informs them he won't do anything for them that he'd wouldn't do for his regular, poor clients, and instead offers nutritional advice." A sign of Innocence, or the semblance thereof, lost.

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