Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Devil You Say


I love stories dealing with Satan, don't you? There's something about evil which is s-o-o-o-o deliciously seductive. Of course the man downstairs that we've come to know and love is an invention of medieval Christianity, whose purpose was to scare up converts and justify all manner of inexcusable activity. Speaking inquisitionally. And of course the faithful will insist that the dark one has been around since the old testament (not exactly true, at least not the Satan that has become the staple of Christian mythology). But none of this matters, for I'm talking about the character Satan, the metaphorical figure that we've all come to adore. I'm speaking about Satan the Trope, the Symbol, the MAN!!!!

The American Satan, or rather the Western version of Satan (no, not Dick Cheney) is a wonderful figure born of concern over class structure and class warfare. He is a tempter, primarily offering economic reward and power. But the spin I adore, created during the Great Depression by Stephen Vincent Benet in his classic "The Devil and Daniel Webster" suggests that one can deal with Satan and win. This recreation and destruction of Goethe's "Faust" gave us a archetype that has become a staple of American film and literature.

Consider these uniquely American incarnations of Satan, all memorable celluloid creations:

--Ray Walston brought his Broadway Mr. Applegate to screen in "Damn Yankees". Lucifer meddling in the world of professional baseball. It was a perfect marriage.

--Victor Buono, he of tremendous girth, played the Dark Master in "The Evil", a wretched film where everyone is killed off one by one, but Buono relishes his role and chews the scenery with such unbridled delight Satan becomes the only likeable character.

--Jack Nicholson. Seeing Nicholson in "The Witches of Eastwick" probably made God chuckle. His scene in the church, where he speaks before a horrified congregation about the opposite sex, is a classic moment in film. "Women...did He do it to us on purpose or by accident.? I'm only asking because if it was by accident..then maybe there's something we can do about it!"

--Al Pacino is a deliciously seductive version of Mr. Scratch in "The Devil's Advocate". If I had been Keanu Reeves, I would have embraced the dark side, enjoyed the penthouse, and cast caution to the wind. I mean...Al Pacino was that appealing.

--Robert DeNiro in "Angel Heart". Now, DeNiro is a more traditional Satanic figure in this film, but worth the ride nonetheless. He plays Louis Cyphre (Lucifer...get it?) as a sophisticated, shadowy figure come to collect his due. Not an inspired character or performance. But hey, it's DeNiro.

--Viggio Mortensen played Satan in "The Prophecy". I think I applauded when I first saw this. I loved the idea of warring factions of angels, and Satan stepping in because they were invading his turf.

--and coming next year some time, hopefully, "I, Lucifer". Based on a book by Glen Duncan, this fantasy, currently in production, is about God giving Satan one last chance at redemption, provided The Dark One can live a blameless life as human.

I know there are some who will read this who will roll their eyes and think my fondness for Lucifer is somewhat blasphemous. Well, yeah. Thank God. But before you cast a finger of accusation, allow me to recall an extraordinary piece written by Ray Bradbury. It appeared in Playboy. It was an alternative ending that he wrote for "Rosemary's Baby". In his piece, Rosemary narrowly escapes the Satanists, who are unable to enter a church, and brings her infant before the altar. She falls to her knees and raising the baby, she implores God to forgive his son.

Only Bradbury. Or Alice Cooper. Or...me?

20 comments:

SQT said...

Stewart, you and I definitely have similar sensibilities.

Avery mentioned, on his blog, a short story contest Writer's Digest is having and I've been mulling over story ideas. I kind of landed on the idea of demonic possession, though I'm still thinking of specifics.

I think stories about God and Satan are fascinating. I've read/seen really good one's and really bad one's-- and something keeps me looking for more.

I also love when authors explore the whole idea of "the Devil made me do it." Really? You didn't want to do it? Not even a little?

Stewart Sternberg said...

Several years ago a friend of mine pointed out that many of my stories have religious themes. He was right. Maybe we're fascinated because we're searching, because we want to believe but have yet to find the proper anchor. Maybe it's because we did too many drugs as kids.

You'll have to let me know what you think about the short story GOD that I wrote. Now accedible through mytholog.com. I am pleased to say that some people have been upset by the story. They don't like the view of the deity being offered.

mist1 said...

Lord...or rather, Satan, I loved this post.

I love Satan in movies. You know what I love the most? I love seeing how our perception of Satan changes over time.

One year, something that is scary is ridiculous the next (this will surely happen to D. Cheney, don't worry). It is so rare for a movie to find a Satan that can be relevant a few years later.

Excellent post.

Hageltoast said...

I love "The Prophecy", I also quite liked Satan in "Constantine". and the use of angels and demons in "Dogma" I know it was comedy, but I thought it was interesting and in the Pratchett/Gaiman book Good Omens.

Fab said...

Al Pacino in 'Devil's Advocat'! I had forgotten that movie. He was great in that. I can still see his eyes. So vivid and so evil. Now that's a devil for you. Closer to home than Keanu expected there!

avery said...

Seems even the pope is back on the Satan wagon, promising fire and brimstone for those who disbelieve. I wonder what his version looks like? I'm not trying to offend, but he has to have some kind of mental picture when when he says the word, "Satan." It might be a shapeless mass, a twisted, evil entity, or Jack Nicholson. At any rate, it'd be interesting to peek in his head and see just who the supreme leader of those who believe in Hell thinks the Big Bad Dude looks like.

Stewart Sternberg said...

The Pope? What an amazing figure he is. I read somewhere that when a pope dies that someone taps his head with a hammer to make sure he is dead. Me? I would prefer something screaming in my ear: "WAKIE! WAKIE!!!"

Hey there, Skippy said...

And who could forget that most genuinely satanic of performances, Liz Hurley in "Bedazzled"? That must surely be the most evil thing ever committed to celluloid?

The Curmudgeon said...

Loved Ray Walston in "Damn Yankees." Didn't have to watch it in 2005.

You mentioned the story but not the actor and the movie: Walter Houston in "The Devil and Daniel Webster."

Jean-Luc Picard said...

It seems the Devil gets all the best actors!

Crunchy Carpets said...

I was about to say that Peter Stormare was great as Satan in Constantine.
Hell looked pretty awesome too.

I love Neil Gaiman's take on Hell and the guys running the show.

avery said...

Yeah, the head-tapping is an excellent idea. "He might not be dead. Let's try and knock him more unconscious and see if he wakes up."

Lee said...

I would like to embrace Keanu Reeves. Is that wrong?

Having grown up Catholic, I'm seriously scared of Satan, but I did love Witches of Eastwick. Angel Heart scared the Beelzebub outta me.

Alex said...

And here I thought Oprah was the real Satan.

Fab said...

Have any of you read Good Omens by Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett. Their take on the devil was pretty good. And the four horsemen (bikers) of the Apocalypse were ... kind of special. Nasty.

Crunchy Carpets said...

Good Omens was great.

Alex said...

I'm still in a quandary regarding Good Omens. I absolutely love Pratchett, but I loathe, loathe, LOATHE! Neil Gaiman's writing. No matter how much good press I hear, I can't imagine but that the story would be tainted.

Fab said...

Really. Good Omens introduced me to Gaiman. But I felt, while reading, you can definitly pick out the parts written by Pratchett. But ok, you're not a fan. Still a good book though.

Morgen said...

DeNiro in "Angel Heart"
great casting in a great film.
I still can't see a slowly turning fan blade and not think of that movie.

ShadowFalcon said...

i have un healthy love the the occult thriller (btw love witches of eastwick)