Today, Father Steve reviews the film, Barney's Version, for the Word on Fire blog, exploring the tragedy of a worldly, yet personally justified life without concern for transcendent ends.
This past Friday was movie night, and my vote was for something that had pyrotechnics and fisticuffs. My philistine tastes were outvoted and the movie of the majority was Barney's Version.
No, it was not about a purple dinosaur. Barney's Version is a film directed by Richard J. Lewis of "CSI" fame (not to be confused with the comic Richard Lewis) which presents Paul Giamatti as Barney Panofsky, one of the most unsympathetic and disagreeable characters in recent cinematic history. Barney is the producer of a long running Canadian soap opera, "O'Malley of the North. “ His temperament is on full display as the film begins with him tormenting the husband of his ex-wife with such rabid cruelty that we later learn that the stress of the incident caused the poor fellow to suffer a heart attack. Barney is also the subject of a book written by a police detective named O'Hearn (Mark Addy) who purports that decades earlier Barney had murdered his close friend, Boogie (Scott Speedman). A confrontation with O'Hearn in a tavern prompts Barney to recollect the events that led up to that fateful event. In Barney's version of the story, more of his character is revealed.
We learn that Barney spent his early adulthood enmeshed with Boogie and his friends in a rather sybaritic and self-interested bohemian lifestyle in Rome. A painting of Barney by an artist friend depicts him as a demon, and this painting will appear and re-appear as the plot advances. It is in Rome that he meets his first wife, a troubled free spirit whom he marries because both believe that Barney is the father of her unborn child. The child is stillborn, and it is revealed not to have been Barney's, but the child of another one of Barney's friends. The marriage ends with his wife's suicide, and the intimation was that her erratic behavior may have been a consequence of sexual abuse as a child. Barney returns to Montreal, where his uncle introduces him to the television business and his second wife (Minnie Driver). There is particularly tense scene where Barney and his father, Izzy (Dustin Hoffman), have been invited to a dinner party at his future in-laws mansion. The bride-to-be's parents can barely disguise their contempt at Barney and his father, and their suspicions prove to be well founded. Barney meets a woman, Miriam Grant (Rosamund Pike), at the wedding reception and is ready and willing to leave his new bride in the lurch to satisfy his desire to have her. Miriam meets Barney's irascible and inappropriate overtures with detached and reasoned sensibility and Barney begins his second, deeply troubled marriage.
His pursuit of Miriam continues, and when found out by his wife, she has sex with Barney's best friend, the now drug addled and addicted Boogie. Caught in the act, Barney's wife flees the scene while Barney attempts to coax his friend to testify on his behalf during the divorce proceedings. Boogie is resistant about helping his friend, and the two fight with one another. Circumstances are then presented that lead us to believe that Barney has killed Boogie and hidden the body. A police investigation ensues but proves to be inconclusive. Barney is free to pursue Miriam, which he does. The two marry- her willingness to commit to him conditioned on his promise that he would be faithful to her. Of course, knowing what we know about Barney's character, this ultimately proves impossible, and his third wife divorces him.
There have been intimations along the way that something is off with Barney other than his narcissism, and we learn that Barney is in the early stages of Alzheimer's. The remainder of the film takes us through the advance of the disease, his reunion with Miriam, the revelation of the actual circumstances surrounding Boogie's death and finally, Barney's death. The reading of his will by his children reveal that he was not as despicable a man as he seemed to be, but even that, coupled with his sad decline, did little, in my estimation, to redeem his character.
What struck me most about the film was that the contours and movement of the plot were entirely imminent and this-worldly, and in this respect I found the story a reflection of modern nihilism and almost utterly devoid of meaning. If there was an offer of grace in Barney's version, it was the woman who would become his wife and mother to his children, Miriam. However, mired in his own egoism, he can't bring himself to accept that grace and perhaps find, in her affection, the possibility of self-transcendence. It is clear that it wasn't just Barney's infidelity that leads to the collapse of the marriage, but Barney's self-absorption.
It was curious to me that the only time the divine was mentioned in the movie was as a curse word. The hospital in Rome where his first wife delivers a stillborn child features a monumental statue of Christ, but the characters are too self-interested to notice. Furthermore, at one point in the film, Barney glances from the window of his car at the grand basilica of Marie Reine du Monde and quickly passes it by. I found myself thinking later, “too bad you didn't think to stop and go in.” In this respect the film reminded me of another movie about a selfish person (Eat, Pray, Love) who spends time around a lot of religious architecture and culture without ever really being able to abandon their ego enough to consider what all that spectacular scenery might be telling the person about the nature of reality. Barney is a Jew, but his religion is not that wondrous spiritual heritage of the Law, the Temple and the Prophets, but the biblically attenuated, secularized version of Israelite religion, where practice is demonstrated in wearing yarmulkes, wedding customs and placing rocks on gravestones, not in the actual worship of the God of Israel that is meant to lead to righteous deeds. When Barney is called late at night to a whorehouse where his father has died, his words are not a plaintive appeal for God's mercy, but his odd response is to exclaim that his father is a king. King of what? The master of his own destiny like Barney? Give me a break. Barney dies a wealthy, and in the eyes of the world, successful man with the affection of his family and some pretty interesting experiences, but in the end, none of it really matters; he can't even remember any of it. “King of what,” indeed.
There is a great deal of rhetoric being tossed around these days which asserts that humanity can be good without religion. This kind of reflection usually indicates an attempt to separate oneself from religious people who do bad things. But, it is also a rhetorical ploy that misses the point of what religion does for us- it invites us to consider that the ultimate frame of reference for our lives is not our imminent concerns, but a transcendent purpose and destiny for which this world is but a foreshadowing, rather than an end in itself. Religion prompts us to go deeper into life than just the surface of our particular experience. Without this provocation towards the transcendent the tendency is to lose the sense that one's existence is a mysterious gift, a gift that is quickly squandered and lost in the narrow pre-occupations of the ego. Barney is a victim of this, as are many who insist on the veracity of the claims of modernity's cultured despisers of religion.
I couldn't help but think of the many funerals I have presided over which have concluded with attempts to eulogize the deceased. What is recalled is usually a life that sounds a lot like that of Barney's but devoid of the more sordid details (the inclusion of which would have made the speeches more interesting, if not more bearable). Even in religion, at the insistence of modern culture, the transcendent must be muted- and this is precisely the grim state of affairs that we have been conditioned to accept. We are there to celebrate the life of the deceased. We are to take consolations in our memories, not in the promises of a life in a world that is yet to come or in a God who insists we be in the world, but not of it. Barney's Version displays the futility of reducing existence to imminent concerns and betting our hope on the consolation of memories. Our memories are not eternal, nor do they have the power to endure. Our hope must be placed elsewhere or our story ends just like Barney Panofsky’s.
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.