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[whitespace] Stigmatized

Futurist Bart Kosko pits Stigmata against The Exorcist, wonders why exposed nipples are so controversial, and imagines a fuzzy future where death--and lousy films--won't exist

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Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This is not a review; rather, it's a freewheeling, tangential discussion of life, alternative ideas and popular culture.

Bart Kosko, having finally cleared his office of grad students--he's a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Southern California--now settles in behind a closed door and calmly begins to poke holes in Stigmata .

    (Note: The author apologizes for the crude insensitivity of the preceding pun about holes, and will attempt to refrain from any additional jibes involving the "wounds of Christ," recognizing that such jokes are likely to make devout believers a bit cross, and yes, the author apologizes for that one also.)

Kosko, for the most part, enjoys movies like Stigmata, the story of Father Kiernan, a world weary priest (Gabriel Byrne) whose investigations of paranormal activities among Catholics (honest!) lead him to Frankie, a punkish, atheistic hairdresser (Patricia Arquette) with serious God problems: when not bleeding from her wrists and feet, she's being violently flogged on subway trains by invisible forces with whips. The priest suspects demonic involvement because, as he explains it, God pounds holes only into the hands and feet of true Catholics--or something. Whatever.

Kosko disliked it, in spite of his fondness for "religious thrillers"--his favorite sub-genre of his favorite genre.

A funny, friendly guy with a keen intellect, a deep, deep baritone voice, and a gleeful enthusiasm for the language of scientific thought, Kosko is the author of Fuzzy Thinking, an exploration of the "gray area," that fruitful intellectual landscape in between simple notions of Right-or-Wrong, Is-or-Isn't, Yes-or-No. It's a subject he returns to in his brand-new book, The Fuzzy Future: From Society and Science to Heaven in a Chip (Harmony), in which he imagines the remarkable gray areas in our potential future. Want to live forever? According to Kosko, fuzzy logic might make it happen.

But it will have to wait.

Right now, Kosko is busy applying his fuzzy logic to Stigmata.

"I give it a fuzzy thumbs down, 80 percent," he says, with a rumbling chuckle.

"One thing I like to do after a movie," he eagerly continues, "is what I call a 'linear decomposition' of a film. That is, to determine, not how much a film is similar to another, but how much it is really derivative.

"I jotted down a list here," he says, examining his notes. "As I see it, this movie is 60 percent The Exorcist, about 20 percent The Rapture, and 10 percent "lost Gospels"--a subgenre of the 'religious thriller' subgenre. There have been dozens of these books, and a few movies, where there's a lost gospel and the power of the Church is threatened. The other 10 percent is a mix of everything from Terminator 2 to The Celestine Prophecy. "

"I notice there's nothing called Stigmata on that list," I remark.

"Right," he replies, "because there was nothing new in Stigmata.

"On a macro level, I did respect the acting," he continues, "and I can read between the lines and recognize that the filmmakers were trying to give a good healthy kick to organized religion, saying you don't need to go to church and tithe or something in order to practice your faith. I appreciate that effort."

He refers to his notes again, and offers a comparison of Stigmata to its primary source of inspiration.

"I have Stigmata in one column and The Exorcist --a brilliant, path-breaking movie that I really like--in the other," he says. "So we've got Frankie vs. Regan. We have Father Damian, an Italian, in the Exorcist and Father Kiernan, an Irishman, in Stigmata. There's the man's voice coming from a woman saying the line 'Get Damian' in The Exorcist, and the line 'Get Kiernan' in Stigmata. A levitation scene there, levitation here. A masochistic religious sex scene in each film: of course it's little Regan and here crucifix in The Exorcist, and the quasi-sex between the priest and the girl in Stigmata. There's the all-important incomprehensible language: it's English spoken backwards in The Exorcist, and ancient Aramaic in this one."

"And they each have a priest suffering a crisis of faith," I add.

"It clearly was a case that the filmmakers knew they were deriving a lot from a previous film," he concludes. And that's not all that bothered Kosko.

"I noticed something annoying when the woman gets the first mark of the stigmata," he says. For non-Catholics and non-experts and others unfamiliar with the day-to-day details of being a stigmatic, there is a potential for five marks of the stigmata: the hands (actually, as in the movie, it's the wrists; if the Romans had nailed victim up by their thin-skinned hands, they would have all fallen over, so the soldiers placed the nails between the two arm-bones, right at the wrist), the feet, the back (Jesus was whipped 39 times), the head (from the crown of thorns), and the side (from the spear wound of the Roman Centurion).

"So there's this very beautiful woman," Kosko is saying, "Patricia Arquette. Artistically photographed, lying naked in a bathtub--and they're afraid to show her nipples. But in the next shot, they're not afraid to show nails being driven through her wrists.

"There's something out of balance about that," he says.

Kosko also points out a flaw in the way everyone avoids her after she starts having the wounds. That includes co-workers, customers, reporters and the shrine-building faithful.

"If this were real life, this girl would be having her stigmatic convulsions on the Larry King show," Kosko says. "Think of the media circus that would occur if a woman exhibited the wounds of Christ in downtown Pittsburgh. People would be swamping her, surrounding her apartment, the hair salon she works at. It would be like the Lewinsky circus. People would be lining up to get their hair cut. You'd have the Amazing Randi in there trying to question it all. And just imagine the book deals she'd have.

"Now let me make my macro-point," Kosko continues. "Religion holds no monopoly on Heaven. This promise of a quick and easy afterlife--you do a few good deeds on earth, say a few Hail Marys, and you get this infinite payoff after you die--has been a terrible deterrent to the hard work of conquering death, something that I and my colleagues want to do."

He's absolutely serious. He's one of the few people you're likely to meet today who's wearing a cryonics wristband.

"A wristband," he explains. "So if I de-animate while watching a movie in a theater, some guy eating popcorn next to me can earn a bounty if he calls the number on the band and packs me in ice--rather than letting someone burn or embalm me. It's optimistic, I know, but in the future maybe they'll figure out how to bring me back."

At least the part above the shoulders.

"Right. Within 20 or 30 years, we'll begin replacing the three-pound meat computers we call brains, with a computer chip itself for a brain," Kosko says, "and the resulting change in our sense of time, and the ability to create worlds simply by thinking of them, is a pretty good approximation of the classical description of Heaven.

"So the fundamental problem with Stigmata," he says, "aside from ripping off The Exorcist, is that it contributes to the religious moral hazard of holding out for an easy afterlife--a mysterious voice even says, 'You can avoid the taste of death"--and that kind of thinking gets in the way of our real problem, which is to physically conquer death here on Earth.

"I think the only heaven we will ever experience," Bart Kosko concludes, "is the technological one that we create for ourselves.

"And we will nail that one."

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From the September 23-29, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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