Idol Chatter

What does it mean when some of the best religion stories these days appear in New York magazine? It means the Apocalypse is near. Last week New York had a concise but interesting Q&A with Jay Bakker, son of Jim and Tammy Faye, who has moved to Brooklyn to found a hipster church. This week, columnist and Zeitgeist tour guide Kurt Andersen announces his heebie-jeebies at the ubiquity of apocalyptic thoughts in the culture just now, from Daniel Pinchbeck, author of the foreboding “The Return of Quetzalcoatl,” to Mel Gibson and his new “Apocalypto.” (Both focus on the Mayan civilization’s demise.)

What bothers Andersen, in part, is that the apocalypse is no longer counted as a necessarily bad thing. “The nuttiest Islamists and Christians agree that the present hell in the Middle East is a hopeful sign of the end-times,” he writes. He also notes that the apocalypse as a cause celebre belongs to neither the right nor the left. “Apocalypticism is one of those realms where the ideological spectrum bends into a circle and the extremes meet.”

Mel better hope so. After offending Jews last month with his anti-Semitic tirade, his mouth has now gotten him into more trouble, this time with conservative fans, according to The New York Times, this time for comparing the American troop deployment in Iraq to the kind of human sacrifice depicted in his film.

The rest of the Times article debates whether Mel’s conservative success in “The Passion,” combined with the “Are you a Jew?” rant, will sink his movie’s fortunes come Oscar time. Early reviews, like this one from a film-fest viewing with Mel in attendance, suggest the flick’s so good the Academy won’t be able to ignore it.

At any rate, Mel, as usual, is right on the trend. Says “One member of the audience asked Mel if he was saying that the decay of the Mayan empire was solely from within. Mel responded that he has always felt that the seeds for different civilizations demise always start from within.” And guess what? ” He does see the film as a metaphor for where we are today.”

Perhaps, like me, when you saw the teasers for ABC’s new show “Ugly Betty,” you thought you’d be getting “Less Than Perfect” at a magazine rather than a television station: a cute sitcom wherein the ugly duckling teaches those around her the value of loving oneself while spewing zippy one-liners.

But “Betty” is much more than that, and that’s both good and bad. Starring America Ferrara, Hollywood’s go-to gal for the empowered Latina, anti-waif–see her tremendous breakthrough performance in 2002’s “Real Women Have Curves”–the show is an almost mind-boggling blend of genres: Think “Sex and the City” meets “The Devil Wears Prada” meets “Cinderella” meets “American Family,” all wrapped up in a possible murder mystery/conspiracy.

Betty Suarez, a smart but homely gal from Queens, is first rejected for a job at a magazine publishing company based on her looks, but then is hired by the Rupert Murdoch-esque owner of the company to act as his son’s assistant. (It could be argued that Betty is “ugly’ only by Hollywood’s standards–i.e., glasses and braces make a girl absolutely abhorent.)

The son, Daniel, was recently elevated to editor-in-chief after the death (possibly, murder) of an Anna Wintouresque EIC. He has a penchant for sleeping with any good-looking female that comes within 10 feet. Long story short, Betty is finally humilated by Daniel enough that she quits, but he asks her back, since she’s got an idea could win him the cosmetics ad campaign the magazine so desperately needs. At the end, Daniel has gained new found respect for Betty and the magazine gets the ad.

Although the show seems to be an amalgam of other shows and themes–rich vs. poor, beauty vs. beast–it is decidely different than anything else on TV. On the surface, the production feels more like a movie than a television show, the sets and location shots are fantastic, and some of the material is racy enough to be on the big screen (oral sex at the office anyone?). And while the pilot episode introduces far too many distracting storylines for an hour-long show–Betty’s family dynamics, her ex-boyfreind dumping her, her friendship with the sassy British gal, her relationship with Daniel, the evil botoxed Vanessa Williams who may be in cahoots with the not-so-dead ex-EIC and the fact that our magazine mogul may have paid to have had her offed in the first place–I still was pulling for Betty and her determination to land her dream job and be the person she knew herself to be. Thanks to Ferrara’s humanizing, never degrading portrayal, Betty never comes across as a victim.

Still, I’m not quite set on adding “Betty” to my regular viewing schedule just yet; but I will be giving it another try. One way that ABC could ensure that I stay tuned is to avoid having Betty whip off the glasses, lose the braces, and pluck her eyebrows; don’t let the ugly duckling turn into a swan. For network TV, that would be as original and as brave as Betty herself.

Ministers aren’t exactly known for their fashion sense and couture style–until now, that is. Beginning this month, the Rev. Joanna Jepson is trading life at a local British parish for big-city London, and most interestingly of all, a post as chaplain for the London College of Fashion–the first chaplain ever at the school, or at any fashion institution in England, for that matter.

In the article “The catwalk finds God,” Jonathan Wynne-Jones reports Rev. Jepson’s surprise at everyone else’s surprise regarding her new appointment:

As someone who has long taken an interest in fashion, Miss Jepson, 30, feels that the Church should have a presence in the business. “The fashion industry has a huge impact and influence on vast numbers in our society,” she said. “It has a particularly powerful role in shaping the self-image and views of young people, and it’s important for the Church to be involved with this type of community. It’s amazing that it hasn’t had this link before.” The curate, who has previously criticised society’s preoccupation with image, said that she was switching from full-time parish ministry to the fashion world because she could make more of an impact there.

Perhaps the Fashion Insititue of Technology (FIT) in New York City will follow suit.

One of the movies I am most excited about seeing this upcoming movie season is New Line’s version of Jesus’ birth, “The Nativity Story.” And if you are as interested as I am in how Hollywood is going to treat the Christmas story this time around, well, the official movie trailer is available online.

While it is true I scoffed ever-so-slightly when I heard New Line was going to develop the project, all of my concerns about this story–that it wouldn’t be given the respect and artistic merit worthy of the big screen–were assuaged when I heard that teen actress Keisha Castle-Hughes (“Whale Rider”) had been cast as Mary and that Mike Rich, the screenwriter, is a Christian.

If all of my LA/Hollywood insider friends are correct with their information, the movie will be less of a sappy Hallmark greeting card and more of a glimpse at the very human emotions Mary and Joseph felt as they embarked on their journey to Bethlehem. The movie will trace the life of Mary and Joseph prior to the birth of Christ and follow the family through Mary and Joseph fleeing to Egypt after King Herod’s mandate to kill baby boys under the age of two.

So while Hollywood has been somewhat erratic in its attempts to tap into the market that made “Passion of the Christ” a blockbuster, everything I am hearing and reading confirms that this time Hollywood has a hit–one most Christians won’t want to miss. (Click here to see the trailer.)