Idol Chatter

The first image you see in Stanley Nelson’s new documentary “Jonestown: the Life and Death of the Peoples Temple” is a row of smiling young faces–black and white, teens and 20-somethings–taken under a blue and sunny sky. They look as if they could do anything–even carve out a utopia in the jungles of Guyana. Yet within months, they would all be dead, victims of the largest mass suicide/murder in American history.

On Nov. 18, 1978, 913 people, more than 200 of them children, died in Jonestown, Guyana. They had gone there with the Rev. Jim Jones, a charismatic preacher who wanted to establish a self-sufficient, interracial socialist community. Instead, after the shooting deaths of five visitors, including California Congressman Leo Ryan, they either swallowed a cyanide-laced punch or were injected with the poison. The film is Nelson’s attempt to trace the Peoples Temple from its roots in Jones’s first pulpit in Indiana to its zenith in San Francisco and, ultimately, its horrifying end in the jungles of Central America.

What is really lovely about this film is that it tries to focus not only on the terrible and sad end of the Peoples Temple, but also shows the sense of joy and accomplishment many members felt in the work they were doing–planting crops, building homes, teaching the young, caring for the elderly. Nelson got some great interviews with survivors, eyewitness, ex-members and their families, and their stories lend great depth to the pictures and footage.

But Nelson does not successfully answer the question of why so many people–more than a 1,000–stayed with Jones as he slipped into abuse. The survivors tell of sexual assault and humiliation, public beatings, financial shenanigans and downright lies (footage of Jones supposedly healing a wheelchair bound woman who was actually a church secretary). The viewer cannot help but want to shout “Why the hell did you stay?” at the screen. One survivor explains that by the time the abuse was at its worst, most members felt they were in too deep to leave. They had given up homes and family to join Jones. Others were afraid of a “hit squad” that would target them if they left.

I don’t find these answers satisfying. As a reporter, I have written several times about Jonestown and have interviewed several survivors. The one thing I have come away from those interviews with the sense that these people were not weird, stupid or crazy. They are just like everyone else–a fact that, to me, intensifies the horror of what happened to them. Nelson could have spent a few more minutes showing how many people stayed with Jones because they were completely dedicated to the dream of a perfect, integrated world that he promised them–even as his daily actions undermined that dream’s very foundation.

So was it suicide or was it murder? Certainly, the children, too young to make a choice between life and death, were murdered. But whether the adults willingly took the poison or did so because they were forced to–by armed guards ringing the pavilion where they died–is still being debated among survivors. The film doesn’t try to answer the question, relying on eyewitness accounts that report people swallowing the poison themselves as well as injecting it into the young and the elderly. It’s an appropriate choice because no one can claim to know the answer to the question of murder or suicide unless they were there. Seeing this film is as close–thankfully–as any of us will get to being there.

— Posted by Kimberly Winston

Last season, the VH1 celeb-reality series “Breaking Bonaduce” found ratings success by exploiting former “Partridge Family” star Danny Bonaduce as he spiraled out of control. There was no end to the footage in which Bonaduce was abusing alcohol, steroids, and other substances, all the while emotionally abusing his wife, Gretchen.

Some equally salacious footage started off Season Two, but last night’s episode began to ducument Bonaduce’s quest for spiritual answers to his problems. The episode followed Bonaduce as he read his Bible daily, met with a pastor over coffee, and went to church with his family.

Teasers for feature Bonaduce episodes give even more hints of Bonaduce finding religion. But all of his newly-acquired goody-two-shoes behavior can only mean one thing for the fate of the series itself: “Breaking Bonaduce” is destined to be canceled.

At least that’s what Bonaduce himself has alluded to in a recent interview with Anderson Cooper. In that interview he said that there would absolutely be no Season Three because there is a “life altering change” at the end of Season Two that would make Season Three impossible.

All I can say isthat if Bonaduce does indeed become born again, I really hope he doesn’t have Stephen Baldwin’s phone humber.

I’m not saying it was our call to boycott O.J. Simpson’s gruesome upcoming book and his accompanying Fox interviews that did the trick. (I’m sure you know that O.J. planned to reveal that if he had killed his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, this is how he would have done it.)

But perhaps it was the power of Idol Chatter (and, well, more likely the huge outpouring of outrage and horror from the American television-watching public) that led to the glorious news I heard today: News Corp chairman Rupert Murdoch announced that the media company is canceling the television special, “If I Did It,” which was set to air during crucial November sweeps.

Hallelujah! For once, the public has spoken, and the entertainment and media industry has listened! After a dozen Fox affiliates announced that they wouldn’t be airing the interview, the word came down from the top that the whole creepy project would be canceled. In the words of Murdoch, “I and senior management agree with the American public that this was an ill-considered project.”

Ill-considered? I’ll say.

He went on to apologize to the families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman for causing them any pain. An apology doesn’t seem enough, but at least we have that.

The kicker to this story is that late on Monday, HarperCollins also decided to cancel publication of the book as well. reported that though early sales of the book was strong (it broke the top twenty last week), it had fallen to Number 51 by the time the cancellation was announced. The publishing company also said that though some copies had been shipped to stores, they would be recalled and destroyed.

And that’s it. I would say that this was a boycott that did its job. The sooner we forget about this and get on with daily life, the better.

The current James Bond movie is clearly different from most of the other 23 Bond (21 official) movies. The actor is different. The tone is different. The villain(s) is (are) different. There’s no “Q,” and though “M” is the same actor (Judi Dench), even she has a new edge to her.

That said, it’s an important film for true Bond fans because it probably lands closer to the original Bond of the Ian Fleming novels than any of the prior movies, except perhaps for “Dr. No” and “From Russia With Love.” I won’t give away the details in this blog, but you need to see it. This guy is certainly nothing like Lazenby, Moore, Dalton, and Brosnan–and is probably more like Connery than any of the others, except for the hair. He’s young. He’s raw. He’s human. He confounds those close to him. And he’s a hero.

For the spiritually driven Bond fan, I think “Casino Royale” offers a potential bonus impact. This franchise couldn’t have endured this long (45 years, going on a third generation of fans and its sixth lead actor) if all of us didn’t have some kind of attraction to the idea of a Savior or Hero who transcends the normal bounds of human limitation to achieve the nigh-impossible for the benefit of others and his country. We’re coming up on the Christmas season, and many of us will celebrate–or at least tolerate–an Americanized, Christmas-ized version of Jesus and the Christmas story that may or may not be true to The Original. Jesus Christ was not the watered-down, numbed, and muted version of himself that our culture–and even some of our churches–embrace.

Any time we get to re-discover anew the truth of who Jesus was–and is–then it’s a good day. I know it wasn’t the producers’ intent, but if “Casino Royale” rocks some Bond-fans’ notions of the true identity and character of this film’s Savior, and if that can bleed over into a re-examination of Jesus as He impacts our own faith journey, then this may truly be a meaningful and Merry Christmas, and more than just a Happy Holiday.