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Small miracles of the soul

Hollywood, Calif.

Bill Moyers got it right when he described the essence of the Paulist Fathers’ ministry to moviedom as not “bellyaching” but “affirmation.”

On the stage of the Universal City Hilton this summer, Paulist Productions director Fr. Frank Desiderio nodded in agreement. The setting was the Paulists’ annual Humanitas Prize awards -- the Catholic version of an Oscar ceremony. PBS reporter and storyteller Moyers -- who won the first Humanitas Prize for documentaries in 1977 -- told the assemblage of big screen and little screen greats and lesser-knowns that the Paulists’ initial Hollywood presence, the late Paulist Fr. Ellwood “Bud” Kieser, “believed he was here to do battle with the bastard muses.”

Those bastard muses, said Moyers, are “propaganda, which pleads, sometimes unscrupulously, for special causes at the expense of the total truth; sentimentality, which works up emotional responses unwarranted and in excess of the occasion; and pornography, which focuses on one powerful drug at the expense of the human personality.

“Bud took on the bastard muses,” he said of his pal of three decades, “because it bothered him that we human beings consume so much nonsense, trivia and violence, and he puzzled on what it was doing to our sensibilities to feed on a steady diet of carnage masquerading as entertainment.”

Kieser, founder of Paulist Productions -- and later producer of “Romero” (1989) and “Entertaining Angels” (1996), the story of Dorothy Day and the founding of the Catholic Worker movement -- then had to decide what to do next.

Moyers, on stage, described Kieser’s ploy to the huge audience of scriptwriters, directors and producers that included such screenwriting luminaries as Aaron Sorkin (“The West Wing,” NBC), Moises Kaufman (“The Laramie Project,” HBO), Akiva Goldsman (“A Beautiful Mind,” Universal Studios), and Kristine Johnson and Jessie Nelson (“I Am Sam,” New Line Cinema).

“Bud didn’t go around bellyaching or pointing fingers or telling people to eat their spinach,” said Moyers, “He chose instead an old-fashioned, somewhat unfashionable -- but not altogether naïve -- strategy of affirmation.

“He wanted to offer an antidote to vulgarity. Vulgarity to the ancient Greeks was the absence of experience in things beautiful. Bud acted as if life were a continuing course in adult education.”

The adults Kieser chose to educate were writing for Hollywood.

His teaching tools were the Humanitas Awards. Moyers was in town to receive the annual ceremony’s first “Kieser Award,” established following Kieser’s September 2000 death.

Added Moyers, Kieser believed “that this medium could dignify instead of debase life, and that in the vast cornucopia of popular cultures someone had the cultivated garden here and there where people could be touched by the beauty of an idea, or honest emotions, something authentic, possibly even to experience a small miracle in the soul. Bud brought many small miracles.”

Moyers wasn’t too bad at coming up with small miracles either, Desiderio said of the originator of the conversational Joseph Campbell series, “The Power of Myth” and many similar Moyers’ projects.

This year’s presenters were Steven Zaillian, a Humanitas feature film trustee, and Suzanne de Passe, a Humanitas television trustee. They explained that the trustees for the various categories “for thousands of hours” studied more than 350 scripts and screenings.

This year was the 28th Humanitas ceremony. The presenters’ introductions to the winners provide sharp insights into what the multiple panels of judges search for as they watch children’s live action and animated movies, Sundance Festival feature films, 30- and 60- and 90-minute made-for-television series segments and television specials, 90-minute PBS and cable presentations and documentaries, and major feature films that this year included as finalists, “A Beautiful Mind,” “I Am Sam” and “Iris.”

Here’s Zaillian describing why “Iris” screenplay writers Richard Eyre and Charles Wood, working from John Bayley’s memoir of his wife, were selected for the $25,000 feature film prize: “For showing us the faithful love of a married couple through the better and especially the worst. For the celebration of a classical education that values the interplay of freedom, truth, goodness, beauty and the relation to happiness. For an intimate look at two people deeply in love surrendering their bodies to the ravages of age but never their dignity.”

The recipients are asked to briefly respond but not give a big, long “thank you everyone” speech. Some forget. Here’s Suzanne de Passe announcing the Sundance award category winner -- and Josefina Lopez’s genuine brushing-away-tears response -- in a behind-the-scenes look at how some movies come about:

“For its portrayal of opposition to oppression, both personal and cultural, for assertion of freedom to seek the fullness of human development and for its affirmation of the dignity of the individual regardless of class, race or signs, the 2002 Humanitas Award and a check for $10,000,” said de Passe, “goes to George LaVoo and Josefina Lopez for ‘Real Women Have Curves.’ ”

Lopez said, “I didn’t prepare a speech because we had already won at Sundance. I got married and I’m having a baby, so I said, ‘Thank you, Lord. I have enough.’ So this comes as a real surprise.

“First of all, I know you’re not to thank people,” she said, “but George LaVoo saw the play, ‘Real Women Have Curves,’ about three years ago and fell in love with it. I was really amazed that, you know, a New York gay man would be so in love with a story about five, full-figured women working in a tiny garment factory in East L.A.”

Lopez continued, “George just said that he believed in my voice. No one wanted to make this play into a movie because it is about large women, you know. It’s about Mexican women. It’s about women whom no one really pays attention to, but you need them because they take care of your kids or make your clothes.

“So I really have to thank my cowriter [LaVoo] because he really helped me expand the story and see new possibilities, and because, thank God, HBO came up with a Latino division and we were able to finally make this movie.

“OK,” said Lopez, “I get to put this award on my resume. But this is for my parents, because I was very fortunate that I grew up with two parents -- who, although they were undocumented -- worked very hard, who had so much dignity that I know that in my writing my characters portray that. Because I have such good examples.

“And I wanted people to know who my parents were,” she said, “and I wanted people to know who we are, who Mexican-Americans are. And so I accept this prize for all the undocumented people and the garment workers.”

The Humanitas trustees this year created a fellowship in the name of David Angell, co-writer with Peter Casey of “Frasier,” five times a finalist and two times a Humanitas Prize winner. Angell and his wife, Lynn, were killed in one of the doomed planes that crashed into the World Trade Center towers Sept. 11. The fellowship, funded initially by Paramount Television and annually destined for a film school student writer, will “instill in each successive generation of writers the Humanitas Prize ideals.”

This year’s Humanitas prizewinners and runners-up were:

Children’s live action category: Anna Sandor for “My Louisiana Sky.” Runner-up, Gary Rosenkranz, “The Student Buddy,” an episode of the series “The Brothers Garcia” on Nickelodeon.

Children’s animation: Dev Ross for “Balto II,” “Wolf Quest” (Cartoon Network). Peter K. Hirsch, “The Boy with His Head in the Clouds,” an episode of the series “Arthur,” PBS. Melody Fox, “Harold’s Birthday Gift,” an episode of “Harold and the Purple Crayon,” HBO Family.

30 Minute Category: Matt Tarses, “My Old Lady,” an episode of “Scrubs,” NBC. Brenda Lilly and Hollis Rich, “Love, Love, Me Do,” an episode of “State of Grace,” ABC Family. Steven Peterman and Gary Dontzig, “Looking for God in All the Right Places,” an episode of “State of Grace,” ABC Family.

60 Minute Category: A tie between Lukas Reiter and David E. Kelley for “Honor Code,” “The Practice,” ABC, and Aaron Sorkin, “Two Cathedrals,” an episode of “The West Wing,” NBC.

90 Minute or Longer Network or Syndicated Category: Kirk Ellis, “Anne Frank,” ABC. John Wierick, “Crossed Over,” CBS, based on the book by Beverly Lowry. Paris Qualles, “The Rosa Parks Story,” CBS.

90 Minute or Longer PBS/Cable Category: Moises Kaufman and the members of the Tectonic Theater Project, “The Laramie Project,” HBO.

John Pielmeier, writer of “Sins of the Father,” FX. Robert J. Avrech, “Within These Walls,” Lifetime.

To encourage new filmmakers to write and produce material that celebrates human dignity and communicates human values in Sundance Film Festival Independent Feature Films: LaVoo and Lopez, “Real Women Have Curves.” Phillip Gwynne with Paul Goldman, “Australian Rules.” Mark Gordon, “Her Majesty.”

Feature Film Category: Eyre and Wood, “Iris,” Miramax Films. Akiva Goldsman, “A Beautiful Mind,” Universal Studios. Kristine Johnson and Jessie Nelson, writers of “I Am Sam,” New Line Cinema.

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large.

Related Web site

The Humanitas Prize

National Catholic Reporter, September 20, 2002