Could an Atheist Have Directed ‘The Exorcist’?

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And been as successful? Director William Friedkin (The French Connection, To Live and Die in L.A.) says no, even though he is not a believer himself.

Do you think someone who was a religious skeptic could have directed “The Exorcist”?

I think somebody who was an avowed atheist should not have directed the film. My personal beliefs are defined as agnostic. I’m someone who believes that the power of God and the soul are unknowable, but that anybody who says there is no God is not being honest about the mystery of fate. I was raised in the Jewish faith, but I strongly believe in the teachings of Jesus.

Friedkin’s heyday was that amazing period in the 1970s that saw the rise of such mavericks and genre shapers as Scorsese, Coppola, De Palma, Bogdanovich, Spielberg, Lucas, Ashby, Rafelson, Altman, at al. Friedkin admits that the film that killed his career, at least for a while, was Sorcerer, which I remember seeing when it first came out, at the old Astoria Theater. It was actually very well made, but…

The zeitgeist had changed by the time it came out. It came out at the time of “Star Wars,” and that more than any film that I can recall really captured the zeitgeist. I was offered the opportunity to produce it early, and I didn’t see it, but “Star Wars” went on to change everything we’ve seen since. I don’t think any filmmaker in history has had more of an effect than [George] Lucas.

Most filmmakers don’t mean that as a compliment, but I believe Friedkin does. If I had a nickel for every director who laid the the blame for the collapse of American film at the feet of Lucas and Spielberg, I’d have $11 and I could make my own film. It would suck, but I could make it.

The Exorcist made its debut as a bestselling novel written by William Peter Blatty, a devout Catholic. (See, for example, his attempt at reviving Georgetown’s Catholic character here.) And the story is certainly one any Christian would appreciate: two priests situate themselves between Satan (who in the context of this film is most certainly real and not some psychological projection) and the soul of a young girl — one loses his life in the struggle and the other sacrifices it (perhaps even his soul?) in exchange for the girl’s. (Feminists have read this as the “Church” trying to control a tween’s sexual coming-of-age, imposing itself on her such that there really is no distinction to be made between “religion” and the devil. Interesting thesis. But seeing as the only one left standing at the end of the struggle is the girl, who most definitely does not join a convent in gratitude for her “salvation,” it’s probably daft.)

What made the book and film so problematic was the graphic nature of both the language and some of the behavior. The film earned a hard-R. But then again, Satan is only on his best manners in the worst of company.

Rent Sorcerer if you get a chance. And To Live and Die in L.A.has one of the Top 10 Best Movie Car Chases of All Time, in which William Petersen (of CSI fame) drives against traffic on a highway. Still not better than the one in The French Connection but close. (See video below: note the low camera height, used most effectively in Road Warrior. Also, language alert: much use of the F word. Don’t know whether the devil made them use it.)

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