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An idea ready for takeoff

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An idea ready for takeoff
Jay Stone, Canwest News Service

Meme is a word for an idea that takes off, relying on its power -- there's nothing as strong as an idea whose time has come, especially if it has a blog -- to implant itself in the common consciousness.

It was coined by scientist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene to account for such cultural phenomena as catchphrases. It has become a goal of the purveyors of new ideas that they will become memes, mostly because it sends one's thoughts into the zeitgeist at atomic speed but partly, I suspect, because it's also a good way to sell cornflakes.

"I'm a big believer in this concept of the meme: an idea that catches on in society," Larry Charles was saying recently about his big new idea, which is that organized religion is a bad thing. "I think this has the potential to be a meme, to plant an idea in people's minds that they haven't had before. And in doing so shift the paradigm ever so slightly to start raising these questions."

harles -- whose long beard makes him look like half of ZZ Top -- knows more than most about spreading ideas. He was one of the chief writers of Seinfeld, a TV show that was a fertile ground for catchphrases (not that there's anything wrong with that) and later director of the Borat movie, which shifted a different paradigm, making us question what constituted fair play in the world of documentary film.

His new idea comes in the documentary Religulous, in which comedian/social commentator Bill Maher goes into the world of believers to question the bases of several of the world's most prominent religions and to ask if, in fact, the very idea of faith isn't just another way of saying you don't want to think.

"Organized monotheistic religions served a purpose at one time in trying to explain us to ourselves and the world to us, and I think it's kind of run its course," says Charles, who adds that he agrees with Maher's agnosticism.

"Now it is thwarting our need as a species to ask the relevant questions today."

Whether Religulous becomes a meme when it opens Oct. 3 -- and a bold notion it is, organized religion being one of the last taboos of serious inquiry -- or just another drop in the bucket of documentary movies, depends on a lot of things, none of them especially predictable. Michael Moore, who is the godfather of this kind of aggressive, in-your-face filmmaking, hit the jackpot with Fahrenheit 9/11, a film that galvanized and coalesced growing public opinion about George W. Bush and his war on terrorism. But his follow-up, Sicko, a look at the ailing American health care system, disappeared quietly even though it seemed just as timely and addressed its subject with the same mixture of outrage, humour and a fondness for a little factual elasticity where needed.

A new Moore film, called Slacker Uprising -- about Moore's attempts to rally the vote against Bush in the 2004 election -- was made available free this week on the Internet (at, an example of how a desire for influence can trump even the money a filmmaker could earn from a commercial distribution.

The ultimate meme in the documentary world came from Al Gore, whose An Inconvenient Truth addressed the problem of the degraded environment at just the right time. Other movies -- Leonardo di Caprio's The 11th Hour, say, or the brilliant Canadian documentary Sharkwater about the disappearance of a species -- didn't ignite the same worldwide movement. The topic of teaching evolution in American schools couldn't be more current, but Ben Stein's movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed floundered in the cultural waters, meming only to the converted.

Religulous is extremely provocative: Maher is out in the world mocking people's beliefs and Charles says, "My filmmaking philosophy can simply be boiled down to: try not to get punched in the face."

It raises legitimate questions about the role of religion, both historically and now, and if it doesn't catch on, Charles has another idea: he has a 14-hour cut of the film and a plan for a TV series of half-hour episodes. Every week, Maher could come into your living room to challenge another believer on how it is that God can hear everyone's prayers, or why homosexuals are so feared by the devout.

At the very least, it would get people talking. Charles has been discussing Religulous with audiences at film festivals -- a dialogue that's not happening in organized religion. "There is no dialogue. This the way it is, and that's that."

Religion, perhaps, was the ultimate meme.



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