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September 12, 2009

The Invention of Lying, take two.

The Invention of Lying premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival next week, so now's as good a time as any to follow up my earlier post on that film.

As Mark noted in his newsletter last week, my earlier post was flooded with comments after Ricky Gervais, the star and co-writer-director of that film, linked to it from his own blog with the simple comment: "And so it starts..."

The "it" in question was, presumably, the "big controversy" that fellow co-writer-director Matthew Robinson hinted the film would cause in an interview with the MTV Movies Blog. My post was an attempt to track the clues, contained in interviews and official publicity materials, as to what that "big controversy" might be -- and rather than spell everything out, I presented the clues and hoped the reader would be intrigued enough to put the pieces together for themselves.

And that was it. I didn't make any comment on the film itself, let alone pass any judgment on it, for the obvious reason that I have not seen it yet. But many people saw the word "Christianity" at the top of this blog, and the word "blasphemy" in the headline to that post -- co-star Jennifer Garner's word, not mine -- and so they leapt to the conclusion that I was somehow protesting the film. Far from it. In fact, I included a YouTube clip of Gervais discussing his atheism at the end of the post (a clip that I discovered while perusing his blog, as it happens) precisely because it wasn't all that negative, and it gave me hope that a constructive conversation around these issues might be possible.

I still have that hope, but in the meantime, it seems I need to spell out more clearly what my earlier post was getting at. So here goes:

1. Punctuation is important. I never said the film was "blasphemy". Rather, in sussing out what the "big controversy" might be, I came across an interview with Garner in which she said she initially hesitated to be part of this movie because her parents might "think it was blasphemy". This seemed like an obvious clue as to the nature of the "big controversy", so I put it in the headline -- but in quotes, and with a question mark.

2. Robinson says the "big controversy" will revolve around the Gervais character "inventing something that in a world without lying wouldn't exist". Garner says God doesn't "exist" in the world depicted in this film. And yet, based on the prominence of church-related imagery in the subliminal rapid-fire montage that appears in the middle of the trailer, it would seem that religion does come to exist in this world after all. Is this what the Gervais character invents? Based on the triptych that appears in the shot below, which depicts the Gervais character holding a couple of tablets Ten Commandments-style, it would seem the answer is yes:


3. Many people, including myself, have been eagerly looking forward to this film because we enjoy Gervais's comedy, and also partly because it looked like this film could be a moral fable similar to, say, Liar Liar (which, incidentally, was directed by a Christian, Tom Shadyac). To the extent that the film might be a bit more complicated than that, or to the extent that the filmmakers may be hinting at "big controversies" in anticipation of the film's release, I think it's only fair to give interested viewers a heads-up. But as always, the viewers would need to see the film for themselves before they could form any educated opinions about it.

4. As far as I know, no one involved at CT Movies has seen the film yet -- but I have heard from one person who claims to have read the screenplay, and, after describing some of the plot points, that person said the script comes across like a "thinly veiled atheist screed" that owes a lot to the Richard Dawkins brand of atheism. And for what it's worth, the person in question is a self-professed "huge fan of The Office" who found the screenplay "very disappointing". Now, if I had read the script myself, I might have a very different take on it than this person did. And of course, screenplays go through rewrites all the time, and directors have different ways of interpreting those screenplays; just the other day, Hitfix posted an on-set interview with Gervais in which they discussed how Rob Lowe had an "ad-lib about Hell" that Gervais decided not to use. So the finished film could be very different from the script that this person read. But it's something to keep in mind.

5. In a more recent blog post (sorry, there don't seem to be any permalinks), Gervais says, "By suggesting there is no God you are not singling out Christianity." That's certainly true as far as it goes. And certainly, any religion invented by Gervais's character in this film would not be identical to any religion in the real world. That being said, fictitious religions do borrow many of their bits and pieces from real-world religions, and nearly every identifiable bit of religious iconography glimpsed in this film so far seems to borrow from the Christian tradition. Not as extensively as, say, The Golden Compass, perhaps, but still.

6. In that same post, Gervais also says, "Not believing in God cannot be blasphemous. Blasphemy is acknowledging a God to insult or offend etc." For what it's worth, I sort of agree. As G.K. Chesterton once put it, "Blasphemy itself could not survive religion, if anyone doubts that let him try to blaspheme Odin." And as Terry Jones notes in the commentary for Monty Python's Life of Brian -- one of my favorite films of all time, by the way -- there is a difference between "blasphemy", which is the mockery of a god, and "heresy", which is the subverting of a traditional belief about that god. That being said, even if one does not acknowledge the existence of any given god, I think one can still acknowledge another person's belief in that god and insult or offend that belief, knowing that it will come across as blasphemy to the person who holds that belief. But of course, we won't know whether or not this film does that until we have had a chance to see it for ourselves.

7. Finally, I fully support Gervais's right to believe what he wants and make whatever film he wants; in fact, one of my atheist friends and I sometimes grumble about how Hollywood is too wussy to make films that clearly embrace either of our viewpoints, and when I first gathered what The Invention of Lying might be all about, a part of me wondered if -- and even hoped that -- my friend might like it. (You don't have to agree with someone's beliefs in order to empathize with their desire to feel "represented" onscreen.) What's more, we're all about encouraging dialogue here at CT Movies, and in the past we have interviewed such atheists as Philip Pullman (author of The Golden Compass) and Brian Flemming (director of The God Who Wasn't There). If an opportunity to speak with Gervais or one of his fellow filmmakers came along, we'd be game, for sure.

Related Tags: god who wasn't there, golden compass, invention of lying, liar liar, monty python's life of brian


Sounds like a lot of backtracking to me.
What you have to realise is that even if you say now that your first post about the film were misunderstood, then you must take into account that some of your Christian readers must also have misunderstood what you were writing by reading their comments too. The 'backlash' that you might have had was also in response to those people as well as yourself.

Oh.. and stating that "Life of Brian -- one of my favorite films of all time" to make you seem more liberal when it comes to movies or views, well.. it just doesn't fly.
It's kind of like a racist saying they aren't racist because they have a black friend at work.

I would stick to reserving judgement on movies until you have seen them. A stance that could also be taken on many other things too... if you get my drift.

Would you not defend yourselves if hundreds of people left obscene and intolerant flames in response to something you wrote? At least this guy has a thought-out stance, unlike all the people who responded to his first post by writing, "you're a stupid piece of s---." Whether or not you think his stance is wrong is beside the point.

The guys writing this blog are putting effort into making a conversation or debate. If you don't want to put any effort into a rebuttal, this is perhaps the wrong blog to be reading. "F--- you, you stupid little twat" says about as much as it accomplishes: nothing.

Compare the civility of that post that got flamed to, well, the flames...and it's not the dude who wrote the post that comes off as being rabid, intolerant, judgmental.

Yes, itchard, reserving judgment until you know what someone or something is all about is a stance that could be taken on many things. You should try it.

As it is, the reviews coming out of Toronto have confirmed what I predicted, more or less, as far as the storyline goes. More on that later.

And no one, but no one, is allowed to question my love for Life of Brian.

Peter, I do reserve judgement, on many many things. Not all, I'll admit. But I can say with total honesty that it is something I pride myself on.

The Life of Brian is a tremendous film, and widely panned by Christians and non Christians alike. Again its all down to personal taste and judgement. But as a lover of the film, surely you may understand how many of the people that disregarded the film when it was released before they had seen it, purely by predicting or making judgement on small clips, here say or other peoples reviews would have snowballed into it being banned in some countries. This isn't a good thing. Having said that, bringing it up in your blog to prove a point that your views on 'controversial' religious films seems very odd and somewhat contradictory to your view on this new film, especially when you haven’t seen it.

Elly, Whether you think my view on peoples abusive stance is beside the point or not, I will still state that I completely disagree with the ridiculous outbursts from the trolls that litter the internet spewing nasty comments instead of having a good structured stance when commenting on things. I wish there were a way to stop that. This happens all over the internet whether you’re Christian or not. Ultimately (and unfairly) it’s down to the site administrators to remove comments like that. I can only suggest that if anything like that happened again, that the comments be closed on that blog entry.

As an additional point, I'm absolutely sure that Ricky Gervais would never have intended for the blog to have been bombarded like that. He was however pointing out a review of a film that hadn't been seen. Which as you can imagine, would be disappointing to anyone.

Itchard, you keep missing the point. I don't have a "view" on The Invention of Lying, much less a "review" of it, for the simple reason that I haven't seen it yet. What I did have, when I wrote these two posts, is a sense of what the story would be about, based on the hints that the filmmakers were dropping in interviews and official publicity materials.

And, as it turns out, my sense was correct: the reviews coming out of Toronto this week have confirmed that the Ricky Gervais character "accidentally invents an international cult that looks a lot like Christianity" (as SpoutBlog's Karina Longworth puts it), and that the filmmakers "stop just short of saying there's no greater lie than the idea that life has any eternal meaning or value" (as Variety's Justin Chang puts it). But I won't have a particular view on how the film handles any of these elements until I see the film for myself.

The initial reason I raised Monty Python's Life of Brian is because Terry Jones made a distinction between "blasphemy" and "heresy" that dovetails with Gervais's thoughts on the nature of "blasphemy". But I also raised it because it is a brilliant comedy that gets people thinking about serious subjects while maintaining a respectful attitude towards Jesus, at least -- and it seemed to me that this attitude dovetails with that YouTube clip I posted, in which Gervais talks about his admiration for Jesus even as he talks about his atheism.

I disagree with the nihilistic note on which Life of Brian ends, but I find much that I can affirm throughout the rest of the movie, and it is my hope that The Invention of Lying will provide a similar kind of experience: I may disagree with it on some pretty fundamental levels, but I would like to be able to say that it respects key aspects of the faith while getting people to think seriously about the issues that it raises. But, like I keep saying, I won't know whether the film actually provides that sort of common ground until I have seen it for myself.

Hi again Peter.
First of all, an excellent explanation. This explains much more your stance and thoughts on your view/review.

Understandably, your first article doesn’t go into as much detail, but does hint (even if involuntary) towards the negative stance towards a film that hadn't been seen yet. Watching trailers and clips and trying to decipher what they are about, their intentions and meanings before seeing the whole picture has its risk of being completely misunderstood and not given a chance from the start. Even if this was not your intention, whoever read the article (whether religious or not) had a view.
For instance "Can one imagine the outrage should one produce a film that mocks Muslims?". Straight away, a negative opinion has been formed from your post. You did point out that punctuation was an important factor on the post's title. This may be true in hindsight, but if it is unclear enough for so many people to misinterpret, then hopefully you can see that it wasn't the best way to start off a review. From then on, the article came across as negative and a little angry. Again, this may not have been the intention but I hope you can take my (and many others) point. So, maybe I am missing the point, maybe it was very easy to miss (even from a Christian standpoint it seems)

In regards to the reviews, and the references to Cults, religion and religions style icons, Well I guess their possibly would be some similarities. Some follow one person, one ideal, one way of life, one belief.. but could these any of these could be associated to many things. Sports teams/persons, Michael Jackson. Other films like, The Matrix, Bill and Ted's adventures, Equilibrium ad many more could all have religious connotations if you wanted them to. But they aren't targeting anyone specifically.

This film hasn't been made specifically set out to target Christians, or any other religion. It is more than likely, knowing Gervais style of humour and writing, an observation of people as a whole. Fictional people at that, in a fictional world where there is no religion.

I hope you enjoy the film, Gervais might not be to your taste, but you never know, this film might make you laugh, it might raise points about people in general and the way they work which enhance or change your views on other things. But please remember its a comedy. A comedy that isn't there to offend but to entertain. Not everything needs to be analysed so deeply. I'm sure if things were... there would always be something negative to find, whether it be towards Jesus, religion or otherwise.

I'm pleased that the trolls haven't found this page and bombarded it with abusive messages. Fingers crossed that’s all over with.
Look forward to reading your actual review.

I wouldn't say my original blog post (once again, it was definitely not a review) hinted at any sort of stance, negative or otherwise. I did quote the filmmakers themselves to the effect that some people would have a really big problem with the film, but I never said that I was one of those people myself. Yes, people on both sides may have inferred that I was taking a stance, but I never implied one -- and there is a difference between inferring and implying.

The headline was, admittedly, eye-catching. It was meant to be. Compressing a blog post's main theme to just a few words is never easy, and in this case, Jennifer Garner's quote provided the quickest, pithiest, most direct indication as to what the anticipated controversy around this movie might be about. There may have been a better way to sum up what the blog post was about in six words or less, but I have no idea what that would have been.

Of course, I cannot take credit for the trailers and clips, because those are made by the studio itself. Those are the words and images the studio has chosen to sell the movie, to pique our interest, to persuade the average moviegoer to buy a ticket to their movie. If bloggers like me can go through the trailers for a movie like Star Trek looking for clues ("Wait a minute, are they going to destroy two planets in this movie?"), then we can certainly go frame-by-frame through trailers like this one and wonder what those subliminal images are meant to suggest.

I share your relief that the trolls haven't found this page. And I hope I will enjoy the film, too. I have not been assigned to review it for CT Movies, but I may say something about it anyway -- if not here, then perhaps somewhere else. Either way, I'll let you know if I do.

Peter -

I haven't yet read your original blogpost, but I personally found this one to be very clear and intriguing. I understand what you're saying about not having formed an opinion on a film you haven't yet seen, and I respect your willingness to engage a dialogue about what might be in the film and possible responses to it. I honestly find nothing in this article (not view OR review) to quibble about. Thanks for writing it, and I look forward to reading your review after you have seen the film. I, for one, intend to see it and hope it won't disappoint!

Katie :)

I have seen the film. I work in post-production, for a company-- the only company-- that provides closed captions for theatrical release.

I will state, at the outset, that I am a Christian. I am also an "entertainment professional."

I am a Ricky Gervais fan. I think he is the funniest man on the planet right now. I don't agree with everything that he says about everything, but I have an immense admiration for his talent, and his heart, and a great deal of respect for his honesty. I don't laugh out loud at anything, ever, but I laugh out loud at the comedy of Ricky Gervais.

I cannot reveal anything of what I've seen-- I'm legally obligated not to reveal anything before the release of a film-- but I will say that I have immense respect for this movie. A movie that wrestles with the BIG QUESTIONS, but does not shrink from drama and heart. Whew. What a relief to a middle-aged man.

There is a scene in this film that will move you, no matter what your stance on God's existence or lack thereof. I cried. And the scene opened my eyes to Ricky Gervais as an actor of depth. I think it might hint at an Oscar, quite honestly.

I like this film quite a lot. That said, I have my reservations about its overall success as a story, for one specific reason: I think it was watered down.

As Mr. Chattaway commented about his atheist friend-- who wishes Hollywood had the guts to fully represent the athiest point of view-- why haven't they allowed Mr. Gervais to fully express his views? I think the film pulls its punches, in some ways. I wanted to hear the full "argument," so to speak. But I feel as if I was denied that because the filmmaker/s were denied that.

For me, this film has already sparked excellent conversation around our little office in Burbank. I have found it a fascinating launchpad to discuss the Big Questions in life.

And I respect Mr. Gervais and his right to make this film, and to say what he wishes to say. I thank him for what he's expressed; how vulnerable he's made himself by being honest-- never easy for any artist-- but I can't help but wonder if he was muzzled or muffled a bit by some skittish execs...? Or someone?

I look forward to a lively and respectful discussion from everyone, from all points of view (including Mr. Gervais!) on this fine film, here on this wonderful website.

Again-- kudos to my favorite comedic artist for being so incredibly brave. I aspire to be equally so.

With Respect to All...

Supposedly Ricky Gervais' character tells everyone about "a magic man in the sky" and other religious things when he lies. Obviously these are absent from the trailers cause that would be bad for marketing. It seems that the film has a strong atheist theme which they are not advertising in the trailer. Big shock. I was planning on paying to see the film this weekend but I don't want to support it now. I'm glad this came out. I'm not threatened in any way but there's no way it's getting my $10 nor that of my friends.

I too was ready to promote this film to friends, family, and others as a unique comedy.

However, the increasingly apparent underlying motives of the filmmaker are a fair enough warning for me to take a step back.


I'm a Christian. I love the office, like Extras, found Ghost Town good fun.

I have seen te invention of lying. I thought it was quite thought provoking but in the end, found it very one dimensional.

I love the suggestion that he might be up for an Oscar, surely this could not happen, but the I am not a professional.

I didn't find it blasphemous (I love Life of Brian too).

Oh, I also love the idea that suggesting God might not be real is somehow a secret controversy which will get everyone talking. Sadly, the more secret controversy these days seems to be the idea that God might be real.

Good discussion though, thanks for the read.

Sadly, the film was very unfunny and made no bones about being based on atheism. Film is an art, I get it, but as a Christian, it was a bit offensive. The Oscar talk is ludricrous.

Im sorry, but as a Christian I found this film more than a bit offensive, as a Christ believer and as a follower I would have to say this film is a work of the devil.I am sure he gives it two thumbs up. The good reviews on a film such as this is a conformation as to the beliefs of this country, as a result of our lack of belief in GOD our country is nearing disaster. The only way to get our country back in good shape is to turn to God, its in the bible. While I was watching this film it saddened my heart to think of the people who whatched it and would never get to know God, then it really made me mad. I guess if there is one good thing that i recieved from watching this film it was anger. I am more committed to telling the good news of JESUS CHRIST!

After watching the movie, I told my husband that whoever wrote it must be an athiest. I looked it up and found that Ricky Gervais was an athiest.

I don't mind his opinion, but I would've never watched the movie if I knew what it was about. He basically makes fun of people who believe in God. I got this feeling when the main character was telling the people in the crowd about life after you die with rules written on pizza boxes. For me, I believe in God because I feel him in my heart, not because people tell me to believe in him and I'm foolishly living my life by what other people say. A heads up in the trailer would have been appreciated.

Movie started out with some good jokes here and there based on the comical premise of a world where people told very blatant truths. Once the main character tells his big "lie" to his mother the movie goes down hill. This "lie" only serves as symbolism for the "lie" Gervais says his real mother told him when he was a little boy. I think it's sad that Gervais felt the need to drag out his overplayed snl skit to mock the faith of anyone that believes in a God. This would have made a good short film before it turned into a movie that instills a sense of hopelessness that nothing happens when we die and that lying can be a great way to get ahead in life.

I rented the Invention of Lying last night and I must say that it ranks up there with The Blair Witch Project, Hulk, and Open Water as one of the worst movies I have ever seen. It is in fact the first movie that has ever led me to ask for my money back.

I am a faithful Christian but I'm generally not offended by fiction that pokes fun of faith and the faithful. The problem with TIL in my estimation is that once the issue of faith was brought up, it just wasn't funny anymore. The humor was gone and wsa left with nothing but a "Lecture Film" on how religion is a lie. Gervais can say what he wants about it being a fictional world, but if he actually believes tht he isn't make a comment about the world in which we live, he's obtuse to say the least.

If you haven't seen it, save your money and watch something that's entertaining.

I find it interesting that Gods and Religions are frequently spoken about in films. music, politics and nationalism as if it were absolute truth. And, once in a while something comes along that questions this, and it is considered a big controversy.

This film in my opinion offers very important human questions -- Are religions based on actual truths? AND, regardless of the answer to that question, the film shows some potential positive and negative aspects to having faith in something that may or may not be true or correct. (whatever the subject matter of the potential non-truth may be).

The film also reflects that one of the possible reasons for many religions is fear of the unknown or a fear of death, and a need to feel more powerful or important than just a "regular" imperfect human being.

This film questions self esteem, honesty and truth. I think those are valid ideas at minimum, and people should be encouraged to watch and openly discuss subject matter like this.

The film maker took a light-hearted approach to some important human questions. I respect him for that.

I found this movie absolutely funny. It was definitely smart funny and not goofy funny.

When i watch the film, i thought it was attacking religious nuances not religion itself. For example, in their world, would the world and universe be created in 6 days. No, because people wouldn't have know that. Wouldn't Jesus's picture exist in that world, no, because there is no record sketch of him. SOOOO Relax.

The movie did point out that the world had their version of religion. didn't you see the "church" called "a quit place" . Please that was just hilarious.

I just seen the movie for the first time and it's very sad that the writers and producers of this movie used this venue to mock religion.

I noticed they were very cutting edge and brave in attacking it from the christianity angle but didn't dare take it on from the muslim angle.

The reason for this cowardly decision is that the studio and writers have no fear of christians seeking revenge but they know exactly what would happen if they mocked muslims and it's pitiful to be honest.