December 29, 2008 — If the 1973 movie The Exorcist had never been filmed, I’d have ended up with a few holes in my. And I don’t just mean in time spent watching the movie. Certainly that. But I’ve also visited the famous stairs and house exterior where the movie was filmed, been to the purported home of the boy whose real-life exorcism inspired the story, and seen just about every sequel, prequel, spoof, rip-oof, and documentary spawned by the film. Most baffling, I’ve even been published on the topic. When it comes to Exorcist-related experiences, the only thing really left on my list is actually casting out an unclean spirit myself.
So when a brand new opportunity arises for me to do something Exorcist-ic, it’s like Christmas. Especially when it occurs in December, and everything is decorated accordingly.
Normally I’m so late to the party that my hosts are on to their next party, but this time I get to present an oddity that was just unveiled this month, and which I visited mere weeks after its inauguration. As a result, writing about it suddenly feels a whole lot like reporting, with the accompanying creeping responsibility to attempt to accurately relay information, which I will try to fight.
Anticlimactically, I’m referring to the brand new bust of Jason Miller that now adorns the Piazza dell’Arte beside the Lackawanna County Courthouse in downtown Scranton, PA.
Jason Miller played Father Karras in The Exorcist (as well as in its triquel), and that by itself deserves an honorarium of some sort. I mean, besides the meager Oscar nomination that his performance garnered, of course. Don’t get me wrong. Max von Sydow was, is, and will forever be adulation-worthy, for reasons far preceding this movie, but also because he is the titular exorcist, after all. However, Jason Miller nailed with a sledgehammer the role of troubled priest who has to wrestle with both himself and Satan.
And as much as I’d like to think that the entire town of Scranton is that big a fan of the film, that’s not really why he’s busted there.
Miller grew up in Scranton, and won a Pulitzer (and a Tony) for a play he wrote called That Championship Season, which he set in that city. In fact, he won the award the same year that The Exorcist was released, so it was kind of a big year for him. Eventually, after a stint in California, Miller settled back in Scranton, and became active in the city’s theater scene until his death there in 2001 at the age of 62.
In fact, far from merely being honored with a random hometown-boy-turned-marginally-notable bust tucked away in the lobby of some local theater due to the earnest efforts of some minor lobbying group coinciding with the whims of some local politician, Miller was the entire inspiration behind the recent creation of the Piazza dell’Arte, a courtyard-like monument directly beneath the Spruce Street side of the looming tower of the Lackawanna Courthouse.
The monument is mostly a flat paved area with a central water fixture, the bronze bust of Jason Miller, and a wall of polished stone slabs etched with short bios of area-bred artists who achieved works that the city is okay claiming. The names aren’t really nationally recognizable, but some of their accomplishments are.
It’s a great idea in concept, but the execution seems too civic, too cold, and too unadorned for a monument celebrating art and artists. Incongruously, the monument also features a quote from Pablo Picasso, who I don’t think has any ties to the area. But, then again, wrong is a condition I’m chronically afflicted with.
The first slab in the wall is devoted to Miller and highlights in less than 60 words exactly what I’ve racked into 1000 here. However, I would like to point out one bit of phraseology in his stone bio, if only because the text is permanent and on display and I need another paragraph. It states that Miller was “the winner of a Pulitzer, Tony, Emmy and Academy Award nomination.” The statement seems to imply that he won nominations for all four, which is technically true, but fails to emphasize the fact that he won two of those awards. Alternately, the phrasing could also imply that he won three out of four of those nominations, which he didn’t.
Regardless, there are three of four clearer ways to have written this sentence, and don’t think I don’t realize that the same is true of most of the lines in this post. In scrutinizing this copy, it made me realize that although I’ve written copy for just about every flat surface possible in my career as a writer, I’ve never had the opportunity to write copy for a monument. It’s a good day when I find a new dream.
Miller’s bust is set off to one side of the Piazza on a stone pedestal that is engraved with a quote from Miller about his fondness for the area. It was sculpted by actor Paul Sorvino, famed back in the day for his role in Goodfellas and these days for fathering Mira Sorvino. He and Miller went back a ways, as Sorvino acted in both the original run of That Championship Season as well as the 1982 Miller-directed movie version of it.
Appearance-wise, the bust is somewhat underwhelming. Its likeness tends more toward Cold Miser from the Rankin/Bass special The Year Without a Santa Claus, and I’m not just being unduly influenced by the season. However, what it lacks in artistry it makes up with in style points. The bust is hollow, and inside is an urn of Miller’s ashes. Cool, huh? It gives me Idea Number 34 for my own earthly disposal. I’m thinking full un-cremated body encased in a bronze statue of myself. Except that I’m going to want it buried like a coffin and not displayed in a mediocre but well-intentioned memorial to art.
Across the street and down half a block from the bust is a red-brick apartment building where Miller lived at one time. The line-of-sight juxtaposition provides the opportunity for a great photo of the bust and building together. However, the canopy from the unveiling ceremony was still in place when I visited, and got in the way of the shot. Still, we did the best we could under that circumstance.
The Exorcist wasn’t the only film that Miller had an acting role in, of course, and the long-unexorcized devil on my shoulder has been jumping up and down for me to make a Rudy joke. The angel on my other is telling me to take the high road, that too many jokes about this well-meaning film have already been made. And the pale, flaccidly fleshed thing in between them knows that I spent the entire time writing this article trying to come up with a joke and failed. And that’s the real reason one’s not included.