The Varieties of Religious Experience

 
illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

 

by Matt Brennan

I. The Shadow of the Spirit

Religion, whatever it is, is a man's total reaction upon life.
- William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)

In America, the irreligious live in the shadow of the spirit. We hear the Torah at suburban bat mitzvahs; see churches fill with cots after the storm. We encounter stray prophets in city streets and visit rough-hewn chapels in tiny hamlets. We receive birthday cards with short verses from Scripture, printed on thin throwaway stock; listen to pastors proclaim their support for the candidates at both major parties' conventions; read selections from the Qur’an and the Bhagavad Gita in Introduction to World Religions, fulfilling the requirement pass/fail. We experiment with new faiths as if trying on selves, eager to find one that suits us. We bow our heads and mouth "Amen." We offer thoughts and prayers. We feel, in other words, as if the space around us is already occupied, so suffused with the radiance of other people's convictions that our own seem to shrink in the shade.

To wit: I last attended Mass one faraway August, on the otherwise sparkling summer morning we buried my father's father, and it had been so long since I'd had the Lord in my heart I instinctively sat at the back of the nave, as if playing the tourist in Chartres. With a slight hiss in her voice, a family friend urged me forward—You don't know what you're supposed to do at a funeral? was her implicit question—but as I slid into a pew much nearer my parents, I knew that my hesitation was a function of the Mass, not the funeral. In part, this was a political position—resistance to the religion that treated my sexual orientation (I fuck men) as an abomination, my organizing experience (I had interned at Planned Parenthood) as a crime—but it was also a spiritual one: reluctance to disrespect my grandfather's faith by performing Catholicism without crediting its truth content. Psalms suffocated me. Priests appeared medieval, no less a relic than the bones of some martyr displayed in the dim corner of a foreign church. And so, when I remained seated instead of accepting Communion, as row after row of the devout and the lapsed filed toward the altar for wafers and wine, I felt the eyes of those behind me settle on the back of my neck. Of the religion I'd been born into, I was now an outsider; part of the family but not in the fold.

It wasn't until later that I came to understand the problems and possibilities of catechism, of ritual, of congregation—that I came to see faith and its absence as states of being unbound by sacraments and church rolls, Biblical passages and mellifluous hymns. I still do not believe in God, in the sense that one might imagine an unimaginable figure creating and ordering the cosmos, but I am no longer convinced that this constitutes a barrier to certain varieties of religious experience. If religion is, as James suggests, "a man's total reaction upon life," then it is the reaction that sustains the religion, and not the reverse.

This is the work of The Leftovers, The Americans, and Rectify, three TV series that treat the total reaction, and not simply the doctrine—three TV series whose most characteristic episodes come closer to reflecting the varieties of religious experience we encounter in the course of life than any sermon I've ever heard. To wit: On the otherwise sparkling summer morning we buried my father's father, I had the same sense that life's end is what gives it its shape—and that this is its most sorrowful feature—as those standing in line for Communion. I need no wafer, no wine, to see its radiance, or for that matter, the shadows on its margins.

II. No Room at the Inn

When all is said and done, we are in the end absolutely dependent on the universe.
- William James

Since the night of the second "miracle" in Miracle, Matt Jamison's routine is the same. He records his wife sleeping and watches the result over breakfast, searching for signs she's returned. He listens to The Bellamy Brothers' "Let Your Love Flow," empties her catheter and brushes her teeth; he wheels her to church at the same time each day and brings her to the same store, lifting her into and out of the car with the same strenuous effort. He fills her feeding tube and sits next to her in silence with his microwavable meal, prepares for bed and sets his laptop to record again, perched there in case it should happen. "It" is Mary's emergence from the persistent vegetative state in which she's remained, with one inexplicable exception, since the Sudden Departure. "It" is proof that the universe is listening, against the preponderance of evidence that it is not.

Set three years after the abrupt disappearance of 140 million people, a sort of Rapture without reason, The Leftovers is run through with all manner of religions—a silent, chain-smoking, white-clad memory cult; at least two hugging healers, or perhaps snake-oil salesmen; flagellants, Episcopalians, atheists—but the series is, in the strictest sense, agnostic. It not only admits that the reason for the Sudden Departure is unknown. It also suggests that the reason is unknowable, that the meaning in religion stems not from the particulars of one or another creed, but from the need—fundamental and universal—to explain, to understand, to narrate. In The Leftovers, which imagines our own world in extremis, religion is not a set of answers so much as a way of framing the question: What is the purpose of pain, of loss, of grief, of despair? And what happens if we conclude that there is none?

For Matt (Christopher Eccleston), if not for Mary (Janel Moloney), the ritual that begins "No Room at the Inn" (Episode 205) is, on the face of it, an attempt to recreate the circumstances of that inexplicable exception—the night she came back to consciousness—but in truth it's an attempt to reduce the unfathomable to a few tangible facts. The song, the store, the meal: These are his sacraments, his communion and confession, transforming into human scale the immense and inscrutable divine. An Episcopal reverend, Matt is adamant in his belief, as my mother says of any event more tragic than a missed flight, that "everything happens for a reason"; he and Mary relocate to Jarden, Texas ("the Jarden of Eden"), after all, because it is the largest town in the United States (pop. 9,261) not to experience a single Departure, and must therefore be part of God's plan.

In point of fact, "No Room at the Inn"—a brutal, poetic retelling of the Book of Job—militates against this interpretation. It is so full of cruelties and chance intercessions that it nearly segues from a portrait of suffering into an admission of disbelief: Cast out of Jarden after an attack by a "stranded" motorist, Matt and Mary wander the tent encampment that's sprouted up outside the town, encountering smugglers and fanatics and thieves, the desperate dregs of a social order bereft of reasons to sustain itself. And yet, the fact that Matt's faith never wavers—the fact that he returns to the encampment to repent, stripped bare and in stocks, after securing Mary's safe passage—turns out to be the perfect emblem of the series' agnosticism.

The Leftovers recognizes that religion itself, if not the phenomena it seeks to interpret, is by definition at human scale, responding to catastrophes and changing circumstances. It is the need to understand, and not any one understanding, that lashes the varieties of religious experience together.

In this sense, my mother's insistence that "everything happens for a reason" is not, I suspect, a profession of faith—as far as I know, she stopped attending Mass around the same time that I did—but an acknowledgement that we are indeed dependent on the universe, subject to reasons we cannot see, reasons that remain theoretical. The power of religion, then, is no more and no less than that which we ascribe to it, bearing the marks of both our weaknesses and our strengths; it is we who determine the purpose of pain, of loss, of grief, of despair; it is we who narrate our stories. We might endure humiliation, submit to silence, or embrace our fellow man, but each of these, in the final estimation, derives from the same hope that imbues Matt Jamison's ritual. After all, as The Bellamy Brothers' song begins, "There's a reason."

III. Born Again

The real witness of the spirit to the second birth is to be found only in the disposition of the genuine child of God.
- William James

It was Mom who promised at our baptisms to raise us in the church, and though she's been known to lament her "failure" on this front—you will not meet three worse Catholics than my brother, my sister, and me—I tend to see our independent streak as the result of effective parenting. When the three of us declined, en masse, to continue CCD, having decided that the two hours each Wednesday we were devoting to indoctrination were better spent playing video games or chipping golf balls in the yard, her protestations were pro forma. I think she knew, this woman who always told us to hide when she saw the Jehovah's Witnesses coming up the walk, that when it comes to religion, strong-arming will only get you so far. 

Though the roles are reversed, The Americans' Paige Jennings (Holly Taylor) and her parents, Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell), confront much the same question: Where is the line between impressing your values on your children and impinging on their own? The stakes in The Americans are much higher, of course—as far as I know, my parents have never been Soviet spies—but the series' interest in the intersection of the personal and the political, the secular and the spiritual, hinges on the emotional realism from which its dramatic action is built. Amid the reflective quiet of "Born Again" (Episode 306), in which Paige's own baptism is not the sole expression of ardent belief, The Americans reconstructs the gentle tension I felt at my grandfather's funeral. "Paige," Pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin) says as he prepares to immerse her, "this is your most defiant act of protest yet."

If Paige's commitment to the church is an adolescent's rebellion, it's not of the softer sort, the fleeting fad of the sullen teen determined to get a rise from her parents. She is, to use James' phrase, "the genuine child of God," and it is the force of her faith that concerns Elizabeth: This is not a phase to endure but a problem to wrestle with, the atheist's daughter embracing "a fantasy world" her mother long ago came to despise. That The Americans itself is not so simplistic is among its foremost merits, though, and when it comes to the varieties of religious experience, as to the Iron Curtain between capitalism and communism, the series treats ideological boundaries as inherently porous, contingent on particular people, places, and times. When their neighbor, Stan (Noah Emmerich) brings his girlfriend (Callie Thorne) to dinner, for instance, her defense of EST (Erhard Seminars Training) is also an argument for coexistence ("Listen, whatever works! Everybody's got their own thing"), one that's reflected in those seated around the table. In "Born Again", an American evangelical born to Soviet atheists describes her baptism to a self-help devotee and an anti-communist FBI agent, and the only intimation of the divisions among them is the tight crease of Elizabeth's smile.

This is, to me, at the heart of the episode, and of The Americans writ large: That achieving peace, familial and global, is not a function of accepting another's beliefs, but of granting that the act of belief, broadly speaking, adheres to no known borders. In the series of conversations with Paige that structures "Born Again," Philip and Elizabeth confess that their opposition to her baptism coincides with a certain pride—Paige, signing anti-apartheid petitions and protesting nuclear proliferation alongside Pastor Tim, is a person of conviction, an apple not so far from the tree. And isn't this the message we want to impress upon our children, the blessing we hope to receive from Mom and Dad? The reassurance that being part of the family transcends being in the fold?

When we grow apart from our parents' traditions, we are no less the genuine child than we were when their world contained the whole of our own. In the time since I decided to leave the church in which my mother promised to raise me, I have abandoned other aspects of the life she and Dad built—leaving the Boston suburbs for Los Angeles and New Orleans, exchanging the affluence of a career in business for the freedom of one in the arts—but I am still, unmistakably, cut from the same cloth. It's true of Paige, too. At the conclusion of "Born Again," Elizabeth brings her budding progressive to the neighborhood in which she and Philip once fought for civil rights, and though Paige at first interprets it as a critique of her faith, it turns out her mother is keeping it. "I brought you here because I wanted you to know," she says, "that I'm more like you than you think."

IV. Plato's Cave

The gods we stand by are the gods we need and can use, the gods whose demands on us are reinforcements of our demands on ourselves and on one another.
- William James

Daniel Holden (Aden Young) kept the faith, kept it for well nigh two decades, in fact, but when he reenters the world in the first season of Rectify, he of course begins to see it anew. Released from death row after his conviction in the rape and murder of his high-school sweetheart is vacated—the result of new DNA evidence his attorney (Luke Kirby) presents on appeal—the soft-spoken Daniel is not dissimilar, in his way, from Matt Jamison or Paige Jennings: a genuine child of God struggling toward meaning even as life's cruelties and Cold Wars seem to push it away. Nearsighted after 19 years in his cell's close quarters, Daniel asks his mother, Janet (J. Smith-Cameron), to bring him to the optometrist, and his new specs become a profound metaphor for a kind of revelation. It's as if, he says in the immaculate "Plato's Cave" (Episode 104), "I've been looking at shadows on a cave wall."

In the course of an hour so crisp, so simple, that it strains belief—I cried watching him marvel at the magnitude of a Georgia Wal-Mart, for Christ's sake—Rectify reconsiders the philosopher's parable with reference to TV screens and a news crew's camera, Flannery O'Connor and The Divide Comedy, destabilizing in the process Plato's distinction between perception and concept. For if Rectify, The Americans, and The Leftovers are composed of shadows projected on a wall, mere images masquerading as the truth, how is it that each seems so finely attuned to the rhythms of worship, the filaments of conviction, the terror of being, and of nothingness besides? How is it that this low form, television, came to be the medium through which such remarkable stories of faith and faithlessness are told?

What I want to suggest here is this: That it is no coincidence, at a moment in which the center no longer seems to be holding, that the three finest dramas on American television are the three that treat religion as more than a set of moral precepts or strange rituals. That the diamond-like core of the subject, impervious except to itself, is not the doctrinal difference between Catholicism and atheism, the mainline church and the cataclysmic cult, but the search for stories, philosophies, psalms, or scientific theories that approach an explanation for the inexplicable, an understanding of the misunderstood. That the nature of the medium, unspooling in increments across months or years, allows for a fair approximation of the varieties of religious experience, the evolving states of being—desperate, ecstatic, doubtful, convinced—from which belief and its absence are born.

What I want to suggest here is this: That my relationship with religion is one in which I now see the forms of faith I've adopted and abandoned as a reflection of my evolving reaction upon life, the desire for my gods, whatever they may be in a given moment, to reflect my demands on myself and on others.     

And so "Plato's Cave," one of the most gorgeous, humane, wholehearted examples of the art form I've ever seen, culminates with a conversation in a Georgia field suffused with a radiance I recognize. After helping her prepare for her congregation's Jubilee, Daniel and his sister-in-law, Tawney (Adelaide Clemens) stroll the grounds in the golden hour, the light immanent, expectant, full. He is a skeptic, she a devout, but in the course of their conversation, the space between them closes until it almost disappears.

"I can see and feel God in all things," she remarks.

"Thomas Aquinas," Daniel replies. "He believed that supernatural revelation was faith, and natural revelation was reason. That the two are not contradictory, but complementary."

I do not know, perhaps cannot know, if this is the truth, but of all the stories I have heard or will hear, it is the one that fills me, as Tawney says, "with indescribable joy." In this moment, after all, neither shrinks in the shade. They're both in the sunlight, side by side at last. 


Matt Brennan is the TV critic for Indiewire's Thompson on Hollywood! His writing has also appeared in LA Weekly, Paste, Deadspin, Slant Magazine, Flavorwire, and Slate, among other publications. He lives in New Orleans and tweets about what he's watching @thefilmgoer.


Taste and See

 
illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

 

by Alyce Youngblood

“For me, that analogy of a death—a decomposition creating this wonderful flavor—it’s a promise of something better. I experience that over and over again when I look at cheese, when I smell cheese and when I look at the microbial ecology of cheese. That’s the wonder for me: that it’s a promise of life beyond death.”

This is how Sister Noella Marcellino, a Benedictine nun and microbiologist, describes cheese toward the end of the Netflix documentary series Cooked.

The divine inspiration is her own “Bethlehem” cheese, which she makes by hand using raw, old world methods that are borderline dangerous in their authenticity. Apparently, the cheese really stinks; she characterizes the scent as bodily, almost too embarrassing to name. One scene shows her sniffing it closely as she and another nun stack the wheels—now covered in a velvety, grey layer of fungi—in dark closets. A camera outside meanders alongside the dairy cows around the shrouded abbey in rural Connecticut.

Food journalist Michael Pollan, already an impassioned narrator, finds new tones of tenderness during this humble finale to his series. Fermentation itself is “miraculous,” he tells us. And trying Sister Noella’s cheese, a “conversion” experience.

I have not had the privilege, but to that I’ll say “Amen.” It’s perhaps one of the best sermons I’ve ever heard.

***

I am a Christian. A daughter of a pastor, an alumna of private religious education, an editor who has held various roles in faith-based publishing. I’ve often been surrounded by loving, gracious, intelligent believers, and the practice of faith deeply enriches my life.

The business of faith, however, exhausts me. There is Christianity—the beautiful force and life-giving community I’ve known since my youth—and then there is “Christianity” the brand, rendered vapid by sound bites, dollar signs and party lines. In my work (and especially in Nashville, Tenn.), I inevitably bear witness to this odd tangling of the commercial and the spiritual. This can be utterly depleting—the platforms, the vocabulary, the politics, the warped, ego-driven misrepresentations of something I hold very dear.

So I have fought hard to preserve it. Held it close and quiet. Kept it out of comment sections and tried to read it better books. Reached for it on the dark nights roiling with doubts. Yes, it’s still there. You’re still there.  

And lately, I have found that I must feed it. Literally. In seeking out new sacred spaces for myself, I’ve experienced a silent, personal revival in my kitchen and around the table.

I won’t pretend to be a very good cook, though I’d certainly like to be. I have yet to make a risotto. Sometimes I put produce that belongs on a shelf in the refrigerator. Anyone with real culinary skills would be appalled by my knife work. But I am a thankful and present chef. Almost giddy, actually. I treasure prep time over a cutting board and daydream about my pantry items when I’m away from home. To me, crafting and consuming meals, or simply watching others do so, has become nourishing in every sense. I understand what Carmelite monk and mystic Brother Lawrence meant when he expressed that he drew near to God while peeling potatoes. Many evenings, I sit cross-legged on the twine rug in the middle of the kitchen and peer through the glass of the oven door as the mozzarella on a (usually quite rustic) pizza begins to bubble and bronze and spread like a sunset. A peace comes over me, warm and rewarding. This feeling—more like a prayer, really—cannot wholly be described, and it certainly can’t be argued. Only savored.

***

Cooked isn’t the only documentary treating food preparation with such reverence. In the past couple years, Netflix also released Chef’s Table, a stunning series that takes viewers into the lives and kitchens of some of the world’s most notable chefs. At the top of each episode, Vivaldi’s “Winter” tumbles in dramatically over slow-motion clips of chefs creating dishes that might also pass as bouquets or paintings or pornography. It’s dripping, smoking, oozing, cracking, drizzling, simmering perfection.  

And if the Chef’s Table opener is lust at first sight, then the conclusion is true love. Each story builds to a cinematic “menu reveal.” After the viewer has spent an hour with a chef—learning about their inspirations, flaws, families, gardens, critics, triumphs—only then do the filmmakers decide to fully unveil why this man or woman is world-famous in the first place. The music swells, and their culinary masterpieces are introduced, one-by-one, freshly plated, twirling in a soft spotlight. The camera practically salivates, staying close enough to catch the sheen on the fish scales, the specks on the delicate floral garnish, the breath from the bread. Depending on the personality of the featured chef, this sequence may be playful or gritty. But it is always astonishing. 

And I always cry.

I could be cynical about this cool food documentary revolution, as people can be about everything (and as I sometimes feel I must be). There’s a clear formula to the narratives and aesthetics of these films, and I’m not supposed to like that. But beyond the expert editing, there is something true about them—both elemental and artistic—that I don’t just like, I need.  

Cooking is transformative, in more ways than one. Human civilization grew up around grain, and since then, the path of history has wound through wine cellars, paddy fields, spice markets, coffee plantations, modern bistros and barbecue pits. In feasting, in fasting, in famine, cultures derive power and identity from their relationship to food.

Further, I believe the creation of food can also be sacred—a foundation for ritual, unity and liturgy. And while every religion has its savory traditions, the one I’m most familiar with ultimately looks to a Man who broke bread, drank wine, called for seafood and craved breakfast. His table was inclusive, his meals miraculous. Taste and see that the Lord is good, I read as a child, in a book that obsessed over milk and honey and olives and fatted calves and daily loaves. Take, eat, do this in remembrance of me.

When I watch shows like Chef’s Table or Cooked, something stirs within me—like flavor from rot, and life from death. They rarely address religion directly, but they are true stories focused on what sustains us: heritage, hard work and food. These are hallowed facets of humanity. As Alain Passard, featured on Chef’s Table: France, says of his decision to become a chef, “I was determined to enter this temple.” And when spirituality does pull the filmmakers’ focus, it can be as profound as a brilliant “Cheese Nun” whose voice falls to a hush when she discusses milk proteins. “I stand back and wonder at this Creator,” Sister Noella says.

 Stand back and wonder.

I relish this idea, in such a noisy time in our world and in my life. I need all the reminders I can get that, when the words disappoint or fail, there are still other options.

 To taste. To see. It is good.


Alyce Youngblood is a writer and editor who has worked with magazines, book publishers, non-profits and media agencies. She married a guy she met on Twitter, and they live in Nashville with their cat, Buffy.


The Cinematic Saint: Joan of Arc

 
artwork by Anastasia Bolinder
 

by Joel Mayward

In the center of a roundabout in the Laurelhurst neighborhood of Portland, Oregon stands an enormous golden statue. Donated to the city in 1924 by a wealthy philanthropist, the bronze figure is dressed in battle armor and sitting atop a majestic warhorse, a banner raised in the posture of victory. I’ve driven by this statue for years, never noticing who it represented. Four such statues were commissioned by the donor: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and—like a strange variation on the faces of Mount Rushmore—this dissonant contribution: Joan of Arc.

***

Joan of Arc is….

The way one finishes this sentence is dependent upon the particular image of Joan being referenced. Artists ranging from Shakespeare, Voltaire, Tchaikovsky, Leonard Cohen, and Arcade Fire each depicted Joan through diverse mediums and with a multitude of interpretations. The depictions of Joan reveal just as much about the cultural context and personal intent of the author as they do about the historical Maid. The medium of movies is especially significant, as Joan of Arc is second only to Jesus as a religious figure depicted within film. Nadia Margolis’s 1990 book Joan of Arc in History, Literature and Film lists 53 films in which Joan is the central character or an important motif, only a small percentage of more than 1500 listed works of art, as well as the dozen other films and TV shows since Margolis’ book was published.

An uneducated peasant girl from a small village in France, Joan saw visions of angels and saints instructing her to support French King Charles VII, leading her to become an unlikely military hero at the Siege of Orléans and a martyr at the hands of the Roman Catholic church, the same ecclesial power which would canonize her as a saint nearly 500 years later. Known as La Pucelle d'Orléans—the “Maid of Orléans”—Joan’s life was brief and dramatic. She dressed in men’s clothing, claimed to speak directly to the Archangel Michael, and underwent an intense, well-documented trial in Rouen before being burned at the stake at age 19.  

So why does a French girl from the fifteenth century continue to captivate the artistic and cultural imagination? Out of all the saints and religious figures, what is so compelling about her story? Why do we keep making and watching Joan of Arc movies?

***

The list of people who have made Joan of Arc films reads like a “who’s who” of renowned directors. One of the first is a 1900 ten-minute silent film from French filmmaker George Méliès, Jeanne D’Arc. A collage of twelve static scenes with hand-tinted colors and elaborate costumes, Méliès’ film lacks much of his signature imagination and whimsical flairs. Known for his magical and mystical aesthetic—watch A Trip to the Moon and you’ll see his eccentric vision at work—Méliès’ Joan comes across as helpless and diminutive in relation to her surroundings. Still, the final heavenly scene points to Méliès’ high view of Joan’s piety, despite his conventional approach to her story. The scene at the stake is distinctive for the bright orange coloring of the fire and smoke, creating a hallucinatory effect, clouding Joan from the audience’s vision.

Another vivid silent film, Cecil B. DeMille’s 1916 Joan the Woman follows his signature tendencies towards over-the-top spectacle. The film begins with an English soldier in the trenches of WWI as he discovers an ancient sword in the dirt. He is visited by a vision of Joan, who declares he must expiate for past sins against her. After a biographical depiction of her life, told as a sweeping flashback, the film concludes with the soldier agreeing to a suicide mission after being inspired by Joan’s story. DeMille’s Joan, portrayed by Geraldine Farrar, is presented as a patriotic figure meant to inspire the American masses in the midst of WWI, a not-too-subtle propaganda piece. Both DeMille and Méliès offer a conventionally feminine Joan, one who lives up to DeMille’s chosen title of Joan the Woman. Both films were made before Joan’s canonization in 1920, yet both seem to suggest that Joan would soon be recognized as a saint.

You know Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and the captivating beauty of Jean Seberg? Her first film credit—the one where she was discovered out of hundreds of other American teenagers who auditioned—was in Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan. In casting a young, non-professional actress in the iconic role, Preminger may have been trying to channel the spirit of the historical Joan, another teenage girl who proved to garner miraculous success (though it didn’t work for Preminger, as Seberg’s Joan comes across as stilted in her performance, her inexperience shining through). In contrast to an unseasoned teenage Joan, cinematic icon Ingrid Bergman portrayed the Maid twice—once for Victor Fleming’s lush and dramatic Joan of Arc, the other for Roberto Rossellini’s surreal Giovanna d'Arco al rogo. She was nominated for an Oscar for Fleming’s film, which was also recognized for its cinematography and costume design.

Then there’s the two-part epic historical drama from Jacques Rivette—Joan the Maid is split into The Battles and The Prisons, and the film stands as one of the most accurate and full portrayals of the life of Joan. Rivette opts for precision and detail, using outdoor scenes and elaborate long shots to emphasize the historicity of the on-screen events.

And we haven’t even discussed Luc Besson’s 1999 grungy, hallucinatory action film The Messenger, where Joan—depicted by Milla Jovovich as shrill, frantic, and hysterical—is given psychological PTSD motivations for her visions and subsequent political power. It’s not historically accurate, or even that entertaining, but it’s certainly a different approach within the ever-expanding Joan canon, and a precursor for Jovovich’s Resident Evil films.

History, fantasy, melodrama, action, romance, comedy, secularized, spiritualized. You name the genre, style, or theme, and a Joan film likely has it.

***

The Joan films are examples of hagiography, a genre that idealizes its subject through adulation and vivid imagery of the saintly figure, moving beyond historicity into the realm of myth. A hagiographic account of a saint’s life includes the biographical elements, as well as accounts of the miraculous and majestic, and possibly the inclusion of the saint’s death or martyrdom. When adapted to film, these saintly stories have a personal appeal as audiences find themselves spiritually inspired by the on-screen events. They’re akin to the story of a religious superhero, the Marvel Cinematic Universe for a religious tradition. In her book, The Religious Film, Pamela Grace unpacks the elements for what she calls the “hagiopic”:

In a far more direct way than any other film genre, the hagiopic deals with basic questions about suffering, injustice, a sense of meaninglessness, and a longing for something beyond the world we know…. [T]hey also take the viewer through a journey that involves doubt, struggle, and transformation; and they also usually allow for a variety of responses and interpretations, mirroring spectators’ own spiritual questioning.1

The hagiopic has several unique characteristics: an interweaving of chronological time with a sense of eternity; a concern with suffering and self-sacrifice; and a narrative structure centered on a protagonist with a divine vision and vocation which is threatening to the present religious and political institutions, resulting in their persecution and death2. The hagiopic allows for both realist and formalist flourishes to exist within the same film, pointing towards the transcendent through the immanent.

***

Two Joan of Arc films have garnered significant critical praise in their focus on a single moment in Joan’s history: her trial at Rouen before the Catholic inquisition. For The Passion of Joan of Arc, Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer sought out the most accurate historical material he could find about Joan, determined not to make a huge epic with sweeping battles or melodramatic flair. For his script, he used only the trial notes or Joan’s own recorded words, insisting that the actors say the exact words adapted directly from the historical trial, even though the film was silent and their lines wouldn’t be audibly recorded. Dreyer’s vision of the trial proceedings (which historically took five months) focuses on the final abjuration of Joan, creating a condensed, intense environment for both Joan and the audience.

With an underlying nod to German expressionism, Dreyer’s film uses minimalist settings and backdrops in order to focus entirely on the characters’ faces. He uses low camera shots, Dutch tilts, and extreme close-ups to create an emotionally intense experience for the audience. Using the standard aspect ratio of 1.33:1 created a square-like frame, allowing Dreyer to fill the frame with a character’s whole face. In reference to his use of close-ups, Dreyer once said, “Nothing in the world can be compared to the human face. It is a land one can never be tired of exploring.”3 The actors wore no makeup, and actress Maria Falconetti’s expressive visage is deeply affecting, her eyes wide with fear and pathos. Dreyer wanted the audience to experience the exhausting strain on Joan, creating an oppressive film-viewing environment. The constant close-ups feel claustrophobic, intimate, and revelatory. By inviting the audience to share in Joan’s suffering and spirituality, Dreyer also puts us on trial, participating in passion.

Robert Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc is only similar to Dreyer’s film in historical setting, not in formal approach. Susan Sontag writes, “There is art that involves, that creates empathy. There is art that detaches, that provokes reflection.”4 Dreyer is the former, while Bresson’s approach is the latter. Bresson’s Joan film is composed of static, medium shots, mostly of people talking, following the sequential moments within Joan’s trial. We watch her walk back and forth from her prison cell to the trial room with a repetition that threatens boredom. The film is barely an hour in length, with few interludes; scenes are cut short abruptly, and the pacing is slow and steady. The deadpan tone is a striking contrast to Dreyer’s overly emotive scenes. Where Dreyer fosters intimacy, Bresson creates distance between the viewer and Joan, notably through showing her from the point of view of priests and guards peering at her through a hole in the wall of her prison cell. For Bresson, we are simply voyeurs of Joan’s pain, outsiders peering at an awkward distance. Bresson’s Joan is aloof, both in the film and historically. A close-up of the scribe’s hand that suddenly stops recording the trial is indicative of Bresson’s approach: the historical gap between Joan and us is too wide to ever fully know the true saint. Ultimately, both are well-crafted films depicting similar events with divergent results, as noted by Paul Schrader:

Dreyer’s film is a passion: Bresson’s is a trial. Both depict the historical Joan, but whereas Dreyer emphasizes…the psychology of her existence, Bresson emphasizes the physiology of her existence. Both Joans are alienated, but whereas Dreyer’s Joan is reactive to her social surroundings, Bresson’s Joan is a solitary soul, responding primarily to her voices. Both films reveal the sainthood of Joan: Dreyer through her humanity, Bresson through her divinity. Both view Joan as a suffering intercessor between God and man: Dreyer as the crucified, sacrificial lamb, Bresson as the resurrected, glorified icon.5

 

***

This all comes back to my original question: Why is Joan such a captivating figure for both filmmakers and audiences? While many saints left behind relics for future generations’ veneration, Joan left no written theological treatises or sacred objects. In the mythology of her story, her heart remained unburned by the fires of the stake. Her charred remains were nevertheless burned again, reduced completely to ashes, and then scattered in the Seine River. Yet the historical record of her trial is remarkably detailed and ripe for artistic adaptation. Here is the remarkable story of a young woman driven by a vision, empowered to lead a nation, then victimized and martyred by an oppressive religious and political system. Anyone who has been marginalized or suffered at the hands of others—from political refugees fleeing from war, to survivors of sexual abuse, to those unjustly fired from their jobs, to middle schoolers being bullied—can find comfort and companionship in the story of Joan.

We can find Joan all around us, if we only have eyes to see and ears to hear. I see her in Katniss Everdeen, Ellen Ripley, and Imperator Furiosa, fictional female fighters and leaders who remain sympathetic and approachable, perhaps precisely due to their resilience in the face of suffering. I see her in Peggy Olson from Mad Men, Beyoncé’s Lemonade, and Ellie Kemper’s Kimmy Schmidt6. I see Joan in my own four-year-old daughter, full of spunk and vigor, whose own French name means “famous warrior.” She’s paradoxically delicate and a badass. So was Joan.

Perhaps the answer to her cultural enchantment lies in her ability to be the icon for nearly any political, religious, or personal ideology. As a young peasant woman of humble origins, Joan is a champion of the poor and marginalized. As a defender of the monarchy and a nationalist, she is a symbol of patriotism. Both the Left and the Right have adopted her as the picturesque saint for their respective ideologies. If you’re pro-government, she’s your saint. If you’re anti-government, she’s also your saint. If you’re a conservative prude, she’s a humble teenage virgin who often submitted herself to the male authority figures around her. If you’re a progressive feminist, she opposed societal norms regarding gender roles and sexuality, choosing to wear men’s clothes and often effectively taking charge in a patriarchal culture. Both the transgender atheist and the traditional Roman Catholic can find common ground in their appreciation for Joan of Arc. This in itself is something miraculous.

Leaving behind no relics of her own, the Joan films serve as a means to venerate her, allowing contemporary audiences to share in her journey and potentially glimpse the transcendent through the hagiographic. Joan of Arc is conservative and progressive, feminine and androgynous, a martyr and a maid, a soldier and a pacifist, both the glory of the Church and a victim at the hands of a corrupt religious establishment. She is whatever the filmmaker—and audience—needs her to be.


1 Pamela Grace, The Religious Film: Christianity and the Hagiopic (West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 3.

2 Ibid., 13.

3  Jean Drum and Dale D. Drum, My Only Great Passion: The Life and Films of Carl Th. Dreyer (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2000), 138

4 Susan Sontag, “Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson,” in Robert Bresson, ed. James Quandt (Toronto: TIFF Cinemateque, 2011), 55.

5 Paul Schrader, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), 121.

6 Females are strong as hell.


Joel Mayward is a writer, pastor, and film critic living in Portland, Oregon. The author of three books, he writes on film and spirituality atwww.cinemayward.com.


Jesus Christ, Doubting Thomas: The Last Temptation of Christ and Last Days in the Desert

 
© Universal Pictures

© Universal Pictures

© Broad Green Pictures

© Broad Green Pictures

by Sarah Welch

“You unbelieving generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.” So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?”

“From childhood,” he answered. “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”

“‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”

Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

— Mark 9:19-24, NIV

*

I am a Christian. I am forthcoming about my faith. My best friends in graduate school were collectively dubbed “the God Squad,” and there were a surprising number of us, given that we were attending a well-known secular institution. My reputation as a believer follows me wherever I go. I can’t help it; it just keeps coming up. And I have doubts.

The church I was raised in spent very little time on doubts and misgivings. In the Evangelical Church, once you’re “saved,” that’s it. You’re a Christian now, and although the evangelical church is more than happy to educate its newcomers in doctrine and teaching, there is no more room for doubt. The congregations I grew up in were not, in my experience, authoritarian. Questions weren’t discouraged, but there was a tendency to shy away from conversations about full-on doubt in faith, especially among the youth. We didn’t know what to do with someone who didn’t think they believed what the church was teaching them.

High school youth groups in particular reinforced doctrine without questioning its purpose. See, we all believe this. Nothing to worry about here. And those of us who did have doubts would push them down below layers of doctrinal teachings. You might be able to admit a faith crisis in the comfort of a small group Bible study, but only with people you’ve known for a long time. Even then, admission of doubt can change the dynamic of a group irrevocably. The Evangelical community has been notorious for telling its members with depression that they must not be believing in Jesus hard enough. Christians who struggle with the “temptation” of depression have to put up with other churchgoers telling them to consider unaddressed sin in their lives. Better to keep the status quo than admit your doubt. Strong Christians who falter in their faith are unsettling to the rest of the congregation, so to admit your doubt could endanger someone else as well.

If a doubtful Christian disturbs the peace so much, how much more damage could a doubtful Christ do?

*

Two films in particular deal with Christ as a human being—especially as a human being who doubts. The first is Martin Scorsese’s 1988 The Last Temptation of Christ. The second is Rodrigo García’s 2016 Last Days in the Desert. Both attempt to answer the question, “What was Jesus the human like?” Both take care to establish that they are not explicitly based on the Bible. Nor are they particularly concerned with questions of Christ’s divinity, either. They show Jesus laughing, crying, enjoying life in his body. Both show the physical agony of the crucifixion, although both also shy away from showing the resurrection; they are not movies about the divine, but rather about a very charismatic teacher—a fact that made both, especially Last Temptation, controversial upon release. Both, frustratingly, also cast white men as a Middle-Eastern character. Both rewrite an often-told Bible story.

The Bible story is this: Jesus has just been baptized and has been driven by the Spirit of God into the wilderness. There he stays for forty days, fasting and praying, before returning to society to begin teaching. During his time in the desert, Jesus is tempted by Satan three times: once to turn stones into bread (traditionally an analogue for gluttony), once to take control over all nations in the world (avarice), and once to throw himself off the highest point of the temple in Jerusalem (pride). Jesus responds by quoting scripture at Satan until Satan goes away. This story can be found in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke; they’re all worth reading.

In The Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus goes into the desert, draws a circle in the dirt, and tells God that he won’t leave that circle until he hears God speak. Up until this point, he has been wracked by doubt. He’s been told that he’s the Messiah the Jews have been waiting for, but he isn’t ready to accept it yet. He’s afraid of God’s love and God’s purpose for him, and he dreads the consequences of becoming God’s chosen. It is only after Jesus faces down Satan in the form of a cobra, a lion, and a flame that he accepts his role as a Messiah. The result is a wild-eyed preacher stumbling out of the desert, eager to fulfill the purpose he’s been running from up until this point.

Last Temptation is not about the temptations in the desert; the titular temptation comes much later. This is a large-scale film that traces the major points, Biblical and imagined, of Jesus’ life, tying them all together with the thread of his alternating doubt and devotion. Willem Dafoe depicts Jesus as deadpan when he isn’t preaching; he isn’t fully alive unless he’s telling people that they should love one another. Last Temptation insists in an opening scroll that it isn’t based on the Gospels, but on the 1955 Nikos Kazantzakis book of the same name. Despite this assertion, nearly every scene feels as though it rephrases the Bible stories. I didn’t know the exact words that were going to be used, but I knew most of the dialogue before it was going to be said. Last Temptation felt to me what it must be like to be someone who has never believed but hears the Gospel story every so often: alien, intriguing, somewhat familiar, and very off-putting.

Last Temptation is long, full, and brash; an epic that takes the familiar stories and shifts them in such a way that people who are familiar with the conventional tellings will find this version both fresh and deeply disturbing by turns. Jesus’ world in Last Temptation is dusty and bloody, with wild religious fanatics preaching their followers into frenzies, and routine executions by the Roman government. Little details that turn the religious into horror are everywhere: the cavalier treatment of women, especially prostitutes, the sacrificial blood pouring off the temple, the decaying Lazarus stumbling from the tomb. Jesus may or may not be divine here, although it’s certain that he is special; he does things that can’t be explained, and he knows things no ordinary person could know. He’s also extremely reluctant to step into his role—at one point, before beginning to preach, exclaiming that he wishes he could crucify all of God’s Messiahs. Once he’s accepted who he thinks he is, though, he commits to the role. No outward questioning, no hesitation—at least until it’s time to die. And once he’s committed to being the Messiah, the Jesus of Last Temptation becomes someone a little different: less knowable, harder to understand. He isn’t quite human anymore.

Last Days in the Desert, by contrast, focuses exclusively on the humanity of Jesus, and on the end of his time in the desert, before he begins to preach. Last Days is quiet, poetic, and minimalistic, an introspective short story to Last Temptation’s epic. Yeshua (as the film calls him) has spent nearly forty days in the wilderness, and it is time for him to come out and rejoin civilization. Where the Jesus of Last Temptation initially rejects God and wishes he were not loved by him, Yeshua desperately wants to know God and understand him. In Last Temptation, God speaks to Jesus even when Jesus least wants to hear; in Last Days, Yeshua cannot hear God, no matter how hard he tries.

The film opens slowly. The sun rises and sets over a washed-out desert, where Yeshua (Ewan McGregor) shivers in the cold nights and sweats in the hot, long days. We spend time getting acquainted with the desert’s face until Jesus finally speaks for the first time. The utterance is startling.

“Father, where are You?”

This is not the Christ we know from the Bible, nor is this the firebrand from Last Temptation. The Christ from the Gospels speaks with confidence and authority, telling Satan in no uncertain terms to leave him alone, performing miracles, teaching in the temple at the age of twelve. The Jesus from Last Temptation knows who God is and what God is asking of him, but he’s stubborn, unwilling to yield ground. The Yeshua coming out of the desert in Last Days is exhausted and discouraged, thirsty, alone. He’s hanging on to belief, but his grip on his own faith seems tenuous at best. He says he knows God is out there somewhere, and he speaks and prays as though God is listening, but this is a Jesus who is racked by that most human of feelings: doubt.

*

When Christians talk about Jesus as fully God and fully human, I think we make the mistake of glossing over both ideas. “Fully God” is easy to grasp when we mention the miracles, the prophecies, and the resurrection and ascension, but “fully God” sounds distant and difficult to relate to. But if “fully God” is an alienating concept, “fully human” is even more difficult. Evangelical Christians are comfortable with talking about Jesus getting angry—there’s a memorable episode in which he drives money changers out of the temple, and another in which he withers a fig tree because it isn’t bearing any fruit. Christians talk about Jesus’ sadness for the death of Lazarus, and we talk about his desire to not have to go through with the trial and crucifixion. But for all our talk about Jesus being fully human, we still hold him at arm’s length, emotions muted, unwilling to consider the consequences of a God who walks the earth, disrupting everyday religious life. We’re unwilling to consider if God himself has ever had doubts.

 Last Temptation tackles this problem with memorable lines and a wild-eyed Messiah. Perhaps Jesus is the Messiah; perhaps he’s deluded or mentally ill; the film is unclear about the stance viewers should take, although it does establish that there’s something uncanny about this man who preaches love and pulls his beating heart out of his own chest. In contrast, Last Days is far more meditative, with fewer memorable lines but more time to think about what’s been said. In this film, Yeshua is a capable carpenter and stoneworker, a man. But he is not sure of himself, nor of his purpose. He’s unnerved by the hallucinations he might have seen in the desert, and he’s discouraged by God’s seeming silence. This film feels post-apocalyptic: there is no life in the desert, only people clinging to the edge. The word apocalypse, from the Greek, means “unveiling”. Last Days traces Christ’s journey from discouragement to realization, through the darkest doubts a person can face, until it is clear to both himself and to the people around him that he is no ordinary man.

*

Last Days in the Desert is a tone poem about the arid beauty of the desert. It was made with a skeleton crew and a shoestring budget, but it was filmed by the gifted cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (a three-time Oscar winner, best known for his work with Cuarón and Iñárritu), who traded in the long flowing takes of Gravity and Birdman for simplicity and stillness, washed-out stone and natural lighting (Lubezki’s more famous naturally lit movie, The Revenant, was filmed in 2015, a year after Last Days). The desert itself is a character, a shorthand for the emptiness and want that all humans must face at some point in their lives.

Yeshua meets a family in the desert embroiled in its own small, quiet drama, but the most interesting character in Last Days besides Yeshua is Satan. Also played by McGregor, Satan wants to see the end of everything. He’s sick of the endless infinitesimal variations that God imposes on his creation, over and over again; bored by his surroundings, he’s nevertheless eaten alive by his own curiosity about how the world will differ from “previous tellings.” Satan presents himself as arrogant and worldly, sporting jewelry and finer clothes than the things Yeshua wears, refusing to help the others build a house on the edge of a cliff. He taunts and sneers at Christ’s dogged pursuit of God’s voice. He pretends that he’s seen it all. And when Yeshua catches him interested in a shooting star at night, he brushes it off as just another in a long existence. “I’ve seen every shooting star since the first…nothing’s interesting any more.” He wants to see what the world has to offer, but he refuses to engage with the world in order to enact change.

Yeshua takes a different tack. He doesn’t know the different possibilities about what might happen with the family on the desert’s edge. He’s unable to solve a riddle that the boy of the family asks him. He’s completely human, and he feels that weight in every sleepless night, every bleary morning, every nightmare. McGregor wears Yeshua’s tiredness like it’s clothing, waking slowly in the cool of the morning, shielding himself from the heat of the sun, sitting in tired silence after a long day of work. But for all the bleakness of his situation, Yeshua is able to find the wonder and humor in it too. Few, if any, movies are willing to have their Christ struggle with his faith in one scene and laugh at a boy farting the next.

Yeshua works no miracles in this movie. There is no battle of Scripture-quoting wits between Christ and Satan, as in the passages this film is lifted from. Nor is there fiery preaching, as in Last Temptation; at one point Yeshua tells himself that examples and silence are better teachers than words. Here Yeshua is a tired traveler, a holy man who at times doubts his own holiness.

*

I like the idea of doubt colored by faith. It brings to mind the parable of the mustard seed, in which Christ states that someone who has faith as small as a mustard seed can still move mountains. I have days when all I can do is pray: “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” It’s a desperate prayer, and an uncomfortable one, because when I pray it I admit that I don’t know if I’m right. And yet, when I pray this prayer, I admit that it doesn’t matter, and that my faith isn’t dependent on whether or not I feel like believing on a given day. It’s a freeing thought. Doubts can outnumber faithful thoughts and still not fully drown the faith out. If faith is going to prevail, it needs to bump up against doubt, acknowledge its existence, then find its way around, like a man wandering his way out of the desert.

When Last Days’ Yeshua faces off against his mirror image Satan, it’s a kind of introspection; examining the worst parts of himself and holding them up to the light. I see myself in Jesus’ reluctant acceptance of his role in the world in Last Temptation. I see myself in Yeshua’s introspective struggle in Last Days. I’m no Messiah. But one of the things I believe Christians are called to do is to enact justice and change in a broken world, and the thought of trying to perform that task and failing terrifies me. Before discovering the “Help my unbelief” passage, I didn't want to try at all.

I am no longer uncomfortable with the end of Last Days in the Desert. Like most Jesus films, it closes with a crucifixion. Satan visits to pay his respects and to offer Yeshua a way out if he wants it, which Yeshua refuses. There’s a burial scene. Women shiver outside the tomb, just as Yeshua shivered in the desert at the beginning of the film.

Then the music changes. The desert appears again, this time brighter; the plaintive violin that played throughout the bulk of the film remains measured but grows more lively. Two people in modern dress walk to the cliff on which most of the film spent its time. They take pictures of each other in front of the view, then walk away. I’d argue that, despite all appearances to the contrary, there is a resurrection scene at the end of Last Days. There’s no angel, and no dazzling white robes. But life goes on, even in the desert, the edges of the screen painted green and gold as people continue to return to the cliff’s edge. So long as there’s life, there’s hope, but Last Days states that so long as there’s life, there’s quiet doubt, too. As long as we’re willing to face the cliff head on, that life will continue.


Sarah Welch has just completed a master’s degree in the humanities at the University of Chicago. She likes theology, knitting, and shouting about science fiction.


The Hermit Saints of American Movie

 
illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

 

by Adam Hofbauer

“It’s alright, it’s ok. There’s something to live for. Jesus told me so.”

In its most enduring sequence, Chris Smith’s documentary American Movie finds amateur filmmaker Mark Borchardt coaching this simple line of dialogue from his aged uncle, Bill. This is the first line of the film, Borchardt pleads, “it has to be on the money.” But again and again, the old man blows it.  

“I believe we can do this,” Borchardt urges around take sixteen. “I believe this can be done Bill.”

“Well I don’t,” Bill says. “I don’t believe in nothing that you’re doing.”

American Movie depicts Borchardt’s struggle to summon his cinematic dreams into reality through little more than sheer will. Shot from 1996 to 1997, Smith’s film evokes the slacker-cum-loser aesthetic so wedded to the period, but American Movie occupies a space of spiritual resonance deeper than its period aesthetic; while superficial connections could be made between Borchardt and other lone wolf filmmakers with questionable talent—from The Room’s Tommy Wiseau to the prolific Len Kabasinski—Borchardt’s closest filmic contemporary might be found in the work of surrealist Luis Buñuel (Un Chien Andalou, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie).

In Buñuel’s Simon of the Desert, the titular Simon lives his life on a pillar in the desert, awaiting a dawning of spiritual purification. The stylites of the early Christian era saw the suffering of their bodies as the surest path to salvation, and Buñuel’s film is loosely based on the story of one of the earliest practitioners of this hermetic calling. It finds Simon tempted by a female Satan, who ends the film by transporting him to the then-swinging ‘60s, to be tempted by the allure of skyscrapers and rock music. Buñuel directed the film in the wake of his first exile to Mexico, and its rebuke of the religious establishment so incensed the Spanish Church that he was returned to exile shortly after its release. In the hands of this dissident atheist, the iconography of the Catholic Church was employed as a tool of perversion and dissent, from the bare breasted Satan of Simon’s desert to the implied, ecstatic sodomy of L'Age d'Or. Buñuel’s career saw him move beyond such overt religious settings, but he never set the sights of his criticism far from the politics of his native Spain, or the repression of his homeland’s mother church. Like Simon himself, Buñuel so needed to explore his passions that he would time and again sever his connection to his own homeland in order to critique it. He was part of a generation of Spanish artists for whom the victory of fascism and the Franco government led to long years of exile and repression. The only way home was through the suffering of an iconoclast.           

It is the ultimate costs of artistic pursuits that both connect and differentiate Luis Buñuel and Mark Borchardt. Buñuel’s was a suffering of exile, of alienation from Spain and eventual death in Mexico, marked by the dramatic movements of a man born into a generation of outspoken artistic and political statements. And though his art brought him to borderlands of banishment, it also broadcast his politics and visions to a receptive, global audience. His suffering—like the saints of his own, rejected Catholic pantheon—can be said to have meant something. Mark Borchardt was born into a time and place defined more by Beavis and Butthead than by Spanish Anarchism. His work, though no less a key to his navigation of an invisible spiritual landscape, only seems to have drawn him into credit card debt.   

Uncle Bill’s doubts are echoed throughout American Movie. Crew members question Borchardt’s decision to split his resources between unrelated projects. His girlfriend questions his commitment to their relationship. Even his children admit that they don’t think being a filmmaker looks like very much fun. Outside of his often present companion Mike, Sancho Panza by way of one too many upper Minnesota acid trips, every person in Borchardt’s life doubts his directorial ambitions, his talent, and his long term financial planning strategy. And the more we are privy to Borchardt’s life, cast dark by the shadows of alcohol abuse, depression, a failed marriage and unpaid child support, the more difficult it becomes to disagree with these doubts. His singular drive towards artistry seem like something with no other explanation than a spiritual one. He may not seek to achieve salvation through the depletion of his body, but he is as exposed and, in many ways alone, as Simon atop his pillar, as the hermits of the fields of Judea.     

As much as friends and relatives doubt Borchardt’s talent and ambition, he counters their lack of faith with a religious commitment to his ideas. Watching Borchardt frame imaginary shots in front of his face, it seems that this may have been the appearance of the early mystics. Every soaring apse and mega church owes their lineage to something like this, a lone idiot raving in the wilderness with all accounts delinquent. “I wish I could give them destinies,” the latent director says of the people in his life. He dreams in such radioactive quantities that the fallout has to spill out into the creeks and junkyards of Milwaukee. Borchardt wants to give us destinies whose trajectory only he can navigate. He seems to have found a window into that place. If he could only extract some fragment of otherworldly light by which to show us what he has seen, this would inject meaning into every unpaid bill and every year of failure. And yet the only byproduct is an existential suffering.

Like the saints themselves, Borchardt seems compelled into the wilderness. This compulsion draws him physically outward, into the snow to orchestrate scenes of scarecrows and cultists. It drives him into the late winter woods to gather the sounds of birds, leaving him with nothing but the hum of nearby trucks. And it drives him through an existential wilderness of incompletion. Smith films Borchardt alone in his car, filming the final frames of his short horror film Coven (pronounced in rhyme with woven, the alternative, “Sounding like oven, man.”). He speaks of the terror of completion, of avoiding the moment when moving on is the only subsequent option. “There was still territory out there,” he says of his youth. “In the mind or around the block.” Never has an artist been captured completing a multi-year project with so much unspoken despair.

“I’m not a Christian,” Borchardt says of himself. “[I’m] half the Satanist’s idea and half with the Christian idea.” But this idea, in his words, is “the pursuit of higher levels.” His faith is almost Gnostic. Early Christian Gnosticism urged that that the teachings of Christ represented those of a supreme being who transcended the petty, jealous God of the Old Testament. The pursuit of gnosis is the path towards an understanding of this divine knowledge, a taking of truths into one’s own heart. “Beach at Cancun boy,” Mark complains of potential vacations as he sets up props. “There’s gotta be meaning in this somewhere. Fucking around with scarecrows on the roof of your car. Somehow it’s got to make sense, ultimately.”  

And yet on a level of pure filmmaking, one finds something far more valuable than Borchardt ever gives himself credit for. Unlike other trash mavericks like Tommy Wiseau, Borchardt produces images that are both visually striking and wedded to place. As he spends years compelled by some strange inner muses to make lots of clichéd horror melodramas, Borchardt accidentally captures images of a postindustrial Wisconsin, all lonesome junk yards and narrow roads through northern woods. His search for meaning may not lead to the masterpieces Borchardt sees in his head, but it does reveal flashes of light hidden in the lower middle class cadence of his community. Borchardt seems at times surrounded by a whole pantheon of accidental mystics. His sidekick Mike, moon faced, almost cherubic, speaks of visions, of rooms filled with green webs, of brain death and the smell of hospital salts. Uncle Bill sings of the dead, of promises to visit graves whose location he does not know, of unnamed loved ones long since passed. Mark bathes his uncle, marveling at the man’s quarter inch thick toenail. The compassion of Mark’s bathing ritual recalls the Pietà. But Bill’s sanctity tells of something deeper, for it is unintentional. While Mark is forever searching and seeking to define, Bill reports a lack of desire for anything different. He is content to sit outside of his trailer, his requests as simple as peppermint schnapps mixed with Sprite. A few moments before a title card announces his death after the end of filming, it is Bill’s words that are chosen to close American Movie. “Come again,“ he says. “Come again. Stay. Stay a while. Stick around a while. Stick around. As long as you can. Heaven help you. God help you. Jesus help you. Everybody else help you. Everybody. Everybody make happy. Make everybody happy. Be a comedian.”

Old Bill is dying and probably struggling with memory and an everyday ability to express his own thoughts. The same words could be read as encroaching senility in an old man’s final days. And twenty years later, it is impossible to divorce American Movie’s manchild slackers from a kind of endemic, male entitlement, in which a deficit of talent and funds is no match for assumptions of artistic importance. Borchardt must have known the narratives of Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith, both film nerds of his generation who rose from nowhere on nothing but their self-taught cinematic passions. But these narratives seem as wearisome now as the public personas of those same directors, and Borchardt, for the very reason of his ecstatic suffering, seems somehow more interesting. And Chris Smith, ending his film on Bill’s accidental poetry, seems to be suggesting something deeper lying within. The old man seems to have found something his nephew will forever search for. Perhaps the prophets sounded like this once, drunk and alone atop their silly pillars. And it could be that the only difference between a drunk and a saint is the perspective of a couple of thousand years.


Adam Hofbauer has written about film and pop culture for Movie Mezzanine, The Atlantic, Flavorwire and others.


Radical Divergence: Engaging with Faith in Midnight Special

 
illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

 

by Katherine Taylor

Within the comforting protection of an old sheet, the child sits, flashlight in hand, comics balanced across knees. The enveloping cloth is soft and smells faintly of soap. Heavy earphones block sound and nothing exists except the world of the story. The spell remains unbroken until the sheet is pulled away, ceaseless reality returning.

Watching Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) be revealed in the opening scene of Midnight Special was like stepping back in time. I had the same ritual every night (without his goggles) until my Mother invariably found me and made me go to bed. While I was lucky enough to not have the U.S. government or a group of armed cultists searching for me, I did and do have a great deal in common with the central character in Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special.

Mind you, I’m not saying I came from another dimension. But I am very much an alien among you. I am Neurodivergent, or more specifically, I am Autistic.

Divergence: At the turn of the century, clergymen began to speak out against moving pictures. They claimed such things promoted “immorality”, the same old saw used for everything fun. In truth, churches, both Protestant and Catholic, were seeing reduced numbers. The popularity of the new pastime might’ve made a very convenient scapegoat…

I was and am a reader. The restrictions my parents placed on television and movie watching didn’t apply to literature. Or at least the books they didn’t want me reading were easier to sneak. But even with the severe limitations of what we were allowed to view, I quickly fell in love with the movies. There, on the screen before me, were all the pictures that filled my head when I read or daydreamt.

Like Alton I was an unusual and gifted child (even without my own glowing eyelight). Hyperlexic, I’d taught myself to read by the age of three and quickly consumed every book in our house. My parents were of course surprised by this. Particularly as before that all I could seem to do was rock back and forth and bang my head against the wall when the world got too overwhelming. But I couldn’t tell them why I was doing these things so they formed their own conclusions.

I was thought to need religion. Surely that would make me better. Or at least better behaved. I never cottoned to the church but I did have a healthy respect for the power it wielded in our small, rural community. So seeing the Ranch—the compound the cult led by Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard) lives on in the film—made me identify with Alton even more.

Growing up “different” in a tight knit community can make you a target. It can also give you a kind of otherworldliness. In Alton’s case, his unique gifts lead the people to believe he is their savior. When Roy (Michael Shannon) takes Alton and flees (the Ranch members have begun stockpiling firearms for the judgment day), the leader orders that the boy be found before the designated time of Ascension. Which just happens to be in four days. He charges one of his deacons with bringing him back. “God has laid a heavy burden on you,” Calvin Meyer tells the man. But, as the extent of the people’s faith in the boy is revealed, one wonders if the actual burden hasn’t been laid on the 8-year-old Alton.

Divergence: Perhaps if less people had been at the movies, they would’ve heard and heeded the clergy’s warnings. It was in the 1920s that movie houses became movie palaces and began to take on the features of temples. Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Blvd. is perhaps the most famous example of this…

Midnight Special is Jeff Nichols’ experiment in science fiction. He gives out only the scantest information and leaves you to fill in the rest. It’s a smart move, much like Spielberg choosing to leave the final UFO design up to the viewer’s imagination in Close Encounters. With such sparse dialogue, it’s up to the character’s actions to fill in the gaps for motivations. This is not a film about talking, it’s about doing.

From the opening, we are carted along with Roy and Alton, as well as their protector, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), as they try to make it to the coordinates Alton has identified by listening to secret government transmissions. As they travel further, the situation becomes more dire, not only because of those pursuing them, but because Alton himself grows weaker and less able to control himself each time he’s called upon to use his powers.

By the time the trio arrives to reunite Alton with his mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), the boy is so clearly ill that Lucas calls for him to be taken to hospital. The idea is rejected out of hand. “He’ll make it,” Roy insists and his conviction makes you so badly want to believe it’s true.

It’s within this family structure that the film’s relationship to faith reveals itself most fully. They are a Holy Family and as such will travel the path through the valley and shadows until Sarah (a stand in for the Virgin Mary) can witness Alton’s Ascension into paradise. It’s a lovely story, with many fine threads that weave into an unbreakable cord between them.

Roy had been taken to The Ranch by his parents. He watched as another man raised his child and attempted to make him a messiah. Roy says that the only thing he’s ever believed in was Alton, but I disagree. He had faith, or at least a hope, that Lucas would not give them up when approached for help. He trusted his wife to give them shelter and to help take Alton along the final steps of his journey.

Sarah could be said to have “broken faith” when she left Roy and Alton. But she trusted her husband to do what was right for the boy since she couldn’t bear to see what was being done with him. She continues to put her faith, implicitly, in Roy and in her son’s destiny.

Lucas, an unofficial member of the family, is left out of hugs but is not merely an outsider. Lucas plays the crucial, if sometimes infuriating, role of Doubter (just as Peter did). He questions the family’s blind devotion and loses his trust in them at one point, but a newly recharged Alton appears and reminds him that his faith wasn’t misplaced.

Divergence: All signs pointed to the movies being America’s new religion. With the birth of the Motion Picture Production Code in the 1930s, the film industry began policing the morals of movies for the good of the public. The code was written by a Jesuit priest and a Catholic layman after a series of scandals involving Hollywood stars. As one might expect, it set a heavily religious tone in deciding what could and couldn’t be said or depicted on film for over 30 years…

Autism in film is not new although very few movies acknowledge their characters as neurodivergent. It seems easier to sideline us as aliens. From Klaatu to Spock and now Alton, science fiction has a long history of taking the Other and holding them up as bastions of pure good or pure evil. There seems to be no room for nuance. It didn’t take me long to figure out that the peaceful, hyper-intelligent aliens that stood before humanity asking them to change were stand-ins for people like me. The ones who lived in their heads, and in books or movies, far more than the real world.

Alton is no different in that regard. He occupies this world only until he can go where he belongs. If Nichols had made this film as a straight drama, I can easily see the events morphing into a family fighting for a diagnosis for their child. Society and bureaucracy might be against them but they keep their faith and keep trying. The mother and father want what’s best for their son, knowing his gifts can be developed to benefit himself and the world, even though they know life won’t be the same afterward. The mother’s decision to let her son go with the strangers who can help him is difficult one, but ultimately the right one.

Alton himself acknowledges this aspect when he comes back from meeting the sun for the first time. He says he thinks he knows what he is now. It would be easy to have him say that after meeting with a psychologist for diagnosis as well. And it is his acceptance of himself that allows him greater control over his powers. Alton has had faith in his Father and his family. Now, he has faith in himself as well.

Throughout the film, Alton never behaves as a child might be expected to. Instead, he often carries himself with greater composure than the adults. It is only when he’s back with his mother and father that we ever see him play. This holds with Autism as well; we are called “little professors” to describe not only the way we think but also our behavior.

Alton is seen multiple times in the film with heavy soundproof headphones on and only rarely removes his goggles. The neurodivergent often have sensory processing disorders that can make the world too loud, too bright, too rough against our skin. Alton is no exception here either.

The closer he gets to his Ascension, the more Alton comes to understand himself. He is not meant for the world of the mundane. He is neither weapon, as the government believes, or savior, as the cult members do. Instead, he belongs to a group of Observers, beings who have been watching the world for a very long time. They exist just out of sync with this dimension. I cannot tell you how familiar that sounds.

Autistics so often describe themselves as feeling as if they are aliens that it has become part of our culture. Temple Grandin (arguably the most notable Autistic alive) was described in an Oliver Sacks essay as “an anthropologist on Mars.” One of the earliest web forums for the neurodivergent is called WrongPlanet. Whether or not Nichols was aware of it, he has tapped into something very real.

Divergence: Around 60 million people went to see films weekly during the Great Depression. The chance to escape reality must’ve seemed worth the cost. People continue to use film as a kind of lifeline, particularly those at the fringes of society. For us, movies became a kind of language all their own…

We look to film as a means of escape, catharsis. It can lift our mood or plunge us into despair. Bad ones infuriate us at the loss of time and so-bad-they’re-good ones become cult classics. We put faith in film. Whatever else it might do, film affects us, be that on a personal or even a societal level.

Art, in any instance, can challenge our beliefs. It can help to change attitudes and lessen stigma. Our society is quick to place blame on the parents of “special needs” children. They are pitied or vilified for the child’s problem behavior if they are unable to “control” them and they are scorned if they send them away to schools able to meet their needs. It’s a double bind and no one, particularly the child, ever wins.

The parents’ decision to let Alton be who he is, and to let him leave, has a weighty significance. Too often those of us labeled Other are blamed for our own conditions. We’re subject to behavior therapies that can be analogous to torture in an effort to make us appear Normal. We are shamed for not being able to do what others feel should be easy. But Roy and Sarah don’t shame Alton for being different. Rather, they accept their son, even when they cannot understand him.

That is truly a radical divergence from the norm. And by doing so, they allow for a better future for their child.

That is something that impacts me greatly. All these many years later, I still turn to movies to find connections with people both on and off the screen. During the worst times of your life, you can turn on an old favorite movie and feel, if not better, then at least a bit of comfort. Faith was always described to me as the evidence of things unseen. I think it can more accurately be called trust. In an ever shifting world, there are fewer and fewer things to place our faith in. But for those of us who live just out of sync with the rest, film can be a constant. Watch that old favorite again and again and it will not change. Dialogue you can quote verbatim remains unaltered, as does the appearance of the characters. You can trust film or books or paintings to stay faithful even when everything else around you is devolving into chaos.

I admit that Midnight Special is not a film for everyone. It doesn’t leave you laughing or sobbing. It leaves you to ponder the events and draw your own conclusions. Perhaps its final message is a simple reminder: you’ve got to have faith. Although I wouldn’t mind having that eyelight as well. It’s just gotta make reading under the covers a bit easier.


Katherine Taylor becoming a writer was prophesied by her maternal grandmother who said she had too grand a name to be anything else. Kate holds a Masters in Communications & a fair amount of water weight. She is currently working on her first novel but new writings can be found daily at The Observers Outpost on Instagram. 


 

It's Cold Out There Every Day

 
illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

 

by Alex Dabertin

I watch Groundhog Day every year, always around Groundhog Day. Ostensibly, I do this for the sheer pleasure of watching it, but in reality I also do it to fulfill a little itch that grows every time I watch.

I first saw the film when I was very young, and back then only two things really stuck: Bill Murray was the greatest and funniest of all time (I still stand by this)—and I was terrified by the plot. I literally used to pray that I not wake up back in today. I would watch the movie as if to ward off little demons that would pop up on my chest and say, “You must live your life all over again!”

But that’s not why I watch the movie any more. Now the movie comes to me like a dream, like the dream. Murray’s Phil Connors gets to live his afterlife in this life, AND THEN GETS TO KEEP ON LIVING!

I’m sorry I shouted there, but the redemptive promise of Phil’s journey keeps on rocking me. I am not trying to downplay the tedium and desperation that would set in, but the end result keeps getting more and more appealing, more and more worth the price of admission, each time I think about it.

And I keep thinking about it because of God. This romantic comedy has given me more reason to think about God than the Bible ever did—as well as more room to figure out why I don’t believe in God—because it depicts a far more compelling alternative: the creation of a god on Earth.

Some people find Jesus; I found Bill Murray.

***

The elevator pitch for Groundhog Day might not sound like a religious treatise—Pittsburgh weatherman Phil Connors (Murray) goes to Punxsutawney to cover Groundhog Day, gets frozen inside that single day, lives it over and over for possibly a thousand years, and eventually becomes less of a dick—but it makes a heartfelt and brilliant argument for the irrelevance of the almighty in the face of humanity.

God never speaks in Groundhog Day. At best, they make themselves known through Phil's implacable bedside alarm clock. His plight is never explained, and he never makes any concerted effort to explain it: Phil is not a philosopher, he’s a weatherman.

And making Phil a weatherman is perhaps the first perfect stroke in the movie. A weatherman is interested in seeing things coming on the horizon, then explaining these things away with phrases like “pressure systems,” “warm fronts,” and “rain events.” Mostly, they are interested in the here and now...and possibly the upcoming weekend. Phil is not a meteorologist, mind; he’s a weatherman: a Middle American huckster who wants to climb up the corporate ladder. Which is to say that Phil is about as low as you can go, morally speaking.

One final point about the moral depravity of weathermen: they lie, or at the least, they feel little need to tell the whole truth—particularly in the early 90’s, when we didn't have huge digital databases, just Doppler. The original TV weatherman was a cartoon sheep. That’s true. The sheep was soon replaced by sober meteorologists, dispensing real advice, until they too were traded in, mostly, for more cartoons and “weather-girls” in skimpy clothes.

The biggest TV weatherman in Phil Connor’s era would have been Willard Scott on the Today show, who had previously been both Ronald McDonald and Bozo the Clown, and who once said, “A trained gorilla could do this job.” Weathermen served to talk down to happy suburban Americans about real, necessary weather science so they could pretend to care about the weather as much as their farmer forefathers while planning where to shuttle the kids off to next. Phil Connors has a big head about being in an industry that traffics in clowns, dissimulation, sexism, and plain old American sadness.

Phil is greedy, avaricious (which are synonyms, yes, but Phil needs both), a drinker, and a womanizer. He uses people to get ahead. The moment after first meeting Rita (Andie MacDowell)—who is fun, funny, and apparently good at her job—all Phil can think about is how attractive she is. In other words, he is in desperate need of a karmic scrub down.

Karma is the key. Groundhog Day operates on a very Eastern axis, particularly the mix of Buddhism and Hinduism known as Krishna-centered Vaishnavite Hinduism.

Vaishnavite Hindus believe that Vishnu is the Supreme Lord, and Krishnites believe Krishna is the ultimate incarnation of Vishnu. The relevant theology/philosophy for us is that worshippers of Krishna believe both that this world is maya, an illusion, and that this illusion is the only way we have to connect with Vishnu, who exists both above and inside the illusion. God exists as something more real than the sensual world, but the sensual world is God’s creation, and thus our best way to experience God. This was in disagreement with earlier Hindu beliefs that the world in which we live is merely a false dream, to be engaged with only insofar as one must to complete their Dharma or purpose.

Groundhog Day reflects Vaishnavite philosophy by likewise erasing the highest God from view, except in the totality of the world itself. There is nothing abnormal about the city of Punxsutawney, except for the fact that Phil is stuck there by a will much greater than his own. And because of this surface normality, the total unimportance that Phil sees in Punxsutawney, he first becomes totally enraged by his imprisonment.

To Phil, the little town in which he finds himself cannot be the true world; he even refers to Pittsburgh as “civilization” in comparison. Because the town cannot help him complete his (network TV) goals, Phil rejects everything that Punxsutawney is, and tries to get the hell out of town as fast as Chris Elliot can take him (which is, to be clear, not that fast). Phil’s entire M.O. as a dickish, self-aggrandizing modern man comes to a head right before he gets stuck. Shivering in the snow in front of a jack-knifed semi, Phil declares to a placid state trooper: “I make the weather.”

He kept telling everybody that he knew the blizzard would move off. He knew how the snow would behave. He knew. I mean, how juicy a target for divine retribution can you get? Not only is Phil Connors a boozing, womanizing, TV clown for suburbanites, he has a god complex to boot. And so, he gets stuck. In the snow.

Like so many spiritual journeys, Phil’s starts off on the wrong foot. At first, his new situation causes him to think he might actually be a god, and not a metaphorical one. In the early part of his incarceration, he does the wrong thing quite a lot—steals a car, breaks girls’ hearts—but perhaps no deed shows off his hollowed-out arrogance better than an early diner scene. Surrounded by the useless tchotchkes of many a Middle American diner (who invented novelty cookie jars? They haunt my life!), Phil simultaneously tries to woo Rita with his new “god” status, eat his weight in carbs, sugar, and soluble fats, and out-smoke the entire diner, ignoring anyone’s actual well-being in the interest of making his point. Rita is unimpressed, the diners are freaked out, and one young couple (half of which is played by a ridiculously young Michael Shannon) is on the brink of a breakup instead of a wedding. While the stunt itself achieves nothing, it shows us exactly what Phil believes a god to be: someone who has all the knowledge in the world and can do whatever they want.

What’s crazy is that Phil is both staggeringly wrong and utterly right.

The definition of a god in Hindu theology and philosophy was described to me by my professor, Shayoni Mitra, as follows: a god is a being that has a known Dharma, but need not worry about Karma. The gods cannot help but complete their purpose, so how they achieve that purpose does not matter. Even if a god does harm, the universe cannot punish that god because that god’s wrongdoing either furthered what the god was supposed to do, or it did not further anything, and the god still faces no consequences. Like if, say, god tried to show off by smoking, eating, and spilling secrets in small town diner.

The god Krishna exemplifies this dichotomy and the conflict between the world as illusion and the world as God’s creation. By experiencing the greatest pleasures of this world as well as recognizing its pains, Krishna was able to complete his Dharma, and so become that which Vishnu deemed he must be. The most important example of this duality is recorded in the Gita Govinda where Krishna makes amends to his holy lover, the human woman Radha.

The Gita Govinda tells us that in order to be his most godly self, Krishna needed the love, physical and emotional, of Radha. But after they make love, she falls asleep and he, being a god, does not. Instead, he goes for a walk and as he walks he plays his pan pipe. This most holy music attracts the female cowherds or gopi. The gopi have an unwavering devotion to Krishna and so they all make love with Krishna as well. But then Krishna, tired from “playing” with the gopi, returns to Radha, who had been worried about him. Appropriately, Radha is pissed. Krishna must work to regain her trust and apologize, for without her love he cannot be his true self nor complete his Dharma.

Phil undergoes much the same journey—in a slightly more modern way—with Rita. His first trial is to accept that he has a role to fill. No matter what he tries—the hedonism of his early years in the loop, the repeated mutilations of his suicide period, the arrogant bluster of his “godly” phase—he cannot escape. All he does slips away every morning. There are no larger consequences for Phil, except that he will not move on. He does not know what to do.

That inability to move ultimately takes a toll on Phil, as it would on anyone, and allows Groundhog Day to function as a look into the possible psyche of a god. What drives the gods mad is often their inability to change. Krishna or Christ are what they are for all eternity, and it is their one-ness that defines them as gods. But Phil is human, and he can change, given time.

Once Phil goes through all the stages of growth and grieving—even killing what he believes to be the avatar of his limbo, the groundhog, in a fiery murder-suicide—he starts to accept his lot and begins to change. He starts to actually interact with the town he finds himself stuck in. He stops being needlessly reckless and destructive. He begins to right his Karma and fulfill his purpose.

Phil suspects early on that love might free him. He immediately recognizes Rita’s beauty, and in that, as Steve Martin might say, his own “special purpose.” But, like Krishna, Phil cannot meet his ultimate goal simply by wanting to do sp. He can't just play his cards right to woo Rita, nor can he trick her into being attracted to him, as evidenced by his very creepy attempts to sculpt the “perfect” first date (including a final attempt that borders on sexual assault).

Dharma cannot be forced; it must simply come to be. Phil must not only appear to be good; he must become truly decent to understand his Dharma.

After Phil gives up trying to force his way out and gives into what he had previously thought of as illusions—what Marx might call bourgeois values— he begins to grow and learn. Which is what makes Groundhog Day so fascinating to me: it depicts a man growing, not just into an “adult” but into a fully-fledged person. Rather than commit random acts of kindness to earn brownie points to escape, Phil becomes engaged in his adoptive community. He becomes interested in helping others, learning new skills, and adapting to his new life. Phil Connors may be, in a disgusting Bill Murray way, the most human human ever shown on screen.

But in order to become human, and in order to love Rita not as a sex object or trophy, but as a fellow human being, he has to first experience the torturously confined freedom that defines Hindu god-hood.

Phil was right, he could become a god through knowledge (God is God because he knows everything), but in order to learn everything in town, he has to accept how deaf and dumb he was to the people around him. His truest growth comes not only from treating Rita like a person—talking to her as an equal, being interested in her goals and hopes, listening to her—but from his repeated attempts to revive the homeless man he calls “grandfather,” who dies on the night of Groundhog Day.

Phil does everything in his not-inconsiderable power to help this old, sick, unlucky man, but nothing he does can change it. So, in the end, Phil decides to help as best he can: knowing that the old man is going to die, he gives him soup to make his last day better. Knowing that the mayor is going to choke, he helps him. Knowing that the child is going to fall from the tree, he catches him. He stops squandering his privilege and intelligence on making the world fit his own personal needs. He stops trying to get Rita into bed and instead gets to talking with her. And so, he gets unstuck. He stops trying to make the weather, and instead just lives in it.

***

Groundhog Day is a film about knowledge. It believes knowledge to be the very basis of god-hood, the nature of the divine. But more than this, Groundhog Day also depicts learning as the most fundamental human act. The sheer fact of engaging with the world around him lifts Phil into the realm of the divine. The ultimate and quietly dangerous idea of this film is that there is no divide between the human and the divine. We are that which God is made of. Bill Murray is a powerful spiritual font.

My grandmother was the head of the choir of the Presbyterian congregation in the little lake town where I grew up, and I remember the feeling of musty, ancient knowledge in what was, in truth, a humble chapel. But the red carpet and the trees outside the stained glass windows lent the pine pews and oak beams a glow, a warmth of light that still causes me to be quiet and listen. The hushed little place where my grandmother sang whispered of things not generally known, and I can still feel that deep sensation long after having moved away. But the knowledge it held was all about the people who had worshipped there, not some higher knowledge.

No matter the sensation and elevation of the place, I never imagined the magnified figure in the stained glass was real. Instead, there was the fact of the constant cycle of birth, life, and death that was formalized there. At the simple pulpit of Fontana Community Church, families are baptized, families are made in marriage, and families are ended with funerals. It keeps going on and on and on, but the building still sees it, the organ still sings it. And we can still hear it, if we listen. This is the heart of religion, faith: the connection of now to the past and the future. Groundhog Day understands that.

I watch Groundhog Day in the same way some people read the Bible. I have stated before that movies helped raise me; in many ways, they became my religion, the tapestry of images I used to understand my world. Groundhog Day is my spiritual guide above all. I am laughing now, thinking of what my grandmother would say if I told her this at Christmas. And maybe it is exactly what you are saying right now. But I cannot help feeling it is true, that we need each other to become better, because we can only learn from each other. We don’t all get ten thousand years of do-overs of the same day, but if we are kind and pay attention, we may realize most of us are here for a long time and see so much.

Groundhog Day, the holiday, is all about people trying to get a handle on the cycles of the world, steal a little sliver of knowledge from the gods. It asks, “Will spring be soon?” but asks it to a rodent that lives in a stump.

Spring will take six weeks to get here no matter what (unless we keep on warming the planet), because the world doesn’t give a shit about what we do—only we do. There are only us humans, and it is only what we do to and for each other that defines the world, and by extension, god. So we must be kind.

A silly romantic comedy starring Bill Murray from the 90’s taught me that.


Alex Dabertin recently graduated from Columbia University with a dual degree in Theater and Chemistry. He has no idea what he is planning on doing with that either.