Saturday, May 21, 2011

Film #141: The Rapture

Sharon, don't you understand what's going on? The world's a disaster. We have no power to make it better. You hate your job; you hate your life; but you want to feel special. Instead of letting me do that, you're rushing off to something that's not even there.

Here in America, at least, the Facebook pages are a-twitter over radio preacher Harold Camping's well-publicized predictions about Jesus' long-awaited return to Earth, scheduled to happen today, May 21st, 2011. If it were to occur, naturally, it would mean the end of life as we know it. But this, of course, is not the first time such a monumental change has been predicted. For centuries, both science and religion have been responsible for past foretellings of "the end of the world," all for naught.

There are two films set to come out immediately that have the planet's imminent demise as a central concern (Lars Von Trier's Melancholia and Mike Cahill's Another Earth). Zombies--another endtimes feature--are all the rage, like they never have been before; there are popular TV shows, films, and books grabbing our imaginations with grisly flesh-eaters transforming the world into a giant restaurant. There are even "Zombie Pub Crawls" going on in many cities, with participants dressing up as blood-spattered monsters substituting beer for meat. And nearly every film dealing with aliens these days has them intent on destroying humanity; gone are the days of Close Encounters and E.T. Now, with Greg Mottola's recent comedy Paul being a notable exception, we're back to the 50s-era notion that all that possible otherworldly beings want from us is our disappearance (Battle: Los Angeles and Monsters are the two most recent entries in these sweepstakes). And when you look at documentaries, you'll see some dire predictions in films like Collapse, Endgame, and even An Inconvenient Truth.

I have to believe that all this talk about the "end of the world" is fear-based: fear of the troubled present, fear of the deceased past, and fear of the unknowable future. But it also has roots in both hope and boredom--boredom with an ongoing state of flux, and hope for a massive worldwide change that just might give us a chance to start all over again, clean slate--and even, for some of us, to ascend to a state where all our needs will be happily met forever. But, really, all of this talk is pointless. I tend to agree with George Carlin, who was always there with the smarts. In a 1992 HBO special called Jammin' in New York, he laid into the environmentalist movement, and implicated all those who see the "end of the world" coming:

The planet has been through a lot worse than us. Been through all kinds of things worse than us. Been through earthquakes, volcanoes, plate tectonics, continental drift, solar flares, sun spots, magnetic storms, the magnetic reversal of the poles…hundreds of thousands of years of bombardment by comets and asteroids and meteors, worldwide floods, tidal waves, worldwide fires, erosion, cosmic rays, recurring ice ages. The planet…the planet isn’t going anywhere. WE ARE! We’re going away. Pack your shit, folks. We’re going away. And we won’t leave much of a trace, either. Thank God for that. Maybe a little styrofoam. Maybe. A little styrofoam. The planet’ll be here and we’ll be long gone. Just another failed mutation. Just another closed-end biological mistake. An evolutionary cul-de-sac. The planet’ll shake us off like a bad case of fleas. A surface nuisance.

But for those who believe in the teachings of Christianity, the end of the world--or what they call "the Rapture"--is a very real thing. In fact, to me, it seems that the religion's most serious and powerful believers are trying to steer the world to the apocalyptic precipice, just so they can point to the Bible, as everything's burning around us, and say "See? It's says it would happen right HERE. See? I told ya!" They'd rather be right than be happy.

Michael Tolkin's brave, eerie 1991 drama The Rapture is probably about as close as any filmmaker is ever going to come in treating the event with some sort of realism. Its central character, Sharon (Mimi Rogers), begins the film as a 411 operator who fights the soul-killing dullness of her day job by enjoying hedonistic nights with her oily, Eurotrash partner Vic (Patrick Bauchau). They troll the bars and airports, searching for willing participants in sexual games that end in nothing but lonely, post-coital bedside regrets. Sharon leads a miserable existence at the beginning of The Rapture, and it's not long before her mind buckles under the pressure, leading her to slowly start questioning her choices.

She does so first by breaking a cardinal rule of swinging: she gets emotionally involved with one of her conquests, played by a pre-X-Files David Duchovny (with a mullet, no less). Then, she starts hearing rumblings at her workplace breakroom about The Boy, and about The Pearl, and their relationship to the coming Apocalypse. She's visited by two religious proselytizers going door-to-door urging people to wise up and accept Jesus into their hearts before it's too late. In her empty beige apartment, she challenges their beliefs and watches as they freeze up in suspicion when she asks about The Boy. She's informed that The Boy is one prophet out of many all over the world who are preaching about the imminent arrival of the rapture. But she still can't believe, especially when one of the men says "I was like you once." Sharon answers "I doubt it," and shows them the door.

It takes a tattoo to truly shake her, though. One night, she and Vic pick up another couple, and she is shocked when the girl (Carole Davis) reveals an impossibly elaborate artwork that covers her entire backside. She says she got it one night when she was drunk. Right there, in between her shoulder blades, is God's hand offering the Pearl to the world, with trumpeters, fire, and destruction completing the scene. Sharon can't even concentrate on sex after glimpsing the tattoo; she stops everything to ask her about it. And from then on, Sharon is hooked. She reaches out to those people whispering about the Rapture in her breakroom. She challenges Duchovny's Randy with her spiritual rumblings, which he sees as signs of a deep, depressional delusion, but which she sees as a need to feel clean. After taking a 3 a.m. shower and obsessively brushing her teeth, she reveals herself: "When we do something wrong, we feel bad and that's because there's a little bit of God inside of all of us, telling us to change our ways before it's too late. Isn't that right?" Randy protests this view of the world and, as a result, while worriedly flossing her teeth, she tells him to get out.

It's here that Tolkin's film gets even more deadly serious (excepting a couple of scenes with a humorously deadbeat drifter played by James LeGros, The Rapture is a movie with zero laughs). Sharon continues on her journey of discovery, constantly asking questions as would a child. Only now she's transformed into a too-frantic true believer (especially after she receives a warming vision of the Pearl). And so she prepares herself. She wins Randy over to her side, and they have a child (played with a bizarre gratingness by Kimberly Cullum). Still, she can't stop questioning (when she challenges The Boy with doubt, he forbodingly answers "Don't ask God to meet you halfway"). But it's in Sharon's fundamental nature to debate, to inquire, to challenge. It's something God has put inside of her. And it gets her into a trouble she's forced to live with, up to and beyond the film's stupendous, somewhat horrifying final image.

I refuse to go into greater detail about where Tolkin's magnificent, fair-minded screenplay leads us. The film hinges on surprise (in surprising ways), and it would be unfair to deny them to you. I'll only say that, whenever I expose new viewers to this film, when it's all over, they rub their eyes and stay silent for a while. It's one of those films that leaves you with very little to say, because it says it all so brilliantly. Mimi Rogers is insanely perfect in the lead, hitting more notes than in a Mozart symphony; I dare say few actresses have ever sidled up to a more challenging role and nevertheless hit every beat required of them as spot on as Rogers does. She's absolutely remarkable in it.

I also like the greasy Duchovny and especially Will Patton, who arrives in the third act playing against type as a good-hearted police officer who arrives as an angel of sorts to help Sharon and her daughter through difficult times. And, while The Rapture's inevitable climax, though helped by Thomas Newman's terrifying score, could have possibly used a bit more money to up its production values, I'm still kind of glad they kept things on a small scale. This is a film about people and ideas, not about special effects and, besides, I think the low-budgeted images make the film all the scarier. Because, in the end, The Rapture is about fear and how it's mingled forever with faith, and about the responsibility God--if there IS a God--has towards those who dare question his blind judgement.

1 comment:

Lisa said...

I absolutely love this movie and have seen it many times and always have the same awestruck reaction. It's incredible, completely unforgettable, and now I need to watch it again! Thanks also for the heads-up on "Melancholia" and "Another Earth". I long for serious treatments of these themes, and it looks like I might find some this movie season. Wonderful post, Dean!