LBTM: In case of Rapture

LBTM: In case of Rapture December 14, 2008

Harold has disappeared. He seems to have gone off naked.

He doesn't have a name here in the movie, but those of us who read the book remember him as Harold. Like most of the characters in the novel, we have no idea what he looked like — short or tall, thin or fat, gray-haired or bald. We don't even know what he had been wearing, even though his clothes figure prominently in this section of the narrative. Here is Jenkins' description of those clothes from the book:

Harold's clothes were in a neat pile on his seat, his glasses and hearing aid on top. The pant legs still hung over the edge and led to his shoes and socks.

This was our only chance to learn about Harold, but he remains a cipher. His clothes are simply "Harold's clothes." His pants and shoes were "pants" and "shoes." The absence of detail there fails to grab our attention or to tell us anything about Harold or why we should care that he's gone. The man's shoes are sitting right there in front of us and they ought to tell us something about him, but all we wind up knowing is that he did, in fact, wear shoes. Of some kind. And also pants.

I would have thought that the medium of film would require detail in place of the book's vague generality. Film, by it's very nature, avoids the pitfall of Jerry Jenkins' apparent motto as a novelist — "Tell, don't show." Yet for all that we're shown here of the panicked passengers and the remnants of the naked and the dead, it all somehow still seems abstract and devoid of the specifics of human detail.

We see Harold's clothes, but the camera doesn't linger or focus our attention on particular detail any more than Jenkins' words did. They still seem as generic as the "Harold's clothes" of the book. Here they aren't even Harold's clothes, since the movie doesn't bother to give the poor man a name.

Actually, no one on the plane seems to have a name. As Buck heads to look for the missing husband, a woman realizes her children are missing and begins shouting about "my kids." She doesn't call them by name. She doesn't call them at all. She just starts shouting to other people, "I can't find my kids!" As the other passengers realize their loved ones have also disappeared, they join in this shouting, all similarly using generic terms for their missing family members. It makes it seem weirdly like we're watching people acting out the description of the scene rather than the scene itself.

Hattie explains the situation to Rayford, who looks confused — possibly due to Noble's weirdly Shatnerian line-reading here, inserting pauses that seem to reverse the meaning of what she's saying. "People are missing," she says. "Dozens of seats. Empty. I'm telling you. They're not here. They're not anywhere. Their shoes, their clothes, their glasses. It's crazy. …"

Rayford stumbles into the cabin's generic scene of generalized chaos just in time to witness the classic ritual panic-on-an-airplane line: "I've gotta get out of here!"

Buck and Rayford wind up jointly tackling and subduing the panicked passenger, which neatly results in our dual protagonists meeting here on the plane. That's a sensible change from the book, which was annoyingly coy and cutesy about the two not meeting until much later in the story.

As they pin down the passenger's arms, older brother-style, Buck says, "What's going on Captain?" Here, in this situation, the use of that title makes sense. When you're on a plane, in flight, and you have a question for the pilot and you do not know his name, it's natural to say, "What's going on Captain?" On the other hand, when you're not on a plane in flight — when you are, in fact, far from the airport eating dinner in a restaurant, or atttending church, and you're already well-enough acquainted with Rayford Steele that he's calling you by your first name, but you're still calling him "Captain Steele" then that's just weird, bordering on giggle-inducing.

Apart from the suicidally distraught gentleman underneath Buck and Rayford, the other passengers don't really seem nearly as upset as they ought to be. These are parents whose children have suddenly vanished — possibly right before their eyes or even right off of their laps. That's not the sort of thing you ask the flight attendant about, it's the sort of thing that would lead you to start tearing the cabin apart piece by piece until you find your missing children.

Then suddenly, we cut to Chloe, driving down the highway. She's on her cell phone, leaving a message on her mother's voicemail. It must be true what they say about distracted drivers on cell phones, because Chloe doesn't even notice the giant flaming multicar pileup ahead of her until she's right on top of it.

Arriving at this chaotic scene, Chloe keeps her wits about her better than anyone else in this movie does. She rushes to the first injured man she sees and she tries to dial 911 for help. When someone tells her that the truck has no driver, she runs to check. And when the grieving mother tells her that her babies (no names here either) have vanished from their car seats, Chloe gets in the back of the woman's car and actually touches the missing children's clothing, sorting through their blankets for some trace or explanation.

It's about time somebody did this. This reaction is otherwise lacking in this movie just as it was utterly lacking in the book.

When confronted with something unbelievable, the natural human response is disbelief. We do double-takes, distrusting our own eyes and brains. We don't do what Buck, Hattie, Rayford and all the generic parents back on the airplane do — taking it all in with a single glance and trusting that our eyes are telling the truth. When we see something unbelievable we need, like Thomas, to touch it — to get the confirmation of at least one other sense that what our eyes are telling us is reliable.

As Chloe searches the generic mother's car for any sign of her generic children, somebody gets into her car and drives off. Let that be a lesson to you: Don't leave your keys in the ignition at the end of the world. Even if your car would seem to be safely trapped behind a massive pileup blocking the entire highway and there wouldn't seem to be any way someone could drive off in it.

I should note that the blogger who could really do justice to this scene would Jim Macdonald of Making Light. I don't know if Jim takes requests, but having read his many posts on emergency response, trauma and triage, I would love to see his take on this scene and to learn from someone with his expertise What to Do If You're Driving Along and Come Across a Post-Rapture Multi-car Pileup.

The weirdest thing in this scene to me was the apparent direction given to the extras milling about here. Apart from Generic Mother and the car thief,  no one else here on I-920 (I-920?) is behaving with any sense of urgency. I'm blaming the director here because I think the extras succeed in conveying the attitude they're attempting to convey, it's just that it's the wrong attitude.

These extras are not behaving like people confronted with pain and mystery — people who have just had existential insult added to injury. They're behaving, instead, the way so many characters in the book behave — as though they've read the dust jacket and they recognize that the Rapture has just occurred and they've missed it and t
hat therefore they ought to be resigned to their fate and the p
unishment they are now suffering.

I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the extras here were volunteers recruited through church groups. I'm guessing this because their performance here — their sad resignation — reinforces one of the biggest problems that Jerry Jenkins had in telling this story in print: They're not telling the same story that their characters are living in.

If you're reading this blog, you're almost certainly among those whom LaHaye & Jenkins believe will be left behind by the Rapture. And reading the book or watching the movie, most of us here realize this. That's why we wind up so thoroughly disappointed with how poorly developed the story turns out to be from what seemed like a promising premise.

The authors and their devoted fans don't understand our disappointment because they don't look at it the way we do. We're told that this is our story — that we would be among those experiencing these things. So we're forced to consider what it would actually be like to be in such scenarios and to imagine what we would do and how we would respond. What would I do if I were on that airplane, or on that highway, or on that airport tarmac amidst all the wreckage and tumult?

For the authors and their fans, though, all of that is beside the point. They are certain that they won't be among those left behind. The very premise of the story they're trying to tell means, to them, that they won't be there. They won't be on that plane or that highway or that tarmac. For them the story is both told and received not with "imagine you are there …" but with "aren't you glad you're never going to be in such a situation?" That distances them from the story. It prevents the authors from realizing that they should be imagining such things and it prevents their intended audience from noticing this shortcoming.

Thus we have our extras here on the highway, milling about not like accident victims or like parents whose children have just been abducted, but like children themselves whose father has just told them they're not good enough to deserve his love. That is, to them, what this story is all about.

Back on the airplane, Rayford is struggling to cope with a plane full of generically panicked passengers and with the acting of Mrs. Cameron. The latter seems hopeless, but he has a plan for dealing with the former — dropping the oxygen masks to get everyone back in their seats.

That might have been a nifty trick in some other circumstance. Airline passengers have heard the FAA safety speech so many times that they'd have a Pavlovian response to the sudden appearance of those masks and, in another situation, it might work to get everyone settled back down. Here though I doubt it would work, since they'd also all remember this from the instructions: "If you are traveling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask on first, and then assist the other person." So now you'd have a bunch of parents who've gone from thinking, "Oh my God, little Timmy isn't in his seat and no one knows what's happened to him!" to thinking, "Oh my God, little Timmy isn't in his seat and now he won't be able to breathe!" That seems unlikely to calm them down.

The filmmakers jump ahead to CamCam, safely back on the ground in Chicago, wandering through a terminal at O'Hare. This helpfully eliminates the business in the book about the runways littered with burning planes that our "heroes" scarcely notice as they walk past.

The airport sequence here is actually fairly effective. In the book, you may recall, the primary immediate consequence of the Event was a long line at the counter of the Pan Con Club (enchante!). Here we get a glimpse of what some of the actual consequences would likely be: Widespread panic, clueless officials, a military presence to maintain "order," whimpering near-catatonics and random sobbing people.

The little dog with no one on the other end of the leash is a nice touch.*

"Your attention please," a voice says over the airport's public address system, "the federal government has declared a national state of emergency."

Buck stops to watch an expository news broadcast. We see unidentified flames on the TV screen as the announcer, sounding like the narrator of a nature film, says, "The death of the president adds to the list of world leaders lost or missing. Nicolae Carpathia …" and the broadcast cuts to the Romanian president, surrounded by reporters.

The filmmakers here are trying to get over a couple of plot hurdles. They don't really succeed, so they just shoot through this quickly in the hopes that no one will notice.

Their aim here is to have it make some kind of sense that Nicolae would be the go-to guy for network reporters seeking comment immediately after the Event. That's a tall order. Even if the president of Romania were as charismatic as a young Robert Redford he would still be the president of Romania, which is to say a foreigner, and Americans — and particularly American network reporters — aren't interested in what foreigners have to say. It's impossible to imagine any plausible scenario in which the president of Romania is who they'd want to hear from in the immediate aftermath of the abduction/disintegration of all their children. It's unlikely the president of Romania would even be sought out for comment by the American media if the Event had been confined to Romanian children.

Even apart from any America-centric parochial tendencies here, it makes sense that in times of national tragedy, people would want to hear from their own leaders. The filmmakers hope to skip that step by killing off America's leader, but that doesn't work. If the loss of the president were added to the trauma of the Event, Americans would have an even more urgent need to learn that someone — someone here — was in charge, and they would need to hear from that person, not from some thickly accented man with no standing here who comes from a place most of us couldn't find on a map.

The death of the president, in other words, would demand and require that the next president — the former vice president or speaker of the House or secretary of agriculture if it got down to it — become immediately visible and vocal to reassure the public. And we know the chain of succession is intact here — "the federal government has declared a national state of emergency," so somebody must be in charge (even if it turns out later to have been Norm Mineta). If the networks were to turn instead to some implausible and inadequate substitute, like the president of Romania, no one would listen to a word the man had to say. People would be shouting back at the screen, "Who's this guy? Where's the vice president?" 

It doesn't help at all that Nicolae fails to rise to the moment. He botches this horribly, scarcely acknowledging the shock and trauma the world is experiencing and failing to say any of the things any legitimate or semi-capable leader would say in response to a tragedy. He doesn't reassure people that anyone is in charge. He doesn't tell them not to panic, or say that the worst seems to be over and we'll be getting to the bottom of it so hang in there. If this is the best that authority figures have to offer in response to the Event, then mass hysteria and panic in the streets might be a logical course of action.

Even worse, Nicolae seems to be trying to exploit the situation for his own ends. To the extent that Carpathia would have been known at all outside of Stonagal's living room, he would have been known as that blonde guy was was always pushing his disa
rmament agenda, babbling about "peace
" and the need to "set aside our differences." Here he is immediately after the Event and what is he doing? Babbling about disarmament and "peace" and the need to "set aside our differences."

The filmmakers seem to realize that the book's framework — making the Event and Nicolae's rise to power wholly separate and unrelated occurrences — makes no sense. They've reasonably decided to portray the two events as related, to show Nicolae using the chaos and panic of the Event as a means to seize and solidify global power. What they don't seem to get, though, is that while such chaos provides the opportunity for someone to demonstrate leadership and to seize power, it doesn't work if that person looks like he's trying to exploit the tragedy as a vehicle for his own ambition.

A politician who responds to a crisis the way Nicolae does here fails the demonstration-of-leadership test. After this press conference, Carpathia would have gone from being an unknown minor figure to being a widely disliked minor figure.

But for true devotees of the Gospel According to LaHaye it makes perfect sense that the American TV networks would turn first to Nicolae Carpathia for guidance in the aftermath of the Event. Carpathia is a rising star at the United Nations and, as every good John Birch Society member knows, the U.N. outranks all mere national governments. Why, the only thing keeping the U.N. at bay and preventing their day-to-day micromanagement of the lives of Americans is a strong American president who stands against the tide of globalist NWO/OWG tyranny. Take that president out of the picture and America would topple, becoming one more subservient fiefdom loyal to the global throne of the U.N. You know, just like Europe is now.

Sigh. That paragraph is an attempt at mockery, but I'm afraid such mockery might not even be possible. Mockery of that sort requires the use of exaggeration and caricature, and my summary of LaHaye's understanding of the U.N. and his fears of a One World Government fail on both those counts. Try as I might to exaggerate the ridiculousness of his views on this, I always wind up understating them. And caricaturing a caricature is simply impossible. Using a straw-man argument against LaHaye's absurd views would mean elevating those views to the status of straw, and his full-gonzo insanity on this point is nowhere near that substantial.

(The oh-by-the-way death of the president here also serves to address another of LaHaye's abiding worries. Like every PMD guru from Darby to Lindsay to Hagee, LaHaye is troubled that the United States of America is not specifically mentioned in Bible prophecy as they interpret it. This eats at them quite a bit — to get a sense of this, try Googling something like "America in Bible prophecy." Just don't swallow the blue pill.)

We cut to a corridor with armed soldiers guarding every door. Later we'll see armed soldiers stationed on the Steeles' otherwise quiet suburban street. This is a standard bit of B-movie magic in which the declaration of martial law instantaneously creates a multimillion-member military capable of posting a 24-hour guard at every door on every street in every town.

Rayford Steele strides down the corridor, followed by Hattie, who is either pleading with him to stay with her or else begging him to hurry up in there because she really has to go. Every point Hattie earned by independently going out and landing that U.N. job is hereby erased in this scene.

CamCam, meanwhile, is on his cellphone, desperately trying to reach Dirk Burton. He's not actually calling Dirk, of course. He's calling Ivy Smudge and asking her to call Dirk.

Spotting Rayford, CamCam rushes after him and the two wind up somehow behind a row of soldiers struggling to hold back a panicked crowd. This is, apparently, an Authorized Protagonists Only corridor. The soldiers are there to keep out the nameless extras, making sure our heroes have plenty of room to stride purposefully.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* If you are a believer in Tim LaHaye's dispensationalist Bible-prophecy scheme, please note that it is cruel and irresponsible of you to have pets. Someday soon, at any moment, Jesus is coming back to get you before you die. The Rapture will come and in the twinkling of an eye, you'll be gone, leaving your pets alone in the house with no one to feed them or to refill their water bowl.

After you are raptured, in other words, your pets will die.

Slowly. Painfully. Perhaps from dehydration, perhaps — if you've left the lid up on the toilet bowl — from starvation. Either way, while you are celebrating with the righteous in heaven, your once-beloved pets will be staggering through your empty home, emaciated and weak from thirst, feebly clawing at the door until finally, exhausted and unable to go on, they collapse. Their dying thoughts will be to wonder what they did that caused you to do this to them.

So please, if you're a Real True Christian and you know that Jesus is going to rapture you any day now, please don't own pets. Or, if you must own them, please talk to one of your evil, reprobate neighbors — some atheist or Jew or Episcopalian who lives nearby — and arrange to have them come and care for your pets after the Rapture.

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