LBTM: Accumulated radiation

LBTM: Accumulated radiation January 9, 2009

We left off with poor Clarence Gilyard, alone in an inappropriately Lutheran looking church.

I have to give the filmmakers some credit here for including this scene at all. In the book, the Rev. Bruce Barnes’ story is recounted second-hand, without any sense of immediacy, but director Vic Sarin and the screenwriters here at least recognize that Bruce’s situation deserves a bit more attention. The man was a professional Christian minister in a rapture-obsessed congregation. Yet here he is, left behind, because he wasn’t a Real, True Christian. There ought to be an interesting personal story there.

Unfortunately, what that story is neither the book nor this movie ever really explores. Neither suggests that Bruce was an outright, deliberate charlatan. It seems more that he was just going through the motions. “Knowing and believing are two different things,” Bruce says here in the film, but just what he or the filmmakers mean by that isn’t clear. It seems as though he simply lacked the passionate sincerity needed to achieve escape velocity with the rest of the congregation when they blasted off the planet.

The set-up here, and a good bit of the dialogue, makes this seem like a typical raging against/arguing with God(s) scene. This is something we’re all familiar with — it’s literally one of the oldest stories in the book. So we watch this scene begin with certain expectations, anticipating seeing the familiar pattern unfold.

And such a scene would make sense here. Bruce Barnes is certainly at a point where some questioning of the Almighty seems appropriate. God has rejected him, explicitly. Not only that, but God has taken away his family — his wife and children and everyone else’s children too. God’s got some explaining to do.

So we all arrive at this scene — the viewers, the screenwriters and the director, and the actor Clarence Gilyard — with every expectation that we’ll be seeing something like this wonderful confrontation with God from The West Wing episode “Two Cathedrals.” The setting is the same, a man alone in a church, racked by grief and loss and awareness of his own guilt. And we all expect that Bruce Barnes will argue with God the way that Martin Sheen’s President Bartlet does:

She bought her first new car and you hit her with a drunk driver. What, was that supposed to be funny? “You can’t conceive, nor can I, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God,” says Graham Greene. I don’t know who’s ass he was kissing there ’cause I think you’re just vindictive. What was Josh Lyman? A warning shot? That was my son. What did I ever do to yours except praise his glory and praise his name? …Gratias tibi ago, domine. Yes, I lied. It was a sin. I’ve committed many sins. Have I displeased you, you feckless thug? …

Haec credam a deo pio? A deo iusto? A deo scito? Cruciatus in crucem! Tuus in terra servus nuntius fui officium perfeci. Cruciatus in crucem.

Eas in crucem!

But there’s no place in LBTM for that sort of questioning and accusation. Bartlet is furious because he almost lost someone who was like a son to him. Bruce Barnes has actually lost his actual son, but the only response he’s permitted here is wretched compliance. “Cruciatus in crucem” — “to Hell with your punishments” — is not a phrase anyone in LBTM is allowed even to think, much less to say.

Gilyard and the screenwriters cling to pieces of the conventions of a scene like that one, but those pieces can’t be made to fit with where LaHaye and Jenkins have decreed the story must go. So while Gilyard paces and fumes, turns his back and walks away and even — implausibly, in a one-in-a-million carnival-game toss — knocks the cross from the altar of the church, his rage here seems as impotent and harmlessly weightless as that little blue paddle ball.

Tim LaHaye’s theology and the awkward plot Jerry Jenkins has constructed for it simply do not allow for humanity to rage against or to question or to negotiate with God. LaHaye’s whole End Times construct seems designed to remove any grounds for such complaint: The deserving righteous are raptured away to safety and the undeserving unrighteous are tortured and destroyed over the following seven years. In LaHaye’s scheme, the righteous do not suffer and the wicked do not prosper, so all of that bellyaching in the Psalms about the apparent injustice of this world is rendered moot.

That framework restricts and constricts what Bruce Barnes/Clarence Gilyard is allowed to feel or to say in this scene. The rage and resentment the scene starts with fizzles into a repentance as ill-defined as that distinction between “knowing and believing.” The scene never delivers the emotional and theological fireworks it seemed to promise and instead it ends with tears and a mawkishly soaring soundtrack playing some mixture of a revival hymn I can’t quite place and the theme from Blazing Saddles, complete with harp glissandos.

Yes. Harp glissandos.

We cut to CamCam somewhere in Manhattan at night. He is, at last, on the phone, trying to reach Alan Tompkins. “Alan, are you still there?” Buck says. “I need to know what Dirk Burton sent you.”

This is how CamCam seems to view the Event — as an intrusive annoyance that might complicate his getting in touch with sources for this big story he’s working on. CamCam is so dedicated as a reporter that he keeps following his nose for news even when some of the people he needed to interview for his story have mysteriously vanished, leaving their clothes behind them. But CamCam won’t let these petty distractions keep him from tracking down what he senses could be a really big story about currency trading or food prices or something.

Almost every CamCam scene is like this. He and the filmmakers seem oblivious to the fact that the world has just turned upside down. They just keep following along with the Dirk/Stonagal subplot as though nothing important had changed.

This is weirdly unsettling, particularly since Jenkins and the screenwriters keep tossing out so many customary elements from a paint-by-numbers espionage thriller. These genre elements are so familiar that one can be momentarily lulled into playing along — A secret computer disk? What does it say? But then one remembers the thing CamCam never seems to remember — this is an End of the World movie, a disaster pic and not a spy thriller, and in the wake of billions of disappearances on a suddenly childless planet, it doesn’t really matter what Dirk’s pre-Event e-mails might have said.

The effect here is something like settling into a scene in which Hercule Poirot is interviewing suspects. Then, just as you’re thinking, “Ah, a nice mystery story,” you realize that Poirot isn’t on board the Orient Express, he’s on the Titanic and it’s already sinking fast. The familiar genre elements don’t work in this new context. As the icy water reaches the detective’s knees and he continues, oblivious, cross-examining his fellow passengers about their alibis, you realize this is neither a mystery nor a disaster movie, but some new kind of madness.

The filmmakers wisely jettisoned several pieces of this thriller subplot — the London pub, the car-bombing, the very brief faking of his own death — but inexplicably,
they retained from the novel all of the irrelevant and not-very-intriguing intrigue with Dirk and Stonagal and a global conspiracy of conspiring conspirators. Thus here, as in the book, Buck’s scenes feel like they’re occurring in a different world, in some alternate universe where the Event never happened, the children are all accounted for, and reporters have the luxury of chasing the very same stories they’d been pursuing before the world began to end.

We cut back to New Hope Village Church and it’s daylight again. (Does this mean another day has passed? Probably not.) Bruce Barnes and Rayford sit together watching the In Case of Rapture video prepared by Bruce’s old boss, the Rev. Vernon Billings.

I like the choice here of having the two men watching this together. And I like the colorblind casting choices of Gilyard and T.D. Jakes — the real-world pastor portraying Billings. That casting is intended, I think, to present a laudable, if implausibly wishful, picture of New Hope as a multiracial, multicultural congregation. It’s commendable that the filmmakers consider such a harmoniously integrated local church to be desirable, and I’m sure that L&J would also share this fictionalized ideal.

In the real world, of course, 11 a.m. on Sunday remains the most segregated hour of the week. I’m pleased to see the filmmakers at least wistfully wishing that this were not so in evangelical churches, but I wish they had also taken the next step and explored some of the theological reasons why this segregation continues. They might have explored why it is, for example, that the other-worldly escapism of LaHaye’s premillennial dispensationalist “Bible prophecy” scheme is predominantly a white evangelical phenomenon. Or why it is that black churches in America are inclined to take a more millennialist view of faith and history, one that reads Revelation through the lens of Exodus. Exploring questions like that might have led them to some uncomfortable discoveries about the roots of American evangelicalism’s other-worldliness and its intrinsic, inextricable connections to slavery, legal segregation and other forms of what John the Revelator called “The Beast.”

White evangelicals sincerely do want harmonious multi-ethnic congregations. They just don’t want to have to re-evaluate their theology to figure out how to make such a thing possible.

Bishop T.D. Jakes himself is a good example of this contrast between the this-world-doesn’t-matter escapism of white evangelicals like LaHaye and the oh-yes-it-does theology more typically found in the black church. Jakes heads up a Pentecostal-ish nondenominational mega-church infected with a weak strain of the prosperity gospel disease. In its most virulent form, the prosperity gospel is a form of predatory hucksterism, a name-it-and-claim-it con game that bilks parishioners out of their money by duping them into believing that their tithes are an “investment” in future riches. The prosperity gospel Jakes preaches is something less toxic — it’s more like a spiritualized version of Booker T. Washington’s boot-strap philosophy of self-help.

The focus of Jakes’ preaching and of his many inspirational self-help books, in other words, is this world. Not pie in the sky when you die, but our daily bread.

That being the case, I couldn’t figure out what Jakes was doing here in this PMD wish-fulfillment fantasy. The answer, I think, isn’t so much theological as practical. Jakes wanted to get into the movie business. And he has. He appears in, produced and wrote the story for Not Easily Broken which, as it happens, opens today in a theater near you.

Suddenly we’re in Manhattan again. The establishing shot shows us one of those hip converted-warehouse apartment buildings with people calmly walking by on the street. Inside the building, CamCam pounds on an apartment door which Ivy Gold opens, armed with a poorly employed frying pan. Seeing Buck and realizing he’s been spared from the inexplicable random mass-disintegration, Ivy gives him a genuine-seeming relieved hug.

This is reasonable behavior for a character in a mid-apocalyptic disaster movie. One might expect the End of the World to bring about chaos, looting and panic in the streets, so barricading your door and answering it with whatever weapons are handy makes sense. But here, as we’ve already seen, there is no panic in the streets, just orderly pedestrians strolling by with no sense of anything out of the ordinary.

Once again the seams are showing between the post-Event storyline and Buck’s laughably out-of-context thriller subplot.

“I’ve got a lead on the vanishings,” CamCam tells Ivy and her sidekick/flatmate.

Huh? CamCam remains clueless and incurious about the vanishings. What he’s got is the disk that Dirk showed him days before the vanishings. Dirk said it had evidence tying together the “planes falling out of the sky” and Stonagal and the world food crisis, but he never suggested it had anything to do with the vanishings.

What follows is our trio oohing and ahhing over the irrelevant absurdities contained on Dirk’s disk. First there’s something labeled “Tactical Campaign Simulation,” which would seem to be the plans for the Russian nuclear assault on Israel we saw earlier. Because Top Secret Russian military plans are always written in English and made to look like CNN graphics.

Then there’s a graphic labeled “Global Crop Area Deficits,” having something to do with the pre-Event food shortage from back when there were 6 billion people to be fed instead of the 4 billion-and-dropping now remaining. (The biggest post-Event crisis facing Feed the Children would be how to tactfully go about changing their name.)

This is followed by a graphic labeled “Temple Structure Simulation,” showing a rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem.

“What is that?” CamCam asks and, rat-a-tat, we see the “United Nations, New York.” And even though we aren’t shown the full outline of the iconic and unmistakable U.N. building, we know that’s where we are because out front we see the flags of every nation: Nunavut, Saskatchewan, British Columbia, Newfoundland and Labrador …

Inside the “U.N.,” Chaim Rosenzweig is studying a blueprint as Nicolae Carpathia looks on … a blueprint of the very same Temple! That exclamation point, and Rosenzweig’s amazement, might be called for if blueprints for this particular building were actually hard to come by. In reality, you can find detailed plans for the construction of this building in the night stand drawer of almost any hotel or motel room.

Rosenzweig’s initial enthusiasm disappears as he suddenly remembers that a lack of blueprints has never been the main obstacle to any plans to rebuild the temple, but Nicolae reassures him. “We have the formula,” he says, wild-eyed. Of course, the formula. Who wouldn’t gladly allow their holy site to be razed in exchange for the promise of slightly cheaper food?

Back in Ivy’s loft apartment, CamCam and his backup singers are studying the very same blueprints. “No question,” Ivy says, uncomfortably smoking what’s probably a clove cigarette because she’s all hippy-funky like that, “it’s a diagram of Solomon’s Temple. It used to stand on the holiest site in the Jewish faith.”

“The Jews have been trying to rebuild this Temple ever since the Romans destroyed it about 2,000 years ago,” CamCam adds.

Solomon’s Temple, Herod’s Temple. Same difference, I guess.

“OK ladies,” CamCam says. “Here’s what we need: Some sort of connection between the Temple, th
e [vast] tracts of land and the destroy
ed planes. And I don’t know what it is, but somehow all this stuff ties together with Stonagal and Cothran.”

“International bankers,” Ivy says.

There’s absolutely nothing here suggesting any of this is connected to the Event, yet still CamCam believes there’s some kind of pattern. What is it that might tie together the Jewish Temple, the secret Jewish formula and the “international bankers”? Whatever could it be?

Meanwhile, back at the Steele’s house in that other parallel movie where the Event still seems to matter, Rayford tells his daughter, “I know where Mom and Raymie are.”

“Where? Where are they?” Chloe asks with a hint of the desperation that’s sorely lacking in this movie, in which every character, at every moment, ought to be asking just that, over and over. “Where are they?”

“They’re in heaven, with God,” Rayford says. After which we get a brief, but competently acted and not horribly written bit of conversation between father and daughter. A welcome interlude.

Back in NYC, Ivy and her friend are watching a Nicolae Carpathia press conference on Ivy’s computer — a nifty trick back in 2000. Nicolae offers the same nonsensical non-explanation for the disappearances that he offers in the book: “We have confirmed that the disappearances have been caused by accumulated radiation from decades of nuclear weapons testing.”

That doesn’t even try to make sense, yet here, as in the book, everybody happily swallows this. Not only do they universally accept this explanation for why random people simultaneously disintegrated (and only people, no animals or plants), but they universally greet as reassuring the news that the atmosphere is filled with undetectable radiation that might, at any moment, cause them to spontaneously disintegrate too:

“Where are they? Where are my mother and my brother? Where are my children?”“Don’t worry, they disappeared due to accumulated radiation from decades of nuclear weapons testing.”

“Oh. Well, OK then. Anybody know what’s playing at the multiplex?”

Nicolae babbles on about making sure that “every human mouth on earth has been fed,” as though this were anyone’s main concern at this point. And then he rises and shakes hands with — gasp! — Stonagal and Cothran!

Back in Chicago, it’s nighttime again, making this either Day 5 or Day 2 of our story.

Hattie shows up at Rayford’s house. “I’m going to the U.N., the only place that offers any hope,” she tells him. Long pause, and then, “Unless I have a reason to stay.”


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