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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  • Jeff

    So basically, ISTM that the argument “Israel should be able to do whatever it wants with the people it defeated in war so they don’t bother it anymore” is not only obsolete in an evil way, it’s hypocritical as well.
    I’m not saying that precisely. More along the lines of “Israel should be able to draw its border anywhere up to the ’67 boundries”. What they can and cannot do in those boundries is more circumscribed — but my ride is here so I have to go…

  • Hawker Hurricane: The problem is of course the other claimants. From the Palastinians (Well, yes, this is the promised land, and we are the descendants of the Jews who it was promised to.) and the Arabs (We descended from Abraham’s first born, Ishmeal, and therefore it was really promised to us.) and just plain “Our family has lived here for the past thousand years, if God wanted us to move he’d have said so!”
    I’m confused by your reference to the Arabs. There are Arab citizens of Israel.
    Geds: So we have a history of nearly two thousand years of not Jewish state and then the Palestinians are supposed to just get up and move because somebody decided they needed to have their own state and their holy book says it has to be in the Levant?
    Who said anything about anyone having to move? If the Arabs had accepted the proposed partition plan back in 1947, there would be no conflict and the entire region would have prospered for the past 61 years.

  • @ NRH: believing ridiculous things makes life easier to cope with
    I always try to believe six ridiculous things before breakfast, every day.

  • Geds: Like, call it Candyland, or call it Israel but put it somewhere in South America.
    Jeff: What with Miami Beach and Boca Raton, Florida kinda already is “ur-Israel”.
    Allan Sherman:

    As I walked out in the streets of MiamiI said to meinself, ‘This is some fancy town!’So I called up mein pardner, and I said, ‘Hello, Sammy,Go pack up your satchel, and mosey on down!'”

  • beel

    “She’s young, she’s beautiful, she’s got enormous. . . tracts o’ land!”

  • Caravelle

    Jeff : I’m not saying that precisely. More along the lines of “Israel should be able to draw its border anywhere up to the ’67 boundries”. What they can and cannot do in those boundries is more circumscribed — but my ride is here so I have to go…
    Okay. Thank you for explaining, because I’d seen that argument a few times before and I wasn’t quite sure what people meant by it.

  • Jeff

    Okay. Thank you for explaining, because I’d seen that argument a few times before and I wasn’t quite sure what people meant by it.
    I can’t speak for anyone else — that’s what I mean by it (see also aunursa’s post about accepting the partition plan). Israel needs to stop the apartheid, and the Arabs and Palestinians need to drop “right of return”.
    Land could be granted to anyone (including Arabs and Palestinians) who becomes an Israeli citizen. Citizenship may be more difficult for Palestinians — I’d want them to prove that they renounce violence — but once citizens, they’d have the same rights as current Israelis do.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    And Now for Something Completely Different:
    A shout-out by SciFi Catholic from April 2007:
    The Rapture doctrine fails the coolness test. Be suspicious of any apocalyptic notions that fail the coolness test. Since we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen anyway, our useless speculations on the subject should at least be cool. Getting whisked up to Heaven while all the action is going on down here is not cool, by which I mean, it would make a lousy novel. Left Behind proves me right on that one. See what sf can do for you?

  • Seminarian

    The hymn is Beach Spring actually, which as a Lutheran I know best as “Lord Whose love in Humble Service”. I thought it was ironic both because, like the church in this scene, it seems like a more denominational choice than not, and because it’s lyrics typify the kind of Christian compassion typically seldom found in the pages of LB.
    Still your children wander homeless;
    still the hungry cry for bread;
    Still the captives long for freedom;
    still in grief we mourn our dead.
    As, O Lord, your deep compassion healed the sick and freed the soul,
    Use the love your Spirit kindles still to save and make us whole.
    (It’s also the tune to the baptism hymn “Wash O God our Sons and Daughters” so maybe that’s what they were thinking of)

  • cjmr

    Yes! Thank you, Seminarian!

  • Anonymous

    Coolness factor? Now I’m bracing for a rain of fire-breathing dinosaurs and magical ninja that will attempt to destroy civilization. I hope that the superpowers the other true believers and I get will be enough to stop them!

  • hapax

    Came back after a verrrry cold expedition to fencing and karate to look at t’other thread, think “meh, I’ve already been obstreperous enough about all that,” and decided to wander over here to see what havoc I could wreak.
    So, in that spirit:
    Now I’m bracing for a rain of fire-breathing dinosaurs and magical ninja that will attempt to destroy civilization
    I offer up The Pirate Ninjas of Dino Island.

  • pointatinfinity

    No one has yet found out where the “UN Building” was filmed?
    I looked at that shot and I SWEAR that this is a shot of Ottawa. I went to high school and university very near there and would pass very near what looks very much like that point over nine years — I got the automatic “I’ve seen this before!” reaction.

  • Wesley Parish

    There is a group, however, who are planning for that very thing. They already have a good start on reproducing the vessels, candlesticks and so forth. I believe mainstream Jews do consider them a bit frightening.

    After seeing the site, I’m reminded of two things, a LOLCat saying in shock and horror,

    What has been seen can’t be unseen

    and a song, “An Englishman in New York” by Godley & Creme, dating back to about 1979-81:

    “Devoted collectors of paraphernalia
    out walking the rock
    Battle and bitch
    for the ultimate kitsch
    of a crucifix clock
    Two miniature romans, running on rails
    Appear every hour and bang in the nails
    I’ve got to have it, Christ,
    I gotta be the first on our block”

    Maybe it’s just the Levy in me, but it seems to me to be the ultimate in neo-observant Jewish kitsch – particularly the paintings!

    My house shall be called a house of thieves,
    a house of thieves,
    but ye have made it
    a den of prayer!

  • Wesley Parish

    Who said anything about anyone having to move? If the Arabs had accepted the proposed partition plan back in 1947, there would be no conflict and the entire region would have prospered for the past 61 years.

    aunursa, how do you reconcile that argument to the fact that in the Versailles Peace Conference, the boundaries of the proposed Jewish state were quite extensive? And David Ben Gurion has been alleged to have said that the Yishuv would make do with the partition for the time being, but for later …
    Also, how do you reconcile the idea that things would’ve been peaceful and prosperous if the partition plan had been acepted, with the following two facts:
    The Jewish part of the partition had almost as many Arabs as Jews, and therefore there would have been a major dispossession anyway to have fomred a Jewish-majority state in that part of the proposed partition;
    and during the various interwar periods, Israel carefully provoked Syria on numerous occasions, then claimed self-defense … ditto for the Bedouin of the Sinai Peninsular, expelled during the two occasions that Israel occupied it … ditto for the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip, ditto for the unfortunate Egyptian Jews, who lost most of their rights as a direct result of the Lavon Affair ….

  • Indigo

    Holy crap, those *are* the provincial flags. I can’t believe I missed that on the first viewing. Must have been shot in Toronto, or maybe Ottawa by the War Memorial – which would go a ways towards explaining why they’re incorrect. You might get permission to film, briefly, near the memorial but no one would let an American film crew start messing around with it.

  • Can he control people’s minds in the movie too?

  • Can he control people’s minds in the movie too?

  • That logic is borrowed straight from the Adam West Batman movie. “What sits in a tree, weighs six ounces, and is extremely dangerous?”
    “A sparrow with a machine gun!”

  • Norman Rorqual

    Actually I would love to see a story where some brilliant detective is dead-set on figuring out who a murder is on some ship, even as the ship hits something and it’s clear they’re all going to be dead soon.