LBTM: Something happens

LBTM: Something happens January 30, 2009

They forgot the red cow.

This is not a minor detail — the red cow isn’t optional. There’s no point in planning the End of the World, turning the U.N. into a OWG, cornering the market on the world’s food supply, etc., unless you’ve got yourself a red cow. And Nicole Carpathia doesn’t have one.

I can’t really blame Nicolae for this. He’s the Ideas Guy, the leader who works in broad strokes. This is more the sort of detail work that ought to have been taken care of by Jonathan Stonagal and his cabal of international bankers. Not to disparage the hard work Stoney and Cothran have done and all they’ve managed to conspire so far, but without a red cow, really, what’s the point?

In the universe of Left Behind, the apocalypse has very strict rules. One of those rules says that the Beast of Revelation is the same person as the “man of lawlessness” in 2 Thessalonians. That passage clearly states that the MofL will “set himself up in God’s temple.” So a viable Antichrist requires a viable Temple. And since there hasn’t been a Temple for some 1,900+ years, that means somebody is going to have to rebuild the thing.

And if you think the list of rules for apocalypses is long, you should see the list of rules for building Temples.

Building the physical structure of the Temple is the easy part. They’re working on one in North Myrtle Beach, S.C., after all, though one assumes they’re substituting costume jewelry and stagecraft. If one needs a working model — which Nicolae does — then one is going to need the funds to procure all of that lavish Solomonic gold, silver and finery. Fortunately for Carpathia, Stonagal & Co. have deep pockets.

Far more difficult than construction or securing the precious metals would be securing the ability to rebuild the Temple on the site of Solomon’s original* without upsetting/inviting total war with a billion faithful Muslims. The idea that the Temple might be built alongside — rather than in place of — the existing Islamic holy site is an optimistic notion that’s popular among premillennial dispensationalist Bible “prophecy” enthusiasts as a way of fudging this difficulty. This adjacent scheme would still be fraught with conflict, but let’s agree to play along and assume that Nicolae’s preternatural charisma would make this possible.

We’re still left with the thorny problem of consecrating this rebuilt Temple and, more to the point, consecrating anyone who wants to go inside. Numbers 19 details the requirements for the “water of cleansing” which is needed to purify anyone going into the Temple. This is where the red cow comes in. The water of cleansing is made from the ashes of “a red heifer without defect or blemish and that has never been under a yoke.”

Without such a heifer, Nicolae’s plans are for nought. Here in our world, much more thought and care has been given to this problem. The Temple Institute — a Jewish group dedicated to rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem — has been searching for a spotless red heifer for decades. No luck yet. They’ve even enlisted the help of prophecy-obsessed American ranchers who are trying to breed such a perfect red cow.

(I should mention that the best account of the apocalyptic search for a spotless red heifer can be found in Gershom Gorenberg’s fascinating book, The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount. I’ve recommended this book before, but let me do so again, because really I can’t recommend it enough.)

It might seem strange that a group of devout Jews committed to rebuilding the Temple would be comfortable working with these American Christians, when both groups are fully aware that the only reason the Americans want to help is so that the rebuilt Temple can soon after be defiled and destroyed by the Antichrist just before every Jew who fails to convert to Christianity is destroyed and condemned to Hell. But actually this sort of odd partnership is par for the course. It may be insanely contradictory, but it’s also one of the non-negotiable cornerstones of American foreign policy. (Gorenberg is very good on this point as well.)

If Team Nicolae had really done their homework, they’d have consulted with groups like the Canaan Land Restoration of Israel, Inc., to make sure they had all their ducks in a row before trying to launch their apocalypse. The frustrating thing for Nicolae at this point has to be that it’s already too late for him to get in touch with these folks. Once all the real Bible prophecy experts have been raptured he’s stuck relying on people like Stonagal and, as the glaring omission of a red cow demonstrates, such people just aren’t reliable.**

What Nicky really should have done was to conscript people like Bruce Barnes or, for that matter, Gershom Gorenberg — people who have some expertise in the details of PMD prophecy check lists but who, for one reason or another, wound up among those left behind. That might’ve made for an interesting story, too, a complicated game of mental chess in which these imprisoned experts in their library dungeon tried to sabotage the Antichrist’s plans by giving him oracular misinformation. “The prophecies are very clear,” Bruce could say to Nicolae. “You must start a land war in Asia and invade Magog this winter.”

Anyway …

Back at the Steele’s house, Chloe is worried about Buck. We were apparently right to assume that her reaching-for-the-Bible and pondering scene was meant to indicate her conversion. And like her father in the novel, she’s a quick study — going from new convert to adept in the rules and lingo of RTC-ism in less than a day.

I wasn’t sure if that was what we were supposed to understand about Chloe, mainly due to the way Janaya Stephens played her reaction shots in the previous scene. The looks she shoots toward Rayford there might have meant, “Tell him, Dad, tell him the truth he needs to hear.” Or they might have meant, “Oh God no, Dad, don’t start on that — not now, not in from of him.” But then again, if you spent your adolescence in the evangelical world, you know that those two thoughts aren’t necessarily incompatible.

Back in Toronto, we learn that despite being the imperial sovereign power of the New World Order, the U.N. still makes do with rather dingy washrooms. True to the character of Buck we got to know in the novel, this men’s room is where he has gone to sort through his thoughts. “It’s true,” CamCam says in this latest men’s room epiphany. “All of it’s true.”

Aaaand — dance break! What the …?

If you’ve ever watched House or Grey’s Anatomy, then you’re familiar with this device — the wordless montage accompanied by a melancholy pop song. The device can be effective, but it’s overused and too often seems to be employed as a sentimentally manipulative gimmick. Yet watching the abbreviated and disastrous attempt to imitate such a montage here makes me appreciate the craftsmanship that goes into such scenes even in the most flagrantly syrupy instances (ever see Cold Case?). This montage is jarring, unnatural and clumsy, (see, for example, the edit at 1:19 or so in the clip above). It lurch
es along like someone driving a manual transmission car for the very first time.

The song, by the way, is “Believer (Buck’s Song)” by Toby Penner of the trio Jake. Clearly a retro-pastiche that’s never going to be a break-away pop hit.

As the montage sputters to a close, we return to CamCam in the men’s room, praying out loud. It’s probably necessary for the audience to hear this prayer spoken aloud, but I’m still not sure that saying all this audibly in the restroom of Wolfram & Hart is a prudent move. When you’re at the headquarters of an all-powerful Antichrist and an all-knowing global conspiracy, it’s probably wise not to say certain things out loud, even in the men’s room.

“Just show me what to do,” CamCam’s prayer concludes. This sets the scene for the showdown to follow in which, you’ll recall from the novel, Buck “feels the presence of God,” and hears the voice of God “impressed on his heart.”

This prayer — and the response it anticipates and receives in the story — is a perfect example of contemporary American evangelical spirituality. And as such it’s an excellent demonstration of why it’s difficult to believe such evangelicals when they talk about having what they call a “high view of scripture.”

I heard an interview with the late John Updike this week in which the novelist explained his dislike for interviews:

I do resist and resent the tendency of our age to milk people through interviews to get them to betray or to reveal the “real” whoever — John Updike, let’s say — when John Updike has been trying to show the real John Updike in his writing all these years.

If there is a God listening to the prayers of CamCam and of all the other evangelicals praying “Just show me what to do,” and if that God is the same God that they claim to believe in, then it seems to me such a God might, like John Updike, “resist and resent” the implied lack of respect and disregard for what has been there “in writing all these years.”

We ask God to show us what to do. We pray, “What does the Lord require of me?”

“And what does the Lord require of you?” the prophet Micah asks, rhetorically, before supplying the answer. “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

You’d think we’d regard that as pertinent to the question in our prayer, but we’re not interested in the writing, we want the shortcut of an interview. So instead of heeding the clarity of Micah, or of the other prophets, or of the Gospels, we wait to see if we can feel God’s presence — somewhere at the base of the spine, perhaps, or just below the ribs — or to see if God seems to impress something on our hearts. (“If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets,” Abraham told Dives, “they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”)

We stumble through an unwelcome reprise of Penner’s droning anthem as CamCam stares into the bathroom mirror. For someone who spends so much time in front of mirrors, you’d think he’d have noticed by now that his suit jackets are all several sizes too big. I think he borrowed this one from David Byrne. This would be less annoying if it weren’t such an obvious metaphor for something the filmmakers probably shouldn’t be drawing even more attention to.

Nicolae greets Buck in the hallway and they head to a conference room. I really hope this is not meant to be the chambers of the Security Council, but I fear that’s what it’s supposed to be. If Vic Sarin were filming a White House drama, his set for the Oval Office would be a rectangle.

We now have CamCam, Mrs. CamCam and not-really-an-actor-guy as Cothran all in one room. No good can come of that. But fortunately we also have Daniel Pilon’s polished unctuousness as Stonagal and Gordon Currie as Nicolae who, like the audience, seems so relieved that something is finally happening in this movie that he gives this scene a much-needed jolt of manic energy.

And this is a relief. After all the praying and pondering and staring at laptops we finally have a scene with something like real conflict and thus, even if this scene doesn’t make any more sense than what came before it, the film for the first time achieves something like actual momentum.

Currie rises from his chair and begins circling the table like De Niro in The Untouchables. I’m not suggesting that he’s doing De Niro-quality work here, mind you, but he takes such delight in finally setting aside the pose of moist sensitivity he was forced to assume earlier that he makes this scene almost compelling.

Sarin can’t help but intrude, of course. The director doesn’t trust his actor or his audience so he inserts an awkward explanatory flashback — complete with reverb voiceover and that annoying tunelessly “Middle Eastern” score from earlier — just to make it clear to everyone that this man is the Antichrist. Sarin was worried, I guess, that Currie’s bwa-ha-ha-ha accent, the villain’s-lair mood-lighting, and the sticker Nicolae is wearing that says, “Hi! I’m the Antichrist — Ask me about my Tribulation” wouldn’t be enough to signal this.

I defy anyone to watch CamCam during this explanatory flashback without being reminded of Robert Hays as Ted Striker. I kept expecting to hear Bruce’s voice saying, “Pinch hitting for Pedro Borbon … Manny Mota … Mota … Mota …”

In the novel, there’s an elaborate bit here with Nicolae acquiring a handgun from security guard Otterness. It’s an awkward bit of action that the movie unforgivably fails to improve on. This is particularly disappointing after Nicolae and Chaim seem to demonstrate the Antichrist’s use of Jedi mind tricks. If you’ve got Jedi mind control, then you shouldn’t be pulling the trigger yourself.

“Miss Durham, could you please step back,” Nicolae says. “You wouldn’t want that suit to be soiled.” And Hattie steps back in exactly the way one would if one were worried about nothing more than keeping one’s suit from getting soiled.

With Hattie out of the way and then — bang! — Cothran out of the way, we’re left only with CamCam to continue interrupting this sequence with Reaction Shots From Bad Actors, and sadly he keeps doing just that.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* Why there? The traditional answer is that because this is Mount Moriah, where Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son. In the Jewish and Christian traditions, that son was Isaac, which is why Solomon’s Temple was built on that spot. In the Islamic tradition, that son was Ishmael, which is why the al-Aqsa mosque stands there today.

I don’t find either argument compelling. The case for this being Mount Moriah is based on little more than bald assertion. I tend to believe the theory that holds it was Solomon’s father, the military general David, who first made that assertion. He was up against a tradition that would have made Hebron, the site of the graves of the patriarchs, his capital. Hebron is pretty much indefensible, vulnerable to attack from all sides. Jerusalem sits in a much stronger, more defensible location and makes a lot more sense as the site of a capital city you want to endure. But unfortunately for David, no one had bothered to hallow the site by burying any patriarchs there.

Looking across the valley at the site of what will one day become Jerusalem, David says, “I will build my city there, right there, on Mount Sinai.”

“Sinai is in the desert,” Joab s
ays. “Everyone knows that.”

“Very well,” David says. “I will build my city there, right there, on Mount Ararat.”

Uh-uh. That’s up north. Asia Minor, Syria, somewhere like that.”

“But no one’s sure exactly where, right?”

“Well they know it isn’t right there.”

“Fine then. Give me a sacred mountain that nobody knows where it is.”

“Mount of Olives?”

“We’re standing on the Mount of Olives.”

“Mount Moriah?”

“Hmm, I like it. That could work. Yes, alright then. I will build my city there, right there, on Mount Moriah.”

** Which isn’t to say that I approve of his resolving this particular personnel problem in the way he’s about to do. He could, instead, just have placed Stonagal and Cothran and their henchmen on mandatory unpaid furlough for a week. Shareholders apparently admire that sort of thing. Or at least the theory seems to be that newspaper shareholders admire that sort of thing. To me it seems to send the signal that management is just desperately flailing around and doesn’t really know what it’s doing. But then again it wouldn’t have occurred to me to invest in newspaper stock and then to demand a 20-percent return, so what do I know?

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