August 4, 2009

Audience of One

Reviewer: Alan Hogue
Rating (out of 5): ****

I'm always of two minds when I see another laugh-a-minute expose of the nuttier side of American Christianity. Sure, religious nuts can be funny (when they aren't being scary), but it's hard to think of an easier target, and in the end many "religious comedies", as you might call them, wind up seeming cheap. This goes both for documentaries (Audience of One is a traditional documentary) as well as fiction films.

But Michael Jacobs' film Audience of One, though it looks like one, is not a cheap invitation to laugh at funny people singing about how much they love Jesus with a disturbingly corporeal ardour. It is actually a fairly serious and thought provoking (as well as funny) film. Richard Gazowsky, pastor of a Pentecostal church in San Francisco, believes he is given a mission from God: to make the greatest Christian blockbuster movie the world has ever seen. Neither he nor anyone in his (sparsely attended) church knows anything about making movies, but he does have the requisite knack for wringing money from his mostly lower income flock.

Of course the movie is a catastrophe; it's much more of a catastrophe than just a laughably bad film or a series of remarkably unlucky coincidences which derail production (although it is those things, too); it's a real catastrophe because of the enormous amount of the congregants' money that is blown on the grandiose delusions of a madman wrapped up in increasingly desperate contortions of "faith." In the beginning of the film, Gazowsky comes off as a harmless, likable fellow. Indeed, compared to the extremely weird and deranged street people he finds to be his actors, you start to think he's the only reasonable person in the whole picture. Ok, so he thinks God told him to make a movie in a dream, but that's par for the course.

But as time goes by and it becomes increasingly clear that the movie will never be made, Gazowsky really starts to lose it. He claims that his "producer" in Germany is on the verge of delivering another 100 million dollars in funding (in fact, he's on the verge of resigning). As the whole shebang collapses around his ears, he shows up at a Las Vegas media convention to buy two extremely expensive mixing boards, meanwhile he doesn't pay any of his actors nor does he pay his studio's rent. Finally, as if he thinks that upping the ante to astronomical proportions will somehow force God to fix things for him, he delivers a PowerPoint presentation to his beleaguered flock in which he outlines some new goals for the church. These include owning multiple TV stations, an amusement park, and, naturally, going to the moon.

It's around this time that clear signs of paranoia appear, and it is only here, after Gazowsky's game of chicken with God has ruined everything, that we first hear anyone mention Satan. Watching the likable Gazowsky psychologically ruined by his implacable faith is nothing compared to the rather sad effect it has on his extremely docile and long suffering flock. It would be easy enough to play off Gazowsky's insanity as just the flowering of some long hidden chemical imbalance or emotional problem. But his paranoia and desperation infects the whole church. Soon people who used to just like to sing in church on Sunday are convinced that Satan is working through the city of San Francisco to ruin their movie (by demanding that the church pay its rent).

In the end, Audience of One is a funny, sad, and fascinating rumination on the nature of faith. The conclusions it suggests will not be comforting to many people, but they are hard to deny.

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Posted by cphillips at August 4, 2009 12:17 PM

This is indeed one of the "finds" of the year. It's a great documentary. See it -- and weep.

Posted by: James van Maanen at August 4, 2009 8:33 PM
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