Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Rapture (REPOST)

In honor of Mr. Camping's predictions today, here is an appropriate repost...


(COMPLETE SPOILERS, READER BEWARE)

It's been nearly 20 years since I've seen this movie from beginning to end, but one thing remains burned into my cerebrum. A little sign affixed above the box office speaker, big bold black markered letters:

THERE WILL BE NO REFUNDS FOR THE RAPTURE

For many, this might be a red flag. For me, this was some sort of odd affirmative confirmation, the misanthrope I tend to be. I hadn't even seen the movie yet, and already I knew I was in for something unique, worthwhile. Even if THE RAPTURE would ultimately fall short of its impossibly ambitious goals, it would certainly earn a place in cinema history for daring to embrace such a controversial subject. I had also heard that the climax of this film showed a vision of what is told in the book of Revelations in the New Testment of the Bible. That is, the "rapture". An event where living believers in Jesus Christ would abruptly ascend to Heaven when Christ returned to Earth.

Writer/director Michael Tolkin had never heard of such a thing. Not until he saw a rather alarming bumper sticker that read "In Case of Rapture This Vehicle Will Go Unmanned". I'd like to think that in case of rapture, believers in the act of doing things like driving and doing surgery will not levitate until their work is done, lest some very awful things occur in the wake, but nothing in the Scriptures confirms this. In any event, Tolin was curious and decided to research. THE RAPTURE is the 1991 result, a classic case of overreaching, of biting off more than one can chew. Tolkin had written the brilliant screenplay for Robert Altman's THE PLAYER the same year, so he was a Flavor of the Moment. How else could a movie like this get made, much less get a wide release??

Sharon (Mimi Rogers) is bored. She's not living, but merely existing. Her job: phone operator among many others in rows of cubicles at a faceless corporation. She says the same things into her headset all day long. You might say she's just phoning it in.

Her free time isn't any more fulfilling. Accompanying her male partner, with whom she presumably grew bored with as well, Sharon prowls the sorts of nightspots where swingers congregate, trading partners as mere sport. It's certianly easier than deep, meaningful connection. For years, Sharon alternates her daytime drudgery with a nighttime one. We see her engaged in fairly graphic sexual situations, yet they are no more stimulating than anything else in her existence. One amusing and highly telling scene shows on her face an expression of extreme boredom/disgust while she is in the throes of intercourse. That moment is a perfect summation of her life, one of many bravura moments for Rogers in what is possibly the best role in her very erratic career. I can't think of a more moving and strong performance of her's. It is a shame she was not recognized for her work here.

One day in the break room, Sharon begins to overhear co-workers speaking of prophetic dreams they have had. She discovers that they are born-again Christians, individuals who have devoted their lives to following the teachings of Jesus. For those who aren't familiar, Christianity involves a denial of self and a total committment to a life that relies on Christ. Different Protestant denominations have different answers as to how one becomes "saved", but it usually involves a prayer and a life-changing decision to follow the Lord. I am one of these folks. My experience of conversion came during a Youth Camp in 1986. This entry is not designed to be a testimony, by the way, but there is relevance here.

Sharon gets saved. She parts ways with her companion and the decadent lifestyle. She meets more evangelical Christians, folks who tell all of their faith and how it informs their lives. This includes a young boy who seems to have an uncanny gift for prophecy. Her circle of friends are especially fixated on the aformentioned rapture, their every day given purpose by preparation for it. She eventually marries a godly man (David Duchovny, yes, it's true) and has a daughter. Alas, her husband is later killed in a random act of senseless violence in his workplace. Doubt begins to cloud Sharon's faith. She feels the need to test it, and to also test God's promises.

She gives all her possessions away and retreats to the desert with her daughter. Her plan is to remain there until Christ's return. She continues to deny herself and her child, even food and water. The desperation mounts with each sunset. She recalls Scripture, tales of sacrifice upon the alter to God. Sharon and her daughter decide that this will involve the offering of the latter. Sharon has a gun and does the unthinkable. Still, Christ does not return.

She does not commit suicide, believing she will be condemned to eternity apart from God. Meantime, she is imprisoned. Christ finally returns. Tolkin attempts to show what occurs during the Rapture, and his low budget most certainly influences this. Seen today, the effects are especially unimpressive. But would a big f/x extravaganza have driven home Tolkin's points any better? I hope Jim Cameron doesn't helm a remake.

At the end of the film, we stand with Sharon in what appears to be a sort of Purgatory. While in jail, she angrily renounced her faith. Her husband and daughter plead with her to repeal her anger toward God and join them in Heaven. She steadfastly refuses and remains in the void. In a highly effective last shot, we see the light that had shined from Heaven go dark over her, leaving only an anonymous silhouette.

Now, Christians and even secular Biblical scholars alike will take major exception with this film's theology. At almost every turn, we see liberties taken with what evangelicals believe, what the Bible describes. For openers, when one is truly saved, they are saved for eternity, even if they shake a fist at their god on occasion or even turn away. Of course, who is to know if another is "truly saved"? That is between oneself and God. We look at others, measure ourselves (and even Faith) to some mortal yardstick, to our peril. I am no theologian, but having grown up in an evangelical environment, having been immersed in the Bible at various times, I can clearly see that THE RAPTURE's events are not based on solid doctrine. This film attempts to analyze this most curious of biblical proclamations, how it can define one's entire life. "This earth is not our home" so many believers cry. However, not too many I've met forsake their responsibilities and wait for the trumpet blast. But I know they're out there.

This is but one of the problems I have with this movie. The Christians we see here all speak forbodingly, all seem obsessed with prophetic events. Speak of mysterious pearls and such. The Christians I've encountered tend to be more obsessed with football and the right to bear arms. Forgive me the social dig. But seriously, why are Christians almost always depicted as one-dimensional loons in films and television programs? Is it a lack of understanding by writers? Maybe they're the most visible in society. Even if Francis of Assisi didn't really say this, I wonder why more believers (in art and life) don't subscribe to "Preach the gospel at all times; when neceassry, use words." Instead, we get bigoted, judgmental, or just plain odd types with diarrhea of the mouth. The film SAVED attempted to lampoon this sort of buffoon, with limited success.

The tone of THE RAPTURE seems an appropriate portent, but it unfortunately turns the whole effort into what feels like late night B-fare. A similiar dilemma befelt the intriguing 2001 drama FRAILTY, which had some themes in common with THE RAPTURE. There are serious points, legitimate inquiries under the ominous surface that are worth exploring. What does it mean to truly follow Christ? How does compromise fit in? Who are these people who dare say that they have a ticket to eternal peace? What can we interpret of the word "rapture" itself? This film would be excellent for a screening and discussion time. However, for many viewers, it will be tough wading through the early sequences of Sharon's pre-conversion, scenes that often push this film's R-rating beyond its usual parameters.

That final image of Sharon, holding firm to her decision to not trust in God again, may come off as superficial, like a spurned lover refusing to forgive her non-committal boyfriend. This event also, if taken literally, does not reflect accurate theology as with I'm familiar. But it is still effective and disturbing, a vivid picture of an unforgiving, hard heart that even following that most empirical of events, the rapture, where the proof is right there (take that, Msr. Hitchens!), said heart will reject the Divine. How many among us once believed and then drifted, rejected?

Considered again at this late date, with THE RAPTURE, Tolkin just about treads water. That said, I'd rather see a talent like Tolkin treading water than many other filmmakers at full stroke. I wish he would create more...

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