Monday, October 22, 2007

Toronto After Dark Film Festival 2007: "An Audience Of One"

(USA, 2007, 88 minutes)
Produced by Michael Jacobs, Zach Sanders, Matt Woods
Directed by: Michael Jacobs

Back in 1993, post-This Spinal Tap and pre-Waiting For Guffman, Arthur Borman got the jump on Christopher Guest and co. and shot a hilarious “mockumentary” entitled The Making Of…And God Spoke, which chronicled the faux production of a big-budget version of “The Bible”, in which clueless schlockmeisters tried to jazz up the timeworn sermons with everything from martial arts to a “hot” Virgin Mary to guest appearances from Lou “The Incredible Hulk” Ferrigno and Eve “Jan Brady” Plumb, miscalculating the size of Noah’s ark and number of Jesus’ apostles in the process…

Michael Jacobs’ new An Audience Of One is 100 times funnier, and just as equally depressing, because for the filmmaker-under-fire here, God really did speak, and to quote esteemed theologian David Gahan, displays “a sick sense of humour”. Now, turning a prying lens onto the evangelical community these days might seem like shooting fish in a barrel after the likes of Jesus Camp and Hell House, but being handed a subject like this is the closest thing a documentary filmmaker can get to a burning bush, Gabriel’s horn, or, more appropriately, the rivers boiling with blood during the final tremors of The Rapture…

In 1996, Richard Gazowsky, a Pentecostal pastor based in San Francisco (who didn’t see his first film—Disney’s The Lion King--until he was 40!) received a message from God (allegedly) telling him to spread the Word through entertainment—specifically, by forming a film production company. By putting up his home as collateral (he’d inherited the ministry from his mother, who retired when she reached 65) and raising meager funds through his congregation, Gazowsky optimistically launched “WYSIWYG Filmworks”—pronounced “Wizzy-Wig”--which stands for “What You See Is What You Get”. But not even the most devout follower could have seen this disaster coming…

“What you see is what you get” is also Jacobs’ essential philosophy behind the lens, although I’m sure that there will be many within the church-going set who will insist that the film has been manipulated in a way—as Michael Moore’s detractors invariably accuse—to make Gazowsky’s United (wannabe) Artists look as ridiculous as possible. Unfortunately, no amount of creative editing can possibly make the tongue chanting (“glossalia”) and spastic dancing look any more absurd, nor is the pastor’s painfully myopic optimism the result of any CG pixel sorcery.

Announcing that his first opus would be made exclusively for God—the “audience of One”—Gazowsky decided to take his cues from the cinematic saints Cecil B. DeMille and Michael Bay and start big with “Gravity: The Story Of Joseph”, an interplanetary retelling of the story of Joseph with a production design heavily inspired by the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation (remember Denise Crosby’s spiked oven mitt?).

Incongruously deciding to shoot in the expensive and unwieldy 65mm gauge (“no one shoots in 65mm!” scoffs Jens Klein, the hapless German DOP, who joined the production after feeling the Holy Spirit at one of Gazowsky’s sermons), production begins on an Italian location in the village of Alberobello (short on costumes and set dressings, thanks to a staff of a mere two artisans). Obsessing over such ephemera as the type of lining in an alien’s cowl, and whether or not his art director can provide him with a “smoking floor” (as in a floor made of smoke), Gazowsky is indifferent to his unpaid (courtesy of Craigslist) cast and crew’s fatigue during marathon late-night shoots (the result of his own incompetence) and the bewilderment of the locals, whose Old-World skills come to the (thankless) rescue of what wouldn’t pass for an Ed Wood Jr. production.

Back in America, WISYWIG takes over San Francisco’s “Treasure Island” production facility on the promise of the still-forthcoming European funds (“Deutchbank”, Gazowsky assures). Paranoid that Hollywood will conspire to steal his brilliant vision (apparently, a spy from Warner Bros. has already been foiled!), Gazowsky blows virtual cash on a “laser” based security system and needless office renovations while not a single is driven on a set within the cavernous sound stages.

And yet, as the city votes to evict WYSIWIG from the soundstages for months of unpaid rent and electricity and the sensible ones are removed from the production (DOP Klein is fired and forced to put his possessions into storage as he faces an uncertain career future), Gazowsky steadfastly visits NAB in Las Vegas, boasting to vendors that he’s got $100M budget (although throughout the film he sometimes says it’s twice that) and ordering up the latest post production gadgets…

What’s most objectionable, and did nothing but cement my disdain for the preening media-savvy Holy Roller set, is that for all of his doughy, aw-shucks charm, Gazowsky is nothing less than a bald-faced f*cking liar, hemorrhaging funds he knows full well do not exist and deflecting any criticism and suggestion that he’s breaking the law as the work of “Satan” attempting to sabotage his holy mission. When one of his volunteer actors complains that he’s being run ragged for no money (or food, or drink, or rest), Gazowsky blithely shrugs “I’m not getting paid either”. No, but he did inherit a parish from his mother, to which desperate followers contribute sizeable amounts of cash which he can pocket tax-free. If only struggling actors had it so rough

However, An Audience Of One is not especially an anti-religion screed—Jacobs’ problem isn’t so much Gazowsky’s or his congregation’s faith (if anything, the film reflects warmly on the empowering sense of community that heathens like yours-truly deny themselves), but rather, the dangerously blind devotion it inspires in—and often demands from—the fragile and the desperate. It is Gazowsky’s vanity that’s on trial here: At every disastrous turn, he is able to retreat to the comfort of his delusion, expecting “understanding” and favours and bending of the law to suit his own well-insulated end.

But what I found most captivating was the more pointed undercurrent that, regardless of one’s faith or lack-of, it takes a certain amount of delusion and righteous determination to want to become an artist in any medium in the first place (hell, my entire adult life has been a testament to that!), esp. filmmaking, where directing has more than once been compared to commanding an army (just ask John Milius) and the most pioneering auteurs are unapologetically ego-driven. But Gazowsky, by his own admission, has no talent for the art or patience for the craft and at every opportunity won’t allow those with the know-how to do their jobs, else risk a nocturnal visit from Max Von Sydow.

In the final scene, Gazowsky reports to his then-current congregation (who seem much smaller in number) of his latest visitation from the Almighty, who has now promised them not only a series of 47 big-budget feature films (although only two scenes of “Gravity” were ever shot), but seven television networks, an airline, resorts around the globe, and a space colony! As the image fades to the credit roll, it’s readily apparent that Gazowsky has gotten a sizeable head start on the latter. I was actually moved to pray—that these poor dopes see the light and ditch this clown like so much space junk…

©2007 Robert J. Lewis