By Bill Arceneaux
The idea of preparing for doomsday, religious or otherwise, is silly to me. Sure, the concept of protecting you and yours is admirable, but what is it all ultimately for? A heart physician told me once, as a kid, a joke: A man goes to his doctor to stop his constant clapping. When the doctor asked why he does it, the man says, “To keep the elephants away.” The doctor points out that there are no elephants nearby, to which the man says, “See?” As a youngster, I didn’t get it. I felt that the man was just in his actions, and the act was itself pretty harmless. After all, no elephants were around.
As It Is In Heaven, the feature film from director and LSU professor Joshua Overbay, could be prefaced with that very joke. It’s a story about unquestioning devotion, proud and painful. It’s a story of people hungry – literally and figuratively – for more in their lives. It’s a story of that void that exists in all of us. Some fill it with constant exploration, others with finite answers. This is a story about those others.
In this story, an aging prophet of a small religious sect (possibly cult) has predicted that the end of time will come in 30 days, and the Lord will return to take them away. Unfortunately, he is stricken with hip and rib pain so powerful that he dies (God is funny, ain’t he?). Leaderless, the young David – who only became a member a year prior – assumes control of the sect, believing it’s up to him to get them ready. How? By fasting until the lord arrives.
The previous prophet had a biological son, who soon butts heads with David over his grand plans. “It wasn’t like this before,” he says to a new recruit. Of course not. His father kept this group fed and happy, blissfully ignorant of the labels the outside world would put upon them. He knew how to properly control— I mean, lead his flock. David is the result of blind faith; of a generation that bought into something with a shaky foundation, no matter the intent of those building it. Now, these propagandized folk are in charge of other propagandized folk. I can’t help but think of Ronald Reagan and the damage his legend did to the GOP.
As the end days draw near, the film’s dynamic editing and photography ramp up. When we begin the story – at David’s baptism – we follow a young sect member to the gathering. She’s just in time, and happily received, with the sun shining above her. The further along we get, the gloomier the weather, the less the light covers the characters faces, and the more the scene transitions add depth to what we’re witnessing. David wanted a sign, but can’t see it if it were waving its arms in front of him.
We can, of course; Overbay and his crew are angels of filmmaking, knowing when and how to inform and evoke. An innocent moment like a female member coming to David in the middle of the night because “the lord told her to” takes on added meaning when lit subtly and performed quietly. And its implications are kind of creepy – or potentially creepy, anyways. Not that David is that kind of prophet. Though, nothing is really stopping him from that end.
As It Is In Heaven doesn’t really condemn or praise its characters, instead choosing to let them figure things out for themselves. This is an approach I appreciate, as far too often, we see people like this through a filter of judgment from the get-go. Sure, just by reading the synopsis we might assume they are fools going into the movie, but that’s a given. If a film treats its characters like – shock – people, then we will begin to see them and, maybe, ourselves in that way. I’d like to think of a God that does the same. Maybe he (or she) has had to clap to keep elephants away. Who knows?
As It Is In Heaven plays at The Manship Theatre on February 5 at 7 p.m.