What it looks like to go to (filmmaking) Hell and back

Audience of One

on March 29, 2009 by Sara Schieron
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Audience of One is a fascinating, obsession filled doc about a minister who rallies his parish to build a Christian Film Industry. Making of documentary about the Pentecostal production company straddles the miraculously supportive beginnings of the Industry’s first film (called Gravity: The Shadow of Joseph ), the failed production and what could be viewed as the director’s descent into mania. If Terry Gilliam had lost it after trying to make Don Quixote, this is what Lost in La Mancha could have looked like…but with more crucifixes and praying. Doc’s title refers to Gravity ’s intended audience (God), but it’d be a terrible shame if this possibly unfortunate choice of name becomes the doc’s own box office prophesy. This one’s too good to be missed. Film opens in its hometown of San Francisco. One hopes that future platforming is on the horizon.

One day, Pastor Richard Gazowsky of The Voice of Pentecost Church in San Francisco got the call to begin a Christian film industry. Out of thin air comes a script: a fanciful retelling of the story of Joseph that swaps his “Technicolor Dreamcoat” with futuristic garb reminiscent of the clothing in Tatooine. With character names like “Spilf” and overtly sermon-like dialogue, Gravity seems like the kind of project that would be produced on video in a church basement. But by what the crew repeatedly calls “the hand of God,” Pastor Richard finds ways to shoot the film on 65mm and fly the crew and actors to a tiny town in Italy to do it. His check list of unsupported risks are met with donations, silent contribution and, finally, the attention of a German distributor interested in beginning a Christian Distribution company with Gravity. With spirits high and their faith so repeatedly rewarded it’s not hard to see why they believe God is fulfilling their destinies and making their dreams come true. And then they run out of time and have to finish production in San Francisco.

Troubles emerge when the company settles into the long-empty Treasure Island Film Offices. The church/film company spends what they say is $109,000 on building repair and then they slip into dereliction of rent. The city shuts off their electricity and people begin to speak of Satan’s workings. In response to the intensifying troubles, they preach about submission to God’s plan. The absence of funding is officially exposed to the crew, but only as a limitation to Richard’s dreams. Church members do not discuss the debt the church owes to local film crew. As the studio unravels and his crew pull out, his faith becomes disjoined with reality, ultimately suggesting that the chasm separating faith and business may not be bridgeable.

Filmmaker Michael Jacobs offers up a measured depiction of obsession. Less manic than Werner Herzog (who revels in the excess of craziness) and less tied to illusion than Errol Morris (who’s Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is a kind of encyclopedia of American fixation), Jacobs gives you the sense that he’s trying to show you images you can trust…it’s just that his characters can’t follow his lead.

Some moments in the earlier part of the film edge towards critique (as when Richard says “we want nothing to look familiar in this film” while we pan across production designs that include a watercolor of a child’s face painted using what I can only describe as a “Hotel Aesthetic”). Other moments skate near comedy while never entering it clearly. When Richard suggests they transform a scene in Gravity into an “Intergalactic Starbucks,” his invocation of the Cantina scene, possibly the single most spoofed film scene in pop culture, is so sincere it’s almost confusing.

With all odds against his subject, the filmmaker asks him, “If God told you to stop, would you?” Richard says he would but that God never reneges on his promises, and so, after a short depression (that he also credits to the devil) Richard lectures his Spartan parish on his plans for the company, which include 47 film productions a year, Christian theme parks built around the company’s film productions, an airline with terminal and the “1st organic chip” for motion picture cameras, which he says “will be living chips.” His announcements are met with enthusiastic applause. It's dumbfounding.

Early in the film, Richard’s mother, the founder of the Voice of Pentecost, says she shouldn’t have conceded her chair to her son. In an oddly neutral tone, she describes him as naïve. Richard’s mother is an effortless leader who demonstrates, with few words and nearly no action at all, that it’s a sheep leading the flock of the church now, and danger is afoot when the shepherd goes missing.

Distributor: Indiepix
Director: Michael Jacobs
Producer: Michael Jacobs, Zack Sanders and Matthew Woods
Genre: Making of Documentary
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 88 min
Release date: March 27 SF

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