Thursday, September 29, 2011

How High is This Ground?

I finally reached “Higher Ground” last night: 8:25 show, West Newton Cinemas. Seeing the movie 40 minutes from home gave me a pretext to drop in on Brian at St. John Seminary in nearby Brighton and to see that, though he’s training to be a priest now, he’s still my buddy The B-Dog. He has never looked more settled, happy, himself. Vera Farmiga’s film about a woman struggling with her faith in the bosom of a Pentecostal church is another matter altogether.

I am confused about this film. Let me tell you how confused. I got home just after 11 pm, as the Red Sox were emerging from a rain delay and clinging with finger nails, teeth, whatever they could muster, to the AL Wild Card in the final day of the season. Their adversary, Tampa Bay, was coming back from a 7–0 deficit against the Yankees and had just tied their game 7–7. I watched a while, until Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon gave up a couple of hits in the bottom of the 9th inning and the Orioles tied the game. That was all I needed to see. I have been predicting this collapse for a month, I lived through 1978 and Bucky Dent, and I didn’t have to witness it with my eyes, which were bleary from a very long day. I went to bed and didn’t think of the film again until just before sleep overcame me. In my last hour of sleep, between 4 and 5, I tossed and turned over a tortuous dream in which the Red Sox lost, the Rays won, the Wild Card was forfeited, the collapse was complete. I woke to find that all of this had happened. Of course. Then I finally thought of the film again.

We swim in a cultural stew. It drips off of us, gets in our ears and eyes and even pores. Here I had been confronted with a powerful story of faith, like “Higher Ground,” and ended dreaming about baseball. Confusion, confusion. There is confusion for me in confronting “Higher Ground” on its own terms. I am having trouble separating the meat and potatoes, though the juice tastes good as it seeps between my lips. The cultural context of Farmiga’s tale is so overwhelming and frequently off-putting that it is hard to sense what’s really important about it. It is like being a Boston fan at Yankee Stadium and wondering what all the hooting is about, although we’re all of us baseball fans.

Based on Carolyn Briggs’s memoir This Dark World, “Higher Ground” is the story of Corinne (Farmiga), a thoughtful girl who grows up in libraries; marries the lead singer of a high school rock band; has three children by him; raises their children, with him, in a Pentecostal church; suffers a terrible loss of faith when a friend gets sick; falls out of love with her husband (temporarily? irredeemably?); is smitten with another man . . . And all along, Corinne hungers for God. An extraordinary final scene positions her literally at the door of her faith, uncertain which way to turn.

The confusion, for me, arises from the Pentecostal stuff. Corinne’s is a highly Biblical church, where the pastor calculates behind a smarmy smile and his wife rides herd over the women of the flock, killing Corinne and others with kindness. The film begins (beautifully) with Corinne’s full-body adult baptism, and then a remarkable flashback resets her story to childhood. There is talking in tongues.There is Corinne “trying” to talk in tongues, hilariously in front of her bathroom mirror, while her troubled, unbelieving sister listens aghast outside the door. There are guitars and hand-clapping and all sorts of faith and praise. The sound track is beautiful indeed. Overall, the film presents a Christian faith experience that is largely foreign to me, a Catholic convert from Episcopalianism. Why is that? Is it too overt? In your face? Acted out? Do I have a problem with Christians proclaiming their faith in loud voices, with arms upraised? Still, I wonder about the utility of this film. I struggle to imagine the reaction of the non-believing movie-watcher—the one in a hundred who bothers to see this film of faith. Made on a $2 million budget, “Higher Ground” had grossed less than $600 thousand by the end of September. I was one of two people at the 8:25 show. The movie clearly is not reaching a wide audience. Any impulse toward evangelization has been stymied. 

In the end, “Higher Ground” felt like a far more foreign movie to me than, say, a faith film about Islam or Hassidism. This is probably because it is so damn Middle American, in the best Trans-Hudson, Red-State fashion, and I have failed to tweaze the faith stuff from the cultural stuff. In short, I am blinded by my cultural preconceptions.

The thing that saves the film is Farmiga herself, in her performance as Corinne. No matter what you think about Pentecostalism or handling snakes, her face is one you must watch. I am sure the most cynical atheist would stop in his tracks if he came face to face with Christ Himself; likewise, no reasonable film viewer will look away anytime Farmiga opens her eyes and merely looks at something, someone, anyone. Her luminous humanity—plagued by doubt yet yearning for Her Lord—asks you to take her hand and climb with her to higher ground. A small number of American moviegoers have made the climb with her, and I would encourage you to do the same, although you ought to beware of snakes.

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