Audience of One

Audience of One

In terms of pragmatics, you can make a case for faith, at least for certain beliefs at certain times. In terms of truth, the inherent non-rationality and sometimes irrationality of faith is always objectionable, but pragmatically I can see how it can be a psychologically useful form of self-deception.

What most people seem to do (without admitting they’re doing it, and often without being aware they’re doing it) is limit faith to things that aren’t knowable or to areas where it’s probably not particularly going to hurt them to believe things that are untrue. An example of the first would be life after death—no one knows if we survive death or what happens if we do, but evidently it makes some people feel better to pretend they do. An example of the second is evolution denial—some people like believing a sky god created everything by magic six thousand years ago, and as long as they’re not going to pursue a career in science, especially biology, believing that probably won’t get them into any trouble. How often in day-to-day life do you “need” to know how many millions of years ago dinosaurs existed?

It’s still pitiful in a way, to see people engage in such delicate mental gymnastics to maintain their comforting illusions, plus I think there’s a tendency to underrate the indirect adverse consequences of deviating from rationality in this fashion (because the more you play this game with beliefs whose truth or falsity doesn’t impact your life, the more some of those habits can leak over into beliefs that do). But I try not to get too frustrated when confronted by this level of irrationality.

I think of such garden variety faith as a mild form of mental illness that mostly doesn’t affect functionality, or even in some ways improves it. (In evolutionary terms, it may well be so common precisely because it has or had significant survival value.)

But then some people are just off the deep end. Their line of demarcation between the areas they’ll be rational and the areas they’ll let faith operate isn’t just a little vague or a little permeable, but is nearly non-existent. Some of them are just functional enough to get by, and some are not (and don’t survive or must be institutionalized). These are the people who send all their money to televangelists; at the extreme they’re the people who end up in Jim Jones or Heaven’s Gate situations.

Audience of One is a cinema verité documentary about an entire group of such mentally ill people (a Pentecostal congregation in California), and their Chief Loon, Pastor Richard Gazowsky.

The good pastor has got it into his head—having at age 40 just gone to the first movie of his life—that it would be a swell idea to make his own blockbuster Christian movie. He freely admits he has no knowledge, no skills to direct such a film, but why let that stop you when you’ve got God on your side always willing and able to miracle you past the finish line?

His family, his friends, his congregation are fully supportive of his scheme, financially and otherwise, to create a futuristic, science fiction version of the biblical story of Joseph and his brothers.

Though I frankly wonder about the editing here. I know one should never underestimate people’s capacity for stupidity, especially on matters of faith, but is there really no one objecting, no one asking questions, no one whispering about the fact that the guy’s clearly off his rocker?

But things just get more and more ludicrous. Even though he’s using partly volunteer and amateur labor, his expenses spiral out of control due to his insistence on using unnecessarily expensive equipment (only the best for the Lord after all), and doing some of the filming in Italy. He soon realizes he won’t be able to manage on his intended budget of merely 50 million dollars (a number he plucked out of thin air to begin with) and so bumps it up to 100 million and later 200 million.

It turns out pauperizing his congregation doesn’t provide him with even close to the lowest of those figures. He gets some funding from some German Christians, but that’s just another drop in the bucket. He’s sure (based on faith) that he’ll get more from them or elsewhere, but predictably he doesn’t, and predictably the whole thing falls apart.

All along he and his followers react to everything that happens as further confirmation of their theological beliefs. When they get evicted from their California studio for failing to pay rent three straight months, his daughter cites this as evidence of Satan’s working against them. She then turns around and cites the fact that they weren’t evicted the first two months they didn’t pay rent as evidence that God is looking out for them.

I won’t deny that there’s something a little appealing and a little admirable about his believing in his dream and refusing to succumb to reality. More than a few times the world has benefited from the efforts of extraordinary individuals who think outside the box to believe the implausible and do the impossible.

But alas for every brilliant maverick that can be cited as an example of “Oh yeah, well they all said so-and-so was crazy too!” there are a hundred or a thousand or more others outside the box who were in fact every bit as crazy as they were labeled and have long since been forgotten.

And don’t think the pastor’s hare-brained schemes are limited to a 200 million dollar Christian science fiction movie (of which he manages to film two scenes). As he explains in a sermon late in the film (as usual to an appreciative and awestruck audience), God has revealed far more of what he has planned for his future, including forty-seven feature films per year, a Christian theme park, eight television networks, an airline, twenty-seven luxury resorts, and the first colonization of another planet.

So yes, he’s nuts.

That sermon put me in mind of two things. First I thought of the scene in Bananas when shortly after taking power the rebel leader issues a series of common sense and logic defying edicts, and you realize he’s gone insane.

But I think what fits the extraordinary grandiosity of it even better is the Monty Python sketch with the crossdressing Minister for Home Affairs. (“Minister, may I put the first question to you? In your plan, ‘A Better Britain For Us,’ you claimed that you would build eighty-eight thousand, million, billion houses a year, in the Greater London area alone. In fact, you’ve built only three in the last fifteen years. Are you a bit disappointed with this result?” “No, no, not at all…”)

The film is funny in parts, and it’s more often genuinely disturbing in its depiction of faith crossing the line into utter delusion. But in all honesty there isn’t ninety minutes of material here, not close.

Maybe some viewers will appreciate all the detail, will appreciate seeing the pastor’s insanity revealed very gradually, will appreciate the movie project falling apart in slow motion. But I was bored for easily three-quarters of this film. I don’t know if it should have been a lot shorter, or maybe should have been presented in something other than this minimalist cinema verité documentary style (which I generally find a wimpy, non-committal form of filmmaking), but in spite of having a truly oddball story with plenty of compelling elements to work with, Audience of One just didn’t grab me the way I might have expected.

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