Zeitgeist Films // 2009 // 75 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis (Retired) // January 20th, 2010
Meditations on lightning, life, and chance.
The power of lightning is awe-inspiring. It is speculated that a lightning strike caused the chain reaction that generated life on Earth. Yet, lightning giveth and lightning taketh away. Its destructive force is almost unfathomable, obliterating almost anything unfortunate enough to come into contact with it. For those who are struck by lighting and miraculously survive or witness somebody struck, the event is profoundly changing. We talk about the astronomical odds of it happening to us but, when it does happen, the victims have to wonder if something bigger than them has caused it. Jennifer Baichwal (Manufactured Landscapes), director of Act of God, couches her documentary in these terms. In speaking to people who have survived or witnessed the death of others about the effect their experience had on them, she explores the idea of chance versus divine intervention, and the startlingly blurry line between the two.
Act of God opens with author Paul Auster, who discusses the idea of the chance encounter, prevalent in his work, and how his obsession with it comes down to one incident. On a camp hike, a friend of his was struck by lightning. Had their positions been reversed, or had they been slowed by only a few steps, Auster would have died. He is no believer in the divine and insists that he doesn't want to ascribe that to the incident, yet he must ask himself why it was that boy and not him. There's no answer to this question and, as a result, he has become obsessed.
Likewise, Baichwal interviews people of disparate backgrounds with disparate levels of religious belief. Almost at once, we can see how differently their stories play out and how similar their reactions are. We have a small community in Mexico devastated by a lightning strike that killed a number of children praying at a hillside cross; a man who died after lightning went through his phone and into his brain, only to return to Earth to be a self-help guru; another writer, James O'Reilly, whose story is both horrifying and beautiful, and will not be spoiled here. For each, the event was life-changing and, no matter how they initially reacted to it, the final result is a calm acceptance of what happened, whether that comes through the idea of God calling his children home or of understanding that a chance encounter is no more than that. In neither case is there much good in questioning it.
Most interesting artistically, and most telling of the core idea in Act of God, is the inclusion of improvisational guitar legend Fred Frith. While he doesn't have a direct experience with lightning, he's brought in for a control experiment on chance. They record his brain waves while playing from memory and again while improvising. The memory-scan looks like any normal brain scan, gibberish to me, but average looking. The improv-scan, however, more closely resembles an abstract painting than anything to do with science. While bizarre on the surface, the theory is that, since brain waves are tiny lightning strikes, Frith's brain during the improvisation is firing irregularly in many different places at once. If each of these firings is a "chance encounter," Frith's body acts a kind of conduit for these encounters that manifests itself through the guitar. Is it random? In a way, it is, but Frith is doing something deliberate here as well, making sounds based instinctually off the way he feels. Part chance and part direct action, this experiment sheds more light on the subject than the interviews do. The performance, on top of it, is stunning.
If there's a negative in Act of God, it's that there is no clear aim with the narrative. Unlike most documentaries, this is more philosophical musing than storytelling, which leads us on a meandering path. The individual stories are compelling enough, however, and the natural footage is brilliant enough, that people who ordinarily crave a strong narrative should still be satisfied.
Not guilty. Are you shocked?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 75 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Short Film