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the rapture (michael tolkin, 1991)

We watched The Rapture with Doug and Jillian tonight. In a bit, I'll quote from a couple of essays, one I wrote and one my friend Cynthia wrote, and there's no avoiding spoilers when talking about this movie, so be forewarned.

Doug was the only one of us who had never seen it, and he didn't like it very much. He thought the movie was "pro-rapture" and didn't like that the freaky rapture-believing nutcases were "right." I think it's a very complex movie, with one of the greatest endings in film history, so obviously Doug and I are pretty far apart this time around. Here's part of what I wrote back in 1994:

[H]ere is one movie that refuses the easy solution. Mimi Rogers plays Sharon, a bored and jaded directory-assistance worker who prowls airport hotels with her friends, looking for new sex partners. Sharon gradually becomes disillusioned with her life, and discovers a religious cult that believes in the upcoming 'rapture' whereby the true believers will be whisked up to heaven forever. The liberal fantasy would be to reject the rapture as too literal; the nihilist would go back to having sex; the religious fanatic might focus on the rightness of Sharon and her mates as they await the oncoming apocalypse. But Tolkin tries something more complicated, more disturbing. He accepts the apocalypse; the rapture in his movie is real, not imagined, and he does not condescend. The believers are correct, the rapture does happen. But by the conclusion of The Rapture Tolkin has demonstrated in no uncertain terms that the demands of the God of the apocalypse are too great, too inhumane, too ghastly to accept. When Sharon refuses salvation, she does so not because she thinks she is at one with the scum, as would the apocalyptic nihilist; not because 'the rapture' isn't real, which would be the liberal version ... She refuses salvation because God is wrong; God exists, but God is wrong. She turns her back on God, and the audience is fully aware of what she is giving up: eternal life in heaven. She goes back to the humble.

After The Rapture, most other attempts to confront the apocalypse seem a little shallow. Confronted with salvation, real and tangible, yet also with full knowledge of what is demanded of the believer, The Rapture simultaneously believes and rejects. To do one or the other is simple; to do both is impossibly heartbreaking and startlingly brave.

Cynthia gets it even better than I do:

Michael Tolkin's 1991 movie The Rapture asks tough questions and then has the guts to attempt to answer them: what does it mean to have absolute faith? and what is the price we pay for it? Not only does it take religion and religious questions seriously without being either preachy or condescending, it refuses to take the easy way out by having everything magically turn out okay at the end. As a friend of mine once put it, this movie is not a Sunday school sermon with great sex. Yes, one way of reading the final twenty minutes of it is to posit that The Rapture is real and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse really are going to come riding down the street. But more importantly, it also attempts to take into consideration what happens when a person who turns out to have a conscience and is able to articulate it clearly, sticks to her conscience in the face of the confirmation of a faith that she perceives of as having betrayed her, refusing to save herself with a lie.... When the lights come up on the close of the film, what we are left with are questions: what was real, what was hallucination, and most importantly, what exactly are the consequences of our actions and the difference between blind and principled faith?

I'll never forget the final camera shot of that movie as long as I live.

The Rapture is one movie that makes us think twice about the assumption that all religious discourse these days is controlled by fundamentalist, evangelical right wingers out to deprive people who are "different" of their rights as humans. Not all religious discourse in the latter part of this century is about arguing for limitations; some of it is about opening our eyes to the world around us and taking responsibility for what we see. Watching Sharon come to terms with her choices, including her conscious choice to be saved in the early part of the movie and her equally conscious choice to accept damnation at the end of the movie, makes for powerful storytelling and education about the prices we pay for wanting something outside of ourselves to make our lives simpler and less empty.

I can only add that I am with her on that last camera shot. "Forever."

Comments

zendoug

in all fairness, my problem with the rapture is not the movie's fault but my own. i just can't appreciate a movie that takes the luxury of contemplating the philosophical implications of faith. i'm at a place right now where i have zero tolerance for religious fundamentalists. i blame them for everything bad in 2004. but that's not fair since the movies was made in 1991. but at this moment in history, i just can't appreciate where the rapture goes with it's philosophical ponderings because right now i am so angry at born again christians who re-elected that moron who will kill us all in the name of the lord. it is hard for me to watch a movie that places the blame on god and not on mimi rogers, because that just supports bush -- "oh, W was duped by god into slaughtering thousands of iraqis and americans." it's just not satisfying to imagine a world where you can be tricked into shooting your own child in the head by "faith". i'd rather a world where society holds people responsible for their own actions and calls faith what it really is -- an excuse to act like a fool.

Steven Rubio

Funny thing is, I agree with much of what zendoug says. My tolerance for religious fundamentalists is at an all-time low, and I detest the influence they currently have in the socio-cultural-political arena.

But I don't ask that every work of art agree with me politically ... as someone, probably Bruce, said, John Wayne's politics don't mean his movies suck. Most popular art today pretty much ignores god, and more power to it, as far as I'm concerned, and what does deal with god usually does so from a pro-god perspective. The Rapture exists in a different place, where god is real, in fact where the fundamentalists are "right" even though they are morons, but god is also malevolent. It's a killer of an argument against the fundamentalists: yes, your god is real, but he's evil.

And on an artistic level, this setup makes Mimi Rogers' decision at the end of the movie one of the bravest and saddest decisions ever. If you can't suspend your disbelief for the 100 minutes of the film, the ending will leave you empty. But if you accept the film's terms for those 100 minutes, then Rogers' last line, "Forever," has ramifications far greater than 99.9% of the "hard" decisions movie heroes and heroines are confronted with. I can say "fuck god" whenever I want, because there is no god so I'm not really in danger when I am blasphemous. The danger for Mimi Rogers in The Rapture, though, is real and eternal ... and she says "fuck god" anyway.

Steve

Yes, and that what makes the movie so cool: Tolkin creates a situation in which the most (literally) insane premises of a militant christian fundamentalist belief system are "proved" to be literally true--and then he has his main character reject those premises with eyes wide open. And it's the right, ethical choice.

That is, this is a movie that completely embraces fundamentalist readings of christian mythologies, but you show it to most jesus puds and you're in for a black eye, at least.

zendoug

what's a jesus pud?

Steve

I forget the specific derivation (I think I first heard this phrase used about 20-odd years ago by a friend from Pittsburgh), but it refers to mindless christian fundamentalists. It is not a complimentary salutation, but rather a scurrilous blanket stereotype.

Michael Tolkin

I saw people walk out of the theater with about 45 seconds left of the movie. I understand hatred of religion, and you can read something I wrote something for the Jewish Journal at the URL: http://www.jewishjournal.com/home/searchview.php?id=8302.

My intention was to take pop Christianity, morning rush hour Christian talk radio at its most literal, and follow the logic. When we screened the film for a fundamentalist audience in Atlanta, the man who organized the boycott of The Last Temptation of Christ asked me a few questions, and I passed the test, I had studied enough of the literature and as far as he was concerned, everyone should see the film. The scandal of the film was that those who don't believe in God could tell themselves that Sharon was delusional, until the end. So many movies make the Devil real, and few intelligent athiests get upset about it. After all these years, one trend I've found is that my Jewish gloss on evangelical end of days theology was something very much embraced by lapsed Catholics in 12 step programs.

Thank you for still talking about it.

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