In an earlier age, we had painters, sculptors, stained-glass artisans and stonemasons who could open our eyes in fresh ways. Today, documentary filmmakers may have the best shot at our ever-shortening attention spans--partly because their films bring us vivid glimpses of honest-to-goodness truth.
In 75 minutes of "Act of God," Jennifer Baichwal invites us to break out of old patterns of thinking as we explore lightning--as well as creativity, chance and coincidence.
I found novelist Paul Auster the most fascinating person in the film. As "Act of God" opens, he explains to us: "It has something of the Divine about it--something just so transcendently scary about it. It opened up a whole realm of speculation that I've continued to live with ever since and I think it's deeply implanted in all the work I've done, all the writing I've done and everything I've thought about ever since."
He's talking about a traumatic experience in his childhood when he witnessed lightning strike--and kill--a boy named Ralph.
Hearing Auster talk about this experience makes one think long and hard about his strange body of work like the metaphysical mystery novels, The New York Trilogy (Green Integer), where "catching a bad guy" isn't really the point of the stories. These books are far more disturbing than typical mysteries because they're really mysteries about the nature of mystery itself.
As "Act of God" unfolds there are several speculative "sub plots"--for example, one in which the filmmaker visits scientists trying to map electrical patterns in the brain. There's a suggestion that, somehow, electrical patterns in our brains mirror lightning patterns and maybe this might relate to our capacity to understand the universe. They key words here are: Speculative. Somehow. Maybe. These forays are Interesting, but not nearly as engaging as listening to people coming to terms with actual lightening strikes.
Auster's life-changing incident took place during a summer camp hike, many years ago. "Everyone was in a fairly buoyant mood," he recalls and the hikers even managed to lose track of their original trail. "If we happened to get lost, what difference would that make? ... Then it began to rain ..."
I don't want to spoil the film by telling too much here, but you hopefully get the point: There are far larger forces at work in our world than most of us appreciate in daily life. Sometimes, it takes a jolt to wake us up.
If you're intrigued by this film, I can also strongly recommend Baichwal's earlier Manufactured Landscapes (US Edition), which is equally awe-inspiring as it takes us to areas of China that I can guarantee you've never seen before.