The role of religion in public life is a persistent and controversial theme in American culture and politics. Mostly, this issue revolves around relations between religious institutions and the state: school prayer, making matters of faith into matters of law, the placement of religious texts or symbols on public property.
Less commonly considered is the role of religion in transactions that occur on the margins of the public and the private between members of a faith and outside businesses, professionals, and labor. Does “We’re working for God” earn someone a discount? Free labor? Exemption from the normal rules governing wages and payment for services? What does it mean when someone uses their faith to exact such concessions? Should they be trusted? Does it matter if their faith is ‘real’ or a tool? Can you always tell the difference? Michael Jacobs’ Audience of One dives into this murky water.
Audience of One documents the efforts of San Francisco Pentecostal pastor Richard Gazowsky’s efforts to make a cinematic retelling of the Biblical story of Joseph as a science fiction epic, Gravity: The Shadow of Joseph. This vision reportedly came to Gazowsky in a dream, and very likely, after one too many screenings of the Star Wars series. In his attempt to get the movie made, Gazowsky relies on the support and free labor of his family and congregation, a possibly mythical Christian production company based in Germany, and tense relations with professionals and crafts people outside of his church, including the City of San Francisco.
As the documentary begins, Gazowsky’s dream seems at least somewhat attainable. Pre-production is moving apace. He has succeeded in securing the services of needed outsiders. He appears to have raised enough seed money to begin principal photography in Italy. While it is unlikely that the finished film will be everything he wants it to be, getting something in the realm of his vision seems possible.
However, even in these early, optimistic moments, there are signs of the trouble to come. Richard’s vision for how the movie should look keeps changing, becoming increasingly Baroque and difficult to puzzle out. The more the production needs people who expect to be paid for their work, the more the money comes into question: where it’s coming from, how much of it there is, and if it’s even there at all.
The further the film gets from actually being made, the more grandiose Richard’s proclamations become. What starts as a modest, home-financed project escalates, rhetorically at least, to a big budget movie of $200 million, money that is always arriving, but never arrived. By the end of the documentary Gazowsky’s dream has stretched beyond Gravity to bringing his fictional world to life, promising that the church will, one day, be colonizing other planets.
What Richard knows or believes is difficult to tell. On certain occasions, as when first recounting his dream, he does seem taken by the Holy Spirit. On other occasions, as when he admonishes the city government for demanding back rent, he seems to be cynically using his position as pastor to leverage concessions from others. Where Gazowsky appears most likely to veer into becoming the villain of the piece is when he, arguably, uses his flock’s faith against them to keep his production going.
Most of all, it’s never clear whether Richard is telling a story about the money, or if he truly does believe that it is on its way. Perhaps by the end, as he breaks down into tears during a service, he realizes that he has asked too much of his faithful.
Or perhaps he is regretting or mourning something else entirely. Or releasing stress. Or putting on a show. Jacobs deftly constructs Audience of One so that it is difficult to form a definitive view of Gazowsky, his character, and motivations.
One way in which he achieves this uncertainty is by keeping his film centered on Gazowsky. In part, according to Jacobs’ director’s commentary, this is due to issues of access, in that Richard offered him all of the time in the world, while others did not. But, it is equally clear that Gazowsky, in way or another, needed to be at the heart of the film. On the edges, there are signs of dissent and shaken faith, but Jacobs does not dwell on those.
Jacobs’ commentary also provides context and background for the genesis of Audience of One and an extended discussion of the director’s own lack of certainty about Richard. Lacking the commitment of the faithful, but drawn in by Gazowsky’s charisma and the craziness of his vision for the film and for his church, Jacobs never quite commits to a sense of the pastor as charlatan, true believer, or insane.
Maybe it would be most accurate to suggest that he is all three, but it would have been easy enough to edit Audience of One so that he comes across in a more singular way. Instead, Jacobs chooses to share his uncertainty about his subject, a mark also of the director’s discussion of his ethical responsibility towards his subjects. On the whole, the commentary to the documentary is fresh and enlightening, adding new dimensions to the viewing of the film proper.
The other extras on the DVD include: a trailer, deleted scenes, audio of a musical performance by Gazowsky and his family, which is addressed to Jacobs, and the only two clips of Gravity that have been committed to film.
Audience of One begins with the claim that Gazowksy did not see his first movie until the age of 40. He had his dream a year later. Given the elaborate, and genuinely cinematic nature of his vision, however borrowed from Star Wars it might be, one last question the documentary may leave you with is is whether Richard’s pursuit of Gravity is about the power of God or the power of film.
Rather than impose a particular frame on his subject, Jacobs’ let’s you wonder what, exactly, it is you’re watching unfold, acknowledging not only his own uncertainty, but also the differing readings that viewers are likely to give to a figure like Gazowsky, who will necessarily tests one’s faith in others.