Act of God

It's all but impossible to represent randomness. And yet this is the task taken up by Act of God, Jennifer Baichwal's documentary on lightning.

Act of God

Director: Jennifer Baichwal
Cast: Paul Auster, Fred Frith, Chris Frith, James O’Reilly, Alex Hermant, Dalila Hermant, Maria de los Angeles Peredo
Rated: NR
Studio: Zeitgeist
Year: 2009
US date: 2009-10-04 (Limited release)
No lightning, no life.

-- Alex Hermant

It's all but impossible to represent randomness. And yet this is the task taken up by Act of God, Jennifer Baichwal's documentary on lightning, or perhaps more accurately, the effects of lightning strikes on survivors. As interviewees try to understand abrupt loss and arbitrary life, the film tries to illustrate their efforts.

This mix of aspirations makes for a complicated viewing experience, with images ranging from talking heads and precise compositions to extraordinary, chaotic storm-chaser footage, from recollections of childhood horrors to an improvised guitar piece by Fred Frith. Instructed to "think of a lightning storm" as he plays, the musician comes up with a disconcerting mélange of sounds, using chains and a bow to reconfigure his instrument, while the film shows clips of clouds rolling and lightning blasting, what might be called nature's improvisation.

But even as the movie offers up these compelling metaphors, it's also contradicting the declarations of randomness made by one interviewee after another. The incongruity appears unavoidable, as representation by definition seeks to order and comprehend. As Canadian playwright James O’Reilly puts it, he put off writing about the strike that killed a friend for nearly 20 years "because I could not resist the temptation to intentionalize this random violent act. I think everybody wants to know why it happened, everybody wants a reason. I think that's human." And with that, he leads Baichwal's film crew to the site of his youthful trauma, remembering and acting out -- in frankly riveting fashion -- the camping trip that now seems fateful at the same time as well as utterly unfathomable.

If there is no plain reconciliation between the "human" impulses to accept and resist, organize and go to pieces, Act of God comes up with seeming stopgaps, means to appreciate confusion and also entertain inclinations to order. Paul Auster introduces this imprecise amalgamation by describing his own reaction to a lightning strike: he was 14, he remembers, and friend of his was killed as their camping group was overtaken by a violent thunderstorm. "There's something monumental about a lightning bolt coming form the sky," he asserts. "It doesn’t feel like an ordinary death. 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." Thus, he figures, he has explored metaphysical questions in "all the writing I've done, everything I've thought about ever since." This impact, as he sees it, is all the more profound because, as Auster says, "It's just pure dumb luck. I don’t believe in destiny." Rather, he submits, "It's what you might call, or what I call in any case, the mechanics of reality. There's no meaning to this. It's absolutely meaningless, and yet this is the way the world works."

This question of belief -- in whatever -- emerges repeatedly in interviewees' recollections. Each is deeply personal and in some essential sense, indescribable. And yet all try to put their experiences into words. Where villagers in Cuba celebrate the orisha of fire, lightning, and thunder, Shango, in ritual parade and dance, their bodies in vivid motion amid an array of color and noise, French storm chaser Alex Hermant removes himself from the representation altogether. Over a collection of images he's captured -- breathtaking photos and rambunctious video footage -- he describes the museum he's assembled, commemorating lightning, that most transient of phenomena, as well as his reasons for not appearing in any of the depictions.

"Between the lightning and the subject that is photographed, filmed or the objects struck by lightning that I show in this museum," he begins, "I feel my image has no place in between the two, because I think that between the lightning itself and the object... damn... I forget what I wanted to say." As he trails off, his wife Dalila re-orders by way of helping: "It would be better if you slowed down," she soothes (also unseen). "But explain to them that it's your fascination that carries you." He goes on to recall his childhood interest in lighting, his personal trajectory to this place. In lightning, he imagines, "It's like we can experience the universe with what it creates. We're in the middle of the duality, present for something absolutely mind-blowing."

Even as the Hermants -- observers and preservers of random nature -- act out their own deliberations, their attempts to make sense, the film offers a man who's been struck by lightning and lived. After Dannion Brinkley was struck and apparently dead for 28 minutes in 1975, he came back with a sense of mission. If his account of his experience has been challenged, his newfound zeal is emphatic, leading to a profitable end of life care business and a religious kind of faith in his own wisdom. "It was amazing to me," he says of his near death, "that all of a sudden I knew everything. Right then and there, I knew what life was about." And so he will provide that knowledge to others, for a price.

As each individual responds differently to lightning strikes, the film contends, the effects seem as random as the strikes themselves. Appreciating the arbitrariness of these life-changing events, Act of God gestures not toward closure or comprehension, but toward a kind of appreciation or empathy. These experiences remain unknowable -- and unrepeatable -- thus the representation is only and ever approximate.


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