PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.