Wednesday, October 26, 2011

In GOD'S LAND, Preston Miller tackles faith, sweetly, strongly wrestling it to the ground

"Imagine if you were the only one you knew who dreamed when you sleep. How could you explain to others what you saw? Would people think you were mad if you told them? Would you yourself think that you were cursed or insane?" This opening statement and the questions that follow come from the press material on Preston Miller's new film GOD'S LAND -- a movie about faith (and how to under-stand it) -- and they seem to me the per-fect way to approach this beautiful, comical, kind and sad new film, my favorite of the year so far. If you already know my negative feelings about religion in general, you may be as surprised as am I that I've fallen so strongly for this odd but endearing work. It has opened me up a bit, made me less certain but more inquisitive.

No, no: Don't worry. TrustMovies is not about to find Jesus, Mohammad, or any of the big guy's other minions. What he has found, thanks to Mr. Miller (pictured at left), is the humanity within those who do have faith. What faith means to them, where it stands amongst their priorities, and what they are willing to give up for it -- all of these come clear by the time God's Land reaches its conclusion. The oddest thing about the film is that, though this particular faith appears initially to be absolutely loony -- wait: aren't many of the tenants of our major religions also absolutely loony? -- as the film meanders toward a conclusion that is both foregone and maybe miraculous, that faith is seen to be about bettering humanity and the world we live in. How bad is that? The question left hanging, of course, is how to best effect this betterment.

The story here? It's an imaginative look on the part of the filmmaker at events that took place in the U.S. a decade or more ago when a tiny cult from Taiwan, together with its leader, came to Garland, Texas ("It sounds like God's land," is the explanation for why here?) and announced that God was soon to arrive in a spaceship and that the world as we know it, would end. Miller places most of his focus on one family in this small group, the husband (Shing Ka, above, center) who is the believer; mom (Jodi Lin, above left) and young son, Ollie (Matthew Chiu, above, right) both of whom go along for the ride and for their love of dad.

We meet the revered Teacher Chen (Jackson Ning, center right, above) and his not-terribly-bright but quite endearing right-hand-man (Wayne Chang, center left, above) and some of the other few acolytes, along with a young woman (good job by newcomer Gloria Diaz) hired to help the group "assimilate" into Americana.

The film alternates between scenes with the Hou family and that of the many press conferences the group gives. The media, of course, are enrapt by all this, wanting detail after detail of the spaceship, god, and anything else they can garner -- hoping of course, for some of the suicides and violence that accompanied other apocalyptic cults from Koresh to Jones.  Instead of the overwrought, nasty tone that, I think, most filmmakers would give all this, Miller stands back, observes, and never pushes. Consequently, we find ourselves chuckling and smiling, rather than growing angry at most of what we see.

The filmmaker's style owes much to documentary technique (this is only his second film). The pacing is slow and steady, the camera quietly follows the action, and the performances are, to a man and woman, low-keyed and un-showy -- seemingly affectless but never boring. Within all this, however, Miller does some interesting things. Scenes are divided by a black screen -- slowly and quietly, rather than harshly. He holds his camera at length on the face on an individual, and the scene that follows generally opens up this character to our better understanding. And the pacing is, no way around it, slow. Yet because he, his cast and crew manage to capture what certainly seems like reality, we are never bored.  Of course, the film's momentum comes from the fact that we're hooked by the supposed appearance of that spaceship and of God (who will show himself, Teacher Chen assures us, on Channel 18: "Is that cable or network?" asks one reporter, in one of the many, tiny, funny moments).

Now, I had best tell you that Mr. Miller's movie lasts almost three hours (2 hours, 44 minutes to be exact). As a movie-lover who usually opts for economy over length, I have to say I did not feel a single minute here was wasted. Still, I watched the film -- via screener -- in two parts of 1 hour, 22 minutes each, due to time constraints. Would I have grown antsy sitting in a theater seat? I don't know. I do know that God's Land is one of the most enjoyable, moving, thought-provoking films of the year -- about a subject rarely handled with the intelligence, love and finesse found here. Regarding keeping the faith, "I am envious," dad tells mom, toward the end of the movie, "that you have the ability to choose." The poor guy does not, and that makes all the difference, and is, I guess, one of the definitions of faith. And we can thank -- who? How about our lucky stars? -- that the faith, in this case, is placed in something benign.

God's Land opens this Friday in New York City at the Quad Cinema. I sure hope it travels elsewhere (you can check out where it's been by clicking here and then click on SCREENINGS). And Netflix -- damn you if you don't order this one!


Pooh said...

Why didn't the character Dr. Maggie Feng get a mention? Not many movies have a pet psychiatrist.

Pooh said...

Boo hoo:(. You neglected to mention the character of Dr. Maggie Feng. Not many movies have a pet psychiatrist and she has one of the funniest lines in the movie!

James van Maanen, said...

Sorry, Pooh. There are so many offhandedly funny lines in this movie that I guess that one just got by me. I also neglected to mention the several film critics the director uses as actors in his film. There is literally so much about the movie that deserves a mention, but time is limited, and anyway, I'd prefer that readers see the film and discover on their own.

My biggest disappointment regarding this film -- my favorite narrative movie of the year so far -- is how little media coverage it has garnered. This is such an unusual work that it deserves to be seen and savored, rather than lost in the shuffle. Sigh....