Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Roger Nygard's THE NATURE OF EXISTENCE explores this question -- as well as our refusal to address it; filmmaker Q&A

A movie about why we exist? This filmmaker must be awfully young, TrustMovies thought to himself, as he stuck the DVD screener for THE NATURE OF EXISTENCE into his machine. Then, as he watched the film unfurl -- beginning with the events of 9/11 and how they set documentarian Roger Nygard, to thinking, feeling and wondering why more Americans didn't question this (and other hotly-held beliefs) -- he began taking notes.  By the end of the 90-minute-plus-credits movie, he had filled up more pages of notes than for any other film he's watched in quite a long while.

It turns out (see the interview below this review) that the filmmaker, shown at left and below on a sculpture of Albert Einstein, is not so young.  Firmly middle-aged, Nygard felt, via 9/11, that "here was our mortality, right there on television," and so his documentary became his attempt to find some meaning in the chaos.  "Why do we exist?" he asks a passel of people, from the prominent to the prosaic (photos of whom are dotted throughout this post). "Sex," comes one answer (from a male, of course).  But he is done one better by another guy: "Sex and chocolate." "To be the caretakers of mother earth," says another.  "To love." "Friends and family." And on and on the answers come.  Then more questions, including, Who is this "god" guy we hear so much about -- "And why," as I think it's Nygard who points out, "is he so interested in our sex lives?!"  You'd think he'd have more important things to do. Like sticking in his big thumb to quell the BP oil spill, and the rest of his fingers up the gun barrels of the Sudanese-supported sleaze doing the massacring in Darfur. But I digress.

"You want to know how to get inspired by life?" asks the director: "Visit a morgue."  Well, there's something I hadn't thought of.  Nygard has, and he's done just that -- and it's stuff like this that makes his movie alternately off-the-wall and fascinating. He shows us everything from funny comedian Stevie Rae Fromstein to a 7th grader named Chloe Revery, who seems to have a surprising grasp on things.  Later, a physicist talks about how he could get rich quick if he would only write about some part of his science that appears to prove the existence of god: "My colleagues would never speak to me again, but I could leave the money to my kids!"

We get a little string theory from that "chocolate" man, hear from my hero, Richard Dawkins, and travel to Fairfax, California, a town where all religions appear to coexist in harmony and where we have lunch at a religious restaurant, Cafe Gratitude, where each entree is an "affirmation" -- help! -- and talk with an American Indian, who happily explains his idea of god, which, considering the history of this group, does make one wonder why the big-guy-in-the-sky has been so very inefficient.

We visit the largest gay church (below), in Texas, natch (a lot of time seems to have been spent here) and a black Baptist church where the pastor makes a point of the skin tone of Jesus.  A high priest of the Church of Satan actually offers one of the more trenchant observations: "Many religions take what is regular human behavior and call it wrong and sinful, so you'll be beholden to their priest for an absolution of what is actually something natural.  This is the greatest con game in history!"

Ultimate Christian Wrestling, a representative of which is shown below?  That's covered, too.  And so is that age-old question: What is truth?  Among a number of good answers, comes this best one: It's what people don't want to hear.  On religion, the activist poet Amiri Baraka notes that black people pray more than anybody in the world (a questionable assertion, given the habits of the Muslim population), but what have they got to show for it? Good question.  What does anybody have to show for it, for that mater?  And there are some interesting statistics here on children, happiness and long-term satisfaction.

In Rome, the director seems to get into smart-alecky mode, a la Michael Moore, but since he's up against the Catholic Church, who can blame him?  When he asks for a meeting with the Pope, below, the Vatican PR man tells him, sure: You can have ten to twenty minutes of time -- for $20,000.  We meet an ex-Scientologist, a modern day Druid, and finally a Christian evangelist who explains that masturbation is the next step to homosexuality, because, hey -- you're already having sex with a man: yourself!  Which means, then, that nearly the entire male popular of the world (those possessing at least one hand) is homosexual?  And where does this leave women?  Don't they diddle themselves, too?

Women, by the way, are pretty much missing from The Nature of Existence, perhaps because they have better things to do than ponder the impenetrable. (Julia Sweeney, below, is one of the few on display.) In any case, the West, notes Nygard, seems to look outward for god, while the East looks inward. And so we learn about the Jainists and their goal of bringing no harm to any living thing, the Sikhs (what we see here is a bit different from what we saw in Ocean of Pearls), and Meher Baba, (I'll take Major Barbara, thank you), who just wanted to put a smile on everybody's face like Charlie Chaplin or Harold Lloyd.

If I seem to make light of Nygard's film, I'm doing so fondly, for it gave me a very good time and forced me to think a bit, while making me recall the kind of discussions we used to have during the wee hours in our college dorm.  It covers a lot of territory but does so in a sprightly, intelligent manner that makes it, rather consistently, fun food for thought.

The Nature of Existence will open in New York City on Friday, June 18, at the Quad Cinema, where Mr. Nygard will be present for a Q&A. “ I plan is to be at all screenings on that initial Friday opening day.” So, if you want to meet and hear the director, be at one of the Friday screenings. The film’s producer Paul Tarantino will be at the Saturday evening screenings. Note: In the midst of the film is a kind of beat-down between Christian fundamentalist Brother Jed and the comedian Stevie Ray Fromstein. It’s confrontational and funny, and Nygard plans to have a rematch featuring both men at the evening Q&As, during the run at the Quad Cinema. This will be their second rematch, as they had their first at the 2009 San Jose Film Festival, when Nygard invited them on stage.

For further showings of the film -- cities, dates, theaters -- click here.


After watching the film, we were put in touch with filmmaker Roger Nygard by the very helpful and efficient agency of  Susan Senk Public Relations & Marketing. Over a long and interesting phone conversation, we learn that the filmmaker was born and raised just west of Minneapolis in Orono, MN, and is now 48 years old.

From here on in, TrustMovies appears in bold and Nygard in standard typeface.

Tell us about yourself, your house in West Hollywood, and how -- and why -- you began this movie.

My house is sort of a character in the movie: I begin and end my journey at home. The house is a kind of local landmark, having been built by a famous architect, Eric Owen Moss.

We started shooting in 2004, and shot right up thru 2008. I finished the film in 2009. Now, finally, it is beginning its commercial/theatrical release. We did not begin shooting footage of me until 2006, halfway through. Originally I was not going to be in the film. But I couldn’t afford to hire anyone to narrate, and since it was my story, my friend (at that point, and then later my producer) Paul Tarantino suggested it. He was enjoying watching the cut footage and suggested that I tell the story.

I remember asking exactly the kind of questions you pose in the film -- during what we then called “bull sessions,” back when I was in college, some 50 years ago.

It is really weird how we stop asking those kinds of questions after college. We have to live our lives and so won’t let ourselves focus on our own mortality. But we should. These are questions that should be asked throughout our whole life. It's part of living to ask these questions, and if you do not, then you are not fully living.

Very religious people often refuse to ask these questions. The Catholic Church says that, if you are a suicide, you go to hell. My dad slowly died from the effects of MS. He wasted away over several years. I was 13 when he finally died. These sort of events affect and shape your view of the universe.

You were only 13? I think adolescence is particularly difficult time for a death of a parent to occur. Any time is difficult, but adolescence particularly.

As a child, the world is what it is, and but you accept this. It is not until you are an adult that you realize that things can go quite differently.

When my dad died, my first question was, Now that he is gone, what is it that has gone? What version of him goes to another place? The 72-pound sick version, or an earlier, healthier version. Or for that matter, what happens when a baby dies? Is it a baby forever, or does it get an immediate college education and, if so, who get to choose its major?

Very good!  When I hear you say all this, it makes it even more difficult to accept any kind of organized religious viewpoint that assumes it has all the answers. I just can’t accept it.

That’s what the movie does: it throws a thousand “idea darts” out into the audience. I should warn people not to see this movie, it will mess with your mind. Sometimes someone who has seen the movie will call me maybe two days after watching, and then again two weeks after. Once you are aware of something, it is almost impossible to ignore it. When we suppress something -- a new idea -- it takes a lot of work. We can do this for awhile, but then often it grows too big to suppress, and will come out in other ways. Any good idea is very hard to suppress

My favorite line in the whole film, I think, is in that scene where people try to answer the question, What is truth? The guy who says: "Truth is the thing we don’t want to hear."  That really said it for me!

My friend Bobby Gaylor said that.

Can we maybe talk about what you believe?

Sure. No questions are off limits. In the movie I avoided taking a position that any particular sect is correct. No one wants to be preached to. And I don’t want to preach. I just want to find out what the hell is going on in our universe. What if the Buddhists are right? Or the atheists? Or the Jews? So I talked to them all. I started from a place of having no flag planted in any particular belief system—aside from wanting to know the truth.

Alan F. Segal, who is a Professor of Religion, says it best in the film: "When somebody claims to know the truth and be able to tell it to you, the first thing you should do is check and see if you still have your watch. Because that's the prelude to getting taken."

What were you, originally?

I was born into an Episcopalian family.

That’s a relatively moderate religion.

Yes. I went to church every Sunday. We had same hymnal and prayer book as the Catholic Church. But everything was less stringent. Catholicism is a little more showy, more showmanship -- with that smoke-show and all, and the Latin.

What festivals were you at?

They’re listed on our website.  We put up a new question on the site every day, and ask people to answer The 85 questions I took with me on my journey. I started with the biggest one: Why do we exist?

I have found that most belief systems do not encourage questions, since what they teach is that they already have the Answer. And if you have the Answer, then new information is a threat. Even if that information turns out to be right. However, some do encourage questions. I was surprised to discover that the Talmud (which means "study") is a series of discussions and questions.

How did this theatrical release come about?

First you go to festivals and hope to get the kind of reviews that might help you find a distributor. For filmmakers, that’s the reason for festivals!

Over 2009, we collected some reviews and met with some distributors, and finally went with Walking Shadows. They had released theatrically a film called Milarepa, about a Buddhist, so they knew this territory. The core audience for this film are people you might call spiritual. But this just seems to mean they are open minded to new information.

Who is the best audience for this film?

I’ve talked to people who’ve told me: I am not interested in seeing this movie, I already have Jesus -- or whomever they are following. Anyone who likes to see questions pursued and perhaps answered, this is their movie.

A lot of people ask me, “You’ve talked to hundreds of people now, so what is the answer? can’t give people the answer -- or their purpose. They have to get there themselves. You can only give them clues.

How did you, personally, change -- pre-film to post film.

I started out knowing very little about the many religions on the planet. For example, I learned that Jainism is the oldest living religion on the planet, at least among those that have been continuously practiced. Paganism is probably as old, but it has not been practiced continually. Christians assimilated the Pagans; they took many of the pagan ideas and adopted them, such as the winter celebration, now called Christmas. And Mohammad came along long after Jesus, and he took an existing religion and modified it.  Just as Joseph Campbell has stated, our mythologies are continually repurposed, using the same archetypes over an over again. From the more emotional standpoint, I started out very angry and ended up more at peace.

Why were you angry-- because of your dad’s death?

The central reason or impetus for starting this journey was 9/11. That event forced our entire country to face our mortality -- until we could suppress it again.

Yes, and fast.

Yes, I think it took about a week. But for me, the wall had come down. How could people fly airplanes into buildings and give up their lives for what they believed – when I believed just as strongly that they were wrong. I don’t believe in anything strongly enough to immolate myself.

The reason I reached some sort of peace is that, by the end of my journey with the film, I think I better understood people. Once you understand people, you don’t fear them. That is our only hope. Another lesson I learned: We are NEVER going to all agree!! Our only hope is tolerance for others’ beliefs.

And fundamentalism does not allow that. 

If you do not allow learning to go on, if you shut away people from other groups, and they are never going to learn.

Have you seen the movie Agora yet?  It's about just this subject.  

Not yet.

You should.  I think you'll like it.  So when does your film open?

June 18, we’ll have our world theatrical premier at the Quad Cinema in NYC.

Where else will you be seen?

I think we’ve got 15 different cities lined up already. You can find these cities and theaters on our web site. To a great extent, the trajectory of a new release is set by its opening weekend. So I hope people who like our kind of movie will discover it.

What other movies have been similar to yours?

What the Bleep Do We Know? Religulous, Agora (which you mentioned), Thirteen Conversations About One Thing, Waking Life: all movies that ask important questions.

People also ask who my favorite person to interview was. I can’t select one. My favorite group of people to interview, though, are older people. They will tell you the truth, they're not afraid to tell you the way it is. Old people and children are more honest. We, in those ages in-between, will censor ourselves because we are afraid of social disapproval.

What else have you done?

My first documentary was Trekkies -- about Star Trek fans. Then Trekkies 2 became the dry run for this film. Stylistically, it is almost exactly the same. I travel the world doing interviews with Star Trek fans. I ask them questions. When I asked people to define a normal Star Trek fan, that’s where all the differences popped out. “Normal” turned out to be whatever they were doing. Anything more extreme than they were doing was abnormal. It’s funny how we use ourselves for the litmus test for what is normal.

Anything else you want to say?

If anybody needs an answer in their live NOW -- well, go see the movie right away. I’ve found at film fests, every screening would be better attended than the earlier one because people would come back and bring their friends, saying, “You’ve got to see this movie!”

A couple of times there were even teachers or professors who came up to me and asked, How can we arrange a screening for my classes? And then we have arranged for me to fly to their schools and screen the movie.  The movie has proven a good tool for classes in comparative religion, sociology, anthropology, and especially philosophy. It seems to me that if you could get kids to see all the different belief systems, it would be a very healthy thing: See this movie and start asking questions NOW!

I had a vineyard church pastor tell me, I’d rather have my children be saved than smart. Which is, I guess, a choice. Except that knowledge is power. And the entirety of life on this planet is a power struggle. If you want your kids to have a chance in this world, they have to learn early how to succeed in a power struggle. Protecting them from the harsh realities of life does not teach them how to succeed in life. If something terrible happens when you are 13, it may be terrible, but it also offers a real lesson.

Rabbi Baruch Kaplan told me when I was in Jerusalem, "Every thing that happens to us is a challenge to find God in that event."

Trouble with that is: Too many people are still seeing god as some bearded guy in the sky. Well, whatever…. We really wish you well with this upcoming opening, and hope that a lot of questioning, questing folk show up to see the film.

1 comment:

TrustMovies said...

Well, Anon--
This is a LONG comment. But, OK, I'll post it. NEFIAC sounds interesting and some of my readers might be in or near your area.