I have never met Richard Propes and knew nothing about him until a few years ago. A colleague advised me to send a recently completed film to a list of critics. Propes was among that list. I was warned that Propes was a hard critic, which sounded refreshing. I checked out his site: The Independent Film Critic and was surprised that he was also a local. Having written film criticism myself for a number of years, I discovered a colleague who approaches criticism with a pronounced aesthetic sensibility. Of course, I still knew nothing about him. He remained enigmatic.
Richard Propes has written and published his first book; The Hallelujah Life. It is categorized as autobiography. With The Hallelujah Life, Propes has shattered the enigmatic facade. Normally, the temptation to resist such a dismantling is considerable. However, Propes’ power and confidence goes beyond the anecdotal. His narrative enlarges and snaps the type of framework we are accustomed to. He is not bound by contemporary, dogmatic attachment to linear structure. Rather, he infuses biography with well-focused confession, a poetic prologue, and 100 hallelujahs: Propes’ epilogue of self-styled hymnals. Propes’ has crafted transcendent self-portraiture, which inspires identification, becoming the potential biography of everyman. That identification, of course, goes beyond the bullet points of a particular life. The identification reaches to the context through which we can immediately grasp his human state.
Probably with thanksgiving, few will find identification in the content of Propes’ biography: He has a lifelong handicap in being a paraplegic/double amputee with spina bifida. The remaining details are equally unorthodox: a victim of sexual abuse, a period of homelessness, the widower of a suicided wife. The Genesis of his biography is a brutal one.
Alas, too many may find identification in observing, like Gauguin’s Breton women, Propes’ battle with the hierarchal-stamped ideologies of apathetic religion. That battle was seeded early: “When my mother, a lifelong Catholic, had a priest who suggested that perhaps she should let me die, she instead left Catholicism. Unfortunately, when Catholicism failed her, my mother turned to Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
With the trading of one hierarchical structure for another, the seeds of revolution are set in motion. Like many who have been exposed to the chaotic obsessions found in wooden pews, Propes, in rebelling, puts one foot in front of the other and finds himself stepping into a succession of absurd doorposts.
Yet, missteps within a tenacious purgatory sows an arising intoxication for genuine spirit. Propes enrolls in a Catholic college, Martin University. He earns a degree in psychology and minors in drama. Remarkably, he never succumbs to a prosaic atheism. Instead, he embarks upon a vibrantly circular theological moving. He rightfully pays homage to his educators and becomes a distinguished member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association.
His theology is eclectic; a mix of what he has thoughtfully absorbed and discarded. He categorically rejects the sophistic labels so often married to theological tenets and, instead, embarks on his first The Tenderness Tour; a 3,000 mile wheelchair journey raising awareness on child abuse and domestic violence issues.
The Hallelujah Life certainly has elements of biography, but these are more impressions of remembering, without flinching and minus a misplaced sense of nostalgia. Nostalgia stifles the desired state of flux, sentimentally suffocating potential humor and well-earned sarcasm: “The best place for gimp sex in Indianapolis is Crown Hill Cemetery. Lucas Oil Stadium is a close second. Laundry is more difficult than it looks. A tattoo of your true love’s name is a bad idea. The Bible is best placed in the humor section of a bookstore. I’ve never believed in a plucking God.”
These are not mere examples of firework displays. Propes’ memoir would have no validity if he only submitted to shock for the sake of shock. Propes is too smart, too much in possession of authentic spirit, and too much of an optimistic tender mess for that.