Once upon a time there was a breed known as independent filmmakers. Usually with shoestring budgets, the indies, taking no prisoners, discarded business plans, forgot to look at marketing strategies, and the image of a proposed target audience was as abstract and surreal to them as their films often were to audiences. The indies were decidedly reactionary to the Hollywood institution. Maya Deren once said “I make films for what Hollywood spends on lipstick.” It was the indies who were progressively harking back to the dawn of cinema, before the rules of filmmaking had been established and canonized.
Stanley Kubrick was the closest Hollywood would get to the indie spirit, but Kubrick, for all his aesthetic brilliance, was, essentially, an academic. Whatever Kubrick’s genre, be it sci-fi, porn, horror, war, swashbuckler, his approach stemmed from a safe classroom distance. Kubrick lacked the fevered intensity and aesthetic struggle of the indies, and subjects such as horror and sex were rendered as studies and, therefore, matters on somewhat safe critical ground for the mainstream.
Newly minted and authorized film critics, such as Roger Ebert, would lavish heaps of praise on Dr. Kubrick, but Ebert was clearly out of his ivory towered ball park when trying to grasp the likes of Larry Cohen`s God Told Me To or Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, which is unfortunate considering Ebert once scripted for Hollywood outsider Russ Meyer.
The 1990s was the last real decade of the independents. Even by then, they were becoming an extinct breed, and in their place were the new breed of timid indie-lites, who merely emulate the Hollywood recipe without having the budget for the high priced, bland ingredients.
In 1991 Michael Tolkin’s The Rapture did what an independent film is supposed to do: took critics by surprise. Some critics even managed praise. Tolkin followed this success with The New Age in 1994 and then, unfortunately, disappeared from the radar. The Rapture came on the heels of the previous year’s Begotten (1990, E. Elias Merhige), and both are films with spiritually organic testicles.
Sharon (Mimi Rogers, in a mesmerizing role) works as a telephone operator by day. It is a mind-numbingly monotonous job. By night, she likes to have sex and she has it passionately. Sharon plays the swinging game, seeking out new adventures and new partners. Swinging, however, is becoming as robotic as her day job, because, despite her passion, Sharon is seeking something more. She is seeking a personally relentless communication which at first she thought she might find through the amorous escapades of the night.
One day at work, Sharon overhears Christian co-workers talking about a dream of a pearl. The pearl is something akin to an allegorical hymn for the world’s end. To Sharon, it appears that those who dream of the pearl find God and the meaning of life. Sharon tries to pass herself off as a Christian, but it’s a bit like someone pretending to be drunk, and her co-workers see through it.
A couple that Sharon swings with cease a night of sex long enough to speak of the Pearl, which one of them has tattooed on her back. Christian proselytizers show up at Sharon’s door, trying to convert her, and they too speak of the Pearl. Through the vision of the Pearl, Sharon believes God is calling out to her. Sharon is in anguish. One lover abandons her. Randy (David Duchovny), another lover, argues with her. Randy is an atheist, who once murdered for money; he sees no meaning at all in life, and compares Sharon’s God-seeking to a heroin addict looking for a fix.
Sharon finally has the religious experience for which she has been yearning. Like an overzealous, sanctimonious twelve year old girl at Vacation Bible School, the newly reborn Sharon begins proselytizing to callers at work. Sharon’s boss, himself a Christian, tells Sharon there is a time and place for everything, but not at work. Sharon knows now that her life must be clean for God.
The power of great sex prevails and Randy, seeing the light of God, marries Sharon. They have a child and join a fundamentalist group, bonding with those who want to understand God and his plans. All too briefly, Randy becomes Sharon’s sole personal connection and provides the life she seeks. Tragedy prevails, however, and bathos rears its ugly head as Sharon is put through several tests. Her life is thrown into a frenzied quagmire. Believing she knows God’s intention, Sharon commits a heinous crime when she feels God has failed to deliver his promise. When all seems lost, the dreaded apocalypse literally comes true and Sharon faces a choice. Will she profess her love for her heavenly Father or not?
Sharon faces the same dilemma that Job faced, but for Sharon, God is no different than those countless lovers from one night stands so many years before. God screwed her, but he would not give her the personal communication that she needed. God used her and took away everything she loved. When Sharon called out for an answer, God turned his back to her and merely said, “You must still love me.”
The Rapture is about free will, and that includes free will to love or reject the idea of the divine. Sharon remains fiercely independent in the tradition of Bizet’s Carmen. She is not afraid of the consequences, even in the threat of a purgatorial eternity. Sharon’s life and choices are startling. She is a stupid, proud, passionate woman who has the audacity to tell God, “I knocked and the door was not opened. I am a stupid woman, but it’s your fault I’m stupid because I asked for wisdom and you denied me. I will take the purity of my heart over your cold mind and I will not worship the likes of so selfish a lover.”
Of course, Sharon is as selfish as she believes God to be, but she no longer expects to be loved. The Rapture harshly embraces a defiantly feminine spirituality which rejects the barren, patriarchal idea of God.
Like the late Mary Daly, Sharon goes “Beyond God the Father,” and that is simultaneously liberating for her and her downfall, because she approaches her liberating moment with the black and white extremes which have characterized her entire life.
In the Gospel of John, the apostles are instructed to “Go and spread the Good News.” News is always new and The Rapture takes a new and refreshing approach to a subject which, more often than not, is hopelessly pious, stagnant and, ultimately, saccharine. This is one of the most challenging, humanistic and Christian films of the last twenty years.