The Rapture (Michael Tolkin, 1991) and Spiritual Malaise
The Rapture (1991) is a film written and directed by Michael Tolkin, a religious Jew nicknamed the “evangelical writer,” who obtains a theology degree from a college in the state of Vermont; in fact, Tolkin is a talented writer who begins his career as a journalist and then subsequently moves on to become a screenwriter before re-inventing himself as a film director.
The Rapture falls into a specialized category of American independent cinema, called “tin-pan cinema” (akin to the term of “tin-pan alley” in popular music), where unconventional topics are treated with as much scrutiny and finesse as in any other more marginally mainstream subject. It is a film that is more spiritual or philosophical than visual, a fact that is evidenced by Tolkin’s initial career background as a writer. Thus, the following questions arise when addressing the issues of cinema and religion; first, what is a spiritual film?; second, how do you make one?; and third, what is the intent of such an undertaking?
The Rapture is an apocalyptic film exploring certain aspects of “eschatology,” the branch of theology dealing with the last or final things, such as death, judgment and immortality. There are two areas of eschatological investigation: 1) apocalyptism and 2) prophetism. Apocalyptic eschatology examines texts dealing with revelation or disclosure, especially the last book of the New Testament, that is, the Book of Revelation. This document consists of Jewish or Christian prophetic writings which appeared between the years of 250 B.C. and 150 A.D.; for instance, the apocalyptic number, 666) (a signifier of “absolute evil”), is spoken of in Rev. xiii. 18: “Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is six hundred threescore and six.” (ref. “The Revelation of St. John The Divine” in King James Version of the Holy Bible). This psychic discovery is extremely pessimistic because when the end of the world arrives, only those who have followed the path of righteousness will be saved while all others will be damned; accordingly, people who adopt an apocalyptic view of the future believe only in a “great despair” for this world. On the other hand, there are people who believe in a “great hope” because when the end of the world arrives, you’ve got the chance to embrace God and be instantaneously saved; thus, these folks look forward to the eschaton. Indeed, this latter grouping forms the basis for prophetic eschatology which develops a very optimistic view of the end times; and like its pessimistic counterpart, it too examines similar texts but arrives at a totally different conclusion about their divine meaning.
However, apocalyptic and prophetic eschatologies have two characteristics in common: 1) salvation and 2) chaos in the world, two principal premises that Michael Tolkin takes to heart in The Rapture, a film that is sometimes thought of in terms of an equation: ANXIETY – ANSWER = DESPAIR (apocalyptic view). By rearranging terms, we can rewrite the equation in two other ways: ANXIETY – DESPAIR = ANSWER (prophetic view) and ANXIETY = DESPAIR + ANSWER (hybrid view). These simple meta-mathematical manipulations allows us to gain insight into the nature of prophetic interpretation and about The Rapture. We notice, first of all, that all three symbolic representations isolate one of the terms to one side of the equation; interestingly, the one that singles out “despair” is the most negative view, while the one that separates out “answer” is the most positive view. But it is the one that isolates out “anxiety” which is really the most interesting to The Rapture. If we assume, by way of meta-mathematics, an equal but opposite value to both “despair” and “answer” (say -1 and +1 respectively), then the following happens: ANXIETY = (-1) + (+1) = 0. In the hybrid view of eschatology, the disturbing condition of “anxiety” equates to the Void, a feeling of great spiritual emptiness and for us, a way to understand one of the thematic driving forces of Tolkin’s film.
The Rapture is a metaphorical film. For instance, when the “rapture” occurs at the end of the film the image of the football game turns into horses’ hooves tearing up the ground, a possible metaphor for the downfall of American consciousness, the deterioration of its culture, including its entertainment industry. Interestingly, the film has no irony in it. For instance, Sharon (actress Mimi Rogers) is like an “automaton” as she tells the details about her vision to the members of a covert cult called “The Pearl,” after which she comes to interpret it as her own personal prophecy, a sign meant only for her and her daughter Mary (actress Kimberly Cullum), a message from God telling her that they will be taken to heaven to be with Randy (the murdered father) if they go to the desert and wait (As an aside: Sharon’s personal prophecy is almost a cinematic nod to the ‘End Time Belief’ of the Charlie Manson Family Cult ; but this latter notion is unrelated to our film under discussion, at least in this review).
It is common practice to construct didactically ironic narratives into films dealing with religion and spiritual matters. In The Rapture, Michael Tolkin asks the apparently forbidden question of why must we have irony within the developmental characterization of Sharon? The response to the query is that we don’t have to as we see demonstrated from the character’s earliest performance. Tolkin creates a character who is openly sincere, a person with complete integrity, behaving consistently with total direction of mind. Sharon interacts freely and honestly with all the people (who also represent the “viewing audience”) that come to surround her, various folks who are themselves skeptical about the ideas and beliefs which she faithfully holds to be true. It is within the realm of “ideas” that Tolkin transfixes Sharon, the ultimate place for her solitary and spiritual awakening, the battle ground where she confronts the most difficult idea of them all, her own idea of her Self. It is where she struggles to understand the reasons for her intense and ceaseless unhappiness but also, where she finds the power to change her life for the better, including the life of her daughter (because it appears that Mary, too, wishes to leave her disappointing life behind). In this way, Tolkin constructs a debate within the movie on the level of ideas; and thus, an argument about God and morality (among other arguments) is allowed to develop. In brief, The Rapture‘s narrative structure is not didactic since Tolkin’s fictional arrangements of Sharon’s world are constructed in the imaginative ways he wants them to be specifically arranged; moreover, when we read fiction we don’t worry if the story is rhetorical, the same argument applies to The Rapture.
The Rapture is also about a mother killing her daughter, ending her ephemeral life in order to save her eternal soul. This unforgivable action has some superficial similarities with a story in the Bible; but unlike the story of Abraham in the Old Testament, God does not allow him to kill his son since he is only testing his faith. In the film, Tolkin reverses the dramatic outcome since God does not intervene in Sharon’s decision to act and kill her daughter; moreover, there is an added twist in the story since God never tells her to do so (unlike the story of Abraham in the Bible). This film opens itself to ridicule by having a cinematic debate about God and morality; but that is the whole idea behind the film and his strategic point of narrative attack. The Rapture is Tolkin’s way to address such a debate, including other queries such as why do people fight wars over religion?, or why do people feel the need to destroy the entire world? Thus, the film is a forum to explore these ideas about morality, faith, spiritual anxiety and despair, death, immortality, and so on; and most of all, it is a way to ask the question of how do we handle the idea of God in popular culture?
According to Soren Kierkegaard [1813 – 1855], the Danish philosopher and religious thinker who develops an existential dialectic which opposes Hegelian dialectic (a metaphysics that equates reason with reality), the important thing in religion is not truth as objective fact, but rather the individual’s relationship to it, in other words: “Truth is subjectivity.” Indeed, some of Kierkegaard’s studies consist in intense inner examinations of self and society which result in a triptych breakdown in the ways people live their lives: 1) the “aesthetic level” which is best described by the icon of Don Juan, 2) the “ethical level” which is based on the rules of Good and Evil and, 3) the “religious level” which is described as a realm of absurdity (e.g. God wants Abraham to kill his son because he needs proof of his faith since it appears that fundamentally God does not trust Abraham). This kind of absurdity lies in the realm of religion while the real action of killing your own sibling lies in the realm of behavior because the way you act does not have any to do with faith.
The final questions in this essay are about the religious philosophy of Michael Tolkin and the cinematic philosophy that made The Rapture. The BIG QUESTION is what does Michael Tolkin believe in? For Tolkin, there is a belief system that develops at some level of “abstraction.” The other questions that we may ask are: a) Is he a fundamentalist? and 2) What are Tolkin’s ideas about God? Tolkin is not troubled with questions of faith (i.e. he is not saying he is a person of faith). Tolkin states that nobody knows what God looks like. However, Tolkin does have strong ideas about God which are very personal for him. Moreover, he explains that people are always searching for meaning in their world and in The Rapture, Sharon is indeed lost spiritually at the beginning of the film, and almost immediately begins to search for meaning in her life; and precisely for that latter fact, this process of searching never stops for the entirety of the film.