I never had a crisis of faith, because I never had any real faith in the first place.
My parents were not wildly religious, but it was important to their lives in a general sense. My father's mother was a church organist, and my mother's mother was active in her own church in any number of ways. Both of my grandmothers lived in Memphis, so when we'd visit them, we'd have to make sure to schedule a trip long enough to show up at each of their churches at least once, just so they got to show off their grandchildren to their friends.
In the life of my parents, church always seemed to serve primarily a social function. We moved frequently because of my dad's work as an engineer, and every place we moved, they became active in their local church. Each time, they made friends and they found a way to anchor themselves to their new community. They never particularly pushed dogma on me, but I was expected to attend church with them, and I was constantly enrolled in youth-based programs at the various churches. I made lasting friends from those places as well, and I have some good memories of lock-ins and one great youth group trip to Fort Lauderdale, and in general, I feel like I got mostly good things out of my time with the church.
But I never once believed in any of it. I twigged in to the idea of the Bible as a collection of moral fables pretty early in my life, and not because of anyone telling me that. As a voracious reader, one of the things that became clear to me as I read mythology from around the world was the way there were similar themes and ideas and characters, and how many of them predated Christianity completely. Once you've seen that, I'm not sure how you can pretend that the Bible is meant to be read as literal history. There is a genealogical side to the Bible that I find fascinating, because it stands almost completely separate from the moral stories and the supernatural material.
The agreement I had with my parents was simple: they wanted me to make it to confirmation, which is the same basic idea as a bar mitzvah, a moment where you demonstrate a certain amount of knowledge and you are accepted as an adult member of your faith. Once I reached that milestone, it was left to me to decide how I wanted to proceed, and instead of committing to my church, I made a decision to explore the rest of the world's faiths one by one.
I had a friend at the time named Willie, and he was the one who had the idea first. We decided to find at least one house of worship for every major faith, and we attended each of them for a minimum of three weeks. We took it seriously, too, because there's no point otherwise. We didn't approach these visits as mere tourists. In each case, I went in hoping to find something that would speak to me, something that would resonate in some deeper place. I am open to that idea in general, and there have been many points in my life where I have felt that clarion call regarding a place or a person or an idea. When I went to Ireland for the first time, for example, it was absolutely a spiritual experience for me. I was there to visit the set of “Your Highness,” of all films, but the country itself punched a hole in me. I still ache to return, and to spend time there with no agenda whatsoever. I just want to go and wander and get lost. The same thing was true with my first visit to Austin. If I ever leave LA, it will be so I can move to Austin. I feel like I have a community there, and I would make an easy transition because, by now, I've spent so much time there that it feels like home to me.
There were things I found compelling about Judaism, about Islam, and Buddhism, and I think there is great beauty in the way people are connected by tradition and by a shared history. There are ideas from Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism that I found very powerful and moving. As I read about the way various faiths were connected and the ways they split and the reasons they diverged, it taught me about world history and about philosophical evolution. For a while, I felt like Taoism might have been the right fit, but the more I thought about it, the less I felt the need to be part of a group simply to incorporate certain ideas into my life and the way I wanted to treat other people. Even when I found myself baffled or amused by certain elements of dogma in something like Mormonism, I worked to see past those things to whatever it was that made people build their lives around these things.
The whole process took over a year, and it was occasionally complicated by the logistics of finding someplace to go or by the way we were greeted at the various temples and churches and mosques. Ultimately, as we wrapped things up, I found myself frustrated because I was no closer to picking a faith or feeling that connection to things. It was early 1986, and one afternoon, as we were discussing whether or not to continue with the project, Willie and I made our way to the University 6 theaters in Tampa where something had just opened that I had been waiting months to see.
That feeling I was talking about? That resonance? It happened to me once when I was seven years old, sitting in a theater for the first “Star Wars.” When that Star Destroyer started rolling out over my head and then kept coming and kept coming and kept coming, it gave me this almost indescribable feeling. By the end of the film, I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Lots of kids make grand proclamations about their future, though, and never follow through, and it would have been understandable if I'd aged out of the dream of being a filmmaker.
That day in 1986, though, that feeling finally landed on me again. The film was Terry Gilliam's “Brazil,” and from the opening notes of Michael Kamen's score, something happened to me. All of the questions I'd been having about my place in the world and the way things worked seemed to be addressed in the story of Sam Lowry, struggling against a system that was designed to crush the individual. Jonathan Pryce's performance, Richard Conway's remarkable physical effects work, and the beautiful, literate script by Gilliam and Charles McKeown all came together under Gilliam's direction in a way that made me forget where I was. I wasn't in a theater for those two hours. I was somewhere else, completely absorbed by what I was watching. I didn't just sit there passively, either. I felt like I had fallen into that screen, and when the film reached its horrifying conclusion, leading to one of the saddest and most surreal “happy endings” ever committed to film, I felt like someone had punched me in the face. I couldn't move. The lights came up, and I just sat there. What I felt was something bigger than a love of just that one movie, although I knew right away that it was a film I would spend the rest of my life revisiting. What I felt was what I had been searching for over the previous year or longer.
In that moment, I knew that I had finally found my church, and I meant it in a deep and sincere way. If you attend church looking for answers about the world, that's exactly why I attend movie theaters. If you look for a sense of community in your church, that's what I find in movie theaters as well. If church is a place where you go to find your center, to reset your own moral barometer, or to better understand who you are and why you are here, that is exactly what I get from my church as well. No matter what definition I tried to apply to it, it suddenly fit. I walked out, bought another ticket, and walked right back into the next screening of the movie. It destroyed me all over again, and by the time I finally staggered out, I had been transformed utterly. Any city I go to, any country I visit, any time I want, I can find a house of worship in my particular denomination, and I know that I can scratch that itch if I need to. My favorite films are my favorite hymns, familiar by this point, beloved because of what they say and how they say it. I can quote my sacred texts by heart at this point, and I have spent my entire adult life sharing my love and my faith. I consider myself a missionary for my faith, and if I can explain to even one person why film matters to me and why a theater is a sacred place, then I feel like I've done something genuinely good.
This has been on my mind recently as we've had conversations about putting metal detectors at theater doors or otherwise turning them into something different than what they are right now. It horrifies me that people have committed violence in movie theaters, but the impulse to somehow ruin that public space because of those actions is the wrong one. We don't have metal detectors on the doors of other churches, even after what's happened at Charleston recently, and I don't believe we should put them there, either. When I step into a theater, I leave the world outside. I have had some of the greatest experiences of my entire life in movie theaters, and I refuse to allow anyone to take away my personal connection to what happens when I spend those hours in the dark. My faith is stronger than ever because I see how many other people were offended, shocked to their core by the idea of real violence intruding on this place that is so important to so many of us. I do not have answers for how we stop these damaged people from lashing out and hurting other people as part of their pain, but I know that the places are not to blame, and if we give in and allow everything to become a security checkpoint, we are surrendering some essential part of ourselves.
It took me sixteen years to find my church, and I've never looked back since that particular afternoon. If anything, my relationship to my church has deepened and become more important to me. For the past seventeen years, I have had a pulpit from which to share my thoughts about what is important about film, and part of what I've gone through in this last year has been a growing resolve on my part to take this job of mine even more seriously. One of the reasons I started writing about film in the first place is because I am arrogant enough to believe that I can see a film clearly sometimes when others don't. When I was young, there were movies like “Blade Runner” or “Buckaroo Banzai” or “Big Trouble In Little China” or Altman's “Popeye” or… well, “Brazil”… that simply weren't embraced by the general public. I felt strongly that the films were great and that people would come around, and in every one of those cases, that's exactly what has happened. I feel driven to tell people when I see something that I think is special, and doubly so when I don't feel a film is getting a fair shake.
If I had to name a specific house of worship that is my very favorite, it would be the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar, a perfect example of what it is I want from a movie theater. There is no place on Earth where I am more myself, and that is exactly what I was looking for when I went from church to church to church. I found mine, and my belief makes me happy when I'm sad, strong when I'm weak, and connects me to something larger. One of the reasons I hate writing about box-office or awards is because I think they both make film seem smaller, grubbier, more business than art. I refuse to be a snob about any genre, any style of filmmaking, or any of the world's various film cultures because you never know where the next lightning bolt will come from, and closing yourself off only limits your own experience.
We're at the end of the summer right now, and the Toronto Film Festival is a few weeks away. That's my next big moment on the calendar, my next major fix, and I'm looking forward to both the expected and the unexpected. And while I may not live in Toronto, I feel connected to that festival after all the years I've been. I will sit in the Ryerson, hoping for another experience like my first viewing of “The Raid,” and I'll go to the Scotiabank and wander from screen to screen, ready for whatever happens. I'll head to the Lightbox, and I will cross my fingers every single time a new screening begins. And every one of those screenings, every visit I make to church, I'll be hoping for another experience that defines me in some way or that renews my faith in the overall power of film.
And as I have for the last seventeen years, I look forward to sharing it all with you.