A HANDSOME MAN dashes through a New York subway terminal. A dark-haired sylph scurries alongside him. Synthy rock pulses. The images jump-cut and blur. Tension mounts. The man pauses, looking like the coolest cop on earth—which, in a way, he is. But instead of pulling out a badge or a gun, he extends his palm and blesses a homeless person.
Jesus is back—and this time it's personal.
The Book of Life
directed by Hal Hartley
starring Martin Donovan, P.J. Harvey, Thomas Jay Ryan
plays June 25 at Grand Illusion
The French TV company La Sept ARTE recently asked seven independent filmmakers from around the world each to make a film about the last day of the millennium. Hal Hartley, godfather of American affectless cool, chose to document the Apocalypse. The result is The Book of Life, which finds Jesus (Hartley stalwart Martin Donovan) arriving in New York on Judgment Day, with the Book of Life installed on a Macintosh PowerBook and groupie Mary Magdalene (P.J. Harvey) by his side. But there's a flaw in God's plan: Jesus is now a guilt-ridden, relativist liberal and he's not down with judgmentalism. Who, he asks, do these Christians think they are, anyway? "I hate this exclusive, closed-door policy."
Hartley sets Jesus in upper-management land—a tawny, golden place of impersonal hotels and quiet bars—and proceeds to mine the comic possibilities. When the Apocalypse begins to derail, Jesus says to Mary Magdalene, "Call the lawyers." While the lawyers duke it out in boilerplate legalese ("We can't afford not to go all the way on this thing"), Jesus vacillates over whether or not to open the last three of the Book of Life's seven seals. Hunched over his PowerBook, he clicks on the fifth seal. A box appears on the screen. "Are you sure you want to open the Fifth Seal of the Apocalypse?" Jesus toggles the cursor between Cancel and Okay.
In a single scant hour, The Book of Life manages to pull together the best elements of Hartley's earlier work: the grand themes of Henry Fool; the willful experimentalism of Flirt; the deadpan, dead-on wit that made Trust and Simple Men so appealing. But there's a new, furious, can't-pass-up-a-joke energy here that appears to be just what Hartley has been missing all along. Typical of this acuity: Jesus uses a pay phone to make a call. The Devil (Henry Fool's Thomas Jay Ryan) answers . . . on a cell phone.
Hartley has devised a new visual style as well. The cuts jump like frogs, the images blur like rain, the camera swoops about like Gloria Swanson on acid. All this show-offy experimenting falls within the virtue-from-necessity category: Hartley had to make this film on the cheap, and so devised a way to blow up digital video in 35mm. In the process, he has created an ultragrainy look that smacks of easygoing amateurism.
Instead of just letting his film look groovy and interesting, though, he proceeds to make visual humor out of this very experimentalism. An abundance of goofy angles sends up the student filmmaker's urge to play with the camera; a boom mic (that bane of the beginning director) appears out of nowhere whenever the Devil has something to say. This anything-goes silliness seems just the right tone for talking about the millennium: ironic and a little scary, wised-up and woefully in the dark.
Nowhere is Hartley's new punning excitement more evident than in a wonderfully layered throwaway scene where Mary Magdalene rocks out at a listening station in a record store. The record store is playing a P.J. Harvey song over the loudspeakers. At the same time, Harvey herself, perfectly cast as Magdalene, begins to sing along with the record only she can hear through her headphones. Dancing in the aisle, her face torqued with emotion, she sings louder and louder, her voice intertwined with her own voice on the P.J. Harvey record, till finally we can recognize the tune she's singing along with. And what's the song that's transporting this harlot saved by Christ's blessing? "To Sir, with Love."