Back in the late 1970s as a young lad, one of my favourite summer past-times was sitting with the family on the stoop of our small condominium townhouse during those wild and crazy summer storms. Watching the lightning, feeling the thunder and daring friends and siblings to run out (prancing like fools) into the downpour and challenge the unlikely (but still finitely possible) event of a bolt of white tagging you into the next life. Kids feel pretty immortal and liberated in those endless summers. You do not think too hard about it, because well, in innocence (a form of arrogance) you have no concept of the consequences.
Enter Jennifer Baichwal, who won a number of awards and notice with her 2007 documentary Manufactured Landscapes. She points her camera on several folks from around the world who actually have been struck by lightening and have lived to tell the tale. The common thread amongst these haphazardly assembled mini-narratives is how we, as individuals are prone to process the spectacular ‘awe’ of lightning. By way of the mathematics of electricity and magnetism, polarity and potential? So says author Paul Auster who accepts the total randomness of the event, but cannot stop thinking about it, even after writing about the experience several times. Auster is by far the most compelling speaker in the film, his voice is modulated to carry the room like a seasoned pro: intense, yet lost in reverie. His reading of one of his own stories is the climax of the picture (a wise move) and it is gripping stuff. Or perhaps simply it his rationality and pragmatism appeals more to my own heart. Others, like the mother in Mexico that had her sons and husband killed in a massive lightning strike in front of her hilltop church, or the self-help guru and veteran affairs consultant who took years to recover from his injuries, turn to God for their questions. Lightning is a good a symbol as anything as the instantaneous manifestation of his divine will. Either way you slice it, God or science, lightning and storms are the most spectacular demonstration of either notion.
Binding together the scattered vignettes (and the easy sell of the picture) is some of the most impressive lightning footage captured on film (or as 1s and 0s – their own form of lightning). Some of it is found footage gathered by the research team on the documentary, the type of thing that blockbuster filmmakers have been striving to emulate for more ‘realism’ as they annihilate Paris and New York city. And a sizable selection was diligently and ably photographed by the filmmakers. You really cannot go wrong with lighting and fire on screen, it never gets boring. It is almost if film itself was made for that express purpose – Ask Spielberg for instance why the the climax of Raider of the Lost Ark, God’s own lightning melting the defilers of his holy artifact, is one of the great memorable moments in modern adventure flicks. Here, very much in the absence of CGI trickery, time lapsed storms ominously building and crackle across deserted Kenyan deserts or twinkling urban venues. Quite simply, this footage is jaw dropping (one wishes they had the budget to film this stuff in 70mm). Yet for all its furor, Act of God never quite comes together as an emotionally involving (Auster’s story excepted) experience, more as a dry intellectual piecemeal. The improvised musical stylings of Fred Firth underscores the beauty and power of randomness – clearly the thesis of the film either from its theological or mathematical standpoint – yet is somewhat clumsy in an attempt to connect this to the neural network of Firth’s brain as he jams on his electric guitar to the storms as they rage across Ontario, Africa, and France. I enjoyed the intellectual avenues on offer here, but film works so much better as an emotional, visceral medium and lightning is never quite captured in the bottle. After walking home in the rainy night after catching the documentary, umbrella extended, it was hard not to look around and wonder at the fresh perspective offered by the instantaneous streak of violent light and energy coming in close proximity to your person. Memory has a way of being burned in, not unlike the scar on the tree or the smell of ozone on a lazy rainy evening in 1979.