Friday, July 23, 2010
Filmmaker Roger Nygard got noticed when he made a documentary called Trekkies back in 1997. It took a look at the kind of rabid fans who live and breathe Star Trek.
In his latest creation, The Nature of Existence, Nygard delivers a broad overview of the variety of religious and spiritual thought, as expressed to his camera by practicioners and adherents. This comparative religious survey is tempered with the viewpoints of scientists, authors, stand-up comedians, movie makers, and avowed athiests (Richard Dawkins, for one). Nygard really is attempting to cover all the world-view bases here, or as many as he can navigate during 90-some-odd minutes of first-person interview time. No viewpoint is seen to be too outré for inclusion, with Druids, Satanists, and wrestling ministries all having their say.
Nygard starts out by providing some personal background: He grew up “Catholic Lite” (i.e., Episcopal). Far from devout as a youngster, he thought of church primarily as “a countdown to brunch.”
He starts out by canvassing some of his SoCal chums about their own beliefs and expands outward around the country and the world, keeping in mind the question: “How can we all believe in things that are so different?”
To level the playing field, Nygard asks the same questions of his various and multifarious interviewees (see incomplete question list, below). Our question as we watch the film: Can anything he documents help us to derive order out of the chaos of such a diversity of spiritual (and non-spiritual) views?
Well, if the answer to that question were anything approaching a “yes,” we might all soon enough be attending the Church of Nygard. Alas, no such stunning revelations are forthcoming, though over the course of the survey a lot of light is shed on specific belief structures, and a LOT of colorful characters are encountered.
Nygard’s presentation style is more Morgan Spurlock than Errol Morris, as he addresses the camera directly and frequently includes shots of himself behind the (primary) camera, addressing questions to his subjects. It could be argued that this “hey, look at me interviewing people!” viewpoint is somewhat cutesy and a bit overused. (In fact, I’ve just argued it.)
Another obvious criticism of the film is that it’s scattered in focus, though this is more or less the nature of the beast: It’s hard to imagine imposing much structure onto a subject so wildly unstructured as personal belief systems.
If Nygard reaches any sort of conclusion, it’s simply this: “The only thing I’m certain of, is nobody has the answer.”
Yeah, but… who was God pulling for at the World Cup?
Partial list of Nygard’s questions:
Why are we here?
Who is God?
What is the nature of the afterlife?
What is sin?
What is truth?
What is the nature of prayer?
What is religion?
What are the voices in one’s head?
Why does God care about sex?
How do we know what morality is?
How do we find happiness?
What is the soul?
What is spirituality?
JOHN P. MEYER