A Bolt from the Blue

11/04/2009 4:00 AM |

Act of God
Directed by Jennifer Baichwal

In her visually marvelous, thematically peculiar, and hugely disappointing new documentary, Act of God, the Canadian filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal (Manufactured Landscapes) examines lightning strikes and their power to alter the worldviews of those who have survived them. Most prominent among the interview subjects is the novelist Paul Auster, who at 14 stood next to a boy fatally struck during a hike overtaken by “the summer storm to end all summer storms.” He dismisses the idea of destiny but nonetheless invokes “the mechanics of reality.” The Canadian playwright James O’Reilly admits being unable for many years to “resist the temptation to intentionalize” the bolt that struck him.

Others featured in the film—Cubans who worship the lightning god Shango, devout Mexican Catholics who lost family members in a storm, and a Las Vegas end-of-life-care entrepreneur—hem and haw far less when pondering the link between bolts from the blue and higher forces. Baichwal feebly advances a middle-of-the-road New Age argument from design by drawing parallels between electrical storms and the neuron firings in the brain of the improvisational guitarist Fred Frith.

Baichwal is an expert on atmospherics, something reestablished in her lightning roundelay’s very first image—a cumulonimbus cloud eerily lit from within. She even improbably manages the artful incorporation of holy-shit storm footage culled from YouTube. But, with such a vague Zeus-or-no-Zeus line of inquiry, Act of God ultimately plays like a basic instruction manual for living: You can be uncertain, like Auster and O’Reilly, and that can fuel your creative process, or you can be certain and have… your certainty. At an abbreviated 75 minutes, at least it’s over in a flash.

Opens November 6