Act of God, Jennifer Baichwal’s testimonial documentary about the victims and observers of lightning bolts, scrubs its subject clean of scientific exposition that might distract from the awestruck mystique the movie’s participants exude. What remains are skeletal stories of random catastrophe—some impeccably vivid, but most no more conceptually fleshed out than a pensive haiku. Baichwal interviews, among others, a Midwesterner haunted by the memories of watching his camping buddies vomit up their blackened lungs after being struck one thundery night in the woods; a French photographer obsessed with the rhythmic illumination of electrical storms; a Southern lightning-strike survivor parlaying his experience into a lucrative spiritual seminar racket post-recovery; and a South American campesino woman attempting to alleviate the grief of losing her children to the natural phenomenon. Through these talking heads we feel the film circling the scorched, empirical details with genuine curiosity, but it never quite musters up the energy to dive headfirst into the cosmic and fatalistic implications of death-by-weather.
That the film ignores the meteorological aspects of its subject matter, however, is refreshing: Given the intensely picturesque nature of the overcast-landscape stock footage, a recurring soundtrack of monotone expert analysis might have deadened the project’s tenor into that of a lackluster IMAX documentary. But Baichwal clearly has the template of another formulaic media success in mind, one hinted at by the inclusion of Paul Auster’s wide-eyed teenage memoir. Ultimately, however, the tightly-wound, faux-impartial narrative style of NPR programming proves too reductive an approach to portraying the ramshackle philosophies espoused by some interviewees; the film can’t quite seem to decide between a tone of journalistic detachment or of metaphysical, truth-seeking sympathy toward its human stories. And as is often the case with This American Life and Paul Auster’s own National Story Project, the most eloquent vignette juxtapositions in Act of God are also the most condescending.
One tangentially relevant segment features avant-garde guitar demigod Fred Frith (who also contributes a hypnotically sensual, musique concrète score) atonally improvising while neurologists examine his brain waves: They discover, via tantalizingly unexplained analysis, that while his mind is able to “anticipate” the act of spontaneous composition, it’s always unsure of what note will be played next. Baichwal edits footage of Frith plucking harmonics while a digital screen displays quantitative representations of his brain patterns in between her recorded testimonies as a transitional device; it’s not only meant as a reminder of the creative and promethean properties of electricity but a teasing suggestion that extemporaneous events, even natural ones, may require some eerily ineffable form of premeditation. In other words, as Auster also asks in so many words, “Does the lightning choose who to strike?”
This is a daringly fecund stance for a film to flirt with, but Baichwal doesn’t explore the notion: She’s content to present such head-spinning riddles as Zen koans that need no elucidation. And since even the material, let alone the scientific, components of lightning victimization—i.e. the manner that attire and proximity to metal or wood objects can increase the chances of being hit—are neglected in favor of the incidental, the movie slips from her pseudo-objective control. Much as the promotional material for Act of God sets the titular typeface in a lowercase font to unnecessarily distance the advertised content from fanatical Judeo-Christian malarkey (wouldn’t pluralizing the title have worked even better, offering an ironic splash of legalese?), the variety of voices compiled in the 75-minute duration seem to have been organized for a nonexistent polemical tug of war.
This worked effectively in The True Meaning of Pictures, Baichwal’s earlier study of the controversial Appalachian photographer Shelby Lee Adams, but the wishy-washy rotation of characters in Act of God—some skeptical, some devout, some manipulative—strands us in the center of the film’s complex topic without much aside from useless meditation on the fierce numinousness of nature to keep us company. The most engaging documentaries are often those that posit more questions than answers, but Act of God seems to view even the process of asking too precarious to definitively attempt.