Like Werner Herzog contrasting his atheistic mindset with the benevolent view of nature taken by his subject Timothy Treadwell in Grizzly Man, visual artist Brent Green brings his own theological skepticism to bear on the story of another true believer in his feature debut Gravity Was Everywhere Back Then. Lacking video footage of his subject, Leonard Wood, a hardware clerk who obsessively built a most unusual and impractical house on his Kentucky property in the belief that it could somehow cure his cancer-stricken wife, the director painstakingly recreated Wood’s project on his own rural property as the setting for his film, a level of personal involvement that may go some ways toward accounting for Green’s deeply felt sympathy with his subject. If you get the feeling that for all his fascination with Treadwell, Herzog ultimately regards him as a fool, Green takes Wood’s spiritual yearning far more seriously, noting that his subject’s efforts to “build [his] own world” are not too different from what everyone strives to achieve in one form or another.
If Gravity‘s narratological gap recalls Grizzly Man, though, the aesthetic model Green seems to have in mind is more Guy Maddin’s meticulous image manipulations (minus the Canadian’s cinephiliac sense of purpose) and the artisanal fantasy recreations of Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep. Telling the story of Leonard and his wife Mary from just before they meet in a car crash through the latter’s eventual death, Gravity unfolds through a series of flickering stop-motion images, in which live actors jitter their way through the film’s hand-built sets while they narrate the action on the soundtrack. The heavily manipulated images range from underlit shots in which the film stock appears to be intentionally scratched to scenes of hyper-real brightness, the fragmented quality of the presentation increased by frequent inserts of black leader, painted titles, and other visual intrusions.
If the offbeat, handcrafted quality of the filmmaking mirrors the bizarrely artisanal nature of the subject’s project (which included inconsistently tiered flooring and a giant tower designed to “[build] toward God”), it also has the unfortunate tendency of introducing a note of twee knowingness to the project that almost undercuts the filmmaker’s serious theological reflections. The lead couple Michael McGinley and Donna K. look more like Brooklyn hipsters than Appalachian eccentrics and their behavior (as when Leonard uses duct tape to repair Mary’s broken windshield) or Green’s directorial fits of whimsy (he informs us via hand-painted title that Leonard “is one of those adults who drink milk”) seem like forced intrusions of the bizarre in a story that’s plenty outré on its own.
But Green’s interest in not only Leonard’s project but his worldview is clearly serious and his reflections on the subject often take on a dizzying turn, the director’s narration working itself up into a frenzy. In one sequence, Green meditates feverishly on the inefficacy of prayer and his non-belief in miracles, while at the same time reflecting optimistically that if God did exist, he’d be sympathetic to Leonard’s undertaking. Buoyed by a series of bizarre but ravishing images of hope and redemption (a halo of light bulbs that Leonard places around a dying Mary’s head as a last ditch effort at healing; a shot of Mary, her legs turned into outrageously tall stilts, rising up to the top of Leonard’s tower), Gravity becomes an athiest’s testament to the power of belief. Leonard may have ended up in penury and God may be a false hope, but the builder was able to “leave behind something wonderful” with his house and, while it may be overstating the case to say that Green is able to achieve the same thing with his film, his efforts to create a similarly glorious artifact go some way toward defining the productive impulse of human aspiration.