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Review: The Gospel of Eureka Keeps Faith in Mutability and Not in Dogmatism

The documentary is uniquely attuned to the fickle whims of history, politics, and biographical circumstance.

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The Gospel of Eureka
Photo: Kino Lorber

As its name implies, the town of Eureka Springs, Arkansas is built on faith. Early in Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri’s The Gospel of Eureka, narrator Justin Vivian Bond remarks that “a story of healing water brought folks here.” In the mid-20th century, Eureka Springs also became the retirement home of Gerald L.K. Smith, a noted Christian nationalist. Though Smith’s racist and anti-Semitic politics are disavowed by local officials today, his legacy remains a boon to the local economy, where a 65-foot statue called Christ of the Ozarks and an unfinished theme park draw thousands of people every year.

In 2014, Eureka Springs became the first city in Arkansas to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The documentary doesn’t mention this fact, nor does it seek to explain why a town deeply rooted in Christian faith also has an outsized population of gay and non-binary citizens. The Gospel of Eureka isn’t a study of juxtaposition so much as an exploration of how the many strands of a person or location’s identity can’t easily be disentangled. Eureka Springs, both haunted by and economically beholden to Smith’s legacy, proves a vivid backdrop through which to explore how neighbors overcome difference and embrace progress.

Chief among the film’s half dozen or so recurring subjects are the married gay couple Lee Keating and Walter Burrell, devout Christians and proprietors of Eureka Live Underground, a bar with a lively drag night. (An ornate cigarette dispenser in their home plays “Amazing Grace” every time it’s opened.) Nearly as prominent is Kent Butler, producer and star of Eureka’s “The Great Passion Play,” staged outdoors in a vast amphitheater six months out of the year. Butler’s preparations to play Christ in a grand, kitschy production are frequently cross-cut with locals getting made up for performances at the Underground.

In the film’s early stages, this situating of a reverent but tacky production alongside an art form that revels in camp could be misinterpreted as mocking. Numerous images, like a swarm of yellow jackets surrounding the Christ of the Ozarks, seem to invite a snicker that proves anathema to the film’s earnestness. The breadth of the film’s empathy, and its aversion to cheap jokes or sentiment, is a revelation that slowly builds as the parallels between the two productions (and those who participate in them) become more pronounced. Palmieri, who shot and edited most of The Gospel of Eureka, cuts the film with such fluidity that it sometimes becomes thrillingly unclear whether we’re watching the passion or the drag show.

Both productions come to oscillate between kitsch and something sacred. During a performance of “The Great Passion Play,” Butler’s Jesus squeezes fake blood all over his chest before grasping onto the cross, while at the Underground, a drag artist rubs glue on a fake breast. A tepid live trumpeter at the former production is quickly overwhelmed by a sweeping, pre-recorded symphony, and at the Underground, performers are as likely to vamp to “Pray the Gay Away” as Maren Morris’s “My Church” or a gospel work by Denise LaSalle. All modes of performance here come to feel like a divine act of self-expression.

Like October Country, the directors’ excellent breakout documentary, The Gospel of Eureka is uniquely attuned to the fickle whims of history, politics, and biographical circumstance. Where their earlier film wondered how both the economics and personal trauma of war reverberated through a family struggling with decades of abuse, despair, and rebellion, this one communicates an atmosphere of persistent connection despite seemingly incongruous belief systems and lifestyles. Keating and Burrell, apparent pillars of the community, embody how Eureka’s citizens reckon with the seeming contradictions of their existence and their chosen home as they argue about whether it makes sense to believe in evil.

The Gospel of Eureka’s overriding theme is mutability, and its one true enemy seems to be any form of dogmatism. Though Gerald Smith’s part in Eureka’s history is necessarily elucidated (and, where necessary, denounced), Mosher and Palmieri also devote a few unnecessary minutes to the anti-gay activism of Anita Bryant (who held an unsuccessful public event in Eureka Springs in the 1970s), and they don’t do quite enough with a plot thread about a local non-discrimination ordinance. They do, however, make a just villain in a man arguing against the so-called “bathroom bill,” making his casual, ignorant bigotry feel pointedly out of step with the film’s fundamentally diverse array of subjects.

Director: Michael Palmieri, Donal Mosher Screenwriter: Donal Mosher Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 75 min Rating: NR Year: 2018 Buy: Video

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