Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Problematic Nature of Existence

No matter what your beliefs might be, Roger Nygard has questions for you—eighty-five of them to be precise. Seeking out spiritual leaders around the world, the director treats each with unflagging deference, regardless of the extreme or eccentric nature of the professed beliefs, unless they happen to be Evangelical Christians, in which case he sets them up as straw men to knock over in The Nature of Existence (trailer here), a new documentary opening this Friday in New York.

For most Americans, 9-11 was a gut-wrenching tragedy, but for Nygard, it was all about him and his own existential crisis. How could the terrorists be so absolutely certain of beliefs that were so radically different than his? Naturally, he started making a documentary to address this question, yet somehow he managed to completely ignore radical Islam in the process.

Frankly, Nygard’s standard opening question is a promising starting point for provocative debates: “Why do we exist?” However, the most insightful responses he received are mostly strewn throughout the film as mere transitional sound bites. Instead, while Nygard has some interesting cosmological discussions with legitimate scientists, he spends the bulk of his time with spiritual carnival acts, like Aha, a self-styled guru who resembles Pat from Saturday Night Live. He gives proselytizing atheist Richard Dawkins free reign for self-promotion and has no challenges to offer the representative of Satanism.

However, Nygard consistently cherry-picks Evangelical Christians who fit the most condescending blue state stereotypes, like Rob Adonis, the founder of Ultimate Christian Wrestling. Indeed, the only spiritual figure in the entire film who is ever pushed to defend his beliefs is street preaching Brother Jed Smock. It is not as if Nygard could not find more learned representative of conservative Christianity.

In fact, Nygard interviews Mormon author Orson Scott Card whose writings on cultural issues are often compatible with those of Christian Conservatism. Yet, the filmmaker clearly could not deal with heard, using only snippets of what sounds like a fairly eloquent and insightful exchange. Instead, he devotes plenty of time to Julia Sweeney (whom we suspiciously never see in the same scene with Aha) and King Arthur Pendragon of the Druids (if that is his real name).

Nygard is best known to many as the director of Trekkies, so fans of that doc will probably appreciate the appearances from Card and fellow science fiction writer Larry Niven, as well as Irvin Kershner, the director of The Empire Strikes Back. In truth, they supply some of the films more thoughtful moments. Existence might ask some deep questions, but it accepts some pretty shallow answers, playing it safe at every turn. Best described as underwhelming, it opens tomorrow (6/18) in New York at the Quad.