The Proper Care & Feeding of an American Messiah [DVD]
Director : Chris Hansen
Screenplay : Chris Hansen & D.M. Lovic
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 2006
Stars : Dustin Olson (Brian), Ellen Dolan (Miriam), Joseph Frost (Aaron), Tony Hale (Homeowner with Demons), Heather Henry (Cecilia B.), Greg Lawson (Tom Martin), Scott Lilly (Bus Station Clerk), Christopher J. Hansen (Interviewer)
Before writing a word about Chris Hansen's The Proper Care & Feeding of an American Messiah, I must in all good faith provide a large caveat, one that I have never had to provide in more than a decade of film criticism: I know the writer/director. Not only do I know the writer/director, but he is a colleague of mine at Baylor University and a good friend. I also know and work with the producer and the associate producer, and most of the students on the crew have been in my film studies classes at one time or another. In other words, I either know well or have met at one time virtually everyone involved in the making of this film. But, as I told Chris, if Jean-Luc Godard felt comfortable writing about François Truffaut in the pages of Cahiers du cinéma, surely I can write about his first feature film (not that I'm saying I'm on the level of Godard or Chris is on the level of Truffaut, for that matter, but we're always striving for improvement …)
The Proper Care & Feeding of an American Messiah is nothing if not a completely unique film--a cult film waiting to find its cult. It clearly borrows its mockumentary style from the work of Christopher Guest, but where Guest's films tend to center around large ensembles, the wonderfully cracked central conceit in Hansen's film turns it into more of a one-man show. The main character is Brian B. (Dustin Olson), a balding, badly bespectacled dweeb who could be charitably described as delusional in his belief that he is a messiah. Of course, as he tells the off-screen interviewer (played with deadpan authority by Hansen himself) repeatedly throughout the film, he is not the messiah, but rather a messiah--just your average, everyday, local-regional messiah trying to discover his “special purpose” in life, assuming he actually has one.
The film's humor derives primarily from the fact that Hansen and coscreenwriter D. M. Lovic (who also wrote the film's quirky musical score, which sounds like a cross between a folk tune and deranged carnival music) never for a second pretend that Brian is anything other than deluded in his self-proclamation of messiah-hood. The first half hour is structured largely around clever gags in which he intends to prove his divine authority, but fails miserably again and again. These include the so-called “Miracle of the Fruit,” a long-winded, go-nowhere anecdote about a pair of shoes, and a special trip to a deserted warehouse where he claims FBI agents informed him of his special status, even though he appears to have never actually been there. Yet, at no point do we get the sense that there is anything premeditated about Brian's claims to messiah-hood. In fact, that is precisely what makes so much of it so funny: He appears to be making it up as he goes along, but is completely undeterred every time his story falls apart around him. He just shrugs it off and moves on.
Brian is aided in his mission to find his special purpose by his long-suffering sister, Miriam (Ellen Dolan), whose sanity and level-headedness are constantly being challenged by Brian's inanity, and his brother Aaron (Joseph Frost), a well-meaning lunkhead who follows Brian's every command, even though he gets a little too ambitious during “Bible Time” when he's playing the leper and Brian is playing Jesus (“The leper is not stronger than Jesus!” Brian shrieks). Brian also has a wife, Cecilia (Heather Henry), a childlike airhead whose primary love in life appears to be cable television. Perhaps because she is a relatively weak and one-note character, Cecilia is kept largely at the margins of the film, serving primarily as an off-screen distraction while Brian is being interviewed (once into the film, it's easy to forget that he even has a wife).
What is most surprising and gratifying about The Proper Care & Feeding of an American Messiah is how well-rounded and ultimately sympathetic the main characters are. This is partially due to the excellent performances by the three unknown leads: Dustin Olson displays a genuine gift for straight-faced comedy, and he embodies Brian B. completely; we never for a second doubt that he fully and completely believes what he shovels. Ellen Dolan has the tough role of being the straight woman, but she also adds in small hints of pain that humanize a character who could have easily been sidelined. And Aaron Frost deals well with what could have been a stock braindead role and invests Aaron with a sense of childlike conviction that is as touching as it is funny (he also gets one of the film's funniest scenes, which consists of nothing more than him racing a plastic Jesus figure on the carpet with toy cars, complete with spittle-laced racing and explosion noises).
A lesser film would have been a simple freak show that invites us to sit back and laugh in astonishment at these characters' behavior. There is one scene in the film that skirts this edge, which involves Tony Hale as a deranged homeowner who thinks he has a bevy of unwanted invisible guests that he wants Brian to exorcise. It's a funny scene in and of itself and it makes good use of Hale's comic timing, but in some ways it feels like a digression--one of the few times in the film that the gag seems to exist solely for itself.
While Hansen certainly asks us to find humor in Brian's misguided aspirations, he also asks us to see Brian and his oddball family as human beings capable of affection and humanity. In other words, American Messiah doesn't lose its heart in its quest for laughs. This is particularly evident in a touching scene at the bus station when Brian and Aaron realize that Miriam has been missing for days and go to look for her. Although he doesn't quite say it, Brian is forced to face his own selfishness and reach out to someone else for a change, rather than just fulfill his own self-affirming goals. In this respect, Brian is a surprisingly robust character with whom you can genuinely sympathize. The very first line of the film is Brian saying, “All my life I kinda wondered if there wasn't something different about me,” a sentiment more people will understand than want to admit, even if they didn't have Brian's particular childhood problems (no friends, beaten up regularly, didn't smell very good).
On another level, Hansen's peculiar portrait of a misguided messiah strikes some genuinely meaningful chords in its depiction of religion gone awry in a disposable pop-culture age of materialism and entitlement. Although certainly an exaggerated case, it is not hard to see in Brian how religious belief can be easily twisted into self-aggrandizement. What Brian continually proves but constantly fails to recognize is that everything about his “messiah nature” ultimately serves himself, rather than others. He is a perfectly realized distillation of all the makeup-caked televangelists and small-town religious hucksters who consciously or otherwise warp religious conviction to their own benefit. Brian certainly doesn't profit off being a local-regional messiah, but it's only because he's so lousy at it--witness his awful attempt to be a messiah by standing on a street corner and pointing out the problems of various people walking by (“If I'm a messiah I need to tell people how to make their lives better,” he says). This is just one of a number of scenes that humorously, but strikingly capture exactly what is wrong with so much contemporary religion: It's all about the surface.
|The Proper Care & Feeding of an American Messiah DVD|
|Audio||English Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround|
|Distributor||Mill Creek Entertainment|
|Release Date||September 25, 2007|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|The Proper Care & Feeding of an American Messiah was made on a shoestring budget, but you wouldn't know that by watching it. Because Hansen had the support of his department at Baylor University, he had free access to equipment that a production of this size would normally have to pay tens of thousands of dollars to use. The film was shot on a Sony F900 high-definition digital camera (the same one George Lucas used to shoot The Phantom Menace), thus the image is impressively well-detailed and sharp. The image on this DVD is straight from the high-def source, so it looks amazing. The image's quality is particularly evident in the film's bold color schemes, with utilize strikingly rich hues throughout to give the film a slightly surrealistic edge (note how strong the red of Brian's chair is). The stereo soundtrack is clear and natural, relying primarily on the front soundstage for the dialogue, although there is some depth in the ambient noise and musical track.|
|While there is no audio commentary, “Get the Shot: The Making of An American Messiah” is a comprehensive and entertaining hour-long documentary by B.B. Enriquez, one of the Baylor students on the crew who served as the film's official chronicler. It gives a good sense of what the shoot was like, beginning with the casting director picking up members of the cast from the Waco Regional Airport, and including everything from script read-throughs, to Dustin Olson getting the top of his head shaved, to tons of behind-the-scenes footage during principal photography (including the nearly disastrous final shot). It features interviews with the principle cast members, writer/director Chris Hansen, and producer Brian Elliott, as well as much of the student crew. It's enjoyably watchable in its own right, but it's also a fascinating inside look into a unique means of making an independent feature. Also included are nine deleted scenes, several of which are extended versions of scenes already in the film, while others are complete sequences that were left on the virtual cutting room floor (all are presented in anamorphic widescreen, but they appear to have been taken from a low-res video source).|
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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