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August 5, 2005

Screen Door Jesus

I had a chance to watch a preview copy of Kirk Davis's ambitious indie film, Screen Door Jesus (IMDB), last night. Screen Door Jesus, based on the short stories by Christopher Cook (which I have not had a chance to read), elegantly weaves together several narratives set in the small east Texas town of Bethlehem, reflecting on race, class, and politics, particularly as they are inflected by religious belief and practice.

Screen Door Jesus's central plot focuses on Mother Harper's startling discovery that she can see the image of Jesus in her screen door. News of Mother Harper's door immediately spreads across the small town and everyone, from drifters with a get-rich-quick oil scheme to the new kid in town, gather to see what the fuss is about. Several locals even find a way to profit off of the fascination with the door, with one character justifying his actions by claiming that he's selling pictures of a screen door, not of Jesus. But even if I haven't read Cook's stories, I knew similar stories, and not only because I was in Atlanta when the "Spaghetti Jesus" appeared on a Pizza Hut billboard in 1991. When I was an undergrad at a small religious college, a videotape of the Campus Choir's trip to Eastern Europe, in the years immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall, apparently depicted an image of Jesus in the background during a healing service. Needless to say, the tape created quite a buzz on campus, which was, of course, far more interesting than anything in the tape itself.

It would be easy to view these locals who want, or in some cases need, to see Jesus through the lens of satire (that's not to say the film isn't funny, but to say I rarely found the humor to be mean-spirited). Instead Davis's film (and I'd assume Cook's stories) complicate that need to witness a small miracle in thir littlke community, in part through its satire of the media frenzy that converges upon Mother Harper's lawn, trampling her gladiolas and mocking the gullible locals. And one of the major strengths of the film is the degree to which it conveys the reasons that many of the characters in the film are invested in their religious beliefs, while also conveying the reasons that others have reason to doubt or dismiss this apparition. These plots include a teenage boy who questions his faith because his mother is dying of a potentially treatable bacterial infection, but his grandmother refuses to allow the mom to be taken to the hospital. A bank officer feels remorse after refusing a loan request from an African-American who had attended his church. Two security guards are pressed into the duty of guarding a splinter church convention with some beliefs that go against standard Baptist teaching. Meanwhile, a couple of locals plot to blackmail the corrupt mayor by snapping photos of him with the town party girl in a local hotel.

These stories often coment on each other, particularly when it comes to the sometimes uneasy mixture of race, religion, and politics in the south. Screen Door frequently crosscuts between the town's two most prominent churches, a predominantly African-American Pentecostal church and the primarily white Baptist church. In the Pentecostal church, parishoners fan themselves because of a lcak of air conditioning while the Baptists clearly have financial and political power in Bethlehem. The rhythms of these services are conveyed very effectively, especially the cinematography during the baptism scenes and the rapid-fire delivery of the Pentecostal preacher.

Screen Door Jesus is Kirk Davis's first feature as a director, and while I was occasionally frustrated with the film's pacing (the shifts between narratives were sometimes unnecessarily jarring), Davis, who is from Memphis and "preached his first sermon at 10, read Nietzsche and drank his first bottle of Jack Daniels at 18, and studied Faulkner at 20," demonstrated an impressive eye and ear for religious life in the south.

Posted by chuck at August 5, 2005 9:15 AM

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WHERE cann I find a DVD or VHS of "Screen Door Jesus"- I have searched and searched on Google, etc. but nobody lists a DVD or video of this film!

Posted by: CarolynM at September 10, 2005 4:21 PM

I'd go to the official website and contact the producers. I think the film is still seeking wider distribution, so it may take a while for it to reach you.

Posted by: Chuck [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 10, 2005 5:42 PM

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