My notes on Scenes from an Empty Church, out in the US July 2.
In the future there will be seasons collecting the films of 2020-21 made specifically in reaction to the pandemic – or, rather, in reaction to the measures of shut-down, lockdown, masking-up and inactivity which will be the lasting experience of those who didn’t get sick. People will be able to recognise traits across films in different genres made by filmmakers with vastly differing sensibilities, as much from the circumstances of production as any thematic relationship. Filmmakers who had expected to be doing something else put together projects quickly and shot them under straitened circumstances – including the measures taken to minimise the risk to cast and crew, with some performances literally videophoned in (Paul Reiser does that here) and little bubbles formed for main characters and the actors.
Writer/director Onur Tukel (Catfight, Applesauce, Black Magic for White Boys, Summer of Blood) generally pivots way from the darker material his films usually touch on (I’m a fan) to deliver something more contemplative, struggling like all of us to make sense of the overall situation. Father Andrew (Kevin Corrigan), a Jewish convert to Catholicism, and Father James (Thomas Jay Ryan), a fussy hygiene freak, are shaken up by the covid death of the senior priest in their New York church. They have shut their church in the closed-down city, but a visit from Andrew’s old friend Paul (Max Casella), a talkative atheist, eventually needles the pair into a tentative reopening for select customers, who range from a nurse (Natalie Carter) who confesses (in the Catholic sense) that she’s close to leaving the profession to a creepily unctuous guy (Craig Bierko) who buys an adult baptism for himself and lets slip he wants to get truly heinous acts not really off his conscience but stricken out of his ledger of sins.
Tukel loves scenes in which people talk, and that means actors like working with his thorny, knotty, often hilarious scripts even if storytelling sometimes gets shunted aside in favour of argument. All the main characters hold something back – a reason for joining the priesthood, a perhaps-profane love, a spiritual/magical ambition (Tukel almost always includes magic in his movies and there’s a taste of astral projection here) – and the way their secrets are teased out of them, held up to the light and then accepted is affecting and straightforward. The bulk of the film plays out in scenes of two or three characters in or around the church talking to each other, but the home stretch (giving a sense of the opening-up of the city) extends to a wedding that kind of gets out of hand, a visit from someone (the startling Eva Dorrepaal) who has a direct line to the miraculous which the priests don’t know how to respond to, and a trip to the seashore.
There are odd omissions. No one mentions the fact that churches were identified early in the pandemic as key super-spreader events, which makes the priests’ actions in reopening without added precautions seem more foolhardy (or science-denying) than idealistic. All sorts of political issues raised by the situation are wrapped up by a couple of complaints about New York City trends well under way before Covid-19 showed up. These people talk all the time about everything that comes to mind, but no one ever mentions the President. But another trait of lockdown filmmaking is this kind of partial view, being topical but holding back from the particular issues of the day in the knowledge that by the time the film comes out the situation will have changed dramatically yet again (unlike several other covid movies, this is canny enough not to do toilet paper hoarding jokes that expired in May 2020). Even the general rambling, which can be found in Tukel’s other work, might not be advisable in a screenwriting workshop setting but is all to recognisable as the mood of 2020 as some folk were sidelined with too little to do and bubbles talked themselves round in circles until a near hallucinatory numbness set in.
If I’d gone into lockdown an eccentric millionaire, I would’ve funded another remake of Omega Man/Last Man On Earth (I Am Legend) – as a silent odyssey (as in no dialogue, minimal dialogue – perhaps v/o …) … music certainly, but sparingly … kind of a One-character Taxi Driver … thinking of having the Neville character walk past a room in the complex filled with toilet rolls, but there again does the toilet still work? Does Neville go ‘shopping’ (for non-perishables) with trolley and all for old time’s sake? Bit Dawn of the Dead but could’ve secured a supermarket and maintained it as a supply station, and for psych-comfort. Remember those ‘eco-toilets’ a few years ago? Outdoor things, neo-medieval tho’ probably more practical and less water wasteful than the present convention. Imagine, I started out trying to make Son of Omega Man, I ends up bringing back the outdoor toilet. Would youse like a brochure, sir? Going back to the 90s when a Schwarzenegger/Ridley Scott version was mooted, the Omage image that pops into my head is the flaming torch – like, there’s two worlds in the film – the abandoned, depopulated late 20th century cityscape and retail spaces, and then the subterranean vampire world which has yer medieval flaming torches by way of illumination. Arnie using one to light his way with an AR15 slung over his back would’ve been a neat key image. So the dark ages poised to devour the seemingly precariously-held comforts of modern life is a theme Rats – ‘this IS our world. It always has been. You have been … useful, tolerated … but you have only ever been our guest here’. Neville the exterminator vs the vampire-rats has an element of Ho Chi Minh: ‘Our losses to you have been regretable and we laent them, but we have great patience. In the end it is you who will fail’ McNamara-ism (timely, or what?) ‘You are overwhelmingly outnumbered. Your demise is a statistical certainty. If you destroy me, another will take my place, and another after them … You are the last of your kind, our final enemy – your destruction represents our ultimate triumph, and for that reason, we honour you’. But examing the effects of isolation on Neville is another squeeze, and Travis Bickle-isms could abound. Neville finds a community of humes and rescues them in Mad Max, western hero style, but -you guessed it, he’s too far gone to assimilate into their drop city or similar – he’s a monster to them as much as the vampos – he’s actually closer to the vampys in the sense that they inhabited the same ecosystem and milieu… a vestigal stage between a dark time and a generation that wants to forget and begin again … (get ready for the Clunk, here it comes …) you guessed it, he is Legend, a story to tell the kiddies … I really love all Kim Newman commentaries and interviews and what not, I buy DVDs if theres a Newman commentary or featurete and therefore I did very much enjoy the recent interview with the Vampire-chick … however you say ‘You can’t talk to a Zombie’ – forgetting ‘I Talked With A Zombie’, I think … ! Here’s another idea – Corpse House – about a bunch of zombies minding their own business in a derelict townhouse – sort of an ant-gentrification screed … Corpse Horse – animals killed on battlfield return as spirits of righteous vengeance – Viking skeleton warriors battle a TA unit on a misty, blasted heath – did vikings ride horses?