Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Movie Review: The Gospel of Eureka

The Gospel of Eureka *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Michael Palmieri & Donal Mosher.
Written by: Donal Mosher & Michael Palmieri.
There is probably a deeper, more substantive documentary lurking in the material in The Gospel of Eureka that would look more closely at the divisions in this small Arkansas town that hosts both a large Passion Play for fundamentalists Christians, and a drag bar. For the most part, they seem to coincide fairly peacefully – some of the Christians say they don’t agree with the “gay lifestyle” but still think they should care for one another, and the owners of the bar – a gay couple, who have been together since the 1980s, still consider themselves Christian and don’t see it as a conflict. There is, likely, some stronger feelings on both sides here – but The Gospel of Eureka seem pretty happy to keep things on a surface level. The big conflict here is one of those bathroom bills that try to say where transgender people can go to the bathroom – and while passions are inflamed on both sides, they don’t seem all that inflamed. The film seem to, more than anything, want to present Eureka as an example of how America can learn to get along with each other as the country seemingly gets more and more divided.
So yes, I think there is a deeper – better – film somewhere in here, and yet you would hard have pressed not to enjoy The Gospel of Eureka – which looks at this small town and more than anything, finds the good in everyone. We learn the history of the place – how a racist settled here in the 1960s, built the largest Jesus statute in North America, and built up his massive Passion Play, which allows attendees to watch the last days of Jesus – including the death and resurrection. We learn that when he died, they kept the play going – but edited out the racism and anti-Semitism from his script. How, when Anita Bryant’s career went to hell, she tried to come here and be a part of that play – and left with even less of a career than she arrived with. And we see the very dedicated people who keep the Passion Play going – including the actor who plays Jesus, who seemingly does many other things in the production as well (he tells us about the fake blood they use) – and tells us about his method of getting into character.
We also meet Gregory Lee Keating and Walter Burrell who run the gay bar they like to call the “hillbilly Studio 54” – which feature drag performers. They have been together for decades now – married before God we are told in 1986, even though at that time the state didn’t recognize their marriage. The film, I think, wants us to draw comparisons between the two type of performances – it spends a lot of time watching as the Passion Play actors or the drag performers get ready – apply makeup, get changed – and then head out there and put on a show.
The film also finds in this small town of just over 2,000 residents a lot of thoughtful people who take the question of faith, and gay rights, seriously. A local pastor gives a sermon in support of gay people – saying, sure it is in the Bible, but so is not eating bacon, and he likes bacon – and the important part is to love each other. The man who runs the local religious T-shirt shop also gives thoughtful answers – he has an out gay dad, and has struggled with thinking that was the ultimate sin for a long time – but has moved past that. He even points out that it is Judas who wanted politics and religion to intersect, not Jesus. We meet a religious trans woman – who attends church with her husband, and no one seems to care. We don’t find out much about the drag performers themselves, and their feelings – but Keating and Burrell sure do talk a lot.
Perhaps if nothing else, what The Gospel of Eureka shows us is an example of how to cross that divide. In such a small town, you are kind of forced to know everyone, and get along with everyone. These sins aren’t in some far off place, but right here – and those sinners are nice guys. There probably is more here if the filmmakers tried to dig deeper – on both sides – but they want to show an optimistic portrait of America – and in 2019, that’s hard to do – but they found it.

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