Friday, December 4, 2009
KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando reviews the documentary Oh My God.
The new documentary "Oh My God" (opening December 4 at Landmark's Ken Cinema) asks people from all walks of life -- from celebrities to common folks, from priests to atheists - the question"What is God?" Needless to say there is not one simple answer.
Don't get "Oh My God" confused with that George Burns comedy "Oh God!" Although George Burns might be a welcome presence in this rather pretentious documentary. Peter Rodger has a background in advertising and photography and he decided to make a film in which he would seek the answer to the question, "What is God?" So he spent three years traveling to twenty-three countries to interview the famous as well as the common man, the religious as well as non-believers. But he delivers something of an MTV music video take on the subject rather than something truly provocative. He creates a film that has the gloss of a high end marketing campaign and he sprinkles it with celebrities like Hugh Jackman and Seal to create something that is visually appealing and packaged to be politically correct and not too challenging. But I have to say that you damage your credibility as a serious filmmaker when the first person you interview in a documentary about god is Wolverine... um... I mean Hugh Jackman. If you wanted to start with a celebrity, maybe someone like Martin Scorsese (who had wanted to be a priest) would have been a better choice and we could have taken Rodger's quest more seriously.
Frequently Rodger cuts up his interviews into montages that dilute real discussion and instead create an impression of opinions. It’s rare that he lets people talk at extended lengths. Although I will give him credit for seeking out a diverse range of people and opinions. Yet all his travels and all his interviews yield little real substance as he just scratches at the surface of why people believe and how people use religion to justify their actions.
One of the reasons Rodger claims he made his film was because he couldn't understand how an institution that fundamentally preaches tolerance and love could become such a force for hatred and violence. Yet he doesn’t really pursue this to any great length. He doesn't really want to stir controversy in a manner like Bill Maher did with "Religulous." No he wants something a little more feel goody. So he serves up such positive, uplifting images as that of a Jew and an Arab literally walking hand in hand. He seems to want his film to prove that God is a positive force and that the problems all stem from how humans interpret the word of God or use religion to justify a grab for power or land.
The ideas Rodger serves up are nothing new. But he packages everything nicely so it’s designed to go down easily. Rodger designs the film to showcase himself as a filmmaker and cinematographer. He comes up short on the filmmaking end but does find some stunning images. But he seems more concerned with the look of his film than the content. So when he speaks to a Muslim American who is deeply troubled by how the world perceives his religion after 9/11, we are impressed by the man’s honesty and concerns yet Rodger keeps cutting away from him and to such unrelated imagery as a Native American ritual and a swish pan to buildings in New York waiting for another terrorist attack. This approach distracts us from what is being said.
"Oh My God" (unrated) is easy to look at and raises some good questions but it is in the end frustratingly superficial. So if the subject intrigues you maybe wait for it on Netflix.
Companion viewing: "Koyaanisqatsi," "Religulous," "Oh God!"