Michael Jacobs’s Audience of One belongs to a particular nonfiction genre—the docu-exploitation of a spectacularly miscarried movie. Operation Filmmaker, in which Nina Davenport successfully recorded the failure of her own project, represents the mode’s greatest triumph, but Jacobs does manage to elevate his hapless protagonist, Pentecostal minister and Cecil B. DeMille wannabe Richard Gazowsky, to the lower rungs of beautiful loserdom. The movie, a hit at last year’s “New Directors/New Films” series, has been a festival favorite throughout the U.S.—sometimes with pastor Gazowsky in attendance.
Jacobs’s ever-cheerful star is a cherubic charmer who was born with a silver platitude in his mouth, inheriting his San Francisco congregation from his mother. Although the Voice of Pentecost Church is housed in an old deco movie house, Gazowsky only saw his first movie—not The Passion, but The Lion King—at age 40. This revelation inspired his high-concept vision: “Star Wars Meets The Ten Commandments.” Gazowsky promises Jacobs that Gravity: The Shadow of Joseph will be “the greatest movie ever made”; putting his faith in God, Craigslist, and some mysterious German investors, the pastor shepherds his devotedly naive flock and highly photogenic family over to picturesque Alberobello, Italy, for a five-day shoot.
Unpaid actors are the least of Gazowsky’s problems: There are a number of technical glitches, beginning with a failure to anticipate European direct current, continuing through a snapped cable, and climaxing with a three-day camera jam. The pastor is unflappable, directing his incredulous crew to work all night if necessary. The second act has him back in San Francisco, shooting interiors in a studio rented from the city. The projected budget has doubled to $100 million (and will soon redouble), and the otherwise affable filmmaker is suddenly paranoid—rival studios have been breaking in to steal the script. Or could it be creditors? In any case, as Gazowsky explains, “God is testing San Francisco.” Will the city do Satan’s work and cut the electrical power?
Gravity: The Shadow of Joseph is worthy of the hubristic monuments detailed in Stuart Klawans’s Film Follies—except that those lunatic extravaganzas, “filmmaking pushed beyond all rational limits,” actually got made. In three years, Jacobs reveals, Gazowsky has completed only two shots (but what shots—if only we could see them!) and is being sued by the city of San Francisco. Still, he perseveres: “God doesn’t change his mind.”
Ridiculous as it is, Audience of One is more chilling than funny. Last seen, Gazowsky is happily exhorting his followers to keep the faith; he has a plan for 47 feature films, a theme park, eight TV channels, an airline, a new generation of “organic” computer chips, 27 resorts, trips to outer space, and the colonization of another planet. Call it the future of an illusion.