THE BOOK OF LIFE A
USA France (63 mi) 1998 d: Hal Hartley
I could never get used to that part of the job. The power and the glory. The threat of divine vengeance. But I persevered. I was about my Father’s business. It was the morning of December 31st, 1999 when I returned, at last, to judge the living and the dead. Though still, and perhaps always, I had my doubts.
─Jesus Christ (Martin Donovan)
Following on the heels of the immensely enjoyable Henry Fool (1997), Hartley continues to play it fast and loose with this little one-hour gem, a romp in the park, a witty, entirely imaginative scenario facing the dreaded new millennium, all taking place 12-31-99 in New York City as the Y2K Apocalypse is fast approaching where all hell is supposed to break loose, only this time it’s the real deal. Jesus Christ, the quiet, suave, yet troubled Martin Donovan lands at JFK airport in a clean cut, blue suit to meet with God’s lawyers, Armageddon, Armageddon, Armageddon & Greene to settle this whole Apocalypse thing and carry out the will of God. Following close behind is the über-female, PJ Harvey as Magdalena, carrying a backpack with all the necessary paperwork, including a Mac laptop containing the seven seals in the Book of Life, three of which have yet to be opened, also including the names of the 144,000 souls that will be spared eternal damnation. They check into a sleek, modern Manhattan hotel room. On the way in, they catch a glimpse of Thomas Jay Ryan (Henry Fool), who gazes, and holds his attention, as if recognizing someone familiar.
Ryan shows up in a coffee shop with Dave Simonds, a down-on-his-luck, compulsive gambler named Dave, and with a devilishly smooth sales pitch offers him a guaranteed winning lottery ticket. “What’s the catch?” “No catch.” “I’ll have to think about it.” As it turns out, Ryan is actually a sleazy, compulsively bad-news Satan, with a black eye and a bandaged cut on his face, called “Mr. Chuckles” by Dave, who recognizes that spew of venom and hopeless negativity about the end of the world coming out of his mouth because he’s been living it. But then Satan turns on the screws, pulling into the game that sweet little waitress behind the counter Edie, played by Hartley’s gorgeous wife Mihi Nikaido, the one who’s been giving him free coffee and pretending not to notice, described by Satan as “terminally good.” Would Dave surrender her soul in exchange for the winning lottery ticket? Meanwhile we get a steady dose of William S. Burroughs on the radio as an apocalyptic preacher describing how doom and damnation will arrive no sooner than tonight. When Dave asks Edie why she listens to that crap, she responds, “I like the hymns.” Edie, by the way, is so sweet and low key, she makes a terrific foil to the more manic and world weary Satan. A compulsive gambler however can’t resist for long and eventually accepts the deal, and when the ticket hits, Edie decides she wants to spend her time serving homemade soup to the homeless, while Dave turns his attention to Christ “Can you help me? I think I’ve just lost my girlfriend’s immortal soul for a long shot.”
An extremely stylish film that’s obviously been Wong Kar-wai-icized, featuring a nonstop whir of colorful blurred images that seem to represent life passing by at the speed of light, where all of history moves in a passing instant, where each person, each soul, is a speck in the landscape. The dialogue is quick, fresh, occasionally brilliant, spoken with that precise comic timing of Hartley deadpan humor that is like no other. From the opening, the fast talking, wise-cracking Satan has all the best lines, countered by the almost angelic good moods of Edie, but one of the better scenes is a meeting in a bar between Satan and Jesus where they toss back a few drinks together, where the Son of God must proceed with the business at hand which is about to get messy. But Jesus gets cold feet and starts wavering, feeling uneasy about implementing the totality of a Final Judgment. Satan reminds him He has no choice, that it’s all been prophesied in Revelations. Speaking of those prophets, “I really never liked those guys anyway” Jesus laments, claiming He may have to break with His Father on this one, refusing to carry it out, as He’s always had His doubts about all that vengeance and wrath of God. After all, He lived as a human once, and He’s grown fond of them. Satan is fascinated by the startling developments and starts feeling a little brotherly towards Jesus, as both are now permanently exiled from God.
Well, of course, improbable things happen when Word gets out, including Mormons in a shoot out at God’s law firm, Satan finding a live microphone set up on the street where he offers a few choice comments, or PJ Harvey making a visit to a Tower record store where she sings a smokin’ version of “To Sir With Love,” PJ Harvey sings ''To Sir With Love'' - YouTube (1:16), with a dissonant screeching guitar in the background. The music and sound design have an edgy subterranean groove that matches the feeling of a world on its edge, about to tilt on its axis, usually shot with oblique angles. The provocative and colorful storyline always has a playful, yet dour mood happening simultaneously, where the free wheeling twists and turns are off the wall funny, including Yo La Tengo as a Salvation Army Band. Hartley was one of the dozen international directors selected to make short films that dealt with the theme of the new millennium, commissioned by French TV’s 2000 Seen By film project, another of whom was Tsai Ming-liang’s THE HOLE, which was lengthened to a feature length film. The film’s shorter length actually works here, as it has the feel of a concise, well-written short story with nothing extra tagged on, where the incredibly fast pace of urban life in New York City moves at near breakneck speed, almost like a 1930’s screwball sci-fi comedy.