What if you sneezed, and God blessed you … in your own voice?
This is the relationship with the Divine posited by Conversations with God (hereafter “CWG”), a new movie directed and produced by Stephen Simon and based on Neale Donald Walsch’s well-loved series of books of the same name. Rather than focusing on kernels of divine wisdom that fans of the books might have expected, the film takes a biographical route. In this way, the film-makers are able to sidestep what could have become a deadly documentary and instead include us in the story of a life in which an ordinary, imperfect person learns to have these extraordinary conversations. We follow Walsch’s involuntary displacement from normal life, his descent into despair and the dark night of the soul and then his ultimate resurrection after he finds the inner voice he identifies as God.
Henry Czerny stars as Walsch, and there are few moments in the film in which he is not center stage. He is at his best when, recognizing just how far he has fallen, he desperately gulps a half-eaten hamburger he has rescued from a garbage dumpster. He just as easily slips into the persona of a slicker version of Walsch on the New Age talk circuit.
CWG takes a non-apologetic approach to the possibility that we each can find and depend upon a loving, guiding and nurturing inner voice. Just in case any member of the audience thinks that the movie is designed merely as a love-note to Neale Donald Walsch, in a brief coda following the closing credits the film-makers ram home the point that we each can have these divine conversations on our own.
Some critics may quarrel that it is either arrogance or madness to claim that a person’s inner voice is God. Yet even the staunchest atheist would have to admit some truth to the principle that problems cannot be resolved from the same state of consciousness in which they were created. This in turn implies that there exists a possibility, accessible to each of us, to find ever-expanding perspectives and states of consciousness from which we can express wisdom far beyond the limits of our ordinary lives. When someone is capable of reaching such a place, it hardly matters whether you call it “God,” “Divine Mother,” “myself” or “George Washington.”
Before seeing this film, I felt a prejudice to provide a glowing review. I have a predetermined inclination to want to see such films do well, because I want the film industry to produce more fare of this type for my own personal enjoyment and because I feel a commitment to encouraging the dissemination of spiritual ideas. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view), despite my rooting interest I viewed the film with an open mind, and as a consequence my prejudgment of the film did not entirely hold up.
Some of the elements of the philosophy of Walsch’s God may be difficult to swallow, even for card-carrying members of the New Age. For instance, the thought is expressed that when choosing how to make a living, the highest good is to do what you love. Contrast this with the fundamental message of love-what-you-do from Peaceful Warrior, another spiritually oriented film this year based on a semi-autobiographical bestseller.
There is certainly something to be said for CWG’s approach of don’t-do-it-if-it-doesn’t-feel-good. However, one can imagine many who would rely on this value as justification for avoiding the commitment to confront and work through a difficulty and instead attempting to seek happiness by shifting from job to job and location to location and flitting from mate to mate. “Geographic cures” rarely provide a lasting resolution to any problem, because, as the saying goes, wherever you go there you are.
Interestingly, the movie makes recurring reference to Walsch’s own difficulties with love and commitment to the people for whom he cares. He acknowledges these problems and admits to his past and continuing mistakes. One wonders whether these recurring patterns in his life might have been influenced by responses he received from his inner voice that he wanted to hear, rather than what he needed to hear. This issue of wants versus needs means that anybody who seeks to embark on a path of developing such an inner dialogue must also develop the power to discern between which responses serve well and which responses are merely self-serving.
CWG very briefly touches on wants versus needs when Walsch engages in what might be referred to as an argument with God. When Walsch tells God that he just wants his life back, God replies, “You can’t have anything you want.” A disbelieving Walsch has to have the words re-spoken several times and still insists they don’t make sense. Though he is not yet ready, or doesn’t want, to understand what he is being told, he dutifully continues writing down the dictation that will ultimately contribute to his books. You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you get what you need (apologies to The Rolling Stones).
Another philosophical premise that the film presents with difficulty is a disquieting approach to the economics of spiritual life. With Neale Donald Walsch as the center of attention in this autobiographical film, we are witness not only to his wanderings through a life of poverty but also to his emergence into a world of economic plenty and riches which are awarded to him in direct response to his ability to express himself to an audience interested in spirituality. The implicit message is that spiritual pursuits bring, or can be converted into, material rewards. While on the speaking circuit, Walsch comments to a friendly group, “Imagine a world where money was given to people who give us the biggest gifts.” His comment provides an underlying rationale for New Age big business, and in real life there is no doubt that such an industry does exist, with Walsch included in it.
The problem is that most of us are taught, and believe, that a gift is given freely, with no strings, and not with a view towards measuring the return on investment. Walsch’s statement conflicts with this basic understanding of what it means to give a gift. How can these two things—that we let go of gifts without control versus getting money for our gifts—be reconciled? Often, apparent paradoxes can be welcomed because resolving how two conflicting ideas can be true at the same time can lead to breakthroughs of understanding. “The test of a first-rate intelligence,” F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, “is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” If Fitzgerald is right, then many who ponder CWG’s ideas about compensation for gifts will find a tremendous opportunity to test their mettle.
Contrast CWG’s concept of being paid for gifts with the sense of offering presented in Peaceful Warrior. In that movie, protagonist Dan Millman questions the apparent lack of success of Socrates, the gasoline station attendant who becomes his mentor. “You know so much, how come you’re working at a gas station?” Millman asks. Without an ounce of defensiveness, Socrates responds, “This is a service station. We offer service. There’s no higher purpose.”
In spite of doubts about some of the spiritual messages conveyed by CWG, viewers looking for inspiration will certainly be rewarded by a sprinkling of teachings in the film. For instance, God tells Walsch as he walks out of his bedroom, “To live your life without expectation, without the need for specific results, that is freedom.” Perhaps this thought is the antidote for those who would seek to engage in spiritual pursuits for the hope of some reward.
Few can doubt the sincerity with which Walsch and director/producer Stephen Simon (producer of Somewhere in Time and What Dreams May Come and co-founder of the Spiritual Cinema Circle DVD subscription service) bring to their project. Yet as a film-going experience independent of its message, CWG is not entirely satisfactory.
Though there are flashes of brilliance in Czerny’s portrayal of Walsch (witness the afore-mentioned encounter with a hamburger as well as the barely maintainable poker face during book contract negotiations), at other times his acting is merely puzzling. For instance, when near the end of the film we encounter Walsch’s doppelganger as an earlier, despairing version of himself, we look into his eyes and see pretty much nothing going on, when it’s a pretty safe bet that the director had really intended for us to be smitten with the intensity of the character’s suffering and confusion.
A cinematic decision which was less than successful was the choice to insert recurring pale images of a matronly woman cradling the hands of a small boy across a table, apparently engaging in palm-reading to divine the boy’s future. Maybe the film-makers thought a device like this would create a compelling mystery to hold the audience in thrall and propel the movie forward until resolved, but instead the woman and boy become little more than annoying interlopers with little apparent connection to the plot. When the mystery is finally revealed, the payoff does not justify the interference with the flow of the movie.
A narrative question which is never sufficiently dealt with in CWG is why did Walsch start having conversations with God? Why at that particular point in his life? In a question-and-answer session following a pre-release screening, Walsch and Simon tried to provide answers. Their live response made sense, but the movie itself fails to provide sufficient clues from which the audience can venture a guess. These sorts of critical plot turns and motivations should not require subtitles to be added for a film-goer to figure out what’s happening and why.
If CWG is successful, those who are tired of empty Hollywood fare and seek more meaningful entertainment will be rewarded, simply because those who control production budget purse-strings will take notice that there is a market that needs to be served. Whether CWG will achieve that objective is anybody’s guess. The astounding gross receipts from The Passion of the Christ forced the industry to become aware of a potential market for religious, spiritual or faith-based films, but that movie was preaching to the choir, an exceptionally large choir at that.
CWG has its own choir to preach to, the not inconsiderable number of people who have read Walsch’s books plus those who haven’t read them but are aware of and empathize with their content. This could form the nucleus of a solid financial showing. However, for any spiritually oriented film to break through beyond its own choir, it would have to succeed on the merits as a film-going experience, over and above the message it seeks to convey. Peaceful Warrior was a much more rewarding ride for a movie fan, but it was in and out of a very limited theatrical release in little more than a heartbeat. It is doubtful that CWG is the film that breaks into the hearts of people who aren’t members of the choir because it simply is not a movie fan’s delight. That kind of crossover success might not come about until someone prevails upon J.K. Rowling to write Harry Potter and the Enlightened Soul.
Check these links for the movie review of Peaceful Warrior and for an interview with Donald Neale Walsh.