Messiahs are people too
Brian B., the an American Messiah, of Chris Hansen's film The Proper Care and Feeding of an American Messiah, doesn't know he's a messiah just because Federal agents kidnapped him and told him he's one.
He has other proofs. His ability to perform miracles, for one thing.
(Brian B., in his kitchen, being interviewed while scrambling some eggs.)
Interviewer: So what about miracles? If you're the Messiah, wouldn't you be able to do miracles?
Brian: Oh, I can.
Interviewer: Like what?
Brian (thinking it over; there are so many examples to choose from): Ah, well...there's the Shoe Miracle. There's the Miracle of the Fruit.
Brian is willing to demonstrate the Miracle of the Fruit on film. He calls for his brother to bring him a bowl of plums. Probably thinking of Christ's turning the water into wine, the interviewer asks if Brian is going to change the plums into something else. Brian looks disgusted at the interviewer's credulity.
"What am I? David Copperfield?"
The Miracle of the Fruit turns out to be just a Stupid Human Trick. Out in the back yard, Brian's brother throws the plums up into the air and Brian tries to catch them in his mouth. The miracle is that he actually manages to catch a few.
The Shoe Miracle is even more mundane.
The indicting fact here is not that Brian's miracles aren't miraculous, it's that they aren't helpful. He's not making the blind see or the lame walk, he's not healing anyone, literally or figuratively. He's not doing anything for anybody and yet he is still proud of his miracles for what they are, signs of his own specialness.
Which makes him not all that much different from many self-importantly religious people who wear their belief as a badge of honor but don't seem particularly called upon to live out the teachings of their faiths.
There are plenty of "Christians" who act as if being chosen, saved, blessed by God's grace, whatever, is enough in itself. Brian feels called by God but he doesn't feel called upon to do anything.
Chris Hansen is a Christian and he wanted to make some statements about faith and psuedo-faith in his film.
"I'm often embarrassed by the role many big-name Christians take in society," he admits, "The Pat Robertsons of the world. I feel like they don't represent Christianity very well, and over the years, as a Christian, I've moved towards respecting and appreciating the role Christians have played in social justice issues in history."
But Brian B., as a satirical target, isn't meant to be a stand-in for those big-name Christians, except to the degree that they preach a religion of complaceny and self-aggrandizement instead of one of charity, mercy, humility, and love.
The object of satire in Brian's story is also its point of sympathy. Brian's "folly" is his desire to feel special and important in a vast and unfriendly universe, and his quest for proof that God is out there and that he cares, while played for laughs, is still treated with compassion.
Brian really knows he's all too ordinary. He introduces himself with a resume of a life of less than mediocrity:
Brian (speaking off camera as the opening credits roll): All my life I kind of wondered if there was something different about me. I had no friends, no one talked to me. I was beaten, often going to school with bruises. I didn't smell very good. Really no talent whatsovever. But then I realized I was a messiah and---Wow! Everything changed!
It's clear right from the start of his "interview" that Brian has spent a great deal of time and energy finding ways not have to face his obscurity and the apparent meaningless of his real life. Whenever the interviewer asks him the simplest and most obvious questions about his calling as a messiah, he reacts with a mixture of panic, hostility, and a frantic, paranoid suspiciousness. All of this plays itself out beautifully in star Dustin Olson's beady little eyes pinwheeling in their sockets while his whole gaunt and ascetic frame---perfect actually for the role of a saint, he'd make a good John the Baptist if anyone's casting another life of Christ---petrifies. He goes as rigid as a rabbit who knows the hunter has a bead on him.
It's very human of him to feel that Life has meaning and purpose and that an individual matters and also very human of him not to know what that is, to have no clear idea of what God wants of us, and to flail about trying to figure it out. It's vanity but forgiveable vanity to think we are important to his purpose.
Brian's failure is everyone's existential failure. The mistake we make is that Life is not what we're doing at the moment, it's what's going to happen.
Hansen says, "I think the main idea I went into it with was the folly of imagining you must have some huge ‘special’ purpose from God — and waiting for that, not letting your life begin — while ignoring all the little things God calls you to do every day, like caring for your family and the people who live around you, like the homeless guy who approaches Brian."
Early in the film, while Brian is out trying to find his purpose in action, a homeless man wheels his shopping cart up to him and asks for some spare change for a sandwich. Brian snaps, "Ok, is this a soup kitchen? I don't think so!"
The same character wanders in and out of the background throughout the rest of the film, and Brian, of course, focused on his own problem, remains steadfastly oblvious to his plight and his existence.
Hansen says, "I feel people are called by God to various things. I myself felt like my life was on hold for years while I wondered what I was supposed to be doing — but people like Brian use it as an excuse to do nothing, and forget about the little things they’re supposed to do every day."
Brian neglects his wife and child. He takes advantage of his sister Miriam. He uses his brother Aaron to the point of abusing him, turning him into a personal servant and lashing out whenever Aaron accidentally shows signs of having an ego and spirit of his own.
But Brian isn't portrayed as a monster of selfishness. The Proper Care and Feeding of an American Messiah isn't simply a portrait of a solipsist. Brian is a victim of his own loneliness and sadness. He never goes anywhere without one or both of his "disciples," Miriam and Aaron, and it's important that while Brian is named after a famous phony messiah---Hansen says that the character was named early in the writing process and he wasn't thinking about Monty Python's Life of Brian when he christened his Brian; when he realized the accidental allusion he liked it and kept the name---Miriam and Aaron are deliberately named after the siblings of a real prophet, Moses, and their devotion to their brother is every bit as faithful and faith-full as their biblical counterparts' devotion to their brother.
Aaron, as played by Joseph Frost, is an overgrown child with a childlike absolute faith in his big brother. Ellen Dolan's Miriam, however, is a real grown up, who, while terrified of doing or saying anything that might hurt Brian's feelings, gently tries to steer him towards a more realistic view of himself and a more truly Christian way of life. Their love mitigates against Brian's egomania. Meanwhile, Brian unconsciously conspires with fate (or God) to bring about his own moment of crisis and truth.
A point Hansen says he wanted to make with The Proper Care and Feeding of an American Messiah is that, while it may be true that we all have a calling and a purpose and discovering what those are can be a worthwhile quest, we need to be aware of the people right around us and the opportunities to discover a higher purpose in taking care of them. While searching for the meaning of life we might be missing it by neglecting little tasks and duties that are pretty important.
"Maybe there is something you are called to do," Hansen says of Brian's search for a higher purpose, "But until you happen to find out what that is, you do have responsibilities."
Tomorrow: The proper care and filming of an American Messiah.