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A longing for meaning
A UK region 2 DVD rant and review of THE CELESTINE PROPHECY by Camus
 
"The most important idea is that it's not as easy to open up to
spiritual experience as we would like. Learning how not to control
others and how not to control our lives so intensely are two of
those breakthroughs. We have to let go."
James Redfield, author The Celestine Prophecy (1993)
 

1st Insight: Doubting Destiny...

There is a gap in the faith market, one into which I'd have fallen if I was a little younger, a little more gullible. The gap is that yawning chasm between conventional religious belief and downright cold, scientific detachment. Are we blessed creatures with a paternal creator watching over us or are we decaying organic matter destined only to fertilize grass or are we somewhere mystically in between? I stand on the fertilizer option (or rather will eventually be laying as fertilizer option) but what about humankind's spiritual dimension, aspects of our humanity that are not corporeal, not physical? Let's leave the more famous faith clubs like Scientology and Kabbalah out of the frame for the time being. Extraterrestrial seeding and ancient Holy books are not relevant for debate here. Are we higher beings, more spiritually advanced than woodlice or do we have no claim on any spiritual identity and therefore must accept that there is no meaning of life, just meanings in life and in those relationships we nurture around us. Hey! How profound is that? Do you think I could start a cult? I could call it 'The Meaning In Life' or MILF but I think the acronym is already taken. Don't Google it if you want to keep your browser's cache porn-free.

Who knows about that gap in the market? Wily, new age peddlers like James Redfield for one. He sold 100,000 copies of his Celestine Prophecy as a vanity publishing project before it was officially released by Warners going on to sell 20 million copies. That's a big gap filled with a lot of books. And the book's content (or the snippets offered by the movie) highlights just how much longing and need there is in us as a species to really believe that we are special. We're not. We really are not. Live with it. We're a virus with shoes (thank you, Bill Hicks). The odd thing is that Redfield has written a touchy feely adventure novel and his readers are deconstructing the mysticism and treating it as the real deal. It's like that demented fan at a J.K. Rowling signing who whispered into Jo's ear "I'm trying the spells..." and meaning every insane syllable.

American pop culture is completely obsessed right now with destinies and purpose and meaning and the fact that we have to be – we must be – more than ugly, fat skin-bags of mostly water (speaking for myself of course). Look at the current hit on TV, Heroes (or X-Men-lite). Not an episode goes by without someone bleating on about their destiny. We need more Fight Clubs and fewer faith clubs. There is nothing wrong with advancing the agenda of peace and harmony. In fact, there is a positive need for engineering positive social glue given the parlous state of the world right now. But new age piffle isn't going to really provide the foundation on which something with meaning, something essentially with balls, can build. The nine sacred 'insights' that form the crux of The Celestine Prophecy's narrative are frankly ludicrous. Like a transparent mammoth, they are so indistinct and woolly that anything can be read into them. Redfield has done an extraordinary job of writing the most anodyne pap so brimming with hooks to snag at the less discerning reader. Here's the first 'insight' as an example...

"We are discovering again that we live in a deeply mysterious world, full of sudden coincidences and synchronistic encounters that seem destined."

That's not an insight. It's preposterous piffle. It's akin to announcing that we live in a world where every time I open the fridge I am seeking something cold. I still think Doris Day sung it better with "Whatever will be, will be..." As the other 'insights' lead from the previous 'insights', it seems only fair to look at the first one. To the above I can only say that it's absolutely perfect to reel in all those folks who share that shallow worldview. I think coincidences are sometimes too fantastic to be coincidences but that's why they are called coincidences. I cannot embark on a spiritual journey when the first rule of Fight Club is... no, wait... when the first rule of Redfield's faith club is 'coincidences are your destiny' because that's just meaningless codswallop. The other eight have that same hazy, horoscopic meandering that endears itself to poor, hopeful souls with the critical faculties of a puffed up pillow. Yeah, yeah... I realise that I have just insulted a great many people who bought and ate this book up (they swallowed it) but I have to stand firm on this. This planet is too wondrous to be cheapened by hokey, out of focus ideas and passed their sell-by date irrelevant religions. You want awe? Go and read some popular science books. Go and get the real thing.
Do you want or need any more proof that Redfield's nine 'insights' are commercially driven? There are eight spin off books by Redfield available on Amazon that should tell you more about the value of the original nine – sequels exist and sequels of anything only exist to make money. It's like Lucas banging on about how Star Wars was nine movies right from the start. Yeah, right George. Again, I must stress how happier I'd be if I opened the newspaper and read that something positive, a force for good had made something affirming happen because of raising consciousness with leaden swill like:

"In this awareness, we can release our own pattern of controlling, and discover a specific truth, a mission, we are here to share that helps evolve humanity toward this new level of reality.

That's courtesy of the 6th 'insight'. But it just ain't so. The funny thing is that these 'insights' aren't actual prophecies either (neither are they grammatical). No matter. 35 million readers (estimated readership) can't be wrong. Can they?


2nd Insight: Movie Mysticism

So to the movie which promises us this third way of connecting with the world in between blind religious faith and scientific disbelief. Coming a good fourteen years after the book, one asks "Why now?" According to Redfield, it's a control issue (I thought he was into giving control up?) and as producer and writer, he must take some responsibility for the ensuing movie's quality. Poor man. Like Perfume, the film-makers are taking on a big subject here: personal enlightenment. How does that interior epiphany get the exterior visual treatment? They just turn up the colour grading to 11. Oh. Conventional faith and conventional non-faith give way to The Celestine Prophecy, or 'est' in a wetter climate. To my shame (I usually try so hard) I have not read this apparently life-changing book that draws upon the ideas that Eric Berne pondered over in his seminal 'Games People Play', something the author has freely admitted.

The core narrative is an adventure story in which a disgruntled teacher is fired from his job and after a brief chat with an ex, he jets off to Peru to research the nine insights of the Celestine Prophecy, ancient scrolls that seem to be relevant to our 21st century life, as you do. He stumbles from one idiotic coincidence to another while being shot at and chased by those who want to make sure the great wisdom of some monk a long time ago doesn't get out.

Where to start? How about nine, short film-making insights?

1. Thou shalt write sub-texturally

The first thing that struck me (about once every twenty seconds or so – very hard) is how extraordinarily on the nose and free from sub-text the dialogue was. This screenplay was written by someone who does not know who Robert McKee is. Every line is a clunker that drags the movie down with each earnest pronouncement. People, real people simply do not communicate like this. Everything was up front and plain to the point of absurdity. Characters said what was on their minds – bang. No mystery, no suspense, no development.

2. Seventeen Deus Ex Machinas are never good

The coincidences that enabled our hero to literally blunder into people who could help him (with motorcycles, for Christ's sake) or situations that simply happened because the plot needed them to happen were excruciatingly contrived. These events and their random nonsensical qualities made a mockery of narrative.

3. Cloying strings at every turn are trying way too hard

Music, as we have remarked on this site many times, is a very powerful tool. Like a heat seeking missile, it can hone in and magnify any filmed emotion – or it can blow the whole movie up because of crucial misjudgement. See Patch Adams. The music in this movie is commanding you to find it life affirming. Anything that tries this hard usually has the opposite effect. I wanted to scream. In more lucid moments I wanted to scream at the composer, Nuno Malo.

4. Special Effects usually need to be special

Energy – in the movie – is some sort of Lucasian field around an individual. We all have it and it pushes people away and flows into people helping them. As a special effect it blows goats. It makes the actors look like they're on a Christmas biscuit tin cover and while swathing the actors in a mysterious ectoplasmic glow, it holes the movie below the water line. Let's not mention the colour grading of the past in the hero's dreams (After Effects on Impressionistic Filter 6.5). Just plain silly.

5. The Hero takes a journey (but thou shalt like the bastard at the very least).

Matthew Settle plays John, the teacher hero of the movie. From his resumé on the IMDB it's clear the guy gets employed. So why is his performance in Prophecy so listless, lifeless, empty and shallow? Yes, there are those actors who do the stillness thing but we know what's going on behind their eyes. Matthew Settle is a dark, pretty boy with (in this movie at least) the acting chops of a varnished log.

6. Jürgen Prochnow doesn't need money this badly

Prochnow is a man with built in gravitas, a face that's weathered a few storms and a dignity even maintained if he has to deliver his role in heavily accented English. As the bad guy Jensen in Prophecy, he's so one dimensional, he's flat-packed. Whenever he came on screen, I asked the TV "Why Jürgen, why?"

7. Men who deal in high explosives are not usually morons

There is a scene in which many bombs are all clustered together. Jürgen is harassing our hero, tries to stab his kneecaps (I know, I know) and ends up with the hero flipping a simple switch to start a ten second countdown on a lump of C3 near many other lumps of C3. "You idiot!" he shouts. "You've killed us all!" I think Jürgen was the idiot.

8. Never commit Heaven to film

Such a tricky one, this one. Constantine tried it (clouds and light – didn't work). According to Celestine, heaven is a place on Earth where you are invisible and all the colours have been saturated to within a gnat's hair of Hendrik's Mandala status. God, please make it stop.

9. I never thought I'd make it to 9 so...

...will just say that this movie is simply and unutterably awful. And there's a typo in the end credits (BBC Motion Gallary? Oh dear).


3rd Insight: A Nod To Nirvana

There is a problem with enthusiastic, deep seated and life-affirming ninety-nine percent atheism (I'm not hedging just acknowledging that a belief in something improvable is just as irrational as an absolute denial of same). It is that atheism's criminally misunderstood by both those of faith and even by those without. Atheism is a word of denial and denial is perceived as negative and as Jonathan Miller said in his documentary series on disbelief, why was it necessary to have a word to cover a non-belief at all? It was like needing a word to describe one's disbelief in fairies or magic or that 'ij' is a letter in the Dutch alphabet. Have a guess which one of those is true. What the negativity of the word also does is close down the atheists' options in the spiritual realm from others' perspectives – which I think is erroneous. Atheists do not put ceilings on their life experience – just the translation and re-channelling of that life experience into something involving an omniscient creator who cares for us individually while creating a never-ending hell for those of us who transgress a set of frankly ridiculous rules. I am in (some may say 'religious') awe when I look at the night sky. My eyes sparkled with delight at the discovery of an Earth type planet three days ago. OK, it's five billion light years away so my son won't be visiting it soon but the universe is a constant catalyst provoking awed reverence.

Let's not forget the earthbound awe. If you wrapped your head around natural selection and came to understand its complex simplicity (which I have the faintest grasp of, a leaf of the rainforest so to paraphrase) you would faint with the utter breathtaking tremendousness of it. I came into natural history by mistake but it was a glorious mistake (ooh! Proof of the power of the prophecy!) and I do understand that the holes in people's lives must be filled and faith lurks as a sort of poisonous Polyfilla, a catch all belief system which has the most sublime business plan. It promises you eternal life in return for your belief. Do you think faith ever had a dissatisfied customer? No cadaver has had cause to complain. But what of spiritual matters? Unencumbered by the cliché of divine interpretation, I'm all for those moments in life where we feel insufferably content, filled with an enlightenment so fleeting it's almost a crime against our natures that it leaves us. Love is its distant cousin because these experiences I'm talking about cannot be talked about. You either feel them or you don't.

I have friends who hang on to the idea that our presence on this vast spinning rock has a meaning outside of the 'living, breathing now'. The force of coincidence and synchronicity is brought to the table. I am just blown away on a daily basis at the statistical improbability of my being alive and being able to witness the blink of time that this planet would call my lifespan. I'm afraid I enjoy but place no significance in coincidence.

It's your call. Are we random or are we meaningful? Oh, please...

sound and vision

An anamorphic 1.78:1 presentation, the movie looks good until the special effects kick in but I've already had a go at those. There are three choices on sound and the 5.1 out of all three (Dolby 2.0, Dolby 5.1 and DTS) is workmanlike – nothing hugely remarkable, no great literal bass shakes. I cannot judge the DTS (I have two surround amps which play DTS but I cannot bring myself to watch any more of this film than I absolutely have to).

extra features

The Making Of The Celestine Prophecy (25:21)
The same old fluff (everyone loved each other etc.) but with much more added sanctimonious, new age bullshit from James Redfield. The man is convinced that we will all go and see this movie (militant, fundamental and radical Muslim or Christian) and will all point at the screen and go "Ah, I see!" and we will all live happily ever after. If only the movie had been released before 9/11... I'm sorry but it's one thing to have lofty goals and another to have new age silliness that pretends to be profound the way that Bush pretends to have rhythm.

Trailer
A marketing tool as much for the 'insights' as for the movie. Straightforward trailer, no big deal. Strike that. I've seen it three times now and it gets worse. It's so mock-profound that it just gets funnier. "Have you ever experienced a coincidence that you cannot explain?" etc. It sounds like it's voiced by the Indian guy in Heroes (the one whose father was charting the emergence of the mutants). It's a good voice but one suspects he's front and centre because people equate Indian with mysticism. God, movies like this can really make one cynical.

summary

Taking coincidence, intuition and hunches and repacking them as a new religion does not a great movie make. My brain shuts down when I hear characters saying things like "You have to let go..." and "You must open up...". It's a cliché festival wrapped in faux gravitas. In doing some research (yes, we actually do a bit of that) I found out from Box Office Mojo that this movie's widest release was 19 theatres in the US. This explains its box office tally of significantly less than a million dollars. God knows how much it cost to make but someone out there had no faith in this picture, which is a blisteringly exquisite irony to end on.

The Celestine Prophecy

USA 2006
96 mins
director
Armand Mastroianni
starring
Matthew Settle
Thomas Kretschmann
Sarah Wayne Callies
Jürgen Prochnow

DVD details
region 2
video
1.78:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 stereo
Dolby 5.1 surround
DTS 5.1 surround
languages
English
subtitles .
none
extras
Making-of featurette
Trailer
distributor
Starz Entertainment
release date
7 May 2007
review posted
4 May 2007

See all of Camus's reviews