Past the Popcorn: Waterland Home Video Feature

Henry Poole is Here
Commentary by Greg Wright

For while we were still helpless, at the appointed moment, Christ died for the ungodly.

That’s a quote from the Bible. Is that offensive? Is my invocation of Scripture and Christ backward and unenlightened? Is the concept of “the ungodly” not only passé but bigoted?

How about the very notion of “the appointed moment”? Isn’t that something relegated to fairy tales and wishful thinking? Isn’t the idea that everything–and I mean everything–happens for a reason one for which there is no rational defense? After all, if God meant for you to meet your future spouse at a particular place and time, then he must also have meant for that sheet of plywood to come flying out of that pickup truck bed and slash through your niece’s windshield, killing her instantly. Right? You can’t cherry-pick Providence.

Let’s face it. A purposeful Universe can be terribly inconvenient, brutal, and hard to explain.

But here’s the deal. Everything in my experience points to that conclusion. And you, dear reader, should above anyone else agree with me.

Why? Because you like movies.

henry-poole-is-here-insetFollow along with me, and I’ll explain, starting first with my conclusion, then working backward toward your fascination with film, and wrapping up with some thoughts on Henry Poole is Here. Because that’s what got me thinking about all of this.

So this is my conclusion: 9/11 was not meaningless. That ISIS beheaded a certain 12 people last week instead of a different 12 is not random or without purpose. It’s not entirely incidental that the Patriots won Super Bowl XLIX rather than the Seahawks. It matters than I ran into Lorraine Drake at Bartell, or Karen Evans, rather than Scott Schaefer or Mike Brunk. There simply are no accidents.

I have not come to this conclusion lightly, or without trepidation. After all, if absolutely everything has a point, then every word I speak or write should be carefully considered. My slightest action could promulgate a butterfly-effect disaster–or love fest–on the other side of the world.

The notion also potentially makes me the victim of every whim of every friend, neighbor, and stranger… let alone those who would intend to harm me, or the proclivity of the Earth to belch forth lava or wipe out 200,000 people at a time with tsunamis. It begs me to account for Hurricane Katrina, Nazi Germany, and chlorine gas.

And it’s hard enough to say these things can be construed to have a positive purpose. It’s harder yet to say, “Yes–and there’s a God who not only lets these things happen, but has a plan that incorporates all of them.” But try denying that everything which has happened previously has conspired to bring us, quite exactly, to where we are today. And if any good comes of that, then the “bad” which preceded it was not only sufficient but necessary. Chesterton was on to something when he said that the things we call “bad” are simply good things that are not good enough to satisfy us. We just don’t have the luxury of seeing the Big Picture, what filmmakers call “the God shot.”

But I’ve certainly seen the difficult truth of this global, “macro” paradox work itself out on the “micro” level in my own life. I was bullied for years as a child, and was addicted to pornography by the time I was 12 years old. As a coping mechanism for my exceedingly ungodly struggles, I developed an alternate persona that I didn’t even discover existed until I was 36. But all of that played together to make me the ideal mate for my equally flawed and troubled wife. Further, we wouldn’t trade the last dozen years of Jenn’s chronic, life-threatening illness for anything because through that suffering–not in spite of it–we have learned the greatest spiritual truths of our lives.

Would it be nice if things had played out differently, at least at certain points? Perhaps. But I really don’t know what the full implications of those theoretically minor changes might be. All I really can be certain of is my limited perception of where I happen to be in the current arc of my story.

I still struggle, and in ungodly ways if no longer with pornography. And it’s hard to accept that I am not the author of my own story, much less its hero.

Certain movies like The Truman Show and Stranger Than Fiction have explored these ideas in some limited fashion. The first time I personally ran up against it in art was my first time reading through The Lord of the Rings. When I reached the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, I went right into the abyss with Gandalf and the Balrog. How could Tolkien have killed off Gandalf? What was the point of reading any further? I literally threw the book down in disgust.

But I knew… I knew there were still hundreds of pages left to read, and that there were, in fact, two full books remaining in the trilogy. Tolkien had a reason. There was more to the story, and I had to find out what that was. I picked the book back up, and I was not disappointed.

When I discovered films like Sorcerer and Apocalpyse Now!–directors like Friedkin, Coppola, Carroll Ballard, Cimino, Peter Hyams, even Woody Allen–I realized that I had a thirst for art that made sense out of the Universe… that I almost literally craved an artform which, by definition and conception, demonstrated that everything–literally everything–mattered.

And this is where you come in. I think you have that craving, too. And that you have it, rooted deep down, whether you profess that everything has purpose and meaning, or whether you rebel against the notion with every fiber of your intellect, “kicking at the goads,” if you will. Because even the most ardent atheists I know love films–and not the films of avante-garde artistes which reflect in method and theme a random, purposeless view of the cosmos (and those do exist) but exquisitely crafted, purposeful films like Fury Road, Lawrence of Arabia, Apocalypse Now!, Platoon, or Rob Roy.

Or, perhaps, Henry Poole Is Here, which elevates the dialogue to a whole new level because it not only exhibits this exquisite level of craft, but because, thematically, it is explicitly about purpose, meaning, and even faith.

At every level imaginable, Henry Poole lives a frustrated life. He is getting nothing he wants, having to settle for second, third, or last-best in every area of his life. Shortly after he moves into his new home, in which it would be generous to say he lives, his neighbor Esperanza believes she has found the face of Christ manifest in a rust stain on Henry’s exterior wall. When the stain appears to bleed, and miracles appear to happen for those who believe, Esperanza wants to call in the Catholic Church to officially enshrine Henry’s wall. Henry wants nothing of the kind. He just wants to be left alone.

Or does he?

That’s the narrative tension which provides the backbone of this film, a thoughtful, funny, and entertaining exploration of philosophy in which every character name, every line of dialogue, every soundtrack choice, every shot composition and POV has bearing on the film’s direction and meaning.

Now, here’s the really odd thing.

When this film was originally released in 2008, Jenn and I were editing two film-review sites, Hollywood Jesus and Past the Popcorn. Between the two sites, we had a staff of some 25 or 30 reviewers. On the day Henry Poole was released, we published 15 or so different reviews–and two of them were for Henry Poole. My own personal assignment that week was an interview with director Gil Cates, Jr., who had just released his small film Deal direct to home video. So I didn’t see Henry Poole at that time. Then it disappeared from theaters so fast I didn’t see it at all.

When it came out on home video, I was sent an unsolicited screener. Because it wasn’t on my editorial calendar, and because we’d already covered it for both PtP and HJ, I simply filed the screener and didn’t give it a second thought.

Over the years I would periodically leaf through my screener library and think, “I’m gonna have to watch that someday.” But someday never came.

Yet a couple Sundays ago, Jenn and I failed to get to church because of yet another emotional/relational/medical complication. We were just exhausted that morning and rose late, missing departure time for worship. When I suggested watching a movie instead (which I never do on a Sunday morning), Jenn replied, “Sure. Why don’t we watch something with spiritual significance? Something that sort of embodies what we were doing with Hollywood Jesus–pop culture with a spiritual point of view?”

So I leafed through my screener library and once again ran across Henry Poole is Here. And I said, “I think I have just the movie for today.”

We weren’t even through the credits before it was evident that Poole was not just spiritually-minded–it was spiritually-saturated. It couldn’t have been more precisely tailored for what Jenn and I needed that spiritually-impoverished morning.

And again, the dilemma that Henry Poole confronts is: What are you going to do when it appears that Jesus is crying tears of blood on your wall? And there is a moment of decision in the film where Henry literally reaches out to Jesus. Will he accept the invitation and put his finger in the wound, figuratively speaking, or will he turn away?

And could you believe it?

Just at that precise moment, just as the singer on the soundtrack pronounced the word “Joy”–the DVD player froze. There was Henry on our big screen, caught in this eternal moment of decision, caught hanging forever between joy and the void. And no amount of pausing, or playing, was going to fix it. There was no button to push to get Henry out of his predicament, to prompt Henry toward one decision or the other. If there were any one second out of the 7000 during that film you’d call the crux, this was it. And the DVD player froze.

Jenn and I just stared at each other in astonishment.

Was the DVD defective? Would we be able to find out how Henry’s story ended? Did it matter? Was it simply more significant that the moment of crisis came at all? Was it sufficient to know that the filmmaker had a purpose for Henry, whether we knew it or not?

Well, my curiosity got the better of me. After all, could I have lived without finishing The Lord of the Rings? I pulled the power on the DVD player, plugged it back in, and restarted the movie. I then jumped to the closing credits just to confirm that the DVD actually had more scenes on it.

Then I cut back to the scene where the DVD stalled. Would it get stuck there again? Would we be able to finish the movie?

As hard as I tried, I couldn’t get the DVD player to freeze again. There is absolutely no technical reason for that DVD to have gotten stuck where it did when it did.

How could something so absolutely random happen with such precise timing, stretching out over a series of events eight years long, culminating in a particular, very specific instant?

From my point of view, this was not random. Henry Poole and his moment of decision had been sent to Jenn and I at just the right time–at a very specific, appointed time.

I believe that everything happens for a reason. And for me, Henry Poole is not just here. It’s a miracle.

Henry Poole is Here is available to stream via Xfinity on Demand.

Watch tonight, and don’t forget to dine local first!

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