By Randy Heffner
Author’s note: This piece references Pioneer, a narrative short film by David Lowery. Readers wishing to avoid spoilers should first watch the film.
Gabriela’s uncle unknowingly told her the precise night and time she could arrive. Hers was a journey of seeing – her eyes and her camera, her transport.
Back at ten, working alongside mamá, she barely felt the pain of the knife. She was captivated by the deep red, and yet also its brightness, that came from her finger. “Es la vida,” mamá said, covering the flow with a kitchen rag. This thought, that life flows inside, hidden, ate into the simple peace of Gabriela’s young spirit. She once pricked her finger and let life flow uncovered, unrestrained. When later she learned the kinship between blood and birth, her disquiet turned to fixation, a driving compulsion to grasp the locale, the specific point, of life. And to go there.
Gabriela’s joy in uncle’s birthday call suddenly shifted. Time slowed as his words sunk in. “La luna de sangre,” he had said, “viene pronto.” (tr. The blood moon is coming soon.) In her search, she had looked to the stars, awed at their immensity, and wondered if life were also there, in the beyond. Now, like a flash in a storm, hearing that the blood in her finger runs as well in the moon lit a path for her. She must go and see. She will put this to film. The fragments will join. The circle will close. Life will be uncovered.
“When?” she asked. Knowing Gabriela lived to the west, uncle converted the time, adding two hours. Four in the morning was nothing to Gabriela, not for her arrival.
A burst of thunder and a storm open David Lowery’s narrative short, Pioneer – that, and a nightmare. The bed lamp flicks on, and a father takes his young son into a gentle embrace. What does the son request to soothe the nightmare? Not water, he wants a story. A favorite children’s book? No, the nightmare’s antidote is an epic story the father has told before . . . one of search, and rescue, and longing. And of the boy’s mother.
The tale Lowery spins is fantastical and detailed, and it drives to a specific and clear point. Artistically, this is dangerous ground to tread because “strict moralism has never produced great art” (Makoto Fujimura). Actually, Pioneer drills deeper than moral choice to the question of who we should be, yet Fujimura’s caution applies all the same – a caution not always heeded by filmmakers who are Christian.
Irrespective of Lowery’s own faith position, the film stands for me as a superior artifact of “Christian art” (not a fan of that phrase, but it’s expedient here). In its pointedly posed directive, “What you have to do is find out why you’re still alive,” hide questions such as: What gives purpose to human life? Is it an accident? If purpose is not inherent, how do we construct it? Must we have purpose? Can we reject the film’s directive, or do we implicitly answer it even if not explicitly? Some may regard this film as secular, since its questions are not Jesus-specific, but for me that’s a category error. Every artistic artifact tends toward a specific locale and direction (which observers’ personal milieus may modify or distort), and the direction it points is the more important of the two. A work embodies the heart of God when it gives life to questions that Jesus would value; ergo, Pioneer as Christian art.
Yet it’s not the pointedly posed directive that makes it a superior artifact. Too often are films made by Christians (not so) cleverly contrived merely to deliver a point. By contrast (and channeling Flannery O’Connor), with Pioneer, Lowery’s “moral sense [coincides] with his dramatic sense.” The directive doesn’t stand out; it’s an organic element of a rich, integrated whole. From that first embrace, we feel the tenderness and connection between father (Will Oldham) and son (Myles Brooks). When at its outset, the father’s story departs from reality, we almost don’t notice because the scene is profoundly natural and exquisitely acted by both. When we find ourselves in a time warp, we’re so tied to concrete details of danger and love and life and tragedy and goodness that we hang on every step, every question, every exchange between father and son.
The story is, in itself, intricate and engaging—and, simultaneously, more than a story. It builds a framework that embodies the antidote to life’s nightmares. Have dreams and build plans. Take the long journey, and eat your hardtack to get there. If it has worms, pick ’em out. When the powers that be push you into a fight, it’s worth the risk to run away in your own right direction. Though people can be very bad and horrible things happen, still love and life can rise from the ashes. If you’re sensitive enough, you can be comforted by the silent songs of a loved one’s spirit . . . even when they’re long dead. Through it all, seek. Though the four horsemen rape and pillage and steal, seek wide and long for lost things and for life and love. And the search ends with a gift, left on your doorstep; you need only open the door to receive it.
Wanting to be faithful guides, filmmakers who are Christian may aim to be sure we can’t miss the point. Story, dialog, and film craft take second place to message delivery. A work may draw more from the business school than the school of art. From its surface to its core, all may be in utilitarian service to the sales pitch. We mis-convert time zones, placing abundant life only in the future, (not so) subtly devaluing the gift of life now. We become poor guides.
When are we there as filmmakers who are Christian? Not when we craft a slicker but still utilitarian surface. We do so by digging to find God’s glory in the surface. O’Connor continued, noting that, “moral judgment [must be] part of the very act of seeing.” If it is, we needn’t – we won’t – craft a message. Instead we’ll seek to make the surface of the image we paint, the story we tell, whether as bright as the Resurrection or as dark as the Cross, beautiful in itself and in the raw details of this present life. To the degree that one’s eye is clear (Luke 11:34-36), the work will be inherently imbued with glory pointing toward its source. This is what Lowery has created with Pioneer and its superb filmcraft: a beautiful moment between father and son, infused at its depth with significance and truth and goodness and mystery that somehow guides and points to life and love writ large.
Gabriela left for the park promptly at 3:45 a.m. The clear field would offer a wide open view. As she drove, her heart raced at glimpses of the moon’s slight orange tinge through the tall trees. She thought maybe it was starting earlier than her uncle had said. As she switched off the motor, it seemed odd to her that two cars were just leaving. She ran out into the park, passing others walking away, and turned her camera toward the moon. It shone bright and clear and gray.
When not writing about business software design, Randy Heffner lives at the intersection of theology, philosophy, and culture – reading, watching, walking, and sometimes creating in search of the heart of God.