' ' Cinema Romantico: The Gospel of Eureka

Thursday, December 05, 2019

The Gospel of Eureka

“The Gospel of Eureka” is narrated by Justin Vivian Bond, the transgender, trans-genre artist briefly featured in last year’s “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”, in an enticing kind of rasp which, given the documentary’s rural Eureka Springs setting, nestled in the Ozark Mountains of Northwest Arkansas, made me imagine a drag queen on a front porch, or perhaps around a campfire, giving a history lesson as if it was a ghost story. Indeed, despite finding themselves firmly inside the Bible Belt, directors Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri are not exaggerating stereotypes, a la the scourge of post-2016 small town profiles, but challenging them. And they challenged them not by digging deeper but rather, simply, opening their eyes wider to find something apart from Both Sides, that truism inherently dictating not both so much as mine and yours, never mind No Sides, a no borders-ish dreamland. What they find is a mutual kind of compassion, born of a town history that is not ignored nor held up as incontrovertible but informing the place’s gradual forward movement.

That history is encapsulated in the 65 foot high sculpture Christ of the Ozarks, looming over the town, a monument, as Bond explains, conceived of by Gerald L.K. Smith, none other than the America First Party founder who retired to Eureka Springs after preaching fire and brimstone where he also dreamed up the Passion Play that runs several nights a week six months a year. There is rich irony, I suppose, not just in a confirmed bigot wanting to honor the ultimate humanitarian but in one who holed up in a town that eventually became so diverse. “The Gospel of Eureka”, though, shows no interest in documenting just how Eureka came to run on this parallel track, simply accepting the town as it now is, evoked in the Ozark Christ itself, which is turned away from Smith, as Bond notes, and toward Eureka Springs, its arms open, looking forward, not backward.

The Christ of the Ozarks, however, proves no less crucial to the fabric of Eureka than the middle-aged, long-married gay couple Walter Burrell and Gregory Lee Keating, devout Christians who check up on the town’s beloved brutalist statue after it suffers damage during a storm. They also own Eureka Live, lovingly described as a kind of Hillbilly Studio 54, a dance bar where drag queens perform amidst the kind of clientele, glimpsed on the periphery, that would not look out of place at any small-town dive or roadhouse joint. This club emerges as a kind of spiritual sister to Eureka’s Passion Play, an idea which “The Gospel of Eureka” brings to life over its second half.

Drag and the Passion of Jesus Christ sound like obvious contrasts. Mosher and Palmieri, however, are not interested in their opposites, refreshingly, but in transforming these opposing events into a visual and auditory collage, blending and blurring them, cutting between backstage preparations of both, so that the red dye functioning as the blood of Christ becomes interchangeable with the makeup applied by drag queens and a drag queen miming Maren Morris’s “My Church” becomes indistinguishable with a Passion Play sing-along to “Peace in the Valley.” And as the Passion Play winds up with, of course, the Resurrection, “The Gospel of Eureka” connects it to a genuinely sad death of one of Eureka’s own, as well as a vote on a non-discrimination ordinance, the latter becoming a virtual resurrection itself.

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