Trying To Become Something One Is Not
Attempting to be something that one is not is a perilous course in so many ways. It means fundamentally going against oneself, denying one’s true nature. The lack of authenticity and integrity in such scenarios is not only disillusioning, but it’s also potentially damaging, again, in countless ways. So it was for thousands of individuals who underwent a controversial treatment program as depicted in the gripping new documentary, “Pray Away” (web site, trailer, producers’ discussion, video clip).
The LGBTQ+ community has made remarkable strides over the past several decades. This once-disparaged constituency has come a long way thanks to legislation, court decisions and corporate initiatives that have led to broader legal protections and greater social acceptance.
But it wasn’t always that way; prejudice and discrimination were once rampant, and members of the community were often made to feel like second-class citizens. The oppression was so prevalent and intense, in fact, that it often led to individuals being disowned by their families, excommunicated by their religious organizations and fired by employers. Such measures wore heavily upon many of those affected, prompting them to detest themselves and their own sexuality. Some even went so far as to attempt or commit suicide. Many, however, chose another, seemingly less drastic path; they sought to rid themselves of what they saw as an unbearable scourge upon themselves, pursuing a controversial form of treatment known as “conversion” (or “reparative”) therapy, the subject of this documentary.
The idea behind this form of “treatment” was that one could use it to turn away from homosexual tendencies, leaving them behind to become full-fledged, card-carrying heterosexuals. Those who abhorred their feelings of same-sex attraction frequently saw this as a viable means to overcome drives and emotions that made them uncomfortable in their dealings with family, friends, co-workers and fellow religious congregants, not to mention with themselves. And, thanks to polished, compelling recruiting efforts, packaged with promises of happiness and an end to suffering, the proponents of this program successfully attracted many followers who sought to implement this fundamental change in their lives.
Conversion therapy got its start in the 1970s. One of its early proponents was Michael Bussee, a gay man distressed by what he believed were unnatural feelings. At the time, he saw that support groups were being established to help challenged individuals cope with a variety of conditions, such as alcoholism, drug addiction and domestic abuse. Bussee proposed that something similar could be launched for those experiencing the kind of anguish he was undergoing, and so he helped found a support group for would-be ex-gays through his church. Not long thereafter, he learned that similar groups were being established by Christian fellowships across the nation, and he proposed that they join forces. It was with that suggestion that a national umbrella organization known as Exodus was born in 1976.
Like the individual support groups that preceded it, Exodus was rooted in traditional Christian theology and principles. The conversion therapy program that subsequently emerged was designed to help would-be ex-gays identify how they developed their homosexual leanings, how they could overcome those feelings and how they could then move on to idealized heterosexual lives based on the nuclear family concept. Through a combination of counseling, group encounters and devout religious practice, it was believed that program participants could essentially “pray away” their supposedly errant views. The program sounded reasonably plausible to those who sought it out, especially when it received the scientific backing of professionals like clinical psychologist Joseph Nicolisi, whose support Exodus welcomed for the “legitimacy” it gave to their claims. There was just one problem with all this – it didn’t work. In fact, over time, in many cases, it actually ended up doing more harm than good.
Why didn’t it work? Basically it was an effort aimed at forcing individuals to become something they innately weren’t. To make matters worse, most of the program’s facilitators had no formal training in in psychology, counseling or human sexuality. Yet, because they had the apparent force of God behind them, they frequently came across as having all the answers, often with a heavy-handed attitude contending that they spoke for Jesus and that their “wisdom” was not to be questioned. Participants who had difficulty conforming were made to feel like failures, even shamed for the slightest “transgressions.”
Still, despite the fear and intimidation that frequently accompanied involvement in these programs, many individuals hoped they might somehow miraculously work and that their teachings would eventually enable better relations with those who ridiculed them. Indeed, the lure was strong enough to attract an estimated 700,000 participants to its ranks. Sadly, many participants were left worse off than before they started. This was particularly true for at-risk gay youth who were forced into treatment, often by their own families. According to statistics presented in the film, such individuals were twice as likely to attempt suicide as a consequence of their participation.
The film takes a close look this form of “therapy” over the years. It also follows the stories of a number of former participants, as well as one individual who is still actively involved. Director Kristine Stolakis details how and why these onetime advocates – known as “ex-ex-gays” –became engaged in this movement, what they did while active in it, what prompted them to leave and what they have done since then. In virtually every case, the film paints a picture of a woefully ineffective, if not outright dangerous, practice that has proved to be more harmful than beneficial.
The individual stories are perhaps the most gripping elements of the film. For instance, there’s the experience of John Paulk, an articulate, high-profile Exodus spokesperson who married a former lesbian and was hired to essentially be the organization’s poster child. He played the role for a number of years, often struggling against feelings he could not contain nor hide. When his wife, Anne, herself an ardent spokesperson for the cause, learned of this, she flatly asked him, “Why can’t you just obey?” Paulk eventually resigned after fleeing photographers as he exited a Washington, DC gay bar. He later said he had to figure himself out, because, if he didn’t, he would take his own life.
Other leaders in the movement experienced comparable issues. Yvette Cantu Schneider, for example, sought sanctuary through the ex-gay community after losing many friends in the early days of the AIDS crisis. What started out as a source of comfort turned into a dogmatic platform for her through her involvement in Exodus and as a policy analyst for the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian lobby. She eventually became a major proponent for the passage of California’s controversial Proposition 8 in 2008, a voter-approved initiative that strictly defined marriage as an institution between one man and one woman, a hedge aimed at slowing the momentum of the growing same-sex marriage movement. The passage of Prop 8 subsequently led to Cantu experiencing PTSD-like panic attacks, prompting her into counseling sessions with a psychologist and eventual resignation from the movement.
The rise of the ex-gay movement politically during the George W. Bush administration caused considerable anguish for other movement leaders, too. Like Cantu, Exodus Vice-president Randy Thomas campaigned for the passage of Proposition 8, an effort that left him overcome with guilt in its wake. He was troubled when he watched televised gay protests in the streets of San Francisco afterward, leading to soul-searching in which he tearfully had to ask himself, “How could you do that to your own people?”
That sense betrayal against one’s tribe also affected Julie Rodgers, who idealistically came out as a teen despite a strong, traditional Christian upbringing. It was a decision that did not sit well with her family. She was subsequently encouraged to seek loving support and protection from the influence of “those dangerous gays” she had been cautioned about in her youth. She joined Living Hope, an Exodus affiliate led by Pastor Ricky Chelette. As an organization that touted itself as having “the path to be good,” Rodgers found comfort in the organization, especially when Chelette groomed the charismatic advocate to be Living Hope’s “next big thing.” But, over time, her self-denial of her personal truth led her to start engaging in acts of self-mutilation and intentionally burning herself, especially when she realized that she was preaching a message that was psychologically and emotionally damaging others in the same way she was injuring herself. She, too, exited the movement when she understood the harm she was causing.
Despite the resignation of these onetime leaders, others continue to promote the conversion therapy movement’s agenda, such as Jeffrey McCall, founder of the Freedom March, a group committed to promoting and reinforcing the ex-gay message, especially to millennials. He claims it saved him from a life of sin that would someday prevent him from accessing the kingdom of heaven unless he changed his ways. He has managed to court a core of followers by taking his Christian message to the streets, even seeking the support of those officially unaffiliated with the ex-gay movement.
Over time, though, the ex-gay movement has seen much of its momentum dissipate, especially with the 2015 Supreme Court decision removing restrictions against same-sex marriage. But cracks in the movement were apparent long before that. Even Exodus co-founder Michael Bussee could see that as early as 1979, just three years after the organization’s founding, when he resigned because he could no longer abide by its core message. An even bigger blow came in 2013, when Exodus president Alan Chambers formally oversaw the dismantling of the organization. That decision came in the wake of an intense televised group encounter session, hosted by journalist Lisa Ling, that brought together conversion therapy survivors and leaders of the ex-gay movement, including Chambers. Survivors confronted their former peers and facilitators directly, gut-wrenchingly expressing the pain that conversion therapy caused them. It was the nail in the coffin for an organization that, in all good conscience, could not continue to carry on promoting ideas and a form of therapy that was fundamentally harmful.
While the tide appears to have turned where reparative therapy is concerned, this controversial treatment has wreaked considerable havoc and left a trail of destruction in its wake. The time for healing has indeed begun, and the work ahead is considerable. However, healing is possible, and new beginnings are attainable for those who endured this ordeal. To get there, though, survivors must understand the nature of their experience and why the proposed solution came up so short of expectations.
Conversion therapy’s failure to “work” can be attributed to a fundamental false assumption – that there was anything in need of “fixing” in the first place. Those who participated in the program, either voluntarily or by coercion, came to believe that their supposedly “sinful” behavior led them to be “damaged” in some way. And, ironically, through their participation in the program, damaged is exactly how they ended up, even if they weren’t that way when they started. Those individuals weren’t troubled by being gay; they were troubled by the ways others treated them for being gay, a state of mind they ultimately internalized and embraced, leading them to believe that they were inherently flawed and in need of help from those who claimed to know how to repair them.
These circumstances illustrate the power of beliefs, particularly when it comes to how they shape our existence. And, when it comes to this unfortunate scenario, countless unwitting participants fell prey to the claims of these peddlers of deception, who planted seeds of belief that sprouted in the mindsets of so many vulnerable individuals.
It’s sad that so many program participants were unable to see that there was nothing intrinsically wrong with them in the first place. But, by erroneously adopting beliefs to the contrary, they launched themselves into a sequence of events that only compounded their distress. Even though proponents of the treatment claimed to abide by the notion of “hate the sin, not the sinner,” their actions often contradicted that idea, laying the blame back on the “sinners” and causing them further pain and confusion through the embrace of faulty beliefs, constructs that took root and didn’t let go. Such persistence, which is often typical of beliefs in general, made the journeys of these individuals that much more difficult until they were able to come around and understand their personal truths in the first place. Until that happened, though, there was often considerable more anguish to be borne in the interim.
The bald-faced dishonesty involved in trying to convince participants of “the errors of their ways” was generally attributed to what appeared to be reasonable causes. Individuals were taught that they became gay because of various traumas that occurred in their youth – abuse, bullying, molestation, toxic parenting and so forth. And, even though many participants may have experienced such indignities, it’s unlikely that they were the cause of them becoming gay but were, in fact, the reactions of others toward them for being gay. Nevertheless, the arguments were made convincingly and routinely enough to persuade participants otherwise, and that persuasive repetition was enough to get them to capitulate to the dictates of program leaders.
As the experiences of Cantu and Rodgers point out, many who engaged in this undertaking were wounded souls who needed comfort, and they hoped they would find it through communities like Exodus and Living Hope. However, once involved, the hoped-for outcome didn’t pan out; in fact, it was just the opposite. The experience made them jaded, embittered and judgmental, albeit euphemistically, prompting them to turn against others who were fundamentally kindred spirits, not to mention themselves. Over time, the pain of embracing beliefs that went against themselves mounted, eventually becoming overwhelming and leading to side effects that ultimately pushed them over the edge to remove themselves from continued participation. The debilitating pain of physical effects – some deliberately self-inflicted – as well as the escalating emotional impact, were bad enough, but the activists’ subsequent resignation from the movement only made their circumstances worse when they realized that they also lost their community and support network, no matter how wrong-headed their ideology may have been.
Ironically, many survivors found hope through the embracing love of Christian congregations, fellowships of individuals who accepted them for who they were without judgment. Those lost souls finally redirected their beliefs to help them find what they were looking for in the first place. The genuine, heart-based feelings such involvement generated gave these recovering victims hope and sanctuaries for healing. This led to restored hope, faith and an awareness, at last, that they were fine as they were and in no need of being “fixed,” save for whatever damage they suffered through their experience with conversion therapy.
Those who still cling to the alleged virtues of this “treatment” view ex-ex-gays as pariahs, and they have gone on to establish new organizations, such as the Restored Hope Network, an outgrowth of Living Hope. But many of the survivors have gone on to become strong vocal opponents of reparative therapy, part of a growing and powerful support network for themselves and their peers. Those who were once leaders of this movement fully understand that they have blood on their hands for the tyranny of rationalization and denial they inflicted on their former followers, pain and anguish born out of the undeserved shame they were made to feel. These onetime advocates feel the crushing weight of the harm they caused, and they generally believe there’s no redemption for what they did in pushing an outright lie about how their followers could become whole and healthy by trying to be something they couldn’t possibly be. However, given the power of beliefs, there’s no telling what these former activists might be able to create for themselves. Perhaps the story of the Prodigal Son might give them some insight into what beliefs they should consider employing for themselves.
One of the most noble endeavors that documentary filmmaking can pursue is the exposure of reprehensible behavior. So it is in director Kristine Stolakis’s debut feature, a damning indictment of the practice of conversion therapy. The filmmaker holds little back in shining a bright light on this horrific and unenlightened way of looking at life. Watching this film should rightfully infuriate anyone – gay or straight – for the unspeakable emotional atrocities perpetrated by this movement, which is neither helpful nor effective nor even Christian. This offering premiered on the film festival circuit earlier this year and is now available for streaming on Netflix.
The challenges we face in life are often difficult enough in themselves that we don’t need to have them compounded by additional ancillary considerations. Regrettably, situations like this often arise when we’re unable or unwilling to accept ourselves for who we are, believing that we’re somehow inadequate or unworthy, especially in the eyes of others. But, as difficult as such scenarios can be, they can be made that much worse if we allow ourselves and our attention to be diverted in other directions that only complicate matters and try to push us to be who we’re fundamentally not. While the perils of conversion therapy are patently deplorable, we can only hope that those who endured it have provided others facing similar circumstances with the wisdom and insights necessary to take them down different paths – and to avoid the unspeakable suffering and torment that they underwent.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
Wrapping Up the Summer of Cinema
With summer winding down, we’re coming to the end of another movie season, but we’re not done yet! Find out what’s left in store on the next edition of The Good Media Network’s Frankiesense & More video podcast with yours truly and special guest host Danielle Findlay. Tune in Thursday August 26 at 1 pm ET on Facebook Live for a lively discussion of releases worth seeing in theaters or via streaming. And, if you don’t see the show live, catch it later on demand!
Exploring the Expansive Nature of Existence
Think you know what constitutes existence? Are you sure? A close look may reveal a picture far different from what we think we know, one that crosses dimensional lines and offers us infinite possibilities for exploration and experience – far more than we may have typically imagined and involving avenues for expression that are limited only by our imaginations. So it is for a group of souls seeking to find their way and to partake of the kaleidoscopic range of possibilities available to them in the thought-provoking new metaphysical drama, “Nine Days” (web site, trailer).
In the midst of a barren desert landscape sits a solitary, nondescript frame house, with virtually nothing else in sight as far as the eye can see. The sole resident of the structure, Will (Winston Duke), spends much of his time watching video footage of assorted individuals on television sets stacked atop one another, making observations, writing notes about what he sees and carefully placing his reports in a room overcrowded with file cabinets. And, when he’s not methodically engaged in these activities, he visits a remote junkyard, collecting an odd assortment of items that he takes back home.
So who is Will, and what is he doing in this strange and desolate location? As events unfold, it’s revealed that he’s a sort of other-dimensional case worker who interviews aspirants to fill incarnational vacancies that become available in the physical world. In other words, he evaluates the character and fitness of various disincarnate souls to determine if they would make worthy candidates to be born and given life as we know it. He conducts his inquiries from a locale that’s described as being similar to corporeal existence only not as defined or intense. And, because his would-be incarnates have no experience with what we think of as the real world, he believes he needs to be scrupulously thorough in assessing their suitability for earning a shot at life. In doing so, Will puts the candidates through their paces over the course of nine days, objectively and meticulously appraising their performance through a series of tests and hypothetical situations.
Those who are deemed worthy are chosen; those who are not are reconciled to oblivion. To many, this might seem like a highly judgmental process. But, considering what candidates will likely face once incarnated, only those thought to be suitable qualify.
So what makes Will qualified to do this kind of “work”? Having experienced physical life personally, he’s acquainted with what it takes to be born into corporeal existence. He’s aware of the rigors inherent in such an undertaking, and his track record has provided him with the qualifications for evaluating the capabilities of others seeking to follow suit. But, as becomes apparent, one might question Will’s aptitude for such a vocation. Having evidently endured a less-than-satisfying time during his physical incarnation, Will seems somewhat sour on the idea of terrestrial existence, though he tends to keep mum on the particulars behind this. So, as he goes about his work, he generally approaches it with a stoic, unemotional attitude, in many ways mirroring the less defined, less intense nature of the dimension in which he dwells.
With the death of one of the souls that Will selected for being born, he’s left with a vacancy to fill. He begins the assessment process, evaluating the merits of a pool of candidates, including Mike (David Rysdahl), an eager, childlike but neurotic soul with low self-esteem and a wealth of uncertainty about what he may be embarking upon; Alexander (Tony Hale), a jocular, playful sort who doesn’t always seem to take the process seriously but is anxious to experience life’s simple joys; Maria (Arianna Ortiz), a hopeful but sometimes-desperate candidate who often comes across as a somewhat overzealous people pleaser; and Kane (Bill Skarsgård), a pragmatic but selfish, often-cold operator with razor-sharp insights backed by a pessimistic, calculating demeanor and a firm belief in survival of the fittest.
And then there’s Emma (Zazie Beetz), a free spirit who adheres to her own rules, including showing up according to her own timetable and processing assignments in unconventional ways, frequently confounding her interviewer. Will often tries to “correct” her, but she’ll have none of it, taking matters into her own hands and doing things her own way, whether or not he approves. Despite his skepticism and disapproval, though, Will is quietly captivated by Emma, his frustration with her attitude notwithstanding. But there’s also something about her that gets under his skin, and, as becomes apparent, it has more to do with his view of himself than with her.
As the evaluation process unfolds, Will also finds himself engaging in some often-painful introspection regarding the death of Amanda (Lisa Starrett), his selection who passed away and left him with the vacancy he’s now seeking to fill. He wonders what went wrong, blaming himself for failing at a task that was, for all practical purposes, out of his hands. He meets with a fellow interviewer, Colleen (Geraldine Hughes), who tries to assuage his guilt, but even that does little to lift his spirits and change his outlook.
Through all of this, Will is frequently accompanied by Kyo (Benedict Wong), a soul who has never incarnated. Kyo fulfills multiple roles, including confidante, sounding board, devil’s advocate and de facto mentor, not to mention a companion for his late night junkyard visits. This light-hearted, jovial sidekick impishly provides insights that Will never considered, and, ironically, he seems to know a lot about life for someone who has never experienced it firsthand. He also unwittingly plays a pivotal role in the unfolding of the evaluation process, especially where Emma is concerned, a kindred spirit who shares many of his perspectives.
As the nine days pass, Will and the candidates go through an intense array of experiences, emotions and interactions. But, as the deadline nears, it becomes increasingly unclear exactly what will result and who will get picked. One thing is for sure, though: the story becomes a metaphysical tango in which evaluator and the evaluated end up becoming mirrors for one another, unwittingly switching roles in teaching and learning life lessons, regardless of which reality those instructions may ultimately be applied to. It seems there are always things to be learned, no matter what dimension we may occupy, as the characters in this enlightening saga discover for themselves.
If one were to ask most people about their views of what constitutes existence, many of them would probably offer explanations that they believe to be well-defined and clear-cut in nature. However, they would also likely provide accounts that are comparatively limited in scope, falling far short of what’s presented in films like this. In doing so, they unwittingly embrace an outlook that only scratches the surface of what comprises reality, cutting themselves off from the expansive nature of existence in all its permutations.
So how does one expand his or her view to bring it up to a level more in line with what more adequately approximates this wider outlook on existence? It has to do with a shift in beliefs, particularly those that make allowances for an enlarged perspective. And that’s something essential to understanding what the characters are experiencing in “Nine Days.”
As the disincarnate souls seek their chance at experiencing physical existence, they learn about its nature and how they might fit into it, based on the beliefs they hold. It’s all new to them, a blank canvas on which they can choose whatever they wish to live through, and Will’s inquiries are an attempt to find out what they would do with the opportunity. In this other-dimensional space, they come to learn about a potential journey onto a foreign plane of existence, one that’s different from anything they’ve experienced before. That, in itself, is a broader view of reality that they – and probably many of us – have never previously considered, as becomes apparent in their reactions to what their upcoming odyssey might be like.
Imagine the sense of wonder to come out of a realization such as this. And imagine if we were open-minded enough to do the same. Think of the unexplored possibilities and what we might be able to do with them. On top of that, there are additional possibilities for personal growth and development within a particular dimension, such as the aforementioned instances of mirror imagery and role switching. These episodes provide even more opportunities for personal enrichment.
But, as the film further reveals, what if there were even more to existence than just physical reality and this other-dimensional plane? Consider what that would mean for our view of existence. Think of what it would also do for individuals like Will, who would now have the potential to discover possibilities for being that transcend even their already-expanded view. Moreover, as Kyo speculates in one scene, what if Will’s surveillance of those whom he’s selected to physically incarnate is only one link in a potentially endless chain of dimensional observation, one in which someone is watching him from another plane of existence, who, in turn, is being watched by someone else, who, in turn, is being watched by yet someone else, and so on into infinity? Such a scenario would suggest an infinitely rich, multi-layered paradigm that goes far beyond anything the characters in the film – and, again, many of us – have ever considered. (It’s ironic that this possibility is suggested by Kyo, someone who has never before experienced physical life firsthand; for someone whose soul experience is seemingly so restricted, he appears to know much about a subject that extends far beyond what he has personally gone through.)
Through all of this, though, what’s most important is what we believe about the nature of existence, especially when it comes to defining our individual selves. Each of the aspirants, for example, has his or her own view of what they would like to make of their opportunity to physically incarnate. It defines both what they wish to experience and who they are as individuals. And, in this story, that also applies to those who reside in the other-worldly dimension, namely, Will and Kyo, for their beliefs shape their existence, even if it unfolds on a plane different from ours.
As we undergo these experiences, it’s important to remember that we’re the ones in the driver’s seat, that our beliefs determine what materializes. In that regard, then, we need to be cognizant of the possible impact of the beliefs of others upon us. For instance, as Emma so clearly demonstrates, she employs her beliefs to manifest what she wants, despite Will’s attempts at “correction.” Likewise, as Will seeks to impose his beliefs on others, he runs the risk of creating undue judgment, a powerful force that can easily boomerang on him as others seek to deflect it and send it back to its source. And, in any materialization scenario, depending on the beliefs employed, if we’re not careful, we run the risk of letting ill-defined beliefs creep into the manifestation mix, producing camouflage that obscures the clarity of what we’re seeking to create. These scenarios all have the potential to make their presence felt in any of these dimensions, too, creating conundrums for their creators, no matter where these materializations appear.
Regardless of what arises, we should always remember that we’re not stuck with what create. While beliefs may be extremely powerful and persistent, they’re also exceedingly malleable, capable of being reshaped and refined in ways that enable us to manifest what we desire, no matter what plane of existence we may find ourselves on. With that in mind, there’s no telling what we may be able to yield. The possibilities are endless, not unlike the dimensions of reality at our disposal and available for exploration and experience.
Adequately expressing the expansive nature of existence in all its various permutations is far from an easy feat in any artistic milieu. But director Edson Oda has done a more than commendable job in his debut feature, a nuanced metaphysical drama that captivates throughout. While the narrative is occasionally a little too elusive for its own good, all is gradually and eventually revealed, making for an exceedingly thought-provoking cinematic and philosophical experience. The picture’s minimalist but inventive production design, innovative editing and fine performances (particularly that of protagonist Winston Duke, who reveals acting chops most viewers probably never realized he possessed) combine for an intriguing and insightful tale, one that will have audience members talking about at length afterward. This little-known indie gem, strongly influenced by such offerings as “Wings of Desire” (1987), “After Life” (1998) and “The Tree of Life” (2011), is a must-see for those who appreciate cinema that’s both entertaining and enlightening and who like to leave the theater with something to ponder long after the flickering on the screen stops.
The long-delayed release of this offering due to the COVID pandemic may have been frustrating for cinephiles, but it was nevertheless worth the wait. Despite the postponement, the picture still managed to garner attention during the 2020 movie awards season, capturing two Independent Spirit Award nominations for best first feature and for Benedict Wong’s fine supporting actor performance. “Nine Days” is currently playing in limited theatrical release, primarily in moviehouses specializing in independent and arthouse films.
They say there’s more to life than we can possibly know, and, in our current frame of mind, that argument rings true for many of us. However, if we were to open our minds by expanding our range of beliefs, we could provide ourselves with an opportunity to see what else is out there and to realize that our existence is far more magical and magnificent than we ever envisioned. We could access an infinite range of means to discover ourselves and our capabilities, enabling the revelation of previously unknown talents and the ability to rectify shortcomings and past misgivings. This brave new way of looking at life has the power to drastically reshape our existence and, along with it, us.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
Surveying the Palette of Beliefs
Art is one of the unique aspects of our existence that distinguish us as singularly human. It inspires us in myriad ways and helps give our lives meaning. In fact, it occupies such an esteemed place of importance in our reality that we often go to great lengths to ensure that its significance and value are sufficiently respected and venerated. But, when questions of legitimacy enter the picture, this process can turn dark, mysterious and even nasty, despite whatever good intentions and notoriety may be associated with it. Such was the case with establishing the authenticity of a high-profile, unexpected artistic find as explored in the engaging and entertaining new documentary, “The Lost Leonardo” (web site, trailer).
Who would have thought that a painting could be capable of thoroughly captivating public attention? Nevertheless, such was the case with a work believed to be attributable to artist Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), the Italian Renaissance master considered by many to be the greatest painter of all time. And the story associated with this surprising find was itself a spellbinding tale, a mystery capable of challenging even the most astute sleuths.
The painting in question was da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi (Saviour of the World), a portrait of Jesus believed lost to time. Given the relative rarity of surviving works attributed to da Vinci, any painting believed created by the master has become a magnet for attention virtually by default. And, because no new finds have been made in ages, this unexpected discovery followed suit, especially since it is likely to be the last of its kind.
In 2005, art dealer Robert Simon and “sleeper hunter” Alexander Parish purchased the painting at an auction in New Orleans for $1,175. The mysterious portrait was in need of some restoration work, but suspicions were strong that there might be something of importance behind this find. But how legitimate were the claims?
Restoration work began shortly thereafter, with the task falling to art conservation professional Dianne Modestini. As she painstakingly undertook this daunting project, she grew ever more convinced that the attribution to da Vinci was legitimate. However, the more she worked on the portrait, the more restoration was required. At this point, the question began to be raised, “Was this a da Vinci or a Modestini?”
In the years that followed, the painting came up for considerable debate. Its legitimacy was hotly questioned by art critics, dealers, museums, auction houses and would-be buyers. Some were convinced it was authentic, while others said it a copy of a lost original. Others still believed it was a creation that came out of da Vinci’s studio, with work done by apprentices under the master’s supervision. Skeptics contended that, due to Modestini’s extensive touch-up work, verifying the picture’s authenticity was virtually impossible. And then there were those who vehemently claimed that it was an outright fake.
Nonetheless, despite this lack of consensus, interest in the Salvator Mundi remained strong, and it became the subject of a remarkable odyssey. It appeared in a 2011 blockbuster da Vinci exhibition at London’s National Gallery. It spent some time locked up in a freeport vault. And then it went through a series of attempted and completed sales. The Dallas Museum of Art sought to acquire the painting but was unable to raise sufficient funds. Next it was sold in a brokered private sale to Swiss businessman Yves Bouvier, who, in turn, sold it to Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev for a handsome profit, an exchange that led to high-priced ongoing litigation. But perhaps the most significant development in this chain of events was the 2017 sale of the portrait by Christie’s in New York, fetching a whopping $450 million, the highest price ever paid for a painting at auction. The buyer was officially listed as Saudi Arabian Prince Badr bin Abdullah, believed to be an intermediary for controversial Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
So where is the painting now? That’s unclear. A planned exhibition at the Louvre Abu Dhabi was indefinitely postponed in 2018. The painting’s inclusion at a 2019 da Vinci exhibition at the Louvre Paris also failed to materialize. These cancellations have thus raised questions about the portrait’s whereabouts and its security. Some reports have speculated it is in storage in Switzerland, while others have contended it’s aboard bin Salman’s luxury yacht in the Red Sea. Still other reports claim that the painting’s debut is pending, awaiting completion of the Al-’Ula cultural center in western Saudi Arabia.
In the course of its incredible journey, the painting has been at the center of mystery, intrigue and controversy, as well as an array of related ancillary considerations. It’s curious to see how a portrait of a religious figure has become tied up with such concerns as money, politics, litigation and personal credibility, as well as the integrity of the art world. It’s also ironic to see a painting of a Christian icon now in the ownership of Muslim royalty. It will be intriguing to see where events go from here, but, no matter what happens, they’re almost assuredly to be affected by considerations beyond the tangible – just as they have been all along, regardless of how apparent or unclear that may have been.
Those who embrace the notion of a Higher Power place their faith in that idea, often with all their heart. They unquestioningly believe in said being, phenomenon and/or concept for varying reasons. For some, it provides comfort. For others, it gives them some kind of context or a frame of existential reference into which they can place themselves. And, for others still, it affirms a sense of being, a kind of confirmation of oneself.
In all of these instances, that faith in a Higher Power relates to matters of a spiritual or metaphysical nature. However, not all notions of a Higher Power are restricted to these contexts. They can also apply to particular areas of life, imbuing them with an equivalent meaning and degree of power and importance. For sports fans, for example, one could look upon storied coaches as icons of their vocation. Likewise, car enthusiasts may view high-end automobiles as pinnacles of technology and craftsmanship to be admired and emulated. And, in the art world, the same could be said of great masters and their revered works.
Which is what brings us to da Vinci. To many, he’s an icon beyond compare, and the limited number of his surviving paintings makes their value – both artistically and monetarily – that much more compelling. So, naturally, when a suspected new find by the artist suddenly appears, interest in the work soars. And, for those who idolize da Vinci for who he is and what he created, there’s a hunger to want to verify the authenticity of a new piece, to find out if it can legitimately be added to a family of masterpieces that has achieved legendary status and whose very existence can be canonized, elevating it to the level of artistic sainthood. One could argue that such validation becomes even more significant when the subject matter of the work in question represents an esteemed religious figure like Jesus, one who not only personifies a spiritual apex, but whose depiction metaphorically symbolizes a comparably lauded embodiment in a secular milieu. So it is for Salvator Mundi.
However, for all of those who want – indeed, need – the painting to attain such veneration, there are those who have different agendas. Hard-core skeptics, for instance, demand concrete proof of authenticity before they’ll accept definitive attribution. Similarly, devil’s advocates are willing to play both sides of the fence and weigh the evidence before coming to a conclusion. Then there are the artistic agnostics, who are committed to remaining ever doubtful. And, in each of those cases, the respective proponents are firmly rooted in their convictions, believing what they know and feel in their hearts.
This, of course, raises the question, who’s right? Strange as it may seem, though, the answer is all of them.
And why is that? It comes down to a matter of beliefs, for they form the foundation of the faith we each place in our convictions. Beliefs are also significant in that they shape the nature of our existence and what we experience. That includes the various components of our existence and what we each need them to be and/or represent. In the case of the painting, it’s an icon for those who need it to be one. For the diehard skeptics who assume it has it be a fake, it’s a fake. And so it goes for those who need it to take on other attributes and meaning.
In that vein, the painting thus serves as a metaphysical metaphor. While its physical qualities may be virtually identical for all concerned, the portrait’s nature and character vary from individual to individual. Each of those embodiments is equally valid, for they legitimately take their “forms” in the minds of those who’ve created them. It may seem paradoxical that “one” item can stand for so many different viewpoints, yet that’s what each proponent has manifested based on his or her individual beliefs, and they’re each “right” in their regard, no matter how implausible that may seem.
Understanding this is important not only for grasping the meaning of the painting, but also because of the example it provides in enlightening us to the nature of how the totality of our reality unfolds in all of its particular components. If one can grasp the idea behind this example, one should be able to appreciate how it applies to everything we create and all that we encounter in our respective realities. It thus sheds light on a fundamental principle of how existence operates. It’s also intriguing that it has taken a portrait of Jesus to enlighten us to this, but, then, that’s another set of beliefs entirely.
The fact that the painting has been part of such a remarkable odyssey suggests that its journey has involved more than just making the world aware of a brilliant piece of art. It’s almost as if it has been involved in helping to spread the word of these principles to a world in need of hearing them. Whether or not the message has gotten through is a different matter, but, if nothing else, it represents an undertaking to get these ideas out to those eager and hungry for answers. This film furthers that cause by telling a captivating mystery tale, one that, hopefully, attracts sufficient attention. Indeed, we can only hope that, in the end, the underlying message doesn’t become lost – or fall on deaf ears.
Traversing the landscape of mystery and intrigue associated with this painting no doubt had to be a confounding experience, yet director Andreas Koefoed has pulled off quite a feat of sleuthing and filmmaking in creating this captivating offering. The carefully crafted screenplay tells its story clearly and concisely, but it does so by showing its hand sparingly, preserving the sense of playful inscrutability as the narrative unfolds. The panel of experts assembled for the film presents viewers with an array of insights, from the devoutly reverent to the unabashedly incredulous, all the while spinning a yarn filled with financial and geopolitical gamesmanship, art world skullduggery, and even hints of tongue-in-cheek whimsy. The film has been playing in limited theatrical release, with wider distribution forthcoming.
In an age when it’s become increasingly difficult to tell the difference between what’s true and what’s not, the discovery of an alleged missing masterpiece takes on new relevance, in many ways coming to serve as a prime example of this baffling conundrum. And, because of that, when “facts” fail us, all we have left to fall back on is our beliefs. But, as this documentary so poetically illustrates, they’re arguably more important in light of the role they play in shaping our reality. It’s a message that we need to embrace at a time when we need something to help ground us, as well to uplift us, especially given the subject matter of the painting. Perhaps we each need to find our own Salvator Mundi, and the ideal place to start is within us, searching our beliefs to find ourselves, our reality and our own source of salvation.
A complete review is available by clicking here.
Copyright © 2021, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.