Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Object: Urim and Thummim (2007)

This was an interesting documentary that played at the Silent Theater a couple of weeks ago. Basically, it's the story of Todd Walker, a down-on-his-luck Kentuckian who strolled into a Goodwill one day, bought an odd-looking object that struck his eye for $0.69, went home, stared at it for a few hours (like you do) and realized that he was having visions of demons and pyramids and whatnot. A little research later, and Mr. Walker is convinced that he's the new owner of the Urim and Thummim, Biblical artifacts associated with wisdom and divination (and which the Mormon church also claims were used by Joseph Smith to write the Book of Mormon).

In the film Walker proceeds to explain how he's shown the object to various friends and local acquaintances and that several of them have experienced visions as well, and he proceeds to bring the item to a number of local scientists and religious scholars, even though he's aware that the whole idea makes him sound like a lunatic.

The strongest sense that you get from watching The Object is that Todd Walker is utterly sincere: he believes that he's in possession of a holy relic, no doubt about it. The odd thing is, now that Walker is in possession of this item, he doesn't really seem to know what to do with it. One would expect someone experiencing visions to have some kind of goal or endgame in mind - after all, that's what happened with Moses, St. Paul, Constantine, Mohammed, Joseph Smith, and Mary Baker Eddy: have a vision, found a movement, instigate social or political change. But Todd Walker seems baffled by his own visions, uncertain of anything beyond their basic existence. (Which suggests to me that you need to have two things if you want to start a religion: visions from on high, and a goal-oriented Type A personality - who knows how many messages from God have foundered because their recipients were befuddled by them?)

As for the object itself, which basically looks like a sort of squashed incense burner, it's just old and mysterious-looking enough that I can see why one might jump to conclusions about it, even though it doesn't seem to fit the requirements to be the Biblical Urim and Thummim (it's just one item, for starters, not two). Walker keeps it in a bag near him at all times, apparently, and a showing was arranged for after the Silent Theater's screening but I didn't go to take a look at it - there didn't seem to be much need, especially after Walker and his friends insisted that most visions didn't come until hours of peering into its depths.

As a story, The Object is fascinating. As a film, it made me wonder what Werner Herzog or (even better) Errol Morris could have done with the subject matter. Co-director Jacob Young said he has a motto for his filmmaking: "Make a friend, then make a film." That sounds like good advice for getting through life as a filmmaker in a smooth, uncontroversial manner, but it also sounds like a good way to make films that never investigate deeply - I imagine Errol Morris, with his detached, Interrotron-eye view of the world, doesn't make a lot of friends with his subjects, but he has made a handful of masterpieces. Either way, I applaud the filmmakers of The Object for bringing this unusual, very American story to light, and with a refusal to mock or condescend to their subject.

7/10