NO DOUBT: THE BELIEVER’S HEAVEN
By RJ Smith
Reading time 10 Minutes
It was a blazing hot July day in 2016, when Noah’s Ark finally launched
It was a blazing hot July day in 2016, when Noah’s Ark finally launched. That is, the Ark Encounter, as the attraction in Williamstown, Kentucky, is officially called. I was there for the project’s unveiling, notebook out, reporting on the grand opening of this $100 million tourist magnet.
It was – and is – meant to be an accurate depiction of the Biblical story of the ark, which is why you find dinosaurs on board alongside cows and chickens. Because as the Bible tells it, the earth is only 6,000 years old, meaning there were T-rexes laying down with lambs in the not-so-olden times.
The Ark is huge – more than 120,000 square feet, billing itself as the “largest timber structure in the world.” Visitors from around the world were present at its unveiling three years ago.
Can I tell you something? The Ark was – and is – a little underwhelming. At the end of your trip there, you never think you’ve left Kentucky behind. Which is a weird thing to say about such a giant non sequitur, parked in a lot not far from the freeway. Compare the big-budget self-regard of Ark Encounter with what Estus Pirkle managed in The Believer’s Heaven, and you’ll see all that Kentucky missed out on. The Believer’s Heaven is a movie that was certainly made for less than the price of the Ark’s kickstand, and it is a far more involving experience.
The Believer’s Heaven is also a literal rendering of Biblical scenes, though here the good word is delivered as a sermon by Reverend Pirkle via the kind of scorching condemnation usually reserved for a Lana Del Rey Twitter clapback. So why is it so fun and exciting? Why do you want to cheer this silver-haired hardass crescendoing ever upward to greater vocal intensities? The answer, I believe, is he takes you somewhere you haven’t been before. It might just be the inside of his fevered brain, but it’s a right fine place to put on a show.
The film starts with some Alice Coltrane-like harp doodles echoing through space and time while we stare at a starscape probably shot from the deck of the original USS Enterprise, going boldly from a time when Pirkle and the Ron and June Ormond made movies with whatever got tossed into the church collection plate. This is in itself a miracle: that so much can come from so little. As the harp fades out we are looking at images of lysergically-rendered eternity, meant to evoke the bigness, and weirdness, of the universe. Soon enough we are made aware that there is something bigger than us in this universe, something we are never going to understand.
And then boom: we view the back of Pirkle’s head staring at the cosmos, slowly orbiting in our direction in order to stare us down, pulling us into the black-hole like core of his charisma. It is unforgettable. Neil deGrasse Tyson should have as transcendent a set of editing skills as Ormond displays here. Suddenly we’re in Pirkle’s little church, a wood-paneled crackerbox where all the crackers are dressed in amazing polyesters coats of many colors. Heck yeah there’s a big American flag behind the reverend, establishing quickly that this American place, and these haunted American faces, are a crucial part of God’s plan. Also in the room, as He no doubt wants it to be: an imagination as big as the royal palace at Samaria. Unlike Ark Covenant, it won’t set you back $15 (or more) to explore.
To live with Estus Pirkle might have been every bit as intense and scarring as some of the images in this film. But to have been hanging out with Pirkle, director Ron Ormond and crew as they put this mix of educational film, small-town circus sideshow, and religious diorama together? That seems likely to have been as fun as is legally possible in the immediate vicinity of Pirkle’s New Albany, Mississippi church circa 1977, the year The Believer’s Heaven was made. It’s a strange thing to say but the film is a good time, and if you don’t let it hurt you, weird fun is pretty much unavoidable.
Pirkle puts the marker down early
Pirkle puts the marker down early. He wants to tell us about heaven – not The Good Place, but the only thing that will save you from eternal damnation. There’s not a whole lot here about the pleasures that await, except for the fact that the miseries you feel in your current existence will melt away if you play your cards right. That’s the heart of Pirkle’s vision of heaven: it’s a place without work, diabetes or Post Malone.
Right now bad things are happening, and they will keep happening until further notice. Why, very recently, Pirkle tells us, his voice picking up the pace, there was an earthquake in an unnamed Central American town. Twenty thousand died, and then he shows us what purports to be footage from the area. Boiling mud, rubble everywhere, and sad looking indigenous people. A distress signal fills the sky, and Pirkle breaks it down for us: “the black flag signified an open grave. No time now for individual burials; disease had spread from the dead to the living.”
God will punish you. Worse still, Reverend Pirkle will punish you, with a death ray glare and a voice heated enough to cook pork cracklings. His job is a tough one, and he does not hide from it. Looking out across his small universe, he tells the congregation and us, essentially, I know your life sucks – don’t try to make it better. The camera regularly cuts to the faces in the crowd, wounded, fearful, exhausted faces. Never mind Walker Evans – this is Bob Evans, too much sad American realness for one plate to hold. Clearly everybody in the room feels it when he acknowledges the suffering and sweat spent just to make it through the day.
There is no solution, he is saying. Not here. The only way things get better is in the afterlife, so the best you can do is fall across the finish line and collect your medal.
In one incredible passage, his voice strikes a Walter Winchell timbre. “Don’t you get so tired and worn out sometimes?” he asks. “The work hours are so long and the night’s rest is so short, the labor is so strenuous that you don’t feel like you can take it much longer. Or perhaps sickness and suffering have so weakened your body that you even long to die. Have you not wrestled” – though he says it like a fan of Sputnik Monroe would say it in 1977: rassled – “with sin and temptation so long that you welcomed relief? Thank God that there is a place where the Saints of God shall rest from their labors.”
It’s just not here.
Fuck animated talking vegetables: this is the Bible served up as vegetables you eat, raw, and you better ask for more. And yet, it is crucial to say that for all the severity of this message, this movie is a joy. There’s a creative buzz in the air, seen wherever the camera goes. There is pleasure and entertainment all over the place, you just can’t expect him to acknowledge it. In a movie like few others, about a set of stories like no other, feelings are brought to the surface that are probably fresh, definitely unusual, and maybe it don’t even have a name yet. I think Pirkle is most comfortable with that understood.
Perhaps best of all, you sense the fun everybody had making the reams of costumes out of cheap thrift shop finds and bolt ends they convert into various ancient Middle Eastern fantasies that would have given Jack Smith himself a chubby. These Depression survivors knew how to make do in a world before Hobby Lobby, and whoever they were, the set makers and garment designers deserve a name: vernacular artists of the first rank.
As do the filmmakers themselves. Consider the scene illustrating Elijah’s entrance to Heaven. Pirkle grabs you by the crinoline and shakes the hearing aid out of your head: “You say ‘I wish I could go to heaven that way’” and he’s not asking, he’s telling. Hell yeah, I quickly answered the screen, I certainly do: I want to go as your Elijah goes, strapped to a flaming Tilt-O-Whirl seat jimmied out of the county fair and set on fire as some low-budget optical printing lifts it into the sky.
Oh – there is more: unusual gospel music reveries, three guest-star preachers, a trip to the Sea of Galilee. Do you want nostril hair in your Biblical reenactors? You got it! This is a work that puts itself out there, gives you all, Ormond and Pirkle knowing that you aren’t a willing mark and that you have to be brought across the line. That’s the thing. Artists make us believe in what they know is creatively possible. Pirkle and Ormond were true artists, whether they called themselves this or not. Probably not.
RJ Smith is author of American Witness, a biography of filmmaker and photographer Robert Frank, and The One: The Life and Music of James Brown. He is currently at work on a biography of Chuck Berry. Smith lives in Chicken Corner, California.