David Herrle reviews The Messiah Of Midtown Park by Rolf Gompertz
published by iUniverse
205 Pages, $15.95
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A sign above Shlomo Hirsch's apartment door reads: "BLOOM WHERE YOU STAND". These words sum up the messianic message in Rolf Gompertz' screenplay, The Messiah of Midtown Park. Bloom where you stand. Life begets life -- just by living, by not accepting walking death. Too tired or weak to trudge on, to take on the monumental task of salvaging the world? No matter. According to Midtown Park's meek and elderly messiah, Shlomo Hirsch, we exist "to improve the world where we stand...to redeem the world, wherever we are, in place and time". Shlomo, mistaken as a delusional claimer of divinity, commissions everyone to act as messiahs, to bloom where they stand, uplifting God and man in a united universe...or...messiahverse.
I began this review with a paragraph that seems to belong to the end. I've also divulged that Shlomo Hirsch, the so-called messiah of Midtown Park, is not delusional and not a singular messiah manifested as a senior citizen. How anti-climactic of me! I've initially leaked this information on purpose. Because The Messiah of Midtown Park is not a gimmick; it doesn't hinge on a cheap, rip-off revelation. And it's not fatuous like the overrated, is-he-or-is-he-not-an-alien film K-Pax (starring Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges). The theme of an impressive, exemplary or colorful character being basically delusional has been done many times - sometimes successfully, sometimes poorly. The surprisingly touching Don Juan Demarco (starring Johnny Depp and Marlon Brando) -- the film K-Pax tried to be -- featured a character who claimed to be the real historical lover Don Juan in modern times. Whether or not he is somehow the genuine man, his visit into a psychiatrist's life rekindles a cooling marriage. A positive lesson is learned through the apparent fantasy of this "Don Juan". The lesson? All men can be Don Juan for their women if they just pay special attention. I've leaked the Midtown revelation for a similar reason. Knowing the thesis doesn't spoil the body. Just as Don Juan's psychiatrist learns the lovers' gospel by experiencing Juan, so readers can experience Shlomo's gospel by experiencing Shlomo himself.
Nate Kaplan is the producer of fictional UBC's The Freddy Wilson Show. Lately he has suffered from producer's block and the show's ratings are slipping. Freddy Wilson, the smug host of the show threatens to ditch Nate if he doesn't "change with the times" and come up with some ratings grabbers. Distressed, Nate wracks his brain for prospects. Coincidentally, Shlomo Hirsch, a 70-something, unassuming, mild-mannered Jewish man, strays from a USB studio tour, makes his way to Nate's office, and asks to be on The Freddy Wilson Show. Why? Because, according to Shlomo himself, he is the Messiah. Though Nate merely appeases Shlomo by faking interest, he later pitches the Messiah-as-guest idea as a desperate last resort during a production meeting at Wilson's office. After some finagling, it is decided to create obscure hype about the Messiah's upcoming appearance on the show: no identification leaks, no details, just hype. A panel of various religious ministers will also appear to question the alleged Messiah. Nate, glowing from an apparent comeback, eventually realizes the seriousness of Shlomo's claim, his own spiritual conflict, and how wrong the entire setup can go. Shlomo Hirsch, far from being a lunatic, reveals his message on live television -- and it's not what folks might expect.
Rolf Gompertz took a risk when he chose such an unlikely, controversial subject for a screenplay. Ironically the story centers on the lucre-hungry television business and the supply-and-demand relationship of popular culture and audience -- a duality that is currently rather hostile to positive depictions of religious/spiritual characters. The fictional controversy of messianic claims and moral messages on TV is compounded by the very real controversy Midtown Park screenplay would raise if ever pitched to -- let alone bought by -- a network. So Midtown Park is doubly illustrative of the weighty conflict between modern entertainment and Godly moral questions. This is isn't a sudden conflict, however. Gompertz' original conception of the story came in novella form in the late 1960s, followed by screenplay form in the late 1970s and as a stage play (published by The Word Doctor Publications) in 1983. So the story is just as, if not more, relevant as it was thirty-some years ago. And the TV studio information comes from a former insider. Gompertz was a publicist and publicity director for NBC for three decades. He also wrote an acclaimed book called Publicity Writing For Television And Film.
Another risk is in addressing the messianic question at all. Needless to say, believers and non-believers alike tend to think and feel very strongly about it -- and God's existence or non-existence in general. (Believers can be fanatical, of course; but I've seen many fanatical atheists who seem to rave more about God than believers.) Without wandering into a discussion on the subject, I'll admit that I was leery of the subject matter at first. I knew Gompertz to be an astute thinker and a spiritually attuned person, so my wariness didn't come from low expectations. But I think the messianic question is crucial to every single person on this planet because of its very effect: Mass anticipation among believers for an inevitable reign on earth by a divine person -- who will bring concord, abundance, punishment of wrongdoers, and order on a global scale. Such a magnificent situation chills me sometimes. I think: What might happen if a bound and gagged family in great distress hoped for a policeman to knock on their door -- and a thug disguised as a cop came instead? Would the family's desperation cause them to rush into thanks and allegiance to this disguised thug? I needn't illustrate further. My bottom-line worry about all dealings with the messiah question is the possible complacency that may be fostered by humorous or clumsy handling of the subject. When The Messiah Of Midtown Park came to my attention, I slightly felt the same way.
After reading Midtown I realized that Gompertz cleverly avoided a theological debate about the if/who/where/when Messiah issues. Instead he conveyed a hopeful message about humanity's unique responsibility amidst worldly strife, sprinkling various views and statements about the Messiah (capital M) throughout the dialogue. During the initial acquaintance between Shlomo and Nate, Shlomo says, "Everybody expects the Messiah to come and do everything for them. You know, let George do it." While sitting in Hollywood Bowl traffic, Nate watches a religious demonstration. The demonstrators cheer some popular messianic notions: "Who is coming?" "JESUS!" "When's he coming?" "Now!" "What must we do?" "Repent!" Most folks assume Nate refers to Jesus when he mentions the messiah idea for the show. I suspect this might be Gompertz' way of showing that Jesus is the most popularly expected messiah but not the only one. Characters often vulgarly exclaim "Jesus Christ" throughout the screenplay, providing a repetitive thematic reminder. And Nate's career dilemma is unmistakably something that needs saving. His initially desperate grab at Shlomo's sincere idea symbolizes humanity's grasp at salvation. And sometimes what is grasped after turns out to be more deeply restorative than perceived.
Error and folly are often results of not listening. Mistaken character, identity, and motive are possible consequences of hearing without listening. Hence most of Midtown's cast misses Shlomo's point, in turn exploiting the old man for vulgar interests. Nate, to his credit, realizes his neglect in time to be changed. An important part of God belief is listening. Faith is not blind, as is often said, but it's certainly not deaf. I speak here of listening with the heart, the soul. Folks with deaf faith miss the message. Sometimes they are chanting too loudly at a demonstration or laughing too much in the audience of a television show. If Nate would have listened carefully at what Shlomo plainly said early on, he might have avoided the ensuing bother. Shlomo's entire point, the "spoiler", is spoken to Nate and the perceptive reader in his eighth statement during the initial acquaintance in Nate's office: "You're the Messiah, Mr. Kaplan -- you, and everyone else." Such is the oddly put but useful substance of BLOOM WHERE YOU STAND. "Life is really Love," says Shlomo to the religious panel and Freddy Wilson's audience. "We are a part of all this, we are a part of God, and we are here to serve God, Giving and Receiving, Loving and Being Loved, wherever we are, whoever we are, with whatever we find to do."
So The Messiah Of Midtown Park is not a blasphemous, irreverent take on messianic theory and belief. It blends humor and drama, speculation and stark truths. And it makes a hero out of a little old man who spends time feeding -- giving to -- pigeons. The Messiah question is not resolved, but the human question can be. To think of us as little messiahs, so to speak, as agents of Love, imitators of God, is a helpful way of maintaining focus on life's purpose and salvation. After all, would a gardener be pleased if he returned to his garden to find lazy weeds and drooping plants? Tossing all stock into a future Messiah negates the messianic message of responsibility and earthly duty. "Messiah" derives from the Hebrew word moshiach, meaning "anointed one". If we are anointed by God with worth and love...then?
(For those who desire to know more of Gompertz' own musings, a detailed essay, "The Messiah -- Where Do We Go From Here?" follows the screenplay.)
- review by David Herrle 12/2004
read the Tea Interview with Rolf Gompertz
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