The Incongruity and Paradox of ‘I Am Michael’
My reaction to the opening scene of ‘I Am Michael’ was to swear violently. Luckily, the friends with whom I was watching the film knew me well enough to understand this reaction. They knew it would be difficult for me to watch a movie about a gay man who took on the oft oppressive chains of a more fundamentalistic, American Evangelical (more easily referred to as funda-gelical) lifestyle and renounced his homosexual orientation.
We gathered to watch the film based on the life of gay rights activist Michael Glatze, who became a Christian, denounced his orientation, married a woman, and became a pastor. Once the movie finished, we had a short debate about some of the stranger aspects of the movie: the poor editing; the mostly poor acting; the strange, dissonant music.
A couple friends concluded that these things equated to the movie itself being poorly made. I can see that idea having some traction, with this being director Justin Kelly’s first feature. But I ventured a guess that all the above elements were used more purposefully.
My theory is since this movie follows one man’s conversion story that perhaps director Kelly was trying to imitate the poor quality of some conversion stories found in funda-gelical cinema. Many conversion stories in Christian films can seem cheap or melodramatic compared to more nuanced character arcs in mainstream or indie films. Kelly, perhaps knowing this, included all the expected tropes found in these genre of movies: positive exposure to a funda-gelical Christian, a crisis to set the protagonist searching/questioning, study of the Bible on their own, alienation of past friends through renouncing their old life, and embracing a brand new Evangelical life.
Yet a few aspects that make this conversion story stand out is the incongruity of Glatze’s progress with what normally happens in a conversion story. James Franco’s acting as the transitioning Glatze does the heavy lifting to show the character’s unease in his new role of a straight, married pastor. With each new step of the conversion process, Franco’s face and mannerisms show a growing unease in spite of him reciting anti-gay theology and positions.
Complimenting this unease is erie, dark, and sometimes cheap sounding orchestrations that seem to pull the viewer out of the story. Instead of swelling viewer emotions at some of aspect of Glatze’s transformation or aiding the viewer in identifying with the transformation, the music distances the viewer from the scene. The music contrast the events on screen to communicate that something is most definitely not right.
The film questions Glatze’s mental stability and, in the final scene where Glatze and his wife are on stage about to begin a service at a rural Minnesota church they run, suggests that not even the man himself is sure what he’s doing. After congregants have settled into old wooden pews, Glatze looks to his wife (played by Emma Roberts) with a nervous and worried face. She tries to smile back, but sees the worry. Glatze then looks out at the congregation with what could be described as an, ‘Oh, shit’ sort of expression.
The film’s skepticism of Glatze’s conversion and re-orientation is pretty understandable given the extremely rare occasion of anyone being able to genuinely change their sexual orientation. Better exploring this controversy would necessitate a series of blog posts to cover all that’s needed to better understand this situation, however. Glatze’s story, though, is definitely an outlier in the intersection of sexual orientation and faith.
A very short documentary titled ‘Michael: Lost and Found’ (which can be found on Netflix along with ‘I Am Michael’) follows Bennet Nycum, Glatze’s former partner, as he visits Glatze in his doublewide home in rural Minnesota. The same questioning of Glatze’s mental stability is the stated motivation for this short doc. Watched in conjunction with ‘I Am Michael’, this doc presents Glatze as the paradox that he is.
It’s all too easy to dismiss Glatze as a mentally unstable individual who doesn’t know who he is. It would be just as easy to become enraged at funda-gelicals doing more harm than good and oversimplifying the more complex intersection of sexual orientation and faith. But when Glatze speaks in the short doc, you hear more self-awareness that isn’t portrayed in the Justin Kelly’s film.
Glatze’s story is hard to hear for LGBTQ+ Christians, but is championed by the shrinking number of reparative therapy proponents. His story is also challenging to the funda-gelicals whom Glatze has now distanced himself from.
Outlying stories like Glatze’s are challenging for both those who would condemn him and those who would champion his journey. Any position is always looking for confirmation of it’s own values and biases, and ‘I Am Michael’ provides enough for both sides of this issue to do just that.