Eliot Rausch likes parables and has a habit of turning them into beautiful and thought-provoking, albeit highly ambiguous, short films. On the surface, the form might seem outdated. Parables aren’t data-driven. They’re not timely. They’re not easily retweetable, shareable, likeable, loveable, Snapchat-able. They don’t contain takeaways. All reasons why it would be easy to write them off. And all reasons why we need them now more than ever. “Our time is limited and our attention spans are really short,” Eliot told us. “There’s something incredibly beautiful about passing on these short parables to future generations.”
Eliot’s latest film, The Maybe Parable, is a gift to his son. A project he hopes will one day, in some small way, shape his son’s perspective of the world. Not by offering answers, but by staring unflinchingly at the question. “What question?” we asked. And Eliot said: “Do we really know what’s best for us?”
We talked to Eliot Rausch on fatherhood, ambiguity, liminality, and his latest film, The Maybe Parable. But first here’s the ancient Chinese parable that inspired the film.
THE MAYBE PARABLE
Once upon a time there was a farmer whose prized horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “Maybe,” the farmer replied.
The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “Maybe,” replied the old man.
The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his back. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “Maybe,” answered the farmer.
The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Realizing that the son’s back was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “Maybe,” said the farmer.
Musicbed: Before we get into The Maybe Parable, we’d love to hear how becoming a father has affected the way you approach filmmaking.
That’s so complicated. The quick answer is I realized how self-centered I can be in my creative endeavors, how much time and space that experience consumes. Even when I’m in the presence of my son, it still makes its way into my thought life. That was a big surprise because I thought I’d be able to compartmentalize my creative mind from my personal life.
But the story of my son’s birth is a bit complicated. He was sent to the NICU because he wasn’t breathing or eating on his own. We didn’t know if he was going to make it. The doctors said he had Down’s syndrome. Then they said he had a rare condition that meant he wasn’t going to live past the age of nine. We finally came to find out that he was blind in one eye and diagnosed with Peters Anomaly. It was a really dramatic experience that threw us for a major, major loop.
What became clear to me is how fragile life is and how much bullshit consumes my time and attention. I had forgotten how delicate things are. So, being a filmmaker hasn’t become any less important or more important, but my son’s situation definitely put my life into perspective. And that will inevitably influence my filmmaking, my relationship to other people, and my experience of living on Earth.
As a species, we feel very entitled to the things we think we want or we’ve worked for. I’ve learned that’s not the way life works. As a filmmaker, I’m no longer drawn to stories that are wrapped up neatly, that close the loop of a question, or that make things neat and tidy.
Which is a good segue to your film. What was the emotional and creative process that led you to make The Maybe Parable?
I come from a life filled with some pretty dark moments, dark seasons. Tragic things have happened to dear friends; really catastrophic things have occurred in my own life, which have led to incredible awakenings and transformations. Seasons of grace, if you will. I’ve always wrestled with that. I didn’t understand how somebody’s weakness or vulnerabilities could lead to newfound freedom or strength. I think in a lot of my filmmaking, I was always exploring that theme but didn’t understand how the things we consider dangerous or failures are just as important as — maybe more important than — success.
When I think back on the worst moments in my life — crashing my car in an alcoholic blackout, losing friends, losing myself in a life of depravity — it would be natural to define them as my greatest failures. But the truth is, those failures birthed a new chapter in my life. And I’d never ever want to take them back, because they inspired sobriety and a new way of experiencing my life. It was really painful, but it was a necessary part of making me into the person I’ve become.
It’s hard to have a conversation about this stuff within some spheres of the faith-based community. The conversations inevitably lead to, “Well, that means God’s in control of everything,” or “That means you’re aligned with this kind of religion or religious perspective.” It’s more complicated than that. People prayed for a different reality for my son. They prayed that his sight would return. But I looked at the situation with the attitude that the only way his sight would come back would be through intensive surgery. And that might not work; it might actually be catastrophic for his life. My wife and I had to wrestle with what action to take. Should we be working to restore his sight, or should we be accepting the reality that was given to us? This was one of the hardest seasons because here’s this being whom you love with all of your heart, and you totally want him to be perfect — the way you always envisioned him. And there’s another part of you that feels like maybe he’s perfect as he is, in his imperfection. It was during all of this that someone handed me this parable. And it seemed to frame the experience in a way that I could understand, that provided me with a little peace.
What was it about the parable that struck you?
The farmer’s perspective is so very ancient. It comes from toiling on the land and working with nature and understanding the limited way we judge reality. This is the best news possible. This is the worst news. This is the best thing; this is the worst thing. That kind of duality is so apparent in today’s culture. Everything’s been reduced to black or white, and we’re drawing hard lines in the sand. You’re in that camp, and I’m in this camp. You’re a Republican and I’m a Democrat. You’re a Christian and I’m an atheist. It seems like this black-and-white reality brings about a mistaken sense of comfort. If I can pigeonhole the experience, then I can sleep easier because I know my place in the world. The parable showcases a man who understands that he has to trust that things are going to work themselves out, and sometimes our judgment isn’t the best judgment.
Both the parable and the film are somewhat ambiguous. What is the role of ambiguity in art?
I once asked Alejandro González Iñárritu why he didn’t show us Michael Keaton committing suicide or flying away at the end of Birdman. I remember sitting in the audience and watching people walk out of the theater pissed off because that loop wasn’t closed. He gave me a beautiful answer: “I think good art needs to pose a question rather than provide an answer.” We crave answers in our stories, and we want it delivered in a way that satiates the angst we’re feeling. But those answers obscure our responsibility to figure out what it means in our own lives. Good art poses a question within me. It has enough mystery that it resists an easy answer, and it asks me to figure it out on my own.
How would you articulate the question that’s at the heart of The Maybe Parable?
Do we really know what’s best for us? It’s like we pray for what we want, but maybe that’s not necessarily what we need. You could look at my experience with my son as a terrible tragedy. Here I am on a wonderful trajectory of success and filmmaking, and all of a sudden I’m struck with this situation that is incredibly difficult and hard. Why has this come upon my life? I don’t need any kind of suffering for my family or for myself. Yet, I can honestly tell you the experience has ripped me open and created more intimacy, honesty, and brutal truth in my relationships and my marriage. Some of my wife’s fears are completely gone. She’s a fearless woman now. Whether or not this is Providence or how we work with acceptance, I’m not sure. I think I’ve always wrestled with whether the things in my life are God’s will or free will. I feel like man has been trying to answer that for eons. And I don’t know if getting the right answer necessarily produces a more faithful, loving life, you know?
This isn’t the first parable you’ve made into a film. What is it about parables that appeals to you? And what value do you see in them for today’s audience?
Our time is limited and our attention spans are really short. Reading a novel can be transformational, but there’s something incredibly beautiful about passing on these short parables to future generations. People came to Jesus with complicated questions, looking for easy answers. Instead, he’d deliver a parable that handed the responsibility to find an answer back to them. It excites me when I find an ancient parable that seems so relevant to whatever I’m experiencing in my own life. They seem to stay with me more than some New York Times article or sociological research or data mining I did to find some truth about happiness. Instead, it’s this little story that sticks.
In an interview, Werner Herzog said the power of Virgil’s Aeneid is that it doesn’t explain anything; it just names the glory of things. He believes filmmakers should do the same thing.
That’s totally it. A parable leaves so much space for interpretation. It invites the audience in to have their own experience with it. It personalizes it. Throwing data or statistics or information at someone doesn’t impact the psyche and the soul in the same way.
There’s a quote from writer Sarah Manguso that says: “Bad art is from no one to no one.” You dedicated this film to your son. What was your experience of making a film from you to your son.
Honestly, the real reason I wanted to make this film is so my son, when he gets a little older, will have something he can reference to understand his situation. I am hoping it will give him a teeny snippet of understanding so he can see the world a bit differently. At its base level, it’s something that can live in the ether of the Interwebs for when he grows up.
Do you see this experience with your son — maybe even just having a son in general — affecting the way you approach filmmaking going forward or the projects you might choose?
Yeah, I think I’m totally screwed. I don’t watch movies the same way anymore. I can’t be coerced to engage with a narrative through manipulative music or strategic design, especially if it’s too tidy. I crave a sense of mystery, to hang out in the unknown. Quick and easy answers bother me now. Recently, I was visiting my best friend’s dad who’s in the hospital awaiting open-heart surgery. He may pass away. You could hear everyone, including the doctors, grasping for easy answers, avoiding their deep sadness. I pulled my friend aside and said, “This is really sad.” And he was like, “Nah, man, we can’t be sad. We have to be strong.” I’m like, “Yeah, but, dude, there’s a part of this that’s really hard.” Sometimes it’s important to sit with that, to accept that it’s a part of your life. I have friends who listen in mourning; they’re present in their own emotional experience, not reaching for the easy cliché answer to make it more digestible. I respect that a lot more now.
In that space — the liminal space between where I am and where I think I should be — is the greatest opportunity for transformation. In the place where people come undone is where they will also find amazing truths about themselves and their life.