Offender of the Faith

Filmmaker Jon Springer's bloody liturgy includes incest, stigmata, and stolen communion wine. Heaven can wait.

God only knows how devout Catholic filmmaker Jon Springer ever finished his debut feature The Hymens Parable. In one flashback-cum-dream sequence, the local director contrives a torturous montage that links a young seminary student's memory of his then-12-year-old sister being raped by their father with images of snorting pigs in a sty, an industrial-size oven used to incinerate bodies during the Holocaust, and the sister lying in the snow, bleeding excessively from self-inflicted stigmata. As if such shots weren't grueling enough, Springer nearly collapsed from exhaustion midway through the shoot, reckoning that he'd never make another film--or that he might be losing his mind.

"We were shooting this scene in a bathroom with the actor who played the seminary student," recalls Springer. "He was supposed to break down completely, to fall to his lowest level emotionally. I just wasn't getting what I wanted, and the day kept stretching on and on and the film kept burning away." At one point the 34-year-old filmmaker tried to provoke the actor into giving a more distraught performance by opening the windows to let in the frigid winter air. Eventually, he settled on a take and then stepped into the cold on his own. "I just started thinking about my wife and what it all meant," Springer says. "She was pregnant with our second child at the time, she had just quit her job, and I didn't even have a job--and there I was burning up hundreds of dollars worth of film on this guy sobbing on a bathroom floor."

Several months later, when Springer watched the scene at The Hymens Parable's Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival premiere last April, he still couldn't fathom how it all worked out. Divine intervention, perhaps? In any case, as a religious person and an equally devoted cinephile, Springer blesses his work with an unusual degree of thematic and visual depth, blending rich spiritual (and sometimes political) symbolism with extremely gory content--and a touch of morbid humor. In fact, overzealous as it sounds, the Inver Grove Heights native occasionally suggests a holy cross between Flannery O'Connor and David Cronenberg. (Springer's feature--along with his latest short, "Heaven 17"--screens this week at Oak Street Cinema as part of the four-day Southern Minnesota Movies and Short Hits Film Festival.)

"I like to show a lot of blood in my films": Director Jon Springer in protective clothing on the set
"I like to show a lot of blood in my films": Director Jon Springer in protective clothing on the set

Springer directed his first short film in 1990, not long after forming his own production company, Cricket Films, and enrolling at the University of Minnesota. After graduating in 1994 with a degree in visual communications, Springer began work as a freelance cinematographer and commercial producer; he has served on 20 shorts, four features, and more than 500 commercials. His own independent projects with Cricket are funded out of his own pocket, which is kept periodically full through his day job filming commercials for Time Warner Cable in Eden Prairie.

Despite his ample experience as a cinematographer, Springer had never taken on a full-length feature as writer-director before The Hymens Parable went before the camera in 1998. Putting together that heavy-hitting examination of rape, repressed guilt and hate, and Christ-like suffering may indeed have brought its maker a few steps closer to God: With his graying hair and grave face, the director looks about a decade older than thirtysomething. Dark circles encompass his eyes, perhaps evincing the hours spent peering behind the camera or brooding over his own afflictions during sleepless nights.

Springer based much of the emotional tension in The Hymens Parable on his relationship with his mentally ill younger brother Jay (who died in 1998), and their upbringing in a dysfunctional family. The film focuses on the turbulent bond between the soon-to-be-priest Jason (Shane Barach) and his prophetic older sister Cassandra (Melissa Lewis)--a woman diagnosed, like Springer's brother, with bipolar disorder, put on lithium, and jerked in and out of mental institutions. She's also a religious fanatic prone to divine visions and so fixated on the Eucharist that she downs stolen consecrated wine by the bottle. Even though Jason is only days away from his ordination into the priesthood, he still cannot reconcile the hate he feels toward his younger sibling.

In many ways Springer's film follows a long line of explorations into the complex emotional struggle and sometimes macabre mysticism that surrounds the Catholic faith. One can almost feel the spirit of The Exorcist lurking beneath certain scenes, which include several recurring high-angle shots of a long, narrow stairway, and a close-up of Cassandra strapped to a bed in a psychiatric ward. Like Linda Blair's Regan, Cassandra also seems to become possessed by a supernatural force--only this time it's the Holy Spirit instead of the Dark Prince. Turns out Jason is the one with a demon to banish, just as Springer would have to contend with his own demon in the second half of the film's production. Halfway through the filming of The Hymens Parable, just two months after being released from another mental institution, Springer's brother committed suicide.

"What happened was this," Springer begins, taking on the solemn tone of a confession. "Jay was on his way to my parents' house with a shotgun, and I don't know if that means that he was going to shoot them or what, but he ended up stopping on the way at a park in Inver Grove Heights. Then he waded into a shallow pond and blew his head off."

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