Offender of the Faith

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

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.)

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."

Springer describes his emotional state after the suicide as akin to free falling from a plane without a parachute. Through faith, perhaps, he was able to continue working on The Hymens Parable, even rewriting several scenes in accordance with revelations about his brother. "It was [while rewriting] that I understood why I sometimes hated Jay so much," he says. "I hated him because I hated the part of me that I saw in him, the part that never recovered from my dysfunctional childhood. That movie was a way of working through some of the things I was feeling about him and his death."

It wasn't the first time Springer made a film whose subtext concerned his brother's erratic behavior that dealt with his complicated feelings about his sibling. Made in 1990, Springer's "Dead Looters"--a short zombie epic that pays homage to the "living dead" trilogy of George Romero--stars none other than Jay Springer himself as a young man who wanders a postapocalyptic St. Paul nonchalantly gunning down the undead with a shotgun. Somewhere within the grainy black-and-white Super 8 film stock, the baby-faced 18-year-old Jay appears simultaneously innocent and sinister.

"What's really scary is that I actually filmed a suicide scene with Jay in 'Dead Looters,' but it got cut," Springer adds. "It was prophetic."


Flash-forward a full decade to the Bryant-Lake Bowl premiere of Springer's sci-fi short "Heaven 17." As blood spews from the gaping head wound of his victim, a doctor who looks disconcertingly like John Waters gradually drops to his knees, running his hands over the woman's breasts and allowing the blood to slide over her black latex body suit and fall into his mouth. We hear the amplified sounds of a beating heart coupled with the screams of the woman's teenage daughter, who's strapped to an operating table stood upright on the other side of the room. A little backstory: The doctor has executed the mother because she refused to bring her pregnant virgin daughter to his tissue-elimination module for a government-mandated abortion.

Then the doctor moves in for another kill. We see the daughter writhe in terror, and hear the hushed voiceover of a woman reading a passage from the book of Isaiah, summoning the strength of God's love. Cut to the face of an adorable baby aglow in blue light, which emanates from what appears to be a television screen, but is perhaps some kind of existential gateway into the unknown. The End: Schubert's "Ave Maria" blares and the final credits flash.

The expressions on the faces of the audience range from disgusted outrage to amused fascination; perhaps some of them expected the BLB's typically lighthearted lineup of comedy sketches and song-and-dance routines. Fat chance: This is a Jon Springer film.

"Jon is a real asset to the local film community," says Matt Ehling, a Twin Cities filmmaker with whom Springer has collaborated. "It's rare that you will see anything like his films in town, especially considering his talent and his rather extreme views." Local director and curator Lisa Ganser acknowledges the talent side of the equation, but couldn't help poking a little fun at Springer's "extreme views" after the BLB screening, beginning her moderation of a post-film discussion with the auteur by asking him, "So--do you have any good relationships with women?" For his part, Springer claims to have interpreted Ganser's joke as an accusation of misogyny, and says in his defense, despite the frequency of violated maidens in his work, "Gender issues aren't my main focus."

"I like to show a lot of blood in my films," he continues. "But it's not to satisfy the bloodlust of a society that's sick with sin. I use it in a Christian context to represent so many things--pain and suffering, redemption and goodness, innocence and evil. In other words, I try to speak the language of an audience completely desensitized to sex and violence, and then attach a different meaning than they're used to."

The meaning behind the blood in "Heaven 17" doesn't exactly require heavy theological exegesis. Set in a familiar dystopian world defined by a hyper-hedonistic society and a totalitarian government, the film follows a 17-year-old girl, Regina (Kristin Sales), after she conceives a child in her virgin womb and is then commanded by the state's abortion doctor (Steve Kath) to terminate the pregnancy. The blood in the aforementioned climax represents both Regina's impending loss of innocence and the doctor's erotic obsession with abortion.  

"The doctor is a vampire," Springer explains. "He feeds off blood, amniotic fluid, and the act itself. Could you have a more truthful metaphor for an abortionist?"

Such statements are sure to provoke some viewers into labeling Springer a religious fanatic--but his films shouldn't be so easily dismissed. The minimalist sets, fluorescent lighting, and near-blinding use of the color white in "Heaven 17" reflect a moral emptiness and sterility worthy of a Kubrickian nightmare. While the film contains references to Brave New World, Player Piano, and 1984, it bears greater resemblance to Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. (The title itself refers to a fictional band mentioned in Kubrick's film by one of the young ptitsas whom Alex seduces.) Like Alex, Regina, the heroine in "Heaven 17," dresses in 18th-century fashions and speaks her own archaic parlance. She's a cross between a droog and a neo-Mary figure, a woman who rebels using not the ol' ultra-V, but God's love.

If Springer's films come in for ridicule in some quarters, it's partly because their inspirations, styles, and stories occasionally overshadow his own. The fact that one sometimes sees more Kubrick, Friedkin, or Romero in Springer's films than one sees Springer himself may be attributed to his overall inexperience--he's still working out his own artistic vision--and his lesser abilities as a writer. As the filmmaker admits: "Most of the writing in The Hymens Parable just makes me want to crawl under a table and hide."

Currently Springer is shopping for that perfectly adaptable novel or script, and the necessary cash to pull off the adaptation. Considering the eccentric nature of his films, Springer doesn't even bother to apply for grants; nor does he seek much backing from the local film community. "Overall, I don't think there's a whole lot of support for local filmmakers here," he says. "But I've been doing it on my own as an outsider for so long that it doesn't really matter anymore."

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