Ireland Trip July 10th-20th

The trip to Ireland that David WilcoxKaren Moore and I are leading this July 10th-20th is starting to fill up, and I want to remind folks that now is the time to apply if you’re interested in joining us.  I’ve wanted to bring people to my homeland for a long time, and have done smaller trips before, but this is a major step up.  One of the constant refrains I hear from folk in the US who have visited Ireland before is that they ‘didn’t go to the North’.  We’re going to change that.

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Staying first in 400 year old thatched cottages in Mourne country (that’s Mourne country above – really) and then a lovely old country house by the sea outside Belfast (that’s Belfast below), with a group of friends old and new, enjoying the landscape on amazing walks, hearing music and story, meeting locals, experiencing the peace process in meeting people directly involved in activism and change, and getting to know the culture of northern Ireland, immersed in Celtic culture ancient and new.  Great food, inspiring art, and beautiful journeys on foot will form the heart of this soulfully unique and transforming experience. This will be a ten day experience – for twenty guests only – that might just last for the rest of your life.

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Many of you know that I was privileged to become friends with John O’Donohue in the few years before his death in 2008. John used to host what he called ‘tours’, based in County Clare, for pilgrims who wanted to experience Ireland in authenticity rather than the more antiseptic/corporate tourist trip where feet don’t touch the ground and souls might as well have stayed on the plane. I was lucky enough to be involved in facilitating what turned out to be the last tour John led in Ireland. This upcoming trip is very much inspired by the kinds of things John led people into on his trips: mornings will be gathered conversations, afternoons we will walk the landscape, and in the evenings there will be music, storytelling, and certainly firewater magic. You’ll meet friends and colleagues with whom I have been honored to walk some of the journey, peacemakers and poets and politicians, you’ll walk by the sea and on mountains, and there’ll be plenty of time to take by yourself for whatever you need.

The trip takes place in July 2014 – just over four months from now. If you’re interested, and want more details, please send an email at this link, and we’ll send you the information and application form.  Places really are strictly limited – we can accommodate 20 guests, and expect the trip to be over-subscribed.  So if you know this is for you, or if you’re asking maybe, let me know. David, Karen and I can’t wait to welcome you to Belfast in July. And now, here’s a picture of a fish.

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THE OSCARS COULD CHANGE THE WORLD THIS WEEKEND

On Sunday night, the Oscars will once again prove that the evaluation of art is not best subject to democracy. But there may be flukes, as there often are, and the best of all might be if THE ACT OF KILLING would win Best Documentary, and if its director Joshua Oppenheimer gets the opportunity to say something meaningful about dealing with the past, genocide, and our interdependence as a species. The film is controversial, and Oppenheimer has been more than up to the task of responding to criticisms, including here.

If you haven’t seen it, let me recommend it thus: I think THE ACT OF KILLING proves the continued potential of cinema to do what it needs to do: to advance our humanity.

CINEMATIC STATES/OSCAR BLUES

Until the internet took over, prospective immigrant’s expectations of the USA were shaped, of course, by the movies.  Growing up in northern Ireland I found my perceptions of America nurtured by ‘Superman’ and ‘Back to the Future’ and Woody Allen before I heard about Mark Twain and Martin Luther King (though Ronald Reagan was conspicuous, and confusing to me as a child – I wasn’t sure if he was an actor, a comedian, or a leader.  I’m still not.)  I’ve recently spent time writing about the vision of the US through the lens of one film for every state – if cinema is the closest art form to dreaming, and if dreams tell us something about who we really are, then any attempt at understanding the nation that first fully embraced the movies has got to look to them for an explanation.

We have to examine ‘Fight Club’ and ‘On the Waterfront’, ‘Brokeback Mountain’ and ‘Nashville’, no less than ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and ‘Gone with the Wind’ to begin to capture the American dreamlife – most movies are set in Southern California or New York, and there’s a lot more America where those didn’t come from.  Montana and Michigan and New Hampshire and Arizona, and Delaware too – that’s just five states and there’s already  enough diversity of thought and experience and identity to make you wonder if the Empire State Building and the Santa Monica Pier are even in the same country.  Outsiders to the US, and transplants like myself, aren’t much aware that America is really at least 50 nations – contrasts between the states are mighty and rich: a Wyoming plain and a Sonoma vineyard, Hoboken and Hot Springs, the Florida Keys and the Swannanoa Valley are magnificent intersections of dreams and mistakes, with a confidence about the future that still sometimes allows for a past to face.  The cinematic-industrial-complex is making it easier to see films that didn’t start in Hollywood or New York City – through the same internet that sometimes mis-shapes global perceptions of the US, we have access to independent cinema like never before.  If we want to understand America through the movies, the best time yet is now.

And on that note, and with the Oscars this weekend, here’s my list of the best US American films released in 2013 (including those re-released for home viewing).

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (Criterion box set) – John Cassavetes was the godfather of US independent cinema, and this is the best entry to his work: a grimy thriller about one man trying to make art against the odds.

12 Years a Slave – the superlatives are deserved, but this is more than a work of art.  It’s the beginning of a new way of thinking about the past.

Fearless (Warner Blu-ray) – A film about a man who needs to die before he can live (and love), in which Jeff Bridges and Rosie Perez show us something more of how to be human.

Captain Phillips – Because it tries to take seriously both the reasons why poor Somali men might hijack a container ship, and the trauma that resulted

Gravity – an invitation to wonder, and re-imagine how we got started

Fruitvale Station – a film which shouldn’t be necessary, but asks us to consider the humanity behind headlines

The Lone Ranger – the most underrated film of the year, and a more important piece of historical revisionism than ‘Dances with Wolves’

Before Midnight – the continued unfolding of a relationship between our vicarious selves.

Leviathan – a dizzying dive into the weather and the water and the life of fish and the folk who catch them

Mud – the spirit of Mark Twain (and ‘Stand By Me’) resurrected in a slightly gothic, slightly magical, all-story about love and growing up

Inside Llewyn Davis – a plunging into the tortured soul of an artist, perhaps the most depressing life-affirming film the Coen Brothers have yet made

The Place Beyond the Pines – the best epic crime saga since Robert de Niro took Al Pacino for a cup of coffee

KING OF THE HILL (NOT THAT ONE)

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Before he balanced a career between epic biopics of revolutionary political figures and wealthy stylish casino thieves, Steven Soderbergh made a handful of films that hardly anyone has seen. The guy behind the huge scale globalism of TRAFFIC and CONTAGION (both about a kind of virus) also explored the terrain of KAFKA’s soul and made a pseudo-autobiographical satire on industry and art in SCHIZOPOLIS (which includes the wonderful line “In the event that you find certain sequences or ideas confusing, please bear in mind that this is your fault, not ours. You will need to see the picture again and again until you understand everything.”) It’s fairly typical for commentators to perceive this as a ‘one for the studio/audience, one for me’ pattern, but that’s only if you think audiences are stupid,  directors can’t be interested in two kinds of things at once, and that art ceases to have substance once it becomes popular or entertaining.  CHE and MAGIC MIKE are both entertaining and have something to say. And so does the just re-released KING OF THE HILL, a warm but honest coming of age story by AE Hotchner, the man who taught Paul Newman how to make salad dressing (and with whom he wrote the magnificently titled memoir ‘Shameless Exploitation in Pursuit of the Common Good’), is finally getting a DVD/BluRay release, and is an elegant surprise.

A St Louis Depression context, a boy protagonist who really is growing up, colorful characters on the sidelines (including a performance of delicacy and, since his death, great pathos from the great Spalding Gray), fusion of comedy and brokenness – it could be written by Mark Twain and shot by Matisse, so welcoming is the light (perhaps too much – Soderbergh himself says that he feels it should have looked bleaker). Beyond that, KING OF THE HILL is a lovely, truthful treatment of the making and breaking and remaking of faith in life. It’s better than pretty much anything available at the multiplex this week.

KING OF THE HILL is released today by Criterion, with the usual full-to-the-brim features, alongside a brilliant addition – an entire bonus feature film, Soderbergh’s follow up THE UNDERNEATH, which he includes here because he doesn’t like it enough to warrant a full release on its own terms. Such humility – at least in public – makes it easier to like KING OF THE HILL even more.

Things Change

The next time someone tells you that the definition of marriage has never changed, you might invite them to read this.

Ireland Trip July 2014: Emerging from the Pool Younger

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Dave Wilcox, Karen Moore and I are leading a trip to Ireland this July – you can find out more information here – and we’d love you to consider joining us. Watching The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp the other day had me considering one of its tricks, when the central character emerges from a swimming pool younger than when he went in. That feels like a good metaphor for what I think will happen to those of us who spend ten days in northern Ireland this summer, walking the landscape, building community, re-imagining. So here’s my thoughts on Colonel Blimp, written originally for Reel Spirituality and I hope you’ll think about coming with me to Belfast in July.

How can I convince you to watch The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp? The question itself is problematic, for a film so dedicated to a desire for an end to war, the violence inherent in the attempt at convincing someone else of its value is paradoxical. The understanding of non-violent communication advanced, for instance, in Marshall Rosenberg‘s work raises profound implications for film critics (and critics of any medium). Non-violent communication invites us into a revolution in how we talk with each other: speaking not what we think the other needs to hear, nor what we might want them to believe, but what we would like the other to understand, and letting go of whether or not they do And the purpose of listening is to understand the other, not to be persuaded, or to persuade. So if unthinking persuasion is a form of violence, then it’s paradoxical to ask how I can persuade you to watch The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, a film, among other things, about the hope for an end to violence.

It’s a challenge faced by characters in the film I was most reminded of while watching the exquisite BluRay of Blimp, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, also newly restored (though prematurely released, for the restoration work is incomplete, and copyright reasons mean it can only be bought on BluRay in Italy.  But I still couldn’t resist buying it, so if you come to my house we can watch it together). Blimp is about a British army officer living through three wars, failing to speak up for the woman he loves, and feeling out of time with his culture, while the most consistent relationship in his life is a great friendship with a German opposite number.  America is about a kid growing up into a gangster living through family torment, failing to understand – and ultimately horrifically abusing – the woman he loves, feeling out of time with his culture, while the most consistent relationship in his life is a flawed friendship with an unstable comrade.

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The Wisest Movie of Last Year Isn’t Nominated for Any Oscars

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There’s a moment toward the end of ‘Stories We Tell’, the Canadian actor Sarah Polley’s hybrid reconstruction-documentary-group therapy session, that I think may stay with me forever.  At least I hope it will, so wise is its appreciation of the work of being human, the hope of moving beyond past failures and sorrow, and the invitation each of us receives to make a life as a participant in something much larger than ourselves.  Call it the out-working of the redemption of humanity, call it being etched into the Panorama of Being, call it the pursuit of happiness – whatever it is, Sarah Polley’s dad knows what he’s talking about when he says ‘You can’t outrun the mask of comedy.’

An actor with distinguished theatrical form, Michael Polley had reached the beginning of his ninth decade when Sarah decided to make a film about their family experience.  The less you know about that experience, or at least the way it would be headlined on TMZ or the Huffington Post’s less nuanced pages, the better.  The beauty of ‘Stories We Tell’ was, for me, indivisible from the surprise value, the sense of genuine unfolding of narrative unpredictability.  Most popular documentaries these days are better described as ‘crafted non-fiction’, by which I mean they aren’t really about the discovery of something new (last year’s Oscar-winning ‘Searching for Sugarman’ is a great example: a lovely, rhythmic movie with a heart, but whose makers seem to have known what the story would be before they recorded a single pixel).  But there’s an incomparable excitement when watching a non fiction film in which the audience is able to trust the filmmaker’s own naïveté – what might be imperfectly called an ‘innocent gaze’, which captures something they didn’t expect, that wasn’t scripted, that arose only because two previously independent entities (in this case Sarah Polley the director engaging with her relatives as the subjects of a film in which she also plays a major role; rather than Sarah Polley the sister and daughter merely hanging out with her family) met on a film location and something new was born.

There are lots of these births in ‘Stories We Tell’ – the birth of relationships (between people who either didn’t know each other before, or only thought they did), the birth of trust (between Polley and the audience, in the first instance; between Polley and her subjects for the rest), and eventually the birth of redemption. Michael Polley says this memorable thing toward the end of the movie (it really forms the climax), a little red around the eyes, a little quieter than before, but with a perceptible inner smile.  ‘You can’t outrun the mask of comedy’, says Michael, at the end of a long interview, intercut with home video footage, dramatic reenactment, and voices from the past.  He says it as a riposte to those who believe that life is always spiraling downward, who assert that our inevitable deaths are merely the signifiers that everything is meaningless.  ‘You can’t outrun the mask of comedy’ is his way of saying that even death is to be treated with amusement – it’s silly for us to think we could ever understand the mystery of our lives. The fact that he says it after being seen to have suffered great costs in his family life, and in the context of offering forgiveness to someone who hurt him a great deal, even to the extent of empathizing with the other party’s own pain, makes ‘You can’t outrun the mask of comedy’ the wisest piece of movie dialogue, and ‘Stories We Tell’ the best movie of the last year.