Gather Ye Rosebuds

I am wary of commenting in the light of Robin William’s death, for at least two reasons – while his work meant something to me, I didn’t know the guy, so I don’t want to intrude; and it risks devaluing other global traumas, invoking more compassion for one famous person than may be shown for thousands of Syrians or Palestinians. But as suicide is not an act exclusive to celebrities, and whoever saves one life saves the world entire, I feel I want to say some things.

I’ve not written much before about my own experience of depression, partly because it’s often too depressing to write about (!), and partly because it’s difficult to put into words. But I want to, this morning, because I remember the way Robin Williams affected me, and I feel I owe some of that back. In ‘Dead Poets Society’ and ‘The Fisher King’ particularly, I saw a vulnerable and wise soul, inviting us and himself to deeper levels of authenticity. I remember thinking it sad that his character in ‘DPS’, while capable of inspiring extraordinary lives among his students, was not able himself to take the steps necessary to live the way he dreamed of (blink and you might miss it, but there’s a scene where he reveals his love for a woman living in London – yet he does not seize the day to move there). The analogy with whatever torment led him to take his own life yesterday could be obvious, if we could be sure of it. But apparently one who brought so much joy and inspiration to so many just maybe wasn’t able to see it for himself.

Gather ye rosebuds, his John Keating would quote, and the boys under his tutelage would choose to step beyond what another poet called the narrow circle of self. They – and we – might consider living differently than our unconscious sociology would otherwise have determined. I was 14 when I saw ‘Dead Poets Society’ – just the right age to be marked by it. 16 when ‘The Fisher King’ came out, and I was compelled by a story of healing trauma through the mingling of a great romantic act with the very ordinary, very miraculous fact of friendship between two stumbling human beings.  22 for ‘Good Will Hunting’, in which it felt like Williams’ therapist was speaking directly to me when he said to Will ‘it’s not your fault’. Some folk – a little older than me – are ‘Star Wars’ guys. I think I’m a ‘Dead Poets Society’ and ‘The Fisher King’ guy, or at least it feels that way today.

Like I said, I haven’t written much about my own experience of depression before, and I don’t feel quite ready to say a whole lot, but today I want to reach out to anyone reading to let you know that you’re not alone, and whatever darkness you find yourself in, today is not your forever. The way to work yourself out of the pain is to walk through it with others. Fighting against depression does not work, because, as Richard Rohr says, oppositional energy just recreates itself. But asking for help transcends oppositional energy, and opens up horizons that you never knew were there, because until you asked for help they did not exist. A new reality is formed, and today becomes different than yesterday, because you have something you did not have then: a problem shared, a burden beginning to be lifted, a stronger bridge across which to walk.

I don’t want to say much more now. I do want to invite you to talk, especially if you’re feeling it today. Reach out to someone you know; or go to a 12 step meeting locally; or if you’re ready to take a bigger step toward healing, have a look at communities like The Mankind Project or Women Within, communities which have helped me name my shadow in the safety of a community of peers who see ourselves simply as people stumbling on a journey toward hope.

Someone once said that the purpose of art is to help us live better. Sometimes this unfolds subtly or in an oblique way, but in a couple of films, Robin Williams cut to the heart of it: gather ye rosebuds, and seize the day, and know that it’s not your fault. The rosebuds are right in front of you. Trust me. There are new ones every day.

 

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

We’re getting a new APES movie in a few days, so while we’re waiting, here are my thoughts on its predecessor from a few years ago.

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is a surprising addition to the typical summer blockbuster canon – for one thing, it manages to entertain and challenge, without resorting to gratuitous violence to make its point. But there’s a deeper subtext that is even more unexpected – for this is a story in which we start to lose. It was fashionable in the late 1960s and early 70s for science fiction films to attempt to out-dystopia each other – see for example the notion in ‘Soylent Green’ that post-industrial humanity snacks on itself to survive, the suggestion that only robots can be trusted to look after creation in ‘Silent Running’, and the climactic revelation in the original ‘Planet of the Apes’ that a few generations from now, the nuclear arms race will end in mutually assured destruction. All these point to a simple philosophical idea: that humans cannot be trusted to care for ourselves or the planet we steward.

So you don’t go to a ‘Planet of the Apes’ film for a lark – although the new prequel is tremendous cinematic entertainment (a phenomenal motion-captured performance by Andy Serkis as the ape Caesar, a magnificent action set piece on the Golden Gate Bridge). The film is interested in asking questions about our place in the universe – ‘playing God’; investigating the implied conflict between wanting freedom and wanting peace; the pure motivation to alleviate pain colliding with the break down of community relations. It’s fascinating that the key plot axis in ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ is possible only because two characters who live next door to each other haven’t spoken for five years and therefore are less likely to show empathy when something goes horribly wrong.

We the audience are turned on by scenes of compassion and destruction alike – we are moved by John Lithgow’s portrayal of an Alzheimer’s sufferer who may be helped by the ape-experimented treatment, just as we are enthralled by the fight on the bridge, and a particular coup de cinema when Caesar takes an evolutionary leap. And yet, we’re being entertained by the story of our own destruction. We know that after this prequel ends, Charlton Heston will travel forward in time, and discover that the Statue of Liberty is made of a very hard-wearing metal. And things won’t look too good for human beings then. But we still laugh and cheer with the apes. Maybe it’s because we want to take the side of the underdog, maybe it’s because we need to laugh at things that frighten us, maybe most of all it’s a knowing response to a necessary path: the one of working very hard to tell the difference between God and us.

BEST FILMS OF 2014 – SO FAR

Unless we reach the unlikely crossroads wherein TRANSFORMERS embodies its title, here are my favorite films of the first half of 2014 (with some chronological license for very tail end of 2013 movies that didn’t make it outside LA or NYC til the world rotated once more): 

10: IDA 
9: LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON
8: TIM’S VERMEER
7: 20,000 DAYS ON EARTH
6: LOCKE
5: THE PAST
4: THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
3: THE LEGO MOVIE
2: THE IMMIGRANT
1: THE GREAT BEAUTY.

Bubblin’ under: THE WIND RISES, ENEMY, THE CASE AGAINST 8, UNDER THE SKIN, XMEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST, 22 JUMP STREET, GODZILLA, JOE

Pretty good except for that one thing … : COLD IN JULY, MALEFICENT, CAPTAIN IN AMERICA, CHEF

Most fun I had without really expecting it: MUPPETS MOST WANTED

Didn’t work out: TRANSCENDENCE, JERSEY BOYS, BELLE

Best rediscovery: THE SWIMMER on Bluray

Best nights at the cinema thus far this year: LOCKE and THE GREAT BEAUTY were startling and moving experiences, but most memorable was seeing SORCERER accompanied by Jett Loe at the Cinefamily with a sound system so loud I wondered if Tangerine Dream were hiding under the seats. And William Friedkin was kind enough to reply to a question I asked on Twitter about the ambiguous ending. It’s a magnificent, stirring, haunting, angry, sad, passionate, crazy film about (possibly failed) initiation into emotional adulthood.

Soul Telegram

I’m involved in a rather lovely project called Soul Telegram. You can find out more about it here. Please do take a look.

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