THE HEART OF INTERSTELLAR

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The British filmmaker Christopher Nolan has followed the conclusion of his Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, with Interstellar, a film that resembles 2001: A Space Odyssey in both its plot and its meaning: Humans get a message from beyond and follow it to deep space, where lies the destiny of the species. Matthew McConaughey is our captain, who leaves his family behind in order to rescue the human race from the environmental catastrophe that has left food production unsustainable and forced us to look for a home in the stars.

Interstellar asks powerful questions about who we are, our place in the universe, and how we might relate to time without being trapped in the past. It’s full of plot holes and confusion, but it works with such ambition and imagination that it has haunted me for days. Its journey takes us through the grief of having to sacrifice personal loves in favor of a larger common good; the meaning of the passage of time and how aging and travel change us; and most of all, the need to tell better stories to make a better world. If the wound is grief, and the intellectual foundation an exploration of time, then the soul of Interstellar is perhaps the most important challenge facing human beings: the relationship between the stories we tell, and the world we make.The core wound is McConaughey’s abandonment of his daughter, and her sense of rage toward him for doing so—but the movie underlines the fact that every loss opens a door to greater possibility. The philosophical center is an investigation of how time works (gravity, too), and whether or not we are time’s victims or collaborators. In a sequence that should produce wry smiles on the faces of anyone who ever tried to meditate on the past in order to break free from an old sorrow, Nolan imagines time as a five-dimensional bookcase, in which everything is happening at once. It would be a spoiler to say much more about this, but it’s thrilling to experience large-scale mainstream cinema trying to grapple with concepts more usually at home in a Buddhist monastery or a quantum physics class, and making them accessible to nonexperts. Continue reading

(Dis)Quiet Time

My glorious friend Cathleen Falsani has just co-edited a collection of writing by folk who might identify or be identified by others as ‘misfits’, reflecting on their relationship with the Bible, a text that I was immersed in, growing up in northern Ireland, got so used to that I can’t imagine a time when I wasn’t thinking about, and for me defines the challenge of having to wrestle as human beings with the fact that most glasses are both half empty and half full, life is lived in the in-between spaces, and the point is learning to love it. I love the poetic explorations of Scripture, and I sometimes feel threatened by what some of us have done with it. The book is called (Dis)Quiet Time, and you can find out more about its mystery and wonder here.  I’m happy to be counted among its wandering contributors, and here’s the opening of my essay in the book, which is about how my passport was stolen when I visited Golgotha.

My earliest memories are colonized by celluloid dreams – flying over spectacular lit-up Manhattan with that guy who wore red briefs over his blue tights, or with Mickey Mouse magicking an accidental flood into an angry sorceror’s parlor, or bicycling over the moon.  We experience movies the way we remember things – Norman Mailer once wrote that the resemblance of cinema to the memory of death is one of the least theorized yet most obvious perspectives through which to view the art.  Our memories of the dead are pictures we keep in the paradoxically ever-deepening tunnel, yet ever-expanding kaleidoscope of our minds; there’s not much difference between a photograph of Harrison Ford holding a sword on a rope bridge in India and a memory of a person we love whose body is now mingling with the dust of earth.  So when I’m remembering my childhood, I’m remembering something that is, in one very real sense, dead.  When I’m remembering movies, I’m remembering something that in a very real sense died when the final print emerged from the dark room.  When I’m remembering dead people, I feel like I’m at the movies.

What, you may ask, and I wouldn’t blame you, has this to do with the collection of writings, authorship or coauthorship uncertain (and depending on the tradition, we don’t even agree on what those writings are), that we who may be a little lower than the angels usually simplify to being called ‘the Bible’?  Well, it’s like that too.  My youth was formed in the crucible of northern Irish civil strife and angry, divisive religion; whose light side included more than a healthy dose of possibly randomly selected (certainly not all) and selectively interpreted biblical stories as the only foundation for living. I heard Daniel in the Lions’ Den and David & Goliath and No Room at the Inn and Jesus on a Donkey and Crucify him! Crucify him! so often that it was hard to distinguish between those tales and those of Elliott & ET, the Goonies & the treasure map, or Marty McFly & the DeLorean.  So while there’s a lot of beef to be had with the way scripture has been used to divide and conquer, or how religious institutions have corroded the difference between the spirit and the law to the point where both are emptied of meaning, or of how my  – and your – very personhood has been subject to death-dealing social practices justified by an appeal to either testament, and entrenched by the unarguable-with ‘all scripture is God-breathed’, such analysis or angst or alternativizing is not my focus here.  What I want – or sometimes think I want – is to be able to return to a time when I didn’t ‘know’ what the Bible said.  I’d like to experience it as if it wasn’t the undergirding text of the imperialistic culture into which I was born, whose privileges I inherit, and whose sins I cannot deny.  I wish bad interpretations of the text had not been woven into a discordant symphony of autobiographical background music.  I’d like some distance.  In short, I’d like to remember the Bible as if it were not a movie.

If you’d like to read the rest of this, I encourage you to support the independent writing found in (Dis)Quiet Time.  Thanks!

A STORY FOR INTERNATIONAL COMING OUT DAY

A Story for International Coming Out Day

This is a long post, but it comes from the heart. I welcome your comments.

I’ve waited a long time to write this, and I’m still not sure.

I have been afraid all my life.  Afraid that you might find out about me. I have sustained insults, devoted myself to other people’s plans for me, avoided people that I used to know because I’m scared of what they might ask me, hidden who I am from myself, been interrupted every day with thoughts that I am hateful and broken and deserve punishment.

I have felt this way, not because I have done anything wrong, or anything more wrong than the rest of us, but because I love men. And I, myself am a man. I also love women, but that never invited persecution. I identify as bisexual, and since I started to think about being any kind of sexual, I have never known a time when I didn’t feel this way.  Men are beautiful, women are beautiful, and I see no difference between the two loves. Asking me to deny my attraction to men because it’s incompatible with my attraction to women would be, as a friend taught me, like saying to someone who loves the great outdoors that they have to choose between mountains and rivers.

Continue reading

IRELAND TRIP 2015 WITH BRIAN MCLAREN

I’m really excited to let you all know about a trip to Ireland that my friend Brian McLaren and I are leading next summer.  After the amazing success of the trips I led this past summer, we’re continuing to deepen the experience, and I hope you’ll consider joining us. Here are some thoughts from folk who participated this past summer:

“Before this retreat I hadn’t realized how much wonder and freedom had been missing from my life. We walked each day without quite knowing exactly where we were gong, except that we would be meeting someone to talk about something! I now approach each day like a walk in northern Ireland, filled with expectation about the wonderful people I’ll meet and the things I’ll learn.”

“Under gentle and inspiring guidance, a diverse group of strangers seeking direction in their spiritual lives became a tribe, with a sense of community and belonging for which all of us had longed.”

“An exceptional experience. You leave this trip with each of your senses saturated and nourished. “Refreshing”, “Life-changing” – these words are over-used but, even in their sincerest definition they still serve as understatements. This trip is many beautiful things but, what I’d say overall is that a trip like this is a necessity for those who seek to go deeper and live more authentically.”

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Staying first in a lovely old country house by the sea outside Belfast (that’s Belfast below), and then in 400 year old thatched cottages in Mourne country (that’s Mourne country above – really), 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 nine 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 June 15th-23rd 2014 - eight 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 when they are available in early October.  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 us know. There are payment plans and may be part-scholarships available, so don’t hesitate to be in touch if you’re interested. Brian and I can’t wait to welcome you to Belfast in June – we’ll even visit the fish below together!

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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.