CINEMADVENT: RUSSIAN ARK

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And now, a little experiment in iconography.  I’m suggesting a film every couple of days of the Advent season in my tradition, and everyone’s welcome.  The point is invitation – not annunciation or validation – but invitation to consider something more than usual in this period in the year, the one where some bearers of the divine image choose to complain of persecution because other bearers of the same image have decided to respect human diversity, the one where people tear their family gatherings apart so they can run down to a large metal box to push past other people wrecking their family gatherings and buy smaller metal boxes, the one where we may devote more time to arguing about ‘the true meaning of Christmas’ than we do experiencing the meaning of anything…Yeah, that one.

It’s a little experiment, like I said, and a small act of resistance, and something I hope you’ll join me in.  I’ll tweet the films I’m watching each day, and be glad to be in conversation about them.

Today it’s RUSSIAN ARK – in which a floating camera takes us into the past, and questions are posed, and the great art on the walls, and the great art OF the walls, of the Hermitage are opened up like no curated space before.  The whole film is an invitation to think about the creation that every act of human decision is.  Advent, for me, is an invitation to reconsider the miraculous offering that each day is – RUSSIAN ARK takes 99 minutes to evoke a world entire – three centuries of Russia’s past that are like reverse-chronology echoes of the tragic future; when I’m watching, I’m reminded that every single day contains exactly enough time in each day to create, or to diminish the human.

CINEMA 2013: What Seamus Heaney Taught Me About Movies

I was in Belfast when I read the news that Seamus Heaney, our national poet, singer of hope, and a spiritual father, had died. It’s hard to think of a more significant, and certainly there was no more widely loved, cultural figure in my homeland of northern Ireland than Heaney. If by invention we mean the process of taking two or more things that had not previously been mingled, and leading them into alchemy, then Seamus Heaney didn’t just speak my language, he invented it. He took the raw material of the Ulster culture, the landscape, the sorrow amidst political struggle, and fashioned a lexicon of desire: to be heard, to make sense of, to wonder why, to define boundaries and to commit to a life of service to the unique vocation to which each of us is invited. 

Cinema is poetry, not prose, so there is no contradiction about invoking Heaney in an article about the movies. Indeed, I wish his voice had been put to direct use in film criticism; I would have loved to read his thoughts on what Norman Mailer called the ‘spooky art’ (so called for the resemblance of the recorded human image to memories of the dead). But poems we have, and they will be read forever – I learned about mortality from his ‘Mid-Term Break’, of the story of his wee brother’s death at four years old; I was comforted by the melancholic prescience of ‘whatever you say, say nothing’ as applied to the secrecy ironically acknowledged by everyone in my country’s civil conflict; I received an icon through which to interpret the very world in ‘The Skylight’.

‘The Skylight’ is the best poem I’ve read about cinema that isn’t about cinema: Heaney writes about his reluctance the time his wife arranged for a hole to be cut in their roof to let the light in.  He declares himself to be grateful once the old ceiling was opened up, moving from skepticism about the project to comparing the experience to nothing less than witnessing a miracle of healing from paralysis. His work does that to readers, of course; and his death has stirred up for me the poetics of movies that leave me feeling the same way.

Read the rest at the Reel Spirituality Blog

CINEMA 2013: THE EXORCIST’s 40th Anniversary, JFK’s return

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I grew up in a branch of Christianity that even now, ten years after I migrated elsewhere, still confounds me.  How could something so beautiful be so crazy?  How could otherwise rational people, people who were doctors and architects and teachers and caregivers, assert that the reason why some of us were depressed or scared was that demonic forces with personalities, strategies, and even names were attaching themselves to us because our great-grandparents had once played used drugs/gambling/a ouija board?  Because that’s what we were doing: telling people that their pain could be explained by demonic possession.  Sure, we modified it – turning ‘possession’ into ‘demonization’, wherein Christians couldn’t be totally overcome by the little imps, just overly affected by them; and it was a long way from the times when we might have burned or drowned people – especially women – just because they liked herbal tea.  But perhaps it was still on the same evolutionary continuum – and, to be fair, not that much different from what most people believe, some of the time.  There are folks who think that the policies of the current Democratic Party will bring about the resurgence of Stalinist collective farming; there are people who think that you shouldn’t purchase items with barcodes otherwise you’re giving yourself over to Satan; there are people who think friends of George W Bush engineered 9/11 because America needed a war.

Thankfully, in those moments when I get frustrated enough with the madness of Christianity’s shadow side to be diagnosed with a demon of anger, I can turn to an expert for help.  The 40th anniversary of William Peter Blatty and William Friedkin’s ground-breaking horror film ‘The Exorcist’ is fast approaching, so I gave it an umpteenth viewing the other day.  The first time I saw it, I was a teenager and I hid behind the sofa, which was more frightening, as the imagination always allows for worse than what’s on screen.  The next time I was fully immersed in the demon-seeking subculture of the charismatic movement, so the experience of Regan, the teenage girl who floats and screams and vomits and whose head spins round, seemed half-plausible.  The third time was in conjunction with viewing Paul Schrader’s prequel ‘Dominion’; a film written by a former Dutch Calvinist and co-scripter of ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’, and so unsurprisingly it’s one of the more thoughtful treatments of religion on film; it also deepened my appreciation of Blatty’s conservative Catholic approach: he really does believe that a little girl could be consumed by the devil, and that there is power in the name of Jesus.  For my part, ‘The Exorcist’ has become something like an old friend – it reminds me of the light and shadow of my religious heritage, and achieves something rare: a work of art that is preoccupied with death always leaves me feeling more alive.

Continue reading at the Reel Spirituality Blog

CINEMA 2013: BLUE JASMINE

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It’s not difficult to identify why people consider Woody Allen’s work to be unique – his exploration of the mannerisms of the privileged, his vision of New York, and his repeated return to questions of God and guilt over the past 45 years grant him the rare status of being a film director whose name people not only know, but the hearing of it evokes a genuine feeling. Not just ‘love him or hate him’, but something deeper – we may hear his name, and we may think about how his films have provoked us to ask questions about our own lives. We may also think about the fact that his career is popularly understood to have three movements – the ‘early, funny pictures’ of 1968-1976, the mostly ‘serious, existential’ films of the following twenty years, and the bad ones ever since. This critical shorthand doesn’t do justice to a life in art – the funny films are sometimes as profound as the serious ones (try ‘Sleeper’ for magnificent satire of technology addiction and consumerism), the serious ones are often deliriously funny (‘Crimes and Misdemeanors’ achieves the astonishment of evoking both tears of laughter about the very purpose of comedy alongside a story of a man who has a woman killed because he’s scared of his wife and potential lost reputation), and there have been at least a couple of near-masterpieces in the recent period when it has been popular to denounce him (‘Sweet and Lowdown’ and ‘Deconstructing Harry’ both stand comparison to ‘Hannah and Her Sisters’ and ‘Annie Hall’).

Continue reading

Cinematic States: America in 50 Movies

Hi folks – my book CINEMATIC STATES: AMERICA IN 50 MOVIES will be published next week, and in the days between now and then, I’m going to post a thought or two about each state. I’d love to be in conversation with you about how this transcendent artform, which although it was born in France, really came to life in the US, interacts with, underpins, challenges, and reinvents the American myth of itself.

I’ve taken one movie (sometimes two or three) from each state, and attempted a perhaps quixotic endeavor – to wonder about this nation, now my adopted home, to learn more about what is truly ‘American’, and to imagine how it can better serve its best visions.  North Carolina gets BULL DURHAM, California has CHINATOWN, New Jersey is ON THE WATERFRONT.  Wisconsin is discovered through AMERICAN MOVIE, and Wyoming opens HEAVEN’S GATE. Alaska has LIMBO and THE GOLD RUSH, and New York is so big it can’t do without DO THE RIGHT THING, LENNY, CHOP SHOP, SMOKE, and KING KONG. I’d welcome your choices too.

I’m aware that I write as an outsider, which of course brings gifts as well as challenges. I won’t see what you see, which is wonderful, so let’s get pointless arguments about objectivity or which film is ‘right’ for which state out of the way before we go any further. I do think it’s important for writers to acknowledge their perspectives where possible, and there are a few that I think are pretty important here. The first is that I think there are three qualities necessary to be a decent film critic – you need to know something about cinema, something about life, and something about language. Two out of three ain’t bad, but they’re not enough. The second is that, particularly since 9/11, the popular view that America is shit deserves significant interrogation. My friend and mentor Don Shriver puts it brilliantly in the subtitle of his book HONEST PATRIOTS - he wants to ‘love a country enough to remember its misdeeds’. I think that the aphorism should be reversed, in my case at least: I come from a European liberal tradition that has too often remembered only the misdeeds. If America is Babylon, as another friend says, it may be the best babylon we’ve got. There are glories and mysteries mingling with shame and conquest, humble awe with imperial intent. So CINEMATIC STATES is not another ‘Why People Hate America’ missive; nor is it a Disneyfied rose-tinted gaze into an abyss that’s pretending to be heaven. It is, I trust, a record of a lover’s quarrel, from a guy who grew up believing what he saw on cinema screens, and hoped that even some of it could be true.

You can pick up CINEMATIC STATES here – and I hope you enjoy it.

Tomorrow: Where this all began…

What’s the Point of ‘Terrorism’?

BBC Radio Ulster’s Sunday Sequence yesterday hosted a debate on the use of the word ‘terrorism’ regarding the conflict in and about northern Ireland. There’s a long-running public debate over who gets to use the word, and what to define with it. It mixes up politics and personal pain, and serves for some as a way of respecting the gravity of their suffering, while for others it’s a way of demonizing their experience.

My thinking on this is shaped by something I think I heard someone else say once – that if part of the intent or consequence of an act was to create terror, then it’s terrorism, no matter who does it – state or non-state actors alike. So what persists for me is that amongst a thousand other truths, in northern Ireland and elsewhere, the state and non-state actors alike sometimes did terrible things, and everyone thinks they have their reasons.

Most of our people getting to the point of mutual recognition of the validity of that statement would, I think, be a massively positive step. (And it’s of course not the only step: it needs to go alongside accountability, truth-telling, and at the very least some form of amends or reparations as part of a restorative justice process alongside vast listening to, consoling, lamenting with, and respect for victim/survivors.)

Meanwhile, I’m very aware that in the US, my adopted country, that kind of radio debate pretty much never happens in the mainstream/dominant media. Indeed the utterly mainstream view in northern Ireland – that peace comes through negotiation between enemies – is considered anti-patriotic by many, and is only very rarely aired by the national networks or political figures. Until, all of a sudden, President Obama is on the phone with the Iranian President trying to work things out. So maybe we’re getting there.

But the question remains – how can we tell the kind of stories (about northern Ireland, about 9/11, about our people’s chosen traumas, whatever they may be) that might lead to sincerely fearful, certainly wounded, people transforming their response to the legitimate memory of sorrow into something better than retribution?

CINEMATIC STATES: ALASKA

There’s a scene in John Sayles’ film LIMBO, in which the camera glides past a bunch of weather-beaten salmon-gutters at their local dive.  They’re relating the potted history of the state, where it’s dark half the year, where snow is like grass, where people go to escape – it’s like an entire state variation on the French Foreign Legion.  They’re not taking much cognizance of the fact that Kris Kristofferson is playing pool in the corner. In Sayles’ Alaska, people are connected to the land, to the work of their hands, and less concerned with the kind of certainty and boundaries perhaps best represented by the straight lines of the Manhattan skyline. ‘Limbo’ means ‘a condition of unknowable outcome’, and the film certainly gives voice to that ambiguity, inviting the audience to consider what vast tundra might mean as a metaphor of the inner life.  The tonal shift at the film’s mid-point is unlike much else in US American cinema, and the dramatic axis turns at the moment when the three lead characters are forced to strip off wet clothes and hold each other to avoid freezing to death. Their condition of unknowable outcome compels them to the most intimate, vulnerable human action. A winking governor may have colonized the popular vision of Alaska as a place of paranoia and exclusion, but this is but a temporary meme.  This state is massive enough to contain a range of ‘real Americans’ that both Sarah Palin and John Sayles could have invented.  Jon Voigt, in RUNAWAY TRAIN, another Alaskan epic of the soul, finds ultimate liberation when exposed to its incomparable elements.  He’s alive and free, and (as with LIMBO) the film is content to leave the last part of his story unwritten. Alaska gives rise to conditions of unknowable outcome, it’s a site of possibility, and it’s a place where people sometimes have to take their masks off in order to survive.

Read more in CINEMATIC STATES, published this November – and available as an ebook now.

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