Philip Seymour Hoffman: The Master


Thinking about Philip Seymour Hoffman, and specifically his lovely performance in David Mamet’s STATE AND MAIN. There’s a scene in that charming contrivance that seems to build on Mamet’s earlier genius idea, spoken by Gene Hackman in HEIST: ‘I’m not that smart; I just try to think of what someone smarter than me would do and then I do that.’ The STATE AND MAIN scene involves PSH’s character being invited to search his conscience and choose between integrity and commerce. He makes a fascinating choice; and what happens next is enormously comforting to those of us who frequently make mistakes…

Meanwhile, in memory of PSH, my thoughts on his greatest screen performance.

There are many key moments in ‘The Master’, Paul Thomas Anderson’s stomach-punching, fingernails-down-a-chalkboard psychological thriller loosely based on the founding of Scientology, but more deeply understood as a tale of two egos.  We witness a titanic battle for self-control by a man who knows nothing of it (Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell), or to distinguish imagination from delusion by a man whose simmering rage emanates perhaps from the terror that the truth he has found may not be enough (Philip Seymour Hoffman’s L Ron Hubbard surrogate, Lancaster Dodd).  Neither of them know how to love; both are desperate to be loved; they find in each other a conversation partner, a patient, an unrequited lover.  They are two of the most human characters the movies have brought us; their power trips are terrifying, because they may remind us of our own.  There are many key moments – the first meeting between the war veteran and new religious leader, the dictator bonding with his subject over mutual substance abuse; when the master holds court in New York society, first offering tender words of potential healing to a grand dame, then exploding at a guest who dares question the source of his ‘knowledge'; when the protege is experimented with, commanded to walk up and down between a wall and a window until he is both capable of imagining unbridled freedom, and driven nearly mad in the process; a science fiction-esque digging of buried treasure on an Arizona flat bed that could pass for Mars.

Striking moments, but the one that remains most resonant in my memory after two viewings is still the most ambiguous.  After Freddie and Dodd first meet, the new father invites the new son (the relationship, and the failings of relationship, between fathers and sons is where this film really aches) to attend his daughter’s wedding.  The invitation is accompanied either by a warning, or an invocation: Dodd tells him either ‘Your memories aren’t welcome’ or ‘Your memories are welcome’.  Two viewings leaves it unclear – and I could check, but it doesn’t really matter; for each is a blessing.  You don’t have to carry your trauma always and everywhere, or at least it doesn’t always have to weigh as much; or you can join this community and still be fully yourself.  It’s a mark of the moral complexity of ‘The Master’ that it can critique the damage done by demonic religion while here honoring the best hopes of its angelic shades.  The movie’s not really about Scientology per se, but power and love.  Like ‘Andrei Rublev’ it’s too big a film to be interpreted in a review.  It needs to be seen; deserves to be studied; and invites a response in life as well as words.

A Tipping Point for Homophobia in Ireland?

What is on my mind is my homeland, where one of the state-subsidized broadcasters just paid a massive amount of money to two powerful people who campaign to prevent LGBTQ equality because they were offended at being publicly characterized as inheritors of the tradition of homophobia. What is more on my mind is that the person who made the entirely reasonable, in fact incontrovertible assertion in the first place, has subsequently given a speech that will be remembered long after the laws that tell any of us that our lives are worth less than the dominant culture have disappeared from the books, long after the time when people (inadvertently or otherwise) dedicated to humiliating some of us and suffocating our hope have either seen the error of their ways or backed down quietly or in the best of all worlds been liberated into the rainbow of possibility that they are denying within themselves by seeking to control love. This speech is the future. The death-dealing ways of the kind of religion that seeks to treat the human as if we were machines dedicated only to the promotion of patriarchy and puritanism are the past.


The Tyranny of American Optimism


“If you would understand the tension between Mexico and the United States that is playing out along our mutual border, you must understand the psychic tension between Mexican stoicism – if that is a rich enough word for it – and American optimism. On the one side, the Mexican side, Mexican peasants are tantalized by the American possibility of change. On the other side, the American side, the tyranny of American optimism has driven Americans to neurosis and depression, when the dream is elusive or less meaningful than the myth promised. This constitutes the great irony of the Mexican-American border: American sadness has transformed the drug lords of Mexico into billionaires, even as the peasants of Mexico scramble through the darkness to find the American dream.” – From Darling: A Spiritual Autobiographyby Richard Rodriguez, an amazing book that ultimately evokes the dream that won’t disappoint or kill: that of mutual, interdependent love. This is the most compelling memoir, with the most beautiful language, and I don’t want it to end.


I’m really excited to let you all know about a trip to Ireland that David Wilcox, Karen Moore and I are leading this summer.  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.


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.


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 – five 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.


THE LONE RANGER & HEAVEN’S GATE – Or How Underrated Wisdom Is Never Heard Til After The Speaker Has Gone


Two of the greatest films about American nation-building and the sins of the past hit town last year, but almost no one noticed, which is a loss, because they’re profoundly wise entertainments that contain wisdom for the ages.  The Lone Ranger (whose failure at the US box office has led to a $190 million write-off for Disney, despite being perhaps the brainiest blockbuster action film since Raiders of the Lost Ark) and the re-released Heaven’s Gate (a film that bankrupted a studio and whose box office failure has largely concealed from the public the most amazing light ever committed to film) are ready to be engaged away from the hubbub of snarkier-than-thou, average-fits-all circus of mass opinion.

Their stories are about the hands that built America on top of genocide. The Lone Ranger radically re-imagines the story we think ourselves familiar with: John Reid is a strait-laced Harvard man, returning to the Texas of his birth to participate in what he might convince himself is a ‘civilizing’ process, but is ultimately conquest. He just about learns this from Tonto – played by Johnny Depp (of all performers to play this Cherokee, the one with the clearest Native American heritage) – a character more fully written, more complex, and more human than the typical idiot savant/magic charm typically reserved for such archetypes. Director Gore Verbinski’s comedy action aims for Buster Keaton heights – and actually almost gets there; the drama is redolent with genuine pathos (Tonto’s back story is not just moving, but politically provocative); the cinematic references (not least to Sergio Leone’s granddaddy of nation-billing Westerns, Once Upon a Time in the West) are a delight; and the framing device – of an elderly Tonto telling the story to a boy visiting him in a museum – perfectly fits a tale which is partly about how we tell the story of the past.  It might sound simplistic to say that Disney has made an art film for the masses, but it’s true: The Lone Ranger is the smartest, most exciting, funniest, most moving, and philosophically rich Western since Heaven’s Gate. 


That earlier film, notorious in reputation, astonishing in experience, also embarks from Harvard, where the preacher’s presidential address ordains cultural imperialism: “It is not great wealth alone that builds the library; it is to diffuse a high learning and culture among a people; it is the contact of the cultivated mind with the uncultivated.” The class orator, played by John Hurt, follows to speak of a world in which everything is just fine as it is, which, of course, for the professional class in the 1860s, it was. These men were about to take the land—the intelligentsia grabbing fields and taking human lives, just as Pol Pot gathered his thoughts in Paris, and the more recent bloody Iraq misadventure began partly at Yale. Heaven’s Gate is based on the real life story of ‘ethnic cleansing’ of immigrants by business in Wyoming in the 1890s It is some kind of sick joke for a white American pilgrim descendant to tell a recently pogrommed Eastern European Jew to “go back where you came from,” while the desperation and powerlessness of the population movements that built this nation are confronted as if they were something out of Schindler’s List.

And so we have Wyoming, from where both the torture advocate Dick Cheney and the gay martyr Matthew Shepard hail, where the land is so beautiful it makes you feel like crying: because the emotional resonance of being at home in the presence or absence of God sometimes can’t be expressed any other way. Wyoming, where Jackson Pollock was born to splash paint in dynamic vibrancy, where the carpenter-pilot Harrison Ford carves tables and flies small planes, and where Buffalo Bill learned to sell Western culture back to itself, creating the town of Cody for that very purpose. Because of Buffalo Bill, you could say that Wyoming was where American celebrity was born. Bill knew the power of an over-sell, and he made the country his own. He could learn something from Cimino’s Harvard president who, despite inviting imperialist ambition, managed to evoke humility too, speaking of a rather different way to imagine America’s founding, and perhaps an answer to the crises in America’s future:

“Do you wish to write better than you can? We must endeavor to speak to the best of our ability, but we must speak according to our ability.”

The Lone Ranger and Heaven’s Gate together speak according to the ability that is granted with the benefit of historical hindsight: this land was never your land, nor mine.  Attention must be paid.

My book CINEMATIC STATES explores these themes in more detail – if you like, you can pick it up here.



Henry Fonda gets to wear a white suit, speak the truth, convert a room, and save the world, which is kind of easy, I guess, if you’re Henry Fonda, so as with many of these kinds of things, the unfolding is more important than the end: ‘Twelve Angry Men’ is today’s invitation to consider the advent of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you: if all it takes to destroy a life is to fail to pay any attention, then sometimes all it takes to save one is to pay some.



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.