WHY ‘SELMA’ COULD ACTUALLY CHANGE THINGS

selma-bridge

We think we know Martin Luther King, the dreamer, the orator, the man who led a revolution, whose name is on street signs, whose features are now etched in stone at a Washington memorial, who shows up in hip hop videos and computer ads, whose most famous speech may be the most-quoted in our collective memories. “Think different,” said the Mac ad, hiring the image of a political revolutionary to sell computers; even Glenn Beck featured MLK on his wall of great Americans. But there’s not a lot of evidence that we pay much attention to the things King actually said. Companies and celebrities want to identify their brands with an unquestionable hero, making an image rather than a movement. So do most of us, I guess. We can all call to memory the cadence of “I have a dream”. It’s less clear whether we remember the content. The most important coincidence of the acclaimed new movie Selma is arriving at a moment when the deferred dream is starting to reassert itself – in the person of a black president, in the Occupy movement, and most recently in the rallying cry challenging the targeting of black bodies by white power. The most important gift of Selma is that it goes beyond the surface of popular understandings of King and the civil rights struggle, portraying a human being with imperfections as the leader (working with other imperfect people) of a years-long movement. This is the most realistic depiction of organizing for social change that I’ve seen in a mainstream movie. We see people working through the agonizing task of navigating how the movement will achieve its goals – and what those goals are; we see arguments about tactics, and domestic vulnerability too. And we see, of course, the unfathomable suffering of the movement’s martyrs and their loved ones – Jimmie Lee Jackson, summarily executed by police, James Reeb beaten to death, Viola Luzzio shot by white supremacists, and the foreshadowing of King’s assassination.

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AT HOME WHEREVER YOU ARE

Early in Los Angeles Plays Itself, Thom Anderson’s amazing film about the city that never sleeps because we’re always dreaming about it, the narrator, who is supposed to be Anderson but is also something like God, says one of those things that is so obviously true that the hearer may have the paradoxical experience of satisfaction at an epiphany of something we already knew colliding with the surprise that we hadn’t figured it out before: ’If we can appreciate documentary films for their dramatic qualities, perhaps we can appreciate fiction films for their documentary revelations’.

This is certainly the case when it comes to emotional truth (Braveheartwas shot partly in Ireland, but still quickens the hearts of Scots; so was Saving Private Ryan for that matter, but it inspired mass catharsis among veterans of the Normandy landings); but it’s unquestionably profound for films actually made in places we know. I have a theory about this.

Read more at Reel Spirituality.

FILM MOMENTS OF 2014

A version of this post originally appeared at Reel Spirituality.

Movies blend into each other. They always have. And in a world where the experience of movie-going has been standardized more than ever (compare the $20 two-Cokes-and-popcorn identikit shopping mall mulitplex combo with the rough-hewn character of the downtown theaters that some of us grew up with), movies blend even more. It’s getting harder to remember where we saw them and which is which. When I look back on the 2014 movie year, I’m more captivated by moments than by individual films (there’s really only one new movie I saw this year that I felt had it all – we’ll get to that later).

The way life is like the movies is the way that life is made up of moments that resonate on the inside of us. Life is lived mostly in the in-between spaces – weddings and funerals and births and graduation ceremonies and declarations of first love and war-making and peace treaties do not dominate our lives. Looking out the office window, preparing breakfast, going for a walk, being stuck in traffic, not finishing a novel, having a cold, asking questions – these are the substance of our life scripts. We may never put on a Broadway play in an attempt at being taken seriously, but we’ve all felt exhilarated at the anticipation of something whose unfolding we’re not sure of; we’re not going to be faced with the challenge of leaving our families in order to save the world, but we all know the pain of loss and how one door closing means another opens; thankfully, the vast majority of us will never experience direct violence, but each of us gets the opportunity to be both the bearer of wounds and in need of forgiveness. My movie year granted me access to these moments, these feelings that, as Proust would have it, enable me to be “the reader of my own self.”

The big movie tapestry that is 2014 includes:

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THIRTY-NINE (OR MORE) FAVORITE FILMS (AND NOT) OF 2014

THIRTY-NINE OR MORE FAVORITE FILMS (AND NOT) OF 2014

LATE 2013 RELEASES THAT I ONLY SAW THIS YEAR BUT ARE REALLY QUITE SOMETHING:
THE PAST
THE GREAT BEAUTY

BEST BACKDROP BUT MOST UNIMAGINATIVE SELF-NEGATING RESOLUTION:
MALEFICENT/GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY/THE DROP

BEST PREMISE BUT MOST UNIMAGINATIVE SELF-NEGATING RESOLUTION:
LUCY

FILM ATTEMPTING TO BE AN ACTION FILM WITH A BRAIN WHICH WRECKS ITSELF WITH 40 MINUTES TOO MUCH OF UNFOLLOWABLE SCENES OF INSANE DESTRUCTION:
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER

FILM THAT BROKE MY HEART BY BEING SO BORING I LEFT HALFWAY THROUGH DESPITE BEING DIRECTED BY CLINT EASTWOOD:
JERSEY BOYS (Though it’s not as bad as LEFT BEHIND)

FILM I’M NERVOUS ABOUT BECAUSE IT SEEMS LIKE A REIFICATION OF THE MYTH OF REDEMPTIVE VIOLENCE DESPITE BEING DIRECTED BY CLINT EASTWOOD:
AMERICAN SNIPER

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MOVIES AND MEANING – A DREAM SPACE: YOU’RE INVITED

I’m hosting a festival called MOVIES AND MEANING, next May. It’s for everyone who loves stories and light. It’s going to be magical.

IRELAND TRIP WITH DAVID WILCOX & ME, AUGUST 2015

Hi friends – tremendously excited to let you know that last night at  David Wilcox‘s Homecoming gig in Asheville we will announce our Ireland Trip 2015. But here’s a sneak preview: 400 year old cottages & a country house, for seven nights, music, storytelling, walking the landscape and meeting peacemakers, from August 21st-28th (with the option of attending the Greenbelt festival in England afterwards). The usual suspects will be curating our experience – David Wilcox MusicKaren Moore, and myself. We want to have you with us of course, so if it’s possible for any of you, please let me know very soon as we expect the trip will fill up quickly. Contact me here and we’ll send you details. Everyone’s welcome, but there’s only space for 20 people, so let me know soon!

THE HEART OF INTERSTELLAR

Interstellar-Walking-Monolith-Robot

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