Category Archives: Cinema

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…




1999 was the last great year for cinema until 2012 rolled around – and what might have been the greatest thing about it was the emergence of new/newish film-makers ready to reinvent the medium, and veterans trying to outdo them.  PT Anderson, David O Russell, Kimberly Peirce and Spike Jonze all released movies that firmly established themselves as new auteurs, ‘The Blair Witch Project’ shocked business mavens as much as audiences by showing how you could make a hundred million dollars out of a camcordered walk in the woods, and Michael Mann reinvented ‘All the President’s Men’.

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There are things that existed before we did, and will be here after we leave. Koyaanisqatsi (from the Hopi language, meaning ‘life out of balance’, and released this month on Criterion DVD and BluRay as part of what I’m voting for as the best box set of 2012) is perhaps the most relentlessly overpowering film about nature ever made; endlessly imitated, never equalled, it could serve both as a prophetic warning and an aid to worship, as we are overwhelmed by the beauty of the earth, and the destructiveness of humankind. It has the power to make you see everything with new eyes – like Neo’s early experience of the Matrix – to feel like you’re looking at the world around you for the first time. I saw it performed ‘live’ once, with Philip Glass playing alongside the projected print – maybe the best experience I’ve ever had in a cinema. It’s dangerously exhilarating to watch, perhaps especially because you have the sneaking suspicion that you’re seeing yourself on the screen. What has been called ‘the illusory nature of created things’ is one thing; but sometimes those created things are pretty good at damaging other created things – and this film is not an illusion. Aboriginal cultures believe that nobody owns the land, and I suppose this is not a million miles away from ‘the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it’. This film will make you awestruck at creation, whether or not you believe in God, and maybe weep for what we’re doing to it. It’s director Godfrey Reggio is a former Catholic monk, and the composer of its remarkable score, Mr Glass is a Buddhist – so if you think knowing something about the authorship of a work of art is irrelevant to how you understand or appreciate it, think again. These guys are clearly devoted to their own spirituality and want to draw us in too. They are amply supported by the cinematographer, Ron Fricke (director of this year’s magnificent ‘Samsara’); there is no adequate way to describe the photography. The movie has no dialogue; it is simply a journey from un-populated parts of the planet to the mega-conurbations of the industrialized world.

While there is little sign of where human beings have dealt well with what we’ve been given, Reggio wants to show us what went right, what is chaotic and magnificent about the earth before what went wrong. In the opening scenes, he manages to make us see the earth like we’ve never gazed on it before – desert spaces evoking Martian landscapes. One of the biblical writers said that the stones would rise up and worship God if we people do not; and it looks like that’s just what they’re doing in these early sequences. We see sand dunes looking like corrugated cardboard, and cloud formations like tidal waves or explosions, convulsions of white light that look like they pose a danger to us, followed by fields of surreally-coloured flowers that consume our own field of vision. These scenes are reminiscent of the amazing ‘Rite of Spring’ Sequence in Disney’s ‘Fantasia’, but before we get too comfortable with the images of beautiful nature, we are brought down to the level of the human with a whimper.
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It’s the Movies’ Fault/It’s Not the Movies’ Fault

Three viewings of The Dark Knight Rises leave me feeling that this film has been over-watched but under-interpreted. Its release was, of course, briefly overshadowed by the terrible murders in Aurora, CO, but hand-wringing about the movies/violence, or about gun ownership/gun homicide quickly gave way to the rest of the summer movie season. Dialogue about a character committed to non-lethal restraint in his attempt at loving a city was superseded by repeat visits to Finding Nemo, explorations of financial corruption in Arbitrage, the magnificent humanist drama Beasts of the Southern Wild, the moral force of metaphor for unthinking nationalism Killer Joe, the delicate harshness of childhood in Moonrise Kingdom, the moving journey into memory and love of Robot & Frank, the glorious, extravagant vistas of Samsara, the surprising mercies of Searching for Sugarman, the morose yet tender self-reflection of Sleepwalk with Me, and the amusing but cheap political shots of The Campaign.

Yet the Dark Knight is still rising, the debates about guns and movies and killing are still waiting to be had, families in Colorado are still grieving. So if we’re going to take cinema seriously – which, if you believe in the power of art to interweave with autobiography, is indivisible from taking life seriously – we’re going to have to keep talking about Batman’s bad summer.

In the aftermath of the shootings, the debate about guns remained fixated on the understandable but superficial talking point polarities of “Ban them!” on the one hand and “Guns don’t kill people!” on the other; meanwhile, movies were largely either blamed for everything (in puritanical quarters), or responsibility denied (in liberal ones). A sign of light emerged when mogul Harvey Weinstein called for a summit of his colleagues – the Scorseses and the Tarantinos and so on – to discuss violence in their movies, and its potential impact on the world outside the theatre.

Read the rest of this article at the Brehm Center Reel Spirituality blog

Making Good Experience out of a Bad Column

The rather-too-accurately named ‘Vulture’ section of the New York magazine website posted a piece about ‘Worst moviegoing experiences’ a while back. It’s funny, snarky, sad. I’ve had my share of disappointments – dirty theaters, unhelpful staff, and most of all BAD PROJECTION AND SOUND PRECEDED BY TWENTY MINUTES OF ADVERTISING I’M PAYING TO SEE AND HAVE TO SIT THROUGH IF I WANT TO ENSURE HAVING A REMOTELY COMFORTABLE VIEWING ANGLE. But…

In Kansas City’s Tivoli cinema, in the summer of 1996, a man lifted his arms in the air during the climactic scenes of ‘Basquait’, physically enacting the awe he – and I think I – were feeling.

In the Max Linder Kinopanorama, in the summer of 1998, I sat in the middle balcony, which put me eye level with Peter O’Toole, holding a burning match til it wore down to his fingertips; when he blew it out and we cut to the desert horizon, we were only ten minutes into ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, but I gasped out loud for beauty.

In Prague, in the summer of 1997, I sat with an audience who got the jokes in ‘Everyone Says I Love You’, three seconds before I did, revealing one of the peculiar consequences of not understanding the language the subtitles are written in.

In what was then the MGM Multiplex in Belfast, on its opening afternoon, the projectionist switched off the end credits to ‘The Thin Red Line’ after a breath or two; I asked the usher to let me see the rest of the movie; she made a call, and invited me to return to my seat for a private viewing.

In Belfast’s Waterfront Hall, I saw Howard Shore conduct the Ulster Orchestra backing Ornette Coleman and a print of Cronenberg’s ‘Naked Lunch’. In the same venue a few years later, the bass of Philip Glass’ score for ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ thudded through my chest while his ensemble played alongside the film.

I saw ‘There Will Be Blood’ at the Savoy in Dublin, and noted the irony of the film’s last line (possible – but not much of a – spoiler ahoy) – an old, broken, broken, broken man saying ‘I’m finished’ – when contrasted with the sheer aliveness of the lumberjack-shirted, both-earringed, porkpie-hatted, face-besmiled Daniel Day-Lewis who bounded down the theatre steps immediately thereafter.

I staggered out of the Edinburgh Film House breathing in large gulps after the devastating final sequence of Carlos Reygadas’ ‘Japon’; and in the same building saw Emily Blunt for the first time – on screen and, after the UK premiere of ‘My Summer of Love’, standing right in front of me; and in the Queens Film Theatre in Belfast spent most of cinema’s centenary year – 1995 – discovering that watching ‘Dr Strangelove’ or ‘Aguirre The Wrath of God’ or ‘Cabaret’ or ‘The Battle of Algiers’ in a cinema compares with watching on TV much the same way as visiting the Pyramids is related to seeing a mummy or a photograph of the Rosetta Stone in a museum.

The ‘New York’ piece is mildly amusing, but appears to me mostly as the thin end of the wedge in a popular culture where snark competes with dehumanization and revenge for the monopoly on our attention. How’s about a piece on the BEST experiences any of us have had in a cinema? Thoughts, anyone?

Weekend & The Game

Criterion has the difficult task of marketing two films with exactly the same title, released on BluRay a month apart. The first, ‘Weekend‘, Andrew Haigh’s moving and honest depiction of love, not at first sight, but at first couple of days hanging out together, earns its distinction of being one of the few contemporary films to get the typically pristine and engaging treatment only Criterion and Eureka can muster in the US or UK. What’s striking about ‘Weekend’ is how its tale of two guys falling for each other is far more sexually explicit that ‘Brokeback Mountain’, yet the gender of the protagonists is taken for granted. Things have changed – the gay identity of the characters is handled subtly, shown, not told, not made into the reason for the film’s existence. ‘Weekend’ could pass as the first widely seen British gay love story that allows itself to be as much about the love and the story as the gay.

An entirely different kind of emotional honesty is on display in ‘The Game‘, one of my guilty pleasures, also released on Criterion BluRay this past week. Spoiler avoidance is well nigh impossible in any review that wants to explore the themes of a film in which Michael Douglas is invited to take part in a puzzle he doesn’t understand and ends up being much more (and less) than it seems. So I’ll try to avoid giving the film’s title away and just say that as a parable for descent into the psychic shadow, and a proposition for changing direction, ‘The Game’s as good as the story of Jacob Marley’s former business partner.

Both editions carry handsome extras – particularly notable is Haigh’s discussion of avoiding homocliche, and Douglas’ surprisingly vulnerable contributions to the audio commentary.

How Not To Kill

When President Obama says that those in authority will do everything possible to ensure safety in the light of the Colorado cinema shootings, I hope we can have a thoughtful conversation about how policies promoted by a national myth addicted to violence cannot be divorced from how some individuals may not be able to control their own violent impulses; a criminal justice system that equates retribution with justice and offers little possibility of restoration or rehabilitation; a news media whose dominant voices rarely question the social, cultural and psychological foundations of violence, nor recognize the relationship between their own reporting and the nurturing of the self-aggrandizing dramatic personal myths that appear to have found horrifying closure in yet another mass shooting; and a political discourse now apparently wedded, not just to zero-sum opposition to compromise, but to dehumanizing people who may only be slightly different from each other. The gunman, surely, is responsible for what he did last night; but what he did arose in a cultural context over which each of us has some influence. The sorrow of the victims, survivors, and their loved ones will not be honored by more of the same.

There are at least two things each of us can do in response. We can learn to thoughtfully lament, which includes caring for those who suffer; and we can learn about how the myth of redemptive violence cannot be challenged by more violence, retribution, and othering. We need to get serious about telling new stories about violence. Ironically, one of those new stories is the under-myth presented in the Dark Knight films. It’s an error of interpretation to say that the films inspired the violence: the dominant ethical assertion in The Dark Knight Rises is that human beings learning to live with thoughtful, non-reactive, nonlethal, selfless compassion (often at great personal cost) is not only our only hope, but the only thing that works.