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.
I gave this talk a while back at the Reel Spirituality Conference, at Fuller Theological Seminary. Some folk have been asking me to explain how I engage with cinema, so here are a few thoughts:
There’s a stunning moment toward the end of ‘Make Way For Tomorrow’, Leo McCarey’s unimpeachable 1937 masterpiece, and the film that Orson Welles described as the saddest movie ever made, when our heroes – and victims, Barkley and Lucy, ageing parents reduced by the Great Depression to not being able to afford their home, and about to be split up by their grown children, none of whom are willing to care for them meaningfully, spend an afternoon reminiscing about their honeymoon. They share a meal at the hotel they had visited 50 years before, they recite poetry to each other, they decide to dance together. The audience knows that this is quite possibly the last time they will see each other. At the dinner table, Barkley and Lucy, played by Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi do something usually associated with Brechtian theatre; or a more recent postmodern sensibility. They turn toward the camera, and stare piercingly into our eyes. Into our souls. They are asking us to visit with them, to sit still for a second and really identify with them, to actually face their sorrow, and our complicity in the sorrow each of us may cause in the course of a lifetime. It’s an astonishing moment; ‘Make Way for Tomorrow’ may well be the saddest movie ever made.
Make Way for Tomorrow
We may also feel that today’s conference has been an embodiment of the kind of moment captured on film at the end of ‘Make Way for Tomorrow’ – with those of us whose vocations as critics seem to be being forced aside by the callous children of social media, non-paying super-blogs, and film studios who don’t care what we think. To this, I would want to offer a note of caution – there’s something else about tomorrow that the movies teach us; and all is not lost. We’ll get to that teaching on tomorrow later; for now, let me tell you a story about myself.
Presented without much comment, but with the invitation to discuss and add your own titles, my cinema year 2011. (And apologies for text size issues – WordPress really needs to sort out its IPad compatibility issues… When I get back to my laptop I’ll fix what needs addressed here.)
For what it’s worth, I still think ‘Andrei Rublev’ is the greatest film ever made (and hope for a Blu ray release in 2012).
Just outside the top ten/Undiscovered Gems from 2011
Bridesmaids – a female ‘Tootsie’, and as good as that film.
Warrior – the most emotionally substantive ring fighting film since ‘Rocky’.
Road to Nowhere -a slow-burning endless loop return from Monte Hellman.
Anonymous – the most underrated film of the year: an inspirational comic drama about how art can change the world.
Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff – a delightful, educational, and ultimately lazy moving labor of love focused on a man who painted some of the finest images on film, and seems to have been one of the kindest people in his field.
J Edgar – An art movie with the guts to paint a historical villain as a human being.
I knew nothing about ‘Revanche‘, other than it was the kind of film people tell you you’re supposed to like, but they say it so often, and the acclaim is so overwhelming that it makes you wonder if it’s going to be a rehearsal of the time you didn’t get to see ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ on its first release but it seemed as if every four paces you took in town or every third hyperlink you clicked on you’d bump into someone telling you that ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ was not only the Greatest Film Ever Made™ but would make a supermodel fall in love with you and have you develop a six-pack within a matter of days after watching and so by the time you finally did go to see ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ it couldn’t possibly measure up to the standard that had been set for it and anyway the cinema you saw it in was forced to LEAVE ITS LIGHTS ON DURING THE MOVIE because of an absurd local government health and safety injunction ordering it to get new dimmer switches despite the fact that in thirty-five years of operating NO ONE had ever fallen over and sued or lost their soul or even stubbed a toe so it was difficult to engage with ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ cos it’s kinda hard at the best of times to suspend disbelief when watching a fantasy film even moreso WHEN THE LIGHTS IN THE CINEMA HAVE BEEN LEFT ON but it didn’t really matter because… Continue reading
Jeremie Renier, Juliette Binoche, and Charles Berling,
looking happier than they often feel in ‘Summer Hours’
The premise that underlines Olivier Assayas’ film ‘Summer Hours’ couldn’t be more unfamiliar: elderly matriarch dies, her three adult children have to decide how to split up her estate, the Musee D’Orsay gets involved because said estate includes a lot of art and objets d’art, and some teenagers have a party in the rambling French country pile that has given the family shape for a generation. The end.
‘I think that man is not going to change, and the sea going to be dead, because man is crazy’. – ‘The End of the Line’ (That’s not a photo of the ‘end’ – it’s actually a picture of Ira Levin, but that’ll make sense if you read on.)
(Re-posted from The Film Talk): The first time I had a tuna sandwich I was eleven years old. It was October 1986, and my mum had cast me in a staged reading of Ira Levin’s play ‘Critic’s Choice’, in which, if memory serves, I played the 12 year old son of an unpleasant theatre reviewer, who advises his dad on how to respond to a play written by his wife that he doesn’t like. I was terrified, having neither developed a sense of being comfortable on stage, nor having had more than an hour or two to peruse Mr Levin’s script. Well, he went on to write ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ and ‘The Stepford Wives’, and I went on to eat more tuna. I never really thought about where my food came from until the fair trade movement of the late 1990s convinced me to change coffee brands in a neat inverse colonisation move; and since then it seems that every five minutes there’s a new documentary about what’s wrong with the world’s supply-and-demand chains, and what to do about it. Thus far, Al Gore has made me switch off lights that I’m not using, Michael Moore has made me avoid certain banks, the Francis Brother’s ‘Black Gold’ has reinforced what I’d already become convinced of where coffee’s concerned. Now it’s Nemo’s turn. Continue reading
In the year 2000 I was 25 and single, finishing up a Ph.D., stressed out of my tree, working with a small NGO on peace and non-violence issues, trying figure out what it was that I wanted to be when I grew up.
Now as 2010 approaches, I’m a month away from being 35 and married, I haven’t published the Ph.D., but am less stressed, working as a writer and doing some other things, and trying to figure out what it is that I want to be when I grow up. The consolations of life this past decade have been the same all along – the richness of friendships old and new, the life-force that is sparked when I look at natural beauty – of mountains or oceanscapes or my lover’s face, the enlightenment or delight that is present when I read a well-calibrated sentence or hear astonishing music, turning over to go to sleep, and the feeling of potential that I still hope for every time the lights go down when I’m at the movies.
This has been a tough decade for many of the people that I presume read this blog – we’ve been confronted by the unintended side-effects of globalization, and taught to see life as a way to be daily afraid; we’ve experienced an economic tightening that came as a shock; we’ve all been angered by this politician or that; some of us have even lost a great deal in the wars that are still being fought. At the same time, of course, some of us have seen peace come to places no one ever believed were ripe for such change.
Quick heads-up on a fantastic event taking place north of LA in January. My friends Elaine Enns and Ched Myers are running their annual Bartimaeus Co-operative Ministries Institute – five days of intensive engagement with questions of spirituality, restorative justice and peacemaking. Ched and Elaine will be joined by Rev Nelson Johnson of the Beloved Community Center in Greensboro, NC; and Rev Murphy Davis from the Open Door Community in Atlanta, GA. These are seriously cool people – with huge experience in radical activism for the common good. It’s not stretching a point to say that they are at the cutting edge of civil rights work today.
The Institutes that Ched and Elaine host are renowned for engendering life-altering experiences; axes of change for the participants who find their hopes revolutionised as answers to the questions of how change can be achieved in the world become clearer through a week of interaction with others who are committed to the same path. The Institute takes place from January 18th-22nd, 2010, in the character-filled village of Oak View, where I have spent many a day soaking up the atmosphere of one of the funkiest neighborhoods I know. It’s limited to 30 participants, so you know you’ll have a meaningful and very substantial experience – but you probably should apply as soon as possible. And whether or not this will enhance your visit, I should probably tell you that I may be around for some of the time too – I’m co-facilitating a film & spirituality retreat on the weekend of 22nd-23rd January in Los Angeles, beginning just a few hours after the Institute ends, so you may find that you can go to the Institute and get to the our retreat too. More information from BCM here.
Three opening sequences have embedded themselves in my mind this year:
Youssou N’Dour’s anthemic call, at the beginning of Elizabeth Chai Versalihis’ ‘I Bring What I Love’ to the young people of Africa, tears streaming down his face, asking his people to be guided by their own vision to unshackle themselves from the dependency fostered by sentimentalized Western views of the continent.
The first section of ‘Up’, which I saw a few weeks before my own wedding in May, the most glorious animation and design fused with a powerfully resonant story: the arc of a love affair, beginning in childhood, and reaching a crisis with the death of one party; whole films have dedicated to this arc, of course; ‘Up’ manages to make you believe it in five minutes; the whole rest of the movie is about what happens next, and how love always outlasts its object.
And the first half hour of ‘Inglourious Basterds’, which manages to invoke the memory of Lee van Cleef, the ‘Hills are Alive’ sequence in ‘The Sound of Music’; and even the face of Stanley Kubrick. Beyond that, it provides the most credible reason in cinema history for a French and German character to speak English to each other; announces the arrival of a fantastic actor – Christoph Waltz – on international screens; and declares Tarantino’s intention to make Nazi violence look even worse than it has ever done by the very absurdity of its portrayal in his film.
This week I finished the research for the new book, grateful for the opportunity, and looking forward to getting deeper into the writing; watched ‘Randy and the Mob‘, a lovely, smart and funny new comedy, mingling traditionally ‘conservative’ values with a liberal sensibility under a generous serving of distinctive Southern identity, not to mention fully fleshed-out characters; watched President Obama’s speech and (misgivings about it not going far enough aside) was deeply impressed by the attempt at meaningful compromise, troubled by the divisiveness of the room, delighted by the humanness of John McCain turning to his colleague and mouthing the words ‘Should we stand?’ when the President had just praised him, and had a familiar sense that, as Erin Parish says, ‘Barack is back’; and started production on a short film that I hope will be the basis for a bigger project that will be announced later in the year – I’m really excited about this, and there’ll be a chance for readers of this blog to be involved, so please watch this space.
But there’s something else on my mind as the week ends. I had two extraordinarily powerful dreams recently, both of which involved my own death. Neither of which were pessimistic, although the second was the most frightening nightmare I can remember having. (Don’t worry – I don’t think they were prophetic in any sense other than the universal; I’m not planning to cross the threshold any time soon.) I’ve thought a great deal about the two dreams, and I’ve come to the view that I should write about what these dreams have given rise to in my conscious thought. It’s taken a while to get to the point of feeling able to write about this; and I think I’m going to restrict myself for the time being to the details of the first dream only, partly because I think it’s a story best shared in conversation between friends, and partly because the first seems more universal than the second. Sorry for being cryptic – but I figure if I write this post today it will serve as a commitment to actually telling you about the dreams next week. Hope the weekend unfolds in a way that invites what Richard Rohr suggests will make life better.