Category Archives: Psychology


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

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.

The Violence of Criticism/The Criticism of Violence

An Original Critic – John the Baptist in ‘King of Kings

I’m watching Nicholas Ray’s ‘King of Kings’, probably the most political of  classic/epic Jesus biopics (which to my mind makes it the most interesting – if Jesus isn’t engaged with real power in the world as we experience it, then what’s the point?), and Jeffrey Hunter’s blue-eyed Messiah has just told the assembled mob of intended stoners to cast rocks only if they themselves ‘have no sin’.  Along with being the most profound elucidation of why killing people as punishment is wrong, maybe it’s also the easiest way for me to describe the lens through which I view cinema (more on this here). Too forgiving, some say.  Perhaps. But I’m fairly convinced that snark is one of the wastes of our age, that negative copy is the easiest to write (because it’s the easiest to think), and that a work of art should be judged at least partly on terms relative to what it’s attempting to do (our experience of ‘Transformers’ isn’t going to be most richly served by comparing it to ‘Aguirre, Wrath of God’).

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Film Criticism as Spiritual Discipline, or What We Care About When We Care About Movies

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.

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Films of the Year 2011

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.

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3 Women/Warrior

In Which Olive Oyl and Carrie go Head to Head for the Sake of the Female Id, an English lad and an Australian bloke re-enact the tortured soul of American masculinity, Nick Nolte tries not to crumble, and Robert Altman smiles down from the heaven he didn’t believe in.

When you’re watching Robert Altman’s ‘3 Women’ on Blu-ray, it would be easy, if potentially clichéd, to equate the grain of the image with the seriousness of the director’s intent.  It’s like looking at the lined face of an old professor; but on Blu-ray you can see inside the lines.  Everything looks so clear on the just-released Criterion edition, and the California desert images are so evocative of a world that hasn’t yet left the Old West behind that it almost makes you yearn to be watching it on a scratched and faded print at an isolated Drive In.  The trouble with Blu-ray is that it makes everything perfect, which sometimes crowds out the space for an imperfect human response.  It can be a bit like looking at the Grand Canyon: contemplation is invited, analysis pretty much impossible.  (Think of the difference between watching ‘Attack of the Clones’ in high-definition [on disc or theatrically projected] and the first time you saw ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ in a theatre; the fact that ‘Empire’ felt more substantial wasn’t just because it has a better script and you were six: the grain and the matte paintings and the models and, yes, even the performances, were more real than a computer can generate, or a digital image can convey.)

But a perfect film deserves perfect presentation, I suppose.  So ‘3 Women’ has what it warrants; and it wasn’t a bad way to spend a couple of mild insomnia-induced hours the other night.  Given that the idea behind the film came to Altman in a dream, we were on solid ground.  And when the camera opens us into a swimming pool in which young people are guiding the elderly toward their metaphysical exit, we the audience are being born too, so the shift in consciousness that comes late at night – reflective, open to something new – meant it was natural for me to be along for the trip.

Altman was an intellectual artist of the most engaging kind: his camera, fluid, as Bruce Cockburn would say, like the wind in grass, inviting us to observe just like he did, around and near the action, but never in it.  He was a man of vast tastes (too easy it is to suggest that because his films had a certain demeanor that the themes were unified – I mean, c’mon, this is a guy who had Anouk Aimee take all her clothes off to make a satirical point about fashion, put US army medics in a Last Supper tableau as a preamble to suicide, and had Harry Belafonte invert everything we think we know about Harry Belafonte so that he could channel Christopher Walken into a jazz era Missouri psychopath).  The intellect and tastes here engage the question of what it means to be human – so far, so much that’s-the-point-of-art, I guess – specifically what it means for its trio of female protagonists to be human in a world that wants to make them into machines; either as workers in the factory farm, or as the receptacles of men’s lust or anger, or as the bearers of the very image of humanity by having children.

These are not likeable people – played by Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall and Janice Rule – walking around in circles in the water as they’re dying.  Their faces are frightening, their behavior irritating; they invite pity at best, and sometimes fear, because you wouldn’t want to get too close to them, partly because they are carrying on the surface that which you fear most about yourself: that you will never know who you are, that you will always be alone in the world, and that you will spend your life trying to impress people who don’t give a damn.

The murals that Rule is painting in the swimming pool evoke archetypal myth; but the pool obviously has to be drained to permit the paint to dry: it’s a barren space for her to project her fantasies.  The 3 women seem to be animated only in their dreams: when Spacek’s Pinky convinces herself that she is someone else; when Duvall’s Millie thinks of the near-ridiculous cowboy Edgar; when Rule is painting ancient stories without ever uttering a word herself.  No one could accuse Altman of wanting to be someone else – or at least no one could accuse him of being obsessed with trying.  Is this the task of living: to avoid wanting to be someone other than who we are?  Maybe.  But is his coruscating critique of the lives of these women just cynicism?  Does the fact that the film opens with people walking round in circles, waiting to die, suggest nihilism on the part of its director?  I don’t think so.  ‘3 Women’ is the work of a man in love with cinema (not just the obvious antecedent in Bergman’s ‘Persona’, but the mythic American West too, and there’s even a touch of ‘The Exorcist‘ in the nightmare sequence toward the film’s climax)  – and just as Kubrick saw ‘The Shining’ as an optimistic film because it avers a belief in an afterlife, you can’t be entirely cynical if you’re in love.  There’s a very telling moment when Millie walks in on an elderly couple making love, on a night when they are distressed by something that has happened to a loved one.  Bad things happen, but you can still live; as a certain other film-maker/lover might say.  We’ve mislaid some of the tools that might be useful in determining how to function as a whole person; the task for now is to figure out how to figure out who you are without stealing someone else’s soul.

[Brief note: I’ve been thinking about something that Thulsa Doom, the bad-bad-BAD guy  in ‘Conan the Barbarian’ (which I saw for only the first time this month), says to the Austrian oak at that film’s violent climax, so derivative of the final encounter between Willard and Kurtz that it’s a good thing John Milius wrote that film too otherwise Francis Coppola would be the new Art Buchwald.  Thulsa Doom killed Conan’s mother when he was a child; and Conan has pursued vengeance against Thulsa Doom ever since.  When he is just about to kill his enemy, Thulsa Doom suggests that this might not be in his best interest, because his whole identity has been so shaped by revenge that he will not know how to live after eradicating his enemy.  ‘It will be as if you never existed,’ says Thulsa; and for a moment I thought that Milius was going to tell the truth about retribution: that it serves to perpetuate, not heal, the wounds of violence.  But such moments of philosophical clarity do not a Dino de Laurentiis 80s epic make; so Conan cuts Thulsa’s head off, and all is well.  Just such a kind of vengeance drives Pinky in ‘3 Women’, and in one of the most surprising collisions of artist intent I’ve seen, you can see a populist male version of ‘3 Women’ at your local multiplex right now.  ‘Warrior’ is a far more thoughtful film than its posters suggest; in fact, it may be the post-9/11/Iraq war/war on terror/WTF just happened? movie we’ve been waiting for.  Two angry brothers and a broken dad isn’t the most original narrative trope, but neither is love conquers all; doesn’t mean it can’t contain vast emotional truth.  ‘Warrior’ is about the need to transcend the violent shadow and the avoidance of anger alike; about how being a man who hopes to do justice to the calling of being human requires integration of what is too simplistically called ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’; about how people deserve a second chance, not least because your desire to withhold that chance from those who have harmed you may actually be continuing your own experience of woundedness.  It’s a wonderfully engaging, brilliantly edited, emotionally honest film that moved me.  Its vision of what the integrated US American male could be is the inversion of Conan’s path: violence begets violence until someone is willing to change the script.  We need an interruption.]

Warrior‘ is on general release; ‘3 Women’ is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Criterion.