Category Archives: Sexuality

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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Real St Patrick

Fifteen hundred years ago, a Dublin-based shepherd made his mark on history by turning the Chicago River green, staggering inebriated through the city, and inventing the “Kiss Me I’m Irish” hat. Along the way, he wrote Bushmills whiskey drinking songs about the pain of being alive, mixed a cocktail whose name evokes an act of terror, and dyed his hair red.

He magically expelled snakes from the island of his birth, wrote a lyrical memoir of his terrible childhood, won the Rose of Tralee beauty contest, mixed lager and Guinness together (presumably out of an excess of self-loathing and bad taste), had a great oul’ Famine, stared meaningfully across the Atlantic, and dreamed of America.

He still hasn’t found what he’s looking for.

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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.


Sorry, it’s been a while.  But it’s 8.37 on a Saturday morning, I’m watching Jean Vigo’s ‘A Propos de Nice’ (a dialogue-free short film about French people being happy, any five minutes of which are better than ‘Inception’ – which is already very good, but Vigo doesn’t need CGI to turn a Gallic city upside down), and for some reason I want to blog again.

No big promises – but if you join me in the comments, I’ll be grateful and try to write more often.

My thoughts this weekend:

The proposed North Carolina constitutional amendment to ban recognition of same-sex partnerships is antithetical to the best of what the US stands for in terms of personal liberty and the pursuit of happiness; it is opposed to the spirit of compassion and respect and love for neighbor that are at the heart of the Christian teaching that everyone who supports the amendment cites as their reason for doing so; even while its proponents believe (or say they believe) the amendment protects their own marriages, if passed it will actually actively hurt people who only want to be allowed to have a measure of protection and recognition for the love they share, and therefore it follows will in reality undermine community as the foundation of society; it continues a tragic tradition of fear being used to oppress people who are already marginalized; it serves no positive purpose and in fact reinforces the social structural realities that lead to stories such as this one.

Groups like Believe Out Loud, Equality NC, and Faith in America are good resources for information and how to take action, but I’d want to emphasize one thing that is often, by my sights, neglected in anti-homophobia/pro-humanity activism: Genuine dialogue.  I changed my mind about theology and sexuality partly through relationships with people wiser and more experienced than I, partly through academic reflection, and partly through my own experience.  This seems to me to fit with the Wesleyan quadrilateral of engaging scripture, reason, tradition and experience as we seek to discern what is right, among other historic Christian ways of interpreting the world.  It is not a betrayal of Christian principle to be open to dialogue with people with whom you disagree.  It has a long and noble history.  I’m happy to talk with anyone who wants to know where I stand, what I think, and why I believe that a serious conversation about sexuality and spirituality is not just important for the sake of addressing the injustice of inequality and homophobia, but for the future of peace on earth.  I’ll write more about this later; for now, I want to invite a dialogue; and to ask you to seriously consider how we might persuade proponents of the anti-LGBTQ amendment that it is actually in their interests to vote against it.

Bowie Knife

The first scene of Nagisa Oshima’s ‘Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence’ (new on DVD and Blu-Ray from Criterion) is occupied with the horror of a soldier being forced to cut his intestines open as a punishment for being in love with another man.  The last image of the film is the smiling face of a soldier the night before his execution, beaming a greeting of filial affection to a former enemy.  We’re in a POW camp run under the auspices of the Japanese military, where Allied soldiers are half-subjected to, and half-ignored by an honor code that proposes self-disembowelment as the response, it appears, to just about any infraction.  In between the attempted seppuku and the smiling greeting, the adorable Tom Conti reflects poetically on the mutually assured idiocy of war, Ryuichi Sakamoto gets angry, and then gets healed while his fascinating and eventually ubiquitous score overplays but not so much that it bothers, and gorgeous burnt light provides a mystical hue to what is ultimately a nightmare that becomes a dream and then finally a reality the audience always wanted: reconciliation between people who were otherwise ready to kill each other.

But not before David Bowie saves the world.

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Tyler Clementi and Me. And You.

Of course I never knew Tyler Clementi, the young Rutgers student who took his own life last month in a tragedy so unfathomably horrific that it doesn’t permit adequate attempts at description.  The story that has emerged so far is that Tyler was enjoying a romantic moment with another guy, while his roommate secretly streamed the encounter live on the internet.  Shortly after Tyler found out, he jumped off a bridge.

Of course I never knew him, but his story demands a deeper listening than has yet been promoted or presented by our culture’s spokespeople.  This is not just a story about one man and two acquaintances whose idiotic prank appears to have caused such fear of exposure that Tyler felt he had to kill himself.  It’s a story about all of us.  And we all need to listen to it.
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