My elder, mentor and brother Richard Twiss died, aged only 58, on Saturday February 9th, after a heart attack in Washington, DC. Since I met Richard four or five years ago, I felt close to him; and it’s clear from the tributes emerging since his death this weekend that many others felt the same. I know that he loved me, that he wanted me to succeed, that he welcomed me as an immigrant into his native land. I will miss him a great deal. Of course, many others knew him better, and will memorialize him more elegantly, but I want to record some of the thoughts I’ve had since hearing of his sudden illness and death.
The first time we met, my friend Denise and I ended up sharing a tall round table with Richard in a Valley Forge, PA pub. Something in the air led us to decide to tell our best stories, our wildest versions of ourselves. I felt compelled to speak of the time I took all my clothes off in an attempt to intervene with someone who appeared to be close to a violent act, in a front yard in Santa Cruz; Richard laughed with me, the laughter of one who knows that sometimes a crazy fucked-up world requires crazy fucked-up interventions. It was the first time I had ever told that story. Richard had a way of helping you to find the better version of your story, and to live from a place of amused courage.
Next time I saw him we were in Atlanta for a public conversation on post-colonial theology, empire religion, and hearing the voices that are typically ignored. I was going through some personal difficulties at the time, and he invested time to listen and care; enough to call later to ask how things were going. Richard was realistic about personal suffering, and willing to sit in the ashes with you when you were going through it.
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.
By Thomas Merton
Three years ago tonight my friend John O’Donohue crossed the threshold that he always considered helping others to travel one of the greatest privileges of ministry. He died in his sleep, his beloved at his side, at 52 years old, three weeks after I had last spoken to him. His extraordinary book ‘To Bless the Space Between Us’ was near publication, and when it surfaced a couple of months later the opening chapter on thresholds and the inevitability of change made a different kind of sense than I imagine he intended when writing.
Those who knew and loved him were bereft; the most astonishing funeral and memorial gatherings ensued in such rapid succession, and went so deep that it seemed to be several months before we ran out of organised events to attend to remember the poet, priest, mystic, artist, humorist, and friend; a man so large in spirit that thousands of people were changed by his death. It was a privilege to know him, and to be known by him. I hear his voice on my i-pod all the time – I’m grateful that there were so many recordings made of his work; and I hear his voice in my inner life, calling me to live from my best self.
This year begins with remembering John on this third anniversary; and with reflecting on my own life, amidst wonder and challenge. I, too, would ‘love to live as the river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding’. I, too, wish to be a blessing to others. I, too, am frail and flawed and broken; and frequently fail to give to others what I want to receive myself. John would, I imagine, say to me what he often said, quoting his mighty friend Lelia Doolan, that in times of confusion and fear, you should ‘steady yourself’, and let the light shine through the cracks, even – perhaps especially – those you have created yourself.
If we are to honor John’s memory, we might want to devote this year to one of his other sharpest and most elegant ideas: that the first friendship we must cultivate is the one we have with ourselves. May 2011 be the year in which you become your own best friend.
Two films released by the Criterion Collection this week focus on men at war. We’ll discuss Terrence Malick’s ‘The Thin Red Line’ on the next episode of The Film Talk, and below; later in the week I’ll post a piece on ‘Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence’. These are two of the most compelling films released on DVD this year.
When I first saw Terrence Malick’s ‘The Thin Red Line’, it was the turn of the century, Bill Clinton was still in office, the Twin Towers were intact, and the film seemed to be about the past. The distant past, to be sure: a film that begins with a reptile submerging and ends with a plant growing on a beach seems to exist a long time before we did. The nearer past, ostensibly: it takes place in 1942 during the early Guadalcanal Campaign (although you’ll look in vain for the caption that appeared on the print I saw over a decade ago to indicate it; Malick, it seems, has had that removed from the new Criterion Collection Blu-ray and DVD release: he wants the movie to exist outside time). This is only appropriate, as it aims to be a poem about the primitive roots of violence, the lack of maturity among men who see the world only as a fight, the power of love to sustain even when it is broken, the tragedy of human beings caught in a web that they think dictates that only violence can be the path to power in this life.