Category Archives: Spirituality

With Gratitude for Richard Twiss


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.

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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

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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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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Three Colors: The Best Blu-ray release of the past year

I walked into a bar in Galway eight years ago next week, took a empty chair, ordered a Guinness, and met one of the finest men, and most faithful friends I’ve ever known. Colin and I were at a wonderful little film festival devoted to the works of Krysztof Kieslowski; a film festival the quality of whose art was matched by its warmth of spirit. A community emerged over that weekend, experiencing the transcendence of Kieslowski’s work in the presence of some of his co-creators; filling the spaces between us with shared glances, glistening eyes, and listening noises.

Once Colin and I had spent enough time together with our eventual mutual friend John O’Donohue – another mystic artist – to consider ourselves friends for life, we coined the phrase ‘better than Kieslowski’ to denote anything we liked – ice cream, whiskey, art, music, even the way a cup of coffee tasted, but mostly just the depths of friendship. One of the last conversations I had with John touched upon how he considered love of this director to be almost a prerequisite for friendship!

Kieslowski is best known for two film series – the Decalogue, an abstract rendering of the Ten Commandments in contemporary life, and the three films that make up the Three Colours Trilogy – widely acclaimed as among the greatest films of the 1990s, taking as their theme the three facets of life represented in the French Tricolor flag – liberty, equality and fraternity. John loved these films – for their author seemed to know something about life that eludes the technojargon-dependent world in which we live: The meaning of freedom, partnership and family as outlined in the ‘Three Colours’ films is both attractive and sometimes difficult to understand – which, for John, meant it was worthy of attention.

So I was delighted when the Criterion Collection released the trilogy on Blu-ray and DVD recently. Criterion is exactly the right home for Kieslowski – the care and attention they devote includes offering special features that invite the viewer to take a long time to work with the grain of what we’re seeing. The Criterion edition of Three Colors is nothing less than one of the best home viewing collections ever released.

In ‘Blue’, the first of the trilogy, Juliette Binoche plays a recently widowed character, who in grief comes to learn the need to let go of the things that hold her back from being truly free; but realises that happiness is not real unless it is shared.

Along the way, Kieslowski shows us through some of the most delicately beautiful imagery in cinema (a child’s face lit within a traffic tunnel, a doctor reflected in a woman’s eye, the light on a woman’s face as she watches an elderly person try to recycle a bottle) what he feels about the world:

• That giving to others is what makes you free.

• That we need to learn discernment in a world which teaches us that television is reality.

• That the only thing people really want to know is whether or not someone loves them.

• That there is a relationship between the cross of Christ and love between human beings.

• That the political unification of Europe may hide some unpleasant truths, but is a miracle given that only fifty years before the film was made, European nations were battling each other for the soul of the world.

• That sexuality can be used both to heal and to sever.

‘Blue’ is a film about brokenness and the imagination of what new things could come to us if we let them. John would often ask the question ‘If it is true that nothing good is ever truly lost, what would you like to have back?’ The corollary to this, of course, is that there are some things that are worth letting go of. From the need for Europe to let go of its former enmity, to the old woman’s need and desire to do good by letting go of the bottle for recycling (an image fundamentally related to making the world better for future generations, and a reminder of what this woman’s generation suffered and struggled through in the Second World War era), to the central character’s profound dilemma – grief and what to do with it, the images and themes in ‘Blue’ deserve sustained attention. It is such a rich film for times that often feel impoverished.

The Three Colors Trilogy is available from the Criterion Collection.