Cinematic States: America in 50 Movies

Hi folks - my book CINEMATIC STATES: AMERICA IN 50 MOVIES will be published next week, and in the days between now and then, I'm going to post a thought or two about each state. I'd love to be in conversation with you about how this transcendent artform, which although it was born in France, really came to life in the US, interacts with, underpins, challenges, and reinvents the American myth of itself. I've taken one movie (sometimes two or three) from each state, and attempted a perhaps quixotic endeavor - to wonder about this nation, now my adopted home, to learn more about what is truly 'American', and to imagine how it can better serve its best visions.  North Carolina gets BULL DURHAM, California has CHINATOWN, New Jersey is ON THE WATERFRONT.  Wisconsin is discovered through AMERICAN MOVIE, and Wyoming opens HEAVEN'S GATE. Alaska has LIMBO and THE GOLD RUSH, and New York is so big it can't do without DO THE RIGHT THING, LENNY, CHOP SHOP, SMOKE, and KING KONG. I'd welcome your choices too.

I'm aware that I write as an outsider, which of course brings gifts as well as challenges. I won't see what you see, which is wonderful, so let's get pointless arguments about objectivity or which film is 'right' for which state out of the way before we go any further. I do think it's important for writers to acknowledge their perspectives where possible, and there are a few that I think are pretty important here. The first is that I think there are three qualities necessary to be a decent film critic - you need to know something about cinema, something about life, and something about language. Two out of three ain't bad, but they're not enough. The second is that, particularly since 9/11, the popular view that America is shit deserves significant interrogation. My friend and mentor Don Shriver puts it brilliantly in the subtitle of his book HONEST PATRIOTS - he wants to 'love a country enough to remember its misdeeds'. I think that the aphorism should be reversed, in my case at least: I come from a European liberal tradition that has too often remembered only the misdeeds. If America is Babylon, as another friend says, it may be the best babylon we've got. There are glories and mysteries mingling with shame and conquest, humble awe with imperial intent. So CINEMATIC STATES is not another 'Why People Hate America' missive; nor is it a Disneyfied rose-tinted gaze into an abyss that's pretending to be heaven. It is, I trust, a record of a lover's quarrel, from a guy who grew up believing what he saw on cinema screens, and hoped that even some of it could be true.

You can pick up CINEMATIC STATES here - and I hope you enjoy it.

Tomorrow: Where this all began...


following 1999 was the last great year for cinema until 2012 rolled around - and what might have been the greatest thing about it was the emergence of new/newish film-makers ready to reinvent the medium, and veterans trying to outdo them.  PT Anderson, David O Russell, Kimberly Peirce and Spike Jonze all released movies that firmly established themselves as new auteurs, 'The Blair Witch Project' shocked business mavens as much as audiences by showing how you could make a hundred million dollars out of a camcordered walk in the woods, and Michael Mann reinvented 'All the President's Men'.

Lost amidst the scrambling acclaim (and in some cases, genuine awe) inspired by 'Magnolia', 'Three Kings', 'Boys Don't Cry', and 'Being John Malkovich' was the feature debut of an English bloke with a tiny film, rejected by Sundance, and resembling nothing so much as a C-list noir made by a first year undergraduate who thinks he understands Nietzsche.  'Following' is a movie worth watching to remind yourself how beginnings are often messy, that making a film is bloody hard, and that the one thing (along with all the other things) that cannot be accounted for in the movie business is serendipity.  Its director, Christopher Nolan, went on to make 'Memento', 'Insomnia', 'Batman Begins', 'The Prestige', 'The Dark Knight', 'Inception', and 'The Dark Knight Rises'.  So you already know if you like him or not.  I do.  Very much.  He's a rare director - Nolan has massive industrial craftsmanship, a sense of aesthetics, and a moral vision.  The fact that this moral vision may seem ambiguous (he seems to support Bruce Wayne's inner struggle and heroic sacrifice for the sake of the economically marginalized, but presents an Occupy-style social movement as the domain of people who might arguably be labelled terrorists) reveals only that he, like the rest of us, is a work in progress; he's luxuriating in the freedom to make thought experiments that the world gets to see.

'Following' is pregnant with embryonic Nolanisms - huge close-ups, characters with shadowy inner lives, criminals aiming for class and ideas, violent set-pieces, and a twist ending.  It's a delight to visit it for the first time, perhaps most of all as a reminder of how much can made of limited resources.

'Following' is released on Blu-ray and DVD by Criterion.




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.

We see sunbathers overshadowed by power stations, mechanical diggers looking like mythical monsters, and in a sequence where Fricke manages to actually photograph heat, planes waltzing with each other on the highway, as thousands of cars (looking like tanks) take cover. It’s funny seeing the old cars (the movie’s 30 years old), but the metaphor has more meaning now than ever. People rush on with their existences. And they destroy things – apartment blocks collapse like sandcastles, pork is fed into a processor from which is ejected an excuse for food (you may never eat a sausage again after you see how they get made on production line), and rockets explode on take off. Bombs are photographed as if they’re sex objects (which, of course, for some people, they seem to be); the fetishisation of violence is simply portrayed, with the audience free to make its own judgement.

The rest of the film focuses on you and me, as we follow people, often in intrusive closeup, through city life. The people are running around like members of a particularly neurotic ant colony, but one somehow less than the sum of its parts; those shown in close up look like they’re made out of plastic, as if they are on display to be laughed at; the film seems to be asking what is left of their humanity. The violence of food court normality seems to indicate Reggio’s plea that we might once again engage in the sacrament of eating together, taking time with each other, instead of working soulless jobs to make just enough money to buy things we don’t need.

And so it goes, and so it goes, and so it goes…Why do people want to live like this? Why do we accept it? It seems that it’s not enough to destroy nature by what we build, but we don’t even build the right things, or the things we need; and when we’ve built them, we destroy them also. Shadow religion must bear its share of responsibility for the dangerous instant throwaway culture we’ve inherited. There are plenty of unhealthy apocalyptic theories that imply it’s ok to let the world go to seed because it’s all eventually going to end anyway. But what if the first commandment recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures - a document worth paying attention to, even if only for its value as a record of what people used to think - God gave – ‘subdue’, or look after the earth – is still the prime directive for humankind? What if our core task is not to prepare the way for some kind of spectacular Second Coming (which tends to frighten and confuse people more than it brings hope; and, although some might find this hard to believe, the theory of the Rapture proclaimed in recent populist Christian fiction is just that – fiction, with little or no relation to a rigorous, well-informed reading of Scripture and church history) but rather to become more human, and in that becoming, make way for Jesus, the Son of Man, or Quintessential Human to be born in all our lives? To put it another way, while we don’t have to be Luddites or Amish to be Christians, though it might help, and it certainly doesn't mean that we shouldn't ask ourselves exactly what would Jesus drive?

Does Koyaanisqatsi reflect anything of the goodness of humankind? Maybe not, but that is the point of the film; Reggio is prophesying to us that our failure as a race to be good stewards of the earth has left us in dire straits, and unless we do something about it, we will have nothing left to steward. We are a broken race of people so often living in fear – we see a man by his window, a woman stepping over a fire hose, people getting into an elevator, relentless television evangelists pronouncing violent rhetoric, an old woman’s hand reaching out for a touch, a homeless man counting coppers in his palm, with an unexplained bruise on his forehead, while a choir laments on the soundtrack. When the people get into the elevator, you want to cry out to them to stop, but you feel that it’s too late; it's a reminder of Ezekiel’s words about the need to warn our human brothers and sisters of the enemy’s approach, or their blood will be on our hands. There are some examples of how human beings can get it right – an heroic firefighter, people smiling, enjoying each other’s company, kids playing games together; but, on the whole, this is not a film about the lighter side of life. For me, the most striking image is the close up of the man with the saddest face I’ve ever seen – he looks like Max von Sydow on a really bad day. You want to reach out and touch him, to take him by the hand and tell him that it’s going to be alright, that whatever catastrophe of broken relationships or illness or mental dysfunction that has been visited upon him, you will take responsibility to help heal.

But the world isn't just broken - I'll go with the tradition that says it is also good, and can be redeemed. And in that light, Koyaanisqatsi could be the content of a reflective worship service; an attempt at restoration of the church’s lost tradition of lament. It’s so beautiful – as its creator says, a terrible beauty, an awesome beauty, the beauty of the beast – it could make the heart break. Its most shocking aspect is the acknowledgement that Westerners are prima facie guilty of idolatry – that the horrific truth that faces us is the possibility that what we most value is a monster that eats the earth. It’s more like a symphony than a narrative film, and we should be left in no doubt of its message – that there is always a limit to human endeavor, and we need something bigger than our best ideas of God to rescue us. We end with a vision of Hopi cave paintings, and the disturbing prophecy of a future ‘Day of Purification’ on which the world will be purged of those who seek to destroy it. Those who were here before us have left their mark of epochal wisdom. Koyaanisqatsi is a word that has no English equivalent, but can be loosely translated as ‘life out of balance; a way of life that calls for another way of being’. How much more resonance with a religious story of redemption do you want? Reggio says that the Hopi words help him because ‘Our language is in a state of vast humiliation’ – it is no longer adequate to describe the horror of the underbelly of our existence. Everything that we consider sane was a mark of insanity for Aboriginal people. Like the foolishness of God being wiser than the wisdom of humans, we need to consider if our ‘normal’ ways are actually distortions of what’s best. We need to find new ways of being, but perhaps we will only be able to do so when we have found the courage to simply talk about what we are becoming.

It is likely that you may go away from this film with a sense of despair (it might not be the film to watch last thing at night; although the most frightening thing about it may be the clothes people liked to wear in the 80s). But, after you have let it rest in you for a while, you may recognise its prophetic spirit. You may remember the lonely people, and realise that these are those whom we are called to serve, to love, to welcome. Human beings, one to another, are gifted with the power to heal the broken, to bind up wounds, to mend divided communities, and to participate in the redemption of the earth. The camera seems to look into the souls of its subjects, which is a necessary step if we are to heal each other. Reggio has said that, having entered a monastery at age 14, he grew up in effect in the middle ages, which was bad and good at the same time, and gave him a special preparation for life, a life of humility and service and prayer. I think it gave him a special preparation for cinema too; perhaps all directors should spend time in spiritual contemplation before they attempt to portray what it is to be human; in fact, I suspect most of the best do just that. At the end of Koyaanisqatsi, we will have been exhilarated and challenged; our field of vision will have been consumed by terrible beauty, our ears will have been honoured by music that seems to come from another world, our very senses will have been possessed by something that we have not seen before. And this is all good. But the question is, when we try to recall the human ant colony we just saw on screen, do we recognise ourselves in their faces? Those who have ears to hear, let them hear…

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

Making Good Experience out of a Bad Column

The rather-too-accurately named 'Vulture' section of the New York magazine website posted a piece about 'Worst moviegoing experiences' a while back. It's funny, snarky, sad. I've had my share of disappointments - dirty theaters, unhelpful staff, and most of all BAD PROJECTION AND SOUND PRECEDED BY TWENTY MINUTES OF ADVERTISING I'M PAYING TO SEE AND HAVE TO SIT THROUGH IF I WANT TO ENSURE HAVING A REMOTELY COMFORTABLE VIEWING ANGLE. But... In Kansas City's Tivoli cinema, in the summer of 1996, a man lifted his arms in the air during the climactic scenes of 'Basquait', physically enacting the awe he - and I think I - were feeling.

In the Max Linder Kinopanorama, in the summer of 1998, I sat in the middle balcony, which put me eye level with Peter O'Toole, holding a burning match til it wore down to his fingertips; when he blew it out and we cut to the desert horizon, we were only ten minutes into 'Lawrence of Arabia', but I gasped out loud for beauty.

In Prague, in the summer of 1997, I sat with an audience who got the jokes in 'Everyone Says I Love You', three seconds before I did, revealing one of the peculiar consequences of not understanding the language the subtitles are written in.

In what was then the MGM Multiplex in Belfast, on its opening afternoon, the projectionist switched off the end credits to 'The Thin Red Line' after a breath or two; I asked the usher to let me see the rest of the movie; she made a call, and invited me to return to my seat for a private viewing.

In Belfast's Waterfront Hall, I saw Howard Shore conduct the Ulster Orchestra backing Ornette Coleman and a print of Cronenberg's 'Naked Lunch'. In the same venue a few years later, the bass of Philip Glass' score for 'Koyaanisqatsi' thudded through my chest while his ensemble played alongside the film.

I saw 'There Will Be Blood' at the Savoy in Dublin, and noted the irony of the film's last line (possible - but not much of a - spoiler ahoy) - an old, broken, broken, broken man saying 'I'm finished' - when contrasted with the sheer aliveness of the lumberjack-shirted, both-earringed, porkpie-hatted, face-besmiled Daniel Day-Lewis who bounded down the theatre steps immediately thereafter.

I staggered out of the Edinburgh Film House breathing in large gulps after the devastating final sequence of Carlos Reygadas' 'Japon'; and in the same building saw Emily Blunt for the first time - on screen and, after the UK premiere of 'My Summer of Love', standing right in front of me; and in the Queens Film Theatre in Belfast spent most of cinema's centenary year - 1995 - discovering that watching 'Dr Strangelove' or 'Aguirre The Wrath of God' or 'Cabaret' or 'The Battle of Algiers' in a cinema compares with watching on TV much the same way as visiting the Pyramids is related to seeing a mummy or a photograph of the Rosetta Stone in a museum.

The 'New York' piece is mildly amusing, but appears to me mostly as the thin end of the wedge in a popular culture where snark competes with dehumanization and revenge for the monopoly on our attention. How's about a piece on the BEST experiences any of us have had in a cinema? Thoughts, anyone?