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…

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.

In the Beginning...

1.  The places that matter to me are frequently not real.  They’re places I’ve seen dancing on a white screen, animated by dusty light in a darkened room.  They’re places I’ve been to without leaving the (dis)comfort of a plush red seat with no legroom.  They’re places that seem bigger than real life.

These places exist, because In The Beginning, the Creator, in the form of two French engineers, down on their luck, perhaps too dependent on Maman, and not sure what to do with their lives, had an idea.  On a winter’s night in the early 1890s, it occurred to them that what the world in mid-Industrial Revolution needed most was to have the opportunity to watch pictures dancing with light and dust.  The well-being of the planet could be nurtured by thirty feet high images of men with guns, women with perfectly fake breasts, and young men having sex with cherry pies.  That was the gift of the Lumiere Brothers.  If you visit the cemetery where they’re buried, you can find their grave easily – it’s the one with the neatly tilled soil – they’ve turned over in shame so many times that it always looks like their plot was freshly dug.

In spite of the sometimes embarrassing nature of their legacy, when I reflect on what makes me human, or at least what makes me feel human, because, God knows, there’s enough out there that tries to deal death to any sentient notion of experiential human-ness, I find my thoughts turn, more often than not, to the movies.

I think my soul finds rest when the curtain goes up, in the way that, for some people, watching football on television can make them feel at home in themselves.  I often feel whole when I’m in a cinema; partly, I think, because it connects me with the innocence of childhood, and partly because, for the two hours or so that I’m in that space, nothing else can touch me.  One of the characters in ‘Death of a Salesman’ iterates, even lives by the shibboleth ‘attention must be paid’, that’s a call so powerful that it can kill – and I wonder if it’s also because the film I’m watching has no choice but to pay attention to me that I like to go to the movies so much.

And every once in a while, someone on the screen says or does something that makes me feel understood, as when William H Macy’s Donnie Smith in ‘Magnolia’ cries ‘I really do have love to give, I just don’t know where to put it’, or when Gene Hackman’s master thief in David Mamet’s ‘Heist’ explains how he gets away with it: ‘I’m not smart, I just imagine what people smarter than I would do in the same situation and then I do that’, or when I watch ‘The Wizard of Oz’ every December and am reminded that my fears are just an old man behind a curtain, who only has the power I give to him.

And if the notion of using a fairy tale wizard as a psychological tool strikes you as odd, I guess I should say that I have long believed that the way cinema portrays life doesn’t have to be ‘real’, as long as it’s not fake.  But my reasons for seeing film as something worthy of an investment of precious time are more than psychotherapeutic; they’re sociological, and perhaps even prophetic.  Arthur Miller, author of that same attention-giver ‘Death of a Salesman’ was described on his death by Time magazine as a ‘slayer of false values’, and the best cinematic art does just that.  Chuck Palahniuk told me once that he wrote the section in ‘Fight Club’ about IKEA catalogues as postmodern pornography because he wanted to satirise his own superficiality – the book is about the author’s own attempts to break free from mediocrity.  And so, failing thought it may be, is this paper.  And the films I most give a damn about are the ones that give a damn about me – or at least about people generally, and the struggle to be human in a technophiliac world, driven by the forces of what it's too easy to call (because it's real) the military-industrial-media-entertainment complex.

2.Martin Scorsese famously spent his early years in a movie theatre because of asthma; I did it because I didn’t like playing rugby – and that’s the only other thing that was available on bleak Northern Ireland Saturdays.  I wonder now whether or not I would have been any good at rugby had Marty McFly not gone back to the future in such compelling fashion.

My Childhood Mentor

It was the first movie I saw more than once at the cinema; and on the day my elementary school exam results were issued I chose to see it a third time rather than take a family day trip to Dublin, which at the time was the most exciting place I’d ever been.  That kind of commitment is a bit like that of the smoker who can’t afford to buy groceries, but can always find enough money for cigarettes.  Friends and lovers alike have found my willingness to drop everything in favour of the movies endearing, at least the first time, although the charm of considering cinema more important than real life soon wears off.

There are angels on the streets of Berlin.

But that’s only because the world is made up of two kinds of people - those who get movies, and those who don’t.  The first kind, my kind of people, can sit in the enclosed darkened room at any time of day, and get excited when the lights go down, no matter what is about to appear on screen.  We travel half way round the world to visit film festivals to see movies that will be released at home in a few months anyway; we pay good money to go to Berlin for a morning just to see the statue the angels perch on in ‘Wings of Desire’; we fall into ourselves with delirium when we catch a glimpse of Isabella Rossellini on the street; we stay up late to watch films we’ve only vaguely heard of because our fellow cinematic nerds have said the cinematographer ‘has a wonderful eye’, or that the movie influenced the mid-wave of the post-apocalyptic Mongolian agricultural documentary movement, or perhaps merely because someone told us the director’s dog has a great bark.

3.  For what it’s worth, this is what I think about the power of cinema: it makes us imagine something bigger than ourselves.  I’m not sure I can do that with words, but not being fulfilled by the real temples of organised religion has allowed me to kneel at the altar of the white screen and demand that it answer my life’s questions.

Smaller in Real Life

I think about the magic of cinema, the God’s-eye view we have of those on screen; and how when I met a Big Star I felt weird because he wasn’t as tall as he should be.  Given that that would be around 18 feet, this shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but inasmuch as Al Pacino’s character in Michael Mann’s ‘Heat’ believes that holding onto his angst keeps him sharp, I suppose for me, holding onto my naivety might keep me in touch with the kind of innocence of which a cynical world needs a great deal more.

I think of a hundred heroic films that made me feel like anything was possible, or romantic comedies that taught me something about love, or dramas that helped explain the meaning of life.

I think of ‘Magnolia’ and wonder at its capacity for squeezing in what is wrong with modern North American middle class life, and how the opportunity for redemption cannot be engineered, but must simply be received. And 'Broadway Danny Rose', and 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind', and 'Limbo' and everything else John Sayles has ever made.

I think of ‘Jean de Florette’ and ‘Manon des Sources’ and how they begin as innocuous dramas about a dispute between neighbours, but conclude with you being terrified for the characters, and you want them to love and not destroy each other, because they make you think about how knowing one extra piece of information about a person can change everything.  The fearful miracle is that it can make you love instead of killing them.  And 'Fanny and Alexander', and 'Au Hasard Balthasar', and 'La Regle du Jeu' and 'The Grey Zone' (by the most undervalued/underrated/underknown director working today).

I think of the best double bill I ever curated - two films that have far more in common that you would think, both stories about the search by ordinary people for a sense of purpose and success, centred on ‘making it’ in the film industry, and raising issues  of what might get sacrificed along the way, these two films which are, of course: ‘Mulhulland Dr.’ and ‘The Muppet Movie’.  Trust me - they belong together.

I think about how sometimes I’d prefer the magic of cinema to stay where it used to be – in my heart; and I wish that I didn’t have to force myself to become innocent every time I see a movie – I wish for the time when there was no difference between my belief about what was possible, and Hollywood’s vision.  I wish for a time when I didn’t have to work to put myself in the frame of mind that believed in the possibility of hope.

And I think about going to see Julian Schnabel’s ‘Basquiat’ in a Kansas City art house on a day in the summer of 1996 when it appeared that only single men were allowed into the theatre.   Thirteen of us, sitting alone, dotted around the cinema, enraptured by the imagery that told of this broken artist and Reagan-era Warhol cohort.  The film ends with the telling of a medieval myth about a prince locked in a tower by his evil relatives; to alert the local peasantry to his predicament, he bangs his crown off the wall, but they hear this only as music…it was an image with the potential to become the definition of cliché, but to us in the audience, it spoke only of the way we feel about the world.  As Henryk Gorecki’s ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’ reached its long crescendo and the prince banged his head harder, a guy in the front row of the Kansas City theatre flung his arms in the air, and held them there, as if this were a worship service.  This was worship - of a kind; worship of the divine so many of us still want to believe in or hope for, and perhaps also of the extraordinary creative urge of which humans are sometimes capable.

‘Basquiat’ is the kind of film that might make the Lumiere Brothers feel their endeavours were not wasted; and this is germane to our discussion for one simple reason: I would not have gone to see ‘Basquiat’ if it had not been for film criticism.  I would not have gone to see ‘Basquiat’ if it had not been for Roger Ebert, who at the time of its release wrote the following:

‘Anyone who has ever painted or drawn knows the experience of dropping out of the world of words and time. A state of reverie takes over; there is no sensation of the passing of hours. The voice inside our head that allows us to talk to ourselves falls silent, and there is only color, form, texture and the way things flow together.

There is a theory to explain this. Language is centered on the left side of the brain. Art lives on the right side. You can't draw a thing as long as you're thinking about it in words. That's why artists are inarticulate about their work, and why it is naive to ask them, ``What were you thinking about when you did this?'' They have given it less thought than you have.’

And this is why the critic is necessary.  Because the function of the critic is not the same as the function of the artist.  Criticism, of course, may be artful, just as film-making is sometimes artless; but the primary function of criticism is closer to that of spiritual director than poet.  In short, if we are ultimately all one person made in the image of God (that's a hypothesis, of course, but you don't have to agree with it to keep reading), and the task of being human includes freeing ourselves from mutually exclusive interpretations, or what Freud in Nicholas Meyer's 'The Seven Per-cent Solution' calls 'less finite solutions' to human problems than killing each other, and to become more than the sum of our parts by hearing the voices of - and thereby honoring the image of God in - others, then the role of the critic is supremely important: because critics show us what it is that we’re doing.

This matters because - obviously - art matters.  And, as Ebert said in his ‘Basquiat’ review, artists don’t always know what it is they are doing.

For instance, ‘Shutter Island’, for me, the most artful and theologically important film released in 2010 (and by di Caprio's presence evidence that massive celebrity does not necessarily preclude high art's potential) speaks profoundly about the lament that America needs to sit with if the wound of 9/11 and the projected shadow that followed are to be integrated into the national psyche; but I’m not sure than even Martin Scorsese knows that.  It takes the hermeneutic community that becomes possible when people who didn’t make the film but live as informed audience members to reflect back on what the film may mean so that readers might be provoked to think further about the value of this art object in their lives.

Because none of this makes sense apart from everyday human experience.  I project my desire onto the narrative arcs stewarded by films as various and diverse as

‘Andrei Rublev’,

‘Field of Dreams’,

and ‘The Exorcist’.

As Proust wrote of characters in novels, I see myself revealed in cinematic representations of 15th century Russian icon painters, 20th century hippy farmers in Iowa, and ancient but new Catholic demon expellers.  Now, I don’t paint icons, and I don’t farm, and the last time anyone threw up in my face it wasn’t Linda Blair - but the archetypal journeys of Andrei Rublev, Kevin Costner’s hippy farmer, and Jason Miller’s Fr Karras in The Exorcist speak profoundly to me about my own journey.

James L Brooks wrote a line worth the $120 million budget of ‘How Do You Know?’, a film not thought by many to be the revelation of a profound mystery about human existence, but nonetheless worth reflecting on - ‘Life is about finding out what you want, and learning how to ask for it’.  This may sound selfish at first, but understood more thoughtfully could be seen as a postmodern variation on what St Augustine understood as the injunction to ‘love God, and do what you want’.  And all fiction is about this: people finding out (or not finding out) what they want (or don’t want) and learning how to ask (or not ask) for it.  All fiction is reflective of the nature of being human: because to be human is to be a storyteller.  We tell the story of our lives, and this story circumscribes for us what we believe to be possible.  Film-makers tell us a story about their lives, and their vision of what is possible in the world.  Critics are supposed to interpret this story.  It was ever thus.  This happened, surely, in biblical times - Jesus was a critic of his social order, and of the stories people believed and lived from.  It happened at regal courts when jesters whispered satire in the ear of the king.  It happened in 19th century Denmark when Soren Kierkegaard suggested charging a fee to theologians who wanted to attend his bible studies, as they/we make our living off the crucified Christ, we should be prepared to pay for the privilege of participating in the Christian community.  It happened in the 1970s when the New Zealand poet James K Baxter quit his high-paying job as a university professor to found a community in the wilderness, the sole entry qualification to which was a willingness to admit personal brokenness.  And it happens today, every time film critics manage to bypass snark and shortcut to share humbly and with grace our response to the art objects we are privileged to see before the public do.

I want to conclude by acknowledging the economic precariousness we face as critics.  Some of us are lucky to be paid to work full-time as film critics.  I am not one of them.  Some of us are lucky to be paid to work full-time as theologians.  I am not one of them.  But as I think that all of us are called to be both critics and theologians, I get to do the work, whether I get paid for it or not.  The economic model that has sustained film criticism (and academic theology) for the past half-century will give way to something else.  If I ruled the world, I’d want that something else to be reminiscent of an egalitarian locavore non-nuclear family community, where we work and live together, earning what we can from meaningful income-generating work, sharing our goods with each other, and sitting round tables talking about what the latest

Michael Haneke, or

Michael Apted, or

(even) Michael Bay

says about the nature of being.  But that’s a few years off.

For now, let us recognize this, with humility:

It’s a high calling, to be a critic.  I don't intend that to enlarge our egos - there are many high callings, chief among them in my view is that of getting to be a human being, so recognizing the importance of the act of criticism is certainly not any kind of avowal of superiority over others.  But it is a spiritual discipline that can assist ourselves and others in learning how to take that universal calling - being human - more seriously, and to understand it better.  In the sacred act of call and response that we and film-makers are stuck in together, whether we like it or not, criticism is half the work.  They call, we respond.  We do not best serve our calling by resorting to easy snark, personal insults, or by equating the task of criticism with just criticizing.

Critics have a role to play in helping the world tell its own story.  We have privileged access to the newest variations on that story, every time we go to a preview screening.  And we get to help hold cultural, psychological, and spiritual memory.

We can look back on ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, and write about how it still feels ahead of its time, and more than that, speaks profoundly to our hope that ancient truth doesn’t need to be adapted: in short - love does conquer all.

We can help our audience respond to ‘Shutter Island’ or ‘Once Upon a Time in America’ by saying how each feels like a religious icon of lament, and that if you don’t learn to face the darkness of your past, you will simply keep hurting yourself, and everyone around you.

We can declare from the rooftops that it is entirely consistent to be thrilled, moved, and even inspired by the horrific sacrifice in ‘The Exorcist’

and moved by the end of ‘ET’

and stimulated to be more compassionate for the suffering people of the world by Atom Egoyan's 'Exotica',

and moved by ‘The Elephant Man’

and provoked to think about the relationship between dreams and reality by ‘Eyes Wide Shut’

and historically challenged by the too-recently departedTheo Angelopoulos’ ‘Eternity and a Day’.  And that’s just a few films beginning with the letter E.

In short, critics can nurture a space in which people can find their own way toward interpreting the art they are watching, and to dialogue with themselves about what it means to be human.  This is a high calling indeed.  We owe it to ourselves, and to our calling to respect the difference between criticizing and critique; between snark and thoughtful challenge; and between personal insult and encouraging improvement.  It’s a high calling that doesn’t depend on money, isn’t determined by the market, and isn’t even about whether or not we get to do this for a living.  It’s about who you are, how transparent you are willing to be with your readers about how your projected desires found (or didn’t find) resonance on the screen.  In my judgement, there are only two qualifications: you need to know something about movies; and you need to want to be more human.

In the new world of the democratization of criticism, we may feel threatened by how 140 characters or less might have the power to undermine our work.  But as the Franciscan activist priest Richard Rohr says, the best response to the bad is the practice of the good.  Social media doesn’t have to be a threat: in fact, it actually opens up space for more authentic dialogue between critics and our audience, and between critics and film-makers than was ever previously possible.  So please, tweet away.  Facebook your desire to live differently after seeing Gaspar Noe’s ‘Enter the Void’; blog how your hopes and dreams are in a recursive relationship - shaping and being shaped by - your experience of Abbas Kiarostami or Steven Spielberg or Wim Wenders or Edward Yang or Hirokazu Koreeda or Mike Leigh or Jim Jarmusch.  And, if you can, make money from it.  But above all, be faithful to the calling of being a critic in the context of something called the arts and humanities: your calling is to help rehumanize the world.  And don’t be afraid of tomorrow, because if what Elvis Mitchell earlier called the boringest and most racist movie of all time - and therefore one of the most important - teaches us anything about tomorrow, it is that tomorrow is another day.

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.

The 'B' List


Rise of the Planet of the Apes



A Better Life

The Descendants


Midnight in Paris - Which is glorious when it takes place in the past; but a little didactic in the present.

Something Special, but Not the Whole Package:
The Adjustment Bureau
The Way Back
Battle LA (honest: kinetic cinema that (perhaps un-selfconsciously) presents the truth about war addiction and the lies nations tell to defend their violence.)
Win Win
Source Code
X Men First Class
Project Nim
Sarah's Key
Attack the Block
Crazy Stupid Love
The Ides of March
The Skin I live in
Margin Call
The Rum Diary
The Muppets
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Young Adult
The Way
The Adventures of Tintin (a leap forward for animation art, with the most beautifully crafted Speilbergian chase sequence since Indy, Short Round and Willie Scott went down a mine shaft; but lacks heart and a clear sense of purpose)
Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol/Country strong/Limitless/The Company Men/The Conspirator/The Beaver/Harry Potter/Captain America/In Time/ Sherlock Holmes (left early but intend to see the rest eventually)Terrible Messes

Green Hornet/Sucker Punch/Your Highness/Thor/Horrible Bosses/Cowboys and Aliens

Chief Sinner
Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Films I Haven't Managed to See Yet

(I'll revise this list as I see them)
Barney's Version/Biutiful/Even the Rain/Certified Copy/Jane Eyre/Meek's Cutoff/Cave of Forgotten Dreams/Sympathy for Delicious/The Trip/The Ledge/Tabloid/Winnie the Pooh/Another Earth/The Interrupters/Senna/ Amigo/Higher Ground/Margaret/Into the Abyss/London Boulevard/Twilight/Tyrannosaur/The Artist/We Need to talk about Kevin/ Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy/Carnage/War Horse/Pina/Iron Lady/Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close/Albert Nobbs/Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives/A Separation/Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Best Films of 2011 (US Release)

10: A Dangerous Method - A threesome with Freud, Jung, and Speilrein; the revelation of how flawed people can produce great work; an up close and personal engagement with how to get up close and personal with yourself.

= with: 10: Submarine - Brilliantly funny and smart coming of age in Wales tale; it's a cliche to say it, but 'Submarine' is a British 'Rushmore'.

9: Super 8 - Far more subversive than its reputation allows, more than a homage to Spielbergian childhood-wonder-and-brokenness adventure stories, but a love letter to the USA we want to believe in, wrapped in an alien invasion plot whose resolution provides a kind of fantasy wish-fulfillment for those whose vision of post-9/11 necessity asserts the primordial importance of restorative justice for perpetrators, and empathy with survivors in place of retribution and keeping victims in a place of idolatrised yet powerless martyrdom.

8: Le Havre - Gorgeous, color- and light-filled tale of community helping a lost one, managing to take in population movements, gangster cinema, the power of love, the greatness of baguettes, the simple miracle of living one day at a time, and the dissolution of boundaries between 'The Man' and 'the man'.

7: Beginners - My favorite performance from my favorite actor - Christopher Plummer - in a charming, thoughtful, moving and gloriously funny tale about learning to be yourself.

6: Of Gods and Men - love and choice and attempted atonement for religious imperialism: facing the fact that each of us if going to die for something, so we should make it count.

5: Take Shelter - A film about terrible anxiety that gifts its central character with the dignity of allowing his suffering to become a gift to the world: Take Shelter takes seriously the notion that sometimes the people we call mentally ill are actually apprehending profound truth, and both need time to adjust, and could be part of our salvation.

4: Hugo - Magical, intelligent, exciting: I felt as I had done when I saw 'ET' at 7 years old, 'The Exorcist' at 16, 'The Sacrifice' at 20, 'Magnolia' at 24... that is to say, I was watching a MOVIE that understood something about life without feeling like it, offered eschatological hope, and elevated my sight beyond myself.

3: The Mill and the Cross - Maybe the 'best' film released this year - far as the revelation of cinematic art goes; certainly the best 'Jesus film' I've seen since Denys Arcand and Martin Scorsese tried their hands at it; a work of mystery, beauty, and profound insight into the human-divine condition.

2: The Tree of Life - Too many words have been written about a film that is more about the language of feeling and sensation than semantics. We could talk for hours about it, but I'd rather just experience the film again; Malick calls to mind Meister Eckhart's astonishing adage that 'the eye with which I see God is God's eye seeing me'.

1: The Guard - My favorite film of the year; a perfect fusion of humorwish cultural critique displaying the best and worst of what it means to be Irish (and in Ireland) in the post-Celtic Tiger era.

'Revanche': The Film I've Been Waiting For

I knew nothing about 'Revanche', other than it was the kind of film people tell you you’re supposed to like, but they say it so often, and the acclaim is so overwhelming that it makes you wonder if it’s going to be a rehearsal of the time you didn’t get to see ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ on its first release but it seemed as if every four paces you took in town or every third hyperlink you clicked on you’d bump into someone telling you that ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ was not only the Greatest Film Ever Made™ but would make a supermodel fall in love with you and have you develop a six-pack within a matter of days after watching and so by the time you finally did go to see ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ it couldn’t possibly measure up to the standard that had been set for it and anyway the cinema you saw it in was forced to LEAVE ITS LIGHTS ON DURING THE MOVIE because of an absurd local government health and safety injunction ordering it to get new dimmer switches despite the fact that in thirty-five years of operating NO ONE had ever fallen over and sued or lost their soul or even stubbed a toe so it was difficult to engage with ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ cos it’s kinda hard at the best of times to suspend disbelief when watching a fantasy film even moreso WHEN THE LIGHTS IN THE CINEMA HAVE BEEN LEFT ON but it didn’t really matter because...

Pan's Labyrinth: Not as Good as 'Revanche', even with the lights off

‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ turned out a) to be less imaginative or engaging than Guillermo del Toro’s previous films (check out ‘The Devil’s Backbone’ – perhaps the most moving horror film I’ve ever seen); b) to not really have much of a labyrinth anyway and c) to remind me why it’s a good idea, in the words of a wiser man than I, to, shall we say, not pay much attention to the propaganda.

So, I try, perhaps not as hard as my genial co-host, but nonetheless with sincere intent, to not believe the hype.  And so, if you are like me, then don’t pay any attention to what you’re about to read.

I knew nothing about ‘Revanche’.  But, and I mean every word of this: it’s the film I’ve been waiting for.  The Austrian film by Gotz Spielman, released this week on DVD by Criterion opens like a Tarkovsky film, with a near-static image of trees reflected in water, setting a mood of something sinister happening amidst the beauty of nature.  It takes its time, the opening lines left untranslated, the location revealing itself as one of the all-time awful cinematic brothels, in Vienna, where women trafficked from Eastern Europe are abused, fat men in silver suits make themselves comfortable off the backs of the people they are breaking, and an ex-con slops out the building, trying to assert some dignity for himself in a profession that could not be said to have benefits.

Johannes Krisch and Joanna Strauss in 'Revanche'

And so, there we are.  What happens next is so compelling that I’ll leave it spoiler-free.  It might suffice to say that ‘Revanche’ becomes something like ‘Heat’ remade by Krzysztof Kieslowski.  It’s about men loving women and women loving men; the dehumanization of certain kinds of work; the meaning of the human body; sex as both an expression of need and a commodity too.  The lead actor Johannes Krisch has more than a touch of Colin Farrell’s older brother about him; and the connection with one Michael Mann’s recent films doesn’t end with ‘Miami Vice’ and ‘Heat’;

Jamie Foxx’s character in ‘Collateral’ is the better dressed, less grumpy corollary to Krisch’s in ‘Revanche’, a re-imagining of the cinematic archetype we know and love as the ‘guy who just wants to get out of where he is if only he could find the cash’.  But there’s nothing clichéd about it’s telling here.  Sure, there’s a couple of shots of a crucifix, and some elegant cuts – from a firing range to a forest, to suggest just one example, sure there’s intimations of power and its corruption, and the existential crisis of being out of place is evoked not least by Ukrainian accents in Austrian locations and a character telling another literally ‘You don’t really belong.  That is your problem.’  But the language – verbal and visual – seem entirely in keeping with a vision of the real world.  You wouldn’t want to belong in the place where this guy is at home – a place where men are actualized only through violence.

Hannes Thanheiser with Krisch and Strauss

Where ‘Revanche’ ultimately takes us to is the notion that belonging accrues through relationships whose parties devote enough time to allow a shared history to develop – the 'regular-type life' that de Niro/Pacino in ‘Heat’ refer to as ‘barbecues and ballgames’, a binding practice explicitly referenced in ‘Revanche’.

Barbecues and Ballgames

Such belonging is better placed, as far as Spielman is concerned, with a view to the outside – otherwise we become members of cliques or cults or private armies, serving only to perpetuate their self-perception and exclusivity.  Spielman often frames his characters just inside or on the edge of doors, looking out; ‘Revanche’ is about the groans of a world that bears the costs of selfishness, but doesn’t quite know how to renew the bonds of community.  It’s a film that grips you and twists you and breaks your heart; and yet for all the cinematic depth it plumbs and archetypes it references, it never feels less than realistic: when a character does something ridiculous that characters in thrillers always do, you believe that this is nothing less than exactly how he would behave in the real world.

I’ve seen a lot of movie depictions of violence against the backdrop of a recognizably ‘ordinary’ world lately; and I’ve got tired of self-consciously ‘knowing’ attempts at saying something about the fragility of life/the human capacity for evil/the sins of colonialism (delete as appropriate).  But ‘Revanche’ is something else: ethically, it’s like a miniaturized ‘Macbeth’ or Greek myth; philosophically it can stand comparison to Kieslowski and the recent work of Michael Haneke (and, for that matter, Sean Penn’s extraordinary ‘The Crossing Guard’); psychologically, if you’re like me, it will speak to your sense that the fear of death must be transcended if you want to be happy in this life, and allow for the hope that you might not harm others in this pursuit.

'The Crossing Guard' and the Pursuit of Happiness

An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind; the taste of a piece of fruit from your grandfather equates to humankindness; and one extra piece of information can change everything.  ‘Revanche’ is made to remind us that easy violence and sentimental redemption narratives cost too much, because they reinforce the dehumanization that characterizes The Way Things Are.  This film wants to take people seriously; to take our struggle to get by, to do right, to live gracefully within the limits of what we can control.  Spielman says in the interview on the Criterion Blu-Ray, which looks gorgeous as usual, that he didn’t so much set out to make a film, but to get to know a world, and the people who inhabit it.  After watching ‘Revanche’ I felt like I knew myself better.

Summer Hours

Jeremie Renier, Juliette Binoche, and Charles Berling,

looking happier than they often feel in 'Summer Hours'

The premise that underlines Olivier Assayas’ film ‘Summer Hours’ couldn’t be more unfamiliar: elderly matriarch dies, her three adult children have to decide how to split up her estate, the Musee D’Orsay gets involved because said estate includes a lot of art and objets d’art, and some teenagers have a party in the rambling French country pile that has given the family shape for a generation. The end.

Given that I don’t have a) any objets d’art, b) a rambling French country pile, or c) contacts at the Musee D’Orsay, ‘Summer Hours’ nails what my old sociological colleagues would call ‘the condition of postmodernity’, and in that sense, ‘the condition of my life’ as if it were written about me. You might feel that way too, especially if you’re a middle class Westerner (in an ironic example of the limits of globalisation, that particular marker of non-diversity probably accounts for most of the readers of this blog, as well as the writer). ‘Summer Hours’ manages to make me think about be utterly compelling, to entertain and provoke, to suggest the contours of the world in which we currently live, and to suggest that its characters have existed before the film started, and will go on once it’s done.  A film of moments, because it knows life's biggest gravities often look tiny or even invisible when they're happening.  Trust me - as I look back over the past five years of my life, it seems to me entirely true that the most important thing I did was to spend fifteen minutes picking raspberries in New Zealand with my best friend.  All the external 'success', money, 'spectaculars' that may have happened are easily filed away into 'do not resuscitate' - they won't sustain me.  To sustain me in a sense of well-being, peace, and the possibility that I might do less harm to those around me?  Picking raspberries in a field in New Zealand.  That'll do.

(As for 'Summer Hours' moment of moments?: It's a close call between the protagonist (who dies in the first quarter of an hour - and that's not a spoiler) unpacking a new telephone, a 75th birthday gift that becomes something like the most heartbreaking metaphor you could imagine; or the way the camera lures itself up to Juliette Binoche’s face, and the sound rises as the camera closes in, and she weeps as her boyfriend leans toward her offering the relational closeness that the film is grieving.)

It’s a film about what drives the world, what family is, the role of art in living well, what the past means, the interconnection and fragmentation of the things; it creates a fully realised setting that I felt I could watch forever, partly because the way of life it is describing is itself becoming a museum piece.

Criterion releases ‘Summer Hours’ on DVD and Blu-Ray next week - gorgeous transfers as usual, and a pretty decent long interview with Assayas accompanies an essay by Kent Jones and making of documentary. It’s a magnificent film - one of the best of the past few years.