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.

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.

It’s St Patrick’s Day weekend, and despite the fact that millions of people will celebrate something like this vision of what it means to be Irish, pretty much none of the above is true.

Patrick wasn’t Irish, for a start. Born in Britain, he didn’t tend sheep in Ireland until after he was kidnapped and taken to Eire at age 16; there probably weren’t any snakes; and Bushmills didn’t receive its grant to distill until 1608. ...

We know very little else for sure about Ireland’s patron saint, the embodiment of the spirit of the place where I was born and raised, and the reason many of us will be partying this weekend to remember a land where most of us have never set foot, but which holds a strange call for people across the world.

To help me negotiate the labyrinth of Patrick stories, I’m grateful for my friend Davy in Belfast, a man who fuses the written record with oral tradition, and arrives at a conclusion that’s worth reflecting on today, tomorrow, and beyond.

For Davy, Patrick matters for one reason above all: Before Patrick, we were seen only as barbarians or primitives — a theme that prevailed in much of the British-Irish conversation until not so long ago. Anti-Irish humor was a staple of English stand-up comedy, not to mention the explicit sectarianism of "No Irish Need Apply" want ads on employment noticeboards and rental accommodation alike.

Mutual suspicion mingled with real violence, of course, and centuries of enmity characterized relationships across the two neighboring islands. It wasn’t mystical, it wasn’t romantic, it wasn’t fun.

And at the end of the day, we didn’t drown our sorrows by consuming mixed drinks called "Irish car bombs."

This might all have been avoided had we been attentive to the spirit embraced by our patron saint — a fella who came from Britain, and told everyone else what we already knew: The Irish are human.

This Patrick — Davy’s Patrick, my Patrick, hopefully something like the real Patrick — embodied empathy with people who are different. He knew that his own good was intimately connected to the common good; and that the powerful can perhaps be saved from the effects of their oppression only by walking humbly with those they have hurt.

Not an easy task, of course. Nor is it easy to dispute the assertion that it’s true. So when I celebrate Patrick’s Day this weekend, I’ll think about what it means to be human, and see the full humanity in others.

I’ll think of another man, born on St Patrick’s Day a hundred years ago — Bayard Rustin, who mentored Martin Luther King in Gandhian nonviolence, organized the March on Washington in 1963, and was forced to stay in the background on account of the refusal of others to respect his humanity.

I’d like to think that Patrick would have said Rustin was human. So would John O’Donohue, the closest to a personification of Celtic spirituality Ireland has seen in recent times. This priest, poet, prophet and friend died four years ago, but left behind work of immense importance to anyone wanting to embrace an Irish spirituality, perhaps best summed up in his short poem ‘Fluent’:

"I would love to live as the river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding."

And maybe that’s the aspect of Irishness that would be most valuable to meditate on this St Patrick’s Day:

To live in the tension between Being and Becoming; to stay still long enough to change the things you can, accept the things you can’t, and have the wisdom to know the difference.

Learning to laugh at the absurd part of life, committing to political compromise instead of killing each other, and taking care of the vulnerable?

Couldn’t hurt.

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.

3 Women/Warrior

In Which Olive Oyl and Carrie go Head to Head for the Sake of the Female Id, an English lad and an Australian bloke re-enact the tortured soul of American masculinity, Nick Nolte tries not to crumble, and Robert Altman smiles down from the heaven he didn’t believe in.

When you’re watching Robert Altman’s ‘3 Women’ on Blu-ray, it would be easy, if potentially clichéd, to equate the grain of the image with the seriousness of the director’s intent.  It’s like looking at the lined face of an old professor; but on Blu-ray you can see inside the lines.  Everything looks so clear on the just-released Criterion edition, and the California desert images are so evocative of a world that hasn’t yet left the Old West behind that it almost makes you yearn to be watching it on a scratched and faded print at an isolated Drive In.  The trouble with Blu-ray is that it makes everything perfect, which sometimes crowds out the space for an imperfect human response.  It can be a bit like looking at the Grand Canyon: contemplation is invited, analysis pretty much impossible.  (Think of the difference between watching ‘Attack of the Clones’ in high-definition [on disc or theatrically projected] and the first time you saw ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ in a theatre; the fact that ‘Empire’ felt more substantial wasn’t just because it has a better script and you were six: the grain and the matte paintings and the models and, yes, even the performances, were more real than a computer can generate, or a digital image can convey.)

But a perfect film deserves perfect presentation, I suppose.  So ‘3 Women’ has what it warrants; and it wasn’t a bad way to spend a couple of mild insomnia-induced hours the other night.  Given that the idea behind the film came to Altman in a dream, we were on solid ground.  And when the camera opens us into a swimming pool in which young people are guiding the elderly toward their metaphysical exit, we the audience are being born too, so the shift in consciousness that comes late at night - reflective, open to something new - meant it was natural for me to be along for the trip.

Altman was an intellectual artist of the most engaging kind: his camera, fluid, as Bruce Cockburn would say, like the wind in grass, inviting us to observe just like he did, around and near the action, but never in it.  He was a man of vast tastes (too easy it is to suggest that because his films had a certain demeanor that the themes were unified - I mean, c’mon, this is a guy who had Anouk Aimee take all her clothes off to make a satirical point about fashion, put US army medics in a Last Supper tableau as a preamble to suicide, and had Harry Belafonte invert everything we think we know about Harry Belafonte so that he could channel Christopher Walken into a jazz era Missouri psychopath).  The intellect and tastes here engage the question of what it means to be human - so far, so much that’s-the-point-of-art, I guess - specifically what it means for its trio of female protagonists to be human in a world that wants to make them into machines; either as workers in the factory farm, or as the receptacles of men’s lust or anger, or as the bearers of the very image of humanity by having children.

These are not likeable people - played by Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall and Janice Rule - walking around in circles in the water as they’re dying.  Their faces are frightening, their behavior irritating; they invite pity at best, and sometimes fear, because you wouldn’t want to get too close to them, partly because they are carrying on the surface that which you fear most about yourself: that you will never know who you are, that you will always be alone in the world, and that you will spend your life trying to impress people who don’t give a damn.

The murals that Rule is painting in the swimming pool evoke archetypal myth; but the pool obviously has to be drained to permit the paint to dry: it’s a barren space for her to project her fantasies.  The 3 women seem to be animated only in their dreams: when Spacek’s Pinky convinces herself that she is someone else; when Duvall’s Millie thinks of the near-ridiculous cowboy Edgar; when Rule is painting ancient stories without ever uttering a word herself.  No one could accuse Altman of wanting to be someone else - or at least no one could accuse him of being obsessed with trying.  Is this the task of living: to avoid wanting to be someone other than who we are?  Maybe.  But is his coruscating critique of the lives of these women just cynicism?  Does the fact that the film opens with people walking round in circles, waiting to die, suggest nihilism on the part of its director?  I don’t think so.  ‘3 Women’ is the work of a man in love with cinema (not just the obvious antecedent in Bergman’s ‘Persona’, but the mythic American West too, and there’s even a touch of ‘The Exorcist‘ in the nightmare sequence toward the film’s climax)  - and just as Kubrick saw ‘The Shining’ as an optimistic film because it avers a belief in an afterlife, you can’t be entirely cynical if you’re in love.  There’s a very telling moment when Millie walks in on an elderly couple making love, on a night when they are distressed by something that has happened to a loved one.  Bad things happen, but you can still live; as a certain other film-maker/lover might say.  We’ve mislaid some of the tools that might be useful in determining how to function as a whole person; the task for now is to figure out how to figure out who you are without stealing someone else’s soul.

[Brief note: I’ve been thinking about something that Thulsa Doom, the bad-bad-BAD guy  in ‘Conan the Barbarian’ (which I saw for only the first time this month), says to the Austrian oak at that film’s violent climax, so derivative of the final encounter between Willard and Kurtz that it’s a good thing John Milius wrote that film too otherwise Francis Coppola would be the new Art Buchwald.  Thulsa Doom killed Conan’s mother when he was a child; and Conan has pursued vengeance against Thulsa Doom ever since.  When he is just about to kill his enemy, Thulsa Doom suggests that this might not be in his best interest, because his whole identity has been so shaped by revenge that he will not know how to live after eradicating his enemy.  ‘It will be as if you never existed,’ says Thulsa; and for a moment I thought that Milius was going to tell the truth about retribution: that it serves to perpetuate, not heal, the wounds of violence.  But such moments of philosophical clarity do not a Dino de Laurentiis 80s epic make; so Conan cuts Thulsa’s head off, and all is well.  Just such a kind of vengeance drives Pinky in ‘3 Women’, and in one of the most surprising collisions of artist intent I’ve seen, you can see a populist male version of ‘3 Women’ at your local multiplex right now.  ‘Warrior’ is a far more thoughtful film than its posters suggest; in fact, it may be the post-9/11/Iraq war/war on terror/WTF just happened? movie we’ve been waiting for.  Two angry brothers and a broken dad isn’t the most original narrative trope, but neither is love conquers all; doesn’t mean it can’t contain vast emotional truth.  ‘Warrior’ is about the need to transcend the violent shadow and the avoidance of anger alike; about how being a man who hopes to do justice to the calling of being human requires integration of what is too simplistically called ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’; about how people deserve a second chance, not least because your desire to withhold that chance from those who have harmed you may actually be continuing your own experience of woundedness.  It’s a wonderfully engaging, brilliantly edited, emotionally honest film that moved me.  Its vision of what the integrated US American male could be is the inversion of Conan’s path: violence begets violence until someone is willing to change the script.  We need an interruption.]

'Warrior' is on general release; '3 Women' is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Criterion.


Sorry, it's been a while.  But it's 8.37 on a Saturday morning, I'm watching Jean Vigo's 'A Propos de Nice' (a dialogue-free short film about French people being happy, any five minutes of which are better than 'Inception' - which is already very good, but Vigo doesn't need CGI to turn a Gallic city upside down), and for some reason I want to blog again. No big promises - but if you join me in the comments, I'll be grateful and try to write more often.

My thoughts this weekend:

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

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