Saturday, December 30, 2006

the execution of a dictator, the death of a human being

well, i know i might be expected to write a title like that for a post like this, but in the frenzy of bloodlust that has accompanied the execution it actually seems inadequate to recall that vengeance serves no purpose of peace. this brutal man deserved to be made responsible for his actions; his victims had reason to expect justice; and if the waste of the war is to have any redemption, something needed to be done to show that those who would oppress other human beings as saddam did will not get away with it. but the manner in which saddam was tried and his life ended, and the way that the u.s. and u.k. administrations have responded evokes memories of pre-democratic mob rule. and for the u.k. foreign secretary to welcome the death penalty by saying that 'saddam has been held to account' is about as far from liberal values as this government has fallen. justice is not served by more killing. and the last time i looked, i thought the u.k. was opposed to capital punishment.

the vatican has reacted thus:

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi

"A capital punishment is always tragic news, a reason for sadness, even if it deals with a person who was guilty of grave crimes. The position of the Church has been restated often. The killing of the guilty party is not the way to reconstruct justice and reconcile society. On the contrary there is a risk that it will feed a spirit of vendetta and sow new violence. In these dark times for the Iraqi people one can only hope that all responsible parties truly make every effort so that glimmers of reconciliation and peace can be found in such a dramatic situation."

Friday, December 29, 2006

tell them who you are

i just saw a beautiful film about fathers and sons - 'tell them who you are' - a documentary about the cinematographer haskell wexler shot by his son. it's such a thoughtful and touching piece of cinema; and the bonus is you get to hear martin sheen talking about the meaning of life: to win our freedom on every possible level. it's so good i'm going to keep the dvd instead of selling it on ebay. and in these frugal days, that's saying something.


well, the year ends in 48 hours or so, and i don't plan to see any more new movies between now and then, so i thought i'd revise my list of the films of the year - would love to hear what you think - especially if you want to add any others:

Honourable mentions:

bobby – because it tries to make a case for non-violence.

an inconvenient truth – because it is a serious attempt at changing the world, and manages to make a lecture by al gore one of the most cinematically exciting things ever filmed.

casino royale – because it did everything a bond film should, but was also entirely original at the same time; and because I was able to enjoy it without ignoring the moral questions I have about being entertained by killing.

borat – because it made me laugh more than I had expected.

superman returns – the best kind of tribute film; one made with such care and attention that it makes you feel nostalgic for your childhood.

walk the line – it feels like you imagine Johnny cash must have felt, and has the courage to end early in his career. And it was the perfect pseduo-date movie for me.

paradise now – there has never been a film about the Palestinian people that takes the injustice of their circumstances and the manipulation of some of their political masters so seriously.

Miami vice – Michael Mann still knows how to shoot blue better than anyone else; you could watch this with the sound off.

pavee lackeen the traveller girl – a terrific irish film about travelling people, made with non-professionals, and revealing the tragic underbelly of this abused people.

the science of sleep - crazy like dreams, beautiful like love, sweet like candy floss, and alive like my own heartbeat

20: United 93 – a unique kind of dread settled over the audience when I saw this docudramatic representation of what may have happened on board the one plane that did not hit its target on 9/11; and the response of the passengers elicits fear and respect rather than vengeance. It also serves as a necessary corrective to the somewhat muted acknowledgement of the horror of what actually happened that day.

19: Flags of our fathers – one of the most thoughtful and provocative films ever made about war. Like listening to an old man’s wise conversation.

18: babel – while it’s preachy in places, inarritu and arriaga’s film about the gaps in human communication shows magnificent ambition; and it’s the only place you’re likely to see Moroccan farmers outside an arthouse (or, I suppose, morocco).

17: good night, and good luck – brilliant drama, unfolding slowly in crisp black and white, and over in less than 90 minutes, but announcing a devastating critique of the current US administration and the politics of consumption.

16: the beat that my heart skipped – a starkly beautiful remake of james toback’s ‘fingers’ – a hit man who plays classical piano; there are echoes of greatness in this film.

15: the queen – a story that humanises one of the most unreachable people on the planet.

14: the departed – it’s scorsese’s greatest hits, but who doesn’t want to listen to them again?

13: the prestige – a dark story about ambition and magic, and the lengths to which people will go to conquer the competition – especially if the only reason they have to succeed is that they know there’s somebody better than them. It feels like an epic, because these themes are just about as substantial as you can get.

12: grizzly man – Werner Herzog makes a film about someone we might otherwise consider his alter ego – Timothy Treadwell, whose concern for animal welfare was confused with his thirst for fame. It’s an incredible piece of accidentail cinema.

11: stranger than fiction – what a charming film about how we narrate our own lives; every day we are granted the choice to be heroic.

The rest of the list I’ll let speak for itself – would love your feedback:

10: a scanner darkly

9: cache

8: munich

7: syriana

6: the three burials of melquiades estrada

5: junebug

4: the new world

3: the fountain

2: little miss sunshine

1: children of men

three I (still) haven’t seen that may change the make up of this list once I get around to it:
prairie home companion
little children
pan’s labyrinth

having said this, more than anything I saw at the cinema, I’ve been thrilled by watching the first two seasons of homicide on dvd – maybe the most serious and compassionate drama about murder ever made.

Monday, December 11, 2006

celtic soliton sessions

Just to let y'all know:
The second Celtic Soliton session will take place in February 2007 in Belfast and Portrush. This year our theme is ‘dangerous living’.

The Soliton Network is an invitation to the rhythms of hospitality and generosity as well as to share resources, laughter, dreams and friendships. Soliton events are informal opportunities for people to reflect on the edges of Christian spirituality and practice – developed within what has come to be known as the ‘emerging church’, all are welcome, and many have been surprised by how rich the experience is. Soliton events aim to approach things from a different angle, and have reflected on questions such as social justice and politics, worship and theology, art and spirituality, and human hospitality. Speakers/facilitators at previous Soliton events have included Brian McLaren, Erwin McManus, Greg Russinger, Christine Sine, Doug Pagitt, Jo Coles, William Crawley and many more.

Our traditions embody stories of dangerous lives: prophets critiqued dangerously, apostles spoke dangerously, and the early church fathers lived dangerously. Jesus inspired life practices that launched a new society both critical of and dangerous to the present order. 2007's Soliton Sessions are an invitation to rediscover this alternative society. Facilitators already confirmed include Jonny Baker, Kester Brewin, Pete Rollins, William Crawley, Si Johnston, Laura Bagley, Andrew Jones and little old me. As a special event, the wonderful Juliet Turner will also play a concert for Soliton during the weekend.

The Celtic Soliton sessions take place as follows:
February 1-4, 2007
Thursday 1st Feb = Belfast 10am – 4pm with optional dinner
Friday evening – Sunday afternoon 2nd-4th Feb = Residential in Portrush

Soliton seeks to create space for free thinking engagement with Christian spirituality and practice and is an opportunity to meet with likeminded people who wish to explore radical spirituality in the emerging postmodern context. It is not a typical ‘teaching’ gathering but a forum in which people can learn together from each other, ask questions, and enjoy an experience of community.

Participants are welcome to attend either or both the Belfast and Portrush sessions; we have aimed to keep costs as low as possible to facilitate welcoming any who wish to participate, but we hope to keep the number of attendees small enough to be a meaningful gathering rather than just ‘another conference on the landscape.

More information at

Saturday, December 09, 2006

film talk 5

episode five of film talk is now available - check it out if you'd like to hear jett loe and myself wax eloquent about such cinematic glories as 'happy feet', 'flushed away', 'pan's labyrinth' and robert altman's unique sci-fi ice-age paul newman film 'quintet'. you can download it here:

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

the list

Films of the year 2006

Well, the year is beginning to wind down, and though there’s still a few new releases to go yet, some of you have been asking me to let you know what I’ve enjoyed in 2006. So, here’s what I’d recommend:

what I probably consider to be the ten best films of the year, though of course we don't want to be too dogmatic about this:

10: a scanner darkly

9: cache

8: munich

7: syriana

6: the three burials of melquiades estrada

5: junebug

4: the new world

3: the fountain

2: little miss sunshine

1: children of men

honourable mentions for:
grizzly man
an inconvenient truth
good night, and good luck
paradise now
superman returns
walk the line
the beat that my heart skipped
pavee lackeen the traveller girl
stranger than fiction
the prestige
the queen
the departed
casino royale

biggest disappointment:
wim wenders’ don’t come knocking

worst film I endured this year:
the wicker man

three I haven’t seen that may change the make up of this list once I get around to it:
prairie home companion
little children
pan’s labyrinth

words of wisdom from walter wink

this is a lovely autobiographical piece from walter wink about negotiating the space between fundamentalism and cynicism when it comes to the bible. i think felt something approaching inner peace when i read it.

Thursday, November 30, 2006


i saw what might become one of my favourite films this week...darren aronofsky's 'the fountain' is collapsing at the u.s. box office so badly that it may never get a release outside this country - which would make it one of those cinematic travesties to rank alongside the butchering of 'the magnificent ambersons', or the fact that the long version of 'heaven's gate' has hardly ever been seen.

'the fountain' is a film about life, death, beauty, and love, and manages to say more about these themes in just over an hour and a half than i've seen at the movies in a very long time. sure, it's not a particularly coherent narrative, and you need a couple of viewings before you can work out what's going on - but for the sheer imagination of putting a character into immortality for the sake of resurrecting the love of his life, when really what he should have done is spend more time with her when she was me sentimental, but it's things like this that affect us all, every moment of every day. it's what great art is best at. 'the fountain' risks alienating its audience (though i was the only person at the screening i saw) by focusing on things that can't be conveyed in words. it's repetitive, confusing, moving, truthful, and alive to the possibility that love might just conquer all, and that death isn't all its cracked up to be. (and ellen burstyn's in it).

it's the most imaginative and beautiful film i've seen this year.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

how a movie that's not particularly great still made me think about great things

saw a movie today that made me think.

'bobby' - a well-intentioned film that seeks to present the u.s. in microcosm on the day of robert kennedy's assassination - from the latino and african-american kitchen staff hoping for a change, to the materialists who rely on how their shoes look to determine their sense of well-being, to the old guy who has seen it all, or so he thinks. it works as an interesting attempt on emilio estevez's part to make a film from the heart that comments on the tragic circumstances we currently live through. the film is very moving for the last ten minutes as it plays one of rfk's speeches over images of people taking in the shock of his murder.

when you read these words, remarks made the day after martin luther king was murdered, only two months before rfk lost his life, you too may sense just what opportunity was lost when he was killed:

"I have saved this one opportunity, my only event of today, to speak briefly to you about the mindless menace of violence in America which again stains our land and every one of our lives.

It is not the concern of any one race. The victims of the violence are black and white, rich and poor, young and old, famous and unknown. They are, most important of all, human beings whom other human beings loved and needed. No one - no matter where he lives or what he does - can be certain who will suffer from some senseless act of bloodshed. And yet it goes on and on and on in this country of ours.

Why? What has violence ever accomplished? What has it ever created? No martyr's cause has ever been stilled by an assassin's bullet.

No wrongs have ever been righted by riots and civil disorders. A sniper is only a coward, not a hero; and an uncontrolled, uncontrollable mob is only the voice of madness, not the voice of reason.

Whenever any American's life is taken by another American unnecessarily - whether it is done in the name of the law or in the defiance of the law, by one man or a gang, in cold blood or in passion, in an attack of violence or in response to violence - whenever we tear at the fabric of the life which another man has painfully and clumsily woven for himself and his children, the whole nation is degraded.

"Among free men," said Abraham Lincoln, "there can be no successful appeal from the ballot to the bullet; and those who take such appeal are sure to lose their cause and pay the costs."

Yet we seemingly tolerate a rising level of violence that ignores our common humanity and our claims to civilization alike. We calmly accept newspaper reports of civilian slaughter in far-off lands. We glorify killing on movie and television screens and call it entertainment. We make it easy for men of all shades of sanity to acquire whatever weapons and ammunition they desire.

Too often we honor swagger and bluster and wielders of force; too often we excuse those who are willing to build their own lives on the shattered dreams of others. Some Americans who preach non-violence abroad fail to practice it here at home. Some who accuse others of inciting riots have by their own conduct invited them.

Some look for scapegoats, others look for conspiracies, but this much is clear: violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleansing of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul.

For there is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is the slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter.

This is the breaking of a man's spirit by denying him the chance to stand as a father and as a man among other men. And this too afflicts us all.

I have not come here to propose a set of specific remedies nor is there a single set. For a broad and adequate outline we know what must be done. When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies, to be met not with cooperation but with conquest; to be subjugated and mastered.

We learn, at the last, to look at our brothers as aliens, men with whom we share a city, but not a community; men bound to us in common dwelling, but not in common effort. We learn to share only a common fear, only a common desire to retreat from each other, only a common impulse to meet disagreement with force. For all this, there are no final answers.

Yet we know what we must do. It is to achieve true justice among our fellow citizens. The question is not what programs we should seek to enact. The question is whether we can find in our own midst and in our own hearts that leadership of humane purpose that will recognize the terrible truths of our existence.

We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of others. We must admit in ourselves that our own children's future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge.

Our lives on this planet are too short and the work to be done too great to let this spirit flourish any longer in our land. Of course we cannot vanquish it with a program, nor with a resolution.

But we can perhaps remember, if only for a time, that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short moment of life; that they seek, as do we, nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and in happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.

Surely, this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely, we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men, and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our own hearts brothers and countrymen once again."

Sunday, November 26, 2006

robert altman

so, farewell to robert altman, hollywood's chronicler of the joys and sorrows of what it means to be human. altman passed away last monday at the age of 81, and it's been interesting to read the praise being heaped on him in tributes written by film journalists who realise we have lost someone whose contribution to cinema is irreplaceable. this is what matters about robert altman: he made films about the way the world is, but managed to make us see it in a way we'd never done before.

the 'last supper' tableau pre-faux suicide scene in MASH, where a lonely man is eulogised by his friends in the hope that this will satirise him into sparing his own life...the patriotic country song that opens NASHVILLE prefiguring so much of what is troubling about this beautiful country...the painfully observed middle class dinner party (one masterful moment among many) in SHORT CUTS, which begins with the host calling one of his guests by the wrong name...the real world came to life in altman's travelogues of the un-mapped human soul.

and he had a way of working with actors that made them all look better than they had ever been before: henry gibson...elliott gould...donald sutherland...lily tomlin...ned beatty...tom waits...tim robbins...frances mcdormand...julianne moore...harry belafonte...andie mcdowell...bruce davison, among many others, are, i am sure, grateful for the day they signed on to be in an altman picture.

the film society of lincoln center is screening his last film A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION tomorrow night as a tribute...if you're an altman acolyte then you've probably already pulled one of his dvds off your shelf for another look - i'm going to see SHORT CUTS again, as soon as i can; as a reminder of what this - by all accounts - kindly, imperious, agnostic-about-religion-but-religious-about-humanity artist could do when given the right canvas to work on.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

film talk is here

jett loe of the magnificent irish podcast letter to america and i have started a's about film, and involves us talking - therefore it should come as no surprise to hear that it is called 'film talk' - you will find a tremendous film talk website at - and you can subscribe at itunes. email us at if you want to join the discussion

Friday, November 17, 2006


just saw an early preview screening of the lionsgate movie 'trade', due to be released in the u.s. next april. it's a film about the horror of human trafficking; and the role that westerners play in creating the demand. if it is released in its current form, it will be one of the most shocking movies produced by a mainstream studio. while it isn't as harsh as lukas moodysson's 'lilya 4-ever', and it has a hollywood through line that is a little too much closure for comfort, 'trade' is an important movie because if it is seen widely enough, it might just serve as a catalyst to motivate people to do something about this modern slave trade. meantime you can find out more and take action right now from friends at

Friday, November 03, 2006

what we will do with ted haggard

so, ted haggard, president of the u.s. national association of evangelicals, leading crusader for the religious right, and, specifically, opponent of extending civil protection to same-sex couples has been accused of having a long(ish) relationship with another man, involving payment for sex and drugs. rev.haggard has acknowledged that some of the allegations are true, but the full picture has not emerged yet.

i wanted to write about this because i think i can predict what is likely to happen over the next few days, yet i am optimistic or naive enough to hope that there might be an alternative.

here's what i think will happen.

ted haggard will be treated with sympathy by some, disrespect by others, condemnation by still others. he may acknowledge more truth to the allegations. if they are true, he is not likely to acknowledge anything further than having 'made serious mistakes' and needing help to get through this difficult period. he will probably not say that he is gay or bisexual; he will try to distinguish between his behaviour and his identity. and he may (or may not) be right.

mike jones, the man who says he has had a relationship with haggard for three years will have a few minutes of fame, be vilified by the religious right, perhaps even accused of entrapment, and will then disappear from public view.

ted haggard's church will seek to support his own family.

the leaders of the religious right, in the form of rev.dobson, falwell, et al. will portray this as being a tragic story of a man who like david in the bible was brought low by temptation, but who has repented and can be restored to full ministry again. they will not alter their position on homosexuality.

some gay rights advocates will seek to make political capital out of the situation; expressing (perhaps legitimate) anger at haggard's hypocrisy, as well as some empathy for those whose closet is perhaps locked with an even bigger key than most, because their livelihood depends on it.

some ordinary gay christians who are seeking to maintain a traditionalist stance will feel terribly let down.

some will leave the church.

some others will feel justified in their rejection of faith.

and a man and his family, and another man and his loved ones, will have been the centre of a story about human frailty and what mark noll calls the scandal of the evangelical mind (though i don't assume that professor noll would agree with the rest of the assertions in this post - though i'd value his response to this situation).

it is more than an embarrassment that mainstream evangelicalism in the u.s. is unable to embrace intellectually rigorous responses to the human condition because on the surface they may contradict so-called 'biblical' views of the world. it is a scandal. truth be told, there is as much prejudice and love in the evangelical world than anywhere else. but ted haggard (or, if the allegations are false, we could substitute any number of other names of professional christians brought low by scandal) may have been spared this disaster if he had lived in a culture that isn't afraid to engage with scientific, social-scientific, and psychological responses to scientific questions.

in other words, and to put it perhaps a little too colloquially, the repression by the church for fifty years of ted haggard is not a manifestation of the grace of god; nor will the cause of the gospel of the kingdom of mercy and justice be served by condemning yet another of god's children who, in spite of the fact that he is guilty of hypocrisy, walks in places that have no map, because the church has refused to draw one.

borat is everything you could possibly imagine. or fear. or hope for.

so, a man pretending to be a television journalist from a former soviet republic goes to america and has fun at the expense of some of its people. much of the fun is in the service of exposing bigotry. it includes an old boy rodeo-type advocating the execution of gay people, a grotesque spoof sport called 'the running of the jew', and one of the fattest and hairiest men in the world wrestling naked with another man in the service of defending pamela anderson's honour.

yep, there are a couple of moments where i thought sacha baron cohen was using 'borat' to take advantage of vulnerable people, but it's unclear just how much the participants did or did not know about the film, so this is a difficult one to judge. the fact that there is a film out there which will attract an enormous number of people who may not normally engage that much with the politics of prejudice in a journey of such twisted hilarity i almost don't believe some of my memories of what is actually in it...well, surely this has to be welcomed.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

the experience of vertigo

went to see vertigo at last night; the third time i've paid to see hitchcock's masterpiece on that particular big screen - if you've seen it, you probably understand why. there's something unrepeatable about the atmosphere of a cinema, the collective anticipation of an audience, and the feeling when the lights go down.

'vertigo' is, first and foremost, a bloody good thriller - whose superficially simplistic plot still manages to keep us guessing to the end. beyond that, it's a dreamland for the freud in all of us (if that itself is not a freudian slip). ultimately, this is a film about men and women, and the archetypal lack of understanding between us. it's about how we are tempted to make those we love into our own image; and how when love is lost, we may be drawn to do anything we can to get it back.

hitchcock wasn't known exactly for his healthy relationships, but then again it may well be the case that you don't have to be good to be wise.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

the departed

go see 'the departed' - it plays like a compendium of scorsese's greatest hits, which is not a bad thing when you think about it; apparently he finished it just a week before it was released - and it shows with some rough edges. but with jack nicholson accepting direction from someone other than himself; leo and matt growing up; alec baldwin and mark wahlberg having some salty laughs; and martin sheen playing his first character who feels real since 'the west wing'. typically cool use of music - especially van the man embodying pink floyd's 'comfortably numb'.

it's also scorsese's most political film - a post-9/11 cry against the havoc of politics being done out of 'pure' self-interest. it's maybe not as important or smart as is being claimed by some, but i've seen it twice and didn't feel like it was anything other than a rather splendid use of my time.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Hunter S Thompson & Ralph Steadman

When Hunter S Thompson shot himself early last year, the journalistic world mourned one of its great mavericks – known for observing the past four decades of American life in books such as ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’. Thompson’s words are, of course almost umbilically tied to the cartoons of Ralph Steadman, the soft-spoken Welshman who illustrated the madness of the journeys Thompson took. Ralph Steadman has written an account of their relationship called ‘The Joke’s Over'.

Steadman begins the book by quoting Thompson saying ‘don’t write, Ralph, you’ll bring shame on your family’ – so he approached this with some trepidation…The two of them have been described as butch and sundance on acid – but that seems a little tame when you read the adventurous tales of hard drinking and living and driving.

What Thompson said in the search for the artist for 'fear and loathing': ‘what we need is someone already suffering from severe brain damage with a paranoic fear of government officials, and takes risks without realising what’s happening to him’. A sentiment with which many of us may resonate.

But this book is not just the story of a man’s creative life, it’s that of a man who interpreted the last forty years of US history, and may actually have taken his own life because he couldn’t stand what had happened to America under Bush - Steadman says that 'his American was dead'.

Of course, Thompson's great achievement was to create a new style of journalism - which he called 'gonzo' - of which Steadman says:

'Nobody I have read knows what GONZO is, was, or ever could be, not even Hunter, and if he doesn't know what it is, I do. I am the only one who does. Gonzo makes
you feel GOod rather than BAd, which is BANZO. Pursue BANZO if you must but don't blame me or even credit me or you will make me sick. GOnzo is GOod. BAnzo is BAd. It is a simple equation.'

Having said this, apparently Thompson believed that he 'would feel real trapped in this life if I didn’t know I could commit suicide at any time’, and so this is what he finally did. There is surely a degree of serious irresponsibility here and lack of concern for others - though his loved ones seemed prepared. Maybe he felt so close to his America that he felt he had to die with it.

Toward the end of the book there’s a lovely vignette that suggests there was something of a spiritual community with HST at the centre, and those involved must miss it desperately.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

i know this is a bit late, but...

hey friends

just watched 'gangs of new york' for the first time in nearly four years.

scorsese's film, at its best, is about how violence begets violence, those who live by the sword etc...

but i'm confused by the very last image of the movie. he ends with a montage of overlapping images of new york's development over the past hundred and fifty years. but he stops short of showing the skyline as it looks now - so the twin towers are right there, centre screen, intact...this strikes me as more than a little surprising, and incongruous given the film that had led up to this point - scorsese has said that he didn't show the empty skyline because 'i wanted to make a film about the people who built the city, not those who tried to destroy it'. this point has some logic, but it does seem to me that the film would have been far more powerful had it ended more truthfully - the danger with the ending as it stands is that it may be read as a triumphalist eradication of the violent past, rather than an indictment of the fact that we have not changed our values that much since gangs beat each other to death in the streets for control of a city.

any thoughts?

Monday, September 25, 2006

a new tragedy every day

According to reports today, "the Illinois church made famous in The Blues Brothers film has been badly damaged in a fire. Firefighters were forced to smash down the Pilgrim Baptist Church of South Chicago's stained glass windows to tackle the blaze last week. The place of worship gained fame after funk legend James Brown sang there during a scene in the hit 1980 movie".

That's rather an understatement, to any of us who remember our first appreciation of the concept of vocation - when the blue light shines through the now charred stained glass of Pilgrim Baptist, and the messed-up saint John of Belushi sees that he finally has a purpose in life - to put the band back together and save the nuns' orphanage, thousands of young, lonely men discovered their own vocation too: to watch a lot of movies.

For those of you who really love The Blues Brothers, donations can be made to the Pilgrim Baptist Church of South Chicago Fire Relief Fund, c/o Charter One Bank, 9200 S. Commercial, Chicago 60617.

Friday, September 22, 2006

children of men

if you want to see a magnificent film - though very depressing - but a tremendous story of being in favour of life above all else, go see 'children of men', just released in the uk (it's out in the states on christmas day)

this story of a dystopian future in which all women have become infertile, and humanity awaits its end stars the appropriately distant clive owen, along with julianne moore, michael caine in a superb and moving cameo that reminds us why he should be allowed to live forever, and peter mullan as a crazed scotsman who always refers to himself in the third person.

as is my wont i'll prefer not to say much about the plot, but this really a remarkable film. its key theme is doing everything to keep life alive, and the documentary-style fashion in which it is made grips your vision as if your own life depends on it. alfonso cuaron directs some of the most incredible one-take scenes i've ever seen, and the narrative throttles along to make it one of the smartest action films ever made.

let me reiterate - this is a very depressing film but its heart is set on one thing: the absolute need, in the face of what may seem like unremitting darkness, to honour human life.

along with 'little miss sunshine' and 'the new world' it's the best film i've seen this year.

maybe this is what he meant

there's a fascinating response to the pope's speech in the australian newspaper 'the age', written by a muslim leader from down under - though it doesn't cover all the bases i've been concerned about i think it's well worth reading.

Subtle scholar, but what an inept politician
Waleed Aly
September 18, 2006

The Pope should mind his words. So should some of his Muslim critics.

LET me get this straight. Pope Benedict XVI quotes the 14th century
Emperor Manuel II Paleologus asserting before a Persian Islamic scholar that
the prophet Muhammad brought nothing new to the world except things "evil
inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached".
Some Muslims clearly interpret Benedict to be quoting Manuel with approval,
and take offence at the suggestion that Islam is inherently violent. The
response is to bomb five churches in the West Bank, and attack the door of
another in Basra. In India, angry mobs burn effigies of Pope Benedict. In
Somalia, Sheikh Abu Bakr Hassan Malin urges Muslims to "hunt down" the Pope
and kill him, while an armed Iraqi group threatens to carry out attacks
against Rome and the Vatican.

There. That'll show them for calling us violent.

Meanwhile, other commentators seem to be vying to be most hysterical.
General Instance of Religious Affairs thinks Benedict's "insult . pushes us
back to the era of crusades against Muslims led by Western political and
religious leaders". And a member of the ruling party in Turkey has placed
Benedict "in the same category as leaders like Hitler and Mussolini", in
must surely be an insult to those who suffered under them.

Closer to home, Muslim Community Reference Group chairman Ameer Ali
Benedict to "behave like (his predecessor) John Paul II, not Urban II (who
launched the Crusades)", while Taj al-Din al-Hilali declared startlingly
the Pope "doesn't have the qualities or good grasp of Christian character or
knowledge". It's fair to say perspective has deserted us.

Parallels with February's Danish cartoon saga are begging to be drawn. As
Saudi Arabia, Iran, Libya and Syria did with Denmark, Morocco has now
withdrawn its ambassador from the Vatican. Egypt and Turkey called for an
apology. Indeed, one expert has suggested Morocco's
decision may have been a tactic to prevent a wave of street protests similar
to those that stunned the world in February. There is an awful sense of
history repeating: a provocative gesture triggers an overblown response of
surreal imbecility.

But this is not the same as the Danish catastrophe. On that occasion, the
cartoons' publication was an act calculated specifically to offend Muslim
sensibilities. The reaction was irredeemably contemptible, but the sense of
offence was justified.

Pope Benedict's speech was an academic address at a German university on an
esoteric theological theme that had nothing to do with affronting Muslims.
The apparently offending remarks were almost a footnote to the discussion.
The contrast is manifestly stark.

But it seems some elements in the Muslim world are looking avidly for
something to offend them. Meanwhile, governments looking to boost their
Islamic credentials are only too happy to seize on this, or nurture it, for
their own political advantage. At some point, the Muslim world has to gain
control of itself. Presently, its most vocal elements are so disastrously
reactionary, and therefore so easily manipulable.

Here, the vociferous protests came from people who, quite clearly, have not
bothered to read Benedict's speech. Worse, some (like al-Hilali and Ameer
Ali) themselves regularly complain of being quoted incorrectly and out of

Had such critics done their homework, they would have noted Benedict's
description of Manuel II's "startling brusqueness". Manuel's point was that
violent doctrine could not come from God because missionary violence is
contrary to rationality. Benedict's point was a subtle one: that Manuel
a positive link between religious truth and reason. This was the central
theme of the Pope's address. He was silent on Manuel's attitude to Islam
because it was beside the point he was making. Clearly, Manuel II was not a
fan of the prophet Muhammad. But that does not mean Benedict isn't either.

The trouble with being the Pope is that you are simultaneously a theologian
and a politician. Theological discourse is regularly nuanced and esoteric.
Political discourse is not.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said "the Pope spoke like a politician
rather than as a man of religion", but the truth is the exact opposite. In
theological terms, Benedict chose an example well suited to his narrow

In political terms, his choice was poor. He was naive not to recognise how
offensively it would translate into the crudeness of the public
and should at least have made clear that he was not endorsing Manuel II's

I happen to think Manuel had a shoddy grasp of Islamic theology. Indeed, the
Islamic tradition would have much to contribute to the theme of Benedict's
lecture. While medieval Christendom fought science stridently, the
relationship between faith and reason in traditional Islam was highly

That's why I would be interested to have heard how the Persian scholar
responded to Manuel's argument. I'm fairly certain, though, he wouldn't have
called on Muslim hordes to hunt down Manuel and kill him.

Waleed Aly is an Islamic Council of Victoria director.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

what did the pope mean?

last week pope benedict quoted from a 14th century document which uses deeply intemperate, and in the pope's own words, 'shockingly brusque' language to condemn those who link religion and violence. he may or may not have intended to offend muslims. i suspect not - the comment was made in the context of an academic paper, and it is likely that it was assumed that the comments would not be heard by anyone not present at the gathering. while this may be evidence of naivety on the part of the former cardinal ratzinger, or perhaps arrogance, i frankly find it hard to believe that he expected never mind intended the reaction to the way his words have been construed in the press.

the fact that there have apparently been militant and even violent protests in response tends to prove the point that those who would use religion to endorse violence against the human person need to be engaged with, at least in terms of the kind of dialogue that academic popes may not yet be capable of, and better still in terms of religious leaders articulating a religious path that is both authentically spiritual and pro-actively non-violent, rather than the kind of practice that passes for mainstream religion in the west - which these days, in spite of some noble exceptions (e.g. yesterday's intervention by rowan williams regarding the crisis in childhood), tends toward either insipid and unengaging, or nationalistic and so blindly supportive of violence that it becomes about as far away from the teachings and way of jesus as it's possible to get without coming back in the opposite direction.

Monday, September 11, 2006

the queen and i

just saw stephen frears' film 'the queen' - a strange and rather splendid movie, with helen mirren in what is immediately out of the gate as the front runner for performance of the year.

we're used to seeing nothing of the 'real' royal family, and portrayals of them on-screen tend toward the satiric - but frears is too mature a director for that - while there is almost no way we could possibly judge the veracity of the story in this film - that of how the queen responded in the immediate aftermath of the tragic death of princess diana - this film manages to make convincing human beings out of - especially - elizabeth windsor and tony blair.

there was a sense of something like relief among the audience i saw it with - as if we have been bursting to see these public figures behave like real people. the communal feeling might best be summed up as socio-psychological dam bursting - as finally got to see humanity behind the usual steely public demeanour. blair comes out of the film as a calculating man, alistair campbell as a political machine, the queen as a woman of stature and dignity who represents something rare in contemporary society - someone who believes that their life exists for the sake of something bigger than themselves.

now i would not want to go much further than that - the monarchy is not an institution that i would invest a lot of time endorsing - but there is something about this film that made me feel that i understood more about the epochal cultural changes that have happpened to britain, ireland, and europe in the past ten years.

harvey keitel, osama bin laden, and the ministry of disney

so, abc television's drama 'the path to 9/11' aired last night - i only caught a few minutes of shaky hand-held camerawork so wasn't sure what to make of it. the film has been criticised for putting the blame on the clinton administration for not being wise to the threat. there's also an interesting christian missions connection to the film in the form of its director - check out david l cunningham and see what you find if you're interested.

would love to hear from any of you who have seen it - what's it like?

Monday, September 04, 2006

little miss sunshine: funny and smart, smart and funny

'little miss sunshine' is, i suppose, what they call 'this year's sleeper hit' - a beautifully observed comedy in the truest sense - something about what real life is really like. i won't say much about the plot, other than it's a very dysfunctional family (or maybe it just seems that way - i've only encountered a couple of families that seemed functional) on a road trip. as is usually the case in this kind of film, the journey is the destination, but the joys and sorrows of this journey manage to take in a critique of the american dream, father-son relationships, ambition, teenage angst, the sexualisation of almost everything in our society, and ultimately the truth that it is in broken moments when we are both most human, and possibly most lovable.

it's also profoundly funny.

but it's that last point that stays with me - when we are most broken, we are perhaps most able to be ourselves. at the same time, when we it seems like we have lost everything we held most dear, that's when we can make an exuberant gift of our usually hidden abilities to take risks. if this sounds ambiguous, it's because i'm trying not to give away too much of the go see it and let me know what you think.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

where has wim wenders' mojo gone?

saw 'don't come knocking' last night - new film by wim wenders and sam shepherd - great pedigree, great photography and music, great territory - lonely man wandering through the american west - that both wenders and shepherd have worn well before.

so it was sad to see that, as with many other older directors, the late vintage wenders only made me want to return to his earlier films - at least two of which - 'paris, texas', and 'wings of desire' - can be legitimately called masterpieces. both of them deal with the sense of being 'outside' the mainstream, of not being able to 'fit in', making serious mistakes, and trying to atone because of them.

'don't come knocking' just doesn't convince. wenders, like woody allen, and, i fear, martin scorsese, appears to have got caught in a rut of doing only things that he has done better this token, you could make a case that steven spielberg is one of the riskiest directors working in the mainstream today - consistently challenging himself to do something new. if only someone could persuade woody allen to slow down and make fewer films, or wim wenders to make a non-narrative film in ireland, or scorsese to forget catholicism and gangsters for a while...

Friday, September 01, 2006

the wicker man: may god have mercy on our souls

the remake of the 1973 horror classic 'the wicker man' opened today without a press screening - never a good sign.

i went to see it in the vague hope that neil la bute would show some of the serious flair present in his earlier, heavier films such as 'in the company of men'.

sadly, this horror film is one of the funniest i've ever seen. so much effort and attention has been paid to the set design that they forgot the best parts of the script - the religious questions, the sinister way otherwise innocuous things appear, the sheer terror has been replaced by nicolas cage in a bear suit and ellen burstyn - my favourite actress - playing the role that underlines the theory that it's the exception that proves the rule.

the question i'm left with is to wonder if the religious aspects of the film were removed because it is assumed that today's audiences don't want to engage with them. and i don't think anyone who thinks seriously about these things would agree with that.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

a scanner darkly

philip k dick was a tragic figure who made art out of his pain

richard linklater is a film maker who manages to straddle both the mainstream ('school of rock') and indie ('before sunrise') scenes

keanu reeves is an actor who rarely succeeds on his own, but when he's in the right context, he does things that no one else can

'a scanner darkly' is a superb film about the divided self, the fearsome power of drug misuse, the encroachments of the state, the uses and abuses of personal freedom, and the life of the mind

it's the first film i've seen this year that i immediately wanted to see again

dvd catastrophe

hey folks

my dvd player has stopped working - anyone know how to fix it?

it's a really cool sony player, and worked fine til i went to greenbelt - now every time i put a disc in it says 'cannot play this disc'...anyone know why?

first person to solve the problem gets a free dvd from my collection.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

back from greenbelt

hey folks

sorry i've been off-line for a few days - decided for the first time not to take my computer to greenbelt - turned out just right as it was the busiest festival i've ever had.

so, highlights:

michael franti's near-spontaneous combustion as he enacted everything i could possibly wish for a euphoric last night on mainstage

dancing in the organic beer tent

re-connecting with beautiful friends - mr steve lawson & mr alastair mcintosh, mr kester brewin as three stand-outs

feeling at home again

great to see so many of you there

the spirit grows

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

greenbelt: films of the year

a heads up for anyone heading to greenbelt this weekend - i'm doing a film review of the year seminar. here's my brief thoughts on the themes that have surfaced in the films of past year, along with a draft list of the films that i've appreciated the most since last august bank holiday. love to hear your thoughts.

angst-ridden artists as the keynote of our time
commitment in relationship matters
post-9/11 cinema
the rudest film ever made
god works for disney
peter jackson has too much power
50 cent's movies are worth the price of his name
make peace with your own death
the usual waste of time popcorn
smart popcorn
god is at the edges

grizzly man
brokeback mountain
40 year old virgin
an inconvenient truth
the constant gardener
the three burials of melquiades estrada
a history of violence
good night, and good luck
the new world
paradise now
superman returns
little miss sunshine
walk the line
the beat that my heart skipped
pavee lackeen the traveller girl

for what it's worth, my three favourite films of the past year are
little miss sunshine
the new world

Monday, August 21, 2006

what is blogging for?

so, i've been at this blogging malarkey for a couple of weeks now and i'm enjoying it. it's kinda nice that some of you out there are happy to connect with this blog.

i am intrigued by one thing, though - last week i wrote a post about the president of iran and his veiled threats against the u.s. one of you good people has responded to this post. the next day, i wrote a short of review of the new will ferrell movie. TEN posts in response!

perhaps there is a lesson in the fact that the score is currently ferrell 10, ahmadenijad 1, but i just wanted to say that i'm eager to see traffic on the political stuff as well as the comedy!

Sunday, August 20, 2006

easy rider at last

just saw 'easy rider' for the first time - yeah, i know that makes me look ridiculous, but there's a lot of films out there that i wanted to watch first. to be honest, i found it boring and pretentious, with a few nice landscape vistas thrown in to make it a not entirely unpleasant experience.

having said that, this isn't what some people called 'amerika' in 1969, and it's easy to see how 'rider's impact depended on it's cultural context...rebellion and freedom seen as two sides of a coin etc etc etc. though once you think about the fact that the legacy of the 'freedoms' of the 70s turned out to be ronald reagan's presidency, and the groundwork that it laid for today's administration, perhaps 'easy rider' represented both the beginning and the end of a movement.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

world trade center: not an oliver stone film

just saw world trade center at the cinerama dome - amazing cinema in hollywood that i'd always wanted to visit. this movie is perhaps not the ideal film to be seeing in a place known for its cinematic spectacle, but i was glad to see it nonetheless. was particularly intrigued by the fact that it was made by oliver stone, and wondered what this most political of film-makers would do with it.

what he did: memorialise.

this film is a powerful tribute to the courage shown by many people on 9/11; but deeper than that, it seeks to represent the horror of what happened in the twin towers. for the most part, it is not a political film.

people like me found it difficult to truly engage with the tragedy for at least two reasons - the immediacy of the visuals on tv, and the lack of images of human beings suffering (as with hurricane or tsunami footage) made the event seem almost mechanical; but most damaging of all was the fact that the response of the bush administration forced us to devote our resources to the attempt at restraining further violence rather than lamenting what had happened.

so it is a good thing that a film has been made that seeks to do little more than respect the victims.

lament is important, but it is a lost art.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

will ferrell is having a laugh. but i'm not.

when a movie's end credits are funnier than the film itself, and when the best scene was missed because you were asleep when it happened, then i guess the film must be 'talladega nights: the ballad of ricky bobby' - a very well shot comedy which forgets that script and plot are not incidental to humour. will ferrell's a smart guy - but not smart enough to realise when a joke has gone on too long: for frankly, this was one of the most boring films i've seen in a long time. to russty, michelle, jared and gina, all i can say is 'forgive me for asking you to see this with me'. hope we'll do better next time.

(and if you want to be reminded of ferrell's ability to really make you laugh, try and get hold of the comilation dvd of his saturday night live stuff. no one does lipton like ferrell)

Monday, August 14, 2006

doug pagitt is next to godliness

he is the michelangelo of the emerging church

there is no man so erudite, so thoughtful, so wise, so tall, and so able to make nanotechnology sound interesting as he.

i highly recommend that you all turn your prayer mats toward minnesota if you want your intercessions to work in future.

or at least you could check the man himself out at

Sunday, August 13, 2006

human hospitality

at the soliton sessions in ventura this week several thoughts collided as i found myself sharing the presence of doug pagitt, shane claiborne, si johnston, ched myers, kester brewin, greg russinger and the bridge communities - all worth a bit of a google if you've time to read up on these marvellous people (and if you want an object lesson in hospitality you should go and stay with my amazing friends jared and regina williams):

bonhoeffer - if you're in love with your vision of community, your community will fail. if you're prepared instead to love people, then you might just succeed at building community.

hospitality is more than having friends over for dinner - it is an attitude of mind and heart - a demeanour of generosity toward everyone and everything. that's too important to miss, so i'll say it again: hospitality is more than having friends over for dinner - it is an attitude of mind and heart - a demeanour of generosity toward everyone and everything.

also - what would the world look like if we based politics on hospitality? if we saw foreign policy as an opportunity for nations to show each other generosity?

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

roy peterson is the film guy who will make you happy

check this out

cool director, cares about movies and art and spirituality and used to work for pat he needs your emotional support...

lady in the water - is she waving or drowning?

ok - you can read my full review of shyamalan's lady in the water in the next issue of 'third way' magazine

but for's some thoughts

shyamalan believes in magic, and he wants us to as well

he makes films about magic

each of them has made me feel like i'm experiencing something bigger than myself - like the way i felt when i went to the movies as a kid

he's into the Big Themes...death/life, love/spirituality, god, forgiveness, healing...

i like him.

BUT...lady in the water felt to me like an attempt at saying everything he thinks in one place.

it does suggest wonderful things about community life, about vocational purpose, about fear, and about how we all need each other

but it's such a convoluted narrative, and the characters so arch and unrealistic that i spent too much time thinking about what was wrong with the film than about what it might teach me.

having said this, several people i know and respect have been alarmed by my response...they seem to love it, they seem to see themselves in it, they seem to see hope and life, and even god.

that's enough reason for me to at least see it again.

but for now, the lady is neither waving nor drowning, she's just treading water.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

lady in the water

i'm in l.a. which allows, among other things, the opportunity to see friends and movies. on my way this afternoon to see shyamalan's 'lady in the water', about which i'm hearing awful things...have loved all of his previous films - sixth sense, unbreakable, signs, and the village - but apparently lady in the water might break his winning streak.

he is, however, one of the few contemporary film makers who believes in the power of movies to inspire magic in the audience. i'll let you know later if lady in the water is waving or drowning.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Shatner Secrets

you can't go wrong with bill, one of the mystical mentors of this blog.


if you're about in southern california at the end of next week, we'd love to see you at soliton. if not, then why not become the first person to add a comment to this nascent blog, written in a jet-lagged state in the hope that some life will come of it.


Monday, July 31, 2006


this is slightly old news but some of you may not have heard it yet - the 5 ploughshares activists on trial in dublin charged with criminal damage to a US warplane have been acquitted. read their story on

we end where we begin

hi friends old and new

well, this is it - i've taken the plunge into the blogosphere - on second thoughts, you maybe can't plunge into a could bounce one...anyway, here i am...after being plied with offers of ever-deepening friendship, free movies, and a glass or two of whiskey, i am starting a blog.

it'll be about the things that i care for. so there'll be movies, there'll be politics, there'll be art, there'll be music, there'll be discussions of non-violence, there'll be opportunities to be involved in activism to make the world a better place, all through the lens that i can't quite seem to let go of - the notion that god IS, and that if that statement is true, then god is both bigger than any ideas i have about him/her, and at the very least, god is nicer than me.

i'd love to share some of this with you, so please, come bounce a sphere with me.