Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Films of the Year: The Top Ten

I’m always somewhat suspicious of “top 10″ lists, despite the fact that I’ve written one. Too often they become reasons for people not to see films that aren’t included, but I suppose I err on the side of offering the following list of the movies I liked most in the past year not because I have any special right to do so, but because I hope some of the films might get seen by people who might not otherwise check them out. That’s what I find most helpful about other people’s lists, so in the same spirit, here’s mine.

10. My Winnipeg. A crazy poem about director Guy Maddin’s love for his home city; a dream-like interaction with the people and places that shaped and formed him that will inspire audiences to remember what gives them a firm place to stand; and a reminder that there is a conservative principle that deserves renewing — saving the sense of community we had as children is worth almost any cost.

9. Shine a Light and U2-3D — two concert films. One is the most authentic recorded representation yet of a band that is far more than the sum of its parts, and who, under Bono’s spiritual authority, manages to do nothing less than lead a megachurch service in a Buenos Aires stadium. Their God is big and real, and among the broken; to be in the audience for this film is a surreal exhilaration. The other movie is Martin Scorsese’s depiction of the Rolling Stones playing—by their standards—a tiny venue, and revealing the secret of the band’s nearly 50-year history: They love what they do, and they keep doing it (and get paid pretty well, of course). It’s more than a film with music; when Mick Jagger’s gyrations are married to his lyrics, it’s clear that the question the Stones ask remains the same as always: how can men make sense of women? (Whether or not they have a good answer is, alas, not addressed.)

8. Happy Go Lucky. Mike Leigh’s film whose central character is so full of joy that you expect in this cynical age that she will be revealed as profoundly broken, or to come to grief in the course of the plot. Instead, Leigh and his lead actor, Sally Hawkins, have faith in the potential of human beings to bring more light than heat, and to find happiness not through changed circumstances, but changed perspective.

7. The Dark Knight. A coruscating and thrilling deconstruction of the war on terror, or George W. Bush’s retirement tribute video? The genius (or biggest failing) of this film is that it doesn’t decide for us. (And Heath Ledger’s Tom Waits impersonation isn’t too bad either.)

6. Rachel Getting Married – a small film of huge emotional depth, as two families gather to celebrate a wedding, while things fall apart and come together on the inside. Jonathan Demme has a lightness of touch that makes even one of the most completely unrealistic multi-ethnic nuptials sequences in all of cinema seem compelling to the point where you want to be invited to attend. Roger Ebert said that this film evokes what the U.S. is becoming at its best — a diverse nation of people who know that their future lies in learning to deal with difference. He might be optimistic, but he might also be right.

5. Milk. Sean Penn plays the first openly gay elected official in U.S. history, and Gus van Sant makes a brilliant film about the movement that brought him to office. But this is not just a gay rights movie — it’s a film about how social movements bring change and the cost to the individuals who lead them.

4. Heartbeat Detector — a film hardly anyone has seen, as it only received a limited release in one city. Now that it’s available on DVD, hopefully more people will experience this French existential thriller, which takes a long hard look at labor and employment practices in the post-modern corporate world and finds parallels in the most horrifying of places. When destroying a person’s livelihood can be called “downsizing,” the principles of dehumanization associated with despotic regimes have found their way into our daily bread.

3. Wall-E — not just the best animated film of the year, but the best film for the broadest audience. It’s a movie about the future with a sense of place comparable to Blade Runner and Lawrence of Arabia, and a moral vision of the present that deserves to be shouted from the rooftops: We are the makers of our own destiny, and time is running out to ensure that there is a planet for us to have a destiny on.

2. The Visitor — the smallest film on this list, with perhaps the largest emotional scope. A college professor hangs out with a couple of undocumented immigrants in the most cosmopolitan city in the world, the shadow of 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan loom large, while the meaning of community and the inflexibility of the law to exercise mercy are delicately portrayed. Richard Jenkins gives my favorite performance of the year. I hope the film’s reputation will last a long time.

1. Man on Wire — a documentary that asks “What could be more sublime than risking your life walking on a tightrope strung between the Twin Towers?” What could be more necessary than to restore our vision of the towers from one of barbarism to the immensity of human achievement? Philippe Petit, the French circus performer who carried out this amazing feat in 1974, may be touched by the spirit of Icarus, but he also stands as an icon of what the world needs now: human beings able to look up from their lives, to stop being defined by what has been called “the narrow circle of self,” and, to coin a phrase, do something beautiful.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Films of the Year: The runners-up

2008 Cinema Review: Joint Eleventh Place

Looking back on the year’s movies, I’m struck by how many of my favorites featured the theme of family and community – perhaps this reflects only my current personal concerns, or maybe there’s a bigger invisible hand at work. For what it’s worth, here’s my list of six movies that I really loved, but which don’t quite make it onto the top ten of 2008. That best-of list will follow soon.*

‘Quantum of Solace’, a James Bond film notable for featuring the rare instance in which he learns the futility of revenge, and advocates against a multi-national corporation in favor of the right of poor people to have clean drinking water. I know most critics were ambivalent about this movie, but trust me – it’s tightly edited, well-written, and plays more like an advert for a militarized peace and justice movement than the war on terror.

‘Surfwise’ – a rollicking documentary about a family so committed to living free that they unplugged themselves from the social grid and spent their lives in a motor home by a series of beaches. The patriarch is as gregarious as he is dictatorial, and the moral and psychological questions raised by his communitarian experiment deserve attention at any time, but perhaps especially in economic crisis.

‘Synecdoche, New York’, a mind-blowing dog-chasing-its-tail of a film; an aesthetically extraordinary, both troubling and hilarious story about art and its creation, about family and its dysfunction, and humanity and its relationship with itself – a film that gets bigger the more I think about it.

‘Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’ – Another under-appreciated film; but look closely and you’ll see Steven Spielberg fusing wide-eyed wonderment with his darker side – this is a wildly entertaining movie about bruised people becoming a family, it has one of the wisest last lines spoken by a major character in any film, and in the nuclear test zone sequence features the most dramatic image Spielberg has ever created: the atomic bomb as the starting pistol for the second half of the twentieth century.

Australia – In which Baz Lurhmann proves that he doesn’t care what other people think – he just wants to make movies on his terms. And what a movie he’s made: the creation myth of a huge country, seeking to atone for the shallow representation of Aboriginal people, and suggesting that only when you see the world through the eyes of a child can you be truly human.

‘Son of Rambow’ – A delightful little movie which manages to be both a knowing representation of childhood, a critique of religious fundamentalism, and a love letter to cinema itself.

* One of the most disappointing aspects of film distribution is how difficult it’s becoming to get to see movies that lack a huge budget. So, in the interests of being comprehensive, I’ve listed below films that I imagine might have made this list or the one to follow, but that I haven’t seen, either because they haven’t yet been released or screened for critics, or they just haven’t made it to my part of the country.

A Christmas Tale
The Reader
Revolutionary Road
I’ve Loved you so Long
The Wrestler
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Slumdog Millionaire

Monday, December 15, 2008

Films of the Year (part 3) MORE DISAPPOINTMENTS

Continuing the film critic's privilege of somewhat pretentiously deciding which films didn't make the cut - not necessarily the worst movies of the year, just the most disappointing. While it takes almost as much effort to make a bad film as to make a good one, these 13 (see the previous post for the first 7) represent much less than the sum of their parts.

6: 10000 BC - Roland Emmerich makes disaster films. Some of them are fun ('The Day after Tomorrow'). Some of them are pretty bad ('Godzilla'). Some of them make you wish that the world would end if only so you could escape from the cinema.

5: Sex and the City - a movie that exists to provide space for product placement and superficial emoting by characters who remind me of what some fear most about human relationships: that ultimately, we cannot choose to be anything other than alone in our own personal hell.*

4: Eagle Eye - a film that wants to be 'North by Northwest' but ends up nothing more than a calling card for Shia la Boeuf (he's a talented kid, but I wish I hadn't fallen asleep and could believe the film was about more than it seems to be; it felt like I had paid for him to develop a the most well-made showreel in the history of the movies)

3: 21 - the only movie I walked out of this year. Even though I was there alone, I actually began to feel embarrassed for myself after about ten minutes of this literally by-the-numbers coming of age/college sex dramedy.

2: The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor/Journey to the Center of the Earth - two Brendan Fraser films for the price of one (try 'Gods and Monsters' and 'Blast from the Past' for a far better evening's entertainment. They're listed here because they both, in their own small way (as John Geilgud might say) show contempt for the audience; one because it is a series of CGI effects strung together by nothing (and you can see the joins), the other because it was marketed as an exciting 3-D experience, but had nothing to offer the vast majority of audiences who had to settle for seeing it without the big glasses. The most short-changed I've felt at the movies this year.

1: Wanted - Easily my choice for the film this year that I most want to forget. This may seem controversial, because the movie is made with a great deal of craft, and so may not therefore deserve the criticism. But for me, the quality of a film is also determined by its cultural and moral vision; in that regard, 'Wanted', with its appropriation of nihilism-inflected-sexviolence, endorsement of the idea that physical attack is a better way to use your time than almost anything else, and its appetite for ultimate destruction gets my vote as the most morally empty, offensive, and distressing movie released in 2008.

To optimists among us: better news to follow.

*OK OK OK I know there's more to it than that, but there might also be less.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Films of the Year (part 2) DISAPPOINTMENTS

I'm going to post my review of the year in several parts over the next week - and even though I now live in the United States, I'm still northern Irish at heart, so I'll start with the disappointments. Here's the first seven (of 13 - a number which seems appropriate):

13: Bolt - a computer-generated film whose end credits reveal beautiful pencil and paint images that could have made it a masterpiece. Instead, it looks like an elongated version of the half-finished special features on a Pixar DVD.

12: Changeling - Clint Eastwood has an old-fashioned sense of storytelling, which makes for magnificent films when he wants to investigate parts we didn't know about before (the guilt of the ageing killer in 'Unforgiven', the two-wrongs-don't-make-a-right existentialism of 'Flags of our Fathers' and 'Letters from Iwo Jima', and the tragedy of being powerful over a small place in 'Mystic River'). But when all he has to give us is a terrible story about terrible events, the effect is like having your face squelched in mud for two hours.

11: Vicki Cristina Barcelona - Woody Allen's decline was sadly not arrested by his apparent belief that his recent superficial scripts would be transformed into works of genius by making one of them in Spain.

10: The Incredible Hulk - A film with a brilliant opening shot that just goes downhill; failing to recognise that the inner life of the Hulk is more interesting that genetically modified street battles, I'd rather watch the Ang Lee original instead - I mean it.

9: Get Smart - So many good actors, so much money on sets and locations, so few jokes that weren't already in the trailer.

8: The Day the Earth Stood Still - a decently put together but cliche-ridden remake.

7: Speed Racer - My podcast co-host thought this large-scale computer arcade game (with characters, narrative, and structure as subtle and nuanced as that description would lead you to expect) was a masterpiece that will change cinema. He's probably right about the second part.

The rest of the list will follow soon....

Friday, December 12, 2008

Films of the Year (part 1)

It's nearly time for the end of year 'best of' movie list - and rest assured, I'll produce one in a week or so - still have to see 'Slumdog Millionaire', 'Revolutionary Road', 'Brad Pitt Tries For an Oscar Again', 'I've Loved You So Long', and 'Four Christmases' - so the list can't be completed just yet. But by way of a characteristic preview I can let you know that if you're a Roger Corman-trained guy best known for a cannibal movie, a French circus artiste with a taste for creative tightroping, or a college professor learning to play the djembe, you might have reason to be pleased with yourself. I'm off to see 'The Day The Earth Stood Still'. Will comment later.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A Question about Prop. 8

The passing of Proposition 8 in California a couple of weeks ago makes gay marriage unconstitutional in that state; protests have begun and it's likely that the short term local defeat will lead to a movement that will eventually provoke a reversal at the national level. From my perspective, it should be untenable for a country that prides itself on liberty and justice for all to continue to refuse the right to legal protection and benefits to people who want to ratify their partnerships; especially when so much of the rest of the democratic world has seen that offering civil partnership legislation to same-sex couples is not a travesty of 'traditional values', nor will it undermine heterosexual marriage, but is actually best seen as an extension of the principles outlined by the founders of the United States - when people recognise injustice, what they are supposed to do is end it, not enshrine it in law.

Meantime, the opposing factions in this culture war don't talk to each other very much, partly I suppose because they are afraid, partly because they don't know each other (or they don't think they know each other). One side sees the GLBT community as demons out to destroy family life; the other sees religious fundamentalists as their oppressors, out to take away their very right to a family life.

So the question I want to ask is: what exactly do the proponents of Proposition 8 think there is to be gained from preventing loving couples having the right to share their tax burden, visit each other in hospital, and live in the same country? It's a serious question; and I have genuinely never quite understood the reasons offered by those opposed to gay marriage. I have some more detailed thoughts on this, and hope we can have a dialogue here about this; I'd be grateful if any readers would like to kickstart it by posting their responses to this question: How does gay marriage negatively affect anyone who is not gay?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Ten Things That Have Been On My Mind This Week

Gay marriage is the location of the next stage of the culture war – and equality will win.

I think that Sarah Palin will not run for President. Or that the only way she will run will be if someone prophesies that she should.

I miss Barack Obama; he's been off the TV most of the past week. Somebody Bring Him B(ar)ack! We need our Bartlett for Thanksgiving.

Clint Eastwood’s films are very old-fashioned. This is not a criticism. It means that sometimes (‘Flags of our Fathers’ – young men being used as propaganda tools by the US Government, ‘Unforgiven’ – an old gunslinger regretting the past, ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’ – the other side of a ‘noble’ war) he makes magnificent cinema, because when good craft is applied to simple stories that tell us something new, what’s not to like? On the other hand, sometimes (‘Changeling’ – serial killer in Los Angeles, ‘Space Cowboys’ – old guys having fun together, ‘Blood Work’ – another serial killer in Los Angeles) his films are monotonous, repetitive, and tell us nothing that we didn’t already know.

Singing old songs by the Carpenters and Lionel Richie round a campfire on a freezing night does not keep you warm.

You can’t take fingerprints from a cat.

Even Stanley Kubrick made ‘early, innocent’ movies.

Dr Oliver Sacks is a lovable old guy whose attitude to giving a public lecture mirrors mine: bring a sheaf of notes, start well, and then completely disregard your plans in favour of telling stories instead.

‘Three Colours Blue’ remains one of the most thrilling films I’ve ever seen, and Kieslwoski’s notion of freedom is not unlike that presented in ‘Into the Wild’: part of the purpose of life is to call every thing by its right name; and happiness is only real when it is shared.

Coincidences are unending.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Some Theological Questions about War and Peace

I've been asked to comment on a few things I said - about truth, war and peace, and taxes, in a class at Fuller Seminary a few weeks ago, and am happy to do so here. Let's start with war and peace.

In short, my questioner asked if my opposition to the use of violence is complete, and if events like the Second World War do not themselves justify violent response. I'm quoting my email response to my questioner with his permission:

I'm grateful for the question, for the Second World War is of course a key example used in the discussion of non- and less-violent means of addressing conflict. I would never want to demean or trivialize the sacrifices made to prevent the evil intent of Hitler from achieving its ends; indeed, as is the case for so many of this generation, my grandparents directly participated in that sacrifice. But the question arises as to whether or not the cause of ending Hitler’s war justified the means used to end it; and whether there were other potential means that could have been used.

The answer is, of course, complex. I will mention only a few of the relevant factors.

1. The war occurred for many reasons; chief among them was the rise of Hitler. This itself occurred for many reasons, chief among them being the humiliation of the German people, and the bankrupting of the German economy by the reparations imposed under the auspices of the League of Nations in the period following the First World War. Another reason for the rise of Hitler was that there was not a substantial enough internal resistance movement within Germany to prevent this.

2. I mention this in the service of one conclusion: that if we wait until the day after Hitler invades Poland to ask ourselves what we are going to do about his aggression, we prove a simple fact: that human beings usually prefer to think in terms of reaction rather than prevention; and in terms of quick fix ‘easy’ solutions rather than long term ‘difficult’ ones. I don’t know what I would have done had I been in Neville Chamberlain’s shoes, or in those of the Chancellor of Germany deposed by Hitler in 1933. I can’t speak for them. But I am part of a historic church; and I consider that to mean that there are moral demands of church membership that, had I been a German Christian, would have been very difficult to meet. For instance, I think the German Catholic Church could have moved to excommunicate any church member who joined the Nazi party. At a time when church membership was considered with much greater seriousness than it usually is today, this might just have had the effect of helping inhibit the rise of Hitler, and therefore helped avoid the war. Such things have happened before and since, when cultural and social organizations have made participation in aggression or prejudice to be anathema, or at the very least, a social embarrassment. In Northern Ireland, many mothers inhibited their sons from joining paramilitary organizations because of the 'healthy shame' they instilled in their children; Christian youth work provided a profoundly important outlet for young people which in its absence might have led to their participation in violence.

Now of course, just excommunicating a lot of German Catholics (or threatening to do so) would not have been enough on its own to prevent the rise of Hitler. But it would have been a start, and would also have allowed the German Catholic Church to have a clean conscience.

3. Flash forward to 2003, when President Bush refused the request of US Methodist Bishops to meet with them on the eve of the Iraq war. Perhaps they should have excommunicated him. I'm serious. Not to punish. But to exercise the discipline of a church whose canons and by-laws presumably President Bush had signed up to; to tell him how far he was straying from the church’s understanding of the will of God; to attempt to compel him to consider his conscience. Again, this probably would not have been enough to change his mind. But the US Methodist church would have been behaving prophetically; and would have a clean conscience about doing everything it could to avert war.

4. In exploring whether or not the use of violence by the Allies was justified, it's helpful to ask when the Second World War ended. Did it end with Nazi surrender and the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Did it? Or did it end when Germany formed the European Community along with other neighbouring nations; and when Japanese efforts at reconciliation eventually included former US POWs embracing the people who had abused them, and when US Presidents shook the hands of Japanese emperors? If that’s when it ended, then the case that violence conflict only ever ends through non-violent means has been bolstered.

5. These, of course, are simple, and potentially simplistic headlines. They do not tell the whole story. So let me say a few more things:

I do not advocate allowing tanks to roll over the vulnerable without the rest of us doing something about it.

I merely believe that war is never simple; it never 'just begins' when it 'begins', nor does it 'end' when it 'ends'. There are thousands of examples of violent conflicts that could have been avoided by non-violent means. Here's a few:

The Kosovo war in the late 1990s which might not have occurred had non-violent reconciliation movements been properly resourced in the 1980s.

The Northern Ireland Troubles, which might not have occurred if the Protestant church leaders had taken seriously their call to serve the poor, and defended Catholics against discrimination, by joining the civil rights movement and helping ensure it engaged in strategic and comprehensive non-violent action.

And there are thousands of examples of how fewer people suffered because the means employed to bring about change were non-violent. If memory serves, up to 7000 Indians died in Gandhi’s independence civil disobedience struggle. A huge, and horrifying number. These people died in the non-violent service of justice, peace, and freedom. But just imagine the number that would have been killed had Gandhi chosen the ‘quick fix’ violence option. I have heard it estimated that the death toll would be close to a million Indians. So let me be clear: I do not think that non-violence is easy, nor is it safe. Of course people suffer when they use non-violent means. There is a cost to every courageous act. But I believe the total suffering in the world is reduced when we use non-violence rather than violence. And I am not an ideological pacifist. We live in a broken and fallen world, and often are faced with a series of flawed options. I just think that the recourse to violence is far too often reached without serious thought, or the exhaustion of other, non- or less-violent means.

6. The Iraq war could have been avoided, and Saddam could have been removed from power without a war. The will did not exist to do such things as ending the sanctions against Iraq and therefore allowing the Iraqi people to become strong enough to overthrow their leader in the kind of non-violent revolution that occurred in both what is now the Czech Republic and Ukraine; nor asking the UN to establish a tribunal to try Saddam for crimes against humanity and having him arrested (and let’s face it, if Milosevic can be basically kidnapped and brought to the Hague, why could a team of Navy SEALS not have been sent into one of his palaces with the same ends in mind? Not that I advocate kidnapping, but as I said, we are faced with flawed options, and kidnapping one man is a far better option than killing tens of thousands of innocent people); and affirming what was then called the Roadmap to Peace in the Middle East, with rhetoric and resources, to show that the US was bona fide in its desire to see that long-standing conflict transformed into a non-violent one.

These are some scattered thoughts for now. Let me say this: I believe that we spend far too much time talking about violence, and not enough about reducing it. We invest far too much in what we call the defence industry, and not the peace industry. We do not understand that prevention is better than cure. And so while I understand the appeal of violence, I do not believe it fixes anything. At best, it can arrest a process that would lead to harming the vulnerable – but it cannot transform it into peace. The overwhelmingly pressing need in our generation is to give as much time and attention to thinking about non- and less-violent means of addressing conflict as we do to making killing look sexy.

But that is not the final word – let’s keep talking.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Why Not Obama?

In talking with good friends who plan to vote for McCain, I am still confused as to what people think is so dangerous about Obama. It's a sincere question, rooted in the fact that many of the concerns raised by Obama's opponents seem either to be factually misleading, or their outcomes would actually be closer to what conservatives want (fewer abortions, stronger families, a healthy economy, less dead soldiers) than the rhetoric allows.

So can someone please explain to me why anyone who wants to see poor people taken care of,

a health care system that isn't based on hospital owners and insurance companies getting rich off the back of other people's suffering,

a foreign policy implemented that learns the lesson of every other successful conflict resolution process in history and decides to pursue diplomacy rather than revenge or belligerence because a) it often works and b) it's the morally right thing to do (and will mean, beyond a shadow of doubt, that fewer people will have been killed at the end of his Presidency than if his opponent is elected),

a sexual education and health promotion strategy that reduces the number of unwanted pregnancies and therefore abortions rather than the absurd abstinence programmes heralded by the Bush adminstration which all evidence suggests actually lead to higher instances of STIs,

a tax regime that favours the less well off rather than those who could live in luxurious indulgence for the rest of their lives even if 90% of their income was used by the government to build houses for homeless people,

a morally just policy adopted regarding the consensual partnerships in which people choose to live - allowing same sex couples to more easily own property together, to visit each other when they're dying, and to walk the streets safely in public (without negatively affecting 'the American family' - UK civil partnership legislation for same sex couples has had no discernible effect on the straight divorce rate; indeed, the state formalising same sex relationships may actually contribute to the stable family unit),

a redemption of the office of President, which for the past eight years has been occupied by a man utterly unqualified in temperament, intelligence, judgement or moral discernment to lead, and for the previous eight by a more intelligent man who couldn't keep his erotic urges under control and lied to the country about it (as well as employing the high altitude bomb on at least one occasion that cannot be justified under any circumstances),

and a restoration of the moral and cultural and philosophical and frankly spiritual standing of the US in the eyes of the rest of the world through having a guy in the White House that not only by the obvious contrast shown by the colour of his skin, but the content of his character has revealed himself to be capable of both uniting the country and inspiring the respect of the world,

can anyone explain to me why voting for Obama is not one of the most vital, life-affirming, prophetic, and simply good things you could ever do?

PS: And I know he's not perfect. But he knows it too. And that's probably part of the point of why he represents something amazing.

PPS: And I also know that this could look like a jibe at sincerely skeptical people - I don't mean it that way at all - but I do mean the questions with sincerity.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Some Thoughts on 'Religulous'

Bill Maher is that rare thing: a media figure unafraid to say what he really thinks. When he intervened in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, suggesting that it’s better to deal intelligently with terrorism than to indulge in absurdist name-calling, many people, including me, supported him. We were dismayed by the cancellation of ‘Politically Incorrect’ – which had provided one of the few opportunities for serious sustained political discussion on television. In recent years he returned to the small screen with ‘Real Time’ on HBO, and the lack of censorship on cable channels has allowed him the run of himself, which is a blessing, because there’s no unreasonable restriction on what can be said. Maher’s concern for calling politicians to account, and allowing oxygen to maverick points of view is a public service; the fact that he does it with such brilliant humor makes the show uniquely entertaining. His new film ‘Religulous’ is a paradox, however – it is both an amusing deflation of religious pomposity, and an infuriating attack on faith that sadly lacks intellectual rigor.

We follow Maher on a sporadic trip around the US, the Middle East, and the UK, visiting sincere spiritual advocates ranging from the working class members of a truck-stop church in North Carolina, a violence-endorsing Muslim rapper in London, and the actor who plays Jesus at a Holy Land theme park. He asks academic theology questions and mocks the respondents for offering only platitudes; these scenes are intercut with footage of him making more fun of the unsuspecting target in a post-interview wrap-up chuckle with his director Larry Charles. The effect is rather like watching the string section of an orchestra standing in a circle and pointing with disdain at a homeless guy playing a three-stringed fiddle. It’s not pleasant; and it doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know: that there are some crazy people in the world. By the same token, of course, there are plenty of intelligent spiritual believers; just as there are plenty of unpleasant atheists. Maher’s film unfortunately does not engage with people whose faith has advanced obvious good in the world, nor those who approach God on the basis that God is at least as smart as we are and that we can talk about the Divine in terms that would not shame an evolutionary biologist.

Maher himself appears to be an intelligent guy – but his film risks being intellectually dishonest. If he is, as is claimed, genuinely interested in finding out why people believe what they believe, then why didn’t he interview any of the hundreds of well known spiritual leaders who bring intelligence, wit, and grace to their conversation; nor any whose faith has propelled them into acts of mercy and kindness? It’s not as if they’re hard to find: Let’s start with Archbishop Tutu, Dr Rowan Williams, and other Christian leaders in international peace processes to name only the most obvious; add to these the invisibility of perhaps more culturally relevant figures such as Andrew Sullivan, Anne Lamott, even Maher’s own friend Arianna Huffington, or any number of the folk who blog about progressive faith, and the failings of ‘Religulous’ become even more obvious. The fact that he ignores these people, combines with the overheated monologue that closes the film, with Maher’s polemic about religion edited against footage of bombs, angry preachers, and end-of-the-world scenarios (including some from my own home of Belfast, in which an IRA funeral is misappropriated to illustrate his point; while the conflict in and about Northern Ireland has some historic religious elements, IRA members would certainly disavow any suggestion that their fight was faith-based). It feels like Maher wrote this monologue before he went out on his journey; in which case the documentary is not an intelligent exploration of a vital issue, but a polemic based on cynical preconceptions.

Bill Maher has important questions to ask: why do some religious people do such bad things?; what is the relationship between faith and reason?; what should be the role of spirituality in politics?; is religion inherently dangerous? The problem with ‘Religulous’ is that he doesn’t ask these questions of people who can answer intelligently, nor does he allow for the possibility that one does not have to be an expert in something to be a fan.

I’d add a few questions of my own: why do the levels of theological literacy in public articulations of Christianity seem so pathetically low?; why do so many religious believers seem unable to articulate why they believe what they believe?; And how is it possible for a film that deals in part ostensibly with the role of Christianity in public life in the US not to even mention the greatest public advocate of a role for faith in the history of this country, Rev. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr?

However…I have to pause here, for as I re-read this article before submitting it for publication I realize that I may have fallen into an ancient trap, and in the process perhaps have simply reinforced Maher’s legitimate concerns. ‘First take the plank out of your own eye before figuring out what to do with the speck in someone else’s’ were the paraphrased words of another well known mystic, who doesn’t get as much attention in ‘Religulous’ as one might expect. There may well be a pretty big plank in my eye – for the truth is that one of the reasons Maher may feel emboldened to make his angry case is that people of faith have so often failed to make theirs. To make ours. To articulate a spirituality that is earthed in an appreciation of beauty, love of neighbor, and a humble, wide-eyed (but not empty-headed) wonder at the notion that Someone far greater than any of us may just be more present than we realize. If Christians can be made so easily to look boring, it is partly because we have not articulated a better story. If Christians are held in low regard because we are seen to be primarily concerned with issues of private morality and Puritanical codes, it is partly because we have not paid enough attention to reason and human experience as guides to interpreting our faith. If, in short, it is easy to portray Christians as stupid, spineless and dangerous, it is partly because we have failed to be loving, peaceable and brave.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

A Call + Response to end Modern Slavery

Last week two films were released that present propagandized visions of the United States. Bill Maher’s Religulous suggests that religion is poison and its adherents are crazy; the spoof An American Carol wants to say that questioning President Bush is itself an act of treason and critiques of the war in Iraq deserve no attention because they are inherently spineless. Both films are intellectually disingenuous and add little positivity to the current national debate. So it’s something of a relief to say that another piece of cinematic propaganda goes on a national tour of movie theatres this weekend, one whose moral compass is something of an antidote to the arrogance and victim mentality of An American Carol and Religulous in the form of a shocking expose of the horror of modern slavery: human trafficking. In Justin Dillon’s film Call and Response, the stories of the 27 million people currently in labor bondage are illustrated with graphic hidden camera footage and intercut with interviews and musical performances by the likes of Moby, Natasha Bedingfield, and Emmanuel Jal.

It’s a powerful film, in which interactions with the victims of trafficking speak for themselves. Talking heads such as Nicholas Kristof, former U.N. Ambassador John Miller, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and actor Ashley Judd make the case that there are more people in slavery today than at the time of the abolition movement and outline the relationship between the arms and drug trade and the buying and selling of people. Human trafficking, bonding labor, and sexual slavery are vastly profitable businesses, and so the question of supply and demand is obvious. And you don’t need to look far for this horror, for even people who serve in your favorite restaurants may be subject to the oppression of not being able to make their own choices.

Everyone who sees this film will have their own most striking moment –- for me, when a former child prostitute says she was forced to service 1,000 men a year for six years, but can’t add up the total as she has never been to school, I had to pause watching for a while to absorb the extraordinary sadness of that statement. I was also shocked by the statistics. For example, the film claims that 1 million people are trafficked through the United States every year, but there have been only 50 related criminal convictions in the past decade.

These stories are so beyond our worst imaginings that this film provides nothing less than a prophetic community service: It exposes an unpalatable truth and cries out against injustice.

Important questions are alluded to, and hopefully the film will inspire people to find their own answers:

What are the economic roots of violence?

What is the relationship between recreational drug use and human trafficking?

What does it mean when we value products that may have been produced under oppressive conditions solely on the basis of their price?

How do we restore human decency in a world where even the Christian church is sometimes complicit in nurturing identities of shame and humiliation (which themselves contribute to the context where human trafficking can occur)?

How can the mid-level officials (police officers, hotel and restaurant managers, and others) who serve as intermediaries with those who use sex slaves be held accountable?

And, as Dr. Cornel West asks, “How do you convince a folk that are prone toward paralysis to keep on moving?”

The film does not prescribe particular forms of action, instead inviting the audience to ‘open source’ activism through dialoguing with others on its Web site and supporting organizations that are working to free slaves and end human trafficking. Perhaps the most important philosophical statement in the film is the suggestion that nostalgia for freedom movements of the past will get us nowhere. Only when people of passion and action get more committed to ending modern slavery than the slave owners are to perpetuating it will there be hope that a new abolition movement can succeed.

Dr. West also says that the only thing that slaves have is their voice and their bodies. Call and Response is a powerful attempt at representing the power and dignity in the words and faces of the oppressed. It deserves attention.

Call and Response will be released this Friday, with screenings organized across the U.S. For a list of screenings, see

Monday, October 06, 2008

Religulous Haiku

Maher's a Believer

In the Church of I am right.

His dogma's scary

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


I knew a guy at high school called Paul, but for some reason everybody called him ‘Duck’. It was one of those nicknames whose genesis was lost in the mists of whatever else it is you spend your teenage years doing. I remember going to see ‘Dead Poet’s Society’ (an extremely well-crafted but morally hollow film, to my mind) in 1989 at East Belfast’s Strand Cinema, which Van Morrison is photographed beside for the inlay cover art of ‘The Healing Game’ album, and where I saw more of the formative films of my 15th/16th/and 17th years than anywhere else. Duck came into the theatre just as the audience was almost fully seated, and so we called out to him: ‘DUCK!’ A few dozen people did.

That serves merely as a circuitous way into talking a little about a film I saw last night, called ‘Duck’, and for good reason. It’s about a man and a duck. The man is a widower, and earlier lost his son. The movie’s version of the US is a soulless place in which every tree is being colonised by shopping malls, and where psychiatrists mistake innocence for mental illness. The man, played by Philip Baker Hall, an actor who can genuinely be called ‘great’, not least because I usually feel exhilarated any time I see him, wanders around accompanied by the eponymous creature, a gorgeous goose, looking for the ocean. The movie doesn’t really hold together - it’s a fable whose critique of the breakdown of community is not exactly subtle or nuanced; but it’s absolutely worth watching for the central performance. Hall is so beguiling and sympathetic that he manages to invest the duck itself with a personality. It is easy to buy into their relationship, and not for a second - until after the film was over - did I think about the central absurdity and slightness of this film.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Lakeview Terrace

The Number One film at the US box office this past weekend is 'Lakeview Terrace', Neil La Bute's somewhat thoughtful thriller in which an LAPD officer harasses his new neighbors; the cop is black, the neighbors are an inter-racial couple. If the ethnic identities were switched, the film might never have been made; and if it had, would have been a far less interesting film – it would have been a simplistic story about a white supremacist and the battle for people to be allowed to live in peace. Instead, 'Lakeview Terrace' aims to wrong-foot the audience into re-considering our preconceptions, and succeeds most of the time.

I planned to write a post here about the film, and how it's well photographed and mounted with imagination, and how Patrick Wilson is turning into my favourite same-generation-as-me actor, and how Samuel L Jackson reminds us of how he really can bring it when he's working for more than just a paycheck, and the exploration of racial tension, the psychological terrain of the police officer, the power dynamics in marriages when one set of in-laws is wealthy, and the simple concept of how an obsession with private property may be at the core of the breakdown of community (good fences in this film not only fail to make good neighbors, but become a tool for concealing the sinister agenda of the bloke next door).

I was going to write about how Neil La Bute's films (see 'In the Company of Men', 'Your Friends and Neighbors' and even the misbegotten remake of 'The Wicker Man') create a beguiling mood that is rare in contemporary mainstream cinema, and that he is at least trying to say something meaningful, even if the possible benefit of his purpose has to battle to float above the apparently a priori cynicism that is his modus operandi (two Latin phrases in one sentence might be the kind of thing that would impress a character in one of his movies). I was going to write about how, for the first hour or so, I felt close to compelled by 'Lakeview Terrace', and thought it had the potential to be one of the best films I've seen this year; before it turned into less than the sum of its parts, becoming ultimately a conventional thriller.

I was going to write about all of this, when I stumbled across a news item suggesting that Val Kilmer is considering running for Governor of New Mexico in 2010. And it made me wonder if there were a connection between the La Bute film (which wants to be taken seriously as a work of political fiction) and the small but significant tendency of Hollywood actors to think they are qualified to run states because they once wore a superhero cape. That thought didn't stick around long enough for me to be too preoccupied – and so I returned to reflecting on 'Lakeview Terrace'. I'm not quite sure what to make of it other than to say it's a well-made film, feels realistic (for part of its running time), but eventually trades its pretensions to being a serious intelligent work in exchange for the cheap thrill of an utterly conventional ending. In the clichéd climax, the film-makers may be critiquing the trigger-happy culture of the LAPD, or they may simply be giving the audience the ending they think they want. It's not clear. And in a sense it doesn't really matter, because the film is raising important questions that will only ever be answered by us out there in the dark. What does it mean to be a good neighbor? What lies at the core of prejudice? How important is home ownership to contemporary identity? How is it possible to de-escalate conflict when one of the parties seems simply irrational? (I might also add the following question: Why is the MPAA giving PG-13 ratings to more and more adult films these days?)

Friday, September 05, 2008

Randy Newman and the Fall of the American Empire

Randy Newman might be surprised to see himself mentioned on a progressive spirituality blog. In his five decades of making music that is alternately brilliantly satirical and elegant (and sometimes both), he hasn't often smiled on religion or religious people. In spite of his skepticism about spirituality, he also has written some of the most beautiful love songs I've ever heard, and many of these are shot through with regret for his past mistakes.

The title song of his new record, Harps and Angels, sees him looking forward with a combination of reluctance and mystery to the prospect of his own death. At 64, he realizes that his time is short, and if the title song is to be believed, he may have come around to the idea that "there really is an afterlife." But the heart of the album is a quintet of songs in which Newman addresses the political, even spiritual landscape of the U.S. In quick succession, he names what ails the nation ("Y'all have lost faith in yourselves"), reminds listeners that the dream of "America" was built on the idea that everyone could have "a piece of the pie" (although few seem to care about current inequalities, says Randy, except protest singers), and makes some amusing (and provocative) assertions about just how to change things. The most impressive song on the album is a political tract. "Just a Few Words in Defense of our Country" speaks what is so often considered unspeakable in polite conversation -- the fact that we are living through a period in which the global political order we have known since the second World War is coming to an end. The song ends on a bleak note, with Newman bidding farewell on behalf of a U.S. that needs to relearn its place in a new international structure. He may be granted easy passage to say such a thing -- he's functioning much the same way as a medieval court jester, telling the king what he doesn't want to hear but wrapping it up in biting humour.

From my (hopefully) humbler position as an outside observer of the U.S., I think Newman is half right. The global order that we have known is clearly diminishing, and new relationships need to be negotiated. The fact that there will soon be a new U.S. president offers an opportunity for an energized and thoughtful approach. There will be very few people in Europe sorry to see President Bush leave office, and while international adulation for Barack Obama is obvious, there is also a recognition outside the U.S. that John McCain would at least try to rebuild the vastly diminished standing of the country if he is elected in November.

I can imagine the legitimate criticism for an Irish guy suggesting that the American empire is falling, and I would counter this by saying that I love the U.S. so much that I'm moving there next week (if you'll have me). I still see hope in the idea of the values that the U.S. at its best represents. Just for starters, there's a pioneering spirit, hospitality and kindness, the creative impetus, and a positive attitude about the future (serious theologians would call that something like "eschatological hope," I suppose). But I am also aware that limiting such hope to one nation's idea of itself has pretty tragic historical antecedents. I prefer to think in terms of the distinctive gifts and goals of a nation, and how they interact with those of the rest of the world. The U.S. has something special, which in recent times has been mislaid or perhaps even misappropriated by leaders who seem not to understand (or not to want to understand) that we are all in this together. Newman may well be right in asserting that the empire as we know it is falling, but answering the question of what will replace it is a task not just for politicians or provocative artists but for everyone who takes the common good seriously.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

North by Northwest and what it (might) mean

I saw 'North by Northwest' for the umpteenth time the other week - one of those 'comfort films' that makes me feel more at home in myself; nostalgia sometimes gets a raw deal these days, but if a work of art helps you integrate yourself at the end of a busy day, there's no shame in that. At any rate, what you remember when you watch 'N x NW' is the texture and colour on screen - Cary Grant's suit, Eva Marie Saint's red dress, the cement lines on the neck braces of the Mount Rushmore Presidential faces. I wrote the notes below on my last viewing, five or six years ago:

I have a problem with Alfred Hitchcock. His films have so comprehensively entered the popular consciousness that it is impossible to come to them fresh, perhaps even if we have never seen one before. Something about 'North by Northwest' prevents it from being a tense experience for me; similar to the fact that our folk knowledge of what happens in 'Psycho' prevents us from feeling excited or scared; even if we have never seen it, we know who did it, and why (s)he did. Thankfully, this doesn’t at all inhibit our delighted wonder at these works of genius. NXNW is perhaps Hitch’s most perfectly realized marriage of thrills and laughs, as a flamboyant anti-hero and cad Cary Grant is mistaken for a spy and spends the rest of the film running from (and into) James Mason’s heavies. His character’s name is “Roger O. Thornhill” – he says the “O” stands for nothing, and this is one hollow guy. I think this is a none-too-subtle way of representing the ROT of the upper middle class that Hitchcock, the working class miner’s son despised. He has a perfect tan and handmade shoes, like Grant himself, he’s a “little more polished than the others.”
The story is at once simple and convoluted – Thornhill is mistaken for a spy and kidnapped by some nefarious bad guys led by James Mason and his “special friend” Martin Landau. There are two chases – by car and plane (the buildup to which is a masterpiece of editing and mise-en-scene) – a couple of fights, and some spectacular set-pieces, a femme fatale (or is she?), a government conspiracy, and our hero gets the girl. What more could we want? But I think it is a mistake to see NXNW as a simple action comedy – it’s riddled with metaphorical bullets and aesthetic pleasures. For one thing, the dialogue is some of the most sparkling Hitch ever worked with. We discover that there is “no such thing as a lie, merely the expedient exaggeration.” Mason has a marvellous moment of villainy when he says, “The least I can do is afford you the opportunity of surviving the evening.” I was reminded of how funny it is on a recent viewing, when for example Grant says, “Not that I mind the odd case of abduction once in a while but I’ve got tickets for the theater tonight” or responds to “I’m a big girl” with “Yes, and in all the right places.” The story is beautifully structured, building mystery and tension (in spite of Grant’s inability to play drunk in a key scene; he’s clearly having a lot of fun, and so are we.) But there is much more than humour and action here – I think Hitchcock is using Grant’s character as a commentary on modern superficiality and relationships.

Thornhill is an advertising executive, and I guess some people might think you can’t get much more superficial than that; he runs away from his mother while being chased by people who want to kill him, so we get some of Hitch’s trademark misogyny and distrust of parents; the romance between Grant and the divine Eva Marie Saint is totally unconvincing – Cary can’t kiss for toffee; he’s so cold and unpassionate that if I thought Hitch were more cynical I would say he’s trying to make a point; this same point is alluded to in the relationship between Landau (one of Hitch’s stereotyped gay villains) and Mason – there’s all kinds of weird sexual stuff here, from Mason accusing Landau’s character of jealousy and saying he’s flattered to the downright crass – but hilarious – use of a train speeding through a tunnel as a saucy metaphor.
So, all in all, NXNW isn’t a particularly profound film, but it does present an archetype of anti-hero as cad. Thornhill is morally without foundation, he’s selfish and a user of women, but he’s enormous fun to be around (in small doses). The icy blonde is portrayed as far stronger and more intelligent, and Grant is obviously older than the actor playing his mother, so it’s pretty clear that Hitchcock doesn’t particularly like his protagonist. He’s the kind of guy you’d invite to a cocktail party but never go on holiday with – like Hannibal Lecter without the blood. NXNW is a story based on coincidence upon accident upon downright naïve construct switching back through predictable denouement, but still thoroughly entertaining. The use of soundstages is pretty awful – the trees even shake in one scene, and if this had been directed by somebody else, I’m almost certain it would not have the reputation. But, for what it is, the breeze that blows through NXNW is a refreshing one, and a pretty magnificent lesson in how to make a film.

More reflections on film and film-things at

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Religion and Politics

There has been a recent controversy in northern Ireland regarding the role that some fundamentalist Christians wish their faith to play in politics - there is a huge conversation to be had about this, and I look forward to exploring it at Greenbelt in a few weeks' time - come and say hi if you're a reader - but for now, here's one small contribution:

When Senator Barack Obama recently addressed the role of religion in public life he said that religious politicians can no more divorce themselves from their convictions than can committed secularists. For we all bring a range of beliefs, experience, and prejudices to the table. But the problem arises when we offer no rationale for our policy positions other than referring to a religious or ideological text.

William Wilberforce, the British MP who campaigned for an end to the slave trade is often held up as an example of how faith should influence politics. No one would doubt that his view of scripture and the teachings of Christ led him to oppose the evil of human trafficking. But it may be inappropriate to use Wilberforce as a role model for traditionalist Christian activism today. Wilberforce did not simply uphold traditional Christian morality – if he had done so, the slave trade might have continued a lot longer than it did, for church authorities were often complicit in injustice themselves. No, in fact, what Wilberforce did was far more risky than simply siding with the religious establishment – on being confronted with the horrors of slavery, he reconsidered his theology in the light of experience and reason. In other words, he changed his mind about what he thought God believed. And he devoted his life to persuading others – using the same combination of scripture, reason and experience.

In that light, using Old Testament texts to maintain the status quo today does not represent the tradition of radical Christian activism personified by William Wilberforce. In fact, it may be doing the opposite.

What is most troubling in the debate is that faith-based activism has a lot more to be concerned about than the typical issues of private morality mentioned by some individuals and groups. Senator Obama made his remarks about religion and politics in a speech to a progressive Christian group in the United States, who have engaged with the vast issues of economic injustice, the dangers of climate change, racism, and the war in Iraq. This suggests another question to me: if William Wilberforce were around today, what aspects of religious faith would he criticize, and which oppressed groups would he defend? This is certain – religious power often comes late to the side of the oppressed; and good people are often proven wrong in even their most sincere convictions.

It should not surprise us when people of faith re-consider their beliefs, for religious faith is supposed to have conversion at its centre. The notion of change should not therefore be threatening to people of faith. And so, to put it simply, if we want to follow Wilberforce, might we start by asking ourselves: what part of our own religious traditions need to be converted?

Wednesday, July 30, 2008


The following is taken from the text of a Thought for the Day I presented on BBC Radio Ulster this morning.

In a few weeks’ time, I will make a life-changing journey. After 33 years of living in Northern Ireland, I am about to become an immigrant. I’m excited about this move,
not least because I believe that doing something new is one of the best ways to grow as a human being.

But two questions come to mind as I prepare myself for leaving home.

The first is, ‘What it will feel like to be an immigrant?’ Will I be welcomed by the people in my adopted country? Will I stand out? Will I have to sell newspapers at traffic lights or wait tables in restaurants where the indigenous population refuses to work? Will I have slogans painted on the wall of my house telling me to leave? Will I have to rely on churches and charities to defend my human rights? If there is something wrong with my visa, will I be handcuffed and detained indefinitely?

In considering my own imminent immigrant status, I am very aware of how often I have failed to welcome the people who have migrated to Northern Ireland recently. I have not always sought to see the good in the faces of people who have arrived here, often coming from difficult circumstances. I hope people will respond differently to me as I move overseas, and help me find a sense of home when I get there.

The second question is, ‘What I will miss when I leave?’ We have a reputation
for complaining in this society – but I want to remember what it is about being northern Irish that makes us all feel, at times, that this is the greatest place on earth.

Of course I’ll miss my friends and loved ones – and hopefully they’ll miss me too.

I’ll yearn for our sense of humour – especially the ability to laugh at ourselves.

In my mind’s eye, I’ll visualise the natural landscape – from the reward of the view after the walk up the Silent Valley to the way evening light hits the lough shore in Randalstown Forest.

And I will miss the sense of community that is bound together by our local media when they’re at their best.

Finally, of course, there is our extraordinary political experiment – the attempt to resolve a violent conflict without victory or defeat, but through agreeing to disagree, to put the past behind us, and to share power for the sake of all the people.

It’s got its teething problems, of course, but we are also often very hard on our politicians. So I want to end my last Thought for the Day as a Northern Irish resident with the hope that we might, after decades of complicated and painful relationships, be able to commit ourselves to something simple: to decide always, before we start complaining, to first do this: to try to see the good in each other.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Is 'Southland Tales' the new 'All the Pretty Horses'?

I need your help, regarding a matter that may initially seem simple, but on closer reflection may well be the unanswerable question:

Justin Timberlake lip-synching to The Killers

Jon Lovitz as a racist cop

Sarah Michelle Gellar as a porn star investigative journalist

Dwayne Johnson as a much more famous version of himself

Wallace Shawn and Miranda Richardson together at last

Religious visions of the apocalypse and consumerism will eat itself scenarios

Some of the most striking visual images in US cinema of the past ten years

‘Strange Days’ meets ‘Memento’ meets ‘Blade Runner’ meets ‘Donnie Darko’ meets ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’

I think.

So, to the question: can anyone tell me what the hell ‘Southland Tales’ is about?

It’s well-known (and obvious from watching it) that this movie has been cut to ribbons - which didn’t harm ‘Across the Universe’, a movie that I felt could have lost a couple more scenes and still been breathtaking; on the other hand, I still wait in vain for a director’s cut of Billy Bob Thornton’s ‘All the Pretty Horses’, which I genuinely think could be a masterpiece if the studio hadn’t exercised their prerogative to make great things worse by dividing them in two. ‘Southland’ comes from Richard Kelly, who in ‘Donnie Darko’ proved himself capable of both smart philosophy and cinematic poetry - sort of a Ferris Bueller meets Ingmar Bergman kinda guy; and so I want to believe that his next film is more than the sum of its parts. But watching it last night was … how should I say this? Confusing to the point of monotony? Maybe, but I’m open to a re-viewing with new lenses: and this is what I need you for: Is there any one among you who can tell me what I should do with ‘Southland Tales’?

Friday, July 18, 2008

Some Questions on Sexuality and Theology

I once heard the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams sum up his vision for what religious life could be when he defined Christianity in the following eight words: ‘God’s love in Jesus Christ is never exhausted’. As the Anglican Communion’s Lambeth conference prepares to meet it seems that this is a far cry from the dehumanizing language used recently by figures in church and politics alike, in interventions about theology and sexuality.

I think we’re missing the point. Religious people have developed a reputation for prudery and sexual repression, while the iconic images of sexuality in gossip magazines, television and other media rely far too much on simplistic notions of beauty, and the promotion of hedonism. Simply put, religious people aren’t supposed to be enjoying sex, while everyone else is supposed to be having it all the time.

But I think it goes even deeper than this – lots of people (and I count myself among them) struggle to see life itself as a gift freely given, with endless possibilities. Religion and secular ideology both often seem to trap people in a mindset of feeling unworthy of what some people call God’s love, and what might also be helpfully termed self-acceptance. Yet many of the important figures who shaped religious history seemed better at taking life for what it is than we are today; Martin Luther, who said ‘love God, and sin boldly’; St Augustine who preceded this with the parallel thought ‘love God and do what you want’; earlier still was Jesus, whose promise to his followers that they might have the most abundant life possible finds only a hollow echo in so much of religious life today.

So, where does this leave us? Well, as one Church of England priest said this week, I think that Christianity – my tradition - needs to get over its obsession with respectability. If we want to talk about theology and sexual orientation we should stop defining people exclusively in terms of their sexuality, we should really listen to the stories of people whose lives are the subject of the current theological debates, and we should spend at least as much time actively speaking out against homophobic attacks and replacing homophobic language with words and actions that respect people’s dignity. We need to recognize that the history of religious and political institutions alike includes changing their positions on a range of important issues – from slavery to race to gender. And maybe ultimately we need to take the risk of believing that a faith defined by the notion that God’s love is never exhausted might actually have something new to say to us about human relationships.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

hancock - with spoilers, not that it matters

so, here's what might have happened. some time ago, a coupla guys sat down to write the treatment for a new superhero movie. one of them had a pretty decent pedigree, having put together the scripts for about thirty x-files episodes; the other was newer to the task, but had proven his chops in the composition of one of the few jet li movies to manifest a grasp of film grammar - 'fearless' (not the fantastic peter weir-jeff bridges existential work of 1993, which if you haven't seen you should stop reading this and rent straight away). the idea goes something like this: let's do a movie about a superhero that looks a little different from the rest. let's do a movie about a superhero who doesn't know where he came from, or why he's here. let's do a movie about a superhero who wakes up regularly drunk and depressed, and causes mayhem every time he tries to save someone; leaving a trail of metallic wreckage throughout the urban landscape familiar from superbatspiderxmen movies of the past. let's make him unique: an unpopular superhero. let's put him on the receiving end of anger from the public; and in need of some redemption. let's mix things up a bit by making his only friend - in this case a p.r. consultant - married to a beautiful woman who feels a little strange around our protagonist. let's make the revelation at the centre of our story be that this superhero is the most truly tragic superhero in movie history. let's make him a lonely amnesiac who has been suffering a crisis of identity for over eighty years; and let's make the beautiful woman his wife of several thousand years, who, like him, does not age because she cannot. she has left him alone because - in a twist that is potentially up there with 'the usual suspects', 'the crying game' and 'taxi driver' - she is his superhero pair, and they have discovered that even though they love each other, when they are in physical proximity, their powers weaken, and they are vulnerable to attack. let's end the story with both of them nearly dead at the hands of their enemy, and deciding to part in order to save each other. sure, we can start the tale with a little humour, a little amusement, a little dance with the audience; but the point of this story is to pull our hero out of his lackadaisacal jokey reverie. the first half of the movie is 'mystery men' meets 'the long weekend' or 'days of wine and roses', and the second half is the secret love child of 'unbreakable' and the david banner full-of-pathos parts of 'the incredible hulk'. in that regard, it will be a rare thing: a mainstream hollywood movie that manages to be both entertaining and artful, dramatic and intelligent; honest about its own terms.
alas the realisation misses the mark - 'hancock' coulda been a contender, but ... have a listen to the film talk podcast for more on 'hancock' and other movie lore

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

'The Visitor'

On the film podcast that I co-host with Jett Loe, we haven’t invested a lot of time in the ongoing conversation discussing smaller, independent-style movies; there’s no agenda there - it just happens that way. But we will be talking about 'The Visitor', after I saw it last week. It deserves serious attention.

In keeping with our policy of not discussing the film in advance of the show, I’ll have to keep my deeper opinions to myself for now; but I think I can get away with this: ‘The Visitor’ deserves your time because it is a serious attempt at telling a story about people who feel real, and who encounter real problems and hopes (grief, the possibility of new friendship, the tortuous negotiation of the US immigration system, learning to play the djembe); some people may say that one of the reasons they don't consider contemporary US ‘indie’ drama to be a source of enthusiasm is that these films are rarely told with visual flair, and in that regard, why not just make them into plays or novels? And I think that is often right. But Tom McCarthy, whose previous film is the utterly beguiling ‘The Station Agent’, knows how to frame human beings talking, and while what’s in the physical image is important, I think that a movie that conveys heart but may lack the photographic nuance of Henri Cartier-Bresson (or Henri Alekan, or Vilmos Zsigmond, or Robert Elswit) might still end up being the most engaging film I’ve seen all year.

Monday, July 14, 2008

herbie hancock's 'river'/ ry cooder's 'i, flathead'

i rarely write about music here, partly because i don't feel qualified to do so, and mostly because i struggle to capture the meaning of sounds in words, but i've been so touched by two new(ish) albums over the past fornight that i had to mention them. herbie hancock's 'river' - a love letter to joni mitchell from the jazz pianist whose playing can be evoked but not circumscribed by images of eating chocolate, or lying in a hot salt spa, of breathing deeply on a balcony balmy night, or maybe just the words 'it's bloody amazing', and ry cooder's 'i, flathead' - an acclamation of youthful days when the most exciting thing in the world was driving a cool car and trying to get a cute girl to catch your eye ... hancock's music drove me home last night; cooder's made me think. i'm going to stop writing and listen to corinne bailey rae sing 'river', and leave you with the thought for the day i wrote for radio ulster last week.

"You know when you hear a wonderful piece of music for the first time, and it captures your attention so much that you just have to hear it again straight away? Last week it happened to me when I heard a new song by Ry Cooder, the slide guitarist and facilitator of the amazing band of elderly Cubans, the Buena Vista Social Club. Cooder has a new album out with the impossibly brilliant title ‘I, Flathead’, an older man’s love songs to the feeling of being young, and learning the romance of driving a really cool car.

The album is about the exuberant exhiliration of living completely free, which a friend of mine likes to describe as dancing like no-one’s watching. When you apply this idea to the rest of life – to the choices we make every day, from what to eat to what route to take to work, to who to live with, and what to do with the years we have on earth, it’s a useful corrective to the monotonous patterns many of us seem stuck in.

Research shows that when you ask elderly people about their regrets, they tend to agree that if they had it over again, they would take more risks. They might choose a different career path with less financial security because it would be more psychologically rewarding. They might take the trip they always avoided because they didn’t speak the local language. They might, as Shakespeare has Edgar say in ‘King Lear’, ‘speak what we feel, not what we ought to say’.

What would it mean to follow this advice, and ‘dance like no-one’s watching’? Some of us today need to be reminded that no matter what the circumstances of our lives, what has happened to us, or how we have fallen short of our own ambitions or values, we still have freedom to choose to get back in the game. We can take the risk we’ve always avoided. Today might be the day that someone listening picks up the phone and calls an old lover, who turns out to have been waiting for years to hear from them; or someone else quits the job that deadens their soul, and pursues the creative dream that has lain dormant since they were a teenager; or someone else decides to stop allowing the pain of past trauma to prevent them living a life where the only limit is their own vision of the possible.

Today, someone’s going to dance like no-one’s watching, someone’s going to speak what they feel, not what they ought to say, someone’s going to get back in the game – it doesn’t matter which metaphor you use: but if today is a day for someone to free themselves from whatever unnecessary restrictions they have allowed to hold them back, why shouldn’t that someone be you?"

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

the savages

'the savages' has a joke for a title, in that it implies we haven't progressed much as a race since the prehistoric times when throwing bones in the air was the height of creativity, or even more recently, when the european medieval homicide rate was 50% in some places (you had a one in two chance of being murdered by someone you knew in the days of the black plague, the early inquisition, and orlando bloom's inter-faith dialogue). 'the savages' is about siblings trying to care for the elderly father who didn't treat them well, and whom they don't like very much. in that sense, it is about living and dying, and, in the context of contemporary medical culture - which can keep people alive far longer than ever before, leading to the inevitable fact that one day, someone is going to have pull the plug. savage indeed. or at least potentially so.

there are dozens of movies about 'dying well' - from 'stepmom' to 'terms of endearment'; and even though these have a reputation for over-egging the sentimentality, i don't mind them that much. we all have to deal with the death of loved ones; this is hard enough without taking away the comfort that a 'soft' movie might bring to the bereaved. though, of course, in these movies debra winger and susan sarandon don't exactly die like we do in real life.

'the savages' wants to present something more honest; and in philip seymour hoffman and laura linney's brother and sister pair, and most especially philip bosco's father, portrays a painful little play. these are characters with whom you sympathise, rather than like. they make bad decisions. they are self-centered. they have a little bit of heart. it feels like real life.

no magic solutions present themselves; but facing the death of a parent does in some sense help the children grow up, if only a little. and the movie ends with a motif that some may find grating, but i think is one of the most honestly life-affirming images in the movies.

read more of my film posts and the ongoing conversation with jett loe at the film talk website

Saturday, July 05, 2008

walker: the anti-wanted

alex cox is one of those film-makers with a committed following among people who have managed to discover his work against the odds: his movies don't get shown in too many multiplexes, and you're not likely to find a trailer for them on websites linked to 'people' magazine. most of us know him for the weirded-out sci-fi/property developer film 'repo man', but i just spent part of a cold and sunny saturday afternoon in the company of 'walker', his 1987 piece about the involvement of an early form of neo-con 'take over the world' impetus in mid-19th century nicaragua.

in this movie, massive-scale violence is the inevitable corollary of imperialism, and (bad) religion and (selfish) politics combine to produce a sorry mess; one whose legacy still unfolds today. william walker, as played by the mighty ed harris, is what james mcavoy's character in 'wanted' would become if he ever hired a spin doctor. and the difference between 'walker' and 'wanted' is that alex cox understands that it's possible to make an entertaining film about violent people without falling in love with them.

Friday, July 04, 2008


well, now that i've seen it, certainly not by me.

this is one of the most grotesque, patronising, blunt-edged, monotonous films i've ever seen. the question of what kind of meaning we bring to our own lives is an important one; and movies of course can be as good as any other creative media at exploring it. but 'wanted' appears to suggest that the two options available to every ordinary bloke today are simply these: act out the role of vladimir or estragon, droning away at an office on stage at a theatre of the absurd, or to kill everyone you meet. 'what the f*** have you done lately?, asks james mcavoy before the hard electric guitars start over the end credits, underlining the nihilism he's just given his soul to. well, for one thing, i know something i'm not going to waste my time doing again.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

hope and dealing with the past

A Thought for the Day that I gave on BBC Radio Ulster this morning

We talk a lot these days about dealing with the past; which in itself is a pretty deep concept. I’m convinced it’s far better to try to address the profound sorrow of our recent history than to bury it along with our dead. And yet, talking and thinking about the past can leave us trapped in it – we may find ourselves spiraling into a cycle of revenge in which our conversations are colonized by blaming each other for the pain with which we allowed ourselves to be defined. It brings to mind the image of a person tied to a waterwheel trying to stay dry, and managing to keep out of the water for a few moments at a time. But the wheel just keeps on turning, and the person never lets go.

Where does hope come from in a world where we remain fixed on sorrow? It’s easy to be superficial about hope. It’s easy to talk about the well-known figures of historic peace and justice movements who are held up as examples that we should follow. But, with all due respect to the Gandhis and Martin Luther Kings of this world – because God knows we owe them respect – sometimes I think they are not the most helpful icons of how ordinary people might live peaceably – and hopefully – in a difficult world. To start with, they were public figures, leading public lives. Most of us, naturally, are not scrutinized as they were. We have to get on with the business of finding meaning amidst ordinary work, family pressures, bad weather and mortgages.

So let me offer this story instead. A friend of mine once asked a Holocaust survivor what he feels when he hears a German accent. The man, who had nearly died in a Nazi concentration camp said, ‘It took days for the train to take me to the camp. In the early hours of each morning, the train stopped for a break. And every morning, German villagers came out of the woods, and put food through the slats of the train to feed us. So when I hear a German accent, before I allow myself to think: That person might be the son of the people who tried to kill me; I think: That person might be the son of the people who tried to feed me.’

The story should speak for itself; but if any interpretation is needed, to me this story speaks of how hope does not to have to rely on the future actions of our enemies, whoever we consider them to be, but on the fact that they had more in common with us to begin with than we may ever have realized.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

in defence (?) of m night shyamalan (part 2)

as for lady in the water, here's what i wrote on its release two years ago:

M. Night Shyamalan believes in magic, and he wants us to as well.

He also has an inflated sense of himself.

This is not unreasonable, given that his first major film ‘The Sixth Sense’ launched him at the turn of the millennium as a Hollywood wunderkind, capable of making thrillers so tight they were worthy of the adjective ‘Hitchcockian’, and even seared a new phrase ‘I see dead people’ onto the cultural lexicon. He followed ‘The Sixth Sense’ with another Bruce Willis-starrer, ‘Unbreakable’ – a film that captured the minds of many a Pentecostal youth leader eager to talk about the weight of spiritual vocation, a theme underlined by his next film ‘Signs’, in which the then uncontroversial Mel Gibson (oh how times have changed) played – of all things – a Lutheran pastor in the midst of a crisis of faith. He remained the critics’ (and the audience’s) darling until 2004, with the release of his post-9/11 analogy ‘The Village’, among whose many fans are myself and only one other person I can think of. It’s clear that he loves movies, and that he wants to conjure the same feeling we all used to share as children transfixed by the happenings on-screen – Magic.

And this is what he’s trying to do with ‘Lady in the Water’, a self-styled ‘bedtime story’ about a mermaid/angel hybrid called Story who arrives in an apartment complex in 2006, to warn its residents of how far humanity has strayed from the path of good. Or at least that’s what the opening titles suggest. This notion – that there is ancient wisdom that could save us, if only we would return to the Source – has obvious Christian resonances, that echo in all of Shyamalan’s other films, but the Story in this movie either loses the point, or fails to make it clear in the midst of a somewhat incoherent narrative.

To be sure, there are visual flights of fancy (shot by Christopher Doyle – Wong Kar-Wai’s photographer of choice) that entranced me, and the central performance from Paul Giamatti proves that ‘Sideways’ was not a one-off. But it’s never clear just what Shyamalan is trying to convey through his disappointed characters, and the none-too subtle repetition of television reports of how awful the world news is. Indeed, after the first hour, when I realised that the story wasn’t really the sum of its parts, I found myself feeling bored for the first time in one of his films. There are myths, there are monsters, there are quirky characters aplenty – from a body builder committed to working out one side of his body only to a film critic who meets a sticky end (Shyamalan is clearly a man to bear a grudge)…but there is no overall sense of what the film is really about, or even who it’s for. Is it about one man’s pain, or the whole society’s fear of global terror? Is it about the spiritual vacuum in our world, does it champion or does it critique the gung ho vigilantism that could be a caricature of the Bush administration? Is it merely (and maximally, for these matters are not without merit) an attempt at creating a new fairy tale?

The reason the answers to these questions remain ambivalent is that I’m not sure Shyamalan has decided who his audience is. The film is so convoluted in places, and demands so much attention that it wouldn’t be out of place in a festival of surrealism. And in that context, it might be welcomed as an at least intelligent attempt at post-modern storytelling. But if this is the case, then Shyamalan is guilty of wanting to have his arthouse cake and eat it in a multiplex. A film that is marketed as a scary fairy tale for all the family needs to be a scary fairy tale for all the family, and not a complex narrative about guilt and loss if we’re not going to feel unnecessarily confounded.

Perhaps the key to understanding ‘Lady in the Water’ is the scene in which the film critic claims to know more about the story teller’s intentions than the story teller himself. It’s obvious, and even quite amusing to see Shyamalan take his revenge on the critical family who appeared to mass ranks against him on the release of his last film. However, this attempt at being self-referential leads him to appear ultimately egotistical in the worst sense – in the final analysis, ‘Lady in the Water’ becomes a film about how Important the director thinks his work is. He even plays a character who is told of his cultural and political significance by a divine being (a plot element that would seem less egregious had he not played the character himself). This makes the film at least interesting to those of us who care about peace, justice, and what in ‘Superman Returns’ - another film with Christian resonance released this summer - was referred to as ‘all that stuff’. But it left me only with a feeling of disappointment, confusion, and the desire to sit down and have a good conversation with the director about his worldview and motives, rather than watching the film again. It still has more imagination and ambition than ‘Pirates of the Carribean’ and every other summer blockbuster put together, and perhaps we should be grateful that with ‘Lady in the Water’, Shyamalan has finally broken free of his apparent need to have a major plot twist at the movie’s climax. Next time around, let’s hope he doesn’t forget the plot in the first place.

For thoughts on 'The Happening', check in with this Friday...

Monday, June 30, 2008

in defence of m night shyamalan

ok ok ok

so let's begin with the obvious point about m night shyamalan

it's popular to do him down

so much so that it's easy to forget how much 'the sixth sense' appeared as a remarkable eruption of new talent - a film that managed to get pretty much everything right. and while my mum did predict the twist about 40 minutes in, i think she's in a tiny minority. that film was an elegant piece, that defined 'thriller' as something more than just a mystery story, but one which actually engaged my emotions, and made me think about life and love. and how bruce willis can bring it to the table when he has the right material and director.

'unbreakable', the follow up, which philip french in the observer newspaper rightly described as representing the reason why shyamalan's style - more than any other contemporary director - deserves to be called 'hitchcockian', was about the inner turmoil of a superhero. it's the anti-hancock, and has more drama and reflective pathos than any of the other recent superspiderhulkxman movies you could pick.

'signs' showed signs indeed of shyamalan's possibly simplistic worldview (which seems to be a variation of 'everything happens for a reason' or something like that) , but still managed to be a terrifically entertaining 'bad things lurking outside your window' story. and - this is the key to appreciating his work - showed an increasing mastery of film grammar, camera movement, editing, and knowing how to make an audience feel something.

'the village', which has caused its fair share of arguments among friends, was almost universally denounced, although i happen to think it's a masterpiece, and i use that word very rarely. two things come to mind: this film dares to take seriously the implications of the language used around 9/11 and the 'war on terror' to propose that the consequences of political fear-mongering will ultimately include the death of your own children - and perhaps this idea is simply too horrifying to absorb; secondly, i think critics confused this film with another genre. they thought that because it was shyamalan, and because it was scary, that that made it a horror film, when actually it's one of the most moving love stories i've ever seen.

i'll get to 'lady in the water' and 'the happening' later - for now, let the record show, i think the best way to understand m night shyamalan is to think about him the way philip french used to: he is trying to make hitchcock films. whether or not he is succeeding is not the point - actually, the more interesting question, for me, is whether or not hitchcock is as profound as he is usually assumed to be.